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John the Baptist: Are You Ready?

December 4, 2016

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Are you ready?

John the Baptist arrives on the scene today, the second Sunday of Advent. Here’s how Luke describes it:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Through the Incarnation of Jesus, God exalts the humbled, humbles the exalted, brings light into darkness, and reverses the fortunes of the rich and poor alike, of those who are ahead and those who feel left behind. What a wonderful promise that we would see the salvation of God in this way!

Even as God himself lowers mountains and straightens crooked paths and makes rough ways smooth, we can look inward to our own hearts and ask, “What crooked ways are here? What mountains have I tried to build so I can climb them and exalt myself above others? Where are my own rough ways?”

Are we ready?

Mandela the Prophet: “An Old Man Who Has Nothing New to Say”

December 2, 2016

mandelaThree years ago this week the world lost a prophet, Nelson Mandela. He died at the age of 95.

As I was watching a PBS special about him, just hours after his death, there was a friend of Mandela’s telling about a recent visit he’d made with his young son to see Mandela.

I don’t remember the guy’s name–it was a political dignitary, as I recall. He said when he and his son came in to see the aging Mandela, Mandela said, “Oh, it is so nice that a young boy would still come and see an old man who has nothing new to say.”

Prophets know they have to be repetitive.

Prophets know they aren’t necessarily saying something new, but the visions of hope that they’ve been casting have still not come about, and so they say the same thing.

They cast the same good, hope-filled vision: over and over, until it gets through our sometimes thick heads that this vision might actually become a reality.

Leaders Should Be a Non-Anxious Presence

November 25, 2016

steinkeThis bit of wisdom in the post title comes from Peter Steinke. He affirms that anxiety itself is not bad; it can provoke positive change, but only if regulated.

In his Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What, Steinke says leaders should be non-anxious presences in their churches. He says, “Nothing new under the sun—especially nothing controversial—happens without confusion, resistance, or emotional reactivity.”

So leaders should “keep calm for the purpose of reflection and conversation,” “maintain a clear sense of direction,” and what I thought was hardest but maybe best, “tolerate high degrees of uncertainty, frustration, and pain.”

“To be a non-anxious presence,” he says, “means to acknowledge anxiety but not let it be the driver of behavior.” Don’t deny anxiety, but don’t let it defeat you or your people.

In a Post-Truth World, Words Still Matter (Truth-Telling as “Extreme Sport”!)

November 20, 2016

In what I can’t believe is being deemed a “post-truth” world–post-truth is even 2016’s word of the year!–words still matter. So does truth, that which is real, or that which corresponds to reality. (For you philosophers reading, I’ve always favored a correspondence theory of truth.)

I wanted to share some words of wisdom from Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. I know, great and timely title, right? (Here at Amazon, here at Eerdmans.)

She makes this brilliant observation:

We are all called to be responsible hearers, speakers, and doers of the word. Still, telling the truth is something like an extreme sport for the very committed.

As I’ve preached through the prophets this fall in church, I’ve been struck by what an important role truth-telling played in the prophetic ministry. I plan to write more about this. For now, here’s more from McEntrye. (Added emphasis is mine.)

caring-for-words-in-a-culture-of-liesWe have been talking about our responsibilities as stewards of language to use words carefully, precisely, and truthfully. I’d like now to consider a dimension of that responsibility that may be a little more challenging: the responsibility not to tolerate lies. It has become commonplace to observe, as I have several times in earlier chapters, that we live in a culture where various forms of deception are not only commonly practiced but commonly accepted. And most of us, at least some of the time, object — at least to the lies that vilify our party or candidate or misrepresent our causes, and at least to each other over coffee or Scotch — or we talk back to the talk-show host in the privacy of our cars. But I’d like to suggest that if we don’t take our complaints further than that, we’re part of the problem. Indeed, we bear a heavy responsibility for allowing ourselves to be lied to. As Pascal pointed out long before the age of media spin, “We hate the truth, and people hide it from us; we want to be flattered, and people flatter us; we like being deceived, and we are deceived.” The deceptions we particularly seem to want are those that comfort, insulate, legitimate, and provide ready excuses for inaction.”

I have a little bit of a hard time with “we bear a heavy responsibility for allowing ourselves to be lied to.” I think this is not totally fair, insofar as it sounds like a blame-the-victim response. But I’m not sure that’s what McEntyre means. Her suggestion seems to be that if we are truly lovers of truth, we will seek to root out in ourselves our tendency to want to hear what sounds good, even if it’s not factual.

I greatly appreciate her exhortation that in a “culture of lies” (or “fake news”=propaganda), we still need to practice “caring for words.”

Bonhoeffer on How to Answer the “What Should We Do?” Question

November 18, 2016

I’m reading this book that I absolutely love so far (even if only 10 pages in):

 

 

It is dense but wonderful. I love Bonhoeffer’s idea of answering, “What am I to do?” by answering, “How is Christ taking form in the world?”

The author of this book, Larry L. Rasmussen, says:

With this methodology moral action is action that conforms to Christ’s form in the world (that accords with reality); immoral action is action that deviates from Christ’s form in the world (from reality).

Such a measuring stick is completely apropos even in a secular democracy, since, as Rasmussen says:

The striking advantage of this method consists in its potential applicability for both the Christian and the non-Christian….

Here’s a whole page, all of which looks to be laying important groundwork for the rest of the book:

 

 

More to come.

Five Books I’m Reading in the Time of Trump

November 17, 2016

To be fair, I was going to read these books anyway. But I’m going to read them and talk about them and teach them in an even more focused way now:

 

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Donald Trump, the Church, and Jesus: The Long View

November 15, 2016

This is the sermon I preached to my congregation last Sunday, after the U.S. Presidential Election. If you prefer audio, that is here, with a downloadable podcast version here. (It’s the sermon at the top, “The Long View.”) The text follows.

 

“Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts. What are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain….”

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

What I share this morning comes from one of about four possible outlines I struggled through this week. I’m still not sure if this is the right one. You may find it too weak, you may find it too strong, but I hope you will at least find it to be true… that these words will bear witness faithfully to the truth and love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord. That has been my prayer.

If you’ve been on social media or tuned in to the news this week you’ve had no shortage of people telling you how to feel and what to do.

How can there be so many words, so many possible responses, so many angles to consider… and yet a feeling of uncertainty remains? Who are we? How did we get here? What will the next four years look like? What should we do now?

I’ve found myself seeking to console and encourage and maybe even challenge this congregation, even as I’ve been consoled and encouraged and challenged by members of this congregation. I’ve watched YouTube clips of preachers uttering “Jesus is Lord” and, though I fully agree, have told them to go preach to somebody else right now.

I’ve found myself troubled by the new access to power of someone I’m deeply concerned may not stand up for the dignity and needs of all citizens, someone who has bragged about sexual assault and unapologetically mocked his female accusers, and who has repeatedly spoken disparagingly about African Americans and other minority groups.

I’ve wished for a direct hotline to the President-elect—even just one phone call—to implore him to speak out against the anti-Semitic and race-related attacks committed already after the election in his name. That Donald Trump and that we would condemn such hatred–both in the name of America and in the name of Jesus–should be a given. Ours is the message of Christ’s love and hope, fellowship across lines of difference. We followers of Jesus in our prophetic voice need to hold even the leaders of a secular state to certain standards, and hope and pray they will measure up.

I acknowledge and bless the political diversity in this sanctuary. I affirm that we are a church and not a political party. You came to a worship service, not a rally. Mapping Christian virtues onto political candidates and platforms is difficult and messy, and can be—at least for me—deeply unsatisfying. We know that some in the Church in the U.S. are rejoicing that their candidate won (or that the other candidate lost), some are reluctantly at ease with the results, others voted third party or didn’t vote, and still others remain in a state of shock and anger and mourning at the election results. We need to own this reality.

I have not always felt like my best self this week. Maybe you haven’t, either. I think that’s okay.

We were getting out of the van to go into a friend’s house this week, and my four-year-old said, “Carry me.” I didn’t have that good of a grip on her, so she said, “Carry me harder!” I said, that’s a good prayer.

Lament takes time, and we’ve had our eyes opened this election to places where there is no shalom, hurt that calls for lament. It is not true that everything is okay. We need Jesus to carry us harder. Like the prophet Jeremiah, we cannot and should not say “Shalom, shalom” where there is no shalom. Our God is a God of truth, of bringing deeds of darkness out of hiding, and into the light of Christ. What we see may need transforming.

Since Tuesday I’ve second-guessed myself for not being charitable toward our President-Elect, and then the next second I’ve third-guessed myself for second-guessing myself, and wished I had more courage to be a strongly prophetic voice. At least my ongoing uncertainty in how to move forward has led to a renewed impulse to pray fervently for our country’s President-Elect, and for other elected officials.

After today we have plenty more worship services and Scripture readings and hymns and Bible studies… lots of chances to gather in small groups and prayer times and conversations over coffee, where we can keep exploring what it means to be faithful to Jesus in a time of national tension.

This week in the midst of my exasperation and uncertainty about how we best move ahead, in the midst of the divisions in our country and in the Church, in the midst of the cries of people who fear for their safety in what should be a secure home for them… in the midst of it all, I am certain of a few things. Even if we woke up to a new world on Wednesday, some things have not changed since then. I offer four such convictions this morning.

 

1. “The Church is the Conscience of the State”

 

One conviction is that the church is the conscience of the state. Martin Luther King gave us this. I know Israel was a theocracy and we live in a non-theocratic democracy, but I think we’ve inherited something of the prophetic task we see in the Hebrew Bible. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Micah and all the other prophets came alongside kings and people, and said, “Exhibit A: how things are. Exhibit B: how things should be.” They held before the people visions of shalom, the world as God would re-create it one day, and a world in-between the times that could move more faithfully toward wholeness.

As prophets challenged kings, as Jesus pushed the local ruling religious establishment of his day, so we Christians have the responsibility to speak the truth even to positions of power. It’s a scary task, but it’s our task.

We just can’t normalize race-based dismissiveness, the devaluing of women’s bodies, xenophobia, inflammatory rhetoric, nor any other sinful behavior. We must not explain it away or look past it as if it’s not there, or as if we could somehow just “make the best of it,” leaving it as it is.

And we ought to have a sincere desire for the repentance of any perpetrator. We’re called to speak the truth, not spitefully but in love, not vindictively but with the hope for repentance. We hold ourselves to Gospel standards, too, looking for ways we need to repent. As ones who have received the outpouring of Holy Spirit, as the prophet Joel says, we all–men and women, young and old–have a prophetic task. We can be a conscience for power brokers and systems that are so easily corrupted by power.

We tell the truth about who we know God to be, and what we see in the world–for better or for worse. Having drunk deeply of the well of the Scriptures, which any prophet must do, we speak up for ones who have been marginalized, taken advantage of, for the fatherless and the widow that Scripture speaks so frequently about. We say, “These are God’s dearly loved children. Let justice for them and for everyone roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” And we proclaim that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” to bring a vision of shalom to reality.

There’s freedom in knowing that the church is not the state, and this country is not all we have. It’s not that the two should never be integrated in how we think about positive social action. But there is freedom in remembering that our ability to effect change is not limited by what we can do through the power structures of an election, legislation, and the Supreme Court. We can discharge our duty as citizens of the United States by being active as citizens of the Kingdom of God, who bring conscience to bear on politics.

“The church is the conscience of the state.” Among those who call Jesus Christ Lord, there should be no bystanders.

 

2. “The Local Church is the Hope of the World”

 

Bill Hybels, long-time pastor at Willow Creek in Illinois, loves to say that “the local church is the hope of the world.” “The local church is the hope of the world.” That’s been a second bedrock certainty for me this week.

Why? He says:

There’s only one power on planet earth that can turn a hate-filled heart to a loving heart, a greedy heart to a generous heart, a selfish heart to a selfless or serving heart. There is only one power in the universe that can do that. It’s the power of the transforming love of Jesus Christ, which has been given to the church to steward.

“The local church is the hope of the world.” Not just “the Church.” But the local church. Bill Hybels’s church: Willow Creek Community Church. Our church: Union Congregational Church in Magnolia. Other local churches in and beyond the North Shore.

We need to pray that we would steward well the “transforming love of Jesus Christ,” and even look inward and repent for ways in which we have not taken that role seriously. I hold fast to that truth: “the local church is the hope of the world,” because we have the message of Jesus.

 

3. Come What May, Jesus is Stronger

 

A third truth I cling to: come what may, Jesus is stronger.

Some months ago we were in Ephesians. Paul prays in the first chapter that his churches would have the “eyes of [their] heart enlightened” so that they would know God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe.”

Nothing compares to this power, the power that raised Jesus from the dead and is at work in us now–as a local church and as individuals, as contemplatives and as Christian activists.

Paul says, Jesus is “far above every ruler and authority and power and dominion and every name that is named”, not only in this age, but also in the age to come! (1:21)

Come what may, Jesus is stronger! Come who may, Jesus rules over them! In a world giving ground to idolatry and fear-mongering and greed and apathy and hatred and a distaste for holiness… Jesus will still prevail. Every “rule and authority, power and dominion” must submit to the name of Jesus.

Christ is in a position of authority that cannot be breached by any other power. All other names, all other titles, all governors and Senators and Representatives and Supreme Court Justices and President and Cabinet—these God has placed at the feet of Jesus.

Every authority that would dare to set itself up against the ways of God finds its proper place as a footstool where Jesus Christ stretches out his feet from his throne.

 

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CREDIT: Micah Jones (www.micahharrisjones.com)

 

This is what we pastors mean when we say, “Jesus is still Lord.” I know it may sound like a platitude in a time of distress, but boy do I believe it with every inch and every pound of my body. And the truth that “Jesus is Lord” matters for how we live our lives, for how we work as ambassadors for shalom, for how we share with others the great news of the love of Jesus.

Come what may, Jesus is stronger.

 

4. All Things Made New

 

Finally, I am quite certain that we will one morning wake up into another new world:

Behold, I will create

new heavens and a new earth.

The former things will not be remembered,

nor will they come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever

in what I will create,

for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.

I will rejoice over Jerusalem

and take delight in my people;

the sound of weeping and of crying

will be heard in it no more.

Can you see this vision, even now? “Never again,” Isaiah says, “will there be in [this world] an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years.” Doesn’t your heart burn within you? “They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune.” Don’t you want to live there now? “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will heart.”

I’m not always so convinced that “the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.” Maybe it scatters toward entropy. But we at least can look ahead to justice, a day of total shalom, where God will be perfectly present to his people. There will be no more injury and pain and animosity. Jesus himself will be our light, and we will bask in his love.

 

The Best Campaign

 

We live for those times when this vision of tomorrow breaks in to today.

If God can create a new heavens and a new earth, can he not also, create a new United States?

If God can create a new heavens and a new earth, can he not also, renew his church? Can he not embolden us to co-create a more just and peaceable world with him?

If God can create a new heavens and a new earth, if God can raise Jesus Christ from the dead, can he not also, raise your heart to new life?

The road ahead might be long. So we need to take the long view, and Isaiah 65 is it.

So, my good friends, you who are some of my favorite people on earth: may we be renewed, deep in our souls, by God’s vision of a perfect future. May we be faithful in our prophetic call to be both conscience and hope of the world in this present moment. May we remember that at all times, come what may, Jesus is stronger.

May we walk freely and joyfully in the truth that tomorrow will be another sunrise. And more than that–may we affirm that with every sunrise comes the ruling Son of God: “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun // does its successive journeys run, // his kingdom stretch from shore to shore, // till moons shall wax and wane no more.”

In the meantime…

God give us courage

to suit up and work together

on that perfect campaign,

the campaign that will one day end

with no ruler but Jesus.

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