Looking, staring

This week I looked up a 1976 interview that then presidential candidate Jimmy Carter gave to Playboy magazine. Carter had continued to teach Sunday school in his hometown Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, and there were lots of questions about how Carter’s faith would inform his presidency. The questions were tough, wide-ranging, and professional. Over 43 years later, the interview seems so civil compared to today’s politics that it borders on quaint.

But then Carter said this: “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

And that was pretty much what everyone remembered from that interview. President Carter was widely mocked for being a prude.

This week we’re studying Matthew 5:29, the verse President Carter was referring to from the Sermon on the Mount. If you take it seriously, you’re still going to be mocked. Frankly, sometimes Christians are prudish, especially when they make known what they’re against, but can’t articulate what they’re for.

In the creation story, God lovingly created the first man and then breathed life into him. Genesis chapter two is filled with images of God’s infinite creativity, including God parading the animals before the man for the purpose of naming each one.

But the parade had another purpose, to see if one of the animals might be a “helper suitable” for the man. None were. So God put the man to sleep, pulled out a rib, and created the woman.

“Helper suitable?” Is that all?

The same Hebrew word for “help” is used of God himself. This “helper’ had a bit of God in her.

And “suitable?” A better translation would be “mirror image” or “likeness.”

The woman completed creation. Neither the man nor the woman was complete without the other, and together they reflected God’s image back to each other and to God.

We were created to marvel with the man as he got his first look at the woman: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

But then came the fall, and looking became staring, and marvel turned to lust.

Jesus is not being a prude when he warns us not to stare.

He’s not asking too much when he instead expects us to marvel.

Reprocessed anger

We’ve been talking here about God’s kingdom. God’s plan is to bring everything under his sovereign rule, but God has been doing it slowly, over centuries, so everyone will have the chance to come in.

One of the Bible’s enduring images of the kingdom is of a feast, where everyone will sit down to eat with God at the end of history. In Luke 14, Jesus builds on this image with the parable of a master who held a great banquet. Invitations had gone out and been accepted. When the big day arrived, guests were invited to take their places, but one by one they began to make excuses. The excuses were calculated to insult the host and keep the banquet from taking place.

What would the master do?

Instead of retaliating for this public humiliation, the master sent his servant out to bring in the poor, the blind and the lame. The master commanded this be done until his house was full.

Middle Eastern scholar, the late Ken Bailey, said the master “reprocessed his anger into grace.”

I just checked several news websites, and there were at least a dozen reports of insults along with the inevitable angry responses. Anger is the air we breathe.

The thing is, genuine injustice is a legitimate cause for anger; the master in Jesus’ parable had every right to retaliate. Instead he opted for costly grace. He used the anger generated by the insult to reach the folks who never could have imagined being invited to the feast. 

Jesus has sent out the invitations and the kingdom feast will soon begin.

Could it be that we are so used to anger, and being angry, that we don’t know how to respond when we experience his costly grace? 

Sadder

The loss of basketball great Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others this week brought millions of folks up short, including me.

Tragedies like this often take me back to November 1981 when actress Natalie Wood died in a boating accident. The tribute in The Washington Post began: “What is sadder than a beautiful woman dying young?” 

I’m not sure why those words stuck with me. The death of someone so talented and young (Natalie Wood was 43) is sad indeed. And yet, sad things happen every day.

What makes one thing sadder than another? Does our sadness depend on the fame, looks, character, age, or even the impact of the one who was lost?

I remember President Reagan comforting the nation as the remains of service members killed in a terrorist attack were brought home. No one knew the names of those young men except for their families, but they gave their lives for people they would never know. That was sad. 

Nothing had prepared me for how sad I felt then my Dad passed away, just a few weeks before Natalie Wood. Does our sadness depend on how much someone loved us? The death of some people, like a parent, leaves a hole in our lives that is not easily filled.

Is sadness related to a sense of unfulfilled promise, like the loss of Kobe’s Bryant’s daughter and the others on that helicopter?

Sadness is personal. We all experience loss differently, and every loss reminds us that we will all pass from this life to the next.

Yet in our sadness today, there’s hope. I just read that Kobe Bryant took his Catholic faith seriously. It helped him and his family get through a tough time and led him to fund programs for youth and the down and out.

There was one death that mysteriously takes all other deaths up into itself. It was the saddest death of all, but it would have been infinitely worse if it had never happened. 

Only in Jesus Christ can sadness become joy that will grow every day for eternity.

City on a hill

I’ve written about this before, the 40-minute video that I’ve watched over and over. I show it to new church officers every year. The speaker is Dr. Rodger Nishioka, a nationally known Presbyterian pastor and teacher. Rodger is speaking about the “21st Century Reformation.” The theory is that about every 500 years, God holds a “rummage sale,” throwing out things in the church that are outdated and making room for the new. He says a reformation is going on now, and it’s terrifying to lifelong Christians. But in the end, the church emerges stronger and more faithful. Every time I watch I discover something challenging, new, or encouraging that I hadn’t noticed before.

One major trend is that young adults are leaving the church by the millions. Even young adults who were baptized and grew up Presbyterian aren’t in any church anymore. 

He tells of being with a group of young adults in Arlington, Texas, and asked them about mission. A young woman said, “The problem with ‘you people’ (church people) is that you seem to have no effect on the place in which God has planted you.”  Rodger said, “For her, an assessment of authenticity was what effect do you have on the neighborhood in which God has planted you.”

The young woman said, “We’ve got this church across the street from my condo complex. If the church disappeared, we’d open up our blinds and say ‘Cool, more parking.’ Nobody in our neighborhood would say, ‘Oh no, what happened to that church? How will we be a neighborhood without that church?’ They have no impact on us whatsoever. They drive in on Sundays and do their stuff and then they drive back out. Wouldn’t it be nice if they actually made a difference in the neighborhood?”

Jesus called us to be a “city on a hill.”

By “city,” Jesus meant the church, and by “hill,” he meant neighborhood. Jesus gave us the church to be a light to the neighborhood. Before mission can be global, it first must be local.

Every church must ask itself, “Do the young adults around us judge us to be authentic? Are we making the impact on the neighborhood we should?

Would we be missed if we disappeared?

Google “Rodger Nishioka – 21st Century Reformation.”

Peace

Last week Jana and I attended a forum on free speech at the Heinz History Center. The event was hosted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and included a panel discussion led by the paper’s executive editor. Panelists included the rabbi from the Tree of Life Synagogue, a local imam, a Duquesne University law professor, a Rand Corporation scholar, a Post-Gazette editorial writer, and the Pennsylvania Attorney General. A packed house of 600 guests experienced a powerful, wide-ranging discussion. What are the limits of free speech in the Internet age? When does hate speech become criminal? When does censure become censorship?

As we’d approached the history center that night, we met folks handing out flyers. My first thought was that they were greeters for the event. I recognized one of the Post-Gazette writers who’d done a critical piece on me and the church five years ago. I suggested he come by the church to see what was going on today. Maybe he could see that he’d been wrong about us.

I glanced at his flyer. He wasn’t there to greet. He was picketing.

Newspapers, like churches, have been in decline for decades now. Great institutions with vital missions, gone. And the human toll has been great. Jobs lost; families disrupted.

I could feel for this writer. The flyer said he hadn’t had a new contract or a raise in years. But what to do? Hundreds of print organizations have closed, downsized, or gone to on-line only. The Post-Gazette has been trying to transform to meet these new realities. 

I was struck by the irony of a reporter picketing a free speech event, one hosted by his own paper, no less.

And I realized that the writer was doing to his employer what he had done to me and the church in his critical piece years before. Instead of seeking a new way ahead, he was tearing down. Couldn’t he see how the world has changed?

Change is personal, so change makers get attacked personally.

The flyer said he was fighting for the “heart and soul” of a great paper. Really?

When we become too certain that our goals and our ways are right, we move toward conflict rather than peace. We stop listening to others, and to God.

Can you eat your way to joy?

Does joy in life depend on how much you weigh?

This week, the Today Show debuted a new series featuring actress Valerie Bertinelli. Bertinelli has spent her life in the public eye. In 1975, at age 15, she got her big break in the sitcom One Day at a Time. In addition to acting, she’s had her own cooking show and been a spokesperson for Jenny Craig.

“Valerie Bertinelli is feeling positive about 2020,” the reporter said. That includes paying attention to her own needs.”

“When you’re busy taking care of other people you forget to take care of yourself. I’ve been working so hard for so long…I just want to know what true joy feels like,” Bertinelli said. 

Today said that Bertinelli brought joy to others through her TV roles while hiding her own sadness. Over the years she found comfort in food, leading to swings in her weight. But now, with the Today Show documenting her progress, she plans to eat better and lose weight to learn to feel better about herself.

Who can’t feel her pain?

Women of all ages are crushed by a culture that places a premium on youth and beauty. Any standard of beauty that would suggest that the lovely Valerie Bertinelli needs to lose weight is arbitrary, harmful, and impossible to achieve.

And if your eating failed to cover sadness, does it follow that you can eat your way to joy?

The Christian faith has a whole different path to joy that doesn’t depend on one’s weight, bank account, job prospects, number of Facebook friends, or anything that can go up and down.

The great English preacher, the late David Martin Lloyd-Jones, said that the essence of the Christian faith is to say that “Jesus Christ is good enough and I am in Him.” To say that “I’m not good enough” is to deny the very essence of what it means to be a Christian.

Joy will always be illusive if it depends on anything that can go up and down.  

But the good news is that you are so attractive to Jesus Christ that he left heaven to pursue you. When you are in Him, you have the joy of knowing that you’ve been approved by the only one who matters, and that his approval will never change.

Wild kingdom

Back in 2005, soon after I’d made the decision (momentous for Jana and me) to sell our home in Montgomery and move to Pittsburgh to attend seminary, I heard a talk by Ted Wardlaw, President of Austin Theological Seminary. Dr Wardlaw said something startling. He said the church most people had been raised in had served to “inoculate us against the real thing.”

The church most of us grew up in was safe.

The church was where you went to experience religious programs, take part in religious services, be inspired.

Yet the church Jesus gave the world was anything but safe.

Jesus came to bring a new kingdom to all of creation. Jesus was the intersection between his kingdom and the kingdom of the world. Everywhere Jesus went, life as God intended was breaking in.

The early church was wildly countercultural.

The church most of us were raised had become the culture.

It felt safe, but was it what Jesus intended?

Every now and then you meet a Jesus follower who has a quiet calm about them. They’re secure in their person. They don’t need to win every argument. Change doesn’t bother them. Maybe it’s because they’ve had a glimpse of life as Jesus intended.

Maybe they’ve seen the new kingdom breaking in. 

They know that the only safe place is where Jesus is.

Sign of Immanuel

A few years ago, Jana and I were at a church conference where one of the speakers was Gary Haugen, President of International Justice Mission. The mission of IJM is to rescue people from slavery and human trafficking. Gary was talking about finding the courage to end slavery, which is worse today than any time in history. 

When Gary was ten years old, his dad took Gary and his two older brothers hiking on Mount Rainier. He was having a good time until they came to the point where the paved trail ended. There was a big warning sign with all the dangers that lay ahead.

Steep drop offs. Loose footing. Bears and other wildlife. Beware crossing streams and creeks. Watch out for sudden storms.

Trying to be nonchalant, he told his Dad that he thought it would be fun to spend the day in the visitors’ center. His dad told him about the adventure they were going to have, and said, “I’ll be with you.” But Gary wasn’t buying it. He went back, while his dad and brothers went ahead.

When he got back to the visitors’ center, it was nice and warm. There was a video playing, showing what it was like to climb to the top of the mountain. There was a hot chocolate machine which he liked. There were lots of other exhibits. At first, he had a great time.

But as the day wore on, time dragged by. The video was on a loop, reminding him for the umpteenth time, what he was missing. It was the worst day of his life. 

When his dad and brothers came back, their cheeks were red from the adventure, their eyes glistening as they told of all the things they had seen and experienced together. 

His dad asked him how his day had been. And do you think he admitted being bored? Did he tell his dad he was sorry for having been such a coward? No, he lied, and said he had a great time.

Even then he knew he had missed out on a special day with his father.

Gary said, “You miss out on the joy in safety.  The church doesn’t thrive in safety. God doesn’t show up in power in safety.”

The sign of Immanuel means that God invited us to be part of the greatest adventure of all. God came to us and said, “I’ll be with you.”

As Gary Haugen said, “Let God show up in power. Go where you can only go with God.”

You were a child once too

It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the new movie starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. The story is loosely based on the relationship Mr. Rogers had with real-life Esquire magazine reporter Tom Junod. In the movie, the reporter (fictional movie character Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys) is assigned to do a story on Mr. Rogers. Vogel objects; he’d been hired to do investigative journalism, he said. But his editor insisted. Vogel had anger issues; all his previous profiles had turned into hit pieces. None of the other subjects for the Esquire article would agree to speak to him. The editor thought that talking to Mr. Rogers might do Vogel some good.

Grudgingly, Vogel set off to interview Mr. Rogers and get the assignment over with. But Mr. Rogers refused to be rushed. He gave Vogel the same undivided attention that he gave to everyone, even if it meant getting behind in production and frustrating the studio crew. Mr. Rogers was far more interested in Vogel’s life story than in talking about his own. Like he did with the children watching his show every day, he wanted to help Vogel deal with his emotions.

Did Vogel have a favorite toy growing up? “You were a child once, too,” he said.

Vogel was incredulous. Could Mr. Rogers really care that much? And about him?

Slowly, the movie begins to reveal some of the sources Mr. Rogers’ profound grace.

It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn’t a Christmas movie, but it is a story of grace and love. Like the grace and love that came down at Christmas.

God was a child once too.

Facing the darkness

For years I’ve heard that suicides spike during the holidays. It turns out that’s not true. Suicides are actually lower this time of year, yet news outlets recycle the myth that because people are under stress, miss loved ones, etc., they take their lives in greater numbers. No.

It turns out the opposite may be true; the season offers hope and support that are lacking at other times. People care and give and volunteer more during the holidays.

But we still need to “face the darkness.” So says Anglican priest and author Tish Harrison Warren in her excellent op-ed in the New York Times last week. The world really is a dark and broken place and only God can fix it. It’s why Jesus had to come.

So Christians observe this season called Advent where we prepare for the coming of the Savior. In Advent, we avoid jumping straight to the celebration; we linger in the darkness for a while. We take stock of what’s wrong with us, and what it cost Jesus to save us.

And when we celebrate, and we certainly do, we remember that Jesus not only faced the darkness, he went into the ultimate darkness.

Jesus allowed his life to be taken so we can live in hope.