Monday, April 22, 2019

We Wait with Hope, and with Work to Do

April 2019
We Wait with Hope, and with Work to Do

To have faith is to wait. For Christians, this is summed up in “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). But in many ways, twenty-first century humanity, with microwaves, instant messaging, and “watch-what-you-want-when-you-want” is less equipped than ever to wait. But we are in a confluence of moments that remind us of how waiting is central to whose we are and who we are, as people of faith and as people in the world.

Just over a week ago, Jews observed the end of the eight-day Passover holiday. It is a holy time at whose core is waiting. It takes us back to the Jewish peoples’ four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, waiting for freedom. This time also reminds us of the start of the forty years wandering in the desert, waiting to reach the Promised Land. I have attended many Seders, the ritual meal of Passover, and they are long and unhurried affairs, because while slaves rush from one thing to the next, free people do not.

Then, one week ago, Christians celebrated Easter, the resurrection of Jesus, whom we understand to be the Messiah. But the Christ was long in coming. An Advent (pre-Christmas) hymn, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” reminds us that many generations waited for his birth. With our Trinitarian understanding of Three Persons in One, we commonly refer to “The God Who Is, Who Was, and Who Is to Come.” That last clause reminds us that we have been waiting a long time, over 2000 years, for the Second Coming. Yet at the same time, we wait with confidence, trusting that “now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

Finally, in just a few days, Muslims will enter into the sacred month of Ramadan, a time of spiritual discipline expressed in additional prayer, increased generosity and charity, and added study. Most well-known, there is a waiting that is core to every living thing, waiting for nourishment. Fasting from dawn to sunset, watching for the moment when we need not hunger and thirst any more. Of the Eid al-Fitr celebrations I have been invited to, marking the end of Ramadan, after a month of fasting, the food and fellowship are abundant.

Waiting is a theme that runs throughout these religions which have common origins. But it ought not be a passive waiting, as if saying “someday, someday, someday” is enough. Because it is not. That kind of passivity, waiting without hope, can lead us to give up. It is to accept what is as if it is what will ever be, however deficient it is. This is the source of Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation that “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Hopeful waiting, however, is what invites us, encourages us, energizes us to fight the good fight, to run the race that set before us with every intention of seeing it through to the end. This hope allows us to look at what was and what is, and to see how it pales against what can be. It calls us to participate in the Lord’s Prayer petition that “God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” It prompts us to ask hard but necessary questions.

If slaves rush but free people do not, are you slave or are you free? And is your life freeing those around you, or enslaving them?

If now is the “acceptable time,” are we now ready to hear the women, people of color, and those of diverse sexuality whose voices have too long gone unheard? If not, why not? If not now, when?

If a minority people in this country, often unfairly targeted, can offer generosity and hospitality, what is preventing the majority people from offering the same?

What are we waiting for?

Sunday, January 27, 2019

St. Paul's is closing but its ministries will live on

December 2018

This year I’ve been focused on the chronology of the Christian faith. Just days ago, Christians around the world celebrated Jesus’ birth. In just months, we’ll begin the journey that ends in his death at age 33, followed weeks later by his being raised to new life.
So it is that Christians worship “the God who is, who was and who is to come.”
But what does that mean for a church like St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Allentown, which after 256 years will close Sunday? For some, this will be just another chapter in the epic saga of a city’s birth, death and hoped-for resurrection. But what does this say to those with faithful hearts?
Like many a venerable institution, one option on St. Paul’s table was to simply keep going until it couldn’t go anymore. “Last one out, turn off the lights.”
There are many churches for whom the writing on the wall is simply to be covered with a new coat of paint and ignored. Instead, St. Paul’s chose to take the road less traveled, one that we pray will have implications long into the future. It has hardly been easy. But it has been faithful.
When we think of self-sacrifice, we might imagine a soldier risking her life to save comrades in danger, or a firefighter racing into a burning building. Of course, Christians have our own model of self-sacrifice: Jesus on the cross.
His witness is that living life to its fullest, to its most faithful, doesn’t have to mean slowly fading away with old age. That sometimes painful decisions have to be made in service of others, at cost to ourselves.
That is the example St. Paul's has chosen to follow.
A first hope was to preserve this place of beauty and quiet that many worked hard to maintain, to find someone to make a new home in the building, staving off the wrecker’s ball and one more parking lot in Allentown. We’re thankful that mission has been accomplished.
But the building, as important as it is, is only a part of the story. We may have just celebrated Christmas, but this is really an Easter story, a story of life, death and resurrection. Because instead of using its newfound monies for short-term survival, St. Paul’s chose to use its assets not for the one, not for itself, but for the many.
The legal road ahead is complicated and beyond our control, so I can only share what we intend and what we hope. Rather than eking out a few more years, the church elected to make its assets an ongoing source of support for ministries that have meant so much to so many for so long, both in church and community.
In particular, to help the homeless by working through a foundation to make sure funds will be available to present and future ministries focused on their behalf.
And while it may not be heroism worthy of medal or movie, it is no less self-sacrificing. It is indeed, “laying down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
It has been an honor to minister to, and with, the members of St. Paul’s, cooperating with those dedicated to “the least of these” in Allentown. This is a sad time to be sure, but a faithful one as well, trusting Jesus’ example that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
In trusting our God, St. Paul's testifies that though our life together has come to an end, our commitment to others goes on. Resurrection, the life to come, will be borne out in a legacy of service lived by others.
We have seen the One who is and who was. And so we trust in the One who is to come.

“Ish” is not Enough

August 2018

Perhaps like me, you’ve discovered that “-ish” has become quite a popular expression. I’ve asked someone how they are doing, and gotten a response of “ish.” In other languages it might be “como si, como sa,” “asi asi,” or “metza-metza,” but however you say it, it means, “I’m okay; not terrible, not great.”

But “ish” is spreading. I’ve now seen t-shirts embossed with “adultish,” which I can appreciate, having my own childish moments. Then there is “thirtyish,” a stretch for someone like me who ought to wear “fiftyish.” My favorite is a t-shirt with the word “fitish,” followed by “someone who likes the idea of being fit, but also really likes food.” A t-shirt that fits me to a T!

It is no wonder, then, that a book has been published entitled Christianish. In it, Mark Steele challenges Christians to examine their relationship with Jesus Christ, asking if we satisfied with being “Christianish.” That is, sort of Christian.

To help us answer that, Steele offers several questions for Christians to ask themselves, which for the broader readership of The Morning Call I will broaden. “Which takes priority: being the kind of believer others think I should be, or actually following the One in whom I believe?” Next, “Have I divided up my life so that my faith affects part of my life, but leaves other areas untouched?” And, “Does my feeling of being a faithful believer largely depend upon completing a checklist of rules and regulations?”

The author observes that many Christians talk about certain big, bad sins, but overlook other sins. You may not commit adultery, but gossip and pride are okay. You may consider homosexuality a sin, but not greed and lying. Abortion may be unforgivable in your eyes, but ignoring the poor is acceptable.

All of which leaves this Christian wondering about the “faithfulish” of any religion who are able to overlook all manner of behavior in favor of what they see as “a greater good.” And, as a proponent of the separation of church and state, I am saddened by about how “Americanish” this nation has become.

What is “sort of American”? If we condone leaders and officials who use their office to pad their own nest, that is Americanish. When the freedom of speech that allows us to sing the national anthem is denied to those who would kneel during that same anthem, that is Americanish. If actions are taken that restrict certain people’s ability to vote or exercise their rights, that is Americanish. And this country’s ideals say that we are better than that.

Just as Christians confess that we always fall short of the glory of God, any honest American must realize that this country has not lived up to its ideals. For too long “all men are created equal” really meant only men. And even now “all” doesn’t really mean all. We aspire to these national ideals, even if we still have a lot of work ahead to achieve them.

For people of faith and for people of this nation, honesty and humility demand that we admit to continually falling short of our ideals. And yet confession, repentance, and change for the better are possible because of those same higher callings.

Quoting Scripture or carrying a Bible doesn’t make anyone a Christian; that is a matter of living our faith. Similarly, wearing red, white, and blue and standing for the national anthem does not make anyone an American. Because if my exercise of being an American inhibits someone else’s constitutionally-given rights as an American, then whatever else I am, I am only “Americanish.”

In matters of faith and nation, “ish” is not enough.