Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Who Do You Think You Are?

What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?...Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord, and I accuse your children’s children.- from Jeremiah, Chapter 2.

TV shows that feature celebrities tracing their ancestry (such as TLC's Who Do You Think You Are and PBS's Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) finally tempted me to adopt a habit that (almost) grew into an addiction: tracing my own roots. It's fascinating. My great-great-great-great grandfather fought in the Revolutionary war. This is supposed to be a badge of honor, and to be perfectly honest, I am proud of this, though I'm not sure why. Other ancestors owned slaves, and of that I am ashamed, though again, it happened long before I was born, so I am not sure why this embarrasses me. 

God takes the long view about human values and human behavior. Real change in a culture can take a long time. Big changes can be generations in the making. We don't tend to think this is the case so much anymore, because we have seen revolutionary changes in our lifetime. For example, I learned to type on a typewriter. My kids learned that same skill on a computer. Their children may not even need to learn how to type--modern technology may enable a new way of communicating that will render the skill of typing completely obsolete. Even now, there is voice recognition software that can type for people as they speak. However, in spite of the rate of change, human nature remains the same. Twitter changes the way revolutionaries communicate with one another, but the underlying conditions that lead to revolutions have not changed much since Jeremiah's time. 

It doesn't seem fair that my grandchildren may be held accountable for some mistake I made, but that's not what Jeremiah is talking about. He is talking about the need for Israel to make big changes in ways that the changes can be sustained for generations. My 4-times great grandfather's wartime service might have been for nothing had the new nation not carefully hammered out a Constitution to help succeeding generations continue to build on the great deeds of their ancestors. That's what God is talking about--the importance of changing for the better and instilling these improved values in our children so they will pass them onto their children.

What does that mean for us today? What changes is God calling our generation to make and pass on to our children's children? In America it seems that there isn't much consensus on "what ails us," but I also think that a growing number of individuals are putting increasing pressure on leaders in the government to work toward consensus when possible. In the meantime, what changes is God calling us to make as individuals and as the church? In the past year or two I have heard more and more voices talking about this, and I think that is a good thing. I have my own ideas, of course, but the point of this blog post is not to push for my own agenda, but rather to stimulate thinking and conversation about where you think God is calling the people of God to be in a couple of generations.

Who do you think you are? Who do you think God wants you to become? What do you think God wants you to pass on to your children and grandchildren, or if you are not a parent, to the next two generations to come?

Monday, August 12, 2013


"I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name..." from Jeremiah, Chapter 23, verse 25

I'm obsessed with the MTV show Catfish. The premise is pretty simple: co-hosts Max and Nev agree to help some poor person who has fallen in love with a stranger they have met online. In every case the object of their affection has refused to meet in person or to even participate in face-to-face video encounters. In spite of all the red flags, these poor victims of obvious romantic deception hope against hope for a real-life love connection to come out of this. It almost never happens, of course, but like all good narratives, catfish: THE TV SHOW is about the journey more than the destination. Every episode asks, and answers, the question, "How could they be so stupid?"

The answer is always complicated, but it boils down to the fact that as humans we are prone to wishful thinking, romantic idealization, and hope against hope. This human trait works in our favor when we are fighting a virulent form of cancer or avoiding shark attack while awaiting rescue from a boating accident, but it also makes us prone to becoming a victim of fraud from time to time. 

This is the issue that Jeremiah seeks to address head-on. Because he understands human nature the way the producers of Catfish do, Jeremiah knows that he is not likely to make much headway trying to convince the victims of false prophets that they have been victims. Instead, he tries to put the fear of God into the ones who are perpetrating the fraud: "Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth?"

Sooner or later, fraudsters can expect to be found out. That is a truth that false prophets in Jeremiah's day had to face, and it is the same truth that modern-day liars and fraudsters face. It is best for liars to change their ways before they find themselves facing an angry victim with a broken heart, empty pockets and and a weapon in hand.  On catfish: THE TV SHOW, the hosts make like Jeremiah and attempt to persuade the romantic deceivers to give up their lying ways. Sometimes they are gentle, but sometimes they pour on the guilt and condemnation. Usually they succeed, in part because they understand that the lies tend to start out for an understandable (if usually somewhat selfish) reason. They appeal to the fraudster's sense of justice and fairness. 

Almost all of us are guilty of overdoing the charm and exaggerating or distorting the truth in some situation or other. Usually we are acting out of temporary feelings of desperation. It doesn't necessarily make us evil people, but it's not okay, and we need to heed Jeremiah and just cut it out.

Is Jesus Datsun?

"I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!" Jesus, speaking in Luke, chapter 12, verse 49

Back in the old days, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, the company now called Nissan Motors was known as Datsun, and they had a catchy jingle that went, "Nobody demands more from a Datsun than Datsun! We are driven!" 

Jesus is like that demanding teacher you had that maybe drove you crazy, but who when you look back on your life, seems instrumental to any success you have had as a person. 

Most church people have either never met this Jesus, or at least have avoided getting to know the guy all that well.  Why? Well, not without a good reason--zeal is often associated with obsession, and being obsessed involves being nutty. Many of the truly vocal people who have embraced the fire that Jesus came to bring to the earth seem to think that Jesus wants us to set the religious equivalent of forest fires. I can see why they might think that, given that according this same passage of scripture, Jesus goes on to say, "Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."


Yeah, I know, this needs to be put in context, but first I would like to point out to any good Christian people who quote scary-sounding stuff that Allah said from the Quran as a way to trash Islam that we need to take a good hard look at how a lot of stuff in the Bible sounds before we go pointing fingers at other religions.

So, back to my point: Jesus is kind of a pain in the posterior to his followers. He doesn't like to be pinned down and stereotyped as "gentle Jesus, nice guy from Palestine who just wants us all to get along."  Yeah, Jesus is the Prince of Peace and all that, but he doesn't just want everyone to make nice. He has standards. He wants people to work hard and fight the good fight, to refuse to compromise our ideals just to avoid making waves. 

Churches with full pews are doing something right.  I strongly believe that churches succeed across denominations and regardless of politics, when they standards for themselves and their members, and push their clergy and their members to make goals and achieve them. Now, I might not always agree on the standards  churches set and the goals they are trying to achieve, but I do agree that Jesus advocates this same type of passion and zeal for his followers.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Tell Us How You Really Feel, God

When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more...Isaiah 1:12

The book of Isaiah starts out with God dissing the people of Israel. Hearing this, the people of Israel must have thought, "God...are you breaking up with us?" According to the prophet Isaiah, God is disgusted by Israel's expressions of devotion, because they are not being true to the aspects of faith that really matter to God. It's like, sure, Israel keeps bringing God flowers, but then Israel constantly talks smack about God behind God's back. 

We all know people like Israel in the time of Isaiah. Maybe we've been that way ourselves, a time or two (or three or a hundred.) True devotion is hard. Putting on a show of true love is just easier, sometimes. 

I was once in a relationship in which my partner complained, "You're always wanting stuff." That's how God is--always wanting stuff from people. God is willing to give, but any relationship is a two-way street, and God wants what God wants, not just token empty gestures.

Suppose what we are giving God is not what God wants? What if a modern day Isaiah were to come into our midst and say, on behalf of God, "Look, people, you can take your white frame buildings filled with straight-backed pews and your Sunday-morning snoozefests with hundred-year-old hymns and stick them where the sun doesn't shine." How would we react? I'm guessing that would make us pretty angry and defensive. 

The fact is, not all churches are empty on Sunday mornings. Sure, some of them are filled because they are willing to do anything to please the people, but what if--what if--some of them are filled because they are doing a better job of giving God what God wants from us? Is that a thought we are willing to think? Are we willing to devote ourselves to sincerely and prayerfully considering what God wants from us, in the time and place that we find ourselves? Because anything less isn't actually worship.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Gratitude: For When Life Isn't Fair (which is most of the time)

...sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. (From Ecclesiastes 2:12)

Last summer, inspired by an idea I found on Pinterest, I started making yard ornaments out of old dishes and glassware pieces. My yard is right next to a busy pedestrian sidewalk, and before long someone stole my favorite one. So unfair! Stealing an idea is one thing, but trespassing on my yard and swiping my unique piece of folk art burned me up! At first I couldn't even bring myself to take refuge in my usual comforting thought--that the person who stole needed it more than I do. But upon further reflection I decided that maybe they needed that little bit of beauty in their lives more than I needed it.

The book of Ecclesiastes is the most cynical book in the Bible. Koheleth, the author, points out that you don't always get to enjoy the fruits of your own labor. This is an important lesson.  Life isn't fair, and if we teach our children that it is always fair, and we link that to our Christian faith, they will become cynical in the same way Koheleth is cynical.

While life is not fair, that doesn't always work to our disadvantage. If we learn to count our blessings instead of nursing our grudges, we experience life as a blessing.