Wednesday, May 05, 2004

A Farewell to Kings!

[Below are two versions of a column I've just written for the Community Press newspaper chain. The first is the original version, the second is the edited version submitted to the editor. Such editing was necessary in order to keep the article within a usable word count for the paper. Think of the first as the album version and the second as the radio play single.]

A Farewell to Kings
In the old Mel Brooks movie, A History of the World, Part I, a goofy ruler played by Brooks repeats the line, "It's good to be the king."

Most of us probably would agree. And some who achieve even what would be considered small successes in life may see themselves as kings of a sort. Tom Wolfe's 1987 novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, deals with the pitfalls of Wall Street hubris. Its central character, taking his cue from a popular line of toys from the 80s, fancies himself as "Master of the universe."

It may be though, that we not only want to be kings, but also want to have kings...and queens. As an old-fashioned American who believes in the idea of the republic, that leaders ought to emerge from the people by merit and not by heredity, and that our forebears were wise to cut the chain that once shackled us to King George III, I'm appalled and mystified by our country's fascination with the British royal family. To me, the Windsors are a self-indulgent and undistinguished lot, the world's foremost and least worthy welfare recipients.

In his most recent book, conservative commentator Kevin Phillips points with alarm not only to the western world's obsession with royalty, but also its increasing penchant for enthroning and re-enthroning royals in varying fields of endeavor.

In Europe, once-deposed royals are being invited back to their countries, part of an effort to re-establish aristocracy, it seems.

In America, we have hereditary royal families in motion pictures with names like Douglas, Hawn-Winslet, Barrymore, Huston, Bridges, and Coppola (which includes Nicholas Cage).

We have royals like the Kennedy, Bush, Gore, Taft, and Clinton families in politics.

In music, the one-time "king of pop" married the daughter of "the King" in hopes of establishing a royal line.

And in what is arguably the A-list of American royalty, sports, names like Bonds, Winslow, Griffey, Manning, and Boone recur.

We also applaud and are fascinated by the sons and daughters of the rich and famous, not because they do anything, except behave badly. Witness, the Hilton girls.

None of this is to say that the heirs of great success are unworthy of the opportunity to cultivate their native gifts in the same fields in which their parents and grandparents excelled. Jeff Bridges is a great actor, Bobby Bonds is a tremendous baseball player, and George W. Bush is a more facile politician than his father, grandfather, or great-grandfather.

But we clearly give more opportunity to the heirs of American royalty than we do to other people.

And, I think that we derive a certain security and comfort from our royalty. They give us a sense of stability. We speak appreciatively of the "good genes," a supposed intrinsic talent for playing a scene, hitting a baseball, or governing a country.

Apart from the fact that such notions are all rot, we need to be careful about the amount of acclaim or power we give to other human beings.

In the Old Testament portion of the Bible, God's people the Israelites, craved an earthly king to rule over them. All the other countries in the neighborhood had kings and the Israelites thought it would make them powerful and important to have one too. God didn't want to name a king for them. "I am your king!" God insisted. The people repented for a time, but soon started whining again. Finally, as if to show the people how misguided they were, God gave them a king, a man named Saul.

Saul had movie star good looks and a Mr. Universe build. But he soon started believing he was every bit as wonderful as the sycophants around him said he was. He became disastrously self-indulgent and his rule ended in disappointment and tragedy.

Of course, we need leaders. Somebody has to direct every human endeavor, from keeping our roads paved to guarding our homeland.

But our "kings" would do well to remember that whatever their areas of leadership, they're on temporary assignments. And they might also remember that the best leader is, above all, a servant.

Of course, the absolute master of service is God in the flesh, Jesus Christ. He came into the world, He said, to serve. And He did that, all the way to a cross where He bore the punishment for our sins, even though He didn't deserve it. He also said that if we were going to follow Him in this life and into the eternity He opens to all with faith in Him, we had to spurn the world's love for kingship. He said that in the end, the last will be first and the first will be last.

We don't need kings and we don't need to be kings. The world already has a king. He's a humble servant who only wants what's best for us and when we trust Him, grants it to us. He's the God we know through Jesus and if we all volunteered to live under His reign, the world and our personal lives would be the better for it.

A Farewell to Kings, the Column Version
In a movie comedy, a goofy ruler repeatedly delivers a signature line: "It's good to be king."

Most of us probably agree. But it seems to me that we want to have kings as much as we want to be kings.

Throughout the world, there is a mystifying fascination with the wealthy and severely dysfunctional British royal family, for example.

In Europe, once-deposed royals are being invited back to their countries.

In America, royal families reign in various fields. Succeeding generations seem to effortlessly fall heir to the power, influence, and acclaim wielded by their forebears. It happens in such diverse fields as the movies, sports, and politics, where the same names crop up repeatedly.

It may be that every member of these royal lines has been worthy of the opportunities given to them. But we clearly give more opportunities to the heirs of American royalty than we do to other people.

We also seem to derive a certain comfort from our royal families. It makes us feel good to see familiar faces with familiar gestures and intonations of voice. We even speak appreciatively of our royals' "good genes," imagining that they are automatically predisposed to play a scene, hit a baseball, or govern a country.

Such notions are all rot. They come close to advocating the permanent class systems from which the west broke during the Renaissance. Worse yet, they smell suspiciously like Hitler's notions of a master race.

We may inherit talents, but talents grow in the hothouse of work and struggle, not in the air conditioned comfort of a speeding limo.

We need to be careful about who we enthrone as kings. In the Old Testament portion of the Bible, God's people the Israelites, craved an earthly king to rule over them. Other countries had kings. The Israelites thought it would make them powerful and important to have one too.

But God didn't want to name a king for them. "I am your king!" God insisted. The people repented for a time, but started whining again. Finally, as if to show the people how misguided they were, God gave them a king, a man named Saul.

Saul had movie star good looks and a Mr. Universe build. But he soon started believing he was as wonderful as the suck-ups around him said he was. He became self-indulgent and his rule ended in disappointment and tragedy.

Of course, we need leaders. Somebody has to direct every human endeavor.

But all "kings" in positions of leadership need to remember that they're on temporary assignments. And they might also remember that the best leader is, above all, a servant, not a royal.

Of course, the master of servant leadership is God in the flesh, Jesus Christ. He came into the world, He said, to serve. And He served all the way to a cross where He bore the punishment for our sins, even though He didn't deserve punishment.

Jesus says that if we are going to follow Him in this life and into the eternity He opens to all with faith in Him, we must spurn the world's love for kingship and become servants too.

We don't need more kings and we don't need to be kings. The world already has a king. He's the God we know through Jesus and if we all volunteered to live under His reign, the world and our personal lives would be the better for it.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

The Proof is in the People

John 10:22-30
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, May 2, 2004)

The flight was running late and the passengers, which included many children, were becoming restive as they waited on the runway tarmac. The pilot thought about what he could do to make the wait easier, especially for the families involved, and remembered one of his airline’s corporate values: Break all the rules and don’t wait for permission to do it. So, the pilot contacted the McDonald’s in the terminal and ordered Happy Meals that were brought out to the plane for all the kids. Needless to say, that pilot became a hero to everyone on board the delayed flight. But he also has become a hero in the company for which he works, Jet Blue.

You know, it does no good for a company to have a value statement, or a family to have values they promote, or for churches to have creeds, doctrines, and statements of belief, if those values and beliefs aren’t lived out. What we’re really about is seen and heard less in our words than in our actions. The proof is in the people.

Jesus was once confronted by a surly group of His fellow Jews. It happened at a section of the temple in Jerusalem known as Solomon’s Portico or Porch. It was named after one of Israel’s kings, David’s son Solomon. It was a sensible place for Jesus to walk on a winter’s day just before Hanukkah because the way it was situated, Solomon’s Portico protected Him from the cold prevailing wind of the season. But it afforded Him no protection from nasty questions.

Our translation of the New Testament’s original Greek tells us that Jesus was asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” But there is good reason, based on examples from both the ancient Greek and the modern Greek language that the question was couched in an everyday phrase that really meant, “How long are you going to keep annoying us? Who do you think you are, the Messiah?”

Of course, Jesus had and would state plainly Who He was. He was and is the Messiah, God’s anointed Savior of the world. He was and is God in human flesh Who came to save everyone who follows Him from sin and death and pointless living, giving us forgiveness, life, and purpose. But Jesus doesn’t bother with words at this moment. He tells this bunch:

“I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s Name testify to Me; but you do not believe...”

They didn’t believe, Jesus said, even though it was as plain as the noses on their faces Who He was. They didn’t believe because they were unwilling to see themselves as sheep who had wandered far from God. They were unwilling to be sheep who listened and heeded the Good Shepherd’s voice.

The proof was in the people. Anyone who bothered to look at Jesus and what He did day in and day out, understood Who He was. And anyone who looked at the lives of His skeptical tormentors could see who they were as well.

But if people can see Who Jesus is by His actions—His life, His acts of compassion and miracles, His death, His resurrection, the question I constantly must ask myself is this: Can people see Jesus in me? Does my life give evidence that Jesus is alive and real and working in the life of one who professes to follow Him?

Now, as good Lutherans, we all know that there is nothing that we can do to earn God’s love or forgiveness. No work, no matter how wonderful, will allow us to buy our ways into the Kingdom of God.

But we also know, as Jesus’ earthly brother James said, that faith without works is dead. Faith that isn’t seen in the ways we live our lives, the choices that we make, the priorities we choose, the service we render, and the love we share isn’t faith. Faith in Jesus begins in complete surrender to Christ, daily repentance and renewal in His Name, and a commitment to be precisely what the New Testament calls the Church: the very body of Christ, working in the world. Faith makes us, in Martin Luther’s phrase, little Christs, who live, love, and die for the world.

Our faith in Christ will be visible to the world in at least three ways which I want to talk about this morning. First: It will be seen in our acts of love done in Jesus’ Name. Steve Sjogren, the senior pastor of the Vineyard Church in the tri-county area, is the person who re-invented and then popularized kindness outreaches in the contemporary church. In one of his books, Steve talks about an outreach the congregation did back in the 80s. A gathering of New Agers was happening in downtown Cincinnati at the convention center. Steve convinced folks from his church to go down there and give away cold cans of Coca Cola just outside the doors. These people, many of whom had long ago repudiated faith in Christ, were stunned to see these Christians reaching out to them without judgment or harshness or Bible tracts. The Vineyard folks even showed good humor as they did so. They’d say things like, “I’m channeling into the fact that you want diet instead of regular.” Jesus could be harsh and confrontational toward those who were part of His religious community. But He always demonstrated the greatest degree of flexible love toward those who stood outside the Kingdom and needed Him in their lives: the tax collector who watched longingly as Jesus walked into town, the woman caught in adultery, the hated foreigner. When Christ has come to live in our hearts, Christ’s love will be seen in us.

Another way in which our faith will be visible is in our service. This past week, Ann and I watched the new Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. God’s Name was never mentioned in the movie, so it really wasn’t meant to be “Christian.” Yet, it showed a community of people who were kind to each other as each dealt with adversities in their lives. A woman cared for her father, suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. A father, his marriage falling apart, looks out for his boys. An old woman, feeling alone and useless, reaches out to those same boys as they deliver her daily paper; she teaches them how to bake. Two confirmed bachelor ranchers take in a seventeen year old girl who is pregnant and rejected by her mother.

The title for this story was Plainsong. That’s a term borrowed from the worship music of the Church. A plainsong was the genre of simple chants used in worship that began with the Gregorian Chants. I liked this name for the movie because, over and over again the New Testament tells us that when we serve others, we really serve the God we know in Jesus Christ. Jesus said that whenever we serve the least important and most despised people in our world, we really serve Him. What we do here on Sundays is more a pep rally than worship. The service we render to others in Jesus' Name in our daily lives is our real worship. It is our plainsong. And it’s a sign to the world that Jesus is living in us.

Finally, it should be said that faith evidenced in our lives will gain us the right to tell others about Jesus. From my experience, whenever we love or serve others, eventually they will want to know why. Peter in the New Testament tells us that we need to be ready for such questions. “Be prepared always to give an account for the hope that is in you, but do it with gentleness and reverence.” I guarantee that whenever we serve and love others genuinely, not for our gain, but for their gain and Christ’s glory, we will be ready to tell them about Jesus. He will have come to live inside us and with us and He will give us the right words when they need to be uttered.

By the time she died (within days of Princess Diana), Mother Teresa was known around the world for her acts of love and service in Jesus’ Name. Everyone wanted to know what made this follower of Jesus tick. Once, she appeared at a Harvard University chapel service. Her love for all people allowed her to share the hope of Jesus...and even some uncomfortable counsel from God.

“I understand,” she said "there are lots of you students in this school who are doing things that displease God. You are harming yourselves and offending God. Some of you are drinking alcohol and taking drugs. Others of you are engaged in sexual sin of many sorts. I have a message for you from God: Repent, turn away from what you are doing.”

Probably not the smooth message that a PR guru would have told her to deliver! But the response of everyone there was amazing. The entire crowd rose to its feet and gave her thunderous applause for several minutes. Her life of authentic love and service in Jesus’ Name gave her the credibility to confront the sins that bedeviled that campus community and get applauded for it!

Today, all across America, there are churches that booming and offering all sorts of services. Friendship is growing. Christian books climb to the tops of mainstream best seller lists. Everyone was buzzing about Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ. But it troubles me that for all the popularity accorded Christian books, music, and movies, there seems to be no corresponding change in our society.

Our materialism, with its reliance on things rather than God, keeps getting worse.

Our culture of violence grows more pronounced.

Crassness and nastiness are on the upswing.

We watch an endless outpouring of so-called "reality TV" in part, so that we can watch others be humiliated and hurt.

I fear sometimes that we Christians are all blow and no show. I know that I can be that way! Who Jesus was could be seen in His actions of love and service. None of us is perfect and none of us will ever perfectly reflect Jesus’ goodness and power.

But I believe that if we will let Jesus be the Messiah Lord of every part of our lives, something amazing will happen. People will see something they have rarely glimpsed before: a real-life, genuine follower of Jesus. They’ll see Jesus working in us, even with our self-acknowledged imperfections, and like that crowd in the Harvard Chapel in their response to Mother Teresa, their defenses will be disarmed and maybe, just maybe, they’ll let Jesus take control of their lives too.

The proof is in the people and we are Christ’s people. Let’s live that and let the world in on all the blessings, forgiveness, hope, and power that comes from Christ!

[The source of the true story about the Jet Blue pilot is told in the latest issue of the business magazine, Fast Company.

[Steve Sjogren tells the story of his church's New Age outreach in his book, Conspiracy of Kindness. That book also is the source of the true story told about Mother Teresa. It originally appeared in a book by Tony Campolo.

[Hallmark has indicated that the DVD of Plainsong will soon be available.]

After Easter, What?

John 21:1-19
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, April 25, 2004)

A man woke up one morning with a feeling. He just knew that something special was going to happen that day. He looked at his clock and it had stopped at 3:00. He went downstairs and glanced out his kitchen window to look at the thermometer and found that the outside temperature was 33 degrees. He grabbed the morning paper and it was dated March 3, the third day of the third month. On a hunch, he turned to the third page of the third section of the paper and just as he thought, it was the racing news. In the third race, one of the horses was called Trio. The guy ran to the bank, withdrew his life-savings, and bet it all on Trio to win that race. He shouldn’t have been surprised by the outcome, but he was. Trio came in third.

I’ve seen people look for all sorts of signs—whether from God or elsewhere—for how to live their lives, be successful, avoid calamity, find a job, find a mate. But just as often as not, we seem to avoid clear guidance that’s staring us right in the face. Recently, I’ve been undergoing physical therapy with a neck problem. I go three times a week. For several weeks now, the physical therapist has given me the same basic instructions: four times a day, I’m to lie down on my back and get the weight of my head off of my neck; throughout the day, I’m to gently do retractions with my neck to help realign things. What’s amazing to me is that even though the physical therapist's instructions are clear and simple and redundant, I find ways to forget them or muff them, all the time.

This past week, things improved so markedly that I went into overdrive. I’m a man and as a man, I sometimes use “man logic.” If a few retractions, helped a little, a lot of retractions, would help a lot! I figured that by exercising aggressively, I would get over the hump and back in the gym to lose my flab. Instead, I set myself back, causing me headaches. So, during my visits this past week, with a smile, the physical therapist reminded me again of my simple instructions. I wondered if she was gritting her teeth as though she were teaching a frustratingly thick-headed student: “Four times a day, lie on your back and after the inflammation you’ve caused your neck and head muscles dies down, gently do retractions with your neck to realign things.” I think I get it now. We’ll see.

Our Bible lesson for this morning is the epilogue of John the Evangelist’s telling of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In it, we find that Jesus is forced—like my physical therapist—to review some things with seven of His disciples that He’s shared with them many times before. This is critical though, because He has gone through His cross and His resurrection. Soon, He will no longer be physically present with them. Through Jesus’ encounter with the disciples in today’s lesson, He shows that neither they—or we—need any signs to tell us what our lives should be about on this side of Easter morning. We already know what to do. And it’s crystal clear!

The lesson begins very strangely. It’s just days after Jesus had risen from the dead. Easter is the most exciting thing that has ever happened in human history and the disciples had been given ringside seats! That in itself should have clued the disciples to the fact that their lives were to be different than they had been before.

Besides all of that, over the preceding few years, Jesus had spent hours and hours with these men. He had made clear that He was God, that He had come to die and rise so that sinners like them—and us—could be forgiven, have new lives, and live with God forever. Jesus had already told them that they would be going out into the world to tell others about Jesus so that they too, could turn from sin, entrust themselves to Jesus’ leadership, and live forever with God. Jesus had even told those who were engaged in the fishing profession that their fishing days were over. Instead, they would be fishing for people, gently calling them back to the God Who made them, loves them, and wants to live with them forever.

So, what exciting plans and great risks are the disciples preparing to make as our lesson begins? What kindness outreaches are they going to do? What sorts of bold prayers are they bringing to God, asking Him to help them share Jesus with their neighbors? They weren’t doing any of that!

Like children on a rainy Saturday, they seem to be bored and listless. Finally, Peter says, “I think I’ll go fishing.” The other six disciples say, “We’ll go with you.” They turn their backs on Easter and Jesus’ clear instructions. But habits are powerful things, you know. They’re hard for us to break. They make it difficult for us to try new things. Habits wear ruts into our souls. The husband and wife who constantly squabble out of habit, keep driving their relationships over the same old cliffs. Alcoholics make the mistake of ordering what they tell themselves is “just one drink.” The student who needs to get an important paper done says that just like last night, she needs to call a friend or play a video game and before you know it, just like the night before, the evening is gone, the important paper undone. Someone has said that one sign of insanity may be believing that if you keep doing the same things in the same ways you always have, eventually you’ll get different results than you’ve gotten before.

Jesus came to bring us the joy of heaven. But first, He came to annoy us by calling us out of our ruts and comfort zones and into His Kingdom instead. There, we’re called to love and serve as we’ve been loved and served.

Peter and the rest forgot that. They went back to old habits. They went fishing. And like a night on which several of them had gone fishing a few years before, they didn’t catch a thing. They shouldn’t have been surprised. They didn’t need any new signs or flashes of intuition. Jesus had already told them that for the rest of their lives, they’d be fishing for people. He’d also told them, “Without Me, you can do nothing.” If Jesus isn’t in the center of our lives, our lives can never be what God made them to be.

So, the disciples come back from a night of futility, their nets empty. A stranger is frying up fish over a charcoal fire on the shore. “Children,” He calls out, “you didn’t catch anything, did you?” (Of course, they hadn’t.) He tells them to throw their nets over the right side of the boat and soon their nets are full, just as happened in that incident of a few years before when Jesus had given them a similar command. Now, they know Who the stranger is. It’s the risen Jesus!

Soon, they’re sitting around a charcoal fire and having dinner with Jesus. A painful memory may have crossed Peter’s mind at that moment. It had been while he was standing around another charcoal fire, in the high priest’s courtyard, warming himself against the cool Judean night, that within sight of Jesus, Who been arrested and bound, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times.

As if to assure Peter that all is forgiven and that he can go on with his new life, Jesus asks Peter three questions, each a chance to erase his earlier denials. “Simon Peter, do you love Me...? you love Me? you love Me?” And each time Peter says, “Yes,” Jesus reminds Peter of his mission in life: Feed My lambs. Tend My sheep. Feed My sheep. In other words: Take care of your neighbor in My Name, love the unlovable, tell others about Me, pray for those who are hated, give to the poor, help others to be My followers too, be a servant. Jesus summarizes it all even more succinctly when He says, “Follow Me.”

On Easter Sunday morning, this place was filled. Everybody loves Easter! But after Easter, what? Do we grow bored? Are we looking for some sign about what to do next? We don’t need to! Our mission is clear. No more business as usual. No more religion. Instead, we’re to follow Jesus. Period. We’re to do that by feeding His lambs, loving the world for whom He died and rose.

For each of us, that may look a little different. Some will teach Sunday School or volunteer occasionally for Children’s Church. Some will clean up the building, volunteer to man the mixer board for our new audiovisual system, take care of the sign on Route 125, mow the lawn. Others will help with mailings, or youth work, or Catechism, or play in a musical group, or participate in skits, or become a hospital visitor. Some will lead small group Bible studies, after school programs. I hope some day soon, the people of Friendship will be running a coffee shop, a Christian book store, an auto repair shop, and a hair salon right on our campus—using the income generated to provide services to those who can’t afford them and giving employment opportunities in a wholesome environment, especially to young people.

If you don’t believe those things can happen, look around you and see how far God has brought us so far and realize that other churches in other communities are doing these same kinds of things and more. When Jesus is at the center of our lives, we can do lots of things! And of course, no matter what we do, all of us will be involved in serving our neighbors, inviting them to worship with us, and helping them to know Jesus.

After Easter, new life comes! It’s a life filled with blessings and challenges and heavenly power. After Easter, we’re to follow Jesus. We’re to fish for people, bringing them to Jesus. We’re to take care of others, loving as we’ve been loved. There are sign-up sheets for some ministries in the lobby and when it comes to new ministries of love in Jesus’ Name for which you may have an idea, I am always all-ears. We don’t need to wait for a sign. We already have Jesus. Let’s get to work!