Sunday, April 25, 2010

Penalty Strokes

Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. (Colossians 3:9)

Jim Furyk won a golf tournament last week in Hilton Head, SC. But something his opponent did outshines his win.

Furyk was tied with Brian Davis, an Englishman who has never won on the PGA tour, at the end of the Verizon Heritage tournament's final round. That meant a playoff: Furyk against Davis, as many holes as necessary to win. Davis' approach shot rolled off the green on the first hole. He had to chip on from a marshy area just off the green. As he did, he inadvertently nudged a loose reed with his wedge on his backswing.

No one seemed to have noticed, and it didn't improve his ball's position or affect his shot.

But Brian Davis knew that the strict rules of golf prohibit touching “a loose impediment in a hazard.” “I thought I saw movement out of the corner of my eye,” Davis explained. Again, he seems to have been the only one to see it at the time. He could have ignored it. Gone on and played his next shot. He might have still lost, but he might have won, too.

Instead, he immediately turned and called to one of the rules officials who stand by at PGA tournaments. The official checked the video and found that Davis had, indeed, just brushed one of the reeds.

The violation carries a two-stroke penalty. Furyk putted in to win, but only after going to Davis and asking him if he was sure of the violation. Davis responded that he knew what he'd done and “couldn't live with [himself]” if he hadn't owned up to it.

Honesty can be inconvenient sometimes. Character can be uncomfortable. It cost Brian Davis his first PGA win and a couple-million-dollar paycheck. It can cost a student who decides not to cheat, a teenager who refuses to take refuge in an easy lie, a salesman who won't pad his figures to land a big account. Sometimes it demands that we truthful about our own mistakes, irresponsibility, or sin. Sometimes it requires that we speak the truth to someone else about theirs. Character reminds us that being able to get away with something is not the same as whether or not we should get away with it.

The world we live in isn't always an easy place to make such distinctions. Some observers seem downright puzzled by Brian Davis' scrupulous concern for such an obscure rule. They don't understand why he would cost himself the chance at a win by admitting a violation – especially one that didn't affect his shot. But character, honesty, and integrity can't always be summed up with a cost/benefit analysis. They don't fit on a spreadsheet. Character doesn't pick its spots. It isn't something you turn on and off, and it doesn't care whether anyone's watching. That's because character doesn't exist outside a person. It comes from inside us, from our heart and minds.

“When we play,” Brian Davis said of himself and his colleagues on the PGA Tour, “we play by the rules. We don't even think about it, because it just happens.” He means, I guess, that the rules of the game are so ingrained in him, such a part of who he is, that following them doesn't require a lot of internal debate and discussion. It would take more energy for him to break them than it does for him to follow them.

When you follow Jesus, the Bible says, something like that happens to you. It's like you put on a new you, sort of like a new shirt. It happens over time, not necessarily all at once, and there will be places where the new you and the old you don't coexist very peacefully for a while. But you put on this new self when you give your life to Jesus. And something interesting starts to happen, something completely outside your control. You start to look and act and talk like Jesus.

Your new self is “being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator;” that's the way Paul puts it. You can cooperate with that renewal, or you can resist it. There's nothing to prevent you from going back and wallowing in your old life every chance you get. But it's happening, and the more it happens the more your old life will seem like a contradiction. “Don't lie to each other,” Paul says, but not because you're afraid of hell. “You've taken off your old self, with its practices, an have put on the new self.” And this new person you are is being renewed and renovated, made to look like Jesus. And dishonesty is now out of character for you.

You know, of course, that you can still cut ethical corners if you want to. Just like Brian Davis could have pretended not to see that reed move. If you're like me, there will still be situations from time to time that will test your character, and you might not pass every one of those tests. Don't downplay the fact that you have an Adversary who is doing his best to convince you that down is up and up is down. But the longer you follow Jesus, and the more you look like him, the more character becomes a part of who you are, so ingrained that it will take more energy and internal argument to go against it than along with it. That character is from the Holy Spirit, working in you to sharpen your sense of right and wrong, stiffen your resolve, and prick your conscience.

In Christ, integrity is a part of who you are. Sometimes all we need is a reminder to live out of that new sense of identity. Whoever you might have been, in Christ you're no longer a person who finds it easy to cheat, lie, mislead, or take advantage. Every time you do so, it will take a battle of will. So why fight it? Why not just go along with what God is doing in Jesus to make you into a new person?

Maybe it's time today to call a penalty on ourselves. Maybe it's time for us to address the character issues in our lives, the “small” lies and dishonesty, the ethical cut corners, that make life run a little more smoothly. That's not who we are. That's not us, not anymore. Not if we follow Jesus.

For us, now integrity ought to be...well...par for the course.

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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, April 19, 2010

Somebody, Somewhere, Sometime

When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people how the demon–possessed man had been cured. Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.
The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying,“Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.
(Luke 8:35-39)

Frank Meeink lives in Iowa with his wife and children. He runs a multi-racial hockey league for kids, called Harmony through Hockey. He makes a living traveling around the country speaking on diversity and tolerance. That's a long way from where he came from, and not just geographically.

Frank grew up with his father in south Philadelphia, after enduring beatings from his mother's boyfriend. His dad's house was in a predominantly black neighborhood, and he was one of just a handful of white students at his school. He and his friends would get off the trolley they took to school in the mornings and run the few blocks to the door, hoping there would be no trouble. At least, at first he hoped there wouldn't be trouble. Eventually he started to look for it.

Visiting a cousin in rural Pennsylvania, Frank was introduced to the white supremacy movement. He was 14, and it seemed to him that all the anger he felt about his situation was resolved in the doctrines of the skinheads. Back in Philadelphia, he and his new “band of brothers” started vandalizing synagogues and beating up and sometimes killing minorities and homeless people. He attended monthly KKK meetings to affirm his beliefs.

At 16, he had to leave Philadelphia, just one step ahead of the police. He eventually found his way to Springfield, IL, after a suicide attempt and an escape from a mental health facility in Indianapolis. In Springfield, he became something of a local celebrity. He even hosted a public access talk show – “The Reich.”

The police finally caught up to him there, however, and he was arrested and sentenced to three years in the Illinois prison system. Through sports and Bible studies, he got to know some of his black, Hispanic, and Asian fellow inmates. “You begin to look at people as individuals,” he says now. He begin to see how much they had in common, how they weren't as different from him as he'd thought. As he'd been led to believe.

When he was released, he realized he had very little in common any longer with his old skinhead brethren. He got a job working in an antique furniture store – the owner of the store was Jewish, ironically enough – and started to build a new life. He also started to become burdened with other kids who were growing up the way he did. That's what gave him the idea to start the hockey league and do the talks.

There was one last vestige of his old life, though, that had to go. So he spent a year having tattoos lasered off or transformed - a 5-inch swastika tattoo on his neck, the words “skin” and “head” on his knuckles, a portrait of Joseph Goebbels on his chest, among others. In some ways, his transformation is written in ink and scars on his body.

It would have been so easy to write off Frank Meeink as a lost cause. It would be easy to assume that he'd never make a positive contribution to the world around him, that he'd live and die wallowing in the hate and violence that characterized his early life. I'm sure there were a lot of people who helped Frank's redemption come about, but he credits one in particular: a “big black dude” in prison who invited him to a Bible study. He went out of fear, he says, but stayed because something in the scriptures resonated with him and suggested to him that there was a way out of the life he'd chosen.

As much as I like Frank Meeink's story, I'd love to hear more about the black man who invited a white supremacist to a Bible study.

That's the way it works, isn't it – with a crazy, violent naked guy who lives in tombs or a crazy, violent skinhead from south Philly? Somewhere, sometime, somebody has to see a person for who he really is under the layers of hurt and anger and evil. Under the shaved head and the tattoos and the hobnail boots. Somewhere, sometime, somebody has to see a person's value as one of God's creatures – even if they have to take it on faith. Somewhere, sometime, somebody has to rebuke the devil, tell him he won't take this person without a fight, and send the demons running for cover.

And when somebody does that, somewhere, sometime, God uses it to bring about transformation.

In case I haven't made it clear enough, you and I, we're somebody. And right now is somewhere, and right where we are is sometime. And there are people like Frank Meeink right now, right here, who need for us to do something to challenge the hold Satan has on their lives. They need for us to see them as the people God made them to be, and not let the people they are right now keep us at arm's length. They need for us to tolerate their anger, or pain, or fear, or whatever long enough to introduce them to Jesus. They need for us to love them and share their struggle and celebrate their victories.

We need them, too. We need their wonder and joy in the gospel of Jesus to remind us of what God has done for us. We need their vitality in our churches, even if it makes things a bit more scary and disordered and chaotic than we've grown used to. We need, most of all, maybe, the power of their witness. We need in most of our churches people running all over town talking about what Jesus has done for them, don't we?

It doesn't always come out like Frank Meeink's story did. But how do we know, until we get out of our comfortable churches and take the good news – in word and in deed – to people marked and twisted by Satan? How do we know, until we open the doors of our lives and hearts to the people everyone else has given over to death?

You're somebody. And right now, right where you are, is another Frank Meeink.

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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.

Don't you want to be part of the transformation?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A New Day

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-20)

If you don't live in Chicago, you probably don't know Father Michael Pflegler. He's the priest of St. Sabina Catholic Church, a predominantly African-American congregation on Chicago's south side. Pflegler has fought the efforts of the Archdiocese of Chicago to move him to another parish, in spite of the fact that priests are limited to two six-year terms of service at one location. Pflegler, who is white, has chosen to stay with his congregation and actively campaign for justice and stand against racism and inequality on their behalf.

Pflegler has made news in Chicago for a variety of actions, including threatening to “snuff out” the owner of a gun shop in his neighborhood and flying a flag upside-down as a protest against youth violence. Most famously, he was reprimanded during the 2008 election by the Archbishop of Chicago for mocking Senator Hillary Clinton from his pulpit and actively campaigning for President Obama.

He's sensational, and arguably effective. And the Archdiocese of Chicago's Office of Racial Justice is honoring him with a Lifetime Achievement award for “service in pursuit of dismantling racism, injustice and inequalities on behalf of African Americans and all people of color.”

Some Chicago Catholics are outraged. Despite Pflegler's service, they say, his problems with authority, his tactics, and his rather warm embrace of controversial religious leaders like the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan make him a poor choice for the award. A commenter on the Chicago Tribune's website sums up the sentiment well: “He should be doing the work of the church instead, which is winning disciples for Christ, instead of wasting his time on politics.”

This story caught my eye in part because I've been thinking too about the place of the church in politics. Conservative pundit Glenn Beck's recent feud with Jim Wallis, the president of Sojourners, a politically liberal Christian organization devoted to social justice, provides a bookend for the Michael Pflegler story. Wallis' and Becks' feud started when Beck told his viewers that if their churches were engaged in “social justice,” they should leave those churches, because “social justice” is code for the full agenda of the radical political left.

Honestly, in the church where I grew up I heard much the same: Christians are to be more concerned with the next world than this one, we're to concentrate on spiritual issues, we're to eschew politics. But I've also been exposed in my adult life to a different stream of Christian thought that says the church should advocate for justice and stand up for the oppressed. It strikes me that neither Michael Pflegler nor Glenn Beck nor Jim Wallis are likely to be entirely without error in their judgment. So I've been re-reading the gospels lately, asking myself what side of the debate – if any – is closer to Jesus himself.

What I've found, first of all, is that the Jesus who's more concerned with the next world than this one is a figment of some churches' imaginations. That whole “this world/next world” paradigm doesn't work for Jesus because his entire message was that the kingdom of God was “near.” For him, God's kingdom wasn't somewhere to go when we die. It was breaking in to the world, infiltrating the current age, through Jesus and his followers.

It's right there in Luke 4, as Luke introduces Jesus to his readers. Jesus describes himself and his work in the words of Isaiah, in the proclamation of good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and relief for the oppressed. Jesus understands his mission as announcing that at long last the “year of the Lord's favor” had come. And he was careful to tell his hearers that it wasn't only a hope to be deferred until death: “Today,” he promised them, “this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

And so, “blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20), not because it's so great to be poor but because “yours is the kingdom of God.” And blessed are those who are hungry, and who grieve, and who are hated, because God's kingdom is especially for people like that, and as it grows in this age like yeast in a lump of dough it will displace the injustice and sin and hate and loss that create hunger and grief and persecution in the first place. Jesus knows that his kingdom is “not of this world,” and so his followers don't have to fight to install him on a throne. But that doesn't mean that Jesus had nothing to do with this world. Every healing, every exorcism, every meal with a sinner was a sermon that the kingdom of God has come and that the current age is passing away.

But Jesus didn't tell his followers to go win political power. He told them, and ultimately showed them how, to go hurt with the suffering. To be people who see with our Father's eyes and speak with our Father's mouth and love with our Father's love. He showed us how to feed the hungry and heal the sick and proclaim good news to the poor – to announce “the year of the Lord's favor” to a world in danger of forgetting him completely. And, maybe worse, in danger of thinking that he's forgotten them.

So, no, I don't think Jesus would say that the gospel isn't about this world. He would tell us to go and be his followers, to do what he did, and through our words and actions testify that the kingdom of God has come and will one day come in power and fullness. And until that day, to do what we can to witness to and demonstrate its reality.

Jesus was political, in that he proclaimed a new day in which the order of things was turned upside down, the last are first and the first go to the end of the line. And his followers must be political, in that we begin to live out this new world. Not to gain political power in a dying age, but to testify to the power and love and grace of God. And in so doing, to win disciples for Jesus.

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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, April 4, 2010

"We Had Hoped"

How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory? (Luke 24:25-26)

You could see it in their stooped shoulders, in the dark circles under their eyes, in the lines of worry on their foreheads and in the downturned corners of their mouths. You could see it in the shuffling way they walked, in their grave expressions and subdued gestures.

You could hear it, too, in their vocabulary: “They crucified him, but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” We had hoped. They had dared to imagine that God was going to bring about the long-anticipated freedom of Israel through Jesus. Whatever aspirations these two had - nationalistic, religious, political, economic - whatever aspirations they had were bound up with him. Tied to his fate. A week earlier, as crowds welcomed him to Jerusalem with waving palm branches and shouts of “Save now,” it must have seemed to them that all those hopes were on the verge of fulfillment.

Today, they're entombed with the body of their friend and teacher. Today their hearts are as empty as his tomb apparently is.

“We had hoped.” Ah, I imagine you've walked where they walked. Bet you've even said the words, haven't you?
“I had hoped the treatment would give him a few more good years.”
“I had hoped we could work out our problems.”
“I had hoped to keep my job a little longer.”
“I had hoped to pay off this debt by now.”
“I had hoped I could reconcile with my child.”

To live in this world is to travel roads that turn unexpectedly, that traverse places you'd rather not go, and that seem to end abruptly in places that were never your intended destination. It's really a testament to the human capacity for hope that we keep getting disappointed; it's such a common part of our lives that you'd think at some point if would stop surprising us. But surprise us it does, and when it hits us in the gut and leaves us gasping for breath, one of the first things we'll always wheeze out is that, often against all odds, we had hoped.

I came across a tragic story several years ago from a newspaper in Nairobi, Kenya. The story was about a woman, dying of hunger in the drought-ridden Kagundo district of the country, who had placed a curse on God for sending the famine. “Whoever brought this famine, let him perish,” she chanted, banging on an empty cooking pot, just hours before she died in her sleep.

To tell you the truth, I couldn't blame the woman for cursing God. That empty cooking pot is a powerful symbol, isn't it, of lost dreams, dashed expectations, failed aspirations? What do you do when hope is all in the past tense – when your present is bleak and your future nonexistent? One of the options, surely, is to give up hope, curse God, and die. Who's to say that, pushed to the point of starvation, they wouldn't do exactly the same? Not a claim I can make with complete confidence.

There is an alternative. But it's not intuitive. It's not one that we can come up with on our own.

It involves a change of heart, a widening of vision, and it requires the intervention of someone who sees things from a higher vantage point. “What are you discussing together?” a stranger asks the two discouraged disciples. And they tell him. They tell him about Jesus, and they tell him about their hopes, and they tell him about the cross and the tomb. But their hopes are so far gone that not even the fact that his tomb was found empty that morning can retrieve them. That's why they need him.

That's why we need him too; without him, our ruined hopes are overwhelming. Jesus reminds these two disciples that nothing that has happened is outside the boundaries of what God has already said must happen. “Foolish,” he calls them, “slow to believe,” because they should have realized that God's plans would not be derailed by something as trivial as a cross and a sealed tomb. They should have recognized that God wouldn't leave them alone to pick up the pieces of shattered hopes.

It takes a while, but finally their eyes are opened and they recognize the One who has been with them all this time. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?!” they exclaim to each other. Their hearts had been cold piles of embers, and now they are aflame again with hope, joy, anticipation, and excitement.

All it takes is resurrection.

Today is Easter, the day when the church especially recalls that Jesus' tomb was empty. Sometimes that meaning gets lost, mixed up with the anticipation of Spring, egg hunts, baskets, and time with family. But if today looks a little more bleak than Easter should, if it's hard for you to hear the shouts of “He is risen!” because of the incessant thumping of “I had hoped” in your heart, then I want this to be more than the usual Easter for you. I pray that it will be a day when you come face to face with the risen Lord. I hope that he will open the Scriptures for you and help you to see that your lost hopes do nothing to derail the work of God in your life, and even that sometimes lost hope is necessary so that you will have room for the new hopes he wants to give you. I pray today that you will recognize him as he breaks the bread, hear the reassurance of the church that Jesus is alive, and that your heart will be set aflame again with hope, joy, anticipation, and excitement.

Jesus is risen, and that means that there is no place where God is not, no evil so deep or dark that the light of grace and power and love does not pierce to its very bottom. There is no lost hope that cannot be restored or replaced, no discouragement that cannot be transformed into anticipation. Jesus is risen, and that means that sickness, sin, and death are defeated. Jesus is risen, and that means he walks with us in our discouragement and reminds us of the hope that because he lives, we live too. Jesus is risen, and in his empty tomb we see beyond a shadow of a doubt that wherever the road you travel might take you, he is never more than a step away.

Jesus is risen. So hope lives, too.

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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.