The LBJ Principle

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

On August 10, 2014 our readings came from Matthew 10:1-31

Think, for a moment, about your passion. What do you love – I mean, really love? Running? Cooking? Sports? Do you remember the day that you fell in love with that hobby?

A Malachite Kingfisher

A Malachite Kingfisher

In 1998 I was traveling through Machinga, Malawi, in Central Africa. My friend, Pastor Mnensa, and I were on our way to the Chikhale CCAP, and were crossing a little “bridge” about 20 kilometers from the nearest paved road. As we came near to the bridge, Ralph began to tell me about a wonderful little bird he had seen near that stream on an earlier trip. We stopped and waited for a moment, and I was delighted to see a Malachite Kingfisher – the most beautiful bird I think I’ve ever seen.

Later that same year, I was sitting in my friend Dirk’s living room in Pretoria, South Africa, and I noticed all the birds that were flocking to his feeder. Of course, to my mind, they were all exotic. I was in Africa, after all. I said something to the effect of, “I can’t believe you have so many cool birds here. If we had nice looking birds in America, I might start watching them there. But all we have are boring birds.”

Fortunately for me, and perhaps unfortunately for anyone who gets stuck in a conversation with me, I have since discovered that we have some amazing birds in the 412 and across our continent.

House Sparrows

House Sparrows

However, at the time, I was thinking about all of the LBJ’s that flock to my feeder every day. An “LBJ” is a “little brown job” – one of those small, undistinguished creatures with dull plumage that seem to be everywhere. There are at least 35 species of sparrow in North America, and by and large, they are (at least from a distance) LBJ’s.

I know, I’m committing some sort of ornithological heresy by saying this, but I don’t see the excitement in watching a flock of a hundred small brown birds looking for the one with a different color eye stripe or bill color. Once in Texas, I talked with a man who had followed a flock of sparrows around the wildlife refuge for an hour because he thought that in and amongst the House Sparrows there was, in fact, a Lincoln’s Sparrow. And there was. And it’s hard for me to envision a scenario whereby that photo would be worth an hour of my time, but…

A Lincoln's Sparrow.  I know - this is sooooo much better than a House Sparrow, right?

A Lincoln’s Sparrow. I know – this is sooooo much better than a House Sparrow, right?

The House Sparrow is a much-despised bird, even among serious birders. There are articles that talk about how to create an environment in your backyard that discourages these LBJs from crowding out the feeder. There are about 150 million of these birds in the United States, and not many people like them.

In fact, in the late 1800’s there was a movement called the “Great English Sparrow War”, wherein this bird was called a foreign invader who was lazy, immoral, and harmful to native songbirds as it stole their food and habitat.

Publicity poster for Mao's "Four Pests" campaign.

Publicity poster for Mao’s “Four Pests” campaign.

Half a world away, a couple of generations later, Chairman Mao named the English Sparrow as one of the four pests that had to be eradicated from China for the country to succeed – again, calling it an immoral and lazy bird who stole food from the native inhabitants. For hundreds of years, people have spent a good bit of energy hating the sparrow.

And yet Jesus says that God actually cares about the sparrows. Billions of sparrows in the world, living, breeding, dying, hatching…and God actually cares for them. God knows what is going on in their lives, if we can trust Jesus on this one.

God gave me one child. I love Ariel, and now her daughter, Lucia, with my entire being. I am not exaggerating when I say I love them more than life. Sometimes I look at my friends with 2, 3, 4, or more children and I say, “How do you do that?” Not so much, “how do you manage to get everyone to school on time, or in dance classes or little league or those activities?”, but “I know how fiercely I love my one child. How do you love that many children as much as I love mine? Isn’t it exhausting?”

Loving people wears you out, doesn’t it? It’s nerve-wracking and annoying – you worry about people making bad decisions and getting caught up in someone else’s bad decisions and…

I am a hover-er. Ask any of the kids in the youth group, and I bet they will tell you, “I know that Pastor Dave loves me, but he sure asks a lot of questions. And he hugs me a lot.” At this moment, I am as drained and spent as I have ever been because of the ways that I have tried to love the kids from this community who have served on a Mission Team for the past week. I would walk across broken glass for them, but I am beat.

But as noble as all that is, I am not that good at loving and caring, at least compared to God. My world is so full…and my head hurts and my heart aches and sometimes I just throw up my hands and sigh.

And yet there is something in the divine nature that loves and treasures even the House Sparrow. These little creatures, which Matthew tells us are sold two for a penny, are noticed and valued by God. When Luke gets around to this part of the story, we see that he must be shopping at Walmart, because he finds them five for two pennies.

They are as close to worthless as they can be. And God cares for them.

What does this mean? It means that in the divine economy, there are no Little Brown Jobs. God refuses to look at some part of the creation and say, “Oh, that? Meh. It’s not my best work. I’ve done better.” God knows, values, and cares for everything in creation.

By extension, therefore, it would seem as though I, made in the image of God, am called to a similar level of attentiveness and care. I am not free to disregard or despise that for which God cares.

Which leads me to some thoughts about the current crisis on our nation’s southern border…or the educational system in our inner cities…or the famine in South Sudan…or the warfare in Israel and Palestine.

It seems to me that so much of what is truly evil in all of those places comes from the way in which one group of people looks at another group of people and says, “Them? Meh. They’re nothing special. Just some little brown jobs. Don’t bother with them. You can’t do anything. They’re lazy, and immoral. They don’t belong in our world. You’re best off trying to find a way to get rid of them.”

Beloved, this is the truth: that kind of reasoning is more prevalent than we admit, and that kind of thinking will kill not only “them”, but “us” as it removes their humanity and tarnishes the image of God in us.

BOrderChildrenSince October of last year, more than 63,000 children have been caught crossing the border alone. Many of these children have run right to the Border Patrol officers. These children tell stories about being sent on this harrowing journey by their parents who have said, “Look, this is the best choice we have right now. Sending my seven year old daughter, by herself, through Mexico and into the USA is the best way I can think of to protect her from sexual predation or murder.” These are parents who love their children as much as I love Ariel.

Just stop and think about that for a moment. How bad must your range of options be if that is the best idea that presents itself? If you would like to explore this a little further, watch the movie Sin Nombre some time. It is harrowing and disturbing.

But back to these 63,000 children. Look, I’m not sure what we are supposed to do with them as a matter of national policy. I don’t know enough about immigration law and the situations in their own countries to be able to pretend that I have a great idea as to how to “solve” this crisis.

But I’m not preaching a sermon because I want to sell you my ideas about solving the crisis. I’m preaching this sermon because I am sure that we are not free to disregard or despise those children. You don’t have to agree with me or anyone else as to which policy is most effective at stemming the tide of children who fear for their lives. But I’m pretty sure that the gospel forbids the church of Jesus Christ from looking at any child of any ethnicity and saying, “Oh, for crying out loud. What are we going to do with all of these stinking LBJ’s?”

This is what I realized last week: I cannot think of a single one of my friends who, if they went down to get their morning paper and found a naked, cold, nine-year old who appeared to have been violated in some horrific way, would turn that child away. I know rich and poor people of all ethnicities. I know liberals and conservatives, crunchy-cons and libertarians, socialists and anarchists. But I cannot think of a single friend of mine who would look at a child like that and say, “Tough luck, kiddo. I think you’re on your own,” and then take the paper and go indoors.

I don’t know any of my friends who would shoot a neighbor for being in the wrong place.

But many of us are content to look at situations on the border or in the Middle East or somewhere in the world and say, “You know what? Let’s get rid of them all. They bother me.”

We wouldn’t say that. But we employ institutions to say that for us. We are fundamentally good people who are kind and generous who find ourselves asking the government or someone else to be ruthless on our behalf. There is an inconsistency in that which threatens our ability to live faithfully.[1]

Jesus says that not one sparrow is forgotten by God. Not one escapes his notice.

Debbie Blue says this in Consider the Birds:

Can you love songbirds and still be compassionate to the house sparrow? Can you have an incisive critique without a hardening of the heart? Maybe it’s tricky, not completely easy, a little complex, but we of all species are especially equipped to handle a little complexity.

The house sparrow is not necessarily dull and uninteresting. In Australia, they’ve learned to open automatic doors. Some hover in front of the electric eye until the door opens. Others…sit atop the electric eye and lean forward until they trip the sensor…

Our hearts beat seventy times a minute; the house sparrow’s beats eight hundred. At rest, we breath about eighteen times a minute; a sparrow, ninety times. I like thinking of them breathing so fast – all this breathing out in the world, all this heartbeating.

Love your neighbor. It’s the most brilliant instruction. It’s wise and wonderful and something we need.[2]

Complexity is difficult, but we can handle complexity. I have to admit, I don’t know how to make love the cornerstone of our social policy. I am not sure what the best way to care for these children is. But I do not want to live in a nation where indifference or vindictiveness is the rationale around which we set up our systems and institutions. I don’t know how to help those children or our Border Patrol or anyone affected by this. I don’t know.

But I don’t want to not help. So I guess I’ve got some learning to do.

Consider the sparrow. There are no LBJ’s in the Kingdom.

Consider your neighbor.

Love – even when it wears you out.

A Savannah Sparrow, whose song, heart, and breath matter to God.

A Savannah Sparrow, whose song, heart, and breath matter to God.

[1] South African theologian Peter Storey has said, “American preachers have a task more difficult, perhaps, than those faced by us under South Africa’s apartheid, or Christians under Communism. We had obvious evils to engage; you have to unwrap your culture from years of red, white and blue myth. You have to expose, and confront, the great disconnection between the kindness, compassion and caring of most American -people, and the ruthless way American power is experienced, directly and indirectly, by the poor of the earth. You have to help good -people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them. This is not easy among -people who really believe that their country does nothing but good, but it is necessary, not only for their future, but for us all.” (this was in an “Open Letter” to the people of the United States, written not long after September 11, 2001)

[2] Consider the Birds (Abingdon 2013), pp. 147-148.

Where Are The Five?

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness.  This week’s message provides the second introduction to the book as well as a challenge to care for our children well.  Scriptures include Judges 2:6-19 and I Peter 2:9-12.

         You know, I couldn’t tell you how many people have said to me already today, “Do you know what I would love to see, Pastor Dave?  I would love to see a simple, creative graphic that describes the Deuteronomic Cycle as we see it lived out in the book of Judges.”

Deuteronomic Cycle 1Yeah, well, OK, that’s a lie.  Because, quite frankly, no one, ever, has asked me to talk with them about the Deuteronomic cycle.  But maybe that’s just because while you have always wanted to see something like this, you never thought to bring it up in polite conversation.  So today is your lucky day, because here is a representation of the Deuteronomic Cycle, one that was given to me by our friend Tammy Weins Sorge.

The Deuteronomic Cycle is a term that is used to describe the theological history of God’s people during the time that the book of Judges was written.  It’s a way to interpret the narrative that we’ll be studying for the next few months.  You can see how the cycle works – essentially, the people start off all right, and then they blow it somehow.  God gets really angry and then zaps them.  The theological term for this is that “God’s wrath is unleashed.”  The people suffer because God is so mad, and then they cry out to God. God hears them and cuts them a break by sending them a leader, or a judge, who sets things straight… until they screw up again, when he gets angry again, and so on.

As I say, this is a time-honored way to understand the book of Judges.  And it is essentially correct – at least in the cyclical nature of things.  However, I’d suggest that we read the story this way because we’re the people.  We believe that God did something to us, when in reality, it may have more to do with our own choices than we’d like to admit.

Did you ever hear a student complain, “Can you believe it?  She gave me a “C” in that class?”  Or maybe a friend has said, “Well, I lost my job because the cops took my driver’s license.”  When you ask why the mean old policemen took his license, he says, “Well, they said that I had another DUI…”

Do you see?  We find it very, very easy to minimize the effects of our own choices some times.

I would suggest that in the book of Judges, we see a cycle all right – but instead of it being a cycle wherein God gets angry and punishes people for being so stupid, it’s a description of the truth that time and time again, humanity chooses poorly, and God allows us to experience the consequences of those choices.

Take a look at our reading from Judges for this morning.  Twice in the span of three verses, we read of a choice that God’s people made: in verses 12 and 14, we see that God’s people forsook – that is, they abandoned, they left, they walked away from, they made another choice – and they served the other gods.  And when they make that other choice, God gives them what they want: God “gave them over…”

Ba'al

Ba’al

In this case, and in many, many places in the Old Testament, the decision that God’s people make is to forget about worshiping God and instead choose to worship the Ba’al and the Asherah, the gods that the Canaanites worshiped before the Israelites show up in the land.  Ba’al is a fertility god, usually depicted as either a bull or a man with a lightning bolt in his hand. He is a propagating, inseminating, seed-spreading machine.  Asherah is his female counterpart, said to be the “Queen of Heaven”, and she was often worshiped at poles that were erected in her honor.  The “worship” of Ba’al and Asherah almost always involved some sort of sexual activity on the part of the priests and the worshipers.  It was, I must say, a very popular religion.  And time and time again, the people of God, the people who ought to know better, choose to be fascinated with the allure of the Ba’als and the Asherah rather than to serve the God who called them from slavery.

Asherah

Asherah

And here in Judges 2 we see a fascinating, horrible situation.  It’s a second introduction to the book of Judges, and we once again encounter Joshua giving the people their final instructions.  Under the leadership that Joshua shared with Moses, the people have left Egypt and trekked through the desert for a generation.  They’ve eaten manna, seen God at work time and time again, and crossed into the Promised Land.  And here, before Joshua and his peers are cold in their graves, the people of God choose to abandon God and live, act, and worship like Canaanites. In the space of a few years, they’ve gone from being followers of God to acting as his enemies.

Joshua addresses the people

Joshua addresses the people

How could this happen?  Why did they make this choice?

Last week, I mentioned what I thought was both the theme, and the saddest verse in the book of Judges: “In those days, there was no king in Israel, and every man did what was right in his own eyes…” (21:25)  We talked about the fact that it is easy for us to behave as if there is no God, no source of authority.

The second saddest verse in this book comes in this morning’s reading:

…and there arose another generation after them, who did not know the Lord or the work which he had done for Israel. (2:10b)

The people of Israel had done what God asked them to do: they entered the Land that he was giving to them…  But they forgot who God was. They forgot who they were, and they forgot why they were.

All those years coming into the Promised Land, and Joshua failed to mentor a leader who could replace him.  All those years walking across the desert, and the families of Israel forgot to do what Moses had told them in Deuteronomy 6:6-8

And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  Don’t forget!

Yet in less than a hundred years, the people of God did forget who they were.  Of course they made bonehead choices!  How could they choose wisely at all when they were operating out of a place of ignorance and mistaken identity?

Beloved, can you see that this is where the Church in North America is heading today?  In our own tradition, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the median age is 63.  That means that half of the worshipers are older than 63.  80% of Presbyterians are over the age of 45.  I came across a study of churches in England that sent chills down my spine.  In that country today, 39% of churches say that they have no worshipers under the age of 11.  None.  49% have no attenders between the ages of 11 and 14, and 59% report no participation at all by those between the ages of 15 and 19.[1]

ukstats2Here’s another way to look at the people who are (or who are not) church in the United Kingdom this morning.

And maybe the temptation is to see that skinny red line of participants who are under the age of 20 and then to look around this room and hear the beautiful noise of crying babies and say, “THANK GOD that’s not us.  Wow, that would be terrible.  Good thing we’re not in that situation.”

And that, my friends, would be a mistake.  Because we are the church.  And the church is losing her children.  We are creating a generation who does not know the power or presence of God.

How is this happening?  The folks at the Fuller Youth Institute suggest that one of the problems is that most churches today are giving their kids what they call “Red Bull experiences of the gospel.”  Red Bull, as you know, is a drink that contains significant amounts of sugar, caffeine and other substances that will, its ads say, “give you wings”.  That is, people who drink Red Bull find that they have a temporary burst of energy and effectiveness for study, driving, or whatever.  Of course, that’s often followed by a let-down. SONY DSC

A “Red Bull experience of the gospel” means that the church gives our kids an experience of faith that might be potent enough to help them make decisions at a high school party, but is not deep enough to foster long-term faith.[2]

This research hits me hard on a personal level.  Because for the last forty-one years of my life, I’ve gone down to church on Sunday evening for youth group meetings.  Thirty-five of these years, I’ve been a leader.  For a long, long time, I sought to connect with kids by making a splash, and by making Youth Group entertaining, relevant, and cool.  And, I’m ashamed to say, I could get away with that thirty years ago.  And I did.

But now, whenever I see entertaining, relevant, and cool, well, it’s in the rear-view mirror.  Any relationship I had with those qualities is in the past.

And yet…and yet…I love children and young people now more and better than I did in the 1980’s.

Beloved, here’s the thing that you need to know this morning:  studies have shown that teens who have had five or more adults from the church invest in them during the ages of 15 – 18 are far less likely to leave the church after High School.[3]

YouthRallyBack in the day, I tried to be it for the kids that I knew.  I played amazing games and was familiar with pop culture and tried so hard to make sure that every kid knew that I was there…  And many of those young people are not interested in faith any more… in part, I’m afraid, because I tried to do everything myself.

We need a culture wherein each of the young people whom we are called to love (which, I might remind you, includes all young people) are reminded of who they are according to the glorious truth of 1 Peter – that they, and we, like the first Israelites, are called into a place of blessing so that we can follow God in Christ so that the world might know God’s deep and rich love and blessing.

Each of the young people we are called to love needs to be coached on making decisions and experiencing consequences and living into truth.

What does that mean for us? Well, we have 27 children signed up in our Preschool program.  There are an additional 27 students enrolled in the after school program with 5 on our waiting list.  In the first two weeks, we’ve had 22 teenagers show up at our Sunday night youth program.  If you’re doing the math that adds up to 81 children…not counting all the babies you see here.

Where are the five for these young people about whom God is crazy and for whom Christ died?  Which five people are seeking to somehow encourage, nurture, love, and build up each of those 81 children…and the others we know?

Relax, people.  I’m not trying to sign you up as a Sunday School teacher, a youth advisor, or a volunteer at the Open Door.  Jessica and Jason might do that, and I think that some of you should, but that’s not my point.

And don’t worry, I’m not trying to say that because I’m no longer entertaining, relevant or cool, you need to be those things to attract kids to Jesus.

This is what I’m saying: I have come to understand that perhaps the most important thing I do in life is to try to confirm Christian identity in young people.  To help them claim their heritage as being fearfully and wonderfully made; chosen by God for a future of grace and love, witness and service.  I really believe that may be the most important thing I do.  And I think I can be pretty good at it.

Can we get off this thing now?

Can we get off this thing now?

But here’s the deal: like virtually everything else around this place, it doesn’t mean squat if only one person does it.  The only way that this matters is if in some way, each of us is one of the five for some of the 81.  Don’t come to youth group.  But pray for these children.  Don’t think you have to play dodgeball on Friday nights.  But sitting here being glad that we have kids among us isn’t good enough, either.  Can you engage, support, and encourage the young people you see, or at least the adults who are able to be in those relationships more actively?  Maybe you can buy a pizza for someone who is working with kids, or babysit for free?  How will you act and pray for the ability to see the children and youth in this community the way that Jesus does?  As far as I can see, that’s the only way to get off the Deuteronomic cycle in our own age – and in so doing, to raise a generation who is more faithful than we are.  God hear our prayer.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.