Monday, February 24, 2014

Dusting Off Our Baptism

(Note: This post first appeared in my church's newsletter.)

The congregation I grew up in had a gorgeous baptismal font. The bowl was cobalt-blue glass and the stand was made of artistic, looping brushed steel. It was evocative and symbolic…and it spent most of the time stashed in a corner or in a storage closet. It was only ever brought out when it was needed for a baptism and then it was put somewhere out of the way.

And this always bugged me. For years it bothered me just because I thought it was beautiful and deserved to be seen, but as I studied theology and became a pastor, it bothered me because it tells the wrong story of baptism. 

Baptism is an act of grace and salvation from God. In baptism, our selfish, sinful self is drowned out of us and we are marked with the cross of Christ and bound to God’s promise of eternal life, a promise that we don’t stick in a baby album, but one we return to constantly. When Martin Luther wrote about baptism, he wrote about daily returning to the waters and being reminded of that promise. He wrote that whenever we despair or believe we are unloved, we should chase away evil by crying out, “But I am baptized!” 

Like that font, baptism is beautiful and evocative and special and it deserves to be seen every day; it is not something we consider “done” and then put away in the corner to gather dust. The promises of baptism are over, under, and around everything we do in our lives, but I think we are often taught that they, like the font, only come out at special times. Trying to bridge that gap, to make us daily aware of God’s presence in our lives, even in mundane, so-called “secular” tasks, is one of the driving thoughts behind my preaching, ministry, and theology.

So then a pastor friend of mine, with whom I often discuss such topics, sent me a link to a video with the question, “What about doing this with our churches?” The video was of a researcher named Shawn Achor who was describing a process for increasing happiness by developing five daily practices. By tweaking the wording of just two of the five, we saw a way to use it to increase attentiveness to God’s presence and action in the world around us. This became what we at Martin Luther Church are calling “Cross+Training.” 

During Lent, I am inviting people to join me in Cross+Training by daily journaling or sharing 3 gratitudes, sharing a place I saw God active in the world around me, praying for 5 minutes, doing a random act of kindness, and doing exercise or a physical activity for 30 minutes. To be clear, doing this won’t make God love me more or guarantee my salvation, which has been promised to me in baptism, but I hope it will make me and those who join me more aware of those baptismal promises that attend me daily. Hopefully it brings my baptism splashing out into the middle of my activities and less likely to be something gathering dust in the corner until I "need" it. 

“Lead me to the truth and I will follow you with my whole life.” -Mumford and Sons, “White Blank Page”

Friday, February 21, 2014

Waiting for Patience (And I Want It Now!)

I've been reading through the Psalms for my personal devotions recently and stumbled upon something this week that caught my attention. It was the idea of waiting.

Psalm 31 and 33 are both psalms of praise. The writer (or writers) gives thanks for God's blessings and answer in times of trouble, but both psalms end with exhortations to "wait with hope for the Lord" as if God hasn't shown up yet. "Be strong, all who wait with hope for the LORD, and let your heart be courageous," says the first. The second ends with the words, "Let your mercy rest on us, O LORD, since we wait with hope for you."

The writer of these Psalms is praising God not because God has shown up, but because he expects God will show up. Instead of giving thanks for what God has done, he is giving thanks for what he hopes God will do. When was the last time I gave a rave review for a movie before I watched it? Or passed along compliments to the chef before the waiter brought my meal? And yet that's what the psalmist is saying. "Sure things may be bad, but isn't it awesome what God will probably do?" It's almost like Lando Calrissian telling Admiral Ackbar, "Han will have the shield down!" except he's smiling and striking a yoga pose while he says it.

In our immediate response, quick satisfaction society, have we lost our ability to wait? I like to think of myself as patient, but I get anxious when someone doesn't reply to an email or text in a time frame I think is reasonable. If a web page takes more than one second to load, I get frustrated. And if I say a prayer to God and don't get what I think is a reply by the end of the day (or sooner), I feel ignored. I certainly don't take the time to sit down and write a psalm and end it with, "Chill out. God will show up."

As I think about it, the other word that shows up in both Psalms is "hope," which is probably related to the patience they show. Hope based on trust and past experience certainly helps give me patience. However, in this skeptical, I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it, show-me-the-money age, I wonder how much hope is a trait I need to learn rather than an instinct to which I default?

I guess I envy the psalmist since patience and hope seem to be so natural for him when they often feel more alien to me. Perhaps it's a spiritual "growing edge" for me to address. All of which raises an interesting, zen-like question: If I pray for God to give me patience and hope, when should I expect an answer?

“I hope the days and clouds turn into something as they pass us by.” -Jars of Clay, "These Ordinary Days"

Friday, February 14, 2014

Zacchaeus Reimagined

When I was growing up in the church, one of the stories I remember learning in Sunday School was the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). There was even a song we would sing: "Zacchaeus was a wee, little man, and a wee little man was he..." (Anyone who knows the song, it's now stuck in your head, too. You're welcome.)

The gist of the story was that Zacchaeus was a wicked tax collector who wanted to see Jesus pass through town and so climbed a tree to see above the crowd (because he was a wee, little man). Then Jesus picks Zachy out of the crowd and invites himself to Zacchaeus' home. Little Z is then so touched by this honor that he changes his life and promises, "I will give half my money to the poor and if I have cheated anyone, I will repay them four times as much." A sinner has been saved. Jesus proclaims, "Salvation has come to this house." Roll credits. It's a perfect redemption story. Like Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol," but without the spirits and Tiny Tim.

Unless it isn't...

I recently had this story opened to me in an entirely new way by someone who pointed out one small piece of grammar: the present tense.

You see, when Zacchaeus says, "I will give half my money to the poor," which is the way many English translations write it, he's actually speaking in the present tense. If you look at the Greek text, what he literally says is, "Behold, Lord, half of my wealth I give to the poor and if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much." He's not promising to change his ways; he's describing how he's already a fair and generous person. He's not a penny-pincher like Scrooge; he's an ancient Bill Gates! Mind: blown.

When I went back to reread the rest of the story, I realized that nothing in the text says that he's a bad or wicked man. He's only described as a "tax collector" and "wealthy." And when Jesus declares, "Salvation has come to this house," the rest of his sentence is, "because this man, too, is a child of Abraham."

Suddenly everything I learned about this text is backwards. If Zacchaeus was being honest in what he said, then the point Luke is making is this: being a tax collector for the Romans would not have made him popular with his neighbors and they probably treat him as an outcast and a traitor. Still, Little Z does his job fairly and is generous with his money and when Jesus visits his house, he is honoring him before the community for being a righteous person and declares him in good standing with God. The "salvation" is that the community has a change of heart, not Zacchaeus.

This isn't a story about a sinner needing redemption, it's a warning about rushing to judgement, just like Harry Potter discovering in book seven that Professor Snape was actually a good guy all along. It is a reminder to me that knowing one thing about a person doesn't mean I know everything about a person. Those I may want to call immoral or bad may actually be kind and good people. And even if they aren't, they are still children of Abraham, beloved by the same God who puts up with me.

"When you are a stranger, hold your tongue and wager that love will set you free... until it sets you free." -Jars of Clay, "Inland"

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Critique of "Preacher" by OneRepublic

One of my Christmas gifts this year was the album "Native" by OneRepublic.  I was excited to get the album because my interest in the band has been growing ever since I had the chance to see them in Central Park this summer on our youth servant trip to New York City. My interest was further piqued when I noticed a song on the album titled "Preacher" and I eagerly listened to this song that shared a name with my profession.

The song deals with the singer as a young man and his grandfather, who was the titular preacher of the song. What I love about the song is the positive light the grandfather is shown in and the closing line of the chorus: "He was a million miles from a million dollars, but you could never spend his wealth." I love those parts because most popular media portrays my colleagues and I as an unbending hell-fire moralist (like John Lithgow in "Footloose") or as a well-meaning, but somewhat clueless grandpa figure. We are almost never portrayed as complex, real people (both men AND women) living ordinary lives. (The closest example I can think of are the Edward Norton and Ben Stiller characters in "Keeping the Faith.")

So, thumbs up for singing about pastors as down-to-earth, hard-working people, because most of us are (or try to be). But then the song includes this line: "He said God only helps those who learn to help themselves."


I hear this verse quoted a lot by Christians and I get it. It is an attractive idea to believe God rewards or blesses those who have first done something to deserve it. It fits in with everything else we are taught in society, right? Work hard and you'll get the promotion, etc. The phrase is simple and easy to remember and a good motivator to live properly.

And all that is fine and good, except for the fact that it isn't a Bible verse. The phrase "God helps those who help themselves" doesn't appear anywhere in scripture. (It actually comes from Greek philosophy.) In fact, when we read the Bible, we actually find God frequently helping those who can't help themselves. Many of the people God calls are cowards, dimwits, or weaklings. The chosen people of Israel (with the exception of a few glorious years under David and Solomon) are usually the schoolyard chumps, getting kicked around by their bigger and stronger neighbors. When Jesus is wandering around Palestine, he is helping and healing those who are most desperate and vulnerable and none of the Gospel writers remember him saying, "So what have you done to cure your leprosy on your own?" And, in places like the minor prophets and Matthew 25, God gets angry with humans that don't help the helpless, too (i.e. the poor, the sick, the hungry, etc.).

Rather than demanding people help themselves before gaining any divine attention, the Bible speaks of a God who seeks out the helpless and blesses them. In the church, we have a technical term for this kind of thing. We call it grace.

Grace is the belief that every good thing from God -- God's love, forgiveness, special attention in our time of need -- are not something we earn or deserve, but are a gift. They come to us not because we have "helped ourselves," but because God chooses to be generous. And this grace is a cornerstone of Christian thinking.

It's a crazy idea. It's crazy to us as industrious, goal-oriented North Americans. We want to earn things, to deserve them. But it was a crazy idea in ancient history, too. In one of the readings my church used last weekend, St. Paul tells the church in Corinth that this thinking is "a stumbling block" and "foolishness" to most of the world. While it may seem natural to us to take pride in earning rewards, or boasting in our spiritual accomplishments, grace doesn't leave any room for that. As Paul writes in that passage, "Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord."

For me, grace may grate on me when I want to take credit for the good I do, but it is good news on those days when I seem incapable of "helping myself," when I am painfully aware of my mistakes and shortcomings. On those days, hearing that God loves me and can do good in spite of me truly is a wealth that cannot be spent.

"Dreaming about the things that we could be." -OneRepublic, "Counting Stars"