Friday, September 17, 2010

The ultimate 'outsiders'

Over the last few years many folks uninterested in social justice for the poor have suggested that the church of Jesus Christ should operate primarily as a charity for their benefit. I'm guessing that such people believe that, if the poor would improve themselves morally -- whatever that means -- and the church helped with that, they would no longer be poor.

Aside from the classism inherent in that statement, another issue exists that we need to address: Meeting temporal needs is not the primary purpose of the church. It isn't? No.

"Well, what about the early church -- didn't it feed the hungry, clothe the naked and all that kind of stuff?" Yes, it did, but not for the reasons we think of.

We need to remember that, in those days, much of the church of that day was on the run -- hiding in caves, subject to consistent persecution, nearly friendless. In such an atmosphere, especially with people who had literally abandoned their families -- which said something back then -- to follow a Jesus that most of them had never even met in the flesh, you learn to stick together because your very life might depend on it.

Remember, some members of the Body of Christ, then the ultimate "outsiders," were cut off from family, friends, centers of political and economic power and probably even unable to find work, even though they were following the Ultimate King. Irony? Well, He was full of irony -- "the last will be first" and comments like that.

It should be clear by now just why "followers of the Way" were willing to do those things -- they understood from personal experience just what it was like to be hungry, naked and forsaken. They knew from the outset, because He said so, that belonging to Jesus meant suffering but considered doing so worth the cost. Moreover, like their LORD, they were willing to identify with "the least, the last and the lost."

I worship in a church that belongs to a missionary denomination, and in one country (I don't remember which one and probably wouldn't tell you if I did) becoming a Christian meant that you lost your livelihood almost immediately. At my church you might see someone wearing a sweater with the denomination's logo woven into the fabric. Those sweaters were imported from that country and represented the only source of income that the people had.

Contrast that with modern American Christianity. Millions upon millions of dollars for buildings in comfortable suburbs. Radio and TV programs, books and assorted doo-dads. Preachers, congregations and even denominations lobbying politicians. The "worship wars." I sometimes wonder how a Christian living in one of those countries where the church is outlawed would react if he or she came to this country.

Moreover, folks, mostly frightened "culture warriors," talk without any evidence of a day when Christianity itself will be outlawed in the United States, but even if that were to happen it might actually improve the spiritual commitment of the church because it would be forced to cling to Jesus even more. A couple of months ago a fellow musician wore to big-band rehearsal a Christian-themed T-shirt that said that it would be "banned in 51 countries."

I commented, "Maybe it should be banned in this country."

He looked at me quizzically at first but then responded, "To purify the church?"


The purpose of the church is to herald the coming of the King of Kings, to demonstrate (albeit imperfectly) a preview of the New Jerusalem. Martin Luther King Jr. said that, in order to maintain its integrity, that "it must conform only to the demands of the Gospel" -- the Good News that, because of Him, things will be different and made right. However, we can't do that if we're enamored of earthly power and authority -- after all, if you have that, then why rely on the power of the Holy Spirit? And when you rely on the Holy Spirit -- well, you'll be out of step with the world. Which should be a compliment, because that's the goal.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Newsroom, 9/11/2001

Rather than writing a full commentary on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks nine years ago, I want to offer you a poem I came up with last year at the writers' conference I attend every year.

The story of the millennium, not even ten months old.

Instantly the space became a New World wing of Madame Tussaud's, everyone -- everyone -- staring at the TVs, in shock.

We made phone calls, tried to write --

But what did it matter? We knew something had fundamentally changed.

At the end of the day we stepped into nuclear winter, a city completely deserted, as if a giant vacuum had sucked all the life out of it, the rays of the setting sun going everywhere and nowhere at once -- as if it too was confused.

Everyone had already gone home -- except us, of course. We were compelled to stay, to see this through.

You see, as we watched and re-watched replays of the planes hitting the Towers we instinctively knew what that meant.

Our role, for the next few weeks and beyond, would be to make sense of the horror that had befallen us.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

They'll know we are Christians by our ... rage?

For the past three years I've led a prayer meeting at work every Tuesday afternoon, originally in response to contract negotiations but which has since become more general in focus, and we pray regularly for the state of the nation and the church. After today's meeting one of my co-workers, in reaction to the anger demonstrated by some who call themselves believers, made the above comment.

I have to agree. For the past 30 years, I've noticed that many of us who claim Jesus Christ and Savior and LORD have nevertheless seemed to get very, very hot at a moment's notice. First, that rage was directed toward the "secular humanists"; later it was "liberals" and the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress, Muslims and others have become targets of our ire. You may have heard about the church in Gainesville, Fla. that intends to hold a Qur'an-burning ceremony on Saturday -- of course the ninth anniversary of 9/11.

Why is this?

Well, I would say because we've become too "worldly," believing that everyone else owes us allegiance -- to our culture, our values, our ways of doing things to a point that we expect everyone to bow down to us and when they don't ... Indeed, a story in Psychology Today last year focusing upon right-wing pundit Ann Coulter brought out that the people who tend to blow up so easily are those who feel entitled (as opposed to the trod-upon). Frankly, it sounds as though people want vengeance.

We should understand, however, that demanding our rights -- and especially since we generally don't agitate or work for the rights of anyone else -- can actually turn people against not only us but also Jesus; in fact, I think it's already done so in many cases. Already Gen. David Petraeus has warned that the church's plainly foolhardy stunt might, and probably will, cause problems for American troops in the Middle East.

This is also why I have grave concerns about Christians' participation in the "tea-party" movement, which has always had a tone of anger and blame to it. It's not that they don't have a right to their opinion, but I don't seem them doing anything but venting -- no specific plan, no consultations with those who disagree to try to work things out. (Some have even denounced the "Coffee Party" precisely because it calls for civility in political debate.)

Anyway, what's missing is a sense of grace. You know, that five-letter word without which we don't get into the Kingdom of God in the first place and consequently how we're supposed to regard others. It's easy to do that with people you're already close to, but what about those we see as enemies?

Well, what would Jesus do? Well, we have in idea. Remember that He was unjustly executed for sedition because He claimed to be a king -- and took the punishment. Yes, ultimately for our sins, but keep in mind that on the cross He also said, "Father, forgive them, because they don't know what they're doing." And I'm not so arrogant to believe that, were I a first-century Jew, I wouldn't have been calling for His death.

I think that's what we need to reconsider. One of the slogans in 12-step culture is "But for the grace of God ... " If we would become a people of grace, the kind that Jesus demonstrated toward people who just didn't "get it right," perhaps we would get people to consider the claims of Christ on their own. (Or perhaps more accurately, let God draw them.) Displaying constant rage, on the other hand, just won't cut it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Imagine ...

Three weeks ago I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Herbie Hancock, the legendary jazz keyboardist who was in town the next week with what he called the "Imagine Project." The concept of the album, which included a cover of the John Lennon classic "Imagine," and subsequent tour was about global community, and he recorded with artists from every continent and in different languages other than English.

With all his talk about everyone living together on this planet, which I can certainly understand and appreciate, one thing of which the interview with Hancock, who was at one time a practicing Buddhist and still might be for all I know, reminded me: Without Jesus Christ, all that is ultimately futile because He is absolute, unconditional LORD.

But what would that mean, in practical terms? After all, we Christians have the only message of redemption and reconciliation that actually counts. We know the Way to peace, contentment, justice, truth ... so, why haven't we been more effective?

I think it's because we've become too much a part of the establishment. Especially in the West.

Let's remember that the early church was often on the run, had few friends and faced persecution on every side. Its members thus had to cling to not only Jesus but also each other, which is why they were so willing to share their possessions. They were willing to identify with the dispossessed because they themselves were such.

Today, however, we make the rules and ally ourselves with the powerful, assuming -- arrogantly -- that if people lived by our rules our nation would prosper. (Except that following Christ is not routine; He has to call you.) And of course, we're quite divided these days, among theological, racial, cultural, economic and ideological lines. The civil-rights movement, for openers, essentially, pitted one set of Christians against another set of Christians. Sad.

So, I'd like to take this time to imagine: What would happen if we actually dropped all our campaigns and took unity seriously? I have an idea. Some years ago I wrote a song called "A Call for Reconciliation"; in those days when you wrote a song you also thought video, and I came up with a concept for that as well.

It came in three parts: One, a mostly white church service that was already underway when a choir of African-Americans saunters down the center aisle, clapping all the while; they go up front and embrace others in the choirloft. A blond woman sings a solo; a young Asian man preaches a message; an older, bearded man in vestments holds up a wafer and breaks it.

Two, an after-church picnic, with people playing games, a wedding (with people of different races) and children riding piggyback on adults. Three, people singing at a campfire, a passing gang member tossing his guns away and a Ku Klux Klansman stripping off his robes and throwing them into the fire. Imagine that ...

Well, we in Christ can do these things, or something similar. If we did, we wouldn't need Herbie Hancock to tell people how we should live; we'd already be doing it.