Friday, November 25, 2011

Pepper Spray...Aisle 3

    Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows  generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:
“He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor;
his righteousness endures forever.”
    ...Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
- 2 Corinthians 9:6-9, 15

    On Thanksgiving, presumably after enjoying a meal with family and friends, a woman in Porter Ranch, California, went into a Wal-Mart for a pre-Black Friday sale. She wanted to buy a discounted Xbox, it seems. As the store opened, and the mad rush toward the Xbox display started, at least ten shoppers suddenly began experiencing watering and stinging of the eyes, burning sensations on the skin, and pain in the throat. The woman had used pepper spray, apparently to clear other shoppers away from the display. In addition to those injured by the pepper spray, ten other shoppers were treated for minor bumps and bruises suffered in the ensuing confusion. The woman who used the spray got away. Police are checking security cameras and register receipts to try to locate her.
    No word on whether or not she got her Xbox.
    As retailers nudge the start of Black Friday earlier and earlier (even to Thanksgiving Night) in pursuit of greater profits, and as shoppers line up for the advertised bargains hoping to get more for less, maybe it’s time for people who believe in something more than greater profits and more stuff to offer a corrective to society’s sense of perspective. Given that Pepper Spray Lady doesn’t represent the values of most of the people around us, what she did still isn’t much more than a “logical” extension of the values that seem to be taken for granted by many in our world. Or, if you don’t buy that, it at least serves as an illustration of something we all know, but sometimes don’t really come to terms with: what we value determines how we behave.
    So how about some new values as we head into the Christmas season? Or, rather, how about  we remind ourselves of some old values?
    How about this one: “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever  sows  generously will also reap generously.” The conventional wisdom of the world around us tells us, logically enough, that what we have depends upon our skill at getting. That’s what Pepper Spray Lady seems to have been thinking: “How can I get what I want, what I need, with all these other people wanting the same thing?” But Paul reminds us that what’s true in agriculture often holds true in the rest of life, too: Before you can expect to receive, you must learn how to give. If we can learn to give generously, we may be surprised to find that our generosity will come back to us.
    Or what about this value: “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” It sometimes seems that we give gifts at Christmas because we have to, or because it’s expected. We seem to be caught up in the monetary value of the gift, and whether those who receive our gifts will think we’re generous or not. It certainly seems that we often don’t give very cheerfully. Maybe we need the reminder that God loves those best who give with joy, happy for the opportunity to bless someone else. Sadly, it seems that sometimes our Christmas giving is empty of cheer.
    And then there’s this value, maybe the most formative of them all: “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” While it seems that Christmas often reminds us of all that we have to do and buy, Paul wants us to remember the God who “make[s] all grace abound.” Whatever we may give, God gives first and best. What we really need comes from God, not from a store or a mall. Whenever we lose sight of God as the source of all that is good and necessary, we start to believe that it all depends on us and our lives become a frantic search for more, faster, and for less. And that leaves us little time or inclination to love others, or pursue anything outside of our own immediate interests, or praise God for his goodness and generosity.
    And, of course, praise is the only worthy response to the “indescribable gift” that God  has  given us. He is the Original Giver, and in Jesus Christ has given us a gift that we have no vocabulary to describe. The grace, love, generosity, and hope wrapped up in that gift is far more than anything we could do for ourselves, far more than all the trinkets our world holds up as worthy of our desire.
    So maybe that’s how, when our world heaves and swirls with unfulfilled desire, unmet need, and relentless want, we as people who are intimately acquainted with God’s indescribable gift can make the most difference. We can praise him. With our words, our actions, our contentment with what we have, our trust in his providence, we can declare our belief that he is the source of everything good and live lives characterized more by thankfulness and generosity than acquisitiveness and greed.
    So let’s thank him, often and out loud. Let someone else have the last parking place at the mall or the last Xbox in the store. Let’s make sure that the way we prepare for and celebrate Christmas teaches our kids at least as much about cheerful giving as eager receiving. And let’s never imagine that God’s “indescribable gift” could ever be properly celebrated by stepping on or ignoring those around us.
    And, please - watch out who you cross at Wal-Mart.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Jesus Has No Practice Squad

  “Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them....
    "[T]he Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”     
-Luke 12:35-40 (NIV)

Derek Brodus assumed that he was going to have a typical Saturday night at his fraternity house at the University of Tennessee. The Vols were playing football against Middle Tennessee State on campus, but Derek wasn't going to the game; instead, he and some friends were going to watch on TV. They were settling in, waiting for the game to start, when the phone rang.
    Brodus is a soccer player, and had walked on to the Tennessee football practice squad as a kicker. He didn't even have a uniform, as practice squad players don't participate in games. The voice on the other end of Derek's phone, though, belonged to someone from Tennessee's football office. They were sending campus police to pick up Derek immediately.
    Tennessee had run out of kickers.
    It was 6:10 p.m. An hour before kickoff.
    Starting kicker Michael Palardy had injured himself during the week. Back-up kicker Chip Rhome pulled a muscle during pre-game and couldn't go. The football office told Derek to start walking toward Neyland Stadium - the campus police officer would meet him on the way.
    Head coach Derek Dooley was thinking the same way you are: a frat boy, on a Saturday night? As Dooley put it, "an intoxicated Brodus is better than nobody. Get him. Just get him here. Give him a Breathalyzer." Fortunately, Brodus hadn't been enjoying himself too much.
    While he put on his pads and uniform, he had someone help him stretch. Then he did a quick warm-up and ran out onto the field. In front of 100,000 or so fans, the guy who an hour before kickoff had been preparing to watch the game on TV kicked three extra points and a 21-yard field goal in Tennessee's 24-0 win.
    What if Derek wasn't home when the team called? What if he'd had his phone off? Or just didn't hear it? Would anyone have blamed Derek if for whatever reason he wasn't able to get to the stadium to kick? Most likely, no one would have ever known, because there's no way that Derek Brodus could have expected the team to call. After all, how often does a kicker get hurt? Two kickers?
    "Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning," Jesus tells us who follow him. He uses the analogy of servants waiting for their master to come back from a wedding banquet. They might not know when he's coming, but they know he's coming and that he won't take kindly to having to wait for his servants to wake up and turn on the lights and unlock the gates for him. They and the household should be ready and waiting for him when he comes.
    And all that's well and good. But then Jesus switches the analogy. Suddenly, his coming is  more like a thief coming at night. If a homeowner knows the thief is coming, he can take precautions against it. But that's sort of what thieves depend on - that the homeowner doesn't know. There’s no way to anticipate a break-in. They are unexpected, by nature.
    The different analogies point to two things about Jesus’ coming that are equally true and  equally important. The first is that Jesus expects readiness from people who wear his name. Living in this world that values all things near, immediate, and sensory, we should nevertheless develop distance vision. Our worlds must extend beyond the things we can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell, beyond the things we can experience right now, beyond gratification that is immediate, beyond treasures that are tangible. This is perhaps the great failing of the Western church in our time: that we can’t see beyond concerns for our own standards of living and anxiety about our future standards of living enough to care for the poor and sick, love the alien and stranger, or proclaim the gospel of Jesus. In the terms of Jesus’ servant analogy, we’ve forgotten that the Master is coming back. Or we’ve convinced ourselves that he’s going to like the sweet rec room we’ve put in while he’s been away. Meanwhile, the household he’s left in our care is a wreck.
    But the thief analogy reminds us that Jesus’ return is not under our control, within the sphere of our influence, or even open to our speculation. Some of us who wear his name seem to have been guilty of thinking that we’re privy to some inside information. We’ve predicted his coming so often that the people around us who don’t believe in Jesus can easily dismiss us - and him. We’ve predicted it so often with an untoward amount of joy and vengeance that they have trouble believing us when we talk like we know anything about the love of God. Jesus suggests that, while we shouldn’t be surprised by the fact of his coming, we very well may be shocked by the when and the how. It may be a lot farther away than we imagine. Or it may be much sooner. It may be nothing like we envision it. And we may well be astonished by who welcomes him and who cowers in fear. That’s as it should be. Imagining that his coming must be in line with our expectations is as good a way as any of not being ready.
    So, may we simply do what he tells us. May we be always ready for service. Always clothed in the righteousness, peace, and love that Jesus has given us. May we always be about the business of his household: welcoming the sinners, the sick, the weak, the poor and proclaiming the gospel to them in word and act. When he comes, we might be surprised. But it will not be unexpected. And he’ll find us about his business.
    I think he’ll get a kick out of that.1
    We might even get extra points.2

2Again, I apologize.

Friday, November 4, 2011


    You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, "He did not make me”? Can the pot say of the potter, “He knows nothing”? (Isaiah 29:16)

In 1961, officials at the Museum of Modern Art in New York made an embarrassing discovery. It was probably, in fact, the most embararssing thing that could happen to people who run an art museum. But there it was. No getting around it. This faux-pas was, quite literally, displayed on the wall for everyone to see. Up there right on the wall.
    Upside down.
   For seven weeks, this renowned museum had been displaying Le Bateau (The Boat), a work by Henri Matisse, upside down. The work is a paper-cut of a sailboat on the water, and includes the boat’s reflection in the water. That was the source of the problem. Whoever hung the painting originally thought that the reflection was the boat, and vice-versa.
    A stockbroker by the name of Genvieve Habert seems to have been the first to notice the mistake. He notified a guard at the museum, who apparently did...nothing. Or maybe he did. I mean, suppose he told one of the art experts at the Museum of Modern Art that one of their paintings was upside-down; is it likely that expert would take the word of a guard? Or even a stockbroker? And even if that expert had looked at the painting and thought that something didn’t look quite...right. What would he say? All his fellow art experts thought that the painting looked fine. How many people every day walked by and marvelled at the great artist’s mastery? Eventually, even if you have your doubts, you might begin to agree that upside down is indeed right side up.
    Think not? Consider the following...
    Shortly before Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs died, he commissioned author Walter Isaacson to write his biography. Seems that he wanted his children to know who he was, and why he sometimes didn’t have time for them while they were growing up. How sad. How upside-down.
    Or how about this? A popular reality show star divorces her basketball-player husband after 72 days of marriage, saying that she went through with it only because she got so caught up in the filming of the wedding for her TV show and didn’t want to disappoint people. And we give this person credibility in our world? Sad, as well. But kind of upside-down.
    Upside-down thinking. When a husband puts his career ahead of the needs of the family, hasn’t he convinced himself that upside down is right side up? When we wail about teenagers having babies but then claim that abstinence isn’t a practical solution, aren’t we saying that upside down is really right side up? When we kid ourselves into believing that our children will do what we tell them to and not what they see us doing, aren’t we just telling ourselves that upside down is right side up? When we can take comfort in religion that hasn’t taken root in our hearts, when we praise God on Sunday and curse our fellow human beings on Monday, haven’t we made the same mistake as the art museum people?
    Upside down thinking. The world makes it easy. Even when we know the difference, even when we see that something’s hanging upside down, the world skillfully convinces us otherwise. We begin to protest less loudly. Then we start to wonder if it really makes a difference. Then we finally just stop noticing.
    Fortunately, Genevieve Hebert, the stockbroker who noticed that Matisse’s painting was upside-down, didn’t give up. He called the New York Times, who contacted the Museum of Modern Art’s then - Art Director, Monroe Wheeler, who made sure that the painting was hung properly so that visitors to the museum could see Matisse’s work of art as it was intended to be seen.
    We follow a Lord who turned the world on its ear. He never stopped telling people that everything we knew - violence, hate, perpetual lust, oppression of the poor, disease, death - was part of a world that was upside-down. He talked about the humble being exalted. He claimed that the poor, hungry, and grief-stricken are blessed. He brought forgiveness from a cross and life from a tomb. When he turned his followers loose on the world, they didn’t buy its illusions for a minute. One of their opponents claimed that they had turned the world “upside down.” That just seemed true to him. What they did was turn it right side up.
    What they did was follow Jesus in proclaiming that a day was coming when the world would be set right, as its Artist intended it to be from the beginning.
    Will you do that in your world? You know your Lord well enough to know the difference between right side up and upside down. Ask hard questions. Push people to think through what they believe. Give them a different pair of lenses to see the world through. Give them a new frame of reference - God’s. Witness to the power of the gospel to set the world right, one life at a time.
    But don’t just speak. Act. Upside-down thinking is burned into the cerebral cortices  of our world. Sometimes words just don’t get through. Sometimes people need to see what a right side-up world looks like. They need to see people give up self-interest to serve the poor and marginalized. They need to see someone forgive those who have hurt them. They need to see someone take the worst our upside-down world can give out and respond in love and grace. They need to see what it looks like when people aren’t afraid of death, or enslaved by sin, or weakened by self-indulgence.
    I wonder what would have happened if Matisse could have visited that museum while his artwork hung on its head? I wonder how he would have felt about it. Well, the Artist that created this world will come back one day. Won’t it be good to be one of those who knew how his masterpiece was intended to hang?
    And won’t it be good to have convinced a few others to see things right side - up, too?