Hearing someone describe the sport of cricket reminds me of Dr. Seuss’ grinch kvetching about Christmas morning chaos. “And they’ll play noisy games like zoozit and kazay, a rollerskate type of lacrosse and croquet!”
Mixing bats, balls, wickets, and bowling sounds like a sport that can’t make up its mind.
This means, by the way, that she spins the ball with the fingers of her left hand, attempting to trick a batter into believing the ball will strike the ground and bounce one way when it will, in fact, go quite the opposite direction. Spin bowlers rely on deception rather than speed (hence the addition of slow in the description) to strike out their opponents.
Why do I know this? I’m taking a Master writing class (veery slowly) from Malcolm Gladwell. He’s who I want to be when I grow up. The first assignment was to accept a randomly generated topic and write an article about it. My assigned topic? Rajeshwari Gayakwad.
You won’t be surprised I’d never heard of her, given my obvious knowledge of cricket. I thought—how can I write an article on this person and sport I don’t really know, or care, one bit about?
Then a funny thing happened. The more I read about her, the more interested I became in cricket. By the end of the article, I was googling world titles, country stats, and discrimination in India like I wanted to write a book on it.
I’d found commonalities with Raj. She also lost a parent very young. The feeling of responsibility that creates toward the surviving parent empowers her, while it nearly destroyed me.
She knows what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s profession. She understands far more than I do how a culture can work to hold women in their assigned places, even and especially talented, ambitious ones. Her defiant post— “I Was Told Cricket Is Not A Girl’s Game,” resonates with this woman who was told the same about pastoring.
She wants to make her profession better for the women who come after her, as do I.
A woman on the other side of the world suddenly mattered to me. Her success at playing cricket, inspiring girls, and buying her widowed mother a house mattered. It mattered because I had taken the time to learn about her, even when I thought it was a strange assignment on an uninteresting subject.
The correlations should not be lost on us.
First, there are a lot of people on the other side of the world right now in need of compassionate comprehension. The Afghan crisis is one that requires our attention, but it also requires our effort to learn before we begin to post ALL the opinions. As has been mentioned on twitter, it’s funny how many people suddenly pivoted from being epidemiologists to foreign policy experts.
That might mean listening to or reading the stories of refugees to find commonalities. Common ground brings out our compassion and our willingness to learn more. As losing a parent made me care about Raj more, so maybe discovering you share an occupation or a goal with a refugee can bridge the language and culture barriers. Driving Afghan refugees to doctor’s appointments gave me a window into how dangerous it was for them to assist the US military—and it gives me compassion and fire to do something now.
Before we dismiss the desperation of others we know nothing about, let’s delve into their stories so that we can find what makes us alike, not fear what doesn’t.
Another correlation is quite different—it’s in the face that we in the church show others. Hold onto your pearls—those who don’t go to church find some of our language—and even Bible stories!—quite odd and disconnected to their lives. It’s like the rules of cricket. Unintelligible words and rules that they don’t see a reason to care about and certainly don’t want to run afoul of.
Pastors, leaders, preachers—how can we make our speaking about the Bible make sense, and be interesting, to those for whom it’s a foreign language about an obscure sport?
In my monthly newsletter, I mentioned the Theology of Work Bible commentary—it takes the Scriptures and correlates God’s ideas about work to people today who are seeking meaning in what they do.
This summer in church, we studied Romans—and talked about the strong correlation between believers who judge and look down on one another then and now.
Bridging. Correlating. Creating connections that make people care about something they didn’t think they cared about.
This is good discipleship.
That’s our job as pastors, whether it’s teaching Scripture or teaching love of neighbor. We are given this task of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5.16-20) That’s what bridge-building is. It’s the work of the kingdom at hand.
For a while those first few days of vacation, I didn’t know what to do with my phone or hands.
I couldn’t check twitter. Couldn’t google that question that came to mind. Couldn’t color a picture first thing in the morning. Couldn’t snapchat my kids. Couldn’t mindlessly scroll instagram.
I couldn’t use my phone for anything at all but taking pictures. Slowly, my hands found they were relaxing their grip. So did my soul.
Truth is, I’ve been feeling on the cusp of burnout for a while. Pastoring through a pandemic is not the casual stroll some people seemed to think. (Oh, you don’t have to do anything but record a sermon. How great is that? You must have so much free time!)
Yep. Learning new technology, and having to change it every time we had a new iteration of church, was easy peasy. So was dealing with mental health crises in the community. Helping our little church cope in their own loneliness and fear. Working with people who couldn’t pay their rent. Purchasing our first church building and planning a major reno project on it. Not taking a Sunday off in over a year because you can zoom from anywhere and people needed me.
The stuff of idle leisure, right?
And doing all this while never getting to hug my kids or even my husband, a man who spends all day in peoples’ respiratory systems, so not a good bet during COVID for immunocompromised me.
It was a lot. It was a lot for you, too. I know without asking that you went through and did a LOT.
I don’t list those things for pity. I list them to explain why I, like a lot of you, teetered on the edge of wanting to chuck it all and move to New Zealand to become a hobbit village guide. (Still not a bad option. I’d consider it.)
I was tired, cranky, physically weak, and weary to the bone of doing One. More. Thing.
So I went on our overdue, twice canceled trip of a lifetime last month with high hopes of rest and renewal.
I got those. It was the most glorious time of my life. Yet reentry created other problems I hadn’t anticipated. I’d planned for rest—but I’d put all my expectation on those two weeks. I’d assumed they would be a magical step away from reality that brought me back to earth somehow changed into a new me ready to take on anything in my path.
I’d begun a sabbath with all the wrong beliefs about what it was for. Even though, given I’ve written and taught about sabbath as one of my favorite topics, I knew better.
Sabbath isn’t meant to give us a rest from work or to bring us back to work ready to break new records.
Sabbath is intended to refresh us by rekindling our relationship with the One who knit together our souls. It’s meant to remind us that we done’t run the universe, and the world will turn on its axis without us giving it a nudge.
Because I’m me, I crammed the time before and after our trip with ALL the things.
Of course I could send out an important, long email for a new group I was chairing.
Of course I could write the sermon for the day after we got back and deliver it even though we got into the airport AT 1AM Saturday.
Obviously, I could prep the June newsletter so it could go right out two days after we returned. (You know it didn’t.)
Clearly, I could run 25 errands, prep for a cat sitter, pack, and still do a normal week’s work. Also take the computer in for a complete wipe and reset.
Of course I could, given that computer wipe, start right up Monday morning after we got back with a full week of meetings, agendas, sermon writing, social media handling, and 3 doctor appointments.
I set myself up for returning to the exact state I’d left rather than taking what I’d learned on the trip and putting it into practice. Fortunately, God stopped me in this nonsense before I could undo all the good.
I find myself asking the same questions post-vacation that I’ve pleaded with my congregation to ask themselves all year about life post-pandemic.
What are the best things you want to keep from this time?
I want a normal that remembers—I matter, but I’m not indispensable.
The world can do without me for two weeks. Or longer.
Not that I don’t matter to my congregation and to others I interact with. However, I matter more to them whole and healthy, recognizing my role as facilitator and friend rather than savior or enabler. We’re partners—and that means free communal give and take, not one-sided offerings.
It’s going back to relying on and respecting their God-given gifts. That’s taken a backseat during pandemic when stress was everyone’s worst passive aggressive friend. It’s time for a resurgence of trusting people and letting go the reins. If you, like me, have been grasping them a tad too tightly, slack up. Let people surprise you again with what God is giving them to share.
I want to make available, not necessary, part of my new normal.
Snorkeling right in the face of penguins, sea lions, iguanas, and turtles does something to you. I’ve loved all of God’s wild creation since the day someone first put a book of ABC animals in my hands. That wonder tends to fade in our every day though, when we’re not close enough to a pelican to see its feathers ruffling in the moonlight.
Pandemic allowed my inner over-achiever to amp up the work level and ignore the rest of the world outside my home. I couldn’t leave the house anyway. Why not be more productive?
Hiking and snorkeling every day required me to see with grateful eyes all the wonder of the world. Going face to face with a penguin or struggling up a volcano’s side reminded me that I’m part of a stunning creation. The author who set it in motion surely can give me what I need to do my work without me going at it 24/7. A grateful me surely will produce better work.
I want to make awe, not achievement, part of my new normal.
In the future, I plan not to hyper-schedule the time around my full-on breaks. I’ll prepare with joyful anticipation rather than cramming all I can in the last few days. I’ll ease back in. I will refuse to feel guilty about that. It’s in the easing that we remember lessons learned and slowly apply them to a refreshed and possibly reoriented life. That takes time, and it’s equally as important as the vacation/sabbath itself.
So no, I haven’t done all the things on the list in June. I’m going to enjoy the birds a little longer. Take a few more walks in my garden. Ease back into life so that maybe that easier way will become the pattern. Because you know what? Work isn’t life. All of life is life. I’d just forgotten.
I want, plan, to make a whole, shalom life, not a piece by piece one, my new normal.
Today the blog is devoted to the Introduction to my new book–Preaching in the Soundbite Age: How a Collaborative, Image Drawn, and Skeptical Generation Can Reshape Our Sermons. It’s a case for radically changing the way we preach and teach.
I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you will give me your feedback, or share my email signup link with someone you think could be interested!
The Christian life is a spiritual pilgrimage. It is a not a journey to a shrine which has limitations of space and time. It is a journey into life, a life so rich no limitation of space or time is able to contain it. But is this how we perceive the Christian life? We go to church, worship, study your Bible, etc. But where do they call for the high-adventure?
Francis DuBose, God Who Sends
The people in our churches are crying for the high adventure. They’re dying for it. Especially our young people. They might not know they want it, but they do. Behind the entertainment, the adrenaline-fueled Sunday morning gatherings, and the guaranteed-no-fail discipleship programs, people in our churches hunger for something they haven’t quite defined.
They hunger for participation, not spectatorship, in the kingdom of God. Once they’ve experienced it, they don’t want to return to the passive sidelines, watching their faith but not shaping it. They’ve found the joy of discovering what God is doing with and through them and living the process with their community. They want to know why no one has told them before that discipleship isn’t a program but an on-the-field, glove-in-hand team sport.
It’s not an easy sell.
Most worshipers are used to being fans in the stands, not players in the arena. They won’t warmly welcome a radical change in that plan. They aren’t going to be excited about taking the reins of their own spiritual growth—at first. They might be like the high school classes I taught years ago.
Used to sitting in their seats and listening to the teacher lecture about sonnets and Steinbeck, those teens looked at me like I had asked them to teleport to Neptune the first time I said, “What do you think?” The strange new teacher asked them questions instead of feeding them information. What was this sorcery?
Yet within a few days, those same students engaged in conversation about Shakespeare, voiced their opinion on Jonathan Swift, applied Jane Austen to their daily life,. and told me that classes had never been so interesting. I even had the rare privilege of a senior coming back to thank me for teaching her to think, thus getting her into her college of choice.
Pedagogy has known for decades what churches haven’t grasped—people learn, and change, when they engage and invest.
Monologue had created a dislike of literature and a distrust for its relevance in my students. What is it doing in our churches, where the stakes are far higher? The adaptive change necessary for preaching and teaching in a completely new way will take time, finesse, and patience. Do we want to be whipped by the potential backlash? Is the difficult work, both in crafting something new and in convincing people to accept it, worth the effort? Can we afford the possibility of attrition in a church already beset by loss?
Here’s the more important question to ask:
Can we afford not to?
In a spiritual climate where we’re already losing our next generations in high double digits, can we afford not to put in the struggle to retain them—not for their butts and bucks but for their, and our, spiritual well-being? Just as in the Babylonian exile, their well-being equals ours, too (Jeremiah 29.4). The older generations’ faith is only viable as it gets passed on. It’s only fresh and flexible as we’re learning from others.
If we are not making disciples with our preaching and teaching, what are we even doing on Sunday morning?
As I wrote this last year, I sat in my home office, in isolation because of COVID-19. Racial trauma roiled our country. We feel the stirring of God doing something different in his church. We know in our hearts things will not be the same when this is over. For some of us, we’ve been feeling the need for a wave of change long before pandemic forced our hand. We’ve been looking out to sea, watching the horizon, waiting for the sails to come over the edge that signal God taking us on a different journey. Some of us have been longing for it more than we ever imagined.
Things will not be the same. Preaching should be one of the things that changes.
We’ve realized the value of community and the preciousness of input from others in this time of uncertainty and isolation.
Interactive preaching is the perfect tool for putting teaching and community together to disciple our churches.
Our people don’t need programs and workbooks. Why would we offer them a classroom when we could be putting them on the field? They need to be equipped, as the early Christians, to disciple themselves toward being like Jesus. They don’t need information so much as awareness of how to filter the information they’re already surrounded with 24/7. They need the skills to learn deeply, slowly, and permanently, the things of God to change their lives from the inside out. This we can give them, if we learn to change ourselves first.
Pastors, preachers, church leaders, boards, and elders—it’s time.
I didn’t even see a name on the restaurant front. Its virtue was that it was steps from our tiny hotel’s door, and we were exhausted after a 36-hour ordeal/flight from hell designed by an airline which shall remain nameless.
The chef/owner slid open a window and informed us the place was reservation only, but he would take us if we wanted to sit outside. It was a tasting menu–whatever he wanted to cook that day, we would eat. We sat, intrigued (and tired). We took in the modest patio, with dogs barking low and nearby car horns hitting the high notes. Near the door hung strings of drying corn. We finally figured out these weren’t decor–they were on the menu. Our sturdy table sat in the equatorial moonlight, and we closed our eyes, with no idea what we were in for.
A Surprising Conversation
We conversed with the owner through the meal, as his window was five feet away. He detailed what he was cooking, where he got his ingredients, and he asked about our travel plans. Through the courses, we started discussing deeper things.
Chef Sebastian explained that, pre-covid, he had owned several places in higher rent districts—wine bars, restaurants, etc. He was forced to shutter them. It looked like defeat. Then he ended up opening this one small place, Quitu, in a much different kind of neighborhood.
He spoke of using fresh local ingredients, becoming much more affordable to people because of much lower rents, and how he loved his new life. Then he told us something that stuck with me.
“I decided to become a restaurant for the neighborhood instead of a restaurant for the world.”
A Church Like Quitu
My mind jumped to church and leadership and why we do what we do. Yes, I want us to speak about national issues, world justice, the responsibility of the privileged of this globe. That is part of living with both feet in the Kingdom of God.
Yet it’s so easy to lose our way when our focus points toward that large stage. Any large stage, really. The popular allure is more mesmerizing than the neighborhood grit. It’s easy for “winning” to become the idol and affirmation to morph into the goal. I think our Quiteño chef understood that. He’d had the success. Covid forced a choice he now embraced. He wanted to return to a life where the community felt welcome and his food wholesome and accessible.
Church leaders, how do we embrace that value? How should we be redefining “normal” to make the places we lead accessible, inviting, and healthy? How ought our yearning for justice to roll down and integrity to be great again affect not only our twitter feed but our presence with the real life people on our block?
How do we become a church for the community rather than a church that happens to be in a community?
Downsizing. Decentering human leaders. Sourcing our nourishment from the wells of goodness and grace. Looking around and asking ourselves–what do the people here need, and why am I in this place and time?
I like chef Sebastian’s approach. His food was pretty great, too.
We’ve learned a few things about prayer in the last several weeks. We’ve learned we need to approach it with humility and gratitude.
We’ve learned that the first purpose of prayer is to gain a mature relationship with God so that we understand his heart and our own. We’ve learned to ask God to radically re-organize our priorities so that they match God’s own.
So what’s next? A simple line. Or is it?
I love how clear and down to earth that translation is. The one we know better is:
But it means the same thing, right? Give us every day what we need to survive. This seems so simple, but it’s really a complex and important idea. In the beginning, God created a garden that had everything we could ever need or want. It was way more than daily bread. And it was all there as a gift.
But Human beings wanted to make their own daily bread. They wanted to be in charge. They wanted to believe that everything they gained came from their own hands. (I don’t think humans have changed very much.)
Fast forward to the Israelites wandering in the desert. They complained because they didn’t have enough food, so God gave them miraculous food from heaven called manna. They had enough for every day—but they were not supposed to collect more than enough. Why not?
God’s command regarding the manna was a lesson in: 1) remembering that God provides absolutely everything and 2) not being greedy and wanting more than what we need. When the people collected more than they needed, it rotted. That was both God’s signal to stop hoarding and also a reminder that he does provide every single day. We don’t need to worry about the future.
Plan sure, but worry? That’s where this line of Jesus’ prayer comes in.
“Keep us alive with three square meals.” Give us this day our daily bread.
It’s more than a request for provision. It’s an understanding that we trust God with today, tomorrow, and every day after that. We ask for daily bread, not a month’s worth. God wants us to learn how to come to him regularly and trust him for absolutely everything.
Asking for daily bread as opposed to what I need for the long term is an exercise in trust, not a request for food. It’s saying to God—I know you’ll still be there tomorrow for what I might need then. I choose to pick up only the manna I need.
It’s also a way of teaching us to submit to only wanting what God says we need. We request bread, not cake. It’s Jesus telling us, as God told the Israelites long ago, don’t gather more than you need. Make sure there’s enough for everyone. Daily bread is what’s really necessary.
When we say “give us our daily bread,” what are we saying? We’re implicitly saying that we recognize there is an “us.” It’s not just about me.
Part of what we’re asking is that we be willing to share our daily bread with those who maybe don’t have any. When we ask for enough for everybody, we’d better be ready to remember the lines in Jesus’ prayer before this—set the world right. So if I have more bread than someone else, I need to partner with God and making sure we all have what we need each day.
What’s the purpose of prayer? In these lines, it’s to remind us where everything comes from. It puts us in a posture of humility to come before God and remember that he supplies all of our needs. We cannot ever take credit for all we have and gain, no matter how hard we work. Also, it puts us in a place of remembering that he loves to give us what we need because he loves us. And everyone else.
Many years ago, I stood at the checkout in a liquor store in my hometown. I was bringing home the sparkling cider for our family’s Christmas dinner.
The woman behind the register asked: “Are you 21?”
I stammered a moment. “Well, yes, I am. But I don’t need to be. This isn’t alcohol.”
She looked, laughed, and waved me through. “Bottle sure looks the same. I didn’t notice. Merry Christmas!”
I could have presented ID for my purchase—but it wasn’t required. I, or anyone, was freely allowed to buy that celebratory bubbly bottle and take it home.
Often, we feel like prayer is this kind of requirement—ID we must present before we get what we want. We look at it as a hoop we need to jump through. Facts we have to memorize do for a test.
What if prayer is none of that? Neglecting prayer isn’t something to beat ourselves up over, as we might if we’ve failed the test. At the same time, it’s something to be sad about if we miss it. The truth is, like sitting with a best friend or wise mentor, if I neglect the conversation, I’m missing all the goodness of my relationship. There is delicious bubbly, celebratory conversation to be had freely. It’s my choice if I want to take it or treat it like an ACT test to fret over.
As we continue this exploration of prayer (begun in my previous two posts here and here) the next lines of the Lord’s prayer are:
Honestly, how often do we come before God and just say those words? “God, please do what’s best.” Don’t we usually have our own list of things that we think are best? I know I do. We tend to come to God with our plans and wishes and ask him to bless that. Yet one of the first things Jesus teaches us is that our hearts need to want what he wants more than what we want.
We need to come to God not with our list but asking God,—“What’s on your list?” God, do what’s best. How can I be of service in that?
Of course, when we look at Scripture, we know what’s on God’s list. It’s encompassed in that first line—“Set the world right.” God’s list is all about reconciliation of all things and putting the world back the way the Creator intended it. “Set the world right” isn’t a metaphorical concept. It’s really what God wants—things righted in the way they were always meant to be.
“Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is a plea for all of God’s goodness to be the priority of our daily lives. The purpose of prayer that comes out here is this: To ask that God’s priorities be our priorities.
Once we’ve taken the first steps in prayer, listening to God and knowing who God is and what is on his heart, we already know what his will is. We’ve seen it as we listen and learn. We know that when we say that line—“Your will be done in earth as it is in heaven”—exactly what we’re asking for. So the question is—
How much do we mean it?
Do we really want God to set the world right—because we know that’s going to mean upsetting quite a bit. The world is very wrong, and often the church is right there with it. We know the status quo is not God’s will being done on earth. We also know that we often benefit from the status quo. So praying this line is an exercise in self denial. It’s a check of our obedience. It’s testing to see if we are willing to submit our will to God’s.
It’s not some out there, cosmic idea.
Yeah, I think it would be a good idea if your will was done on earth, God. Somewhere on earth. You know, where things are really bad and people are being exceptionally stupid. Out there. On earth. Vague gesture.
God, make your priorities my priorities. Mold my will in service to yours. Help me to give up the things on my list if they’re not on your list. Give me a heart that cares about the things in the world that are not set right. Give me the courage to partner with you to set them right.
That’s what we’re asking when we pray this line of the Lord’s prayer. It’s radical. That’s why I like to hear it in a translation we’re not used to hearing it in—so that we recognize the crazy upside down world that Jesus is asking us to pray for and know what it all means.
Those are the words Jesus uses to begin what we know as “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Of course, the version you might know sounds more like:
Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. (Matthew 6.8)
“Hallowed” means a few things. In the NLT, it’s translated as “may your name be kept holy.” Basically, it means something that is set apart. If something is hallowed, we acknowledge it as greater than anything else and different from anything else. Saying God’s name is hallowed is saying that we understand nothing compares to the Almighty God. We set God apart as completely other. Yet, in the same teaching in Matthew, Jesus also says we approach him as we would a good dad. It’s an interesting paradox and also a beautiful one.
Sit with Your Father
“Father” in the prayer adds a connotation of authority—a parent who deserves our obedience and trust. It’s more formal than the “abba” Jesus and Paul use elsewhere. In the following chapter, Jesus’ use of the word parent is more intimate. He speaks of an involved dad who wants to hear the words of his children and supply their needs.
“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” (7:9-11).
In neither case does he mean an austere distant capital “F” father who doesn’t have time for his offspring. His words imply that we are to approach God aware of how deeply he loves us and how much he wants us to come to him.
If we didn’t or don’t have a good earthly father, this may be difficult. We might have to imagine another caring, listening ear.
If a good dad wasn’t your experience, imagine is the ultimate parent who did want to listen to your every question, hear your every thought, and view every picture you ever drew. Imagine what that would have been like, and come near to God knowing that’s what he’s offering.
So one purpose of prayer is to be with our loved one and share our hearts. That’s it. It’s not a big complex thing. It’s something we can do all the time every day on the regular. We share our hearts, our thoughts, our emotions, our hurts, everything. Just as the psalmists did, we let them out to our perfect parent. Some of the prayers in the Psalms are pretty rough! Yet God as parent heard them and recognized the pain they came out of.
Talk Less, Listen More
Of course, children usually also listen to a parent for advice and comfort. We wait to hear, not just speak, because our relationship is a two-way thing. Prayer is not a time for us to do all the talking and God to do all the listening.
In fact, that leads right into the second line from the Message translation. “God, Reveal who you are.” How can God do that if I’m not listening? Prayer is a time for us to come to God and ask that we understand more about our relationship.
Again, it helps me to think about it as I would an earthly relationship with a parent. When we’re children, we really don’t know much about our dads. We might know what they do all day, and we have an idea of their character by how they treat us and others. But we actually know very little about them as people. We are content to think of them only in relationship to us. It’s not until later as we grow up that we realize they are their own separate entity and they have their own complex humanity. The older we get, if we’re fortunate, we know more and more about our dads. We come to know their hearts. We understand what gets them up in the morning and makes them passionate. We learn not just that they love us but why. We see more of how they treat others and more of who they are as a result.
I never got that chance with my own dad. But when I think about it, I can see the parallels with my heavenly parent and how that relationship should go. As a young Christian, I only knew God in terms of what he’d done for me. I didn’t understand God at all except as it related to me. As I matured, I saw more of who God is. I saw how Jesus behaved and what he said. I saw how he treated other people.
The longer I am in relationship with God, the more I hear his heartbeat and know what he is passionate about. The more I come to him in prayer, the more I understand about who he is and who I am as a result.
See, I typically write my blogs a few months in advance. What you read in March I wrote in January or even December. But today, that’s kind of inconceivable.
I have no idea what this world is going to look like in a few months. I’m not even sure about next week. I don’t feel any sense of security or serenity writing about what my outlook on things will be in March as we sit here a few days out of a coup at the nation’s capital. I’m not assuming it’s over.
Much has been written on the day, and much of it has been stellar. I’m not repeating those analyses.
So today, I’ll move some things around and respond to now, not two months from now.
My focus, as you know from reading my banner if not my blog, is not on the politics so much is on the church. Not that the former is not important, but the future of the church is the passion that God has given me. What do these unsettling times mean for the church? Most importantly, what does the fallout mean for the next generations of our church?
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this could be the most devastating event for the American church that we have seen in a very long while. The next generation has seen the church in reaction, and they’re not having it. I don’t blame them at all.
Mind you, I wouldn’t be all that sad to stand at the grave of much that passes for American Christianity. My concern is with the baby that will likely get tossed with the bathwater. The bathwater stinks. It’s filthy. It is in desperate need of change.
But the baby—the church you don’t see in the cameras—is filled with people who honestly, humbly, falteringly attempt to follow Jesus. They could be the innocent victims of this drive-by disaster.
Jesus’ church really does have people in it who love him more than they love themselves. They’re just harder to find in the swill and swell of the stinky bathwater.
God will not suffer. Ultimately, his church will survive. Jesus Christ is King, and that will not change. He does not need us to defend him. He will raise his remnant as he always has. Like Simba, the church that survives will stagger up, blink at the light, and bewilderedly continue in the circle God has started. But it is likely to die, first.
Four in ten young adults between the ages of 23 and 38 now say they are religiously unaffiliated.
IN a 2017 study, “Political rifts between young Christians and their congregations are growing. A quarter (25%) of recent dropouts said disagreements over their church’s stance on political and social issues contributed to their decision to stop attending, compared to 15 percent
That those rifts have increased with the advent of QAnon and “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theories being welcomed and applauded in the church is clear from a thirty-second perusal of social media.
The exodus isn’t temporary, as it has been in the past, either. For the first time, young adults are not returning to church when they have families, because they don’t believe they need the church to teach their children how to be good people. That isn’t because they believe God has failed them or isn’t good. It’s because they believe the church is no longer filled with good people.
While in the past most of those disaffected with church retained their belief in and some relationship with Jesus, that is also changing. 2019 saw the greatest surge in atheism in America. Those who consider themselves atheists, agnostics, or”nothing in particular” have risen to over a quarter of the population. The next generation has lost their spiritual community, and with no one to talk with about their questions, doubts, and ideas, their faith has eroded as well. This was inevitable—God created us for community, and we cannot go without it for long without serious effect.
An Atlantic article explores the sudden sharp decline in American Christianity in the 1990’s. “According to Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, America’s nonreligious lurch has mostly been the result of three historical events: the association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11.” The last two have complex sociological issues and are fascinating to look at. The first is the important one, for my purposes.
Here are some of the reasons younger generations are leaving the church right now. They are amazingly clear-eyed at the illogic and incongruity they see. These are the things they can’t understand. Church, we have to bring these things they see into the light. face them unflinchingly, and set them right.
The same peoplewho have told them that men cannot meet with women over lunch because they fear the “appearance of evil” are silent regarding “Jesus Saves” signs next to confederate flags and nooses—unmistakable symbols of white supremacy and lynching. These symbols do not convey the appearance of evil—they are evil. We are to believe Christians can stand next to them and not participate in the stench of their meaning. Yet a male pastor cannot accompany me, a female pastor, to a training meeting because “appearances.” This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
The same people who tell them social justice and creation concerns are not the gospel and “just preach the gospel” are very concerned about fighting for their constitutional rights. Also, they don’t appear to know the gospel very well. This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
The same people who protest that talk of racism is dividing the church will tell them on social media that anyone who votes for a democrat is a baby killer and not a real Christian. We are supposed to assume this is not sowing division but righteousness. This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
The same people who taught them that “Jesus loves the little children—red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight” don’t find those children precious when they’re in cages at a southern border. They shrug and consider those precious souls collateral damage in a war against the neighbor we’re supposed to love. This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
The same peoplewho counsel them to “think for yourself” succumb to outrageously unlikely claims that fit what they see as a “safe” worldview. The same pastors who tell teens to question what their teachers tell them admonish them never to question the pastors.This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
I’ve been an English teacher, a writer, and an editor. I’ve graded hundreds of papers and critiqued dozens of articles. There are two kinds of writing that an editor or a teacher find almost impossible to critique. That which is perfect as it is—and that which is hopelessly bad.
In the first, we can find nothing bad to say. In the second, we don’t know where to start. We don’t think there’s any way to help the work improve.
If I critique the church, it’s because I have hope. It’s because I don’t think it’s beyond fixing. I don’t think the people in it, like myself, cannot do better. I believe they, like me, are sinners in need of redemption. I edit with conviction and ferocity because I know we are better than we’ve been. I believe God is working, as Paul says in Ephesians 2.10, on a masterpiece.
The problem is, sometimes the block of clay God is trying to mold prefers to mold itself into a different sort of creature entirely. One that does not image the Creator. This is when God needs to start over, sometimes smashing that clay down, to re-form it in the way it was meant to be.
If that’s what happens to the American church, so be it. It needs to be re-formed. I pray that we choose to work with the artist in that reformation. I pray that the next generation wants to come along for that work and join us in it. Let it be a re-creation of integrity, free from incongruity (which others read as hypocrisy). Let it be a church that transparently looks and acts like Jesus.
We’ll get some things wrong. I have no illusions that we won’t make our own massive errors. We’re all hypocrites, every one of us, preferring to see others more clearly than we see ourselves. That’s why we need one another.
We need to do one another’s critiquing, while we’re not too far gone, and we need to hear the critique of the next generation. As the mom of three of them, I can tell you—they’re pretty smart.
The first presidential election in which I was eligible to vote came a month after my birthday. I had to vote absentee, since in November I was in the weeds of my freshman year of college six hours from home. I excitedly blacked in the circles on my first ballot and mailed it back, thankful to be able to cast the first vote of my life.
I didn’t vote for either major party candidate for president. I chose John Anderson, partly because he appealed to college students like me across the board, partly because he hailed from my home state, so loyalty won. Of course, I guess Reagan did too, but only by birth. In any case, geography is, I realize, a poor rationale for voting decisions.
This year, I’ll vote early in person, and the gratitude for being able to cast a vote hasn’t really faded. I still recognize it as a privilege and hope I always will. With a dad who walked the decks of a battleship in the Pacific at the age of 16, I think I’d be letting him down if I didn’t.
I want to spend October on this touchy subject. How should Christians vote? No, not for whom. We’re not going there. Pretty sure you know I have definite opinions, but that’s not the point here. What I want to talk about is the theology around voting wisely and well.
First, Scripture addresses the issue of loyalty, and that matters immensely when we think about the theology of voting. Loyalty is BIG in the Bible. God self-labels as a jealous God, who won’t brook competition (Exodus 34.14). The first commandment is all about —no other gods before me! God isn’t a fan of idolatry—yet it’s clear in many places that his reasons are for our good. Having other gods always leads to unhealthy relationships with all of them and a divided self that doesn’t function well in any arena.
The Bible involves a lot of paradoxes, mostly because life this side of eternity is just plain messy. It’s not certain, and our reality and scripture both reflect that. One of those paradoxes is that we are a part of this world that we live in, yet we are not supposed to consider it our real home.
Jesus says that we are in this world but not of it (John 17). He says he is leaving us here but that we are to live here as he did, having been sent as hew was sent. The way he lived here is not at all the way most people do. His every word and action very much showed that his loyalty was not with any powers of this world. That’s what got him put on a cross.
Peter says that we are always sojourners, foreigners in this land. Yet he is careful to say that we answer ethically to the people around us. (1 Peter 2)
Prophets like Jeremiah told God’s people to make our homes here and to create lives that blessed everyone around us (Jeremiah 29). Yet the prophets also make it clear that we are always longing for our real land, and this isn’t it. It is one of those paradoxes that we feel but do not understand.
This is my home, but it is not my home. I am to do well in it and bless others in it, but I am to hold it very lightly and loosely, because it isn’t mine. How does this affect the way we choose to vote in this country?
It sets us up to understand better where our loyalties ought to be. Let’s look at a few Bible verses.
Exodus 20.3 You shall have no other gods before me. First commandment. So, pretty important.
“Before” actually means beside—like, not only can’t we have any gods that are more important to us than the One true God, we can’t even have any that we put alongside God in competition. There are to be no close seconds. God is the runaway winner—no one else is even on the track.
Luke 14.26-27 If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
Jesus uses hyperbole here, a common technique in the Bible, to make a point. No, he doesn’t want us to literally hate our families. But he does want to make certain his disciples know the extent of the expectations and commitment. They are to place him first, and anything that comes in the way of that needs to be subordinated real fast. It might well mean sacrifice and putting other things before their own well-being and desires. So he’s preparing them for that.
Matthew 6.24, 33 No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
The context here is money, which is why he uses this example. But it’s clear he means we cannot serve God and anything else. See again, first commandment.
So what’s the point of this? It’s that God does not accept competition. There isn’t any allowance for mixed loyalties. We are either God’s or we are not; there is no option for being partly God’s and partly something else.
Our complete loyalty has to be to getting up every morning and saying to God, “I am yours and I belong to your kingdom. How does that work out in my life today?”
Remember—God doesn’t even want a close second place finisher.
Why? Because if we try to divide our lives up into loyalty for God plus loyalty for country, culture, family, anything, we find that they take precedence before God every single time. It’s just human nature that when we put something next to God, it always overtakes that first loyalty in our hearts. And God doesn’t take second place. When we do that, we are just serving whatever that other thing is then. God will leave us to it.
There is, therefore, no such thing as the American church. The church belongs to God, and it is universal. There is no such thing as, God forbid, this new “denomination” that’s being created called the Patriot Church. (Heresy detected. Run away fast.)
We are citizens first in God’s kingdom, and to mix God and country so completely and indistinctly together is to create a soup with no eternal substance.
Remember—no other gods even beside the one true God. That leaves zero wiggle room for worshiping our country. Gratitude for it? Absolutely. Care and concern? Sure. We’re to live in this world—and so to bless it and be good caretakers of it. This is why we vote. But we are to be always careful of what is receiving our ultimate loyalty.
To worship something means to consider it perfect. You see no flaw in it. It means to think of it first and to put your trust in it. It means you think that thing matters above all other things, and you are willing to sacrifice anything or anybody for it. This is fine, if that “thing” is God.
But if you hear things coming out of your mouth like, “my country right or wrong,” “Love it or leave it,””Don’t criticize the good old USA—it’s the greatest place in the world!”? That’s not patriotism. It’s worship. Patriotism is to tell God thank you for giving you a wonderful place to live and asking God to make you a better citizen while here on earth. And the prophets would agree with that idea. Yet we must all the while remember—this country is not our real citizenship. We’re God’s people, through and through, with ALL our priorities.
The next verse, a familiar one, puts this all together.
Matthew 22.37-40 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
So we reiterate here that God is first and alone in our hearts in terms of loyalty. But then he adds that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves as a necessary corollary. That brings this world into the picture. It speaks to the balance we talked about in the beginning between belonging to eternity and belonging to this place we live in.
It is because we place God first that we act in ways that love his image here on this earth. To honor God is to honor his image, which is every single person we ever meet or hear about. Paul talks about how this works out:
Ephesains 2.10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Our task here on earth, our way of showing loyalty to God’s kingdom alone, is to do his good works here. The main one of those works is to love our neighbor as ourselves. So one of the ways we approach the concept of voting in a free country is to approach it as a way in which we can love our neighbor through our voting priorities.
How does this work? Well, let’s look back at some of the ways the Bible says we can love our neighbor.
The parable of the good Samaritan comes to mind first, obviously. A good neighbor binds someone’s wounds up. She or he offers healing and the means that a person might need in order to completely heal. The good Samaritan paid for the hotel room and the treatment. Sometimes, that’s what a good neighbor does. They heal and provide.
Jesus said that giving clothing, food, water, and visiting the sick and imprisoned was being the same kind of neighbor to people as if we were being a neighbor to him. So loving our neighbor means to make sure they have what they need and to make sure they aren’t left lonely.
Paul says in several places that loving someone sometimes means helping them get back on the right path. Sometimes it means to correct them. At other times, we love people by mourning with them and rejoicing with them. We love people by freeing them from oppression. We love others by teaching them right from wrong. Being a neighbor even means to love your enemies. All of these examples have multiple Bible verses that show God has decided this is how we love the image of God on this earth.
So how do we vote in a way which loves our neighbor? Remember, this is all prefaced on the truth that we are here on earth in order to do his good works, the foremost of which is loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Ask yourself a few questions:
How would you like the laws to be if they were applied to you?
How would you like voting to go if you were one of the people mentioned in the verses above—hungry, alone, sick, spiritually lost?
What woulds you like this country to look like if it looked good for everyone?
What are the hopes and dreams of others, and how could my vote help those along?
These sorts of questions help us to think about the question in a way that doesn’t put “me” in the center of our voting action.
To vote in a way which loves our neighbor means first we have to put ourselves in our neighbor’s position. We can’t possibly do it if we cannot imagine ourself as a person with different needs. So it first requires empathy. It means getting out of the “me” silo and talking to and learning about other people. Listening to their stories. Knowing what their hopes and dreams and needs are. If we don’t know our neighbor, we can’t really love him or her.
I hope that gives a good theological overview of how Jesus first and second commands—love the Lord with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself—should influence how Christians choose to vote. It’s complicated. But it’s worth asking ourselves a lot of good questions.
Here and at church, I have started a series on Christmas songs. Not Christmas carols or pop songs – not the ones we hear on the radio October through December—some of which grow increasingly sappy to me every year.
Not to mention the ones that are theologically troubling. (“So let’s give thanks to the Lord above ’cause Santa Claus comes tonight!” I think, I just, wait but . . . never mind.)
The Real Songs
I mean the songs of scripture. The ones sung by people right there, in real time, Ground Zero of Jesus’ birth. The ones that ushered him in. The songs that people couldn’t help belting out when they knew he was finally on the way.
We dealt with Mary first. Now, it’s time for her much older cousin-in-law.
Back story. Zechariah was a priest. The Bible says that he was chosen to go into the temple to light the incense and offer the prayers for the people. There’s a whole order here I didn’t know about. Three entire priests were necessary for this incense thing.
Seriously, the lack of efficiency is astounding. You’d think the Lord didn’t care at all about good, sensible time management.
One took away the ashes from the last time the fire was lit. One brought in the new smoking coals for the next offering. Finally, a third man came in to sprinkle the incense on the burning coals, and while the beautiful smell rose up to tickle his nose and calm his head, intercede in prayer for his people.
This was Zechariah’s job, and it was the most important and most sacred. I believe the fact that he was chosen for this job says something more than we realize.
Surely, in all those prayers he lifted up, one of them was a desire that the promised Messiah would come. Zechariah woulds never have let the opportunity pass him up, when given this chance to pray for the nation, to pray for its salvation through their shared hope.
Zechariah loved his people. That much will become clear.
Suddenly—Surprise! An angel shows up at the altar, right in front of where he stands praying. Angels terrify those who see them. Sweet, lovely, harp-strumming angels do not exist in Scripture. Universally, they scare the heck out of people, and almost always they must first utter the words, ”Don’t be afraid” before they can say anything else to cowering, trembling humans.
Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John.’ (Luke 1.17-19)
Zechariah had questions. He doubted Gabriel’s word. This was a very bad idea.
Then the angel said, ‘I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.’ (v. 19-20)
Zechariah ended up unable to speak as a result of his unbelief. Still, let’s not be too quick to judge him. The scripture also tells us, concerning him and his wife, “Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” So no one can say he’s struck mute out of disobedience. God must have had other reasons.
He spends over nine months speechless. Let that sink in. I am a pastor myself, and I know what it would be like to carry out my daily work without being able to speak. I know how difficult it would be to care for people without being able to talk to them of their troubles. How does Zechariah manage?
One day, his one and only son is finally born—but the enforced silence is still not over.
When the baby was eight days old, they all came for the circumcision ceremony. They wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth said, ‘No! His name is John!’ ‘What?’ they exclaimed. ‘There is no one in all your family by that name.’ So they used gestures to ask the baby’s father what he wanted to name him. He motioned for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s surprise he wrote, ‘His name is John.’
And he finds his voice.
What that voice says will be the subject of the next blog. Why it was silent for so long is my curiosity for this one. Why would God silence a man he himself calls good? Why is Zechariah punished for questioning an angel while Mary appears to have been blessed for the same behavior?
Here’s what I’m thinking. I don’t think it’s punishment. I think it, too, is a blessing.
Perhaps this was God allowing Zechariah some time to listen.
(Some assume from the verse about the people making gestures that he is also deaf, but this is unlikely. Probably, they simple raise their eyebrows or gaped open-mouthed, arms outstretched, signifying that he had better intervene immediately, speechless or not, because his wife is about to do something unheard of! In any case, ten months of observing the world, unable to speak or hear,would be no bad thing, either.)
Can you imagine all that Zechariah learned during that ten months or so? What did he hear? What that he had never noticed before did he suddenly find fascinating? What people to whom he had never really paid attention did he finally truly hear? What did he learn from them?
Did he come to deeply appreciate the squealing laughter of children playing by the road, the passionate prayers of his friends, or the tender, quiet voice of his wife at night? Did he learn from the disenfranchised who rarely were able to catch the ear of a priest, but whose calls and cries he suddenly began to heed?
Did he open his eyes to people with whom he didn’t agree, since he had no choice but to listen and not immediately argue back?
Could an awful lot of us use that enforced silence?
He is a good man—that much has been established. Yet he has lessons to learn. For us, this is a hard but beautiful pill to swallow.
Maybe, God doesn’t punish us for being bad people as much as sometimes, he pushes us to be better people than we would otherwise bother to be.
Zechariah has lessons to learn, even though by all counts be is plenty good enough already.
I do, too.
Sometimes it’s when we’re good already.
When we’re smart.
When we’ve followed a while and know the ways of Jesus.
When we’re pretty sure we’ve got this God thing down.
Sometimes it’s then that we trip up.We believe in ourselves more than in Him.
It’s then we find ourselves on a detour out somewhere, unable to speak or really listen, because we thought we could navigate it alone.
One thing we learn from Zechariah is that we must never believe so much in our own goodness, right intentions, best plans, or knowledge of truth that we aren’t teachable.
What might we learn if we listen?
If we closed our mouths, cut off the quick reply.
Stopped thinking about what we were going to say.
Refused the defensive comeback.
Chose to hear what someone we don’t agree with feels.
What would we hear and learn?
I’m so fascinated by Zechariah’s silence that I’ve decided my word for 2020—Listen. I want to experience what this man had no choice but to do. I want to know the depths of other people’s hearts, and of God’s. I want to learn. If Zechariah at his age still had much to learn, certainly so do I.