Tuesday, July 21, 2009

You want me to love WHO?

So, who, exactly, is my neighbor?

When Jesus said loving our neighbor as ourselves was the second greatest commandment, just who did he have in mind? After all, there are huge differences between the way we live now and the way that Israelites lived when that command was first given (Lev. 19:18). Does he mean my literal next-door neighbor? Does he mean the person standing next to me at church? Does he mean "those of my tribe" - after all, he was talking to a tribal nation.

Of course, that's exactly the next question asked (by the "rich, young ruler," Luke 10:29). And Jesus made things a lot tougher on us by answering him with the story of the Good Samaritan. The upshot of his story is that our neighbor is anyone we can have mercy on, even if that is someone declared to be our enemy!

That makes trouble for us followers of Jesus when we begin to negotiate in the political sphere, because of course the mandate underlying much of politics is to win, for my group to win, my people to win, my party to win (and for those others to lose). Politics, and much of our culture, advises us to look out for number 1, because you can be sure no one else is busy looking out for you.

As Jesus' people, our mandate is to make "shalom," that whole-life harmony, health and peace of Paradise, wherever and whenever we can - that's the point of that picture given us of the first church in its worship and life together in Acts 2:42-47. It will be fleeting on this earth before the Lord returns, but that doesn't take away our task to aim at it. Our job is to have mercy wherever and whenever we can. We're supposed to be looking out for the interests of others (Phil. 2:4). We can disagree about how to do that and whether it should or should not be done through government means, but what we cannot succumb to is the temptation to say, "I've got mine; go take care of yourself." Not even if we think the troubles of others are their own fault.
Jesus told us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves - how can that not mean working for others to have the same benefits I've enjoyed?

Jesus told us that in God's kingdom the last shall be first, and the first, last; and he told us that if we have two coats, we should give one to the man who has none. These things must inform our public personas as well as our church selves. We must act with wisdom, and love sometimes calls for restraint - but it never gives us permission to bolt our door and throw up walls and begin to defend ourselves and see those in need as a threat.

I admire those who keep themselves from getting caught up in a party spirit, who work diligently to find the best solutions to our common problems, and who take a lot of fire while they're working at it. This is the best kind of situation for Jesus' people to stop and ask themselves, "what would Jesus do?"

Jesus, who touched the lepers and conversed with ostracized women and washed the disciples' feet, would surely never advocate at attitude that says, "I've got mine; you're on your own."

Thursday, July 9, 2009

It's wrong to be a fan of Jesus

Thanks to media overload, I'm still thinking about Michael Jackson.

And I'm noticing how the next step after idolizing a pop star, is turning him or her into whatever we want them to be. This human, Michael Jackson, is being credited with being the greatest entertainer who ever lived, the first person to transcend black/white racial identification, the first black entertainer to attract widespread white interest (really? My husband says that must have been a surprise to Stevie Wonder, James Brown, The Temptations, etc.), someone who taught us all to love the world and actually united the world, etc.

In response to all that, now comes the barrage of psychologists, philosophers and even ministers who are telling us what Michael Jackson "means." I guess what they really mean is, what the illusion/image of MJ means.

Somewhere under all that is the "real" Michael Jackson that none of us ever knew. Because we never knew him, all we can do is talk about the projection of who we think he is, and in some cases, want him to be.

It's that "want him to be" that makes a fan.

And there's the danger I never thought about before when it comes to something I know more about: Christians and Jesus.

Is it possible to be a "fan" of Jesus - to create out of our own desires and some limited information, a Jesus of our own making? To cheer for him, find other fans in that same Jesus, and get in fights with fans of some other "Jesus"? Do we wear his insignia, gather in fan conferences and sing his fight songs? Or like MJ fans, do we project on our "Jesus" all we want the world to be, all we want heaven to be, and what we find "spiritual"?

Ouch. I think there is more to this than I ever considered.

Jesus had lots of fans in the days when he walked the earth. But read John 6 - he intentionally dispersed them. Jesus doesn't want or need fans; he called us to be followers. And that asks of us something entirely different (although on some superficial levels, fandom and followership share some characteristics).

To be a follower is to let the living Jesus into your life. We become entirely aware of His presence, of His love, of His forgiveness -- but Jesus as Lord will make changes, and the long term effect should be that we are more like him. His character - his humility, his confidence, his love and welcome for all, his desire for God to get the glory - these things are immediately apparent when they grow in us, because they're so different from what we are naturally. "Followership" will make us different. Sometimes it will cause us trouble in the world. But it is also extremely welcome in a world where everyone is used to everyone else jockeying for position, power and acceptance.

Fandom, on the other hand, creates divisions, power grabs, fights for influence and striving for attention. Fans are interested in us v. them; fans want to wear the T shirt and find other fans to belong with. Fans turn the object of their interest into a larger representation of themselves, and attribute to their idol their own fears and wishes.

Perhaps we, being human, can't quite help mixing some fan-like behavior into our fumbling attempts at following Jesus. Maybe that is the sign of our need to grow further. But as a pastor it stands out to me this morning that this is a trap to be avoided. Fandom feels really good, but it is not following, and it is not the worship that the living Jesus wants from us.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Celebrating a win?

Tomorrow, a huge memorial service will be held for Michael Jackson.
And today, I’m shocked by the news stories about the “winners” of the lottery to attend to the Jackson service “celebrating.” Just what did they win?
You don’t have to travel far to find someone grousing about the nonstop TV coverage about Michael Jackson’s death, and it’s only a little farther to find someone complaining that Jackson doesn’t deserve all this adulation, what with the accusations against him and all. But that’s not my complaint today. I get it that someone could be both amazingly talented and flawed at the same time, and I’m not here to join in throwing stones at Michael Jackson.
But I guess what I am complaining about is our capacity to lose perspective when it comes to the death of a celebrity. What we ought to be noticing right about now is not only that celebrities put their pants on one leg at a time like everybody else, but also that “it is appointed unto men once to die” (Heb. 9:27 in the old KJV), no matter who you are.
In recent years I’ve been learning something about how quickly the closing parenthesis to our lives can come, and how quickly it can be that our life becomes a finished book, to be analyzed and remembered (or not) by others. This should be a sobering thought, and if we are reflective, it ought to make us think about the meaning and purpose of life itself.
That the same end comes to the “greats” among us should only underscore it.
So what is the meaning of strangers to Michael Jackson celebrating over winning a lottery to sit at his memorial service, as though it were the concert ticket to beat all? Perhaps it is a way for people to avert their eyes from what has really happened: that a person so talented came to such an end, that the very things he fought to keep secret are now known to everyone, that in the end we lose control. We don’t like to know those things – so turn the music up and let’s pretend it’s just one more concert, this one a tribute to the Michael we think we know.
I know nothing about where Michael Jackson stood with his creator, but I know that his creator knew all about him – knew about his hurts and his dreams and his fiercest loves, and the things he felt powerless before. So I hope that at his memorial service there is a hush that will finally overtake the circus atmosphere, that there will be a moment to recognize mortality, and even more, I hope there is a turning, from the best this life can offer, to a glimpse of eternity, and the One who invites us to know Him and love Him, even to the extent that He already knows and loves us (1 Cor. 13:12).
Janet Jackson spoke briefly at the BET awards last week, pointing out that though Michael was image and icon to his fans, to her, he was family – and her grief, over losing a brother that those celebrating their ticket win never knew, was visible in the lines of her face. Michael’s Maker knows a Michael no one else knows (and he knows a “you” and “me” that no one else knows, too) – and the meaning of that ought to fill up that hush at his service.
Let there be awe – not just at Michael Jackson’s footwork, but at the reality of death and the promise of an appointment with God. Let there be humility, that no matter how big the crowds are here that call your name, in the end you really can’t take much with you. And how would it be if then the celebration began, not to drown out the fearful specter of death, but instead to participate in the glory that we aren’t stuck in death, thanks be to God?
That’s what I’m praying for, when it comes to Michael Jackson’s memorial service.
Lord, thank you for the gifts and talents you gave this man – now have mercy on him. Surround his children and family with your comfort. And cause an awe to fall on all who are attentive to his death…that we would see death for what it is, and that we would value your overcoming it for us in Jesus. May we not turn our heads too soon, and so miss your grace. Amen.