Friday, September 30, 2011

Finish Strong

   “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish...’
    “In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
-Luke 14:28-30, 33

My favorite baseball team, the Atlanta Braves, had a spot in the playoffs all but sewn up. As September began, they were 8 ½ games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals. All they needed to do was to avoid losing, oh, I don’t know,  20 out of their last 30 games, and they would be playing in the postseason. Barring a total, epic collapse, it was a sure thing.
    Hello, total, epic collapse.
    The Braves lost 20 of their last 30. Thirteen of their last eighteen. They lost five straight games to close out the season - five straight games, any one of which would have put them in. And even so, in their last game on Tuesday night, they had a lead in the ninth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies. Needing a win to play the Cardinals Thursday in a one-game playoff, they handed the ball and a one-run lead to rookie closer Craig Kimbrel. Turns out he couldn’t take care of either one. He only gave up one hit, but he also walked three. The Phillies tied the score in the ninth, and then won the game 4-3 in the thirteenth.
    And watching baseball is supposed to be fun.
    When an athlete or a team doesn’t finish well, it’s usually reflected in the score and the standings. It isn’t always so easy to put a score on a person’s finish. But it’s still easy enough to see when a person doesn’t finish well. A marriage hits a snag, a rough patch, and people who pledged - and meant it - “for better or worse” and “‘til death do us part” start looking for the exits. Someone starts a new job with joy and excitement and dedication, but three years later is complaining, bitter, just doing enough to get by. A politician takes office with promises to end “politics as usual,” but a couple of years later finds himself enmeshed in the same partisan bickering he swore to end.
    I’m thinking of someone, a friend who a few months ago asked me to pray with him about his drinking and the toll it had exacted from his marriage, his job, his friendships. He entered into recovery with optimism and determination. But somewhere along the line he turned his back on the people who cared about him and helped him through six months of sobriety: his church, his AA group, his friends. Last time I spoke with him, he was drunk and ashamed.
    I’m thinking of several people I know who started following Jesus with love and faith  and gratitude in their hearts. They were baptized surrounded by tears and songs and prayers, urged on by parents and friends. A few years later, the faith which at one time had meant so much to them has become an obstacle to the life they think they want.
    Lest I come across as too proud, I’m thinking of myself, too: the times I assured myself, others,  God, that I would be a better husband, father, minister. If I’m being honest, I have to admit to times that my discipline has faltered, my dedication has waned, my love has grown cold.
    Probably because there was no baseball in Jesus’ time, he pictured a man building a tower as an illustration of someone who is ready to start following him, but not quite ready to pay what it costs to finish. No wonder, really, because the price is high: family, even life itself.
    Sometimes, when I read that text where Jesus suggests that before we follow him we should “estimate the cost,” I wonder how any of us could possibly do that. How do we know anything more than the broad outlines of what following him might demand of us? More to the point, how do we know, until it comes right down to it, if we’ll pay the cost or not? Peter, after all, said “I don’t know him” just a few hours after insisting “I’ll die with you.” Why should I be surprised that my friend went back to drinking, or that some let go of the faith that once meant so much to them? Why should anyone be surprised when my own fervor sometimes flickers out?
    Of course, I think all Jesus meant to do was to point out that there is a cost. Following him, the parable reminds us, is more akin to building a tower than, say, setting up a tent. It will demand something of us, and even if we aren’t always sure at the beginning what it is, we shouldn’t be surprised when the bill comes due.
    I’m praying right now for Youcef Nadarkhani. You should, too. He’s an Iranian brother in Christ who knows about paying the cost of following Jesus. He was scheduled to be executed, in fact, this past Wednesday for refusing to deny his faith and affirm Islam. As of today, there is no word. But by all reports, he is willing to die if that’s what is required of him. When the judges in his trial instructed him to repent, Youcef reportedly said, “Repent means to return. What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ? ...I cannot.”
    Paul was concerned with finishing well when he said, according to Luke, “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” He didn’t know much except the broad outlines either, but he planned on paying whatever following Jesus might cost him and finishing strong. When, a few years later, he assured his young friend Timothy that he had, indeed, “finished the race,” his joy was palpable. The anticipation of his reward had replaced any trepidation about the cost of finishing the race he had started.
    So here’s the thing to remember: none of us are done. Not  yet. Not my friend who drinks too much. Not the people we have all known who seem to have given up on following Jesus. Not even me, with all my failings and frailties. And not you either. We’re still in the race, still in the game, still building something. The Lord we follow will wait for us, and give us strength when we ask for it. We walk together so we can lean on one another. So the question isn’t, “How are you doing right now?” The question is, “Will you get up, will you brush off your failures, will you pay the cost of following the One who gave everything for you?”
    However you started. Whatever condition you’re in right now. Will you finish strong?  

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Growing Up

    When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.
-1 Corinthians 13:20 (NIV)     

    Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.
-1 Corinthians 14:20 (NIV)

    I learned something this week. There might be nothing that makes the passage of time stand out in bold relief like spending a couple of hours taking down your child’s swing set.
   We put it up a decade or more ago, I guess. His grandfather - Laura’s dad - and I. It was one of those newer wood models, with a platform and awning that gave it this “fort” kind of vibe, a slide, a climbing wall, a cargo net - and, of course, some swings and a trapeze. Back in the day, my dad sunk the legs of a metal swing set into holes filled with concrete. That thing wouldn’t come out of the ground without a cutting torch. This one was staked down, and came apart relatively easily. Too easily, almost. It was disassembled and in a pile by the driveway after a couple of hours’ work. The next morning, the garbage collectors came and it was gone.
     A girl from the neighborhood who’s about Josh’s age walked by while I worked. Her eyes wide, she gasped a little when she saw what I was doing. “You’re taking it down?” she asked.
    “My son’s outgrown it,” I answered.
    She walked on, and kind of thoughtfully, half to herself, she said, “I’d never outgrow that! I’d swing on it every day.”
    I laughed quietly as she walked away. Yes you will, I thought to myself. Because that’s what kids do. They grow. They grow up. And because they grow, and because they grow up, they outgrow, too. There are some things of childhood, of necessity, left behind. Things that can’t be brought into adulthood - at least not without transformation.
    We parents don’t really want it any other way, of course, though you wouldn’t know  it sometimes to hear us talk. I guess that’s because childhood ends gradually, not all at once, and we see the writing on the wall from the moment that helpless baby raises his head on his own. We want our children to grow up, become strong, independent adults. We know they have to. But for us, there’s a sense that something is lost in the process.
    Frankly, though, I might be a little worried if my 13-year-old son wanted to spend his time swinging and climbing on a swing set. A decade ago, it was perfect. Even 5 years ago. But now - well, it’s just not suitable for who Josh is now. It doesn’t fit with this more-mature version of my son. So - though we felt a little the loss of the little boy who used to play on it - we let it go, knowing he’s moved on in his growth.
    And I know that’s a good thing. Even if I’m not feeling it at the moment.
    I wonder if there’s anything from my childhood that needs to go?
    I’m not talking about toys, of course. Or games or books or clothes. I mean that God calls us to a new birth in Jesus. When we’re first Christians, we’re babies. Children. And so it’s not all that surprising when we act like it. Dependence, weakness, preoccupation with playthings - these are all part and parcel of what it is to be a child. The Bible expects, however, that Christians will grow up and move on toward maturity. There’s something wrong, by definition, when a believer fails to grow up spiritually. When we cling to the habits, comforts, and behaviors of childhood, we are poor witnesses to the power of the Holy Spirit, poured out by the Father through the Son, to renew us, make us strong, and lead us to maturity.
    Sadly, I think sometimes the church functions like a swing set: a distraction, a plaything,  a place to get away from the stresses of the world and spend an hour or two laughing and playing, with the breeze in our hair and not a care in the world. But before we blame the church, let’s be honest and admit that’s exactly what a lot of us want from our churches. We want low demand and high entertainment. We want to escape. We want it to be fun, and we want our friends to be there, and we most certainly do not want demands, expectations or responsibilities.
    If that’s all we want from our churches - and if that’s all our churches want to be - then it might be that we’d be better off dismantling the whole thing.
    But I don’t think that’s necessary. I think all we need to do is embrace the idea that God doesn’t want us to be children forever. He’s looking forward to our growing up, and in his Son and through the Holy Spirit he has given us reason to expect that we will.
    God expects that his children will grow up. He expects that we will move on toward maturity, and as we do that the things of childhood will be left behind. He expects that our playthings will be done away with and that our faith will take on the qualities of adulthood.  He expects, in short, that we’ll grow to look more and more like Jesus.
    So let us, for instance, decide to be serious about using the gifts, talents, resources, and opportunities God gives us to work for unity in the faith and in the knowledge of Jesus. We all have a place in the church, and none of us have been assigned to recess. Take your place among God’s people, and do the things he’s calling you to do.
    Let’s learn to distinguish right from wrong, and seek the things and people that will help us to grow in Christ. We can hardly grow to maturity while we hold on to habits and people that work against it.
    And let’s take responsibility for our failures and learn from our mistakes. Instead of  repeating them mindlessly, let’s learn what makes us vulnerable and adjust our lives accordingly.
    It may be time to get some of the things of childhood out of your life, to put childish ways behind you. In Jesus, you’ve outgrown all that stuff that used to be a part of who you were. It may be time today to put it behind you - and take the first step toward growing up in the Lord.
    Once you get started, I think you’ll be surprised at how easily it comes down.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Treasure Hunters

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
-Matthew 13:44 (NIV)

    On vacation in Alaska a couple of weeks ago, my family and I got acquainted with the history of a small town called Skagway. Skagway doesn’t look like much - it has a population of less than 900, and one main street lined with shops. But 900,000 people a year come to Skagway. It’s a port for cruise ships, and thousands of people crowd the streets, shops, and restaurants every day during the tourist season.
    That’s reminiscent of how Skagway got its start as a town. It sprang up almost overnight because of its location near what became known as the White Pass through the Coast Mountains. Gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896, and by July of the next year the first boats were docking at what would become Skagway. As many as 30,000 people, most of them prospectors, were in the area at any one time after that, using Skagway as a staging area before beginning the 500 - mile trek through mountains and down the Yukon River to the gold fields.
    For the average prospector, it would cost $1200 just to get to the Klondike, with no guarantee that they would find gold. (It’s since been estimated that more money was spent to get to the gold fields than was actually brought out in gold.) Many prospectors mortgaged their homes to make the trip. The Canadian government required that all prospectors bring a year’s worth of supplies with them over the pass from Skagway: about a ton of supplies for each. Most of them would have walked the forty mile Pass thirty times or more over a three-month period, bringing their supplies over in stages. A considerable number of the prospectors died in their quest to strike it rich.
    It’s easy to look with amusement on people from a century ago who staked so much on embellished reports of the Klondike as a place where they could pull giant gold nuggets out of creeks. It’s easy to wonder what made them give up so much, pay such a cost, and make such a difficult, dangerous journey. But a moment’s thought, and you have the answer, don’t you? Jesus said it this way: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) The fact is, human beings have been proving that true since  - well, since Eve first noticed how good that fruit looked, I guess. We’ll do whatever it takes, pay whatever it costs, endure whatever we need to endure, to finally get what we value most.
    Sometimes we call that greed. Sometimes we call it dedication. The difference, I suspect, is in the object of our desire. And maybe our reasons for wanting it.
    Jesus had one main talking point; he came to describe the kingdom of God, and to invite  people to enter it through him. The church has come to understand “the kingdom of God” in two ways: we’ve defined it as the church while we’re on earth, and as going to heaven after we die. But that wasn’t really what Jesus meant. Or, at least, not entirely what he meant. It was more of a subversive proposition for Jesus, an invitation to people who were living under the Roman Empire, King Herod, and the Temple hierarchy to align themselves with God’s kingdom instead. In calling them to be a part of this kingdom, that the Jewish scriptures had always promised would bring all earthly kingdoms to nothing, Jesus was inviting them to claim their share in the life God wanted to give them. But he recognized that, just as surely as God’s kingdom couldn’t ultimately coexist in the world with any other, neither could it coexist with another kingdom in a human heart. It requires those who would enter to exchange the value systems, priorities, and affections of a dying kingdom for new ones.
    There is no room for conservatism in the Kingdom of God. That’s not as much a political statement as it is a philosophical one. We can either hold on to old values, old priorities, old treasures, or we can let them go and follow Jesus toward the treasure of God’s kingdom. The man in Jesus’ parable couldn’t hold on to what he had and still hope to gain the treasure he’d discovered in that field, no more than Klondike prospectors could simultaneously search for gold and sit at home warm and safe and comfortable. Before he could own that treasure, he had to first be willing to let go of everything else.
    The church’s reinterpretation of the kingdom of God has often been as deceiving as it is self-serving. It lets us define being a part of the kingdom of God as baptism or participation in some church. Or it lets us push thoughts of the kingdom out of real, this-world implications about our time, money, and values and out into the next world. (Where they won’t bother us or complicate our lives for a while.) But neither of those understandings of the kingdom of God have much in common with what Jesus meant, and you can tell because neither makes us choose between the treasures we have in our hands and hearts and the treasure that God offers us. Whatever kind of kingdom those views describe, they’re “both/and” kingdoms. Jesus describes the kingdom of God, without apology, as “either/or.” That’s why he couldn’t talk about the kingdom without talking about what it cost those who would enter it.
    He didn’t just talk about it, of course. The cost of the kingdom of God was no different for  Jesus than it’s ever been for anyone who’s ever entered it. It forced him to let go even of equality with God and to become a man. And then to let go even of that life in suffering and death. What the kingdom requires, then, Jesus was willing to pay himself. And in doing so, he showed us that the treasures all around us that men and women give so much for, treasures that will crumble to dust in our fingers, are not worth what we’ve been too willing to pay.
    Jesus calls us to re-evaluate what matters most to us, what we’re giving ourselves up for.  The treasures of this world’s kingdoms are certainly bright and glittering and attractive. Their temptations lead many of us to waste our best years and give up the best parts of ourselves. He calls us, though, to give up those futile treasure hunts. He calls us to give up everything we have, but only for the treasure that really matters, the one that will outshine all the others.
    The one he suffered and died to give us.
    The life God has always wanted us to live with him.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Ten Years Later

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.    
    On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
-Romans 12:17-21 (NIV)
Ten years ago this week, I wrote this:

 Like everyone else in America today, my stomach is knotted and my eyes sting. We’re raw. Stretched to the breaking point as a nation. We want explanations, we want the names of those responsible, and we want the power to hurt them as much as they’ve hurt us. We want to make them pay for making us afraid for our children, for making us close our airports, for changing our lives so dramatically.
    We’ve had more than enough. Our collective soul has had more than its fill.
    And because we’ve had more than enough, we react. We lash out in anger. Since we don’t know who to blame or how to get to them, we transfer blame to people closer to home. We see people celebrating our tragedy on the other side of the world and we lash out at people like them here. We give in to prejudice, anger, and hate. We’re ruled by fear and anxiety.

    A lot of times when I read something I’ve written in response to then-current events, I feel a little embarrassed. Time passes, my perspective changes, and I wish I hadn’t used the words I used, or had used different ones. Sometimes I even think that maybe I shouldn’t have written about the events at all, that they turned out to be not worthy of the attention. Sometimes, but not this time. After ten years, two wars, and the deaths of several people behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I still have some of the same feelings. And I don’t think I’m alone.
    Frankly, it’s not something I want to commemorate.  Oh, I’m sure it’s a good thing that we do. The people who died in the attacks deserve that. The first responders who rushed into the burning towers without even considering the possibility that they might collapse deserve it. The passengers on flight 93 who died saving other lives deserve it. So do the families and friends of the dead and the soldiers who have served and died in America’s subsequent wars. For their sake, it’s good to remember.
     In some ways, though, for the last ten years it’s felt like we as a nation have danced while al-Qaeda have pulled our strings. The lives lost - both American and not so - the increased security, the stricter state laws regarding immigrants, haven’t made us more secure. Not really. The military flexing of muscle the US has indulged in over the last decade has not made us more respected internationally. Oh, I suppose it’s a political necessity for those who govern to respond in those ways to the kind of provocation visited on us on September 11 ten years ago. It can even make us feel better, to some degree.  
    Unfortunately, it only feeds the cycle of violence. Today in New York, security is tight in  the wake of further threats. In communities all over the nation, questions are flying about where Muslims will be allowed to worship and how immigrants in general are to be treated. No one would argue that we’ve won what we’ve chosen to call “the war against terror.” And someone will have to explain to me sometime how Afghani and Iraqi civilians killed by US missiles and bombs are different from American civilians killed by hijacked airplanes.
    About two thousand years before September 11, a young man died as a victim  of state-sponsored terrorism. He died bleeding and writhing on a cross while ignorant people mocked his trust in God. He died because he claimed that God’s kingdom had come, and that it would subvert and eventually topple the kingdoms in Rome and Jerusalem propped up by war and violence and power. But he died with a prayer of forgiveness on his lips, asking God to show mercy on those who didn’t know enough to recognize him for who he was. Resisting would only feed the terror of sin and death. Fighting would only contribute to the cycle of violence. So he took the worst evil his tormentors could do to him, let them torture him to death, and prayed that God would forgive their sin and excuse their ignorance.
    And then he said, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”
    Surely the story of this young man was on Paul’s mind thirty years or so later, when he told a community of people who followed the young man to “overcome evil with good.” He told them they should be at peace with everyone, if they could. To forego the right to revenge against those who might hurt them. To treat their enemies, in fact, with basic love and care. To act in the face of evil in the same way the man who they followed acted: with love, and forgiveness, and trust in the Lord.
    And surely this story still means something to us, especially on a weekend full of memory. It won’t do to say that the forgiveness and trust Jesus demonstrated on the cross has nothing to do with international terrorism. I would argue that it has especially to do with international terrorism. The forgiveness, love, and trust of those who follow Jesus means nothing if it isn’t worked out in individual relationships, as we learn to know and understand and show the grace of God to those who are different from us. But we must also contribute to city, county, state, and federal governments that have no idea how to address complex issues like immigration, national security, and international diplomacy with justice, righteousness, and peace.
    It’s complicated, of course. But it begins with this. It begins with a prayer of forgiveness, and with trust in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. We whisper a prayer of forgiveness for those who have wronged us. We love those around us, even if it kills us. And we entrust ourselves to God.
    And there is no evil, in this world or any other, that can overcome that.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Son of Man

In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying on his bed. He wrote down the substance of his dream.
    Daniel said: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea...
    “While I was thinking about the [fourth beast’s] horns, there before me was another horn, a little one, which came up among them; and three of the first horns were uprooted before it. This horn had eyes like the eyes of a man and a mouth that spoke boastfully. (Daniel 7:1-2, 8)

    Jesus stood silently. Everyone present knew the two witnesses who had just completed their testimony had misquoted Jesus, twisted his words. But they also knew it wouldn’t matter. The court wanted to find Jesus guilty. The high priest wanted him crucified. This wandering teacher was too unpredictable, too subversive, too much a threat to the high priest’s tenuous relationship with the Romans. He had to go, and if the court needed to convict him on trumped-up charges, so be it. Jesus needed to speak; to defend himself, back the court into a corner has he had done time and again with the Pharisees. If he didn’t, he would die.
    The high priest looked down at Jesus with the arrogant sneer of a man used to power. “What do you say to these charges, Jesus? How do you answer these accusations that you threatened to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days?”
    Jesus stood silent.
    “This court has the power to free you or put you to death. Answer these charges!” screamed the high priest.
    Jesus stood silent.

   “As I looked,
“thrones were set in place,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat...  
  The court was seated,
and the books were opened.
    “Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept  looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire.  (The other beasts had been stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period of time.)
    “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. (Daniel 7:9-13)

    The decorum and gravity of the court dissolved into a din of shocked whispers and outraged exclamations. Jesus remained silent, looking very much like a man who answered to a higher authority.  Finally, the high priest restored order. Stepping close to Jesus, he scowled into his face. Jesus fixed his eyes somewhere over the high priest’s left shoulder.
    “Well, maybe you’ll answer this,” the high priest sneered. “Under oath to God - are you the Messiah? Are you king from David’s line - the Son of God?”
    The trap was set. The high priest waited - waited for Jesus to walk into it.
    Jesus’ gaze snapped into focus on the high priest’s face. The high priest tried to meet it, and found he couldn’t. He flicked his eyes around the room, took a step or two back. Finally, Jesus spoke.
     “You have said so. But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

    He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:9-14)

    For a moment, the court was stunned. This peasant had turned the tables. He had as much as told them that they were on trial, not him. They were the beasts, the high priest just another arrogant ruler who had failed to recognize God at work - no better than the Babylonians or the Syrians or the Romans. He claimed that he was Israel, not them. He claimed that whatever they might do to him today, he would receive vindication, glory, and power from God and share it with those who truly were Israel.
    There was only one thing to be done.
    “He’s worthy of death,” the court shouted. They took turns, then, spitting on him. Striking him. Mocking him. “Prophesy to us, Messiah,” they laughed. “Who hit you?”
    Jesus... stood silent.

    “The sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.” (Daniel 7:27)