Saturday, December 25, 2010

Seasonal Madness

The granddaddy of all ironies is that one of the cheeriest days of the year commemorates the event that should rock us to our core. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14).  Why would a holy and wholly other god, with no beginning and no end, enshroud himself in temporality to be in relationship with people who would not only be ungrateful, but also reject him? What kind of love is this that perfection would enter, not just imperfection, but a hot mess of a world and suffer the indignity of being killed by lesser beings.

How do we celebrate the eternal entering into temporality? With gross materialism and wanton feasts. Human nature is not receptive to the radical change that the gospel requires. Indulging the flesh makes it even less so. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. (Galatians 5:17). Yes, we have a rationale for everything. We exchange gifts to honor the gesture of the three wise men to the newborn savior. But have gold, frankincense and myrrh ever been among the top sellers?

Being a management consultant by trade, one of my favorite episodes of Seinfeld is when upstart comedian Kenny Bania mistakenly takes George’s work presentation on risk management and presents it on stage in his standup act. Kenny later relayed to Jerry that he killed the crowd with his routine.

Risk management in the real world is just as funny. It is a business practice based on eliminating or mitigating threats to planned events or desirable outcomes when in fact there is more in the world beyond our control than vice versa.

Jesus’ birth presented the greatest threat to human history. Simeon told Mary: This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too (Luke 2:34-35). The world did not bake cookies and sing songs when Jesus was born. It hated him from beginning to end.

King Herod and all Jerusalem were disturbed upon learning of Jesus’ birth.  He sent the magi to Bethlehem find the baby so he could supposedly worship him.  God was way ahead of Herod because the magi received a vision not to inform the King of Jesus’ whereabouts.  When he realized he had been outwitted, Herod ordered the execution of all toddler and baby boys in and around Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary had to lay low in Egypt with little Jesus until Herod died.

Upon beginning his earthly ministry, Jesus posed a threat to the religious establishment and the political world order.  The priests did not sit idly as he abolished the Israelite ritualistic system, which was their bread and butter. Neither did earthly kings who wondered what threat this King of the Jews posed to their reign.
He warned his disciples in John 15:18, If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. He was ridiculed for his claims even as he hung on the cross.  One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39)

In the same way, Jesus is a threat to our natural beings and any plans of our own. I can testify that I had no desire to be a minister and quite frankly enjoyed my carnal ways prior to him disrupting my life.  Acceptance of the grace he gives so freely changed my orientation away from a worldly perspective to things eternal. That has made me more enemies than I ever expected—both inside and outside the church.

This is the time of year when families gather from near and far, but Jesus’ presence calls us to loosen natural ties.  For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother." (Matthew 12:50).  

If no other time of the year we get along, it can be while we celebrate his birth, right?
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
   “‘a man against his father,
   a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
   a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ (Matthew 10:34-36)
Jesus did not come that we might all get along. When relationships must change for his sake, there can be momentary distress, but it leads to everlasting joy.

To manage the risk that Jesus’ presence brings, so many have dulled their receptors to maintain an uninterrupted and indulgent existence. It can take the form of overconsumption, excessive activity, or even good religious form. Seasons come and seasons go without eternity breaking into temporality, with flesh fighting the indwelling of spirit with all it can muster. During the season commemorating his birth, otherworldliness seems more appropriate to focus believers on his continued presence in the world.

This is not a sentimental holiday. Move beyond the presents of today, to his presence that compels you to the abundant life his coming secured. Sin made it necessary for God to become one of us. His doing so gives us power over sin and the inauthentic life that it breeds. It’s not enough to be touched by his spirit. Unless you open your heart to receive the fullness of the promise, you will always be left wanting and despising those who do. Dare to give up the life you have planned for yourself to embrace the existence that makes you one with him and free from the fear of losing anything.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Talking Loud, but Saying Nothing

Growing up in Washington DC exposed me to some of the best preaching a little black woman could handle. The standard was high as the nation’s capital has always had the highest concentration of educated professionals. The same was true with preachers. During that era, it was the rule rather than the exception that preachers were trained formally in their craft. Not only were they seminary graduates, a significant portion of them had earned doctoral degrees. I’m not talking about the garden variety of vanity degrees produced by diploma mills. They had real PhDs or the equivalent which qualified them to teach in academia.

If I was not sitting under the voice of Chocolate City’s own prophets, I also had the privilege to hear the best preaching from around the world at black America’s cathedral, Rankin Chapel on the campus of Howard University. The Washington National Cathedral also provided a platform for the most compelling voices from around the world. I was spoiled rotten and didn't even know it.

Coming of age on the heels Civil Rights era, there was much to prophesy about.  Martin Luther King proclaimed a message that was now bearing fruit. America was still experiencing the growing pains of integration and those long denied finally felt like this was the Promised Land. The people had lots to relate to in God’s deliverance of His children in scripture. However, there was also a warning to be delivered about being too satisfied.

Great sermons are now few and far between. How we got to the present state boggles my mind. It seems to be a direct correlation to the advancement of the institutionalization of faith and the proliferation of media outlets. Are we stretching our preachers too thin? Has proclamation become merely transactional? Do we even care? I cannot count the number of times in my life that I have left a service feeling motivated and amused, yet malnourished.  Being the creature of habit that the church counts on us to be, I return without thinking about it.

Upon looking further, I realize this is not a new phenomenon. Writers have noted it through the centuries. As a matter of fact, the problem goes all the way back to prophets of old. In scripture, prophets are not received warmly—to put it mildly—if they foretold something that included rebuke or news unfavorable to the listeners. Tradition holds, and Jesus confirms in Luke 11:47, that they were murdered.  Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them.

If it is God’s nature to reveal the disconnects between His people and their Creator, how have preachers become celebrities today? Could it be that a lot of what's proclaimed is void of prophecy? Jesus’ close followers even complained about the unappealing nature of his teaching. On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6:60).

The most significant role of a preacher is to stand in the gap between the people and God and say what thus sayeth the Lord. It is not to empathize with the people. Oswald Chambers said "You cannot intercede if you do not believe in the reality of the Redemption; you will turn intercession into futile sympathy with human beings which will only increase their submissive content to being out of touch with God."

The preacher is just making noise when he or she ceases to speak for God and becomes one of “them.”  That is another reason that the character of the preacher is important. Scripture makes it clear that sin separates from God. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear (Isaiah 59:2). If the preacher is living foul, how can he or she hear clearly from God consistently enough to provide righteous leadership? Notice that Jesus never makes way for excuses in his teaching. He keeps the standard for both discipleship and leadership high, while committing his Spirit as our power to be the light of the world.

We as listeners must open ourselves to receive what God is imparting to us through the proclamation of the word and the redemptive purpose for it in our own lives. Not only that, we must also discern and test whether God is saying anything through the individuals to whom we lend our ears. Listen for how the preacher has wrestled with the text with intellectual and spiritual rigor, in addition to how that struggle has manifested itself the preacher’s life. If you keep coming up short, then express it with your feet.

Dressed to the Nines

God never promised that every day would be Sunday nor that even the best among us would always feel like doing what we were created to do on the Sabbath. Some Sundays, getting dressed is my only motivation to go to church. During the depths of my disillusionment with the church, only a newly acquired outfit stood between Bedside Baptist and a place of collective worship. Not proud of that fact, but at least it got me to the house of the Lord.

There are some people whose gift it is to reveal that if nothing else is working right in the world, it is the ensemble they have pulled together. Every church has at least one sister or brother who worships God with sartorial splendor. I ain’t mad at them either. Everybody brings something to the party.
And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? (Matthew 6:28-30).

God wants God’s people to look good and especially good for His sake. Tradition holds that believers began putting on their best on Sundays in honor of the angels who were present at the empty tomb after Jesus' resurrection. They have been described in some translations of Luke 24:6 as wearing dazzling clothes. What better occasion to look your best than when meeting God incarnate face-to-face?

That is what Sunday mornings represent. Yes, God is present everywhere at all times. But the assembly of the saints for the purpose of hearing what thus sayeth the Lord is a personal presentation. Jesus himself encourages us to keep up our appearances.
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18).
Blessed are those who can keep it together no matter what they are going through. One of the most memorable pictures in American history is of Jacqueline Kennedy mourning at her husband’s funeral. Even in her grief, she was giving it up with the same elegance she became known for exhibiting.

Does this mean that less aesthetically-endowed are not welcome in the house? Heavens no! The point is, no matter what you have, bring your best. As with all gifts, some have been blessed with more than others. Just as those who preach like prophets and sing like angels assure my soul of God’s presence, fashionistas reveal something too. And if that’s what it takes to get some folk’s attention. So be it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Pimpin' Ain't Easy

Tithing is one of the hardest sells of the church today.  On the surface, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for believers to give God a ten percent cut of their income. The average American spends a significant portion of their money frivolously anyway. Ten percent is not a real sacrifice. Then why is it so hard to get people to come up off their cash?

The reason tithing is so hard to sell is because it is not necessary. The law required eleven of the twelve Israelite tribes to give a tenth of their material benefits to support the Levites, the tribe responsible for the priestly and ritualistic duties of the cult. Jesus’ finished work on the cross satisfied the ritualistic requirements of the law permanently. Consequently, all believers gained direct access to God and the priests lost their jobs.

The New Testament doesn’t speak much of tithing. Jesus labeled it one of the lesser parts of the law. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former (Matthew 23:23). To hear the church tell it today, if you ain’t tithing, you ain’t doing nothing.

The law is not a compelling argument juxtaposed with the grace of the gospel.  The most often quoted verse before the collection is Malachi 3:8-10 (in The King’s Version as God spoke it).

Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.

In all my 42 years, I ain’t never heard this text preached right. Go back and read it yourself in context. First of all, God directed this rebuke at the priests who were withholding proper sacrifices from God. The people were giving right. The priests were the ones stealing by not using the gifts for their intended purpose.  People today watch passively knowing their money is not making it to the Kingdom, yet continue to invest in unfruitful ministries. The most hardened pimps blush as they watch some preachers coerce parishioners to hand over money to which they have no right or meaningful purpose.

The two main guidelines for giving in the New Testament fly in the face of tithing. On the right is II Corinthians 9:7:  Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. God doesn’t need your money to accomplish redemption’s plan. The show will go on with or without your contributions.

Before you get too happy, perfection of faith demands that you abandon your right to yourself, including your possessions. Jesus said “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The first generation church shared all their possessions in common. Today's "Evan-publicans" would have no part of that.

Churches would be empty if such became the standard. That’s why pastors don’t preach it.  Rather, we collude to accept a compromised standard for giving. Give the church a cut and you can do whatever the hell you want. This is no different from the Roman Catholic Church selling indulgences centuries ago. Today’s methods are just not as blatant. In exchange, we don’t ensure that the treasury is going toward real kingdom building. That too would require too much of us.

I Peter 2:9 declares that all believers are priests. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.  If this is true, should we all get a cut of the collection plate as a member of the new Levitical tribe? Go to your pastor and demand your share of the take. Let me know how that turns out.

The Catholic and most Protestant churches dispute the equal access of all believers to God in the face of overwhelming scriptural evidence to the contrary. The former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing, but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently (Hebrews 7:23-24).  The institutional church wants you to believe that you still need a priestly system as an intermediary and demand a fee from you to intercede on your behalf. Go ahead and throw the whole book of Hebrews out the window.

The strange part is that all the answers are within the grasp of anyone willing to read and open their heart to where God is leading. If preachers would concern themselves with ministering to the soul before dipping in congregants' pockets, they would never want for anything. We have been offered something better by way of the new covenant. Rather, we prefer to forsake our spiritual birthright by reverting to the old. Like any runaway will tell you, there is always a pimp waiting to pick you up. Don’t make their work too easy.