Friday, October 21, 2016

The Table of Grace

“If God says something is acceptable, don’t say it isn’t”
-Acts 10:15 (The Message)

    Grace is great to experience. It’s wonderfully liberating to know that God forgives us and accepts us just as we are. It’s thrilling to realize that our sins don’t make us too vile for God to love, and that he loves us enough to wear flesh and carry a cross and enter a tomb to save us. It’s a blessing to know that we are not judged on the basis of our faults. It frees us to forget the past and push on toward the future that God has promised us.
    It’s wonderful to experience grace from another person, too. You know what I mean if you’ve experienced the forgiveness of an offended friend, the unconditional love of a spouse, or the admiring gaze of a child who thinks you can do no wrong. Another human being can give us no greater blessing than the assurance that they love us in spite of our frailties, that they believe in us in spite of our failures, and that they don’t judge us on the basis of faults.
    Grace is wonderful to talk about. Everyone loves John 3:16. The spark of the Reformation was Martin Luther’s rediscovery that we don’t have to lift ourselves to heaven with our own bootstraps. Christians throughout the ages have rejoiced in the Bible’s insistence that Jesus came to save the wicked, not congratulate the righteous. And the church has long benefited from reminders that we are to be instruments of grace to the poor and undeserving of our world.
    Yes, grace is inspiring to talk about and wonderful to experience.
    Giving it, however, is another story.
    To show mercy, forgiveness, generosity, and acceptance to someone who you’d normally cross the street to avoid is difficult. The difficulty of it was driven home to me once in a conversation with an Afro-American brother in Christ. We were discussing the state of race relations in the church in our city, and he gave me an insight into the problem. Talking about his pre-Christian life, he said to me very matter-of-factly, “I would just as soon have seen a white man’s head where his feet were.” At least he owned up to his struggle. I have a hard time even doing that.
    Maybe you find yourself struggling with prejudice toward one race or another. Maybe it’s contempt for the poor that prevents you from showing God’s grace toward them. Maybe your moral outrage over sin obscures your love for sinners. Maybe your sectarian dogma won’t allow you to reach beyond your own circle to find brothers and sisters in Christ.
    Or maybe it’s more personal. You have trouble showing forgiveness to the wife that’s hurt you. You’re consumed with bitterness for the parents who failed you. You’re full of criticism for the church that’s let you down. You’re angry with the friend that’s disappointed you, or the person who’s used you.
    Don’t deny it, now. Go ahead and own up to it. There are people to whom showing grace seems distasteful. You can think up all kinds of reasons to justify it, but only one really explains it. You don’t like those people, and it galls you that God could love them just as they are.
    Well, you aren’t alone. Grace, quite frankly, is too big for all of us. We all run up against people who seem undeserving of the love of God. For Peter, it was the Gentiles. In his experience, God’s people had always been the Jews. Being right with God was defined by such things as circumcision, the keeping of the Law, and worship in the temple. It went without saying, then, that God’s grace was only extended to them. Certainly not to pagans.
    For us, it might be people who don’t go to church, or who don’t believe in God, or who flaunt their sexuality or their hedonism or their selfishness. Maybe it’s immigrants we don’t care for; maybe it’s people who don’t care for immigrants. Maybe it’s a particular economic group or political party. “Surely God hates them as much as I do,” we tell ourselves. Because it rationalizes the prejudices we already hold.
    Peter had his thinking straightened out over lunch, from a menu that was completely unacceptable according to Jewish food laws. “Have something to eat,” said a voice. Peter, no doubt thinking it was some kind of test, said, “No way.” It was indeed a test, and Peter flunked. “If God says something is acceptable, Peter, then who are you to say it isn’t?”
    But God wasn’t really interested in getting Peter to change his eating habits. So as soon as Peter had his preconceptions challenged, God put a Gentile right in his path. He had the chance to try out this new, broader definition of grace immediately on a Roman army officer named Cornelius. And it sounds like Peter got the idea. He said of Cornelius and his family, “If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
    I’m guessing God will challenge you, too. I’m betting that if you’ll seek his heart, like Peter was doing, your definition of grace will be stretched, too. I imagine that, one by one, God will start to pick at the walls that keep you from offering his grace to that person or this person. And likely, he’ll do it in you just like he did it in Peter. He’ll put you face to face with one of the people that you struggle to love, and challenge you to love him.
    You’ll make mistakes. Peter did. Given a little pressure from others who shared his old prejudice, he found himself sitting at the “Jews-only” table. It took some pretty strong words by a guy named Paul to make him see that he was rebuilding the walls Jesus had torn down.
    Own up to your prejudices, admit the walls in your heart, and go along with God’s work of tearing them down. Seek opportunities to serve exactly the people who you resist serving. Otherwise, you’ll stubbornly refuse to hold out grace to those you don’t deem acceptable, forgetting that God could have legitimately put the same label on you.
    Come to the table of grace. You’ll be amazed at who you’ll find yourself dining with.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Hot Mic Moments

“...The mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
-Matthew 12:34-37 (NIV)

Well, this is a historic Presidential election.
    Of course, we knew it was historic already, but I’m not talking about it being the first election to feature a woman as the nominee of one of the two major parties. That’s a big deal, of course. But the historic element I’m referring to is that it’s the first election, I’m pretty sure, to feature a tape of one of the candidates using what I’m going to delicately and ingeniously refer to as the p-word, and speaking graphically and cavalierly of sexually assaulting various women.
    This is something you might expect to hear about in a campaign for 8th Grade Class President (though that  might be insulting to 8th graders). You would hope a candidate for the Presidency of the last remaining superpower might be above this kind of thing.
    It leaves people of faith with an interesting choice, though, between two candidates that have views on sex that we can’t even charitably call biblical. What that might mean for your choice on election day, I leave for you to decide.
    In fairness, only one candidate seems to advocate sexual assault. That may seem harsh, especially if that’s your candidate, but I didn’t invent that. It comes from his own mouth, his own speech.
    The shocking thing, even more so than the actual words, is the defense of them by some who should probably know better. I heard it on the Chicago radio affiliate of a major sports network based in Bristol, Connecticut, just this morning: “It was just locker-room talk. Just bravado. So what?”
    “Just locker-room talk.” Interesting how that excuse is supposed to justify it, supposed make it OK to trivialize sexual assault. Because that’s what the words describe, and words matter.
    Jesus said that words betray a person’s heart. You can fake it for a while, perhaps, by saying the right things, but sooner or later, in an unguarded moment or a fit of rage or whatever, what’s in your heart will show itself through what you say. The words that come out might not lead to anything more. They might remain “just words.” But they don’t come from nowhere. Like it or not, what comes out of your mouth has its origin in your heart.
    What you really love, what you really hold dear is down there filling your heart. So is what you hate most. What drives you is down there. What you really want for yourself. All of your priorities are set in your heart. What you honestly, truly, think of yourself is there. And what you honestly, truly, think of others. All your prejudices come from your heart. Maybe most centrally, what you worship is there.
    And, given a large enough sample size, all of that will make itself known in the things you say.
    We’re rightly enough, outraged at the “hot mic" moment of a candidate for President of the United States. If we’re honest, though, we’ve probably all had “hot mic" moments. And we might like to think those are not representative of who we truly are. But to take Jesus seriously is to wrestle with the possibility that what we’d like to write off as an anomaly might represent what we genuinely hold dear at the core of our beings. To hear Jesus tell it, the goodness and evil “stored up” inside us are never more evident than where we’re speaking in our most unguarded moments. “That’s not really who I am,” we might argue if confronted with those words. But Jesus would disagree.
    And to dismiss those words — as locker-room talk, as meaningless, as the result of stress or anger or whatever — is the worst way to handle them. Jesus says we’ll be held accountable for those careless, idle, empty words, that the words we speak will either acquit us or condemn us. That’s not to say there’s no forgiveness — of course there is, and we all need it for some of the words we’ve spoken. But to imagine those words don’t matter, to comfort ourselves with the idea that they don’t represent in some way something dark in our hearts, is to continue to bear the guilt they cause.
    Make no mistake; if you berate your spouse or children, or say malicious things about your co-workers, or speak lustfully about women, or use racist language, or gossip about your brothers and sisters in Christ, then that is at least in part representative of who you are. That language comes from attitudes and values stored deeply in your heart. You are abusive, malicious, lustful, racist.
    And, far from denying it, it should be acknowledged. We need the same thing that our Presidential campaign could use: a little repentance. To recognize when our words have been inappropriate, hurtful, damaging, belittling, and to apologize sincerely and genuinely for the pain we’ve caused by speaking them (not the non-apology of “sorry you were offended”) and by making things right where we can — that is how we take responsibility for our actions. Then we can ask for forgiveness: from those who we’ve injured, who might be willing to offer us forgiveness, and from God who graciously gives it through Christ Jesus.
    Few, if any, of us are purely good or purely evil. The vast majority have a lot of both mixed up in our hearts. Sometimes the damaging, hurtful words we’ve spoken give us insight into what needs to change in our lives. To offer humble words of apology when we’re in the wrong, to speak gentle words where we’ve spoken harshly, to speak healing words where before our words have battered and wounded — in this way we show the good that’s in our heart, the transformative work of the Holy Spirit that is re-making us in the image of Jesus, the Word of God made flesh.
    May our words reflect that his Spirit is active in our hearts. May we lose our voices as we gain his. And may our world hear through us his words of healing, grace, and life.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Second-Half God

I waited patiently for the Lord;
    he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
    out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
    and gave me a firm place to stand.”
-Psalm 40:1-2 (NIV)

Those who know me well know that I’m a University of Tennessee fan —- a fan of the couch-slapping variety, if you know what I mean. (That is, if something negative happens in a game, I’ve been known to slap the couch cushion beside me.) I come by it honestly; I grew up in Big Orange country, where little boys (and probably some little girls) grew up dreaming of running through the T at Neyland Stadium, out onto Shields-Watkins field, where in excess of 100,000 screaming fanatics in orange were waiting to cheer your exploits.
    The Vols have had their best start in years this season; they’ve started 5-0, and they beat Florida for the first time in 12 years. So you’d think I’d be happy, and I am — but. Tennessee could have lost all of those games, easily. They trailed in four of them, in fact: 13-6 after the third quarter to Appalachian State, 14-0 to Virginia Tech after the first quarter, 21-3 at halftime against Florida, 24-17 at halftime to Georgia. They let Ohio hang around before finally beating them 28-19.
    My wife keeps telling me not to worry. They’re a second-half team, she says.
    Yeah, apparently, but it’s excruciating to watch. It looked like they were cooked against Georgia, when they let the Bulldogs roll down the field and score a go-ahead TD with ten seconds left. They ended up needing to complete a Hail Mary pass in the end zone to win: which, you know, they did. A win’s a win, right? They’re 5-0. But…it could easily have gone another way. I’m thankful for 5-0, but I wish the Vols would play better in the first half. I wish they’d get ahead early and stay there. Everyone tells me to be patient, but it’s easier said than done, isn’t it?
     I wonder if the psalmist ever wondered why God didn’t keep him from falling into the pit in the first place? That doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to ask, does it? “Lord, could you steer me around the pit? Could you give me a heads-up? How about some orange traffic-cones around the pit, or a nice fence or something?” God could have done that, of course, for the psalmist. And he could do it for you and me, too.
    In fact, he does. Can you honestly put a number on the pits he’s brought you safely around? No, because we take that for granted. We don’t notice the trouble that misses us, the struggles we avoid, the dangers that are kept from us. We rarely think to praise God for the obstacles we never have to overcome. We never call up a friend and say how thankful we are to avoid the dangers that we never knew were imminent.
    In that way, the pits we find ourselves in are maybe even more important that the ones we never come close to.
    The pit teaches us patience, after all. It teaches us how to wait. We learn in the pit that our lives haven’t ended, that though the mud and mire and slime are unpleasant, they aren’t fatal. It teaches us how to wait on the Lord: on his timing, on his mercy, on his power, on his compassion. We find out, in the pit, that time spent waiting patiently for God is not time wasted or lost or stolen from us. It’s the only constructive way, in fact, to spend time in the pit. It’s the only way to keep hope alive and to look forward to something better.
    The pit teaches us, after all, on whom we depend. You can’t pretend in the pit for very long, can’t pretend that you’re strong enough or smart enough or good enough to get out on your own. After a while, after your best efforts prove inadequate over and over, you realize how much you need God. You don’t see that, no matter how much you say you need him, when you’re sailing along easy and comfortable. Life makes sense in the high places, under the bright sunshine. Everything just falls into place. But when you’re down in the darkness and dampness of the pit, with the shadows so thick you can feel them and the sunlight at the top so far away that you can’t feel it and seriously wonder if you ever will again — well, then you remember how much you depend on God’s grace and power.
    If we were never in the pit, we’d miss God at his best. We’d never see him lift us out. We’d never experience his arms around us and never feel the solid rock under our feet when he sets us down. We’d miss all the wonderful ways he does it, the people through whom he so often does it. Without the pit, we’d easily think of God as history. If we worshipped him, it would be for what he once did and who he once was. We’d praise him, if at all, for other peoples’ stories. And we’d never expect, or even think we should expect, that our God is living and active and wants us to be part of his story too.
    In his peoples’ experience, God is often a second-half God. From our perspective, he comes from behind. For his own reasons, he often seems to choose to keep his intervention waiting until we’re in the pit already. His people have experienced that again and again: between Egypt’s armies and the Red Sea, or facing a deadly disease, or from deep in the depths of exile. Jesus was himself no stranger to the pit: he felt the worst of this world, experienced the depths to which human beings could sink, and even cried out in despair that God seemed far away. And yet in his resurrection God lifted him out of the pit, and in doing so proclaimed that our pits won’t hold us, either.
    “He put a new song in my mouth,” the psalmist said. When God raised him out of his pit, it gave him new reason to worship and a new vocabulary to use. In Christ, we all have reason to worship, a new song to sing. On some level, we no longer wait for God’s salvation: we have received it in Jesus. We wait for it to be known in its fullness. But, in a very real way, he has already lifted us out of the darkest pits of death, sin, and despair. So raise your voice in the new song he has put in your mouth, and wait to see his deliverance.
    He’s best in the second half. You’ll see.

Friday, September 23, 2016

"Can You Please Go Get Him...?"

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 
     He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
-Matthew 18:1-4 (NIV)

No matter who you are, what your politics are, the sight of a suffering child goes to your heart, doesn’t it? It appeals to our instincts to protect children from suffering, pain, grief, the loss of innocence. And so, if you saw the photo of pitiful little 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, sitting in an ambulance shell-shocked and covered head to toe in dust after bombs reduced the Aleppo neighborhood of Qaterji to rubble, your heart probably broke. Doesn’t matter what you think should be done about the civil war in Syria and its refugees, if anything. To he human is to grieve over horror like this.
     A boy in New York named Alex saw Omran’s photo, and he decided to do something about it. He sat down and wrote a letter to President Obama. Here’s the text:

Dear President Obama,     Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home]? Park in the driveway or on the street and we will be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother. Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria, Omar, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. We can teach him English too, just like my friend Aoto from Japan.     Please tell him that his brother will be Alex who is a very kind boy, just like him. Since he won't bring toys and doesn't have toys Catherine will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it. I will teach him additions and subtractions in math. And he [can] smell Catherine's lip gloss penguin which is green. She doesn't let anyone touch it.     Thank you very much! I can't wait for you to come!Alex

     There’s a video of Alex reading his letter to the President, just in case you aren’t teary-eyed enough already. 
     Look, there are reasons why children don’t run the world. The fact is, they have a lot to learn. Sadly, though, a lot of what they learn (from us, the grown-ups) is what they can’t do, what won’t work. They learn that refugee crises aren’t solved just by people opening their hearts and being generous. They learn that just sharing and learning from each other won’t always bring people together. They learn that some people are just different from them, and that people can’t cross borders just like that, and that Americans need to take care of Americans first. They learn…
     Remind me again what kids like Alex need to learn from us?
     Children, you see, are used to receiving. They can be generous because they know that what they have comes from somewhere beyond them, from moms and dads who can always give them more to replace what they’ve given away. Children who are loved and cared for aren’t insecure about that. (Even if they sometimes have to be reminded to share!) 
     That’s why Jesus said that God’s Kingdom is for people like children. That’s why he holds up children as the ideal subjects of the Kingdom. “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it,” he once said. Receive, because the life God wants to share with us doesn’t depend on how good I am. He shares it because he’s good and generous and loving. 
     So we need to change and become like little children. In that specific way, children have it right. Of course, Alex doesn’t know that little Omran’s fate will be determined by a host of factors beyond his control. Of course the issue of Syria and its refugees is a complicated one. But what we can learn from Alex is that, complicated or not, we’re always at our best when we’re so secure in the generosity and grace of our Father that we generously include others in that circle of his grace and compassion.
     Alex didn’t sit down and figure out how his family could take on another child. He just assumed that there was so much love and and generosity in his family there would plenty to go around. He shared freely because he had received freely. He has a bike, and school friends, and a family to share. He didn’t work to get those things. He doesn’t have to earn them, or even deserve them. They were just given to him. He has no doubt that there is more where that came from. So why wouldn’t he share?
     Why indeed? See, we adults think in terms of going out and getting, of earning what we have. I worked hard for what I have, after all. If you don’t have as much, then the obvious conclusion is that you didn’t work as hard as me. You and I are in competition for a finite amount of stuff, and so, like Jesus’ original followers, we tend to argue about who is greatest. 
     But Jesus turns the order we think is established on its head. You’re great, finally, when you’re like this child, receiving the blessings God gives. Not figuring out how to get more of what I think I want, not scheming to make the world run according to my plans, not trying to out-hustle everyone around you — receiving what God wants to generously give, the love and grace to which the life and death and resurrection of Jesus testifies.

     Then there’ll be room in your heart for those who are most in need. And you won’t think twice about opening your heart and inviting them in.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Mindset List

“All men are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.” (Isaiah 40:6-8)

Maybe you've heard of the Mindset List. It's the creation of Beloit College Professor Tom McBride and former Beloit administrator Ron Nief, originally created to keep faculty members aware of how quickly “contemporary” references in lectures can become dated. Each year a new list for the entering freshman class is created, and its main function for non-college students or professors seems to be simply to make us feel old. I’m especially interested this year since my son is a college freshman. (One of his friends is at Beloit.) Some excerpts from this year’s list, in case you were thinking that you really aren’t all that old…
     For this year’s entering freshman class, there has always been a digital swap meet called eBay. They have never heard Harry Caray try to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” (At least not live.) West Nile has always been a virus found in the U.S., and Vladimir Putin has always been calling the shots at the Kremlin. The Euro has always been the coin of the realm in most of Europe. They have never seen a billboard ad for cigarettes.
     For their generation, Ali/Frazier means a fight between their daughters, and Serena Williams has always been winning Grand Slam singles titles. Women’s basketball players have always had their own Hall of Fame. John Elway and Wayne Gretzky have always been retired athletes.
     They have never had to watch a TV show at its scheduled time. For them, Bluetooth has always been keeping us wireless and synchronized, and there have always been iMacs on desks. Airline tickets have always been purchased online. Ice makers on refrigerators have never been a novelty to them. They’ve always preferred text to email.
     They disagree with their parents over which is the first Star Wars movie. War films have always shown horrific battle scenes inspired by Saving Private Ryan. Michael J. Fox has always been better known as an activist for Parkinson’s research than as Alex P. Keaton. 
     In their lifetimes, Exxon and Mobil have always been one company — that doesn’t own any gas stations. Presidents have never had line-item veto power. A Bush and a Clinton have always been campaigning. While chads were hanging in Florida, they were potty-training in all fifty states. 
      And, Newt who?
     It seems that we instinctively freak out about change and the passage of time. We don't like it when things change around us. Hang around an office one day when they upgrade the computers and you'll see it. Or a church when they change – well, pretty much anything. As a rule, change makes us uncomfortable. We develop little shortcuts in life, routines that revolve around things staying generally the same. It can be downright unsettling when things change and those little shortcuts don't work anymore.
     And, of course, the most unsettling changes of all are the changes that we see in the mirror. A few more lines in the face. A few more gray hairs. A little more width around the middle. The inability to hold what you're reading far enough away from your face to get it into focus. All evidence of the one change in the world that affects all of us most deeply: that one day we won't be here anymore.
     Our world screams hysterically that we have to resist the passage of time. It sells us creams and dyes and exercise equipment and clothing and surgeries that will make us look – more or less - like the passage of time isn't affecting us. But that's an illusion, of course, as evidenced by the fact that it gets harder and harder to pull off as the years go by. However loudly our culture screams that we must look untouched by age, over the din you can still hear the rush of the river of time. 
     “People are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field,” the prophet reminds us. It's a good thing he does, otherwise we might forget what really matters. We're not built to resist the passage of time, any more than the grass and flowers in a meadow are. We navigate a changing world in dying bodies, and all the hair coloring and pilates in the world won't alter that. In some cases we can improve a little on Job's “three score and ten,” but not forever. “The grass withers and the flowers fall,” the prophet says. “Surely the people are grass.”
     Our world calls that depressing, but it isn't. Depressing is people going about their lives like they're going to be anything but a hazy memory a mere century from now. Depressing is not being able to read the writing on the wall. Depressing is living for wealth and influence and control. Depressing is forgetting that we are mortal. And forgetting what does last.
     “The word of our God stands forever.” Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, what God says is true. What he speaks, exists. Isaiah's point in reminding us of our mortality is to remind us of God's glory. “The glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it,” he says. “For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:5) 
     And this God never forgets his people. That's our hope – not in holding on to our youth, because “even youths grow tired and weary.” (Isaiah 40:30) “But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.” So while our world changes around us, we trust in the God who never does. When our strength fails, we trust in the God who renews our strength. And when our bodies fade and die like a flower dropping its petals, we trust even then in the God who lives. And who gives life.

     So bring on your Mindset List, Beloit College. You don't scare me. I know how to make ice in a tray.

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