In the Promise Land Justice is Extended to All [Immigration in Scripture 2]

I started this series to briefly look at six ways scripture talks about immigrants and immigration.  The treatment of migrants and asylum seekers in the US, especially along the southern border, is a daily conversation in the media and among friends.  Several excellent books have covered these topics more extensively than I can here; a few recommendations are listed at the end.

Theme 2: There Shall Be for Both a Single Statute

Migration has been a part of human life since before recorded history.  We move around.  We get pushed out by drought or famine; we flee war; we trade goods; we seek better weather; we get curious about what’s on the other side of the mountain/river/canyon/forest.  As we discussed last time, the ancestors and people of Israel were themselves, migrants.

It is while living as aliens in Egypt that Israel grew from a clan to a nation, a people.  When that people was oppressed, God led them out of Egypt and back to the land that was promised to their ancestor Abraham.  It is during the sojourn in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, that the Law of the Israelites began to take shape.  Many Christians will recognize Exodus 20: 1-17 as the Ten Commandments.  These are the gateway into the law that would form the basis of the Mosaic covenant. (so called because it is made under Moses).  The entire section is comprised of chapters 20-23 and sets the conditions by which Israel will be the people of God.  In Exodus 23:9 the law gets around to the question of how immigrants and strangers should be treated.

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.  In the promise land justice is to extend to all.

In the promise land justice is to extend to all.  That theme of equality under the law continues through Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers.  As the law is retold, expounded and interpreted, the status of immigrants to the land remains the same.  Leviticus 19 lays out what it means to be ritually and morally holy.   According to verses 33 and 34, to be holy means to treat the stranger and the alien the same way you would treat a citizen of the land.  That command is echoed again in Numbers 15 and Deuteronomy 1.

An alien who lives with you, or who takes up permanent residence among you, and wishes to offer an offering by fire, a pleasing odor to the Lord, shall do as you do. As for the assembly, there shall be for both you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the Lord. You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance.
– Numbers 15:14-16

Distinctions between citizens and aliens would develop over time (more on that next time) but the intent of the law seems to be that Israel’s special status as a chosen people did not entitle them to a higher class of rights, but rather placed on them the burden to treat all people as creations of God.

It is interesting to see how the New Testament writers sometimes picked up the metaphor of strangers in a land.  The idea of being a resident alien came to describe how the Church–whose home was the kingdom of God– operated in the world.   For instance Ephesians 2:12-13 reads:

remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

This metaphor serves the dual purpose of strengthening the Church against outside pressure and uniting formally distinct people into a single Body of Christ.  The identity of “Christian” comes to trump nationality or ethnicity especially in regards to how we treat a brother or sister in Christ.   We are no longer strangers or aliens to one another but citizens of the Kingdom of God and members of Christ’s family.  This does not erase whether one was born Jew or Greek, but eliminates the notion of privilege status for either.  In an extension of the Law, we treat all our brothers and sisters as creations of God, redeemed by Christ and therefore entitled to our love.

What It Means Today:

All due respect to Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Paine, but the truth is a stateless person is a rights-less person.  Without a government, an individual’s rights exist only as far as their fellow humans are willing to recognize an obligation towards them.  This theme of scripture argues that because the people of God (first Israel and now the Church) know what it is to be foreign and alien, we must honor–and even fight for– the basic dignity of every person regardless of race, nationality, or immigration status.  The issues surrounding immigration and the law may be more complicated, but that does not change the Biblical assertion that all people are created by God and should be treated with a measure of equality.

There are people who will argue that if someone crosses the border illegally, that to be arrested and separated from your children is equal to the treatment a citizen would receive if they broke a law.  This is less than have true.  Yes, if I as an American citizen broke a law, I could be arrested, imprisoned and, if I had children, they would not be imprisoned with me.  However, the conditions under which migrants are detained at our Southern border, the way that children are treated and the lack of a coherent system for tracking and returning children who are separated makes this a false equivalency.

While the treatment of children with incarcerated parents is far from perfect, the first attempt is often to place them with family as soon as possible.  In the event they do enter the foster care system, records are kept.  Their location is known and (at least in theory) their welfare is monitored.  They are not housed in tents or overcrowded barracks.  They are not frequently taken across state lines without a parent’s knowledge.  When parents leave prison, there is a process by which the can locate and be reunited with their child.  The fact that our Department of Justice and HHA have no records connected children to parents and attempted to require parents to pay for DNA testing to recover children the DOJ stripped from them and lost in the system speaks volumes about how unequally we view migrants and citizens.

The central question Christians should be wrestling with is not, “What did they do?” but “Who are we?”.  Are we a people who enshrine inalienable rights as an endowment by our Creator; or do we hold rights humans rights to be a part of the rule-of-law contract and thereby forfeit if a law is transgressed?

For Reflection:

  1. Take a look at news stories about immigration from the past two months.  Where do you see scripture or faith invoked?  Is it used to argue for equality or distinction?
  2. In the letter to the Colossians, Paul writes:  

But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive[d] language from your mouth.  Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

What bearing might those words have on our present struggles?

3.  Are there recent immigrants in your family?  What was the experience of their first few months in America like?

For a more in-depth look at migration in general, check out Global Migration: What’s Happening, Why and a Just Response by Elizabeth Collier and Charles Strain.  For reflections on immigration to America specifically, pick up Christians at the Border by M. Daniel Carroll R. or Welcoming the Stranger by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang.

 

For You Were Strangers [Immigration in Scripture 1]

The treatment of migrants asylum seekers and families crossing the border illegally has become a national conversation of late.  Christian scriptures have been invoked by politicians and protestors to justify a variety of positions.  As people of faith, we should try to understand America’s immigration policies and call for appropriate action to fix broken systems.  But, to define “appropriate” we need a working knowledge of what the Scriptures say about immigrants and strangers.

This series of posts is a VERY brief primer on six themes.  Several excellent books have been written on immigration through the lens of Scripture. For a more in-depth look at migration in general, check out Global Migration: What’s Happening, Why and a Just Response by Elizabeth Collier and Charles Strain.  For reflections on immigration to America specifically, pick up Christians at the Border by M. Daniel Carroll R. or Welcoming the Stranger by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang.

Theme 1: You were once aliens

Deuteronomy 10:19 says “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.  Any discussion of immigration and scriptures has to wrestle with the fact that the people of God were, more than once, aliens in a foreign land.

Deuteronomy is framed as a retelling of the sacred Law before the people of Israel enter into the promised land.  The promise of that land was first given to Abram (later called Abraham).

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

-Genesis 12:1-2

Abram leaves Ur, his homeland, and comes to reside in Canaan.  God’s promise that this will be the land of his descendants is reiterated, but for three generations the family lives like perpetual migrants.  They reside in tents, they move from place to place with their flocks.  They leave and go to Egypt when there is a famine.  Isaac and Jacob, Abraham’s descendants, each return to Ur for a time.  Even when Sarah, Abraham’s wife and Isaac’s mother, dies and Abraham must secure a place to bury her, he speaks of himself as an alien in the land.

 “I am a stranger and an alien residing among you; give me property among you for a burying place, so that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” The Hittites answered Abraham, “Hear us, my lord; you are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold from you any burial ground for burying your dead.”

-Genesis 23: 4-6

For the first five books of our scriptures, God’s promise of the land is stable, but the people’s residency is fluid.  Through the end of Genesis, the migrant experience is primarily a positive one*.  But then there comes another famine, and Isreal (Jacob) once again takes his family to Egypt because his son Joseph has become a court official.  That whole generation resides in Egypt until their deaths.  The Israelite community grows.  And then Exodus makes this ominous transition:

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.

-Exodus 1:8

The Egyptians come to fear the Israelites living among them.  Out of that fear, they become ruthless and cruel.  The lives of the Israelites become so bitter and oppressive that they cry out to God for salvation.  God raises up Moses, does miracles and signs, and finally leads the Israelites out of Eygpt.  But God does not want the people to forget what it was like to be aliens in Egypt.

Deuteronomy chapter 10 recounts Moses receiving the (second) tablets of the Law and God summarizing their essence.  Core to what it means to be Israel is this understanding: that God is just, that God provides for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, and that, having been strangers yourself, you should reflect God’s love for strangers among you.

The call back to the Hebrew’s time as residents and then slaves in Egypt will show up time and again across the scriptures of the Old Testament.  Generations later, when David recaptures the Ark of the Covenant (with the tablets of the Law) from the Philistines, the people sing a song recounting the great deeds of God, including how God protected the people when they were immigrants:

When they were few in number,
    of little account, and strangers in it,
wandering from nation to nation,
    from one kingdom to another people,
he allowed no one to oppress them;
    he rebuked kings on their account,
saying, “Do not touch my anointed ones;
    do my prophets no harm.”
-Psalm 105: 13-15

As we’ll see later, the people do forget.  Later prophets will cite the treatment of strangers and immigrants as one of the reasons for the downfalls of Israel and Judah.  When the people forget what it was to be alien and oppressed, they are cast into exile.  They become immigrants in a strange land once again.

What It Means Today:

It is both presumptuous and risky to rob a Biblical narrative of its context and conflate it with the modern day.  However, these stories have been told for millennia because they contain important lessons.  America has often described itself as a nation of immigrants.  98% of us have at least one ancestor who arrived in the territory in the last 500 years.  The stories of those ancestors are varied.  Some fled persecution, others were destitute and seeking a better life, some came for higher education, some brought desirable skills, some were criminals, some did not come here by choice.

We, like Israel, have to wrestle with our own history of being aliens and strangers.  That does not mean open borders and unrestricted immigration.  In the next two posts, we’ll look at how the law of Israel set boundaries and privileges for immigrants in their midst. However, if we are taking the Biblical witness seriously, our history should instill in us a desire to act justly and with mercy towards present immigrants and asylum seekers.

Yesterday, the Administration missed a deadline to return very young children to their parents.  They have laid out no clear plan for how families will be reunited.  They changed the policy for dealing with asylum seekers and migrants without a way to humanly hold people in detention.  They are turning their backs on immigrants who willingly offered their lives in the service of this countryThey are delaying or denying asylum seekers due process and creating an environment of uncertainty and fear even for those who have abided by the law.  There is no mercy in these acts. Is there even justice?

When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God…
-Deuteronomy 8:12-13 

For Reflection:

  1. Where does immigration play a role in your family’s history?
    • How did your ancestors come to the country?
    • How where they received when they arrived?
    • How has their experience shaped your story?
  2. Read the first chapter of Exodus and imagine you are an average Egyptian.
    • As the Pharoh’s attitude toward the Israelites changes, what language is used to describe Israelites?
    • How is the treatment of the Israelites justified?
    • Do you agree with their treatment?  Why or Why not?

Feature Image by Joel Tanis and available for sale online.

*Arguably the experience worked better for Abraham than Sarah and it was not without its compromises.  Read the whole story in Genesis 20.

When Christmas Comes with Sorrow

Tonight will be the longest night of the year (meteorologically in the northern hemisphere).  And for some, these nights close to Christmas are long for more personal reasons.  As the holidays approach all the world fills with carols and lights and joy.  Yet when we wrestle with disease or infirmity, we may not fee like singing.  When we have lost loved ones, the lights can blur behind tears.  When depression weighs us down, joy seems like an emotion for other people.

If the Christmas season is more blue than bright for you, know that you are not alone.  And you are not out of step.  The child born in the manager came to comfort the afflicted, heal the broken, and to conquer every darkness, even death.  In 1930, as shadow gathered in his native Germany, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was visiting Cuba.  While preaching to a German-speaking congregation he said this:

We all come with different personal feelings to Christmas festival. One comes with pure joy as he looks forward to this day of rejoicing, of friendships renewed, and of love…

Others look for a moment of peace under the Christmas tree, peace from the pressures of daily work…

Others again approach Christmas with great apprehension. It will be no festival of joy for them. Personal sorrow is especially painful especially on this day for those whose loneliness is deepened at Christmastime…

And despite it all, Christmas comes. Whether we wish it or not, whether we are sure or not, we must hear the words once again: Christ the Savior is here!

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Havana, Cuba, December 21, 1930

The solstice’s proximity to Christmas ought to remind us that Christ did not come into the best of times and circumstances, but at a difficult time and to the people who needed Him most.  Like St. Augustine, I pray the Lord would keep watch over all who wake or watch or weep in this longest night.  That the saints and angels would tend the sick, rest the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering and stand with the afflicted.  That joy would be a shied for all who celebrate and that all of this would be so for the sake of the Love that is soon to be born.

May God rest ye merry this Christmas.

MTD: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (part 1)

I am a youth worker and I have aided the spread of MTD. I have accepted poor excuses absences. I have been complacent about uninvolved parents. I have even settled for activities that were more fun than formation. Sadly, almost no one in my congregation would be shocked.

MTD not the telethon disease du jour, but it can be just as deadly. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a term coined out of the National Study on Youth and Religion(NSYR) to describe the pale imitation of faith prevalent among teens and young adults. This week Kenda Creasy Dean is raising awareness and calling for action at the 2013 Texas Annual Conference.

According to Almost Christian–Dean’s book based on the NYSR– 3 out of 4 teens claim to be Christian. Yet only half of those say that faith is important to how they live their life and even those are “incredibly inarticulate” about their faith. What they profess instead is a feel good/do good malaise neither challenges nor supports them. For example, when asked about the goal of religion 330 young people used language about feeling good or being happy, while only 125 reached for traditional theological categories such as sin, redemption, or discipleship.

At the core of MTD are four assumptions:

  • God exists and created the universe
  • God wants people to be nice
  • The goal of life is to be happy
  • God is necessary only when I need assistance (and isn’t great at that)

Or put another way, it looks like this:

Baptism used to be about dying to self so as to commit to God and a faith community. Now it is about me; a public celebration of me as an individual (complete with gifts and a new wardrobe) that should reflect my personal style. And of course the cake is the center piece.

This may seem an extreme example, I’ve sat through enough painful graduation Sunday sermons and confirmation parties to appreciate how uncomfortably close to normal a “classy baptism” is.

Where did this come from? How did our young people end up this way? It’s easy to say this is just a phase. Perhaps it’s a symptom of adolescent narcissism or part of growing up with access to terabytes of data, but little access to wisdom. However the sad truth is, they learned it from us, from their parents and mentors, from the church.

Dean pointed out “Young people do not practice MTD because they misunderstood, but because we taught it to them. How we taught it to them is worth exploring (see next post) but the more pressing question is, what a we going to do about it now?

In recent years I’ve heard a lot of talk about the gap years. We now think its normal for young people to leave the church and that when they have kids if their own, they’ll float back. That held some truth for baby boomers, but ever indicator says that era is over. Most of the kids who leave the church today, aren’t coming back. Not unless we start offering them something more than MTD, something they can’t find anywhere else. Not unless we start offering Jesus unadulterated.

Just Be Yourself: Part 3

This past Sunday I preached at Chapelwood (2nd time in a month, crazy).  Over the last several days I’ve posted parts of that sermon.  (So as not to be cruel to the readers attention span…trust me its more entertaining when I’m making facial expressions).  So far we’ve talked about not getting so wrapped up in yourself (even your own faith) that you miss the doing part of faith.  There is actually a great freedom in being yourself, and when Christians move out of the mirror and into the world, amazing things happen.

James says,” Forget the mirror stuff. It’s not real. It’s make up and hair gel. Look Underneath. Try to see yourself as God sees.”

You’ll find, before anything we make or build or craft, our lives are a gift. Born in flesh and word, you are good and perfect and loved.  You are first fruits, a holy offering. Strip everything else away and what you see is that you are Imago Dei, the Image of God.

You always have been. And that is all you ever have to be.

That is true freedom, Freedom to step away from the mirror and into the better part of life. You don’t have to focus on yourself, because you know God has that covered. You can listen more than you speak, because you don’t have to justify yourself to anyone. You can be humble and slow to anger because nothing Someone else says or does can ever threaten who You are. Don’t get stuck in the mirror, just be yourself. And when the people of God do that…

When Christians live as the people God created them to be, the world is changed.

When we are as God created us to be, children are cared for.

When we are as God created us, widows and the elderly are looked after.

When we are as we’re created the hungry are fed and the thirsty drink.

The sick are healed and the imprisoned comforted.

When we are as we’re created the homeless find shelter

the blind find sight

the dead find life

When we are as we’re created the powerful are brought down to listen and the powerless raised up to speak.

When Christians are as we’re created, the world is changed

And our calling is nothing less than to be the kingdom God created us to be.

Study, devotion, Self reflection are all important but they should play out in our lives. If faith makes us constantly fixate on ourselves, we risk missing the best part of Life.
We risk building a faith that is only a mirror image, too insubstantial to survive the real world. We risk teaching a faith that looks great on Sunday morning but is forgotten the moment we step away.

Don’t be only hearers, but also doers of the word–Don’t get stuck in the mirror, just be the Image of God you were created to be.

See the funny thing about the Image of God is, it works best when you don’t stare directly at it.  N.T. Wright, an Anglian theologian, uses a beautiful image in some of his lectures.  He says the Image of God is not such that you can stare directly at yourself in a mirror and find it. Rather it is as if the mirror is tilted so that our reflection is lifted up to God And God is reflected out into the world.

Don’t worry about who you’re going to be, or how others see you.  Just be who God created you to be because there are a lot of people out there who need to see God.
This is the full life of discipleship. Be doers of the Word. Check in with the mirror, but then more on to the other 6 days of faith. Carry it out to the world, because when the people of God live as they are created to be–day by day, moment by moment– that is how the world is changed for the glory of God.

Just be yourself… and dare to watch God do the rest.

Amen.

Just Be Yourself: Part 2

This past Sunday I preached at Chapelwood (2nd time in a month, crazy).  Yesterday we talked about dating…I mean how easy it is for faith to become solely a matter of study and self reflection.  James tells us not to get stuck in the mirror.

I’m the Kind of person that gets stuck in the mirror sometimes. This was especially when it came to dating.  I was terrible at being single, I’m serious. I’m convinced my husband and I only got together because we never really dated.

If I had a date, I would get so nervous. I had to get everything perfect, nice hair, right outfit, good conversation topics. Oh yeah, I’d even try to plan out responses for every possible situation. I could get so wrapped in my head, by the time the date started I didn’t even want to go.  (And no, actually being on the date wouldn’t suddenly make it all go away.)  I got stuck in a weird infinite mirror loop… it rarely ended well.

In fact, I only had 2 mildly successful first dates, and they both started about the same way. Someone I’d recently met in casual, social, not-at-all a date settings texted me and said something like, “Have you eaten? Let’s grab dinner at__________ in 15.”

So both times I had like 15 minutes to prep and get there, (And this is Chicago, where you walk EVERY where). We’re talking enough time to brush your hair, brush your teeth and go. And it worked!

For some of you this is not surprising. After all the best dating advice you can give someone is  “Just be your self.”  It is, after all, a lot less work. Even if you fool someone on a first date, they are going to meet the real you eventually. So just be yourself.  It’s good advice. Turns out,  it’s James’ advice.

I mentioned yesterday, we sometimes assume James and Paul are at odds. Part of why that happens is that we try to read James like we read Paul.  I mean Epistle to the Romans/Epistle of James… same rules apply. (right?)  But as scholars have worked with the text, they found that what James most resembles is Jewish wisdom literature. It turns out reading James is a lot less like reading Romans and a lot more like reading Proverbs. It’s not a, systematic treatise; its advice.

James is good advice about living the Christian life.  And one of the first pieces of advice is this: just be yourself. Or more accurately: Be who God created you to be.
There is an important distinction there. It’s not be who you want to be, but Be who God created you to be. So often we buy the cultural myth that we make ourselves. You can hear it in the language we use. We talk about building character or reputation. We choose our path, chart our course. We craft the image we show to the world.

But that takes a lot of time in front of the mirror. Maybe too much.

We can paint an amazing picture for the world. It may even be a “Christian” picture. But when it’s something we built it requires constant effort and focus to maintain. We get stuck in the mirror, because when we step away–when we stop focusing on ourselves–there’s a danger we’ll forget and let the image slip.

James says,” Forget the mirror stuff. It’s not real. It’s make up and hair gel. Look Underneath. Try to see yourself as God sees.”

You’ll find, before anything we make or build or craft, our lives are a gift. Born in flesh and word, you are good and perfect and loved.  You are first fruits, a holy offering. Strip everything else away and what you see is that you are Imago Dei, the Image of God.

You always have been. And that is all you ever have to be.

That is true freedom, Freedom to step away from the mirror and into the better part of life. You don’t have to focus on yourself, because you know God has that covered. You can listen more than you speak, because you don’t have to justify yourself to anyone. You can be humble and slow to anger because nothing Someone else says or does can ever threaten who You are.

Don’t get stuck in the mirror, just be yourself. And when the people of God do that… When Christians live as the people God created them to be, the world is changed.

Just Be Yourself: Part 1

This past Sunday I preached at Chapelwood (2nd time in a month, crazy).  Over the next several days I’ll post parts of that sermon.  (So as not to be cruel to the readers attention span…trust me its more entertaining when I’m making facial expressions)

When Peter asked me to preach the Sunday before a holiday I joked if you don’t have an asscosiate or an intern, the youth leader would just have to do. Then I looked at the lectionary readings… Word of advice to aspiring preachers: Never say yes before you look at the readings. I’m kidding (mostly), I know it could have been a lot worse.

Actually our reading today from James isn’t difficult. It just has so much going on: gifts, and filth and seeds and laws and devotion (whew!) In the midst of all that, I think James is essentially saying: (1) Don’t fixate solely on self examination; (2) Be who God created you to be because (3) when you are you can change the world, As 1 was preparing this week, I found myself drawn to the image of the mirror and being doers of the word. It’s verses 22-25.

You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do.

I’m betting all of us use a mirror almost daily. You probably spent time in front of one this morning. It’s a routine.; you may hardly even notice it. But there are times in every life when we have to settle in and take a hard look at ourselves…I speak of course of, dating.

Seriously, do you know what it’s like to date.   How much time does that take in front of a mirror ?  Do you remember what it’s like to go on a first date? I know for some of you its been awhile, but think back.

There’s all that preparation. You have to pick a place times time and an outfit. Another person usually helps.  Then you have to actually get ready, take a shower and do your hair. Girls get a lot of flack for this, but I Know at least 2 men who take longer than I do. Maybe you were the kind of person who used the mirror to psych yourself up. (I won’t ask for a show of hands.) But you kind talk to the mirror to burn off nerves. Even if you’re a “Ready, fire, aim” kind of person, you needed a little time just to brush your teeth…

But what would happen if you never left the mirror?

You cold get every hair in place, plan out every pithy remark. You can get your image perfect. But unless you step away… You’ll miss the best part of the date.
Everything worth doing takes preparation, but we can’t get stuck there. Just as devotion and self reflection are important, but they are not the sum total of the Christian Life. They aren’t even the best part.

This is why James tells us to be both hearers AND doers of the word.

Now, over the centuries, James has taken heat for this idea. Eusebius, one of the first church historians, wondered if the Letter of James even belonged in the Bible.  Martin Luther famously called James “an epistle of straw”  There is a long standing tendency to think being a “doer” of the word is at odds with Paul’s salvation by faith.
That’s not really fair. James does not as us to do instead of hear. The author simply recognizes that when we come before God there is a temptation to stay; to keep listen and listening and listening and never get to the best part of faith

 

Unlikely Anti-Anxiety (or Okay Martin Luthur Might have Gotten some of it right)

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Matt 6:25

I’ve been a bit anxious lately about many things and nothing in particular. It’s just one of those moods that happens, but working in a church rarely makes it easier. Today I found some comfort (challenge?) in an unlikely source.

I am far from Martin Luthur’s biggest fan, but today (courtesy of Richard Foster) I found my self reading part of his sermon on Matthew 6:25-7:11. It went like this:

Listen … to what serving Mammon [the god of possession] means. It means being concerned about our life and our body, about what we should eat and drink and put on. It means thinking only about this life, about how to get rich here and how to accumulate and increase our money and property, as though we were going to stay here forever. The sinful worship of Mammon does not consist in eat ing and drinking and wearing clothes, nor in looking for a way to make a living and working at it; for the needs of this life and of the body make food and clothing a requirement. But the sin consists in being concerned about it and making it the reliance and confidence of your heart. Concern does not stick to clothing or to food, but directly to the heart, which cannot let a thing go and has to hang on to it. As the saying goes, “Property makes a person bold.” Thus “being concerned” means clinging to it with your heart. I am not concerned about anything that my heart does not think about, but I must have a heart for anything about which I am concerned…

It goes on from there. But what I found myself reading over and over sounded a little more like this:

Listen … to what serving Success [the god of Numbers] means. It means being concerned about our life and our size, about what is cool and how many people show up and other’s opinions. It means thinking only about this job, about how to stay employed and how to accumulate and increase our power and fame, as though we were going to stay here forever. The sinful worship of Success does not consist in being relevant and inviting and being visible in the community, nor in looking for a way to make a living and working at it; for the needs of this world and of the church body make relevance and visibility a requirement. But the sin consists in being concerned about it and making it the reliance and confidence of your heart. Concern does not stick to invitations or to hugs, but directly to the heart, which cannot let a thing go and has to hang on to it. As the saying goes, “Success makes a person bold.” Thus “being concerned” means clinging to it with your heart. I am not concerned about anything that my heart does not think about, but I must have a heart for anything about which I am concerned

You must not tighten this text too much, however, as if it prohibited any kind of concern at all. Ever ministry and occupation involves taking on certain concerns, especially being in charge of other people. As St. Paul says about spiritual offices in Christendom (Rom. 12:8): “He who rules, let him be careful.” In this sense the head of a household has to be concerned about whether his children are being brought up properly;. . . if he neglects this, he does wrong. . . .

Christ is not talking here about this sort of concern. This is an official concern, which must be sharply distinguished from greed. It is not concerned for its own sake but for the neighbor’s sake; it does not seek its own interests (1 Cor. 13:5), but even neglects them and forgets them in order to serve somebody else. Therefore it may be called a concern of love, something divine and Christian, not a concern devoted to its own advantage or to Success, militating against faith and love, and even interfering with the official concern. The one whose reputation is dear to him and who is on the lookout for his own advantage will not have much regard for his neighbor or for the ministry that involves his neighbor. . . .

Christ has forbidden this greedy concern and worship of Success as an idolatry that makes ministers enemies of God.

There is always the pressure in ministry to judge ourselves solely by the inputs (money in the plate and tails in the seats). While these can be an indication that something has gone awry, we truer, more valuable measures of success if they are our only markers.

A few months ago, the lovable engineers in my congregation conducted this massive study about why our membership was declining and what were the most effective ways to change it. It yielded a lot of useful insights, but the one that stuck with me most was this: a positive change in almost any area of the church (worship, communication, leadership development, clearer vision) was likely to result in more participation. The only sure way to NOT increase membership, was to chase new members. (there is actually a formula, spreadsheet, and graph and rendered this result).

The more you are concerned making members, the less time you have to worry about making disciples, or feeding the hungry, or caring for the sick, or visiting the lonely and imprisoned, or pursing any other mark of the Kingdom Christ laid out for us. It makes a certain amount of sense…but somehow its so hard to remember in the midst of parish life.So I suppose I owe a (only slightly grudging) thank you to Martin. Though I might have to pin this in my office and read it everyday for a long time to make it stick.

Thoughts on Forgiveness

Forgiving is different than forgetting, or “letting it go”.  Forgiveness requires an acknowledgement, not only of what the other has done, but of who the other is.

Christ’s forgiveness is at once revolutionary and necessary, because it takes us first as we are, as we were created.  Christ sees us first as beloved children of God; after this Christ accepts what we have done and extends to us the absolution we sometimes do not receive from others and  can never give ourselves.

The burden we take up in Christ is easy because it replaces the pretenses, and false obligations we accumulate and it rejects the coordinating isolation by involving us in the deeply intimate act of forgiveness before ever requiring anything of us.

*Arendt The Human Condition (242)  and Matt. 11:30

Wisdom and Perfection in Tron Legacy

“I did everything you asked.  I created the perfect system.” –Clu

“I know…It’s not your fault.”–Flynn

If you haven’t seen Tron Legacy, I recommend it (and apologize for all following spoilers).  Yes, the movie has numerous faults, and no, its not as thoughtful as the original.  It is trying, nonetheless, to say some interesting things.  While watching it with the CSM youth last week, what struck me was this:  There is a very real difference between perfection and wisdom–between being good, and seeking the good life.

The premise runs thus:  After the fall of the MCP (see Tron), Kevin Flynn, enticed by the possibilities of User power on the Grid, sets out to create a perfect utopian system.  To this end he creates CLU (Codified Likeness Utility), in his own image, to carry out his will when he is not around.  All goes well; until a “miracle” happens–something Flynn neither planned nor created.  Flynn chases this new idea, CLU feels rejected, rebels, traps Flynn in the grid, and seeks to build the perfect system as originally  instructed.  Flynn, meanwhile, spends a lot of very humbling time hiding, pondering his mistakes.

Flynn made perfection (as he saw it) his central goal and source of meaning; he tried to play God.  In the process he convinced Clu that if he  worked hard enough and long enough, if he brought order to the whole system, if he lived up to expectations…then he would be perfect and, because of that, pleasing to his creator.  If Clu can just get every detail right, he will be loved.

I know I have been Clu.  I suspect most of us have at one point or another.  But after watching Tron, I think the bigger danger is being Flynn.  It is wrong to put too much pressure on our children–to ask for perfection in everything, even if we don’t really mean it.  It is risky even to teach them that “perfection” is the goal.  I know that sounds momentarily un-Methodist, but “perfection” for Wesley was not doing everything well.  It wasn’t even being a model Christian.  Perfection is to seek God in all things, to live for the Word of the Lord.  Yes, he felt that life would have some markers, but readily acknowledge that would would all fall short, probably often.  In the real world failure isn’t just an option, it’s frequently the outcome.  We learn more that way.

Flynn learns a great deal in his failures:  respect for CLU, love for Sam, the difference between might and power, the dangers of single-mindedness, the value of patience, the importance of sacrifice.  These he passes on to Quorra with great humility.  At the end of the movie, his greatest gift to Sam  is not the Grid or even Quorra, it is wisdom.

Flynn is opened to the wonders and possibilities of a world that is far to big and too strange for him to craft or control.  Sadly, the CLU he formed in his former image cannot get there.  The ideas of perfection and dominance are too far in grained; the pain of Flynn’s perceived rejection permanently mars their relationship. He cannot grow, he cannot marvel, he cannot forgive.  CLU does everything Flynn asked and in the end, it’s not enough because Flynn taught him the wrong question.

Some of what Flynn learns can only be won through age and experience.  But his mistakes with CLU aren’t necessary ones.  We can offer our children more than the unfulfilling pursuit of empty perfection.  We can teach them to do more than just “be good”.  We should set them searching for God; we should teach them to awe and wonder.  And we must walk beside them on their path, even if it’s not the path we would choose for them.  We can teach them to seek wisdom.

Then Job answered the LORD: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.  ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. –Job 42:1-3