Friday, May 27, 2016

Unwritten Rules

     I have applied all this to Apollos and myself for your benefit, brothers and sisters, so that you may learn through us the meaning of the saying, “Nothing beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another.
-1 Corinthians 4:6 (NRSV)

If you’re much into baseball, then you’ve probably seen “The Punch Heard ‘Round the World” — Rangers infielder Rougned Odor catching Bluejays outfielder Jose Bautista with a right cross after Baustista’s hard slide in a game last weekend. It’s just the latest entry in a long series of baseball altercations that revolve around what pundits refer to as baseball’s “unwritten rules.” 
     The fight really started during the playoffs last season, when Bautista flipped his bat in celebration after a clutch home run against the Rangers. That’s one of the unwritten rules — you can’t celebrate a home run in a way that the other team might consider showing up their pitcher. So, you can pump a fist as you round the bases, or high-five your teammates at the plate, or even go back out of the dugout and tip your cap to the crowd. But you can’t flip your bat. You might hurt the pitcher’s feelings. 
     So Bautista was on base in the game last weekend because Rangers pitcher Matt Bush had hit him with a pitch — almost certainly intentionally, almost certainly in retaliation for the bat flip. That’s another unwritten rule: there are times a pitcher must throw at a batter. In the logic of baseball’s unwritten rules, Bautista had earned a beaning by celebrating a home run he hit off an entirely different pitcher in an entirely different game that happened last season. Oh, and Bush wasn’t even on the team last year when the bat flip happened. 
     And then there’s the matter of the hard slide. Bautista slid late, and he slid at Odor instead of at the bag. This is most commonly done to break up a potential double play, which is ostensibly what Bautista was doing in this case. But it really looked more like he was trying to hurt Odor to get some payback for getting plunked. It’s another of those “unwritten rules” of baseball, though in this case it runs counter to a new written rule that says a baserunner can’t interfere with an infielder trying to turn a double play. 
     If you’re confused, don’t be surprised. You’re not a Major League baseball player, and so the minutiae of the unwritten rules understandably eludes you. But note this: at any time, the progression of events that led to the punch could have been interrupted, either by application of the written rules or by one player choosing not to escalate. But, with everyone reading off those unwritten rules, the two teams moved inexorably toward the punch.
     That’s the problem with unwritten rules: they generally have the power to escalate conflict, but none to  resolve it. 
     It’s a good thing the church has never had a problem with unwritten rules.
     All right, I’ll wait while you catch your breath and wipe away the tears from the outburst of laughter. 
     Historically, I guess it’s true: the church has created, lived with, and divided over a lot of unwritten rules. The excuse we’ve used is the importance of being doctrinally correct, and so strong-willed leaders have forced their understandings of what “right” is on the church at large. And so we’ve been inundated by unwritten rules about everything from the relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit  to the relationship between grace and works to the amount a believer should give every Sunday. We’ve had, at various times and places, unwritten rules about how many converts a Christian should make, how many drinks a Christian can have, and how churches should be governed. In my own little fellowship of believers, I’ve known folks with hard and rigid unwritten rules about how many cups we can use in communion, whether it’s OK to have Sunday School classes or not, and whether or not it’s OK to clap in a worship service.
     But the church does have written rules: the Bible, of course, though sometimes certainty on what is written in the Bible can be hard to come by. There are some disputes in the church that could be settled by an appeal to Scripture, but the fact is a lot of our disputes come from the fact that honest people who want to please the Lord read the Bible differently. And, maybe, once we’ve made our cases to each other, it’s important to assume the best of one another and agree to disagree. Instead of going beyond what is written and judging brothers and sisters who see things differently, we could give each other a break and praise God for our diversity. We aren’t, after all, the Lord’s people because we have the Bible exactly right.
     We’re the Lord’s people because of Jesus, the One through whom God has made himself known most clearly. John the Evangelist calls him the Word made flesh, and so maybe we should turn to him as the “written” rule to displace our unwritten ones.  Through Jesus, God says “this is who I am and this is what I care about most.” The early church even read their Bible, the Jewish scriptures, through the lens of this new thing God had done in Jesus. Those Old Testament texts had meaning back when they were written, but they took on new meaning as the church saw them in a different light, the light cast by Jesus.      
     Remember the lesson of baseball: unwritten rules have the power to escalate conflict, but none to  resolve it. When we go “beyond what is written,” we get in trouble. When we make our opinions on the Bible equal to the Bible itself, when we make tradition into law, or when we read the Bible without “reading” the Word made flesh, we invariably get it wrong. We hurt people, we divide churches, we fail in our responsibility to be salt and light, and we bring shame on the name of Jesus. 
      This is a particular danger for people who take their identity so heavily from Scripture. We can easily allow ourselves to make the mistake of those who ended up opposing Jesus’ work because of their unwritten rules. 
      If you can’t imagine Jesus doing what you’re doing, saying what you’re saying — then you’re wrong.

     That’s a rule you can write down.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Close to Mom

For this is what the Lord says…
As a mother comforts her child,
    so will I comfort you….
-Isaiah 66:12-13 (NIV)

Mike Trout lives with his mother. But he’s decided it’s time to move out.
     It’s not really all that unusual for a 24-year-old to live at home. There’s a lot said these days about the lack of good jobs for young adults, so for a lot of 20-somethings living on your own isn’t economically feasible. Others are still in school, working on a college or graduate degree. Some, maybe, have chosen to live at home to help parents who have health problems or economic problems of their own. Living with your parents at 24 is really nothing to be ashamed of. 
     For Mike, though, it is unusual. He isn’t in school. His parents are fine. And Mike Trout does have a job. It is seasonal work, but it pays pretty well.
     You may have heard of him, even. 
     He’s an outfielder for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He’s a four-time All-Star, two-time All-Star Game MVP, 2012 American League Rookie of the Year, and 2014 American League MVP.
     Not to mention the fact that he’s just entered the third year of a 6-year, $144.5 million contract. He’s set to make $15 million this year. So he thinks this is a pretty good time to move out. You know, now that he’s getting pretty self-sufficient.  
     So Mike bought a 300-acre farm. Not in Los Angeles, though. He’s really not interested in living a Hollywood life. Nope, his new home will be in Millville, New Jersey. Where he grew up. Just a few minutes from his mom. 
     I’m thankful to be able to say that I understand that impulse to stay close to your mom, close to your family, close to your home. I grew up in a family that was close, loving, nurturing. I’m thankful for a mom who put my sister and me first, always, who told us she loved us a lot but showed us even more. I’m thankful, too, that she didn’t smother us, or try to pull us back into the nest when it was time for us to leave. I’m thankful that she loves my wife and my son as much as she does me. 
     I moved 600 miles away, but that didn’t have to do with wanting to get away. It was because I knew that distance didn’t mean we couldn’t still be close. 
     So I’m thankful to be able to say that I understand the impulse to be close to my mom. There are a lot of people this Mother’s Day who can say that too, I’m sure. Even if they’re separated by distance, even (especially) if their mother has passed away, they understand the impulse to be close to her. If you’re in that category, be careful that you don’t take if for granted. It’s easy for those of us who have been so blessed to forget that not everyone understands the impulse to be close to their mother. There are many in our world, in fact, who would be downright puzzled by it. 
     There are those whose mothers treated them as though they were an inconvenience, an obstacle to the life they really wanted, told them in word and action that if only you hadn’t come along I could have had the life I wanted. Their mothers weren’t present for them in any real way, and they can’t fathom a world in which mother means anything more than the woman who gave birth to you.
     There are those whose mothers gave them up. Maybe for good reasons, maybe because they knew they couldn’t take care of a child, but who gave them up all the same. And maybe they were fortunate enough to find someone else who would be Mom to them, and maybe they have no resentment toward the woman who gave birth to them. Or maybe they still can’t understand why she’d leave them alone in the world. Either way, she’s not Mom, not really, and never will be.
     There are some for whom the roles of mother and child have been reversed as long as they can remember, some who have had to take care of their mothers, apologize for them, cover for them, clean up after them, wake them up, call 911 for them. Habits, addictions, have turned the relationship from one of closeness to one of codependency, at best. To escape from their mothers, in those cases, must seem far better than to be close.
   If you understand the impulse to be close to your mother this Mother’s Day, thank God for it. If you can, tell your Mom so as well. Tell her thank you for all she’s done for you, because you probably don’t know the half of it. Forgive her failures, and thank her and love her for what she’s done for you.
     If you don’t understand that impulse, then I hope you’ll understand the promise of God in Psalm 27: “Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me.” What you didn’t get from your mother, your God will provide. He has more than enough love and grace to make up for what you didn’t receive, and he will happily pour that love out in your life. 
     We often think of God as our Father, and rightly so. But, now and then, you get a glimmer in the Bible of God as our Mother as well. “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.” I think of the comfort my Mom has given me — the comfort of acceptance and kindness, the comfort of knowing that whatever is going on, she’ll be there for me, the comfort of her faith in me — and I understand what the prophet is getting at. I understand it when I think of the ways I’ve seen my wife comfort our son. I understand — understand doesn’t really cover it, does it? I know intuitively — why I should want to be close to God. And what I can expect from him if I live near him. 
     So whether you can be near your mother today or not, I hope you’ll know too that your God is not some angry deity to fear. He’s a God of comfort, and he wants us very much to live near him. Wherever you make your home, don’t go far from him.

     And thanks, Mom, for showing me so much about the God who comforts me, and for so often and so faithfully being the one through whom he comforted me. Happy Mother’s Day!

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


    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. 

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