Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Wisdom of God

We've been looking at the intersection of Christ and culture, how our culture influences our worship, and how today's Christianity is getting sucked into a cultural dialogue that we are letting dilute our message of hope, peace, and love. And truth. 

Yesterday, we saw that it's not a stretch to believe that the world could have the wisdom to see its own failures, to understand its own brokenness. The wisdom of God is so woven into the fabric of all creation that it is impossible not to see it, even if you don't know what to call it. Now, here's where Christianity has to step in and do better for our world.

The world is absolutely capable of seeing and identifying its problems and its brokennesses. What the world does not have the wisdom to do is to adequately address any of them. This requires the wisdom of God. 

As I said yesterday, when the world attempts to solve its own problems, even problems it has correctly identified, it ends up just shifting pieces around until it's completely out of balance in another direction. It moves this piece to here and that piece to there and then months or years later, realizes it hasn't actually fixed anything; it's just moved the markers. It's just taken one problem and traded it in for another. 

One of the books that I read recently - one of those books that I mentioned earlier this week that agrees with the world and takes up the world's ideas couched in Christian language - suggested that the church should start paying reparations - yes, actual financial reparations - to Black persons and Black communities because of the oppression they have suffered under racism. The world is very much into reparations; it's been a hot topic of debate for a long time now. But what reparations don't do is that they don't change the fundamental nature of racism in our culture. At all. They don't fix anything. They don't solve any problems. They don't address the underlying issues. 

It's the same thing that happened with affirmative action. The world decided to make a set of rules to make opportunities available for minority races, attempting to level the playing field right around the age of adulthood, but completely ignoring the foundational ages before that that would give those receiving affirmative action a true chance by the time they got to college and the work force. Basically, what we have is a rule that requires gatekeepers to embrace a certain number of less-qualified individuals because they are more-underprivileged, and the world calls this good but it's no such thing. The real good would be to hit the problem at the point of its underprivileging and solve it from the very beginning. 

But this is all that the wisdom of this world allows for. It's the best that the world can come up with. 

The thing about Christianity is that at every single turn, the Christian story is just better. It just is. It is more holistic, more comprehensive, more community-oriented. It has at its very heart a togetherness and a goodness that cannot be replicated by even the greatest wisdom outside of the Gospel. 

Jesus lived in a world that didn't recognize women. But Jesus recognized them. And when He recognized them, He simply...recognized them. He didn't call out first that they were women. He didn't make a point of it. He simply engaged them exactly the same way that He engaged the men that He encountered. Contrast this with the world's notion of equality that puts on display every time it embraces a non-equal person by first identifying that person as lesser, then trying to pretend that she is not. In the very breath that you have to identify someone as unique, you have immediately lost their equality. The world doesn't recognize this, but Jesus does. 

Jesus says to visit the sick and the imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked. The world thinks it has to know why first. It has to know why this person is sick or imprisoned or hungry or naked, as if that matters. The world sets up a judgment system, a hierarchy of needs, in which you must be both sick/imprisoned/hungry/naked and deserving and then the world looks around at itself and is sickened by the number of naked among us. Jesus doesn't care about all of that. Jesus clothes the naked. Period. He visits the sick and the imprisoned. Period. He feeds the hungry. Period. 

The truth of Christ is, at every turn, better than anything this world can come up with. And best of all, it's established on grace, so it's free. 

And that's why we can't afford to be a people who are proof-texting the world with our Gospel, finding Scriptures to support why we should look more like the world. We can't be a people who are content to say, simply, you know? The world is right about that. Because the world may be right about that, but it's usually not good about that. God is the only One who is good about that. And if there's anything the world needs right now as it uncovers all of these truths about itself, it's goodness

So yes, let's join these conversations that the world is having. Yes, let's step into them wholeheartedly. But no, let's not pretend that the world is on the right track here. Our story is better. Our truth is better. Our grace is better. Our God is good. And if that is not what we're bringing to the conversation - truly, wholly, from the depths of the Gospel itself - then we are failing our world.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The World's Wisdom

When we talk about how the church should respond to the culture, it's important that we make clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that the world cannot be right about some things. I am not saying that the world doesn't understand itself or can't understand itself. I am not saying that the world is always wrong about everything all the time and needs us to show them what truth really is. 

Certainly, the world gets truth wrong quite a bit, but sometimes, the world gets truth right - at least in principle. The world has some good ideas about what are good ideas. We should not only be willing to admit that, but we should not be surprised by it. 

Our Scripture tells us that because God's wisdom is woven into the very fabric of creation, even those who have not heard the story of Jesus are able to recognize it. The Bible answers our question about those who have not heard, those to whom the message of the Gospel has not come, and it is clear: all they have to do is look around them, and they can know. They may not have all the words and they may not have all the perspective, but they can have the insight to see what is happening right in front of their faces. 

That's the kind of wisdom that the world has. The world can discern the goodness of God, even if it doesn't know that's what it is looking at. It knows good from evil. It knows right from wrong. It knows something pure when it sees it, and it recognizes something better when it is right in front of them. The world can absolutely see a way for better things. It can absolutely recognize brokenness and backwardness. 

So we should absolutely not be surprised when the world has a good idea or a good insight into itself. We should not be surprised when the world wants to better itself. We should not automatically dismiss anything the world says as wrong just because it seems to have come up with it without the wisdom of God. 

All truth is God's truth, and all wisdom is God's wisdom - if it really is truth and it really is wisdom. We need not shy away from these things. 

But without a God-ly perspective on these things, the truth and the insight and the wisdom that the world has is incomplete. It's shallow. It's lesser than that to which their recognition is actually calling them. 

Just look at what happened at Babel. Men recognized the goodness of community, of togetherness, of being a people. They recognized the wisdom in being able to work together. But they thought that their ability to communicate and work together was best used to make themselves gods, rather than to make themselves godly. The insight was there, but the wisdom was wrong. 

The same thing is happening today. The world sees its broken places, and it wants to fix them, but it doesn't have the wisdom to do it well. Its ideas are lesser ideas, trapped in smaller stories that don't account for the grand vision and wisdom of creation that enabled them to see the brokenness in the first place. The world gets the right ideas, but it lacks the right plans. 

That's how we end up really doing nothing more than shifting things around. The more we try to elevate one group in order to achieve 'equality,' the more we find ourselves pushing another group down for the very same reason. The more we try to balance the scales, the more we realize we are just shifting weights from one side to the other and we are still out of whack. 

And that's why the church cannot just say, "You know what? The world's right about this." Because the world may be right about it, but that doesn't mean they can make sense of it. They need our bigger story to do it. And they can't have our bigger story if we're constantly making it smaller to fit the world's ends.  

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Culture-formed or Christoform?

It's no secret that our culture influences the way that we worship in our churches. It has to. Our culture tells us how we process the world around us and how we ascribe meaning to things. It is because of our culture that we worship with contemporary Christian music instead of Gregorian chants; our worship changes as our culture changes. 

But what we have to be careful of is how much we are willing to let the world shape our worship. It's one thing for our culture to impact our style; it's another thing entirely if we let it corrupt our message. 

Certainly, there's been some of this that is more obvious than other of it. For example, it's no stretch to say that our culture's concept of Christ's "love" is nothing more than its own idea of tolerance, and it's tried to shove it down the church's throat by using our word for it while at the same time, changing the very fundamental nature of what that word means. The world's notion of a Jesus who doesn't care what you do or how you live your life but who loves you indiscriminately and approves of everything you do has been slowly creeping into our churches for a couple of decades now. Because our culture told us that's what "love" is, and we haven't pushed back with a truly Christoform definition of love. 

It's happening again most recently, even as I write, with concepts of racism and sexism. These have become huge touchpoints in the culture at large, which has some ideas about what these things mean and what we ought to be doing about them. And in the past year or two, a whole slew of "Christian" books have come out from Christian authors who claim that the world is absolutely right about these things, that we ought to adopt them as Christian values, and that the church ought to lead the way on the very types of social reforms that the world is calling for. 

On the surface, it sounds kind of like a good idea. We want the church to be shaping the world, and if there are changes to be made, it seems like a good idea to say that the church ought to be leading them. After all, if we are the ones to lead the change, then doesn't that give us a strong voice to speak into these atrocities? Doesn't it give us the edge to start shaping the world back toward God? 

Not really. 

Because what's happened is that the church, it seems, has stepped up to do what the world wants it to do, according to the world's terms. I have read a number of these books that have come out - everything from how to address abuse allegations in the church to whether or not the church should offer reparations for slavery to what the role of women should be and how biblical and current cultures have shaped that. And what's troubling about them is that they all start in the same place: our culture has this right and we, the church, have this wrong.

Every single one of these books that I've read on these topics - every single one of them - is nothing more than a proof-text of the issue. That is, they start with the fundamental truth that culture provides and then find a Scripture to back that up. "The world says ______...and look! Jesus says the world is right. We should have been doing this all along." 

It's the desperate cry of a church who has long given up her truth and yearns to remain relevant in a culture that is pushing her to the edges. The world is telling us how it wants us to live, and we are claiming not only that we can live that way, but that we should have been living that way all along. And not because that's the example of Christianity throughout the ages or even because it is the true preaching of Christ, but because we are clinging to our place in the conversation by accepting the world's rules of engagement. The church no longer stands on Christ's truth, but rather, she has embraced only what the world will tolerate of the name of calling herself a good citizen and a meaningful spirituality. 

It breaks my heart. 

It seems like such a small thing, I know. After all, if we can find proofs in the life of Jesus that seem to support what our culture is telling us, why shouldn't we just live that way? And the short answer is - because it puts the emphasis on the wrong syllable. (Read it again, the wrong way. You know you want to.) It gives us a Jesus that is shaped by the world and not a world that is shaped by our Jesus. We spend our whole lives responding instead of initiating, and we become a faith that is blown about by the winds. 

The world is half-right: these are conversations that we need to be having. Absolutely. Let's talk about racism and sexism and abuse and all the other things that are hard to talk about. But let's stop talking about them as things the church 'can get involved in.' Let's stop talking about them as places where we're trying to figure out how we, as the church, can help the world reach its goals on this one. Let's stop talking about how we join in the conversation. 

We have to be talking about how we lead it, from the life and the love of Jesus. That's got to be our starting point. What does God have to say about these things? Not where does He agree with the world, not what is the world getting right, not whether or not these are 'good' things. But what is God's truth on the matter? 

And for some reason, we don't seem to be answering that question. Because we're starting in the wrong place. We're starting with, "You know? The world is right about this." And it's getting us further and further from the Cross. 

What we need to do is start in a slightly different place, with a slightly different confession: "You know? The world is asking good questions on this." Now, we can draw close to Christ and begin to answer them. 

(Stay tuned.) 

Monday, July 26, 2021

Culture and Worship

This week, we're talking about the challenges of a faith that looks a lot like the culture around it. This conversation starts when we are taught that the Christian Old Testament is 'strikingly similar' to so many of the other near-Eastern ancient myths. In other words, the OT story that we cherish is not so different, they say, from the stories of the other gods that their peoples told. 

And one of the challenges that we face when we come to the place where Christ and culture meet is that we absolutely have to begin by confessing that our culture does influence our worship. Our culture does impact the way that we tell our stories. 

We can see this in our churches fairly easily. No longer are we singing the historical, acrostic hymns recorded in our bibles that detail the long, arduous history of God's people. Nor are we gathered around vocalizing Gregorian chants. Even the hymns that were a staple of our worship just a generation or two ago are now 'outdated,' getting updates into contemporary worship styles. 

We print our attendance numbers on a bulletin that we hand out, rather than putting them into a wooden board at the front of the sanctuary. A sanctuary which, by the way, is now called a "worship center" or something of the like. Instead of using hymnals or even bibles in the backs of the pew in front of you (which are now chairs, we must note, in many places), they are blasted onto a giant screen behind the praise band or the pastor. 

We have even traded in a lot of our sacred language. Instead of words like "sacrament," we've gone with "ritual." Instead of "atonement," we substitute something cheaper like "forgiveness." We have new translations of the Bible coming out at a faster pace than ever before because Christians are looking for the Word in a language that they understand, a language that feels more natural to them. Instead of "blessed," we now have versions that say "happy." 

Our culture absolutely influences the way that we worship and the language that we use and the styles that we adopt. Our culture shapes the topics that we decide to preach on - it's why more churches today are preaching the "five fundamentals of a Godly marriage" than they are the Romans Road or the crucifixion. Did you know there are churches among us - too many, in fact - who preach the crucifixion only on Easter? Most of the year, they're preaching culture. 

And it's because we live in a culture that has determined that culture is everything. So if we want to speak to a culture that says that culture is everything, then we have to do so by creating a culture and by creating touchpoints with culture and by following culture into itself. 

On one hand, we have to be careful not to give up our message of Christ in order to reach the culture. On the other hand, we have to be aware of how fundamentally necessary it is to situate Christ into our cultural context. After all, He came to live among us because He knows that these are the real lives that we live, and He has always had something to say about these real lives. 

The problem is not that culture shapes the way that we worship. The problem is when we let culture hijack our worship and throw it completely off-track, when our worship becomes more culture-formed than Christoform (in the image of Christ). 

To be continued. 

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Christ and Culture

This week, I want to talk about something that I've let stir around in my heart for awhile, waiting on the right words and the right angles to come. It's an important issue, one that calls upon the heart of Christianity itself and presents as a potential stumbling block to many. It's the idea of cultural context - that is, in what world are we believing? And how does that world (or how should that world) shape our belief? 

This was started by the Bible I'm reading this year. If you've been with me previously, you know that I'm reading a rather complicated version of the text this year in which almost every single thing is footnoted. You've heard me complain about translators who have felt the need to dumb down the biblical text because they don't think we'll read even the English words correctly unless they tell us exactly how to do that, and they've even eliminated almost all of the rhetorical questions and opted instead of emphatic statements. This Bible has been, on a translation level, frustrating for those reasons (and more). 

But what's also happening in this Bible is that the translators have felt the need to point out places where the biblical text is a lot like the texts of surrounding cultures. When they have been unable to determine what a word was in the Hebrew, they go to foreign, non-Israelite languages and pick close words and decide that it must mean something like that. There is an overwhelming number of footnotes in this Bible that say things like, "According to a Ugaritic myth..." or "It is common is ancient Near Eastern cultures of this time..." or "Egypt tells a similar story about a...." and so on and so on. 

The problem is that the translators simply leave the comparisons as they stand. The way they've presented this, there is no uniqueness to the story of God. It is just the same as all other stories that all the other peoples told about all their other gods. This is, then, just the story of a people we happen to feel a kinship with about a God we happen to believe in. 

It is no better and no different than all of the other myths that are out there. There is no fundamental difference between what happens in Israel and what happens on Mount Olympus (the mount of the gods). 

Do you see where this is a problem?

Our God spends His entire story trying to show us how different He is from the idols of the nations. He tries to set Himself apart by demonstrating His love, His grace, His kindness, His presence, His...everything. And we need this. We need to know that there is something substantially different about our God. We need to know that this is not just another myth that a people has made up. 

Then, we have these translators who want to tell us all the time where our story is essentially exactly the same as all of the other stories that we have been told are just myths. How, then, are we ever supposed to believe that our story is more than that? 

But our story is more than that. Our story is unique among the stories of the gods....and the peoples. The things that our God has done for us are completely unlike the things that any other god has ever done for its people. So to imply that we've just borrowed the words and the ideas and the stories from other peoples and their extremely problematic. So many Christians have enough trouble believing in God without the added burden of being told explicitly, even by its scholars, that the Bible is 'just another story, like all the other stories.' 

At the same time, unless we are explicit about what makes our story different, then that's sadly just the truth - maybe it's not. Maybe our story is just the same as all the other stories around us. Maybe we are just like our culture. 

There's a lot to unpack in this, so stick around. This is important. 

Friday, July 23, 2021

One Thing

We'll end the week where we started, with a not-so-simple question: should Joe Biden receive Communion from the Catholic church? 

This week, we've looked at how a question like this arises - when we have a closed Communion versus an open Communion, and we've looked at why it's important that we have standards of fellowship in our churches (because it actually means something - or at least, it should - to be a Christian), and we've even challenged ourselves to look at our own congregations and discover what our standards of fellowship are, since we all have them. 

All of that said, I don't think any of us can sit here and determine what the church can or should do about this. It's a tough question. It really is. For all of the reasons that we've already discussed (and for many more). 

But what I think we have to recognize, no matter how we answer this question, is that there is a tremendous danger in a question like this one. It sets us up for something that the church has - rightfully - been too guilty of for too long, and our non-churched culture even recognizes this. A question like this sets us up to become a single-issue people. 

It sets us up to look like we care more about one thing than about all other things. If there comes a headline that says that the Catholic church has decided to not allow Joe Biden to receive Communion because of his public policy on abortion, then what we have is a church that looks like it cares about abortion over and above every other issue. It doesn't care about prayer life, Bible reading, church attendance, financial giving, or anything else as much as it cares about abortion. (We could, of course, expand this to say that it is a church that cares about life, but we know that our culture doesn't like that argument when Christians have been pro-death in other situations and when, ironically, the church becomes pro-death over your position on life (i.e. abortion). So it's complicated, to say the least.)

And this is what the church has been accused of, and been guilty of, for far too long. We were a single-issue people on the notion of salvation. For years, for decades, we preached that you must confess a belief in Jesus or go to Hell. Those were your choices. If you didn't wear Jesus on your sleeve, you were a heathen. No matter what you actually lived like. No matter how you actually treated others. No matter whether or not you loved Jesus or loved His people or loved the church. If you didn't profess a belief and agree to our doctrine, you were going to Hell. 

More recently, it seems the church had taken the same stance on homosexuality. Homosexuality was the church's favorite sin for awhile. We could forgive anything...except homosexuality. And we could believe the best in, and trust redemption for, everyone...except the homosexual. 

The church has a long history of being a single-issue people. That issue changes as culture changes, but it seems that the church always seems to zero in on one thing and ride it until we're all sick of it - inside the church and outside of it. Until we've beaten that horse deader than a doornail and realized we've lost our voice in our culture because we have been too narrowly focused on something that isn't the thing. And then, for reasons we can't explain, we move on and make another thing the thing...that still isn't the thing! 

So my greatest fear when we ask a question like this one - should an individual receive Communion if his public life doesn't adhere to this particular point of our doctrine - is that we're becoming a single-issue people all over again. We aren't asking anything about this man's faithfulness, about his prayer life, about his heart, about his belief, about his love - we're asking about one single little point of his doctrine. That's...a slippery slope. It's one that Christianity has been sliding down for a long time, and the running back and climbing the stairs and sliding down it again. 

Interestingly, it's actually not that we shouldn't be a single-issue people. The problem is that the single issues we're picking are always the wrong ones. Our single issue has to be love. That's it. That's what Jesus says. They'll know we are Christians by our love. Period. Not our doctrine or our preaching or our policy, but our love. 

And I just think that ought to be the thing that we're judging all of us by - love. Is this person loving? Is this person doing his or her best to be loving? If someone were to look at this person and judge all of us by what they see, would they believe we are loving? If someone were to look at this person and form an opinion of Jesus by what they see, would they believe He is loving? 

That ought to be our single issue. That ought to be our standard of fellowship. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Standards of Fellowship

We're continuing to look at standards of fellowship - those ideas we have about what it means to be a Christian and specifically, what it means to be our kind of Christian. We started with the idea of open and closed Communion, stemming from a question posed by the media (no doubt in an attempt to raise strife, as the story died out rather quickly when it didn't garner the kind of reaction that was expected). 

We have seen that it's good - and even necessary - to have some standards in our fellowship, though. And the truth is...we all have them. Whether we like to admit it or not. 

Not all of our standards of fellowship run on doctrinal lines. That is, they aren't always about what we believe. They aren't always about what we live, either. They aren't about our righteousness or our earnestness or our biblical understandings. Far too often, our standards of fellowship are about so many lesser things. 

Go into any church and spend any time there, and it's not too hard to figure out who is on the edges of fellowship. It's not too hard to find the persons that the church tolerates, but wants very little to do with. It's not too hard to see who is working far too hard to find a way in, who has to walk the line in order to stay there, who is holding on for dear life to a fragile standing that feels so...precarious. Like if that person asks for anything, even prayer, the whole thing is going to crumble. 

Go into any church, and you'll find the persons pretty quickly who don't expect the church to ever do anything for them. To even care about them. To even know their name. These persons either sneak in quietly after the service has already started, take a seat in the back, and leave a few breaths early...or they stand right up front and greet everyone who walks in the door, daring the church to ignore them one more time. 

And you can tell when the church is ignoring them, too. Because the church will often send someone in to 'clean up' after this person. Yes, you can work in our greeting ministry, but we've got another face just down the hallway a little bit to tell visitors what our church is really about. Absolutely, you can man the coffee cart. But here's this person that we sent to 'help' you. 

These persons on the edges of our fellowships are the ones who want to do more than we are letting them do, and they know it - and so do we. They are the ones who volunteer, and we kind of hem and haw and pray that someone else - anyone else - also volunteers so that we don't have to let them. They are the ones who stand in the lobby and get zero greetings, none, every Sunday morning. They're the ones we're afraid to talk to because we don't want to get sucked into whatever misery trail their lives are running down right now. They are the ones who show up on the prayer list one too many times, leading us to think their whole lives are a disaster and leading us to stay ten feet away, lest we become guilty by association. 

Yes, it's true. There are persons in our churches that are on the edges of our fellowships for believing too much in the power of prayer. (Okay, let's be real - sometimes, the prayer list is used for lesser gossip...or like attention-seeking. But if we were a real fellowship who wasn't pushing some to our margins, they wouldn't have to have a prayer request every week to get our attention; we would already know who they are because we love them.) 

When we start looking at our churches, really looking at them, we know what our standards of fellowship are. We know because we see clearly who is on the edges of our fellowship...and why. We know what we value and what we don't value. And then so many of us have the audacity to question a church who comes right out and says what their standards are. dare they! 

How dare they tell someone they aren't welcome at the Lord's table! 

...but how dare we? Because we are doing the exact same thing every week, even if we do share our cracker and juice.  

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Jesus Loves You

We're talking this week about what it means to have standards of fellowship - those understandings that we have about what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be our kind of Christian, and how we can set up a hedge of protection around these definitions so that, essentially, the world cannot corrupt them. 

And that's really what we're interested in. Nobody's really interested in making a church or making a faith that has walls to keep others out; we aren't trying to make it difficult to get in. What we are trying to do is to keep our faith from being watered down by the culture around us, which is exactly what is happening in our world today. In fact, it's exactly where we find ourselves even in this conversation. 

Because we've come to a point in the church where the world has told us who they think Jesus is. They keep telling us who they think Jesus is. They use some of our own words to describe Him, but their understandings of these words are quite different than the way that Jesus lived them out. Most basically, we are told that Jesus is love. And that love is blind. 

Jesus loves you no matter who you are, no matter what you do, no matter whether or not you live the way that He wants you to live. Jesus's love, we're told, is 'tolerant' - meaning that it doesn't judge you for being who you are. It doesn't even care who you are. Jesus just loves you. Period. 

Then, we point to all of these stories in the Scriptures where Jesus is eating with sinners, forgiving women, breaking bread with Judas. Look, the world says - Jesus doesn't have standards. Jesus fellowships with everyone. And so there's no reason at all for the church to be drawing lines. If someone has come to Jesus, then we're supposed to just embrace them wholeheartedly, welcome them into the fold, and make our family bigger with no rules, no expectations, none of that. 

The church, the world says, cannot have standards because Jesus did not have standards. 

When you say it that way....

But that's what the world is saying! That's exactly what the world is saying. That our Jesus doesn't have standards for us, that He doesn't expect anything from us, that He doesn't want us to live one way or another; He just wants us to love Him so that He can love us. 

And any Christian looking at this has to understand that this is not the Gospel. The world has somehow convinced us that it is, this world with its shaky truths and hands-off approach to community, but the world has it wrong. The world has Him wrong. And this is exactly why we have to have standards of fellowship, definitions of what it means to actually be a Christian. Not because we disfellowship anyone who isn't getting it right or because we make it hard to come in at all, but because it means something to be a follower of Christ. 

At least, it's supposed to. 

It's true that Jesus ate with sinners and forgave women and broke bread with Judas, but it's also true that Jesus never condoned a broken lifestyle for anyone. Jesus never accepted anyone without challenging them to change and to grow, not even the twelve men that He hand-picked to walk with Him in His ministry. He's constantly pressing John and James and Peter and Andrew and Bartholomew to be better. He tells every single person He sets free not to bind themselves in chains any more. He commends the faith of those who come to Him, and He tells them to sin no more. He tells the woman caught in adultery, the very woman that He is forgiving, to not get herself tangled in adultery any more. Jesus embraces everyone as they are, but He does not accept that who they are today is the very best for them. He expects more. He demands more. 

And He knows that the Christian life ought to change us. 

Even Judas, the betrayer, is a changed man by breaking the bread with Jesus. No, it doesn't stop him from betraying his Teacher. But this man who is so greedy, who has always been looking out for himself, who has always figured out how to play every system to his own benefit and glory, is so contrite of heart after breaking bread with the One he has betrayed that he goes out, throws his money in a field, and hangs himself. That's not a selfish heart; even Judas's heart was changed by Jesus, even if he didn't realize it early enough to stop himself. 

Jesus does love you. And it's because He loves you that He wants to see your life changed. He wants to see your life reflecting that love. 

We are a people changed by Jesus. As such, we are a people who can be expected to live a certain sort of life. In fact, we ought to demand it of one another. In fact, we do. 

It's a difficult notion to say that we have standards of fellowship, or even that we ought to, but the truth about both matters is that we do: we do have standards, and we ought to. 

That doesn't mean that all of our standards are good or that they are the right ones... (To be continued.) 

Monday, July 19, 2021

A Matter of Belief

It seems strange to many modern Christians, I think (or postmodern, as the case may truly be) that we would have standards of fellowship at all. In an age when the church is judged more by her numbers than by her programs, most of us are eager to count among us whoever we can count - to say that we have X number of persons in our fellowship.

And furthermore, we've been taught by our postmodern culture that whatever is true for you is true for you and whatever is true for me is true for me and that neither of us has any right to question what someone else says is true for them (unless, of course, you are questioning the faith itself and then, apparently, you are well within your rights to trash it completely as disagreeable...but I digress). So we are conditioned to think that if someone says they believe in Jesus and they love God, then we have to take them at their word and that's that. We are not allowed to ask any follow-up questions or to demand proof from their living that what they say is true. They said it, so it must be true. 

Taken together, these two things have led us to largely abandon ideas of 'central doctrine' - the agreed-upon ideas that bind us together as a fellowship - and to embrace more of an 'anything goes' approach so that we can justify...whatever it is that we're trying to justify, which often includes our buildings and budgets but sometimes also includes ourselves. 

So this notion of a 'closed' Communion, where we might not allow someone around our table because they do not live according to our central doctrine, really strikes at the heart of the place where culture meets Christlikeness. 

Most of us are willing to draw the same kind of lines that Joe Biden has tried to draw in response to the Catholic church's criticism of him - the way that I act is not necessarily the way that I believe. He claims to be a man who values life and who might even personally be pro-life, but his policies are pro-choice because he says he's a man who cannot impose his faith on everyone else. So we would look at that and say, "Well, he does believe the Catholic teaching and agree with it. He says so." But what the church is looking at is whether or not he lives it. 

The truth is that none of us believes what other persons say as much as we claim that we do or claim that we should. If someone sticks their hand in hot water and pulls it back quickly and exclaims how hot it it, most of us are walking over to stick our hands in and see for ourselves. If someone recoils from the smell of a container they just opened in the fridge that's been in there a little too long, we, for some ungodly reason, walk over to take a whiff ourselves. We say that we believe what others say, but the truth is...we don't. 

And then we say that, well, that's different. Those are tangible things, things we could all experience. What we're talking about here, we say, are more of ideas - intangible things. There's no way to verify when someone say they really enjoy the color purple or the sound of rain in the evenings. We just have to take them on their word at this. So we say that faith is more like these things. Faith, we say, is basically an idea. Thus, we cannot question what someone else says about it. 

But this is exactly contrary to the history of the Christian faith, to its very foundations, to everything we know about the faithful life from "in the beginning." There's not one story in all the Bible that says, "And then he sat on his couch and believed, and his whole life was blessed because of it." Even Jesus Himself said they will know you by your love. And love, by the way, is not just an idea, either; it, too, is an action. 

The first thing we have to do, then, when we start talking about open and closed Communion (or open and closed fellowships, for that matter) is to realize that Christianity is more than an idea; it is a tangible reality. It is lived out in our loving, declared by our actions. Therefore, we are completely justified in wanting to see the evidence of it in someone's life and not just take their word for it. In fact, we must demand it. 

It's the only way that being a Christian means anything at all. (To be continued.)  

Friday, July 16, 2021


You may have noticed a few weeks ago that the Christian practice of Communion was making the news. It only made the news for a few days because it didn't garner the reaction that I think the media was hoping for, but it was enough of a blip that it's worth talking about. 

Communion is just one of those things we can't talk enough about. (And if you're a member of my church, you know how much I love Communion.) 

The headline was that the Catholic church was trying to decide if American President Joe Biden could still receive Communion or not because of the way he shapes his public policies on abortion. That is, he has a politic that allows for abortion and is very pro-choice in his governance. Biden's defense on the matter is that his public policy may not reflect his private faith. So he's drawing a line between what he believes and how he can expect others to act. In other words, he can't make everyone else be Catholic. Or even act Catholic. 

If you don't believe there's a ton to dissect in this story, then I don't know what to tell you. There's a TON here worth talking about. And we're going to start with Communion. 

The news that the Catholic church is trying to decide who can have Communion and who can't is shocking to some Christians. That's because not every Christian practices Communion in the same way, and what we have here is the concept of a 'closed' Communion. 

Many churches practice an 'open' Communion - anyone who wants to have the bread and wine can have it. No questions asked. No admittance tests. No commitment tests. If you're in our presence and we're breaking bread, we have a piece of bread for you. Here you go. That's that. I happen to belong to an open Communion church/movement (the Restoration movement). 

Other denominations and churches and congregations, however, have a 'closed' Communion. A believer must be baptized or must be a member of the church or must have professed a certain doctrine or must be living a certain life in order to be welcome at the table. 

If you are living outside of the church - or if you're part of a church that doesn't celebrate Communion at all - then you probably don't care that much. It doesn't make sense to you, it's not meaningful to you, and it doesn't matter to you what the church decides to do with its members. (This was the general reaction from the world at large when the media tried to push the story - "who cares?") If you're part of an open Communion church, you think this seems harsh and not at all like Jesus. After all, didn't He break bread with Judas? Who are we to judge?

But if you belong to a closed Communion church, you get it. It means something to call yourself a Christian.  At least, it's supposed to mean something. It's supposed to mean something to call yourself a member of a certain church. It's got to mean more than where you spend your Sunday mornings. So having a closed Communion is a way of saying that we are a fellowship who wants to do more than say nice things; we want to live lives that line up with our faith. We want to be a fellowship that requires a commitment, that facilitates a change, that marks our lives by something more than a bumper sticker or a logo shirt. 

And that doesn't mean that you don't fellowship with those who haven't made that kind of commitment, who aren't marking their lives by the things of Jesus that are central to your faith. It means that you have separated your common fellowship from your sacred fellowship. It means that you have a different relationship with those you're still trying to show the way in than you do those who are already standing next to you. 

It also means that you are planting a hedge of protection around that thing that is most meaningful to your faith. If someone were to look at Joe Biden, hear him declare his Catholic faith, and watch him enact pro-choice policies, they might not understand the church's teaching on abortion. They might not understand God's passion for life and life abundant. They might get the wrong idea about who you are as a collective people and what it means to be a people like you because this one person is misrepresenting something that is very important to you. 

Abortion is not the only litmus test for Communion in closed Communion congregations. There are all sorts of standards that different peoples of God have adopted. And it's for this very reason - because it means something to be the kind of people they are striving to be, and they want to make sure that everyone who bears their name is committed to the same thing. 

So that's how we get to the question: should Joe Biden be able to receive Communion from the Catholic church when his public image doesn't line up with what he claims is his private faith? 

We'll keep talking about some of these dynamics this week. Stay tuned. 

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Teachable Moments

Yesterday, we looked at Paul's teaching on eating food offered to idols and how it centers around the idea that there is a time and place for teaching. If you are not able in the moment to explain the grace under which you're living, then it's a good idea to defer that grace for your brother's sake until you come to a more teachable moment - until you can put it in context and explain for him why it's not a stumbling block to the faith to do what you're doing. 

The problem - and anyone who lives in our culture understands this - is that just because you have a teachable moment doesn't mean your weaker brother wants to learn. All of the conditions could be exactly right for you to impart grace and to start teaching some solid food, but the truth is that we have persons all around us who don't want solid food. They don't want to learn. They don't even want to listen. All they want to do is shout you down. 

I ran into that trouble with my acquaintance when I used the word that she deemed offensive. The moment was certainly teachable - we were both calm and simply engaged on the issue. But as I began to explain that the word has meaning for me that is central to the story of who I am and who I am becoming, she was not interested in listening. She began simply to shout me down, to attack my character, to imply that I was self-centered and uncaring about others. No matter what I said, the only truth that mattered to her was that some persons are offended by that word; she could not fathom that there might be other offenses at play - like asking a person to edit their own story, even the meaningful parts of it, for the sake of someone who isn't even present and isn't in relationship at that time. 

For her, there was one truth and one truth only and she wasn't willing to add to it. She wasn't willing to expand it, not even on its own bases. She wasn't willing to consider anything outside of what she already understood and believed. Thus, the teachable moment passed by, the conversation stalled, and everything just went quiet. 

Now, the question becomes: do you eat food offered to an idol in front of a brother who has rejected the opportunity to learn about the grace that lets you do this? If someone else refuses to engage in the teachable moment, are you bound to their lesser common denominator forever? Must you always defer your life to them because they are obstinate?

This is tricky. On one hand, this puts all of the power into the hands of someone who is basically throwing a tantrum. All you have to do to to stop playing. And then, you control things forever. We cannot simply reward others for refusing to challenge themselves and to grow. We cannot let their unwillingness to learn grace hold us hostage to not living it. 

At the same time, most of the time, the offense that they feel is still very real. It still hurts them. It still angers them. It still riles them up. 

And still yet, we also still want to teach them. We who live under such grace know how freeing and wonderful it is, and when we meet someone who doesn't yet know it, something in us yearns to teach them. (Okay, sometimes, we just want to be right, but sometimes, we honestly want to teach them, to free them.) 

The answer is not as challenging as it seems, and Paul has demonstrated this for us, too. 

You see, what happens when someone refuses to engage in a teachable moment is quite simple: they are choosing not to be in relationship. They are choosing not to do the hard work of growing together. They are making a power play, and there's no room for power plays among brothers. So at the moment that your weaker brother tries to hold you hostage to his offense by refusing to be open to letting go of it (by being obstinate about it, by being stubborn, by throwing a tantrum), you aren't in fellowship any more. And when you aren't in fellowship any more, the rules change. 

That sounds harsh, but it's true, and the Scriptures are clear that we have different obligations to our brothers and sisters, to those we are in fellowship with, than we do to the world at large. When you're sitting at a table with someone who you know is a Christian who might be struggling with the food offered, it's different than when you're sitting there with the guy who comes to your house to worship and you know is struggling. 

Paul ran into this. He was preaching in a certain town and the people were starting to push back. There were a number of persons there who weren't interested in a teachable moment; they were doing nothing but shouting Paul down. They had broken fellowship. They weren't there to listen to Paul any more; they were making power plays. 

Paul could have dug his feet in. He could have insisted that if they'd just listen to his message, they'd live better, more grace-filled lives. He could have shouted louder still, trying to drown them out. But what he does shake the dust off of his feet and walk away. Just like that. Paul decided that everyone who wanted to listen had heard and no amount of his speaking would tune the ears of those who didn't want to hear. So he shook the dust off of his feet and walked away, going on to live his same grace-filled life outside of the fellowship of those who had broken it. 

It's a good lesson for all of us. Our lives are not held hostage by those outside of our fellowship, outside of relationship with us, who are not interested in engaging, in having a real dialogue, but only want to shout us down. If our brother does not want to learn grace, that's fine, but neither does he get to take ours away. We go on living our grace-filled lives with those willing to do the hard work of living and loving together, and we shake the dust off our feet for those who don't. Just like that. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

A Brother's Grace

When we talk about things in our world that are offensive, we of course have to go to Paul and one of the more challenging teachings that he offers. In writing to the Corinthians, the gist of what Paul says is this:

It's perfectly okay to eat food offered to idols; these idols are powerless, so the offering of the food to them does not change the nature of the food. But you may find yourself next to a brother who does not understand this yet, and it may bother him - or worse, lead him astray - to see you eat this food. Therefore, if you have such a brother next to you, do not eat the food, for his sake, even though you know it is okay.

Wow. Okay. This is...complicated. 

What is initially most challenging about this is that in a world in which we tiptoe around anything that might possibly offend anyone, we want to think that what Paul is saying is that we should all just live to the lowest common denominator and limit our lives to the non-offensive. That we can never do - or should never do most of the even basic things that we understand that we can do because someone else might not understand that we can do it and we might offend them, or worse, lead them astray. 

We actually see this a lot in the seeker-sensitive church, where we have decided that the greatest thing we can do is preach the most basic message of Christ possible so that we don't risk missing anyone who wanders into our building to hear. And what we end up doing is neglecting the growing disciples among us and never offering spiritual food because we're too busy offering milk. 

Yet, we know that the Scriptures also tell us that the whole goal of discipleship is that we do grow up and start eating solid food, that we don't live on milk forever. 

It's the same principle when we think about what it means to be potentially 'offensive' around our brothers and sisters. It's not that we should never do anything that might be in any way questionable; it's that we have to be mindful about the times when we choose to push the envelope and the relationships we have that would allow us to do that in such a way that we would spur one another on toward growth. 

So back to the party with idol food. The reason you don't eat the food offered to idols at the party when it might upset your brother is not because your brother dictates your behavior, but something much greater. The party is not the place for a teaching moment. Regardless of the relationship that you have with this 'weaker' brother (as Paul calls him), it's not a great time, in someone else's home, to talk about how worthless the idols are and therefore, how worthless the food is. This is not the moment to dive into that; we know that as Christians, we have a call to both graciousness and hospitality. So you cannot teach your brother in this moment, and if you cannot teach him, then he is likely to get the wrong impression and form conclusions that will be more difficult to change later. 

Thus, you don't eat the food right then. Later, when you have the time to engage relationally with your brother without being rude to your host (say, after the party and when you have all left the building), you can begin to teach him why it would have been okay to eat the food, what God says about such things, and how the powerlessness of the idols means that the food is actually okay and will not question the faith of the faithful. 

See, it all goes back to that relational thing. Your weaker brother doesn't get to forever define what you do and don't do, but whether or not you're in a teachable moment absolutely does. 

That's the way it is with our language. We should not go off spouting offensive words whenever we feel like it, nor should we be ignorant about the circumstances in which we share our stories. Rather, we have to be mindful about whether what we have is a teachable moment or not. That is, do we have the time and the space to put it in context? 

If someone were to walk by our conversation and hear us using an offensive word, they are likely to form a certain impression of us. Are we listening for those who are walking by? Or are we just talking without a care as to what it might suggest to others? If we're listening for those walking by, are we able and willing to reach out an arm, draw them in, and make sure they have the whole context and not just a striking word? Can we explain ourselves? Not just 'can we,' but is it possible given the present circumstances and relational realities? If not, then we should not use the word.

The word that I used, I used on my social media in a closed, privacy-restricted setting with persons with whom I have at least some degree of relationship. I used it in the context of my own story without a broader cultural implication, and yes, I would have been able to use it as a teachable moment if someone were to question it. Therefore, it was appropriate for me to eat that food offered to idols. 

But that brings up another challenge that we face in our culture, one that is much more challenging (but to which Paul also speaks). More on that tomorrow. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021


It's offensive. 

That's the problem with a word like the one I used - it offends a certain group of persons. The problem that I had with what my acquaintance said was not that it was not true; I understand that some words are offensive to some groups of persons. I do not deny that. The problem that I had was that in her insistence that this word was offensive to some, she could not understand that it is not offensive to all. Because while some have a loaded cultural history with this word in the negative sense, some have a deep cultural history with this word in the positive sense, as I do. And it's so hard to be held accountable to a culture you're not part of. 

Just as we know that some persons are part of a culture that makes eye contact when they speak and some persons are part of a culture that finds eye contact to be rude or aggressive. We cannot possibly treat everyone exactly the same - by either making eye contact or not - because we will end up offending at least half of them. At the same time, if we were living in a culture that values eye contact as relational, we would never advocate that we do not make eye contact with one another because it is offensive to another group of persons who might one day cross our paths.

Do you see the problem? We want to set up all of these hard and fast rules about what is offensive and what is not, but we're not taking into consideration the actual fellowships in which we live. So we just end up in crazy muddied waters, all of us trying to figure out what we're supposed to do. And we're tiptoeing around our lives because of it, afraid of 'offending' someone or worse, being called something that implies that we offend others on purpose or callously - a bigot, a racist, whatever. 

Here's what I think is a good rule around all of this, and this is just me reflecting on a complicated truth and a difficult reality. This rule is two-fold, and we have to practice both parts to make it effective. 

First, we have to stop telling others when they're supposed to be offended. We have to stop telling them what is offensive, in general, and what isn't. We have to stop trying to dictate the lives of others from the outside looking in. When we do this, we end up neglecting the very real story that they are living just because it doesn't line up in some way with the story that we find ourselves in. Some persons are very in-tune with the grand culture at large and think on big scales and about large groups of diverse persons at the same time. The trouble with this is that it often neglects the individual person, who gets sucked up into this vortex where everything is demographic and nothing is personal...and then everything is supposed to become personal because of the demographic that you're in. It's complicated. It's messy. And it does not honor the individual created in the image of God with whom we are speaking/relating. So we have to stop telling everyone what's offensive. 

But second, we cannot become a people who tell others what is not offensive. That is, if someone with whom you are in relationship struggles with something you say or do and says that it is offensive, then you cannot simply dismiss that because it is not offensive to you. Just as the first rule is that others do not get to define your reality for you, you do not get to define their reality for them. And for the same reason - they have a story that is worth your honor and we do right by one another to recognize and respect the ways that their stories have brought them to certain understandings and experiences, even when those understandings and experiences are different than ours. 

The key to both of these is, as I've been saying, relationship. The conversation that I had with the acquaintance who told me that my language was offensive would have been entirely different if she and I knew more of each other than our names and if she had been personally offended by the word that I used. It would have been an entirely different story if she had said, "That word hurts me, and here's why." At that point, I am obligated by my Christian faith to pay attention, to humble myself, to listen, and to engage more deeply in order to honor the relationship that we have. 

What she said, however, was "I have a friend who told me about some friends they have who think that word is offensive..." And now, we're back where we started - outside of relationship, at a boundary of cultures, trying to dictate the individual by the demographic without any real connection or value. And that's what ends up destroying a beautiful story that I have, and that's what we can't let happen. 

So I think that's the rule: we have to stop telling others when they're supposed to be offended, and we have to stop telling them when they aren't supposed to be offended. We have to be a people who let everyone have their story and who honor the God-given, knit-together-in-the-womb life that has brought them here. We have to do the hard, dirty work of real relationship. We have to see one another. 

That's the first step to redeeming our language...and so much more.  

Monday, July 12, 2021

Justice and Freedom

Okay, I thought I was done talking about justice (for now), but my daily Bible reading over the weekend brought me to a verse in Isaiah that deserves to be in this conversation. And truthfully, justice is one of those things that we could talk about forever and still need to work on. Justice is hard. And it's hard for the reasons that we were looking at all last week - because it has to do more than satisfy our human craving for vengeance. It has to be truly just. 

The verse that jumped out at me over the weekend comes from the prophet Isaiah, and it comes very early in his prophecy about the future of God's people. He says, rather simply, 'Zion will be freed by justice, and her returnees by righteousness' (Isaiah 1:27). 

When was the last time our justice system made anyone free? When was the last time our justice led to righteousness?

Our entire justice system is established on the idea of taking away freedom, of locking persons behind bars, of erecting barriers in their lives and in our society between what we call 'just' living and...something less. And we're not just talking about the period of time for which someone convicted of injustice is locked into a jail cell; the loss of freedom extends well beyond that. 

We have rules about where certain ex-convicts can live, about what kind of work they can do, about what kind of loans they are eligible for, about what kind of assistance they can get. A lot of our society has made rules about where we're comfortable having the formerly-guilty living among us and where we're not, and even when we have released a man from his penance, we have not set him free. He continues to live as a prisoner in a free world. 

The reason for this is quite simple: our justice isn't just. True justice, God's justice, sets people free. Ours...heaps chains on their ankles. 

There is, to be fair, what looks like a precedent for this sort of thing in the Scriptures. We know that at times, even members of Israel were sent outside of the camp to live. They were cut off from their people. They were excommunicated. All in an effort to keep the camp 'pure' and to keep it righteous and holy before God, to declare what kind of people they were. 

But look at the persons who were sent outside of the camp: they were the ceremonially unclean, who got to come back after a period of purification, and they were the obstinate, those who refused to live by the rules of the people of God after every possible opportunity was afforded them. If a man would not change his behavior/lifestyle, then he was cast out. Not simply because he committed an offense. 

Yet here we are, thousands of years later, cutting everyone off for the smallest of offenses. We treat everyone the same - locked away for the transgression of the smallest rules the very same as for the biggest ones. We have persons in our prison system right now serving the same sentences for possessing a few ounces of an illegal substance as for sexually abusing a child as for murdering a neighbor. And we call that just? We call it just that some of these men and women are locked away at all?

And then look at what Isaiah says; he says returnees (those coming back to God's places) are freed by their righteousness. And, well, we don't have to worry about that one, do we? Because we don't give a guilty man a chance to come back, to return. We don't give him a chance at righteousness. In fact, we don't care if he's righteous or not; he's not welcome here. This is what we see when we restrict where a man can live, where he can work, where he can go, all because he has a 'record.' It doesn't matter who he is today or who he could be tomorrow; it matters only to us who he once was, and we will never let him be free from that. 

That's why our 'justice' needs so much help. That's why we, as the church - as a people of grace and goodness and real justice - need to be on the front lines of this. Because God's justice sets people free and we...we are doing so much less than God's justice. 

We can do so much better than what we're doing now. 

(And if we're being honest, our current 'justice' doesn't set the oppressed free, either. It binds them, too, to the offense forever...but we could go down an entire other trail here.) 

(And before you think that I'm advocating that we just let everyone do whatever they want, that's not true. That's just a false argument trying to push us back toward the status quo by absurdity. We absolutely should hold persons accountable for their actions, but we have to be just about it. We have to do it in a way that sets them free, not that binds them forever to their transgressions. And we have to do it in a way that gives them the opportunity to come back to us, to be returnees and to reclaim righteousness. Anything less is not justice.) 

Friday, July 9, 2021

Hard Words

Last week, I made a post on my own social media page and used a certain word that has an endeared meaning for me. I was then told by an acquaintance that I should not use this word because it means something different to another group of persons and may be taken as offensive. 

Sounds familiar, right? This is the daily existence that we are all living in our current world. We are tiptoeing around our lives because every little thing about them might offend someone else, even someone that we are not in fellowship with and are unlikely to encounter in our day-to-day lives or, at least, when we are in a position where we are using said word. Still, we know that ripples run wide and all it takes is a rumor that you use such a word and all of a sudden...

Now, the word that I used was not a bad word. If you were making a list of the thousand most offensive words in the English language right now, this one would probably not have been on it. It's a word that is actually very rarely used in general. In fact, if you used it, a lot of persons would probably look at you strangely for a second and then ask you what you mean by that. It's just not a common word. 

But it's a common word for me. And here's why:

This is a word that connects into my story. It's a word that a very close friend of mine used jokingly to talk about how he used to think of me before he got to know me. Our lives were adjacent for many years before we actually met and then, we became friends. The kind of friends who borrow tools from one another and don't hesitate to go into each other's houses and help out and who share produce from our gardens. The kind of friends who stand around talking when life happens and the kind of friends who have a beer on each other's porches (okay, he has the beer; I don't drink, but he's had a drink on my porch and always invites me for one on his). 

The point is - we're friends. And this word that he used on that one occasion made us both just start laughing about how easy it is to get the wrong idea of someone else and at the same time, made us both appreciative of the very real friendship that we have developed. So when I use this word, it's an important part of my story and my identity. It calls to mind for me something that helps me to become more of who I am. It is, through and through, an encouraging word. 

And here was this acquaintance telling me that I should not use this word ever again because it is offensive to others who have a different history with it. It is, she said, a cultural word and deeply wounding to the soul. 

Now, I don't want to wound anyone's soul. I really don't. If you know me, you know that that is true. But am I really supposed to edit every scene out of my own story, every scene that makes me who I am today, even the encouraging ones that inspire me to greater things, because someone has a different cultural experience than I do and this means something different to them? 

I kindly told my acquaintance that I was not willing to edit out meaningful parts of my story for someone else's offense (to which she responded that it was "such a small thing to just not use that word" without comprehending the very deep and rich meaning that word has in my story - very ironic, considering she was just telling me how much that word could mean). I know that it sounds harsh. It sounds like I'm saying "I don't care who I offend; I'm gonna live my life." But that's not at all what I said, and that's not at all what I meant. 

Because there are two things at play here, things that we're going to talk about a little bit more this week. 

First, she was asking me to defer my life to a group that isn't part of it. She was asking me to edit my story for the sake of those who aren't written in its pages. This wasn't the plea from a friend who was stung by my words; it was the staunch self-righteousness of an advocate (who isn't even part of the group herself, we must add) who was concerned about persons who aren't present. But our stories are written with the persons with whom we actually have fellowship - not with 'culture' at large. So if I'm using a word that might be offensive to someone I'm not likely to come into contact with, it's hard to justify that I should throw out that part of my story on those grounds alone. 

But second, and more than that, I believe in redemption. And I believe that our words can be redeemed. I believe that we need to stop making our world smaller for all the broken things in it and start claiming wider pastures. I think that if you hear someone use a word that is painful for you and you hear it in deep love, it can change your experience of things. No, it doesn't make that word not painful for you, but it allows you to put it into the proper context of your story. It invites you to connect more intimately to your own experience. I hear others use words all the time that I think to myself that I would never use, but the way that they use them, the context in which they speak them, makes me realize that some words are bigger than my experience of them. 

I just believe that there's room for grace and that things that are broken don't have to be broken forever and that we can't live our lives by throwing out permanently all the broken, painful, wounded things in them because that will never get us to redemption. I believe this life can be redeemed, every single breath of it. Every single moment. Every single word. If we're willing. 

And I think that anyone, even those in the group that this acquaintance was advocating for, would not be offended if they heard the way that I used this word in my story, in its proper context, in the way that it was spoken and made meaning for me. 

Okay, so we're going to talk about this for a few days, and we're going to pick up a little bit of Paul along the way because he talks about this sort of thing quite eloquently.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Justice and Grace

As we wrap up a week of talking about justice and how justice needs to be just not only for the oppressed, but for the perpetrator, we come to another truth about justice that deserves its own conversation, and that is this:

Our justice says more about us than it says about our injustices.

Your sense of justice - what you're willing to fight for, what you expect, what you're willing to accept - says more about who you are than it does about anything else. Literally anything else. 

As I was thinking about this, I was reminded of the admonition in the Bible that you should never keep someone's tunic overnight, even when he has given it to you to secure a loan. It goes on to say that you may not know whether or not he had that tunic to loan to you or if it's the only thing he's got to keep himself warm tonight. But it's more even than that - it's trusting that your provision for his need indebts you to him just as much as it does you. Once you reach your hand out to a man, you're in this together - and it immediately becomes not about his poverty or what he owes you, but about what the two of you are able to navigate in this world together. 

When you enter into this kind of relationship with this man - even one that seems so imbalanced as to say that he is a poor man and you are a benefactor - you are no longer a 'me and he;' you are a 'we.' 

And that's the thing that I think happens with justice, or at least, I think it should. Our sense of justice ought to immediately wrap us into a 'we' where we aren't fighting for causes any more, but we're fighting with one another. We're fighting together for something better for all of us.

Honestly, if you have the money to lend, you don't need the tunic. You don't. You have no use for it. To keep it would be only to have a symbol of your position and power over someone else. That's why you give it back. You level the playing field when you give it back. 

In the same way, if you have justice, you give it freely to all who need it, no matter which side of the story they are on. In fact, you work diligently to make sure that everyone who needs your justice can have it. Justice is just that kind of a gift; it's a grace. 

If you have justice, you don't need an apology. If you have justice, you don't need to 'stick it to' someone else. If you have justice, you don't need vengeance, and so you're able to just let go of all of that human frailty and embrace something truly better. 

I say that justice is grace, that it is gracious. And we have the wrong idea of this word. We think that gracious means it gives generously of itself and affords just a ton of space for leeway or exception or forgiveness, but that's not what I mean when I talk about justice being gracious. What I mean is that justice embraces with the same fullness of love every broken thing and draws them together into that 'we.' It can do that when it comes from the right place. In fact, it must do that. If it doesn't, it's not justice. 

It's strange when we look at cases like some of those that we've had in our headlines lately - cases with such powerful narratives attached to them from all angles, and we realize that how that case resolves (and how we resolve that case in our own hearts) says more about us than about any single person in that courtroom or any dynamic in our culture. When we have a man on trial for rape and a woman across the aisle accusing him and a thousand headlines wrapped in the stories of hundreds of other women, the outcome of that trial, how we settle it in our hearts and how we respond to whatever is happening and what happens next says more about us than it does about the accused rapist, about any of the women, or even about society or justice as a whole. 

That's why we have to take justice so seriously as a Christian ideal; it is part of the very fabric of our identities. But it is also why we have to actively pursue true justice in a vengeance-thirsty culture - because it is part of the very fabric of our identities. And our sense of justice is a witness to the world of a better way. God's way. 

Which recognizes that justice is just for all or it is just for none. 

Justice is gracious - because the truth is that our justice says more about us than about our issues. It says more about the man in the middle than it does about the perpetrator or the oppressed. What we choose to do with offense in our world says more about us than it says about anything else. And grace is the name of the game - grace for BOTH sides. 

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Justice is Blind

When we talk about justice, true justice, as we have been doing this week, we have to go back to a principle that seems fairly straightforward it really?

Is justice really blind?

We want justice to be blind. We want to believe that the same rules apply to everyone, even though we know that they don't. And sometimes, we're the first ones to advocate for them not to. 

Take the case that we have right now centering around an Olympic-caliber athlete who has every athletic ability to succeed on the international stage and who has worked very hard to get where she is. After competing, winning, and qualifying to race in Tokyo, she tested positive for a banned substance - and she doesn't deny it. (By the way, it's awesome to see someone owning her mistake and accepting the consequences for a change.) 

But there's a huge public outcry about how we ought to bend the rules for her, about how this particular instance shouldn't keep her from this moment that she's worked so hard for and that she's ready for. We have heard a story about the circumstances surrounding this substance, and it pangs against something in our human heart and all of a sudden, we don't want things to be 'fair.' It seems unjust to hold her accountable to the rules. 

What if, though, you're one of the other dozens of athletes who have followed the rules? Is it just to tell you that you will lose your spot to someone who didn't? 

"But she's the best!" So? She broke the rules. Justice is blind...isn't it?

What's more troubling than our goodwill toward those for whom we feel some measure of compassion or empathy is what happens on the other end of this spectrum - when we believe justice should be exacted more harshly based on the circumstances.

This was true certainly throughout a dark period of racism in our history - when a black man was held more accountable for raping a white woman than a white man was for raping a black woman. As soon as you said, "Well, he's black," that was the end of the story. "Justice" came down hard like a hammer and pulled that man up by his neck, exacted with force because of the color of his skin. He's black, so he must be guilty.

We see the same thing happening right now when police officers are put on trial. He's a cop, so he must pay. It's the same thing I was talking about a couple of days ago - when someone becomes the banner for everyone and everything like him or her, when one person has to pay the price for the brokenness of a system or the perversion of a societal dynamic. A bulk of our culture is angry with police officers right now, so put a police officer on trial justice blind? Do we even want it to be blind?

We are a people who say that we want justice, as a principle, to be blind, but in practice, the truth is that we want no such thing. We sometimes even say that maybe God's justice isn't blind. Maybe God wants us to be more gracious to the poor person, to the sinner, to the fallen and that God wants us to be more harsh with those who represent something more in our society, like the rapist, the murderer, the trafficker. 

But here's the thing, and take this for what it's worth: I don't think 'blind' is the way that justice should be, nor do I believe that God wants us to meter our justice according to our tastes or preferences or the way the cultural winds are blowing. I think that the heart of justice, true justice, is graciousness. 

You know what? Hold that thought. It's going to take more space than I have for today - I don't want to lose you on this. So stay tuned tomorrow and we'll wrap this up by talking about justice and grace. 

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

And Justice for None

We're talking about justice and those pesky 'technicalities' that always seem to throw a wrench in our vengeance, and we're talking about how those technicalities help to maintain a justice that is just as just for the perpetrator as for the oppressed. Yesterday, we looked at how a heavier burden than necessary comes to bear on the accused as the burdens of a broken society are heaped upon their shoulders, and I said briefly that this isn't justice for the oppressed in these cases, either. 

What could I possibly mean?

What I mean is that when you become the torch bearer for an entire demographic of persons who are presumed to be 'just like you' or at least, enough like you that you can all comfortably be lumped into one group - women, persons of color, homosexuals, whatever it is - then your story gets swallowed up in the 'bigger cause.' 

Your story no longer receives justice because the justice you are due goes straight to 'the cause.' It may be a victory for 'all women,' but what about your wounded heart?

When we let social justice movements sweep up smaller stories like this, it's damaging for the victims. On one hand, it's comforting to be surrounded by a cloud of witnesses who can somewhat authoritatively speak to the reality of your experience, but on the other hand, your experience is unique - it is the intersection of your unique circumstances and background and incident. And it's extremely offensive to the soul when we pretend that all instances of a certain event are exactly the same, or at least, are enough the same that we can easily lump them into the same group. 

All of a sudden, this is not the victim in this case; she is 'just' one story among thousands. So when justice is achieved (if it even can be when we compound cases like this), that justice doesn't go to her; it goes to thousands upon thousands of others for whom this is not their story. And we hold up the victim as a champion at precisely a moment when she doesn't feel like she's won anything at all. A token victory, perhaps, but it's done nothing for her wounded soul.

Or, we should add, for thousands of other wounded souls whose perpetrators were not held accountable with this one. 

This kind of 'justice,' which is not really justice at all, just doesn't work for anyone. It doesn't work for the perpetrator, who is forced to carry the burden of a broken society. It doesn't work for the oppressed, whose story gets lost in the bigger 'cause.' It doesn't work for others whose stories have become part of the cause. And it doesn't work for society, who quickly realize they have not accomplished any actual or legitimate change on the basis of this 'victory.' It hasn't really changed anything. 

And you know why it hasn't change anything? 

Because it's not justice. That's why. 

It hasn't reset the scales because it cannot possibly reset the scales. It hasn't balanced our community because it cannot possibly balance our community. It isn't justice, and that's why we never feel like justice has been served. We know in our souls that it hasn't. 

I guarantee you that the thousands are more encouraged and relieved by one instance of true justice being served, down to the very specifics of the case, than they are by a hundred hollow victories for 'the cause.' 

That's why we have to start doing the hard work of real justice. That's why we need to stop playing this game and pretending. That's why we have to give up on vengeance altogether and pursue something better. 

Monday, July 5, 2021

Simply Just

When we say radical things like "Justice must be as just for the perpetrator as for the oppressed," there is...a lot of pushback to that idea. Our culture screams, no, it doesn't. Perpetrators of injustice should pay the heaviest prices that we have, and even heavier than that. The uncountable toll that injustice takes on the oppressed makes it impossible to evenly weigh justice even with the harshest punishments. 

If it's not that reaction - our grand, dramatic reaction to injustice with all of the virtue signaling that we can muster - then, it's this one: we can't risk going too lightly on the perpetrator, lest he not pay at all for his offenses. We absolutely hate the so-called 'slap on the wrist' of so-called justice, and we do everything we can to make sure the penalties are harsh enough to discourage not only this person from doing it again, but to discourage everyone from doing it ever. 

This is human nature. Both of these responses are deeply woven into our fragile flesh; it's just how we operate. And for somewhat good reason - justice is vital in a civilized society. Justice is what makes it possible for us to live in community with one another. Justice is that thing that balances power (or, at least, it's supposed to) so that everyone has a chance and not just those with seeming advantages. (Ideally. We all know that's not actually how it works.) 

But it is these reactions that lead us to the kind of unjust 'justice' that we now practice in America, a justice that is not just for the perpetrator.  

Here's what I'm talking about: the bigger the headlines, the more we try to pile the entire burden of systemic injustice onto the shoulders of the man (usually man, the way our culture works right now) who just so happened to be most recently caught. Thus, these accused bear the burden not just of their own offenses, but of an offended society. 

It's the heart of the "Me Too" movement. Someone is arrested and accused of sexual assault and all of a sudden, women all across the country who have experienced sexual assault come out of the woodwork and start declaring how much this horrible individual should pay for his crimes. The outcry becomes so loud that it's impossible to imagine a verdict other than 'guilty,' and there's so much talk about the horrendousness of the crime in general that this specific offender ends up bearing the highest burden - not because of the woman he assaulted, but because of all women everywhere. That's not just. That's not justice. 

Or in a time of cries for social justice, when the narrative about our police reached a fever pitch, a police officer was put on trial for the death of a man in custody who also happened to be a man 'of color.' All of a sudden, all of the offenses of American policing are under the microscope, and this man isn't standing trial just for murder; he's on trial for being a police officer at all, and he's bearing the burden of social justice for everyone everywhere, not for the man with whom he actually had interaction. That's not just. That's not justice. 

That's what I'm talking about - real justice is just as just for the perpetrator as for the oppressed. When we start adding in the weight of bigger narratives and compounding upon the burden of guilt the burden of societal dysfunction, then we're not being just any more. It does absolutely nothing to hold one man accountable to a systemic injustice that has wounded thousands (or more). It makes us feel better, maybe, for a time, but it doesn't address the problem. And it's not justice - it's not justice to the oppressed, whose story and very real pain gets caught up into a story so much bigger that it's almost lost entirely, and it's not justice to the perpetrator, who we make pay for crimes he did not commit simply because he did something similar. 

That's why we have technicalities - to keep these sorts of things from happening. To keep the guilty from paying a higher price than should be exacted on them. To keep ourselves from putting the entire burden of societal injustice onto the shoulders of the latest headline-maker. That's not just. It's not justice. 

We can do better. 

That's why we've built it into our system to do better. 

Friday, July 2, 2021

On Justice

Well, here we are again, trapped in another news cycle in which 'justice' is the buzzword. And almost none of the talking heads know what they're actually talking about. 

The world talks about justice only one way - as vengeance. To the world, justice is one-directional; it always flows toward the oppressed. And this leaves us with a one-sided kind of justice where only a certain party has an opportunity to speak, where only one side deserves to be heard, where there is only one right answer and one position to take. Anything less than the dominant narrative, and you are complicit in 'injustice.' It's how we've come to live in a world where justice can be boiled down to the testimony of a single woman or the color of a person's skin or the way someone sexually identifies him/herself - these are the oppressed. They alone have the right to speak. And when we dare speak about justice, we must speak only in support of the oppressed. 

It's this kind of vortex that right down into, well, something far less than justice.

Except this time, we're throwing a new word into our conversation: 'technicality.' Oh, our culture is up in arms over the technicality. The system is rigged, they say. The system is unfair. For these kinds of technicalities to exist, there must be something extremely wrong. And what about justice?

Here's where we get to have a really good conversation. Because it's precisely these kinds of technicalities that preserve true justice for all of us. 

It's unpopular to say it but we must: Justice - true justice - is not justice unless it is as just for the perpetrator as it is for the oppressed.  

Read that again because this is what drives our culture so crazy about real justice: justice is not justice unless it is just as just for the oppressor as it is for the oppressed. 

And that's what the 'technicalities' are for. 

It's a tough pill to swallow, and I get it. We're a people whose fragile flesh tends more toward vengeance than justice, toward getting someone back or being paid back for wrongs done, toward exacting retribution whenever and wherever we can. We are a bloodthirsty people, and our moral compass has been tilted toward the oppressed. How could we fathom saying that justice has anything to do with anyone but them? 

But if justice is only for the oppressed, then what we do is we just take the entire burden of injustice in the world and we shift it onto the shoulders of the perpetrators. We tip the scales in entirely the other direction. And when we step back and look at it from an objective perspective, we can see that what looked like an unburdening was actually an other-burdening, and the scales of so-called 'justice' are still not in balance. 

We want to pretend that sometimes, that doesn't matter. That some offenses are so egregious as to warrant our being okay with justifying our own injustice in the name of what we want to pretend is just. But that's our flesh speaking and not our righteousness. At least, not God's righteousness in us. 

And that's why we have to have these technicalities. They remind us to seek justice, not vengeance. To stop trying to shift the burden of injustice and instead, create a truly just society. They prevent us from throwing another human being created in the image of God so far into the pit that he can never climb out of it. Justice requires our seeking his good just as much as we seek the good of the oppressed. 

Even our Old Testament God, suspected to be a bit harsh sometimes, shows us that. Just look at the justice passages in the Scripture - they are not vengeance passages, not once. They don't simply shift the burden of injustice from one shoulder to the next. They do something better - they make it a burden we all bear. Not by taking sides, but by locking arms. 

That's the only way we can do it.