When the Bible uses the term “sin,” it isn’t just talking about people misbehaving. Sin is a bigger, darker concept than just the idea of being naughty. Sin is an orientation away from God—essentially forgetting about God—and looking for meaning and identity in other things. Ancient Israel did that when they abandoned God and chased after numerous fertility gods, idols that seemed sexier and more functional than the God who had rescued the people from slavery in Egypt.
Sin also creates victims. Along with all of us sinners, there are those who are the sinned against. These are people who have been abused, neglected, oppressed, used, and discarded. This victimization often results in an identity grounded in pain, and pain always demands medication.
The biblical imagery of sin includes one of a person walking along a path that is sure to end up in a proper destination. And then the person decides to wander off that well-worn trail and do some exploring. Once off the path, the person becomes disoriented and loses all sense of direction. Fear and desperation emerge and the person embraces a new identity: A person who is lost.
Wilderness experts often caution people about what to do when they get lost in the woods, because too many people do the wrong things when they lose their way. Once off the trail, they panic, exhaust themselves, get dehydrated, and get even more lost than they were in the first place.
That’s a good biblical image for sin. And, as a wise man once said: Sin makes you stupid.
When followers of Jesus start following other desires, stupidity isn’t far from the scene. When our identity as kin to Jesus changes into something else—as lonely people, misunderstood people, needy people, addictive people, suffering people—our desires demand fulfillment from a source that is other than God. There are all kinds of stories of extra-marital affairs, substance abuse, thievery—you name it—that take place within the shared life of churches when people’s identities shift and wander off the path, the way, that is Jesus.
Psalm 73 says it well:
“When I was beleaguered and bitter, totally consumed by envy, I was totally ignorant, a dumb ox in your very presence. I’m still in your presence, but you’ve taken my hand. You wisely and tenderly lead me, and then you bless me.
You’re all I want in heaven! You’re all I want on earth! When my skin sags and my bones get brittle, God is rock-firm and faithful.” (vv. 21-25, The Message)
“The recurrent error of our technologically conditioned age is to look for what’s wrong in our lives so that we can fix it, or what needs doing so that we can have something worthwhile to do. There are things wrong that need fixing; and there are jobs that need doing. But the Christian life starts at the other end—not with us but with God: What is God doing that I can respond to? How is God expressing his love and grace so that I can live appreciatively and in obedience?” (Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall, 138-9)
This week I had the privilege of teaching the first of a two-week intensive course on the subject of the church and mission in a global context. At one point we began talking about how the church’s mission begins, not with a question about historical tradition (“we’ve always done it this way”) or cultural preference (“what do people like?”), but rather with an inquiry about what God is doing in this time and place. The church’s role, we decided, was to participate in what God was doing in the world around us.
So I asked for examples of how we’ve seen this work in our respective faith communities. It took a while (for me, too), but we did have stories of people coming together in prayer and conversation, seeking to grasp, even in weakness, fear, and trembling, God’s ongoing activity and preferences, and then taking the risk to join into the missional party that was already going on.
I came home from that first week in Phoenix on Saturday night, and jumped right into a full, life-giving day on Sunday. After a rich and reorienting worship gathering, my wife and I had lunch with friends, sharing stories of joy and pain, hope and faithfulness. In the evening we hosted some young Venezuelan friends—children of the partner churches in South America who had grown into adulthood and were now making their respective ways here in the States. It was a day of fullness and life.
As I take a little time to reflect on these past days (without that time of reflection, the days often just melt together, blending with the mundane and routine, losing their significance and meaning, becoming part of the purée of time), I am asking the two questions that Peterson poses: “What is God doing that I can respond to? How is God expressing his love and grace so that I can live appreciatively and in obedience?”
Every pleasant relational experience is not necessarily a signal that one’s life direction has to change or that a new vocation must be embraced. But reflecting on experiences that bring life and joy allows for the consideration that the Spirit of God—the source of life—is always at work, and that work is seen in the lives of real human beings, all struggling to find their place in the world.
So, on this, day, I ask those questions on a personal level, not just for the church. Maybe you are asking them as well. May God surprise us with his mysterious responses.
This is nothing new. Multiple generations of mockingbirds have staked out their territories here. I’ve lived in this house for almost 20 years and there’s always been a mockingbird squawking and flying around, acting like it owns the place. Snotty little creatures, they are.
Mockingbirds also seem to be insomniacs because I hear them singing all through the night (I just read that they are particularly noisy during full moons, thereby revealing their affinity with vampires and werewolves). They are also copycats (okay, copybirds) because they mimic the sounds that other birds make.
I often sit on my back porch to read. The resident mockingbird would sit up on a telephone wire and scold me once in a while, but mostly it would ignore me. But this weekend, I experimented with a little bit of mockery of my own.
I stood under the wire where the bird was perched and did my humanly best to mimic the call that I heard. I noticed that it started looking at me in the weird bird way that they do, with their heads moving back and forth so that their sideways eyes can see you. Every time I copied the bird’s call, it would give me that look and then make another sound, which I would feed back to it. After a while, I retreated to my cherished spot on the porch and continued my reading.
In just a few minutes, the bird landed on the railing near to where I was sitting and gave me its look. We exchanged bird talk for a while, and then it flew under my porch, flapped around, and took off. We’ve continued this little human-avian exchange several times over the past couple of days.
I wondered: Is the bird trying to connect with me? Is it seeking to establish a unique bond with me that would draw us both into the complexities and wonders of the created order? So I did some Internet investigation and explored the various calls of the mockingbird.
As it turns out, the bird’s call to me was an aggressive one, telling me, in bird essence, to get off of his lawn. It could be that, in its astonishment that one of the large, clumsy, land dwellers would speak in bird language, it still wanted to poke its sharp little beak into my eyes and then snip my aorta so that I would cease to be a threat to its territorial claim. Or, it could just have been having fun with me.
I choose to believe the latter theory. It occurs to me that if I would figure out how to do a non-aggressive call, the bird and I might become friends (after all, it probably did sound like I was picking a fight). And I’d better be sure that I don’t attempt something that could be interpreted as a mating call. That could have difficult ramifications.
I tend to worry too much about global things. There’s a lot going on all around us—politically, socially, economically, and even religiously—and I’m concerned with how we Christians are or are not responding to these things. I worry about how dramatic and rapid cultural shifts will affect Christian communities of faith and their role of ministry in the world. I struggle with how reactive we can all be and how we aren’t very good at listening to one another, looking one another in the eye even as we disagree. These things trouble me.
It was a life-giving respite to share a conversation with a bird. Yes, as it turns out, we were speaking aggressively to each other. But the bird came close and we made eye contact, two mortal subjects sharing the breath of God in our bodies. In that contact, annoyance turned into communication, and aggression turned into curiosity. I am coming to like this bird.
I can’t determine exactly what the bird thinks of me, but I’m appreciative that it came close and looked me in the eye. And, to be clear, the lawn is mine.
Nahari: I'm going to Hell! I killed a child! I smashed his head against a wall.
Nahari: Because they killed my son! The Muslims killed my son!
[indicates boy's height]
Gandhi: I know a way out of Hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father have been killed and raise him as your own.
[indicates same height]
Gandhi: Only be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.
(from the movie, Gandhi, 1982)
A large group gathered outside City Hall to express their protests regarding a significant social and political issue. Ten of the protesters got into a fight, five against five. They were arrested and brought before the magistrate.
The judge heard the defenses and then ordered each protester to meet privately with him, one at a time. Each person, after being interrogated, left the judge’s chambers looking puzzled, perplexed shoulders shrugging one after the other.
After a few hours, the judge returned to the bench.
“I have learned many things about each of you today, and I have a verdict to render and penalty to impose.
“You are guilty of unlawful assembly and disturbing the peace. You may choose one of two consequences.
“I have discovered that four of your number—two from each side—are talented at cooking. Two of your number—one from each side—are musicians. One week from today, you will turn yourselves in at the homeless shelter on Main Street. You will prepare a dinner party for a group of children who have recently been rescued from the streets. Those of you who do not cook or play music will serve, help with games, and clean up.
“If you choose not to participate in this, you will be taken immediately to jail where you will remain for six months, and then pay a fine of $10,000. Your choice.”
All the defendants chose the party.
On the day of the event, the cooks immediately began to argue about the issue that started the trouble in the first place. The musicians each bragged about the protest songs they had written against their enemies. The others just folded their arms and glared. The guard assigned to them reminded them all that the children would be arriving in a few hours and failure to serve them would result in a renewal of punishment number two.
So, the cooks began to talk together, sharing recipe ideas and sorting through the supplies that had been arranged for them. The musicians shared ideas about songs that would bring joy to these lost children, and even co-wrote one just for the event. The others began setting up chairs and tables, discussing the best way to create an environment of safety and fun for the children.
The children arrived on time, the last child followed into the room by the judge. The prisoners looked at one another and gulped nervously.
The party came off beautifully. The downcast, fearful faces of the children were transformed into beacons of light and hope. The food was delicious, the music glorious, the service attentive and fun. Once the children left and the room was cleaned and put back in order, the judge informed the prisoners that they had served their sentences well and were now released, free to return back to their former lives.
“May we stay a little while longer, judge?” said one of the cooks. “There’s a bit of food left, and we’d like to eat it together.”
“And we wrote a song together about our day,” said one of the musicians. “You might want to stay and hear it.”
“We’ve got an idea for another party for the children,” said one of the servers. “There are plans to make.”
The judge stayed and dined with the protesters. After the food was eaten, the song applauded, and the plans blessed, he asked them a question.
“So, are you no longer protesting against each other?”
“Oh, no,” said one of them. “There is much on which we disagree. But today we became human and real to one another. I still protest about the issue, but I no longer have enemies to protest against. I protest now among friends.”
The above story, sadly enough, is a work of fiction.
I once knew a man who set his wristwatch alarm to go off (quietly, so that only he could hear it) every hour on the hour. When the tone sounded, he would stop what he was doing and become attentive to what was going on around him. He would pay close attention to the people near to him and would watch for signs of what God was doing in that time and place.
I think it’s time for followers of Jesus to listen for the tone, stop what they are doing, and pay attention to what is going on.
We live in a highly reactive society, and Christians seem quick to mirror that cultural reactivity. So when things happen around us—new rules on marriage, new standards for immigration, new economic policies, and so on—we react and draw lines so that we know who “they” are and who “we” are. After all: “We” are the good guys, and “they” are the bad guys. It’s important to know your enemies, right?
There is a two-fold problem with this for followers of Jesus: First, there is no “we” or “they.” There is only “us.” Second, we are not to deal with “enemies” in the traditional way of hatred.
In the midst of all the national and international turmoil, we Christians are missing a golden opportunity. We are missing the opportunity to look at the drama in our society and see our own complicity in it. We are missing the opportunity to see the one’s we have labeled the “other” and see ourselves in those people, regardless of their sexuality, their national origin, or their politics.
The apostle Paul nails this:
“. . . you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” (Romans 2:1)
Paul was working to get the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians to learn to live together as one spiritual family. They seem to have been quick to draw lines of separation between them, judging one another and allowing each side to think it had moral superiority over the other. Paul just doesn’t go for that. In fact, he claims that all human beings stand in solidarity with one another, not only in their universal access to God but also in their brokenness:
“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . .” (Romans 3:22b-23)
All human beings stand side by side in the reality of God’s love but also in the reality of sin and brokenness. In that sense, there is no one but “us” in the room.
So, when we are confronted with the social and political issues of our day, rather than beginning at the lines of division, we need to begin at the beginning: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All. That means all. Including you and me and all those “others” out there.
I’m not suggesting that everything is okay because we’re all screwed up (that would be no different, in effect, than saying that everything is okay because nobody is screwed up). I’m saying that the recognition of our solidarity with the rest of the world must draw us into humility and repentance before it allows us to consider standing in the place of judgment. And if, by “judgment,” we mean standing above others in a spirit of condemnation, then we have taken on a role that does not belong to us. If, however, we mean that there is a judgment to be made between was is life and what is death, what is helpful and what is hurtful, then we just might be able to pursue that course for the sake and the good of the world. Remember: It’s a world that God loves.
As far as having enemies goes, we who follow Jesus are not called to have enemies at all. We might have to recognize that there are people who don’t like us, who wish us harm, who categorize themselves as our enemies, but we don’t seek to have enemies. In fact, people should expect that the best enemy to have is a follower of Jesus. That’s because, as Jesus said,
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven . . .” (Matthew 5:44-45)
We in “the church” have missed so many golden opportunities throughout history. If we miss the opportunity to see ourselves in the same mirror of brokenness that we think reflects only the image of the “other,” then we miss seeing what God is really doing all around us, and what he desires to do within us.
“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:15-17)
Last week I read, with a combination of interest and dismay, the story of the florist in Washington who refused to sell flowers to a gay customer for his wedding. She is being sued over that decision, and also being characterized as either a religious bigot or as a hero, depending on one’s point of view.
The CNN article goes on to describe how some Christian groups have accepted gay marriage as a social and legal inevitability, while others have vowed to continue to fight against it. I suppose we can appreciate that, in the USA, we are able to have the freedom to battle each other without necessarily drawing blood (I’m hoping that doesn’t happen).
I recently heard a pastor, in a church service where I was a visitor, insist that it is the job of Christian people to preserve “the moral high ground.” From what I could tell, most everyone there seemed pleased with his declaration.
But I think he was wrong.
While I’m all for being moral (depending, of course, on what basis morality is grounded), demanding that particular moral standards be upheld by the larger society is not our job. Enforcing a certain “moral high ground” (which can be based on cultural preferences just as much on religious convictions), as if we Christians are the nation’s moral police, is not our job.
Bearing witness to Jesus is our job.
Being a people who are being formed in his image is our reality. And we do all of that in a context that we do not control. We live in a dominant culture, but we are not the dominant culture. “American” and “Christian” are not euphemisms. Like it or not, we are exiles. Our host nation is, for the most part, a friendly one, be we are still exiles, citizens of another kingdom where Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.
Having said that, it still matters how we live. In fact, it matters more how we live than it does how we declare what we think. If someone asks our view on same-sex marriage, our answer will either label us as bigoted haters or as compromising heretics. You just can’t come out unscathed with your answer.
But I’m not so sure that anyone needs to know what I think about a topic like that. I think it matters more how I live and how I interact with others. My views end up creating artificial categories and assumptions that deepen the divisions we seem to be creating on a daily basis. But my actions will reveal more of my heart than will my words.
More than one non-religious writer (like Roy Hattersley, in this 2005 Guardian UK article) has confessed that religious people, while having views about things that trouble skeptics, tend to be the ones who behave charitably. During disasters like Hurricane Katrina, churches mobilized all through the Gulf Coast and Christians from all over the US and Canada descended on the region to bring help and care to the people who were suffering. This kind of thing happens all the time, and even an atheist like Roy Hattersley can marvel at the phenomenon.
Maybe there were folks there (I happen to have been among them) who differed in their views about why the disaster happened, whether or not the government had failed, etc., but none of those views really mattered. What mattered was the care given to those who suffered. What people thought was trumped by what they did.
I wonder what would happen if, when asked our views on topics like same-sex marriage, immigration reform, and so on, our answer was “Watch what I do. Then you might know what I think.”
Or, to put it another way:
“Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:18)
Tomorrow is July 4, the day that USAmericans celebrate Independence Day—the day in 1776 when the American colonies declared, in writing, their independence from Britain (although, in 1964, the Beatles came over and took our hearts back to England, but that’s a different story).
Churches all over the US, either last Sunday or on the Sunday coming up, will include patriotic songs, pledges of allegiances, honoring of veterans, and the lifting up of the United States of America as a land to be celebrated in the midst of a service of worship.
This is, in my view, a very bad idea.
My dismay at this ongoing practice has nothing to do with patriotism or national loyalty. It does not suggest a dismissal of the sacrifice of veterans or the disparaging of freedom. It has to do with the risk of exchanging the centrality of Jesus Christ as the focus of Christian worship and replacing him with a particular form of nationalism. When we conflate patriotism with faith, we get confused about our objects of worship.
There are two negative historical precedents for this kind of thing (there are certainly more, but I’ll just consider these two for now):
The first is found in the history of Israel as described in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). Israel (and Judah) became a monarchy and suffered through generations of kings that ultimately led to its destruction and the exiling of most of the people. Up to that point, however, the nation began to find its core identity, not in God, but in the lineage of the king. As long as there was a king on the throne, the nation, it was thought, lived forever (a number of the Psalms even suggest that). Nation, king, and God morphed into one muddled identity, and God was ultimately sidelined.
The second example is seen in the machinations of the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Hitler secured the allegiance of the leaders of the state church (the Lutheran Church) and offered his promise of support in exchange for the symbols of the cross and the Bible in the sanctuaries, which he successfully replaced with a sword and his book, Mien Kampf. The Christians who resisted Hitler were exiled or murdered (you can see their names in a display at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC).
Confusing God with the nation is a slippery slope.
This is not to say that the USA is the same kind of nation as ancient Israel, nor is it to overlay the horrors of Nazism on the foibles of America. But it is to say that when the people of God get confused about who or what they worship, trouble is on the horizon.
People all over the world—even those who suffer under their governments—often express love for their nations. Christians all over the world pray for their countries and attempt to live as honorable citizens of their homelands. Christians in the USA are rare in our willingness to love God and country with equal fervor. We are somewhat unique in our willingness to display our nation’s flag in our sanctuaries. Having Caesar and Christ in church together does not seem to be much of a problem for many of us.
I believe that we can love our country (even though none of us loves all of the country—we make that clear every election year) without losing sight of the heart of our worship. The calendar offers us national days of remembrance all through the year, and we are free to enjoy and celebrate them with our fellow citizens. But we need to remember that we are citizens of the Kingdom of God before we are citizens of any nation. There is a priority to our citizenship, and that priority is painted a bloody red—not red, white, and blue.
As a friend of mine once said: We Christians who gather in America to worship are not in that place before God because of our constitution, our flag, or our veterans. We are here because of Jesus. With that, we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world.
Have fun tomorrow. Thank God for the blessings of living in the USA. Shoot off some fireworks. But do not dress Jesus up as Uncle Sam. You won’t like how that turns out.
My daughter brought the above flyer home from the local university where she was studying a number of years ago. She didn’t take it to discourage people from attending the meeting of the Atheists and Agnostics Club (after all, the flyers were everywhere); she took it because she knew I’d be interested. And she was right.
I actually thought the use of the fish image was pretty clever. So, I accessed the contact information at the bottom of the page (blacked out for the sake of anonymity) and emailed the contact person. I said that I was a pastor, explained how I had obtained the flyer, and asked if he would he be willing to have lunch with so that I could hear about his club? It turned out that he was the president and founder of the club, and he agreed to meet.
He was a commuter student and lived 35 or 40 miles away from the campus, so we met at a coffee shop somewhere in between. He was bright and assertive, and I liked him right away. I learned that he had been raised in a very conservative Christian household and was the only member of his family to discard Christianity and embrace atheism. His family and other people had, apparently, challenged him many times about his views of faith, and he figured I would continue that process. He started asking multiple questions, all of which seemed designed to get an argument going.
I’m afraid I disappointed him, at least at first. I said I really didn’t care about debating some of the things that others might desire. I just wanted to know why his atheism was important to him and why he felt he needed a club. Mostly, I just wanted to know about him.
Gradually, our conversation shifted. I asked about his life, what he was studying, what he wanted to do in terms of work, and so on. He had a number of high aspirations in terms of education and, like many college students, was still trying to work out what he would pursue in terms of a career.
The university where he and my daughter were studying had about 30,000 students at the time. I figured that my young friend’s club had a respectable number of members. Imagine my surprise when he told me that there were only eight people who had joined. And they were all his friends.
I couldn’t help but laugh. But it wasn’t a laugh of mockery or disdain. You see, I was a pastor of a church that I had planted, and I constantly wondered where all the people were. So I said to my new friend:
“I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at you. I’m just feeling your pain. I know that it’s really hard work to draw a crowd when the topic is ultimate reality.” We both laughed at that.
After a while, he became quiet, and I could tell he was thinking about something. He said,
“It just occurred to me that you have nothing to gain by talking to me.”
I agreed. I told him that I didn’t come to get him to do anything, or to convince him to come to my church. I just wanted to hear his story and find out about the heart behind the conviction. He said he might surprise me someday and come to a service. I think he actually showed up once.
He did, however, call me a year or so later and asked to have lunch again. This time we met not far from the university, at a favorite pub of mine. He was excited about his next step in life, moving to a respected and prestigious university campus where he would pursue his PhD. I told him I was glad for him.
Then he smiled at me and said, “I have to tell you something: I’m not an atheist anymore.”
This, of course, caught me attention. “What happened?” I asked.
“I’ve decided that I’m really more of an agnostic.” I wondered if our prior conversation had anything to do with that shift in his beliefs.
His face darkened as he spoke. “But,” he said, “when I told my friends in the club about the change in my thinking, they became angry. They voted me out.”
I was sad for him. His friends excommunicated him from fellowship because of an honest shift in his belief system. I was sorry that he had to carry the cloud of abandonment and rejection into this new season of life. But I was glad that he chose to come and tell me about it.
I’ve thought about those conversations a lot over the years. It bothers me that our culture—and I mean the culture as a whole—is short on listening and long on anger. I worry that we are becoming a people that uses terms like love and hate to categorize those who agree with us against those who do not. I am troubled when we see human beings as mere symbols of ideology rather than as real people with stories to tell and hearts that long for meaning and acceptance.
We who claim to follow Jesus ought to be good at listening and caring, but I’m not sure that we’re any better at those things than anyone else. There is something in the Bible about this:
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. (James 1:19-20)