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Friday, April 29, 2016

Empty Nest

Teach us to number our days, 
that we may gain a heart of wisdom. 
-Psalm 90:12 (NIV)


I’ve been contemplating the empty nest lately.
     Well, the idea of it. We still have a few months to go. We still have the summer, but our son has been making his decision about college, and the time’s getting closer. Won’t be long now until we leave him at a dorm on a college campus and come home without him, not long at all until staying in touch with him will mean phone calls and texts and FaceTime instead of dinner conversations.  
     Look, I know, a lot of parents are separated from their kids under much worse terms: estrangement, imprisonment, or even worse. I’m really not complaining. This is a happy occasion. It’s a time we’ve always assumed would come, that we started making preparations for 18 years ago. I don’t intend to mope around after he’s off to school — not for too long, anyway. Laura and I will stay busy, and maybe even take on some new things. 
     But life will never be the same, so I have been thinking. Contemplating the empty nest.
     Nearly 13 years ago now, I wrote this:

We drove him to school, gave him a hug, and sent him off down the hall to his classroom. He never even looked back, of course, which thrilled and broke our hearts all at the same time. To him, it's all a big adventure, full of wonder and promise. It's a milestone, a rite of passage. He's a big kid now, ready to take on the world. And we know he's ready, and we want him to. We wouldn't hold him back, even if we could. Still, there's a part of us that wants to. There's a part of us that knows that life will never be the same from this moment on, that wants to look back instead of forward…

     Looking back. That was my problem then, and it’s still my problem now. 
     Well, not looking back, exactly. God gave us memory, didn’t he, so we could do just that? The ability to remember is a wonderful gift. Sometimes, though, it can keep us in thrall to the past. It can make us regret its loss, and make us doubt that there’s anything nearly as good in the future. 
     “Teach us to number our days,” the psalmist writes. Maybe it sounds dark to you, morbid, to contemplate mortality like that, especially with the rest of the world droning in our ears about now and youth and distracting us from the uncomfortable fact that time is passing. But there’s wisdom in numbering our days. The psalmist doesn’t mean to live in fear of death, unable to take joy in anything. He means, I think, to recognize that nothing lasts forever. “There’s a time for everything,” the Teacher of Ecclesiastes put it, “and a season for every activity under the heavens.”  
     Sure, it can make you live in fear of the future. It can make you hold so tightly to your children that you suffocate them, stunt their growth. It can make you enshrine the past as ideal. It can leave you bitter, certain that life is all about losing and saying goodbye and giving up what you love. But there’s no faith in that. It leaves entirely out of the picture a God who is faithful, and for whom the future poses no threat or worry at all. 
     So I’m numbering my days until school starts in the fall. Literally, in this case — I know exactly how many there are. I intend to spend them joyfully, to enjoy being with my son and wife, to remember the past with gratitude and to look toward the future with faith. Maybe there are a few things I can teach him yet. We can talk about football, and faith, and look forward to the next Star Wars movie. Maybe he’ll have some questions to ask. Maybe more likely, he’ll be so looking forward to this new chapter in his life that questions won’t even occur to him. To him, maybe, this transition won’t seem any more frightening than did that walk down the hall on the first day of kindergarten. Why should it? He’ll know that he always has his family in his corner. And, more importantly, he’ll know that his God goes with him. And so his future, still, is full of wonder and promise.
     And so is mine. God’s people don’t look toward the future with fear. We number our days so that we’ll be smart about the decisions we make with our time and our resources. But we look toward the future with faith, secure in our God and his love, power, and faithfulness.
     The psalmist ends that psalm with this prayer:

May your deeds be shown to your servants,
your splendor to their children.
May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands. 

     So that’ll be my prayer in this part of my life, too: that God will show his deeds and splendor to me and to my son, that his favor will rest on us, and that he’ll establish the work of our hands. That’s a prayer that will lead us into the future with our heads high, our shoulders squared, our faces smiling, our hearts singing with hope, joy, and gratitude — because of what God has given us in the past, and because of his faithfulness for the future.

      So number your days. Pay attention to the changes that are coming in your life. (Because they are.) But remember that your God doesn’t change. So you can walk with confidence into the future. His future.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Joy

    Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 
-1 Peter 1:8-9 (NIV)


One of my many important functions around the Odum house is the vital role of Canine Exercise and Waste Evacuation Consultant. To the layman, the job is often known as “Dog Walker,” but in my opinion that title trivializes the time, dedication, training, and hardship that must be invested in what the unenlightened refer to so dismissively as “walking the dog.”
     But I digress. Our dog, Isaiah, knows enough to be able to identify me as chief C.E.W.E.C. So every night after dinner he shadows me everywhere. Every time I turn around, there he is staring at me expectantly and hopefully. Every time I take a step, I have to be careful not to trip over the little mutt. If I don’t respond promptly enough, he whines to get my attention and when he has it looks at me with pleading brown eyes, as if to say, “You didn’t forget, did you?”
     And so eventually, almost every night, I get his leash and a plastic grocery bag. He’s never far away, and when he sees me get the leash and bag he goes berserk. His tail wags so hard he can’t run right, and so when he runs toward me momentum pulls his back end around so that he’s almost running sideways. He tries, oh how he tries, to sit still so I can clip his leash to his collar, but more often than not he’ll be so excited that before I can get the leash on he jumps up and runs a circle or two around me before flopping down on his back so I can get the leash on. 
     Once leashed, he pulls me toward the door, then leaps up past doorknob height while I open it. Then we’re off; he pulls me down the steps and we set off down the sidewalk in a sprint. 
     One night as we went through this ritual, a thought occurred to me. I said it out loud to Laura, hoping that maybe she’d correct me. She didn’t, which suggests to me that I’m not wrong.
     The thought that occurred to me was that I doubted that I could ever make another living thing as happy as I make Isaiah simply by taking him for a walk.
     It was just a random thought, but the more I think about it the more I think it may be true. That’s less a reflection on me, though, as it is on human beings in general. Frankly, we’re a little hard to impress. As kids we can get pretty excited, but as we get older unbridled joy gets harder and harder to come by. For a whole variety of reasons, by the time we’re adults we turn into grouches who get very good at complaining and finding fault and rehearsing what’s wrong, but seem to lose our ability to rejoice in simple, small, good things.
     I suppose that’s a part of the fall, just another symptom that something of God’s image has been lost , or clouded, or broken. Maybe it has to do, too, with the expectations that we have of our lives, and the disappointment that inevitably comes when what we’ve dreamed of doesn’t happen. Maybe it’s that joylessness is contagious, and we live around so many sullen, angry, discouraged people. Or maybe, and I think this is very likely too, we just forget to be joyful. We’ve cultivated the habits of grumbling and fault-finding and finding the cloud in every blue sky, and have neglected to develop the habit of celebrating the many forms – often small and unexpected – that God’s grace takes in our lives.
     At Walk Time, Isaiah has the habit of joy nailed. If he’s had a rough day, he doesn’t remember at that moment. All he knows right at that moment is that it’s time to celebrate. It’s time to wag the tail and jump and run and bark in excitement. I should take notes. Find reasons to be joyful, and when I find one I should be joyful without reservation, inhibition, or equivocation.
     I have a theory, and since you’ve chosen to read this far I’ll presume to share it with you. I think that part of what is “saved” in the process of salvation is our ability to be joyful. Think about all the times in the Bible God’s people are told to rejoice in the things that God has done. Think of all the times we’re reminded that joy is an appropriate response – really the only appropriate response – to God’s grace. In Scripture, God’s people celebrate when he does something amazing on their behalf; think of Miriam leading the women in singing and dancing on the western shore of the Red Sea. They celebrate the harvest, when he blesses all their hard work. Isaiah promised Israel that when they came home from exile the trees themselves would “clap their hands” and join in their joy. David danced before the LORD with all his might. Jesus was “full of joy through the Holy Spirit.” “Rejoice in the Lord always,” Paul instructed the church in Philippi. And Peter, maybe thinking back on the joy he felt in Jesus’ presence, wrote with amazement that even those who hadn’t seen him with their physical eyes felt that same inexpressible joy because of their faith that he was coming again.
     Oh, I think so – part of what Jesus saved when he saved us was our ability to feel and live and act out of joy. When we rejoice, it’s “in the Lord” – out of our new life in him. When we’re full of joy, it’s “through the Holy Spirit.” You’ve seen it, haven’t you? You’ve seen people who because of their relationship with Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives are just overflowing with joy. Sometimes they overflow with joy even when there’s no earthly reason – even when they’re suffering pain and disappointment. And that’s how you know that their joy comes from somewhere else, outside their own bodies and minds. It’s God’s gift to us, to his daughters and sons in whom he takes such joy.
     So don’t forget to wag your tail, so to speak. Don’t forget to jump for joy. Don’t feel ashamed to dance before the Lord with all your might, despite the Michals who might not approve. Inexpressible joy is God’s gift to you – the restoration of something sin had taken away. The people around you need to see it, because they need it restored in themselves, too.

      Come take our dog for a walk one night if you want to see how it’s done.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The State Book of Tennessee

     In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.
-Daniel 2:44 (NIV)


I grew  up in Tennessee, where the state flower is the iris, the state tree is the tulip poplar, and the state bird is the mockingbird. (I knew those from memory.) The good people of Tennessee also have a state insect (lightning bug), a state reptile (the eastern box turtle), a state wild animal (the raccoon), and two state fish (the largemouth bass and the channel cat). There are, amazingly, nine state songs. (Yes, Tennessee Waltz and  Rocky Top are two of them.) There’s even a state rifle, as of two months ago — the Barrett M82/M107. (a 50-cal. semiautomatic just like Davey Crockett used to use, I guess) 
     Tennessee does not, however, have a state book, as the governor, Bill Haslam, just killed a bill that would have given the Bible that designation. His rationale: “this bill trivializes the Bible, which I believe is a sacred text.” He later wrote, “Our founders recognized that when the church and state were combined, it was the church that suffered in the long run.”
     A century ago another Tennesseean, David Lipscomb, came to a similar conclusion during the Civil War:
Finally the years of sectional strife, war, bloodshed, destruction and desolation swept over our land, and the spectacle was presented, of disciples of the Prince of Peace, with murderous weapons seeking the lives of their fellowmen. Brethren for whom Christ died…were found imbruing their hands in the blood of their own brethren in Christ, making their sisters widows and their sisters' children orphans. It took but little thought to see that this course is abhorrent to the principles of the religion of the Savior, who died that even his enemies might live. He had plainly declared that his children could not fight with carnal weapons even for the establishment of his own Kingdom. Much less could they slay and destroy one another in the contentions and strivings of the kingdoms of this world. It took but little thought to see that Christians cannot fight, cannot slay one another or their fellowmen, at the behest of any earthly ruler, or to establish or maintain any human government. But if he cannot fight himself, can he vote to make another fight? 
     
     Haslam, as a political leader who doesn’t want the Bible trivialized, and Lipscomb, as a church leader who doesn’t want Christians to lose their identity for the sake of the state, are singing the same tune.
     It’s nothing new for political leaders to try to use the Bible in their platforms. Co-opt the Bible, and you might gain a lot of voters for whom the Bible has great meaning. Lawmakers in Tennessee explained that they intended their bill to “recognize the Bible's role as a record of family history” and honor “the importance of Bible publishers in Nashville.” But once the Bible gets too tightly tangled in the machinery of civil government, it’s hard to untangle it. It can be (and has been) pointed like a gun at whatever elements of citizenry are deemed to be enemies. It can be (and has been) used to justify horrendous abuses and injustices. When the state becomes too identified with Scripture, it tends to go deaf to the ways in which the Scripture speaks in judgment of its sins.
     And when the church becomes too cozy with the state, then the church has become the oppressors.  That’s just history. When we get too comfortable with the trappings of civil power, we forget that we’re supposed to identify with the One who came with love and grace, especially for the poor and marginalized. We give up our identity as citizens of the Kingdom of God in order to hold and exercise civil power in defense of our narrow interests and agendas.
     If you could take a survey of deputies turning fire hoses on demonstrating blacks in the 60’s, or Gestapo rounding up Jews in Nazi Germany, or Calvinists persecuting Anabaptists in Geneva, you’d find they have one thing in common. They would say they were Christians.
    I see these things happening in Tennessee, though, from a distance, for the simple reason that for the last couple of decades I’ve been a citizen of Illinois. I’m interested, to a degree. I have family there, and I visit often, and still feel some sense of connection to the Volunteer State. But that’s not who I am now. 
     And that, I think, is how Christians ought to view the noise and bustle of civil government, whether local, state, national, or international. We have connections to it. It affects the way we live day-to-day. But we should see it from a distance, because that’s not who we are. We’re not, primarily, citizens of our own towns or states or countries. We belong to the kingdom of heaven, and we’re still looking for the day when  Jesus comes and his kingdom comes in power and his will is done, finally and completely, on earth as it is in heaven. That’s the hope we have, and the reason we live.
      Daniel looked forward to the day when God’s rule would topple every civil government on earth. Jesus preached that he was bringing that same kingdom was near. Paul wrote that those who trust in Jesus are citizens of that kingdom, and the hope we wait for isn’t anything that a civil government can provide.
     Maybe believers shouldn't vote, or serve in civil government: maybe they should. But never with the intent of folding up the Kingdom of God into the boundaries and self-concern of a particular country, or political party, or interest group. No human legislature ever adequately represented the will of God. No party platform ever satisfactorily contained the gospel. 

     Remember that in this election season. 

Friday, April 8, 2016

Stay Out There

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal,  but I press on to take hold  of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind  and straining toward what is ahead, I press on  toward the goal to win the prize  for which God has called  me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
-Philippians 3:12-14 (NIV)


Ernie Els is a pretty good golfer. 
     I say that because of what I’m about to say about him. Honestly, he’s no slouch. He has 19 career wins on the PGA Tour. He has 28 wins on the European Tour (good for seventh all-time). He’s won the US Open twice, the British Open twice, finished second at the Masters twice, and third at the PGA Championship twice. If those stats don’t mean much to you, then just take it from me: There are very few golfers in the world who have accomplished anything like what Ernie Els has accomplished.
     Ernie Els is a very good golfer. And that’s what makes what happened to him on his first hole of the Masters this week so shocking. On the par-4 first at Augusta National, Els shot a 9. A 9. Five over par.
     You’d think maybe he hit his drive wide, or went into some water, or visited a deep bunker. You’d be wrong. Els hit a good drive. His second shot wasn’t great, but he only left the ball just short of the green. With his third shot, he chipped to within 3 feet of the hole. He was putting for an easy par. And that’s when the wheels came off.
      A three-foot putt — well, even I can make one of those. Most of the time, even. Els missed. And then again. And then again. He missed 5 times, in fact. A professional golfer who has played the game at a championship level for more than two decades, and he six-putted from three feet. For all of Els’ professional accomplishments, he now owns a record he doesn’t want: a 9 is the highest score ever carded on Augusta National number one at The Masters. 
     "I don't know how I stayed out there," he said later.
     I think I know how. I mean, I haven’t played professional sports, but I’ve been acquainted with a fair number of people who “stayed out there” after devastating failures. Professional failures, lost marriages, financial setbacks, broken relationships, failures of character: sometimes there’s no way to downplay or sidestep your mistakes. They’re public, they’re undeniable, and there is no doubt who is to blame. They rest heavy on you, and everyone who knows you see them writ large. If you’ve been there, or loved someone who was there, you know what I mean. 
     None of us, like Paul said, have arrived yet. None of us have “tak[en] hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of [us].” We’re heading for something, we know that, but we’re not there yet. And there are times when, all of us, we look like nothing short of spectacular failures. And you can let those gigantic failures define you, sink you, destroy you. Or you can stay out there — keep swinging, keep putting, weather the storm, finish the course.
     And, to do that, you’re going to have to have a selective memory.
     Paul says that he forgot what was in his past. He says he put his failures out of his mind. And, you know, Paul had some pretty significant failures in his past. He had made the lives of believers miserable, in fact, so much so that when he met Jesus and became a Christian, a lot of other believers didn’t trust him. Which goes to show that there will be people in your world who’ll be slow to let you forget your failures. And sometimes that’s understandable, and even appropriate. Sometimes our failures hurt people, and they need time to heal. But it doesn’t mean you have to define yourself by them.
     Paul was capable of remembering his failures well when it suited his purpose. When he said he forgot what was behind, he didn’t mean literally, of course. What he meant is that he no longer let those failures define his identity. His sins were real, but they were about who he had been. Jesus had taken hold of him, and now he had a new identity. And so he pressed on toward the future the Lord had given him.
     That’s what we need to understand when our failures threaten to get the better of us: Jesus has taken hold of us and given us a new future. So he invites us to forget what’s behind and sprint with him toward what’s ahead. It’s not about making up for our failures, balancing some cosmic scales with our good deeds until we hit some sort of equilibrium. The new future we have is in Christ, and we have it because he sacrificed himself to in some way take away the power of our failures. Though it sounds too good to be true, it’s as real as his cross and his empty tomb. And to live with the weight of our failures is foolish, and even worse it’s faithless.
     A few years after he wrote about forgetting, pressing on, and straining toward the promises Jesus had given him, near the end of his life, Paul wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day.” That’s our hope, too, and it’s all the reason we need to forget the epic failures that we all look back on with shame. Put them out of your mind, trusting that Christ has taken away their power. Strain toward what’s ahead, lean into the future that God has given you in Jesus. Press on with your eyes set firmly on the goal at the end of the race. 
     That’s how you stay out there. That’s how a person who believes in Jesus copes when they six-putt. 

     Keep the faith. Ernie Els won’t win The Masters this year. But because of Jesus, our victory is sure.        

Friday, April 1, 2016

Cashing Your Check

[The kingdom of heaven] will be like a man going on a journey,  who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag,  each according to his ability.  Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
-Matthew 25:14-18 (NIV)


Sean Weatherspoon has changed jobs — and cities — a couple of times in the last few years. He’s moved from Atlanta to Phoenix and now back to Atlanta. And sometimes when you move, it’s hard to keep track of things. 
     Like, for example, a paycheck from 2015.
     Sean, who plays linebacker in the NFL, was packing after being traded by the Arizona Cardinals back to the Atlanta Falcons when his girlfriend came across the the check: one week’s check for around $138,000. He apparently hadn’t even missed it.
     Now, I have to admit to misplacing a check once or twice. But I knew pretty quickly that it was gone. And there was never one worth $138,000.
     I think Sean might want to look into direct deposit.
     Apparently Sean isn’t the only pro athlete to run into this problem, either. Former Cleveland Indians slugger Manny Ramirez once had the team contact them because their books were off by a million dollars or two: the value of a drawerful of paychecks Ramirez had apparently neglected to cash.
     Jesus told a story to explain what it’s like to live under the reign of God, a story about a wealthy man who called the household staff together and gave them some cash to use to do some business on his behalf while he was away on a trip. He was the kind of guy, apparently, who expected his people to produce some results with what he’d given them, so when he returned he asked them to open the books. Two of his agents had doubled their master’s money, but it’s the third that Jesus is particularly interested in. This guy, concerned about how tough the boss could be when he didn’t get the results he wanted, pulled a Weatherspoon. He didn’t lose what he had been given, but he didn’t use it either.
     In case the point of the story isn’t clear, it’s this: people who want to live under the rule of God need to use what he’s given them to do his business. 
     We can easily forget this, living as we do with a form of Christianity that more often than not seems to stress what we shouldn’t do. But life with Jesus was never supposed to be about hunkering down and holding on, digging in to our trench works and keeping our heads down while the battle rages around us. Personal salvation and piety has never been the goal for which Jesus came. 
     The marching orders sound more like this: “Proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.” A heavy responsibility it is to do kingdom business, to preach the message of the kingdom of God coming near while showing exactly what that means, and what difference it makes. If it were entirely up to us, in fact, we’d think it was beyond us. And we’d be right. But it’s not — not entirely up to us, that is. “Freely you have received,” Jesus says. “Freely give.”
     And so what we’re supposed to do is take what the Lord has given us, go out into the world with it, and use it to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, and drive out demons.” We’ve been give much, but not just for ourselves and those we love.  The Lord has given to us freely so that we can give freely to the world around us. So that they might see what life in the Kingdom of God looks like.
     So we mustn’t Weatherspoon it. When we fill our prayers with orders for the blessings we want God to bestow on us and on our loved ones, without any thought as to how he might want us to use the blessings we already have, we’re Weatherspooning it. When we’re too caught up in the urgency of day-to-day life  to notice the ways we might put what he’s blessed us with to work for him in the world, we’re Weatherspooning it. When we’re callous to the ways that sin, poverty, injustice, disease and death have defaced God’s creation, and callous to the ways in which we can put things right, we’re Weatherspooning it. When we’re so afraid of failure that we don’t even try, so intimidated by how bad things are that we don’t even try to do good any longer, we’re stuffing God’s blessings in a drawer. 
     Time for us to turn those drawers upside down and see what resources we’ve been hiding. Some free time, maybe, now that the kids are grown. Some discretionary income. Maybe you’re good at prayer, or have a lot of musical ability, or can drive a truck. Maybe you’re handy around the house, or exceptionally compassionate, or love children, or are a good listener. These are your bags of gold, your talents, and they’ve been given to you by the Lord so that you can invest them in his kingdom.
     I don’t know what Sean Weatherspoon wants out of life, but I know this: in the drawer, that paycheck wasn’t going to help him get it. You know what your Lord wants. You know what he wants to happen in your world, in the lives of people around you. And between you and your church, he’s given you what you need to get busy with his business.  Freely you have received. Freely give.

     What have you left in the drawer?

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