Monday, May 24, 2010

An Older Brother's Complaint

The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
-Luke 15:28-32 (TNIV)

That's right. I wouldn't go in. Well, it would have been a farce for me to go to that party. Ungrateful, spoiled brat. My brother, you say? He's my brother? Well, just because we have the same father doesn't mean I have to be in the same room with him! As I recall, it wasn't that long ago that he didn't want to be in the same town as us.

He didn't tell you about that, did he? No, I didn't expect that he would. My father keeps saying he was lost, but he wasn't lost. He knew where he was, and it was right where he thought he wanted to be. He left. He didn't wander off, or get turned around or kidnapped. He asked my Father for the inheritance he had coming to him and he left. Can you imagine? And dad – oh, he sold off some land and some of his herd so he could give that ungrateful jerk just what he'd asked for. And so he left. He told us we were provincial and that there was no life for him here, and he left the town that's been good enough for generations of our family before him for pagan temples and brothels.

Any idiot could see what was going to happen – any idiot except my brother, that is! As long as he was paying for the food and the wine and the whores, he had more friends than he could count. But then the day came when Big Shot had spent his last shekel, and suddenly all his “friends” had somewhere else to be. I know – what a shock, right?

I guess he bounced around a little after that. I'm a little fuzzy on the details, but get this: he wound up working for a guy feeding pigs. Yeah, how far can you fall, right? Well, it isn't like my little brother had a lot of options open to him out there. Near as I can tell, feeding pigs is about all he's qualified for. I say that pig pen was just the place for him. You make your bed, you lie in it. If he started getting hungry, I'm sure the pigs would have made room at the trough for him.

But, no. This town doesn't look quite so “provincial” when you're looking up at it from rock bottom. That's when he came dragging home, dirty and tattered and smelling like pork chops. If I'd seen him first, well, we wouldn't be having this conversation. I'd have taken a stick to him and run him off. But I didn't see him first. My father did.

My father saw him first because, truth be told, my father put his life on hold the day my brother left home. Spent a lot of time sitting in front of the house, looking down the road. He suddenly got really interested in everything the merchants traveling through town had to sell; well, obviously, he was asking them all if they'd seen my brother, if they had any news about him. I'd talk to him, and it seemed like he was a million miles away. Always looking for him, always waiting for him, always waking up believing that every day might be the day that my brother came home.

So I wasn't surprised that my father saw him first. I was a little surprised when he hoisted up the hem of his robes and took off down the road to meet him. I guess the old man still moves pretty good – still, how embarrassing. I heard later that my brother, in a rare display of humility, actually offered to be one of my father's servants if he could have room and board. At the very least, I wish Dad had taken him up on that offer. I would have enjoyed that, having my brother as one of our servants.

I would have enjoyed it more if dad had called the village together and stoned little bro to death.

He didn't do that either, though, and that's why there's music and dancing and food inside and why I'm standing outside. Dad hugged him. Took him in his arms and hugged him and sobbed on his shoulder like a sentimental old coot. And then he went completely over the top. He sent the servants off to find the best robe in the house – his robe, the one I would have inherited one day – and told them to dress him in it. He had them put shoes on him. He told them to put a signet ring on his finger – power of attorney for the household. And he had them kill the fattened calf and organize a “Welcome Home” barbecue. Like he'd been off fighting in a war or something, instead of wasting my father's hard-earned money.

I'll never forget getting in from the fields and hearing the music. Want to know something? I thought for a minute it was for me. I thought for just a minute that my brother being unfaithful had made Dad realize and appreciate just how faithful I'd been. Should have known better. He wouldn't even kill that tough old billy goat that's been around here since Adam and Eve for me. And I work myself half to death for him. I do everything he asks! I guess you have to thumb your nose at him, steal his money, and waste your life for him to care anything about you.

He did notice I wasn't there at the party, at least. And he did come out to me. I mean, he didn't go nearly as far for me as he did for my brother, but he did come talk to me. “You're always with me, and everything I have is yours.” That's what he said to me. Well, I know. It's just nice to hear it sometimes.

Know what else he said? “We had to celebrate and be glad.” Really? I thought celebration was for people who do what they're supposed to. What is it about my Father that makes him so compelled to have a party when the son who has disrespected him and dishonored him comes home? And what is it that makes it so important to him that I come to the party too?

I'm not sure I'll ever understand it.

Maybe...maybe it doesn't matter, though. He is my father. Am I really that different from my brother if I don't listen to him now? If he can forgive my brother, and if it's so important to him that I forgive my brother...well, maybe I should. If he wants me to celebrate my brother's return, maybe I should. If for no other reason than that it means so much to him. Enough to wait for him to come to his senses. Enough to run to him when he does. Enough to show him extravagant grace and generosity.

Maybe I should open the door and go welcome my brother.

At the very least, maybe I should show up at my father's party.

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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, May 17, 2010

Bread Alone

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. (Matthew 4:1-4)

Nick Sherman is a pizza fan. More like a raving pizza lunatic. The 27-year-old font designer from Brooklyn writes a blog called “Pizza Rules” in his spare time. But the blog isn't what makes him a pizza fanatic. It's April.

Yes, April, the month. Because in the month of April, Nick eats pizza every day. He started a few years ago by resolving that he'd eat pizza for at least one meal each day of the month. He found himself going to the same pizzeria near his home pretty often, so the next year he changed the rules and resolved not to eat at the same place twice during the month.

This year he needed a new challenge, and so when April rolled around he went off the deep end. Nick resolved that this April, he'd eat nothing but pizza. Every day. For every meal. For a month. Pizza.

He was serious about it, too. And public, when he needed to be. One day he had to explain to his boss and some clients at a business lunch that he wasn't eating anything because the restaurant didn't have pizza. Nick told them about the blog, and his commitment to eat nothing but pizza.

Oh, by the way, he weighs 138 pounds. Two pounds less than he weighed when he started his pizza diet. Turns out that eating pizza for every meal kept him from snacking during the day. Most days he only ate one or two meals, he says.

The hard part, Nick says, wasn't that he got tired of eating pizza. It was “not eating other stuff.” Well, yeah. You'd start to miss chicken, pasta, cheeseburgers, Caesar's salads. By tax day, you'd be wanting an orange, or an ice cream cone, or beef chow mein, wouldn't you? Not to mention that an all-pizza diet isn't very balanced, nutritionally speaking.

People aren't made to live on pizza alone.

I imagine, of all the temptations that Jesus experienced in the desert, that first one would have been the worst. The allure of wealth and power aside, when my stomach tells me it's time to eat, it's hard for me to say no. Turn stones to bread? Surely the One through Whom the world was created could have. And, after all, he pretty much wrote the rule book for divinity and humanity taking up the same space. If the human body that he chose was slowly starving to death, who would blame him for utilizing a little divine prerogative to feed it? Just a word, a minor rationalization, and he could be full. True, it would mean accepting one of Satan's ideas. But what good would it accomplish if God let him starve to death in the desert?

See? That's the temptation – that we know better than God what we need for life.

It goes back to Adam and Eve in the Garden. Don't imagine that the serpent didn't take advantage of the human need to eat there. “Looks good, doesn't it, Eve? Go ahead, baby. What's the harm in having something to eat?”

How many mistakes have you made when you were hungry? Bought those cookies at the grocery store because your mouth was watering for them? Messed up the new, healthier diet because you came home from work famished and dinner was still 2 hours away? Didn't do so well on a test because you skipped breakfast to study? It's hard to listen to anything else when your stomach's growling, isn't it?

And how many mistakes have you made when you were hungry for approval, or comfort, or wealth, or success, or validation, or revenge?

Want to know a secret about us human beings? We're almost always hungry for something. And left to ourselves, we will do pretty much whatever we think will satiate our appetites. Paul talks about some people behaving as if “their God is their stomach,” and truth be told all of us have behaved that way at one time or another. We're instinctively hungry for whatever we think will sustain or improve our lives. Usually, though, what we choose isn't much more varied or balanced than Nick Sherman's April menu. Whether it's wealth, or power, or pleasure, or control, or admiration, we will fixate on it and stuff ourselves with all we can get. And we'll call that living.

We need to learn that law that Jesus learned in the desert, that Israel before him were supposed to learn as they wandered and depended on God to literally drop bread from heaven: “People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” For Israel, it meant learning to trust that every morning, God would give them enough for the day. For Jesus, it meant learning to trust that God would take care of him when he had nothing for the day. For forty days.

Jesus didn't listen to the excruciating emptiness in his gut. Instead, he listened to his Father. What he heard was enough, apparently. Which leads me to think that, on those occasions when my gut speaks louder than my faith, maybe I'm just not listening well enough. When Satan's telling me to make a meal out of something that's just going to sit in my stomach – well, like a rock, spiritually speaking – I especially need to listen for God's voice and hear what he tells me.

He'll speak. His word sustains my life, and so I know he'll speak. He'll speak through the Scriptures, or through his people, or through the Spirit, or through the people in my life. He'll speak, and I just need to learn to listen. He'll give me what I need for the day, and even when it seems like nothing I have to learn to trust that it's enough.

Bread's not enough: even if it's topped with cheese and sauce and pepperoni. Neither are the things we human beings hunger for so much and value so highly. What we need for life comes from God, spoken into being by his word. May we listen. And live.

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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.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Mothers in Israel

Villagers in Israel would not fight;
they held back until I, Deborah, arose,
until I arose, a mother in Israel. (Judges 5:7)

Deborah was ahead of her time.

Her story's told in the book of Judges, chapters 4 and 5. The book tells of the escapades of several early leaders in Israel, prior to the development of the monarchy. The “Judges,” as we call them in English, seem to have been mostly tribal chieftains, Robin Hood – like outlaws, or particularly skilled warriors who fought or led local wars against the nations that threatened Israel as they carved out a place for themselves in the land God had given them. Samson and Gideon, a couple of the best-known characters in the Bible, come from Judges. And then some of them are overlooked.

Like Deborah.

She was ahead of her time: a woman of influence in a time when it was men who had the influence. She was a prophet, the text tells us, and she led Israel as judge in a difficult twenty years when God had raised up a Canaanite king, Jabin, and his fleet of chariots to subjugate Israel. Most of the influence she had seems to have been because of her reputation for fairness in settling disputes. Eventually, though, her influence filtered out into larger arenas.

She got a message, apparently – a word from the Lord to a young man named Barak. She called him to her tree, the tree she sat under during the days, rendering her judgments, and she told him what God had said. He was to gather ten thousand soldiers from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun and go to war against Jabin. He was to lead his army up Mount Tabor, God would bring Jabin's army to the Kishon River valley, and Barak would lead a charge down from the mountains. “I will give [them] into your hands,” the Lord promised.

Barak's response to Deborah was, “OK, but not unless you go with me.”

Pretty radical for the time – a woman at the front. Deborah agrees, though God tells her that because Barak wants her to come along, it will be a woman who takes out the Canaanite general (which seems to be just fine with Barak!). The battle goes pretty much as anticipated: Deborah gives the word for the charge that finishes the Canaanites, and a woman named Jael kills their general while he sleeps in her tent, hiding out from Barak and his soldiers.

I love the song, credited to Deborah and Barak, that celebrates one of the most unusual military victories in a national history known for unusual military victories. The song celebrates how, at a time when the soldiers in Israel were afraid to lift a finger against the Canaanites, Deborah arose “a mother in Israel.” It celebrates how Deborah, as Israel's national conscience and de facto general, reminded her people of who it was that they were supposed to trust, and who they were supposed to be. Because of Deborah's courage, the song says, Barak took heart. And because Barak took heart, soldiers from tribes all over Israel came out to join his coalition. Jabin's army was routed, and his hold on Israel began to fail.

All because Deborah believed God's promises, and rallied others to believe them too.

“Mother in Israel” sums it up pretty well.

Because that's what mothers do – best, and instinctively – they believe in God's promises, and rally their children to believe in them too. Sometimes they do it with the help of their children's father, sometimes without him, sometimes in spite of him. Some of them do it in their roles as full-time homemaker, while some of them juggle careers as well. Some of these mothers in Israel focus their attentions on their biological children, and maybe their friends. Some of them adopt children who'd be motherless without them. And some are “mothers in Israel” to the boys and girls, men and women, who populate their churches and neighborhoods and classrooms. (Interesting, isn't it, that we call Deborah a mother and know nothing about her biological children – or even if she had any.)

Mothers in Israel come in all shapes, sizes, ages, temperaments, and circumstances. Their economic status can vary, as can their education, race, and skill set. Some may be acknowledged leaders, while others are just known and respected because of their wisdom and good judgment. What they have in common, though, is that they listen to God and they inspire the people who depend on them to be who he says they are and to do what he says they can.

So Happy Mothers' Day to the mothers in Israel who challenge us not to compromise what we know to be right for anything, however valuable it might be.

Happy Mothers' Day to the mothers in Israel who remind us how valuable we are to God when we forget. And who remind us that we aren't quite as great as we think when we think too much of our own abilities.

Happy Mothers' Day to the mothers in Israel who remind us of what matters when we lose our way: loving God and our neighbor. Acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. Peace, love, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Happy Mothers' Day to the mothers in Israel who teach us firsthand and in living color about God's love, grace, and mercy.

Happy Mothers' Day to the mothers in Israel who tell us the stories in which we find ourselves.

Happy Mothers' Day to the mothers in Israel who somehow push us to be better without ever making us think that they could love us any more than they already do.

Happy Mothers' Day to the mothers in Israel who never let us settle for being good enough, who refuse to let us take refuge in easy lies and empty comfort, and who won't let us believe that any challenge is bigger than our God.

Happy Mothers' Day to the mothers in Israel who give us their heart, their strength, their youth, and would never think of taking anything in return.

We owe all of you a great debt, and can only repay it with our appreciation and our love. And we know, of course, that you've never asked for anything else.

Thank you to our Mothers in Israel, for solving our squabbles and calming our fears. And even more, for paying attention to God and telling us when we need to hear it most who he says we are and what he says we can do.

We love you, we appreciate you, and we honor you.* And we're not going anywhere if you don't go with us.

* Especially you, Laura, Mom, and Edie.

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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, May 2, 2010

A Single, Perfect Bloom

“If the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.” (2 Corinthians 8:12)

My wife loves roses, and I love roses, so several years ago I planted a rose bush in my yard. Actually, it doesn't seem quite ethical somehow to call this particular plant a bush. For me to say "rose bush" makes you think of something with lots of leaves, that produces lots of roses, and that grows from year to year. And that wouldn't be completely honest in this case.

My "rose bush" consists of 4 or 5 thorny branches that stick up about a foot out of the ground. In fact, it looks more dead than alive until you look closely and notice the few leaves on each branch. This is the kind of rose bush the other rose bushes would laugh at, if rose bushes laughed. It's the kind of rose bush that would get picked last for a team, if rose bushes picked teams. This is the Charlie Brown of rose bushes. If rose bushes are determined by size or rose production, then this one would barely earn the title.

I could blame the rose bush. I could call it a lemon, or a dud, or whatever. But that wouldn't be accurate either. The rose bush doesn't do well, I imagine, because it hasn't had much of a chance. Basically, I dug a hole and stuck it in the ground. I haven't fed it. I water it only occasionally. It probably gets too much sun. I have no idea what the soil pH is -- or what it should be. I don't even talk to it.

Poor rose bush. And yet, every year, that scraggly, sorry little plant is good for one or two nearly perfect, beautiful red roses. One day, I'll notice that a bud has formed. And then, not too long afterward, that bud will bloom. It isn't much. I still need a florist if I want to bring Laura a dozen roses. But it's like that little bush sucks up what little attention I give it, soaks up what rain and nourishment it can, endures the summer heat and winter cold, and then pulls it all together and uses it all up to create one gorgeous little flower. That's all, until next year. It's used up. But it blooms.

Sometimes I think I know how it feels. How about you? Sometimes I feel like I don't compare well. Don't measure up. I'm not as good a father as my father was. I'm not the husband that my wife deserves. I feel sometimes like I'm not as motivational a preacher as I should be, not knowledgeable or dynamic enough as a teacher. My church isn't as big as some. I don't think sometimes that I'm very wise as a counselor, very understanding as a minister, very expressive as a writer, very helpful as a friend. I don't feel that I do enough good or resist enough evil. And frankly, I suspect that my attempts to worship and be obedient to God are usually about as feeble, scraggly, and sickly as that rose bush in my yard.

And that's when I have to remind myself that I am still a rose bush.

Well, not a rose bush. But even when I don't produce like I should, even when you wouldn't know it by looking at me, I am still a child of God and I am still a follower of Jesus. I can relate to Paul when he talks about holding the "treasure" of the gospel, but as a "clay jar." He carried in himself the revelation of God through Jesus, but as a common, everyday container with flaws and even cracks. As a container, he wasn't worthy of what he carried. But he decided that was as it should be: "We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us." (2 Corinthians 4:7)

That rose bush doesn't bloom because I've nurtured it well. It doesn't bloom because it's strong, well-planted, and hearty. It blooms because it's a rose bush. It blooms because its cells have been programmed to do that, and as long as it lives it will use every bit of energy, every resource it has, to do what it's made to do. It doesn't compare itself with other rose bushes. It doesn't spiral into depression when it only manages one rose a year. It doesn't waste time with feeling guilty. It just does its best to bloom.

Jesus told a story of three servants given money by their master to do his business. In the story, two of the servants take that money and get busy for their master. The last servant does nothing with what he's been given. The interesting thing about the story is that the two servants who produce are rewarded equally, despite the fact that one produces more than the other. The reason, of course, is that the master's expectation is based on the servants' ability. He doesn't compare them with one another. He sees that they've taken the opportunities and resources they've been given and put them to work diligently for him. The verdict on both? "Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness." (Matthew 25:23)

So the Master won't judge you, in the end, by how well you compare with anyone else. He'll look at the soil you've been planted in. He'll gauge the care you've been given. If the sun has beaten down on you mercilessly, or if you've had too little sun, he'll see that. He doesn't want to know how you compare with your sister, or your mentor, or your parents' expectations, or your husband's demands. He doesn't care whether or not you've lived up to your own image of what you should be. He doesn't care if you're famous, or accomplished, or well-known, or even well-liked. He'll have one question, and only one.

Did you bloom?

The bloom, you see, comes from God's Spirit inside you. It comes from the power of Christ living in you. When Jesus comes in contact with a life, that life blooms -- no matter how dry and hopeless it looks. We compare ourselves with others, and alternately feel pride or despair. God looks at us like I look at that rose bush: aware of our limitations and delighted when in spite of them he sees a bud. So give yourself a break. Resolve right now to use every bit of energy, every resource God has given you, to burst into bloom for him. Then stop playing the comparison game. It's one you'll never win.

But one day, you'll see the Master's face and hear his voice. Know what he'll do? Same thing I do when my valiant little rose bush manages to bloom. He'll take you out of the hot sun and the dry soil in which you've been planted. And he'll take you into his home. "Well done," he'll say. "Well done." And there you'll stay forever, with him. Just as beautiful and alive as any other bloom in the place.

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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.