A Christmas Miracle

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Well, this one is beyond explanation.

A family from the Real Life Church family contacted our Children’s Minister, Staci, to tell her that their house had been robbed.  The thieves got away with some cash that the family had set aside to send their kids to Winter Camp with the church.

Of course the church was ready to jump in and cover the costs for these two kids anyway, but the family told Staci to save the money.  The church might have to buy a new building this year – save the money for that.

This sweet family was about to sacrifice their kids’ opportunity to go to camp so that the church could continue in its mission.

What they didn’t know was that earlier the same day I had received a call from another member of the congregation who told me, “God is telling me to pay for a couple of kids to go to camp, in case anyone can’t afford it.”  The same day the house was robbed, even before it was robbed.

So of course, the kids are going to camp.

Now a skeptic might suggest that if God was behind this, he could have just stopped the robbery, right?  But think about that.  The family isn’t losing out on anything – they’re still going to camp, and not only that, they also know that God is watching out for them.  The donors aren’t out anything – they already wanted to give the gift.  Now on top of that, they know how special their gift is.  Even the thieves are not at a loss – they walked away with the cash, and, God willing, they are a step closer to finding out that money and theft will not lead to happiness.  If God had stopped all this from happening, we wouldn’t have this story to tell, and we wouldn’t have a deep sense of God’s hand in our lives.

So this is our Christmas miracle this year, and it’s my Christmas miracle, because what pastors want to see, more than beautiful services and shining smiles, is the powerful hand of God intervening in the world.  That is, after all, the story of Christmas.

#RLLA

The Honduran Exodus

honduras-flag.gifThere is a migrant train of over 7000 people walking north towards the southern border of the US right now, Honduran refugees fleeing a context of poverty and violence.  It’s an exodus.

What’s walking towards America is more than that.  An awakening and an ethical decision is approaching. 

Americans have long thought of ourselves as the world’s good guys, using force to back up democracy and justice.  We are the ones who landed on the beach at Normandy.  Our first President couldn’t lie about chopping down a cherry tree.  We stand for Jesus and family.  Now that we’re the richest country in the world, it’s assumed that God has materially rewarded our spiritual and moral goodness like a parent reinforcing a well-behaved child with treats.

A 2007 report showed Honduras to be over 80% Christian.  They’re praying as they come.

American Christians have for a long time voted for candidates who claimed to be Christian, or, at least, promised to support Christian values.  Voters have rarely paused to consider the fact that that set of values has never been defined for them.  “Christian values,” in public discourse, seems to include freedom of religion (especially its expression in schools), a general opposition to abortion, and opposition to gay marriage.  They may include some nebulous affirmations like “Love thy neighbor,” but there is a sizable omission when it comes to Jesus’ very clear teachings about money and the poor.  In the American suburbs, these are generally add-ons for the specially motivated.

“Christian values” in America don’t especially exclude values which seem to be at odds with the teachings of Jesus and the early church, like xenophobia and nationalism.  Someone who is in an adulterous relationship would generally be seen as out of keeping in American churches, but someone who spends their money frivolously, doesn’t donate to charity, and doesn’t care what happens to the poor in other nations does not stand out.

What’s walking towards American Christians is a reality check.  Jesus isn’t as obsessed with sex as we are; he is far more obsessed with the poor and the outcast.  The package of values American Christians have accepted needs to be unpacked, separated, cleaned up and lightened up.  Some of it needs to be thrown away.  Self-identified evangelicals are overdue to face their baptized love of money and apathy for the oppressed. 

What’s going to be ironic about the American Christian response to the Honduran exodus is that we have an Exodus in our own Scripture, and consequently in the DNA of our faith.  God was on the side of the wanderers fleeing oppression for the sake of a land of freedom in that Exodus.  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). What do you think Honduran Christians hear when they read that?  Probably the same thing the first European immigrants to the US were hearing when they read the same scriptures – that is, the ancestors of a lot of Americans.

So, before the story takes over the headlines and the blogosphere, a word to Christian America: remember Jericho.

Eye-to-eye

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Jesus sat with a Samaritan woman (John 4) talking about life and eternity.  For all the interesting aspects of the conversation, my favorite detail is this one:

“Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’”

In a highly conservative culture, Jewish men would not be seen alone with a woman who was not their wife.  People would talk; assumptions would be made.

Jesus sat eye-to-eye with a woman, on a flat, 180˙ plane, which was not the normal angle.  Men looked 45˙ down to women.  This was the Creator of the universe parenting all the boys of the world.  If you want to be a good man, this is what it looks like.  Eye-to-eye.

I love not only that he did it, but that the disciples had already given up trying to change him.  They were surprised but surrendered.  He’s just going to do it this way.  We’ll probably just have to do it this way too.  Eventually maybe all men will sit eye-to-eye with women.

Maybe.

Melting Point

metal.gifMetals melt at different temperatures.  Gold, for instance, melts at a temperature of just under 2000˙.  If you wanted to reduce that gold cross around your neck to a liquid and recast it into a ring for your finger, you’d need an oven stronger than you have in your house. (Most people need to recast their wedding rings with the cross of Jesus, by the way.)

Human hearts are a lot like metals.  They come to church made of the right stuff but molded in the wrong shape. The purpose of preaching is to bring people to their melting point.  The gospel burns people down to their most basic parts – makes them focus on the purpose of life and consider shedding meaningless excesses.  Then, once we’re reduced to materials God can work with, he recasts us into the shape he means for us to be.

The purpose of preaching is to bring people to their melting point.

Worship, after the gospel, plays a cooling role.  We are reshaped by the gospel, and then we cool into our redefined shapes, a new and holy form that requires disciplined maintenance.  When we sing our response to God, it is an act into cooling into the form of a people of worship.  If you leave church a self-righteous, judgmental, gossip-filled religious person, you haven’t reached your melting point, and you’re definitely not cool(ed).  If you leave worship with a sense of humility, realizing you are only made right by the God who loves you, if you realize the only message you have for broken people is a message of love, you’ve been reshaped as you were meant to be.

See you on Sunday for worship.  God, melt us and mold us.

Letting Go to Lighten Up

Satan has scattered a few toys across the face of the earth, and people keep picking them up and playing with them.  Bitterness is one of Satan’s toys.  Revenge, pettiness, P.jpggossip, slander.  All the building blocks of revenge.  When life is over, Satan gets to come back and take all his toys home with them.  If you’re holding onto one of them, just realize you can get dragged down with it.  You don’t want to be holding onto the toys when the creepy clown comes looking for them.  So if you’re holding onto bitterness towards someone, you might want to drop it.  It’s not that fun to play with now, and in the end, it will take you places you don’t want to go.

Grace is not just a nice thing to do or a duty to obey.  It’s the lightening up of our souls by shedding the dead weight.

SA.gifI knew a family in South Africa who took in and raised as their son the boy who had murdered their daughter.  In the racially charged atmosphere after Apartheid, this destructive young man with evil in his heart tore apart this family.  It was grace that allowed them to steal that victory from the side of evil.  If that kind of grace can exist, can’t we practice its most simple forms?

Apple

Magritte.pngHere’s a painting that’s changed the world.

It’s by Belgian surrealist Renee Magritte of a man in a hat with a green apple where his face should be.  You can tell it was painted in the 1960s, because when you look at it, you wonder, “What was that guy on?”

Magritte said that the painting was intended to capture that feeling that we all have that there’s something more than what we can see, something behind the visible.  We feel it every time we try to communicate and feel that we’re not getting our message across.  Know what that feels like?  If not, date someone.  You’ll experience it.

I was content to give the painting a quick glance and then walk away, but I saw the title of the painting: The Son of Man.  That’s a title that is distinctively Judeo-Christian.  Daniel uses it in a prophecy about a coming savior, and Jesus takes up the term for himself to refer to his humanity, which often veiled his divinity.  So then I wondered at the religious possibilities.  An apple has a well-publicized connection to the Christian faith.  Adam and Eve ate one and were kicked out of Eden.  The Bible doesn’t actually say that the

forbidden fruit was an apple, but the Latin word for apple tree, malus, is also the Latin word for evil, so the play on words contributed to medieval artistic portrayals of the garden.

The apple represents the Fall, the brokenness of the world.  And that is the thing that stops us from seeing the Son of Man.  His disciples missed it, his family missed it, certainly his enemies missed it.  God walked the earth and we couldn’t see him, because we were blinded by our own brokenness, by the Fall.

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Coincidentally, Beatles’ member Paul McCartney bought one of Magritte’s paintings of an apple and named his record company Apple Corps (a play on “apple core”).  Another young hipster who loved the Beatles started up a computer company and named it after McCartney’s record company – Apple Computers.

So that little icon on your iPhone is courtesy of a Belgian agnostic who couldn’t quite find God, but had a sense that the brokenness of the world stood in the way of us seeing him.  Think about that when you see the Apple logo.  It sits over devices that are supposed to allow you to see most of the knowledge in the world.  And yet, because of human brokenness, we’ll never quite see it right.  It’s only because God breaks through our brokenness and saves us that we can ever see.

 

Forwards and Backwards

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Faithful churches are looking forwards and backwards – forwards in methodology and backwards in creed.

Dying churches are looking forwards and backwards – backwards in methodology and forwards in creed.

Faithful churches exist for getting the gospel out and welcoming failures in.  We are always looking for new, creative, innovative, and box-breaking ways to do it.  Credally, we are ad fontes, back to the sources from which we sprang, back to Jesus, the Bible, the early church.  It’s an old story we’re retelling.  But the language in which we tell is is always new.

Dying churches do it exactly the other way around.  Methodologically, they say things like, “Remember how we did it 20 years ago?  Wasn’t that great?”  They go back to the same styles, the same sounds, the same vocabulary, and often the same (stagnated) leaders.  Theologically they may (or may not) then be open to wandering.  They have little left to be committed to than the way things used to be.  Going back as far as Jesus is a dangerous thing for them to do, because in him they’ll find a pioneer and an adventurer who will leave the religious people who feel safe at church to go looking for someone who is lost (Luke 15).  They tend to replace theology with tradition.

If you’re following Jesus, he’s only going forwards.  The front windshield is bigger than the rear view mirror for good reason.