Listen

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Here and at church, I have started a series on Christmas songs. Not Christmas carols or pop songs – not the ones we hear on the radio October through December—some of which grow increasingly sappy to me every year.

Not to mention the ones that are theologically troubling. (“So let’s give thanks to the Lord above ’cause Santa Claus comes tonight!” I think, I just, wait but . . . never mind.)

The Real Songs

I mean the songs of scripture. The ones sung by people right there, in real time, Ground Zero of Jesus’ birth. The ones that ushered him in. The songs that people couldn’t help belting out when they knew he was finally on the way.

We dealt with Mary first. Now, it’s time for her much older cousin-in-law.

Zechariah’s Story

Back story. Zechariah was a priest. The Bible says that he was chosen to go into the temple to light the incense and offer the prayers for the people. There’s a whole order here I didn’t know about. Three entire priests were necessary for this incense thing.

Seriously, the lack of efficiency is astounding. You’d think the Lord didn’t care at all about good, sensible time management.

One took away the ashes from the last time the fire was lit. One brought in the new smoking coals for the next offering. Finally, a third man came in to sprinkle the incense on the burning coals, and while the beautiful smell rose up to tickle his nose and calm his head, intercede in prayer for his people.

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Photo by Kirill Pershin on Unsplash

This was Zechariah’s job, and it was the most important and most sacred. I believe the fact that he was chosen for this job says something more than we realize.

Surely, in all those prayers he lifted up, one of them was a desire that the promised Messiah would come. Zechariah woulds never have let the opportunity pass him up, when given this chance to pray for the nation, to pray for its salvation through their shared hope.

Zechariah loved his people. That much will become clear.

Don’t Blink

Suddenly—Surprise! An angel shows up at the altar, right in front of where he stands praying. Angels terrify those who see them. Sweet, lovely, harp-strumming angels do not exist in Scripture. Universally, they scare the heck out of people, and almost always they must first utter the words, ”Don’t be afraid” before they can say anything else to cowering, trembling humans.

 Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John.’ (Luke 1.17-19)

Zechariah had questions. He doubted Gabriel’s word. This was a very bad idea.

Then the angel said, ‘I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.’ (v. 19-20)

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Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash

Zechariah ended up unable to speak as a result of his unbelief. Still, let’s not be too quick to judge him. The scripture also tells us, concerning him and his wife, “Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” So no one can say he’s struck mute out of disobedience. God must have had other reasons.

He spends over nine months speechless. Let that sink in. I am a pastor myself, and I know what it would be like to carry out my daily work without being able to speak. I know how difficult it would be to care for people without being able to talk to them of their troubles. How does Zechariah manage?

One day, his one and only son is finally born—but the enforced silence is still not over.

When the baby was eight days old, they all came for the circumcision ceremony. They wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth said, ‘No! His name is John!’ ‘What?’ they exclaimed. ‘There is no one in all your family by that name.’ So they used gestures to ask the baby’s father what he wanted to name him. He motioned for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s surprise he wrote, ‘His name is John.’

And he finds his voice.

What that voice says will be the subject of the next blog. Why it was silent for so long is my curiosity for this one. Why would God silence a man he himself calls good? Why is Zechariah punished for questioning an angel while Mary appears to have been blessed for the same behavior?

Here’s what I’m thinking. I don’t think it’s punishment. I think it, too, is a blessing.

Perhaps this was God allowing Zechariah some time to listen.

(Some assume from the verse about the people making gestures that he is also deaf, but this is unlikely. Probably, they simple raise their eyebrows or gaped open-mouthed, arms outstretched, signifying that he had better intervene immediately, speechless or not, because his wife is about to do something unheard of! In any case, ten months of observing the world, unable to speak or hear, would be no bad thing, either.)

Listen

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Can you imagine all that Zechariah learned during that ten months or so? What did he hear? What that he had never noticed before did he suddenly find fascinating? What people to whom he had never really paid attention did he finally truly hear? What did he learn from them?

Did he come to deeply appreciate the squealing laughter of children playing by the road, the passionate prayers of his friends, or the tender, quiet voice of his wife at night? Did he learn from the disenfranchised who rarely were able to catch the ear of a priest, but whose calls and cries he suddenly began to heed?

Did he open his eyes to people with whom he didn’t agree, since he had no choice but to listen and not immediately argue back?

Could an awful lot of us use that enforced silence?

He is a good man—that much has been established. Yet he has lessons to learn. For us, this is a hard but beautiful pill to swallow.

God doesn’t punish us for being bad people as much as sometimes, he pushes us to be better people than we would otherwise bother to be

Maybe, God doesn’t punish us for being bad people as much as sometimes, he pushes us to be better people than we would otherwise bother to be.

Zechariah has lessons to learn, even though by all counts be is plenty good enough already.

I do, too.

  • Sometimes it’s when we’re good already.
  • When we’re smart.
  • When we’ve followed a while and know the ways of Jesus.
  • When we’re pretty sure we’ve got this God thing down.

Sometimes it’s then that we trip up.We believe in ourselves more than in Him.

It’s then we find ourselves on a detour out somewhere, unable to speak or really listen, because we thought we could navigate it alone.

One thing we learn from Zechariah is that we must never believe so much in our own goodness, right intentions, best plans, or knowledge of truth that we aren’t teachable.

listen

What might we learn if we listen?

  • If we closed our mouths, cut off the quick reply.
  • Stopped thinking about what we were going to say.
  • Refused the defensive comeback.
  • Chose to hear what someone we don’t agree with feels.

What would we hear and learn?

I’m so fascinated by Zechariah’s silence that I’ve decided my word for 2020—Listen. I want to experience what this man had no choice but to do. I want to know the depths of other people’s hearts, and of God’s. I want to learn. If Zechariah at his age still had much to learn, certainly so do I.

What Are We Teaching Our Kids?

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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

In early April, we started a discussion between me and my daughter on the church, the generational divide, and world peace.

Not really that last one. But it sounded good. In a good lead-in to Mother’s Day, we then talked about what we appreciate about one another’s generation. Now, the saga continues.

What Are We Teaching Our Kids???

Jill: Let’s talk about the idea that we don’t really have to worry about the next generation returning to church. You will, as every generation has done before you, come back after a requisite season of rebellion. 

I’m a little concerned about that laissez-faire attitude for a few reasons.

jesus doesnt want you to be good. Jesus wants uou to be his.

First of all, church is increasingly not a core value in our society, or in your generation. Being a good person and showing love are what it’s all about. Unfortunately, those values are divorced from a foundation in knowing God, largely because we Boomers in the church have taught that being good is the goal. We’ve told you that Jesus wants you to be good, when really Jesus wants you to be his.

Rules versus relationship.

According to that flawed theology, “praying the prayer” and leading a good life are the elements of being a Christian. Not surprisingly, younger generations have latched on to leading a good life and largely dispensed with the praying the prayer part. It sounds like magical thinking to you, and there is therefore no need for it in your efficient, ethics-based world.

Will you really, like the Terminator, will be back?

Emily: Did they have children’s ministries when you guys were kids? When did Sunday School in the modern sense become a thing? I mean the time when it just became a place that kids were sent because otherwise they would be bored or would cause a disruption or wouldn’t understand what was going on. 

That’s where your “do good” stems from. “Be good for mommy, and daddy, and Jesus, too.” True and simplistic as it might be, it lacks action. It lacks depth. It lacks roots.

So, yeah, you’re right. Without the roots leading us back to the church, we can go off and do more than we ever got to in Sunday School (or Children’s Ministry, if it’s a hip new church) and without the restraints of the church to tell us who or what to do good for. It leaves us in control over how we use our resources.

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Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

Jill: Well, I remember my parents sending me up the street to Sunday School. I vaguely recall something about a guy in a blue robe involving lots of flannel.

According to Christian History, the original philanthropic Sunday Schools always had an aspect of religious education, as they used the Bible for learning to read and write. They also imported moral behavior into the curriculum. When the government established mandatory public education in the 1870’s, churches moved to teaching solely Christian doctrine and behavior rather than general education.

Given that Rational Theory (i.e., human society is perfectable through the use of reason) still coursed through the church’s veins at the time, moral education would certainly have been the focus. Be good for mommy, daddy, and Jesus, indeed, has a long history.

Sally Lloyd-Jones, author of The Jesus Storybook Bible, laments the present disinterest in church among children she has interviewed:

“These are children in Sunday schools who know the Bible stories. These are children who probably also know all the right answers — and yet they have somehow missed the most important thing of all. They have missed what the Bible is all about. It is a picture of what happens to a child when we turn a story into a moral lesson. When we drill a Bible story down into a moral lesson, we make it all about us. . . . When we tie up the story in a nice neat little package, and answer all the questions, we leave no room for mystery. Or discovery. We leave no room for the child. No room for God.” –Sally Lloyd-Jones

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So she seems to be saying what you are. We need to start young to let children explore the Bible story — not simple or simplistic Bible stories, but the entirety of the Big Story. We need to let them ask questions, see how the smaller stories, and their story, fit into God’s big picture, and give them something to do about it now.

Emily: I mean, I wouldn’t recommend certain stories from the Bible told straight up to four year olds (Jezebel comes to mind). But when the Bible becomes a tool or vehicle with which to deliver a human-devised moral, it not only puts God in a box, it puts us into a box too. And that box can get kind of constricting as we grow, until finally we break out and, believing the box itself is religion, we walk away, refusing to ever be constrained again.

Jill: There’s this book by some lady where she says something like this.

“Research tells us that 75 percent of young people in our churches today will leave them when they leave home. Why? Because they increasingly believe that church is irrelevant to their daily lives and out of touch with the culture. In other words, they don’t see the point. And in ever-busier lives, everything we spend our time on has to have a point. 

What would happen if, instead, our churches taught kids from the time they could walk that they were ministers? That they were the hands and feet to make the church relevant? That the ends of the earth weren’t as far away or impossible to impact as they thought? I truly believe we could turn those statistics upside down.” –Jill Richardson, Don’t Forget to Pack the Kids

Emily: Blatant self-promotion.

Jill: Yeah. But I completely agree with you. Teaching kids to “do good” divorced from the grand story of why only creates people who know how to follow rules. Once they internalize those rules, who needs the church to continue doing good? You can cut loose from the strings now that you know the rules. Plus, you can create your own rules. Christian education has got to be about a connection to the story more than a moral to it.

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Photo by dimas aditya on Unsplash

Emily: But the box isn’t God. I think we worry that if we try to teach kids God as God is, that their heads are going to explode. Or maybe our heads will explode if we have to start thinking of God as God is.

Jill: So if we want future generations to stay in church, we need to start connecting them to the whole gospel, and the whole God. We need to teach them how being Christian isn’t about rules and being good but about the entire creation to redemption story of why we are trying to do good things and what our role is in the story.

Emily:

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Everybody, Always: A Litany on Bob Goff’s New Book

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You may have noticed, if you’ve been reading this blog long enough, that I have opinions. Opinions about a lot of things. Many of them could be classified as “political,” although I prefer to classify them as following Jesus. I believe them to be well researched, thought out opinions.

Opinions and Other People

But the stunning surprise every time for me is—not everyone agrees with me. I don’t even know what to do with that. Shouldn’t everyone see things the way I do?

Not only is that divergence disturbing to me, but it has brought out parts of me that could not be classified as following Jesus. Anger. I do know that not all anger is wrong—anger over injustice is not wrong at all. How many of us, though, stray away from anger over injustice toward anger at people, rather than problems? (Insert raised hand here.)

Frustration. Doubt. Mostly, lack of genuine love for sisters and brothers who are completely on the other side of the issue. I devoutly believe they are wrong—but lack of love is not following Jesus. I don’t like that. Fix it, Jesus.

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Enter Everybody Always

That’s why I wanted to be on the launch team for Bob Goff’s new book, highly anticipated after a couple year’s hiatus from Love Does. He promised that he would tell me how to love Everybody, Always. The subtitle said it all: Becoming Love in a World of Setbacks and Difficult People. I needed that book.

Fortunately, I made it on the team and got to pre-read the first part of the book. When it came out in April, I ordered the whole thing on my iPad, because I needed the rest of the story–now, not in two day Amazon prime shipping. So here is your reason to get the book—if you haven’t already.

I wanted to preview this book because Bob raises the question I am struggling with—how do we really love people who try their hardest to be unlovable in today’s political and religious climate? Bob manages to open eyes to not only how we do that but, of course, how we sometimes are those unlovable people to someone else. His striking humility and hands-on personal testimony about how this works are enough to sell his authority.

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Resisting the Offer

One of my favorite quotes right off was: “I’m trying to resist the bait that darkness offers me every day to trade kindness for rightness.” Knowing it’s many of our struggle, not just mine, was a great start. It’s a daily thing, not a one and done. We have to resist that bait every single day it’s offered. And believe me, it’s offered a lot. Every time we turn on social media. To realize that it’s darkness trying to get me to click, swallow, and react helps make the right choice.

It doesn’t mean I have warm, bubbly feelings for everyone whose posts make me cringe and scream quietly into my Earl Grey. It does mean that sometimes the better part of love is to scroll past them, know what’s being offered, and refuse to take it. Say a prayer for the person and move on. Nothing to see here. Nothing to trade my peace and kindness in for. The people aren’t dark, but the temptation is.

A few of my favorite sections:

What I’ve been doing with my faith is this: instead of saying I’m going to believe in Jesus for my whole life, I’ve been trying to actually obey Jesus for thirty seconds at a time. Here’s how it works: When I meet someone who is hard to get along with, I think, Can I love that person for the next thirty seconds? them. I try to love the person in front of me the way Jesus did for the next thirty seconds rather than merely agree with Jesus and avoid them entirely, which I’m sad to say comes easier to me. I try to see difficult people in front of me for who they could become someday, and I keep reminding myself about this possibility for thirty seconds at a time. It’s easy to agree with what Jesus said. What’s hard is actually doing what Jesus did.

Right???

I love this. What can’t we do for thirty seconds? If we love for thirty seconds, I suspect it gets easier to love for thirty more, because for at least that much time, we’ve listened, heard, and looked at someone with new eyes. It’s hard to go back to anger and hate and dissension after we choose to love for thirty seconds.

Whether we want to or not, we end up memorizing what we do repeatedly. It’s the way we were wired from the factory. Because this is how we’re made, it’s a great idea to pick actions worth repeating. People who are turning into love do this. They adopt beautiful patterns and surrounding imagery for their lives. They fill their lives with songs, practices, and habits that communicate love, acceptance, grace, generosity, whimsy, and forgiveness. People who are becoming love repeat these actions so often they don’t even realize they’re doing it anymore. It’s just finger memory to them. They don’t need anyone to clap for them. They don’t need validation for things they know are inherently right and true and beautiful. They don’t need all the accolades that come with recognition. They also don’t feel a need to criticize people who have gotten a couple of things wrong or hit a couple of sour chords in their lives.

I want this. I want to practice grace. All the time. Until it’s the song that flows from my heart, fingers, and mouth every moment. Thirty seconds at a time.

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OK, this might be my very favorite quote. 🙂

Each day I start with the things I’m certain about and try to land my weight on those things. It always starts with a loving, caring God who is tremendously interested in me and the world I live in. I’m picky about what else I add after that.

That sounds like fantastic advice to me. It sounds like Jesus advice. What do we continually add to the basic facts that God loves me, God loves all the other people as much as me, and he cares what we do with it all? I want to land my weight on what matters and know that it’s going to hold. All the requirements we add are what makes us bounce off the runway, overweight and unbalanced. I want to travel light with what matters as my baggage, pilot, and landing gear.

There’s much more, told in his storytelling style that makes you want to go out and do half of what he does. (Except the skydiving part. I still have zero desire to skydive.)

I’m not sure how this introvert will manage to be such an active inspiration in peoples’ ives as he is, but at least I know how to start. Thirty seconds at a time.

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Five Hopes I Wish for You and Me

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I learned about mercy and hope this morning while watching my daughter prep for oral surgery.

I had not known, until the technician informed me, that the Pope had declared this next year, since December 8, a special jubilee of mercy. I’m not Catholic; I didn’t know what a special jubilee was, no did I know the pope could call one. But he has, and he has opened up the special bricked up door in St. Peter’s to symbolize it.

I saw that door when we visited St. Peter’s Basilica. I remember it. I didn’t realize it’s significance.

All I could say to her was, “I dearly hope he’s right.”

The Friday Five linkup at Mrs. Disciple is on Hope. Five things we hope. This morning, I can’t think of anything I hope for more than exactly this.

I hope and pray mercy on you. On me. On all of us.

I pray more than anything we learn to extend it beyond what we believe is possible in 2016.

“I am convinced that the whole Church — which has much need to receive mercy, because we are sinners — will find in this jubilee the joy to rediscover and render fruitful the mercy of God, with which we are all called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time.”

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Is there anything more important, in this world of fear and confusion, than to hope for these words? So here are my five hopes for all of us in the Year of Jubilee (An unfulfilled celebration in the Old Testament that I find particularly beautiful and hopeful.) They are all hopes of mercy.

I hope for us the wisdom to listen and learn from those who are different.

Let’s learn the particular mercy of hearing others. We can give no greater gift, I’m convinced, than to see and hear another person. Would it be a beautiful mercy to go out of our way to hear those we may not normally listen to this year? Wouldn’t it mirror Jesus’ willingness to hear the people around him, really hear them, not assume he knew all about them? (Even though he did.)

I hope for us the patience to give second chances.

It’s the popular thing to give up on people as soon as they disappoint us. It’s easy to delete a friend. Easy to move on to the next honeymoon relationship, until the next crack appears. But what if we chose not to? Does it sound hopeful to think we could do the hard work of inviting the cracks, repairing them together, offering second, third, and fourth chances? We might need a few, too.

I hope for us the freedom of feeling forgiven.

The Lord is compassionate and merciful,
    slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
He will not constantly accuse us,
    nor remain angry forever.
 He does not punish us for all our sins;
    he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.
 For his unfailing love toward those who fear him
    is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.
 He has removed our sins as far from us
    as the east is from the west.  Psalm 103

Completely, absolutely, unwaveringly forgiven. By God. And by ourselves. Nothing offers more hope than to know you are forgiven. Nothing prepares us more for the next hope.

IMG_4468I hope for us the release of forgiving others.

Who needs your forgiveness? Offer it in this year of mercy. Be liberal in your offering of forgiveness. You are the one who will feel the free release of hope fill your lungs.

I hope for us the joy of offering mercy to anyone, anywhere.

The one who does not deserve it. The one who cannot hope for it. The one who doesn’t look like you. The one who looks disturbingly too much like you. The one who speaks another language. The one who lives and sleeps next to you. Everywhere. Without consideration of who is keeping score.

This — this is peace on earth. This is the only hope we have. This is the hope of Christmas.

on the same team

By now, most of you have probably seen this video. I love this video. I hope you have enjoyed it as well. But there is a specific reason I love it.

What do I love about this besides a) She’s a GYMNAST, or b) She’s freaking awesome, or c) She’s an inspiration to short women everywhere?

I love the crowd. They may be the best part of this video. At every moment, you can hear them. Cheering her on. Holding their collective breath when she falters. Screaming at her that she can do it and she’s amazing. And she was. And so were they.


No one put her down for being a woman in a (previously) man’s sport. No one yelled that they could do it better. No one called her out on her form or finesse. They crazily, noisily, exuberantly cheered her every effort. They held her up when she struggled. They were a community. They were one.

You go, girl.
I’ve seen this before. When my daughter and I ran (ran as in, walked, but let’s not quibble) a Mud Run, I watched a crowd of women cheer another woman, overweight and on my side of older, as she attempted to run up a muddy hill and pull herself over with a rope. She did it, too. Probably because a noisy group of complete strangers stood there cheering her from the bottom.

We’e all seen the runner who stops, potentially losing a chance at today’s glory, to help another runner in need.

The amateur athletic community knows something the church needs to know. They know they won’t run any faster or compete any stronger by criticizing someone else’s form. They know they won’t improve a personal best by wishing for someone else’s fall. They know cheering helps us all to do better.

They know they need one another to push everyone toward being their best.

They know what community really means.

Church people—we don’t.

The New Testament uses a couple words when it talks about church and believers together. One is koinonia—a term that means to be in fellowship, sharing, united, in community. Another is oikos—which basically calls the church to be an extended family. People who are there for one another through everything, even weird uncles and difficult cousins. 

The Bible also uses the phrase “one another” often when referring to how believers are supposed to do life together. Be devoted to and honor one another (Romans 12.10), serve one another, (Galatians 5.13), accept one another (Romans 15.7), encourage one another (Hebrews 3.13), be kind to one another (Ephesians 4.32).

How are believers supposed to act toward one another? Like that. Like a team. Like a community. Like runners who look at one another as people on the same track with the same goal who help each other to do their best.

How do we act all too often? Um, not so much.

If a church member offends us, we’re more likely to walk away and find someone else than to say, “Hey, you’re family. Let’s work this out. I love you.”

If we disagree with someone’s point of view, we seem all too happy to use personal insult to “prove” we know better than to listen and learn.

One of the largest reasons given among Millennials for why they are leaving the church is this one—too many Christians would rather infight than love their world together. Too many are so focused on being right that they have forgotten how to be Christlike. They want us to care more about a hurting world than about our personal preferences.

Completely lost in the ensuing madness are Jesus’ words: “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” Perhaps, Jesus himself is completely lost in the madness as well. That is an indictment we should not be able to live with.

I’m picturing the revolution that might happen if, instead of calling someone out when we are unhappy, we racked our brains for ways to serve and honor that person.

This is not easy. It’s certainly a personal challenge for me. I can think of a number of people I strongly disagree with that I really do not want to honor. But what if I tried? What might happen?

This isn’t to say we always agree with one another. We don’t. We can’t and shouldn’t. But we can disagree compassionately, thoughtfully, without personal conviction or vendetta entering the picture. We can offer forgiveness, even when it isn’t asked for. Because that’s what the whole “one another” thing is about. We’re supposed to be different in a culture that considers relationships disposable. What if we were?

What if you tried, today? What would it look like?

Our team. We did it–together.
Over the next few weeks, I am planning to do a series of posts on another blog I work on about the church—what it is, what it’s supposed to be, and where it’s going. Please join me. Please tell me what you think about those questions. I’d love your ideas.