Sunday, February 22, 2009

Undeserving Neighbors

Romans 5:8 “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

We live in pretty strange times. During the Bush years we heard a lot about the Christian influence on government and how we were a “Christian nation.” And there was a lot of emphasis on social values related to abortion and gay marriage. Christians differ about those things (although you never would have known it from the media) but you did have the sense that the religious community was thinking about policy and at least trying to apply it.

Now, in our new reality, we are really in trouble. We have major, major issues that affect not only all of America but the entire globe. What strikes me is that for at least six months now, the “secular” media has been devoting large chunks of airtime to what are, in essence, religious issues and questions. Even specifically Christian ones. The table is prepared for us, yet no one is coming to the feast.

As the collapse began, it was the issue of greed. Everybody talked about it. The Roman Catholics have named it a deadly sin. The Bible is so full of talk of greed that if you cut those passages out, you’d be left with tatters. Even now that first course of the meal remains largely untouched by people of faith, although it is an issue that we agree on across the liberal-conservative spectrum.

Next came depression and despair. I wrote here about TV anchors wondering aloud how to give people hope. We had a huge election that was all about hope. Some of that salad course might have been consumed in the privacy of local churches, but I didn’t see the religious figures on the news in the way the gay marriage and abortion folks had been. Hope is a uniter, not a divider in Christian faith. We could speak together, but largely we haven’t.

And now, the entrée has been served, and if we don’t get our butts into those dinner chairs, liberal and conservative alike, then we deserve every bit of criticism that has been heaped on the Church and organized religion. Since Congress began putting together the meat of a stimulus bill and now into the rich sauce of a housing proposal, almost half of every news program I watch is people arguing against any part of a proposal that will help people who don’t deserve it. More than that, this course is so rich that the mainstream, secular media is asking almost every single night, whether it is right and proper to help our neighbors, our honest-to-goodness-live-next-door neighbors, if they contributed to their own misfortune.

Neighbors. Get it? Love your neighbor?

The core of the Bible for mainliners is generally the Great Commandment: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. The core of the Bible for evangelicals is Jesus dying for our sins even though we didn’t deserve it. Grace is the church word for receiving what we don’t deserve. That’s why we sing that it is amazing.

It is completely understandable that those with different faith systems or no faith tradition at all would worry about helping out the guy across the street who doesn’t deserve help. But, literally for heaven’s sake, not a single Christian on either the right or the left, should be objecting on those grounds. You may not like it for other reasons, but if you profess anything at all like Christian faith, you should be able to recognize and support grace when you see it.

My new book, God with Skin On, is all about the concept that the job of Christians is to continue to do to others what Jesus did for us. By doing so…by giving others the experience of God in the flesh—God with skin on—we help others recognize and accept God’s love. If you have never received something you didn’t deserve on this earth, recognizing that God would do such a thing for you is too big a chasm to jump. There are proposals on the government table that would offer grace. Will Christians oppose it on that very point? Oppose it on other points if you will, but not that one. Has there been any climate since the Great Depression when it was more fitting for Christians to speak out on “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors?”

Where are the Christians at this meal? The main course is served!

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Monday, February 16, 2009

God with Skin On

I've been up to my eyeballs this weekend and there won't be a regular SpiritWalkers, but instead I have another project in which I invite your participation. As you know, my third book will be out in April. It's called God with Skin On: Finding God's Love in Human Relationships. Last night I launched a new, simple website for the book here.

I used a very simple program to make the site, so it's not all that flexible, but I wanted to get some interactivity in there anyway, which you'll see on the blog page. I'm inviting people to send me (short!) stories of people who have been "God with skin on" for them. And a picture, too, if you've got one. The plan is to make the blog a collection of stories and pictures of what it means to be God with skin on for others. I'm going to trim names down to just first names, and if you send any pictures with children, please assure me in the e-mail that you have the permission of parents or guardians to put the photos up. It wouldn't hurt to check with the adults either, but with the children it's a must.

The book is available now for pre-order on Amazon, by the way. The links are on the godwithskinon site.

If you could send along your own stories, I'd love to have them.

Thanks, and I'll be back with a regular issue next weekend.

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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Snakes on a pole

2 Kings 18:4b “He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.”

You may recall that after the Hebrews were freed from slavery in Egypt, they spent 40 years wandering around the desert, forging both their faith and a nation. This wasn’t easy, especially for poor Moses who had to try to lead them. Life was hard and it wasn’t long before even some of God’s greatest miracles were taken for granted and, instead of offering God gratitude, many simply offered a constant stream of complaints. So, in one of the few instances where God does what I might have done under similar circumstances, God sends them poisonous snakes. It’s all there in Numbers 21.

Now they really have something to complain about and they holler for Moses to do something. God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Whoever looks at the bronze snake will be healed. It works.

I’ve written about the meaning I find in that text before, but what I have been reflecting on this week is what happens to that bronze snake over time. Apparently, what began as a good gift from God became an idol. By the time of King Hezekiah almost a thousand years later, the thing has become an idol and a snare to the faith of Israel. It even has a name, Nehushtan. As part of a program of reform, Hezekiah takes the thing that God commanded Moses to make and destroys it. The bronze serpent Moses made was nothing without God’s power working in and through it. It was a vehicle for God’s healing, not the source. But over time that got confused and the crude bronze snake was worshipped as a god. It became an idol and the good it once did had become spiritual harm.

What I see is that the way idols are made hasn’t changed much across the millennia. We begin with something that is good—holy, even. Maybe it is even something that God has commanded that we do or have. It might be a thing, like a Bible or a rosary. It might be a family member or special person that God has brought into our lives. It might be a virtue like duty or service. We begin to relate to that gift or responsibility remembering its context, its source, and its purpose. But in time we often come to forget that such things are merely a means to the end of true worship and relationship with our Creator. Idols are not usually bad things in and of themselves. The harm comes not from the thing but from our improper devotion to it.

Churches are full of idols. Often they, too, have names affixed with a brass plaque. Pastors discover the power of such idols when they suggest moving them to the other side of the chancel. Sometimes it is the sacred pew, the King James Version of the Bible, a certain creed or style of music, or even the church itself—either as a building or as an institution. When discussions over the times of worship or Christmas decorations cause people to fail in their love of neighbor, you know you have an idol on your hands. When a congregation can’t put money into missions because the roof has to be fixed first, or can’t open a food pantry because it might make the church look messy, those are signs that idols dwell in your midst.

But of course it’s not only churches. After all, WE are the church. We are the ones who are prone to idolatry in both our personal and public life. I think it’s fair to say that idolatry brought down Wall Street. They don’t call it the “almighty dollar” for nothing. Like the ancient Israelites, we make our offerings to the wrong gods. We demand that our leaders or those we love have no flaws, that they be divine in their perfection. If they accept that role we say they are arrogant. If they defy our request and admit failures, we say they are weak and change gods. We deify national symbols, “family values,” “the good old days,” self-sufficiency, and particular interpretations of Scripture. The list goes on and on.

Lent is around the corner. It’s a good time to start taking an idol inventory in our lives, in order that the season of fire and ashes might break apart our Nehushtans. What causes you to violate the love of neighbor because of your devotion to it? It’s time to let it go.

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Groundhog Day

Ecclesiastes 3:1 “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”

Everybody is all stirred up about the Super Bowl tonight. The real celebration, however, comes tomorrow which, in my world, is known as The Feast of St. Chuck. (To understand my reverence for the lowly woodchuck, click here.) I love Groundhog Day not just because I have a penchant for furry rodents (although I do), but because the groundhog (aka woodchuck) has a lesson to teach us—the lesson of the seasons.

This year, most of the U.S. has had a taste of the ravages of winter. Even as I write there are still a half million people without power from an ice storm that hit many southern climes unused to such calamities. Right before Christmas much of my state was without power for 2-3 weeks from a similar event. The storms of winter are not just inconvenient. People die. Some with heart conditions shovel heavy snow and do not survive the exertion. Those who lose power, and therefore heat, sometimes die from the cold or from the various ways they try to keep warm. Fires spread from kerosene heaters. Carbon monoxide from generator exhaust or open gas ovens ensures that some never waken from sleep. Many are killed in accidents on icy roads or sometimes when a frozen tree falls and crushes a car or home. People fall on the ice. Winter has its beauties to be sure, but there is no doubt that it is a difficult, expensive, and dangerous season.

This is not news to woodchucks. When the cold winds start to rip, they grab one last bite of your favorite flower bulb and then head deep into the ground for a winter-long snooze. Once safely underground, their metabolism drops and they live off the fruit of their earlier labors until they hear you setting their table in the garden in the early spring. While those who have not found enough food during the warmer months might never emerge from hibernation, most of them seem to have been raised with the hymn, “Work for the Night is Coming,” and manage to fatten up enough to last through their winter-long nap.

It is winter now and the woodchucks sleep. Since I believe that God speaks through Creation, I think the God-given instinct of the woodchuck has something to teach us about how to approach winter storms. Of course there is the direct message to come in out of the raging snow and ice and don’t take unnecessary risks. But there are also those metaphorical winter storms that hit us. Right now the world is in an economic winter and many of us are learning that we should have saved more during the “warmer” months. There are winters of grief when a loved one is lost. There are winters of illness that pound our physical bodies and winters of emotional strain that make it difficult to get out of bed.

The woodchuck teaches us that despite the workaholic nature of our society, there is a season to hibernate. There is a time to stop all labor, crawl into a hole, and let the storm pass. But the woodchuck also teaches us that hibernation is a season, not a lifestyle. There is also a time to come out and re-engage the world with love and labor, the things that make us healthy enough to live through our next hibernation. The woodchuck reminds us of the necessity of Sabbath in balance with the work of our hands, especially when a stormy season comes.

To everything there is a season. Celebrate the Feast of St. Chuck by acknowledging the seasons of your life. Acknowledge that while there may be strange guys in top hats eager to pull you out of your lovely sleep too soon in order to predict the weather; God has sanctioned hibernation as a normal and natural part of Creation. Work will have its season once the storms are past.

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