Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Bewildering Dinner - Maundy Thursday - John 13

It must have been quite a bewildering dinner. It started with him taking a basin of water and a towel, taking off his robe, and kneeling in front of each of them to wash their feet.

Their Rabbi! On his knees to serve his own students! And then, he followed that with an instruction to follow his example.

As if that wasn’t bewildering enough, the very next thing he said was that one of them would betray him. They were stunned!

But instead of wondering how he knew, they wondered to whom he was referring. Apparently they trusted him enough such that they were sure what he was saying was true, but were not confident enough to refrain from harboring selfish thoughts.

Thankfully, he meant Judas. That must have been such a relief! And now Judas was gone, so they could relax again. Maybe even with a snide chuckle and under the breath, “I never really liked Judas, you know.”

But he wasn’t done. Next he told them that he was leaving and that after he went away they must love one another the same way he loved so that people would see that they were his students. And it was Peter who asked the question that was begging to be asked.

“Wait, what? Where are you going?” An honest question, simply gave voice to what the others were thinking.

And then he landed another blow. “You can’t come, Peter. Maybe later, but not now.”

All eyes turned to Peter, who was suddenly very aware of himself.

With a bewildered laugh, Peter asked, “What? What do you mean? I’d lay down my life for you.”

I – would – lay – down – my – life.

“Would you, Peter? Would you?” And he didn’t even really need to go on from there, but he did. “Before morning, you will have pretended not to know me … three different times.”

(And you have the audacity to claim you would lay down YOUR life?)

By this point they must have been utterly numb. The pendulum swings of emotion in these last ten minutes! Jesus Christ!

And so, the very next thing he said was a word of comfort. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He saw their bewilderment, he heard their concern, he sensed their worry. And he responded with love.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he said. He knew they wouldn’t lay down their lives for him, but that did not prevent him from laying down his for them.

Which is exactly what he did. It must have been a bewildering dinner.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Resurrection 2014

Resurrection means that life is stronger than death. Always and everywhere, no matter what, life wins. Every time.

And right about now, the world needs to know that as much as … maybe more than … ever. Life is an irresistible force, and consistently crushes all that counters it.

It doesn’t make any sense, does it? Death is real. We see it every day. Death is a constant companion in our world, and sometimes it feels like death is so strong. So, so strong.

A dear loved one is with us one moment and simply gone the next. A friend lingers for months, battered by illness, merely existing as death ever so slowly steals them away. A hateful man brings his gun into a peaceful place and kills people at random, because his twisted mind somehow justifies this horrific violence.

A man is betrayed, arrested, and executed, for no better reason than he is a threat to the power of the status quo.

Death is strong. Indeed.

Life is stronger.

If it looks like death is winning, that’s because we are unable to see far enough. A flower does not blossom unless a seed dies. Resurrection elevates our vision so that we can see life - full, vibrant, loud, emerging, erupting, rudely shoving death out of the way.

Resurrection means that life is stronger than death. Every. Single. Time. And I believe that is something that the world needs to know.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Why I'm Choosing to Forgive Fred Phelps

The extreme always makes the ordinary seem smaller. An extremely tall person will make a person of average height seem short, for example. An extremely bright light will make ordinary light seem darker.

Fred Phelps did that with homophobia.

His extreme fear and hatred made ordinary homophobia seem innocuous. That was what irked me most about him, to be honest. He gave our nation an automatic excuse, an insidious shield behind which we could hide: “Well, at least I’m not as bad as Fred Phelps.”

I have always approached the Westboro group with an attitude of “ignore them and they’ll go away.” However, I decided to break my own rule today to offer a thought on the day Fred Phelps died.

I need to say, “I forgive you, Fred Phelps.” I know in my head that I need to say that. I know that is the Christian thing to do. I know that Jesus gave his life so that Fred Phelps would know the depth of God’s love for him, and receive the gift of everlasting life.

I know all that.

And yet I cannot stop thinking about all of the ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill homophobia that Fred Phelps’ extremism obscured.

Once a man told me he didn’t want any gay people to sing in church choir because he didn’t want one to put his hand on his knee in the middle of choir practice. Of course, he was no Fred Phelps …

Once a woman in a Bible study got upset that anyone would dare to “accuse” David and Jonathan of being gay. But now, at least she wasn’t Fred Phelps, you know…

Once a man said to me, with a chuckle and a wink, “I don’t care what they do in their personal lives, just so long as they don’t change the definition of marriage.” But hey! Fred Phelps…

It is very hard for me to forgive him for being the extreme that made the ordinary seem smaller.

Because I believe that the hidden homophobia that infects our society is actually a lot more dangerous than the extreme. The extreme is outlandish, a cartoon, a circus. It draws our collective attention away from more subtle but no less hateful actions. The devil is perfectly content for us to spend all our time and energy painting the porch while the true evil is working to erode away the foundation of the house, well outside of our collective attention span.

So let me just say this. Fred Phelps, you have no power over me. You have no power over any of my friends, neither those who happen to be gay nor those who happen to be homophobic. We no longer have you behind which to hide our ordinary homophobia. And now, if we will forgive you, that will set us free to love people – ALL people – like Jesus calls us to love.

We must no longer use your extreme ideas to hide our own hurtful attitudes and actions. Instead, we must confront them, confess them, and allow the grace of God to transform them. And in order for this to happen, we must forgive you. We know that we should. We know that if we do not, you will continue to hold this bizarre sort of power over us. And so…

Fred Phelps, we forgive you.

Dear God, receive Fred into the arms of your mercy, and raise him up with all your people.
Receive us as well. May we live as those who are prepared to die. And when our lives here are accomplished, may we die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you, and nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from your great love made known to us in Jesus Christ.


Monday, March 10, 2014

Your Calendar - Your Budget - Your Faith?

For my Christian friends:

If a stranger saw your calendar and your budget, would they be able to tell that you were a Christian?

I know you are busy, and you keep track of your days from morning to night. I know that you have a planner, or an online calendar, something on your smart phone you can pull up anywhere, any time.

Just curious, is the word “worship” on that calendar anywhere?

In all the hours that you have planned out for yourself and perhaps your family over the course of the week, is one of those hours intentionally set aside to gather together with others to worship God? Just one?

I know you are busy, you travel, you have to be places for work, for the team, for fun. Now, I might be underestimating here, but I’ll bet you they have churches in those places where you have to be. So pick one, find out when they worship, and go.

And by the way, have you scheduled in a time for daily prayer?

In all of the minutes you have so carefully strung together, are maybe five of them designated for “prayer” every day? That calendar on your phone has a notification function, doesn’t it? You could set it to notify you every day, “It is time to pray.” Your attention is drawn from this to that with whiplash intensity all day long. When is your attention drawn completely to God? When do you simply pray? Not “while I’m driving” or “while I’m exercising” … just praying.

And you know, I’ll bet that your calendar has on it a meeting or two that is intended to make you better at something you do: a staff meeting, an in-service, a training event, a conference, something like that.

But is there a meeting on your calendar intended to make you better at following Christ? Sunday school or Bible study or small group or something like that? I know that you are not content to just maintain your current skill level when it comes to your work or your sport or your hobby; why in the world would you be satisfied merely maintaining your current spiritual “skill set,” then? Does your calendar include your spiritual growth?

And if that stranger were to pick up your budget, what would they see there? I know that you keep a budget; you are careful and faithful with your resources, you want to be responsible. Is “Tithe” on the first line of your budgeted expenses? You know, the “first fruits” of each harvest, that initial 10% from every pay period that Scripture says we are to give to God.

Or is your generosity more of a sporadic “when I think about it I’ll drop a twenty or two in the plate” kind of giving? Putting it in your budget, and putting it first, gives your generosity the intentionality and purpose that is asked of Christian disciples.  

And then, on top of that, would that stranger see in your budget resources that you intend to share with those who are in need? Have you budgeted so that you can offer help when help is needed? Have you budgeted so that you can respond with abundance when disaster strikes? Have you budgeted so that you can serve “the least of these” in a way that is faithful to the Christian call? Does your budget empower you to follow Jesus?

Our time and our money are two of our most precious resources, and we are wise to track these resources carefully with calendar and budget. As such, these ought to reflect our priorities, revealing what is truly important to us. One might say, they reveal who we are.

Who would a stranger think you were, based on your calendar and your budget? Would they think you had even heard of Jesus, let alone profess to follow him as Lord and Savior?

If a complete stranger saw your calendar and your budget, would they know you were a Christian?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

"Religious Freedom" Bills: Rotten Apples

The recent rash of so-called “religious freedom” legislation proposed in several states is more than irritating. It is infected beyond healing, and the only way to eliminate it is to eliminate the source. Fortunately, we have a free and safe way of doing that in our country: elections.

There is so much that is wrong with these ideas, I hardly know where to begin.

First, I’ll say this: the idea that refusing to serve a particular person is an expression of the Christian Gospel is horrible and offensive and misguided and just plain wrong. There is no basis in scripture for this practice.

In fact, the opposite is true – followers of Christ are called to serve everyone, even (and one could say “especially”) sinners. So whether you believe same-sex relationships to be inherently sinful or not (I do not), that gives you NO cause to discriminate in any way, shape, or form against people who are gay. Disagreeing on the questions surrounding same-sex marriage is acceptable among loving, faithful, grace-filled followers of Jesus; violence, hatred, prejudice, and discrimination against another human being – ANY other human being – is not.

Secondly, the idea that discrimination against a group of people could be not only condoned, but actually legalized in our nation is profoundly antithetical to the fundamental principles that comprise America. We had this conversation in the 1950s and 60s, right? Sounds like a few lawmakers didn’t study their U.S. History in High School.

The first amendment says that Congress cannot make a law that either establishes a national religion or prevents people from practicing their chosen religion, or not. Letting a gay person shop in one’s store is not preventing one from practicing one’s religion. No religion of which I am aware has as one of its teachings, “Thou shalt not sell stuff to the gays.” This is not a practice in need of legal protection.

Thirdly, the idea that blatantly discriminatory legislation is actually intended to prevent discrimination is ludicrous. To frame these proposals as protecting religious freedom insults the reasonable mind and is as transparent as glass. Surely no one is so gullible as to actually believe this. Forcing a Christian to serve a gay person is not an infringement of religious freedom; it is not discrimination against Christians to ask them to treat all people fairly and justly.

As a Christian, I lament what ideas like this do to the perception of Christian people in our communities, around the nation, and throughout the world. One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel. The hateful attitude toward people who are gay is a clear and obvious hindrance to the mission to which we are called as the church and it needs to stop.

As a citizen of the United States, I am angry at the outright disregard being shown to the rights and responsibilities that form the foundation of our nation. “Jim Crow” is an ugly legacy that should be long gone from our experience, something we only read about in history books any more. And yet as it turns out, Jim Crow is alive and well; he has simply selected another target.

Both as a Christian and as an American, I stand against any attempt to legalize discrimination against people who are gay. I applaud Arizona Governor Jan Brewer for her veto, and the Kansas Senate for their discernment. I am hopeful that you will stand with me, and insist that our elected representatives immediately cease offering such horrible legislation here in Missouri and anywhere else it appears.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Jesus and Me: A Dialogue

Jesus: Hey, you should really love your enemies.

Me: Right on, J.C. Not a problem. I’m on it!

Jesus: You seem pretty sure of yourself. It can be hard to love an enemy, you know.

Me: Right, right. I get that. But I’m not going to have a problem with this one. See, I don’t have any enemies.

Jesus: Oh, really? None?

Me: Yeah. I’m such an easy-going guy, you know? I get along with everybody.

Jesus: Um, you know what I mean by “enemy” isn’t just a person with whom you have actual open conflict, right?

Me: Oh … wait, what?

Jesus: Yeah. Confrontation can actually be healthy, when it happens with graciousness and respect.

Me: Really? Who knew? So, who’s my enemy, then?

Jesus: Well, you know that one you look down on? And that one you gossip about? And that one you go out of your way to avoid? And that one who just gets on your nerves? And that one you wish would just put a sock in it? And that one…

Me: Okay, okay! That’s enough, man. I see your point.

Jesus: There’s people who are easy to love; there’s people who are hard to love; there’s people who are all but unlovable. Love. Them. All.

Me: I don’t know, Jesus. I mean, someone who could do that would have to be … perfect.

Jesus: Exactly.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

What 'The Internet's Favorite Pianist" Can Teach the Church

I heard the radio announcer introduce the upcoming recording with the phrase, “the internet’s favorite pianist.” I was intrigued, so I did what anyone would do, I googled the phrase.

Google told me to read this Washington Post article about Valentina Lisitsa, a conservatory trained, classical, pianist from the Ukraine. Instead of becoming “just another blond Russian ex-pianist,” as she puts it, Lisitsa decided to do something differently. She uploaded a video of her playing piano to YouTube.

Her channel now has over 126,000 subscribers. Every video has tens of thousands of views. The most popular have millions. And what is the content of these videos? Is it edgy, crazy, and weird? Is it violent, aggressive, and arrogant? Is it exhibitionist, shallow, and vain?

Nope. The videos she posts are her sitting at a piano playing classical music, just like classically trained pianists have done for ever and ever before her. And it just so happens that sitting at a piano playing classical music is something that Valentina Lisitsa does very, very well.

The church needs to pay attention to stuff like this – especially the portion of the church that fears change, that doesn't like to do things differently, or that feels like the Gospel is somehow compromised if presented in a different format.

If there is a sub-culture of the world that is even staler than the church, it must be classical music. The stereotype is old, rich, well-dressed people sitting in luxurious places applauding politely at the appropriate times. The perception is that classical musicians are all about the purity of the art form, appreciating the music at a highly knowledgeable level, and staying faithful to the composers’ intentions without deviation. In other words, snobs.

But Valentina Lisitsa says, “We musicians want a bigger audience, we want more people to come and listen. We sometimes act as though you need a great education to understand [classical music]. But I look at who is listening to my videos on YouTube, and it’s people from developing countries, not associated with classical or big concert halls. I see the growth and want to connect with these fans.”

Now, the ironic kicker in her story is that her online success has led to album sales, concerts, and much of the more traditional markers of classical music success. None of which would she have experienced had she not posted a few videos on YouTube seven years ago.

Not that Valentina understood this inherently; she learned it. A DVD of her playing was being uploaded illegally. At first, she was removing the videos one by one as she discovered them. Conventional wisdom is that online access, free downloads and such, will be detrimental to a musician’s career.

“At first I was removing the clips one by one, but then I thought, ‘What am I doing? I’m angering my fans,’ ” she said. “I uploaded it to YouTube and a strange thing happened: It hit number one on Amazon.”

If I might analogize, the music is the Gospel.

The way the music gets to the audience is the church.

If we are unwilling to change the way the music is getting to the audience, then the music will remain unheard.

I do not want the music of the Gospel to go unheard. The church needs to think differently, speak differently, and act differently. We need to stop metaphorically taking down YouTube videos out of fear that it will detract from other markers of so-called “success.”

However, the flipside is also true – I do not want a video of some random person playing Chopsticks to be packaged as the Chopin Etude Opus 10 No.4. Make no mistake, Valentina Lisitsa is a highly talented, conservatory trained pianist whose technical skill and artistic prowess are exceptional. If she was not, there’s no way her Chopin gets 3,750,000 views.

She wanted more people to hear Chopin; she did not want to play “Chopsticks,” thinking somehow it will be more accessible to the audience.

To continue the analogy: sometimes the church thinks we have to change the music so that more people will hear it. Sure, a piano player can start with Chopsticks, but maturing and growing at piano means hard work, moving on from Chopsticks, to “Heart and Soul” and beyond, realizing that Chopin is out there beckoning, inviting, and challenging us to excel.

If the music isn’t getting to the audience, and one of our jobs is making sure it does, then we’re going to want to figure out what to change. It will not suffice to wring our hands and wonder why more people aren’t coming to the concert hall.  Neither will it suffice to put on a concert of repertoire exclusively from Mel Bay’s Big Note Songbook.

We have got to look for new ways to convey the Gospel in new places. We have got to share God’s love with creativity and innovation and vision. We have got to let go of old models and experiment fearlessly.

Dear Church – John Wesley submitted to be more vile for the sake of the Gospel, and we must follow his lead. We have to put Chopin on YouTube.