Monday, October 26, 2009

Good Without God

You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:20-24, NIV)

Earlier this week, an organization called The Chicago Coalition of Reason put up a billboard at the corner of Grand and LaSalle avenues in downtown Chicago that’s generated some discussion and debate. The CoR is an atheist organization that promotes the idea that “humanists, agnostics and atheists are as normal as anyone else. We’re your friends, neighbors and family members. We care about our communities and are true to our values.”

Their billboard, which CoR members say is to “break the stereotype that atheists are evil and end the subtle discrimination that unfolds as a result.” It reads: “Are you good without God? Millions are.”

Well, frankly, I long ago gave up the notion that people who believe in God are necessarily nicer or better or more virtuous or more ethical than people who don’t. People are good – or not – for a whole slew of reasons that may or may not have to do with faith in God. The question I have about atheists and morality is this: “Who tells us what ‘good’ is?” Is it enough to be true to our values if our values are mixed up?

Actually, though, that’s a good question to ask folks who claim belief in God, too.

Are you good without God?

I think the billboard has a double meaning, and I want to look at both meanings. Are you good without God – as in, “Are you OK without God? Do you need him to make your choices and live your life?” Christians, of course, would generally make the right noise about needing him. If you pinned a thousand self-identified Christians down, you might get five who’d say, “Actually, I can generally get by just fine without God, yes.” We’re conditioned to talk about faith and trust and depending on God’s grace, and most of us can hit all the right notes.

But sometimes I think we live as though we’re actually pretty good – pretty OK – without God. When we make our decisions based on what “seems OK” or “feels right,” we’re living as if God has nothing we need. When we know what’s right and still choose to do what’s wrong, we conduct ourselves as if our own conscience and value system are the true measures of character, integrity, and virtue. When we lean on our own talents, resources, and schemes to get what we think we want, we deny that there’s any area of our lives in which we need his grace, wisdom, and strength. When we make our plans and carry them out without prayer and advice from other believers, we walk as if there’s no one to lead us. When we live torn by doubt, worry, and fear, we choose to live as if we don’t know the gracious Father in heaven who provides for our needs.

Paul reminds the church in Ephesus of what their live had been like, so he can remind them of who they claim to be now. Their predicament was darkened understanding, hard hearts, separation from God, and an intensifying desire to do evil inversely proportionate to their declining sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. “Futility” is the word Paul uses to describe their lives.

“You, however, didn’t come to know Christ that way,” he reminds them. That’s a good thing to say to ourselves sometimes, when our lives haven’t been reflecting “the truth that is in Jesus.” What we’ve come to faith in isn’t a set of laws. We’ve come to believe in a person: a person who says that there are parts of our lives that have been soiled by sin and need to be taken off like a dirty shirt. A person who makes it possible for us to be renewed and put on a new life that more accurately reflects the righteousness and holiness of our God.

So that billboard provides me with a chance to look in the metaphorical mirror and ask myself if I’m carrying on as if I’m good without God. Or does my life reflect that I need him? Do I try to obey him, even when it’s inconvenient? Does the amount of time I spend in prayer and with the Bible and with the church show that I’m living in dependence on him? Does my hope rest on earning potential or net worth or my particular set of talents or my work ethic, or in God and his generous providence?

“There is no one righteous, not even one,” the Bible reminds us. So, no, none of us can be good without God. That’s true for all of us, atheists and believers alike. The first lie the devil told human beings was, “You’ll be like God, knowing good and evil.” It is a lie, though, on two fronts. We usually can’t see much beyond out own immediate benefit or disadvantage when trying to determine what’s right and wrong. And on those rare occasions when we do come up with the right answer, it’s at best even money if we’ll follow through and actually do what we recognized as right.

And so God, in Christ, stepped in. In being faithful to death, he lived what was right. In his death and resurrection, he brought about redemption and forgiveness from our sins and victory over sin and death. And he poured out his Spirit, God present in us, to give us the wisdom to know right from wrong and the strength to live it.

So, no. I’m not good without God. I’m not in any way OK without him, and I can’t be a person of integrity and virtue without his grace, wisdom, and guidance. We can all do some good deeds, make some good choices, be nice or generous or peace-loving, but in the end it will all come down to this: What we need is to be new. What we need is to be renewed, redeemed, reclaimed, rebuilt, refitted. What we need is what only God can give us, and has given us in Jesus.

Good without God? I’m barely tolerable with him.

Maybe I should put that on a billboard.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Place to Kneel

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet… (John 13:3-5)

Thamail Morgan takes over football fields in Arkansas. The senior at Cave Springs High School has the kind of talent that big-time colleges look for and offer scholarships for. They were looking at Thamail last year. This season, things are less certain.

This past January, Thamail violated a team rule that left him ineligible for athletics at Newport High School, where he was then enrolled, for a year. Thamail would miss his senior football season, and college scholarship offers would dry up. So Thamail made the decision to transfer to Cave Springs, where head football coach Jon Bradley was willing to give him a shot. There were conditions, though; Thamail is required to attend after-school activities at a nearby church and meet with a pastor for counseling.

“Before I [messed] up and got myself into trouble, Thamail says, “I had some schools like Arkansas, Florida State, Ole Miss, and some other big schools looking at me Now they are not looking at me, but I have no one to blame but myself for that.” It’s got to be hard for a kid who had the world at his feet last year to suddenly find himself in such humble circumstances. But Thamail is handling it well. “So far, he has accomplished, and continues to do everything he has been asked to do, and then some,” his current coach says. “He has transitioned well and the kids here have accepted him. He is doing well in class, and is a leader on the football field and is a great athlete. We feel fortunate to have him.” Thamail has had to learn some difficult lessons, though. The kid who controls football games had to learn that there are times when he has to humble himself, listen, obey, and submit.

Cave Springs had a game a couple of weeks ago against Yelleville-Summit, a co-op football team made up of players from two small rural high schools in northern Arkansas. Yelleville-Summit’s game with Cave Springs was their first after enduring the death of one of their players and injuries to four others in a car accident. Players on both teams wore a “72” decal on their helmets – the number of the player killed, Kymball Duffy. Cave Springs head coach Bradley said he wasn’t sure how to feel when his team went up 21-0 in the first quarter. His team started telling their coach that they didn’t want to run up the score at the expense of the grieving team, so Bradley started substituting his reserves for his starters. The score was 28-8 at halftime, then 34-8 at the end of the third quarter. “Everyone was glad that they were out there playing, getting some sort of return to normalcy,” Bradley said later. “But everyone was going to be glad when it was over.”

Yelleville-Summit scored with just a little time left to make the score 34-16. Everyone lined up for the kickoff, with Bradley intending just to run out the clock. The line-drive kick bounced to Thamail Morgan. “We only have one return team,” Bradley explained. Morgan turned up field, ran past, around, and through a couple of tackles, and was at midfield before anyone knew what had happened. There was open field in front of him, and no one who could catch him behind him. But Thamail has learned some things, and of all the things he’s learned maybe the most important is this: being able to dominate a situation doesn’t mean that you have to. Redemption only happens when you learn to humble yourself, submit, listen, and obey.

At the two yard line, Thamail stopped, took a couple of steps back, and just knelt down.

It was a small thing, on a football field in Arkansas. It isn’t going to change the world. But two teams of young men will remember it and talk about it for probably a lifetime. For one team, the image of Thamail Morgan kneeling at the five yard line will in some way help them heal, maybe restore their faith in a world that took their friend. For the other team, Thamail kneeling there will remind them that there are more important things than being able to run with a football. And maybe years later, in an office or a home or on a street somewhere, they’ll remember Thamail and choose to kneel down themselves: to serve, or ask forgiveness, or forgive.

I don’t know what, if anything, Thamail’s act of kneeling on the football field will accomplish in the way of scholarship offers. Sadly, big-time college football programs don’t seem to know how to rate kindness, or care for others, or integrity. I know, though, that when Thamail knelt down he in his own way helped to bring redemption to the Yelleville-Summit tragedy. And at the very least, he showed that his own story is far from complete yet. He’s not just another jock who messed up. God’s at work in his life, and the One who gave him the talent to run into the end zone is also creating in him the character to kneel before he gets there.

May he do the same for me. May he give me the character to kneel down: to serve others, to comfort the broken, to raise someone who’s fallen, or to ask for forgiveness. We need that, don’t we: eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to feel and minds to know when the important thing isn’t what we’re able to do in and of ourselves, but what God is able to do through us when we humble ourselves, submit, listen, and obey.

You have no idea what God might do when you kneel down. He does that sort of thing. He brings people together, or brings people into situations, and then does transformative, redemptive things through them. Sometimes you won’t know what it is that he’s trying to do. But it’s always a good habit to humble yourself, to repent, to serve, to comfort, to touch, to pray. To submit, listen, and obey.

You’re always close to God’s heart when you find a place to kneel.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ignoble Awards

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God's glory displayed in the face of Christ.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
-2 Corinthians 4:6-7 (TNIV)

You might have heard the winners of the Nobel prizes mentioned this week, but there were a series of awards given out last week that you probably missed. The Ig Nobel Awards, given by a publication called, improbably enough, the Annals of Improbable Research, honor the best of the year's research that cannot or should not be repeated.

At this year's awards in Boston, “Iggys” were given in economics to Icelandic bank executives “for showing how tiny banks can become huge banks, and then become tiny banks again.” The peace prize went to researchers from the University of Bern for a paper entitled, “Are full or empty beer bottles sturdier and does their fracture- threshold suffice to break the human skull?” (Turns out that full or empty bottles will crack your noggin.) Other researchers were honored (?) for determining that cows who are called by name give more milk, for discovering that giant panda poop helps break down organic kitchen waste, for identifying the anatomical factors that prevent pregnant women from tipping over, and for developing a bra that converts into a gas mask. Well, two gas masks, actually.

Ignoble? Well, maybe. Unless you suddenly find yourself in need of a gas mask. Somebody has to study the “ignoble” stuff, right?

Judging from the Bible, God seems to be a big fan of the ignoble. A champion of the common. Lord of the lowborn.

It's a redneck shepherd boy, after all, who stands up to Goliath – and with a sling, not armor and sword. When God wants to send his Son into the world, he comes as a helpless baby, with a feeding trough in a stable in a backwater town as his crib. His message speaks to the common people, and often alienates the VIP's. And when he rescues the people he loves, it isn't by raising an army or taking a throne. It's by giving his life as a despised and rejected criminal.

Moses parted the sea with a staff. A donkey chastised Balaam. Jesus fed 5,000 people with a little boy's picnic. You get the picture. God has a history of unexpected and unprecedented acts done with undistinguished people and seemingly insignificant things.

Seems that God can use regular people who seem to have little to commend them to do amazing things. A peasant couple in Nazareth receive an angelic visitation and, nine months later, a baby boy who is God With Us. Uneducated fishermen, an ethically questionable tax collector, a revolutionary, and assorted women make up his closest followers. But those followers go on to proclaim the good news and demonstrate the power of God's kingdom to officials, rulers, and kings all over the world. “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13) That's the response of some of those officials and rulers to the ordinary guys who spoke the name of Jesus to them. And, unwittingly, they stumbled on the reason. What makes ordinary people able to do extraordinary things? What transforms unremarkable circumstances into remarkable acts of God? What gives nobility to what the world considers ignoble?

“They...took note that these men had been with Jesus.”

Paul calls himself and his co-workers “jars of clay;” pots so literally earthy and common that archaeologists today find thousands of shards of them scattered over every dig from Asia to the Middle East to Africa to Europe. Clay jars were to Paul what plastic and styrofoam containers are to us: functional and unremarkable.

But God had hidden a treasure inside Paul and his clay-jar colleagues. He had shown them his face through Jesus, revealed to them who he is. His light shone in their hearts, and so they carried around in themselves the treasure of the gospel of Jesus. They were still clay jars: weak, fragile, yes, even ignoble. They could be cracked, broken, and even destroyed. No one would look at them and be impressed or awestruck. But because they were clay jars, God did remarkable things through them.

You might have expected that I'd say “in spite of the fact that they were clay jars,” or something like that. But Paul doesn't say that. Paul reminds us that the ordinary-ness of the messengers witnesses to the extraordinary-ness of the message. In using the ignoble, Paul points out, God demonstrates incontrovertibly that the power of the gospel is in him. It's not in the persuasiveness or faith or piety or courage of the container. It's in the glory and power and grace of God as poured out in Jesus Christ.

I wouldn't be surprised if you were a pretty ordinary person living a pretty ordinary life. Oh, I'm sure you have your moments, but I imagine that a fair amount of the time you worry about your weaknesses and stress over your shortcomings. I'm guessing that you see yourself as pretty average, and your life as unremarkable at best and mundane at worst. And I'm pretty sure that, given the choice, you'd say that you consider yourself more ignoble than noble.

Congratulations. You're in good company. People like you are just the kind of people God loves to use to do his work in the world. Really, when an ordinary person confounds the world's values and assumptions by showing extraordinary faith or courage, or sacrificing to show love to someone else, or speaking unexpected words of good news at just the right time, then God is glorified. It's clear that he's at work in that ordinary life.

Stay with Jesus. Stay close to him, follow him, do what he does, and listen to what he says. His Spirit lives in you, and the treasure of the gospel glitters through the cracks that every clay jar has in it. He'll do remarkable things with you, but that's his business, and he'll do it in his own time and in his own ways. As you take care of your family, or do your job, or shop for groceries, or go to school, or serve in your community, or worship in your church, he'll do his work. Your business is staying close, doing the things he did and speaking the words he spoke.

People will still notice.

And God will be glorified.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

When Failure Can't Be Forgotten

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” (Luke 22:31-34)

My city has spent the last four years working on a project: to be the host city for the 2016 Olympics. The banners and signs are everywhere, draped or painted on everything imaginable. City buses and trains carry the logo. Even our famous Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza downtown got in on the act, with a gigantic inflatable Olympic medal draped around his (or her) neck(?).

CHICAGO 2016. Everywhere you look.

I suspect that the signs are going to start coming down very soon. We were the first of the four finalist cities eliminated in the voting on Friday.

Ouch. It hurts to fail. It especially hurts to fail publicly and spectacularly: “Thanks, Chicago. We aren't sure who we want to host the Olympics yet, but we know for a fact that we don't want you.” And it's not like we didn't try. We spent something like $50 million. We had the President and First Lady there shaking hands and lobbying for us. And Oprah, for goodness' sake. If the Obamas and Oprah couldn't do it for us, wow – the International Olympic Committee really didn't like us.

Maybe I'm a little bitter, but Rio instead of Chicago? In the summer?

So the “CHICAGO 2016” signs will come down, or be painted over. For a while, the media will be buzzing about the reasons we were rejected. Mayor Daley may take a little heat. Pretty soon, though, the postmortem will end and everyone will move on to other things. In a few years, no one will talk about it much anymore. That's the way it is with failure. It stings at first, but eventually the pain goes away and everyone goes on to think about something else.

Except when it doesn't, and when they don't.

I'm thinking about people now, not cities. People who can't easily obscure or erase the signs of their failure. Some of them wear those signs, literally, as numbers on the back of a prison uniform. Some hold them at intersections, here in a city that just spent $50 million trying to impress the IOC: Will Work for Food. Some are reminded of their failures by the high school diploma they didn't manage to get, or the sign on the office door that they always wanted but never really had a chance at.

Then there are those for whom the signs of failure are less literal, but no less real: the man who sees his kids a few times a year because his marriage disintegrated, the woman who's losing her fight with pills or a bottle, the former church leader whose moral failings have him wondering what to do on Sunday mornings. Not to even mention the many smaller failures that everyone has to live with and sometimes bear the consequences of for a lifetime: relational failures, ethical failures, mistakes made in youth that can mark the rest of a life. The signs of those failures sometimes don't disappear. They can't be taken down or painted over. They're not easily forgotten with the passing of time.

Peter had a failure like that. We still remember it, in fact. Still talk about it. Out of four Gospels that tell the story of Jesus, well, four mention Peter's failure. If you know anything at all about Peter, you probably know that he denied being associated with Jesus on the night of his arrest.

And it could have easily been that we remembered Peter for nothing else. Except that Jesus wouldn't have it that way. He punctured Peter's bravado like someone might pop a balloon with a pin, that's true. He knew about Peter's denial before it happened, knew enough to call him by his given name, Simon. “You won't be a Rock tonight, Simon. Satan will beat you down. When you have the chance tonight to stand up for me, you'll back off.”

We might consider that a little cruel, except that Jesus clearly isn't being cruel. He knows what Peter's up against. It isn't just the threat of prison or a cross. It isn't the power of Rome. Jesus understands that Peter's fighting a spiritual battle, and that no human being wins every one of those. He knows that Peter's denial doesn't come from a lack of courage, or a lack of love for him. It comes from Peter's spiritual weakness and the deception of the devil.

It's also obvious that Jesus is on Peter's side. “I've prayed for you...that your faith may not fail.” Knowing that Peter was about to go through an ordeal that mirrored his own, Jesus had already prayed for him. Jesus wasn't going to stand by and watch clinically to see if one of his people was going to survive the battle. He intervened, interceded. He joined the battle on the side of his disciple, even though he knew that the disciple might lose a skirmish.

Oh, and one other thing: Peter's failure isn't permanent. “When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Encouraging, isn't it? “Yes, Peter, you're going to blow it tonight. But that doesn't mean your life is over. Recover from your failure, learn from it, and then bless your brothers and sisters by helping them fight their own battles and recover from their own failures.”

That's why we don't know Peter only for his failures. Jesus wouldn't have it.

Same with you. I know how failures can seem devastating and all-consuming. And if it was completely up to us, they would be irredeemable. But we follow the same Lord as Peter, and he still knows what his disciples are up against. He knows it first-hand, because he fought the same battles we do. He's still on our side, praying for us that our faith may not fail – even when our resolve, courage, and best intentions do. And he still believes in us and the service we can offer – despite and even because of our failures. He won't have you defined by the failures in your life. Even the spectacular ones.

He offers us forgiveness, renewal, and redemption. And maybe you're especially in need of that today because you're especially feeling your failures. Yours are no worse than Peter's were, and they don't have to sink you any more than his did. Your Lord still loves you, still prays and fights for you, and still has a place for you that no one else can fill. Receive the forgiveness and redemption he offers, then find someone else who needs it and offer it in his name.

By the way, I can probably set you up with some CHICAGO 2016 t-shirts. Cheap.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.