Friday, November 29, 2013

"I Have a Disease..."

 “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet,but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
-Luke 7:44-47 (NIV)

Katarina Lucardie just wanted to be herself. She wanted her friends to know who she was without artifice, without qualification. She was tired of pretending, and so the 11-year-old Colorado Springs middle-schooler decided to tell her secret.
     She started by sharing it in a letter to her school counselor. “I have a disease and it makes me lose my hair,” she wrote.
     Katarina was born with a disease called alopecia areata. At the age of 8, she started to notice clumps of hair in the shower or on her pillow. By the next year, she was completely bald. She started wearing a straight black wig to school, but after she graduated from elementary school she went to her mom and told her she didn’t want to wear the wig in middle school. 
     She just wanted to be herself around her friends and classmates.
     Katarina’s counselor, Jennica Mabe, and her teachers worked with her to create a documentary about Katarina’s illness, hoping to head off any possible misunderstanding, fear, or ridicule. After they screened the documentary for her classmates, Katarina stood in front of them and answered questions about her disease. She also explained that, starting the following week, she wouldn’t be wearing her wig any longer. 
     “She was just determined to do it,” her mom, Carmen Aranda, says. “She wanted to be herself and not cover up and mask who she was. She was very courageous.”
     “I want people to like me for me and not what I look like,” Katarina explains, “because that's how I can find my true friends.”
     There’s a lot of wisdom in those words, isn’t there? Don’t they describe what most of us want - to not feel the need to hide or mask our true selves with someone? When we meet someone who likes us for who we really are, we befriend them. We marry them. We trust them and entrust ourselves to them and open our hearts to them. 
      Having someone, just one person in our lives, to whom we can entrust our true selves is priceless.
     For a lot of people, though, the church isn’t a place to find those with whom we can take off our disguises and be ourselves. Sometimes even for regular church attenders, even church leaders, church isn’t a place to be honest about weakness, vulnerability, or fragility. In some churches, that kind of thing is rewarded with judgment - the kind of scorn and dismissal that writes a person off as hopeless, irredeemable, an object of God’s wrath. That’s not true in all churches, thankfully. In some, it’s less judgment than discomfort - “I was more comfortable when I didn’t know so much about you.” It’s less that someone says or does the wrong thing, more that no one knows just what to say or do.  
     This idea that the church isn’t a safe place for people to reveal their secrets comes, I think, from a couple of places. For one thing, churches rightly want to take seriously the mandate of Scripture that believers live ethical, moral lives that reflect the character of God and the nature of the gospel. We preach about it, pray about it, sing about it. And so it’s probably no wonder that folks feel like it might not be a good idea to strip away whatever hides the sin and struggle in their lives in front of the church. And it’s probably no wonder that a good percentage of those folks fade away, often with promises to be back once they have their lives in order so that they’ll fit in better.
     You know, doctors talk a lot about what a healthy life looks like. A good doctor will talk to her patients about eating well, about getting exercise, about managing stress. A good doctor isn’t shy about describing what she wants her patients’ lives to look like. This is because she wants what’s best for her patients’ health. But she also welcomes those who come to her sick.
     We might remember in the church that Jesus came for the sick, not for the healthy. While we’re right to describe what a spiritually healthy life looks like and encourage one another to live that kind of life, we must never do so in a way that gives the impression that we only want healthy people among us. If Jesus came for the sick, then we’re not really living a life like his if there aren’t some struggling people around us and among us. 
     That woman at Simon’s house didn’t interrupt that dinner party and break all kinds of social taboos because Jesus made her afraid to reveal who she really was. She came in and poured out her love to him because he knew exactly who she was, and loved her in spite of it. “Her many sins have been forgiven - as her great love has shown.”  
     Maybe some of us in the church need to re-learn that. Nothing motivates love like someone who knows you best, with all your unlovable features, looking at you with love in their eyes. Speaking to you with love in their words. Doing for you with love in their actions. And if we want people to trust us and be a part of us, we need to learn how to act when their lives don’t match up to the Lord’s expectations. 
     Here’s a thought: let’s act like he did.
     Beyond that, though, a lot of polite church people need to be personally convinced that it’s OK to show our weaknesses. We need to believe that when God looks at us, he loves us as we are. That nothing we can do will make him love us more or less. We need to believe that Jesus gave his life because he loves us as we are, and not the idea of how we might be. The corollary of the woman’s experience is also true: “whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” For some of us, it’s been too long since we’ve stood before God honest about who we are, and received his forgiveness and love in the name of Jesus.
     Perhaps that’s the most important thing that the church can do for one another, then: reassure each other of God’s forgiveness, in Jesus’ name.

     So may our sermons about living good Christian lives never fail to speak words of hope and love and grace to those who are struggling. May we brave enough to share our own failings, and our own gratitude for the Lord’s forgiveness. May we trust that the Lord loves us for who we are, and that his people will too. And may we find among them our true friends.    

Friday, November 22, 2013


     One person considers one day more sacred than another;a another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 
-Romans 14:5-6 (NIV)

Black Friday approaches.
     We’re probably used to that part of Thanksgiving by now. (It’s interesting that I just called it a “part of Thanksgiving,” isn’t it?) We’re accustomed to retailers opening early on the Friday after Thanksgiving and having huge sales to kickstart the Holiday shopping season. Some shoppers line up before dawn to get the really great deals. Some stores have opened as early as midnight on Black Friday. And some of us who are, well, less shopping-inclined, wonder when they’ll just start opening on Thanksgiving.
     This year. That’s when.
     While it’s probably happened before, it seems that this year a large number of retailers have decided to kick off the Black Friday feeding frenzy on Thanksgiving. And, no doubt, when the doors open the shoppers will come. 
     For some people, though, shopping on Thanksgiving just feels wrong. Thanksgiving’s for being with family. Overeating. Sitting on the couch and watching football, and other high-minded pursuits like that. It’s not for shopping, is it? Should it be?
     Maybe not, but some of the backlash seems a bit overblown as well. Over at Huffington Post, for instance, Jason Linkins refers to retailers open on Thanksgiving as “History’s Greatest Monsters.” Really? To (even implicitly) equate Thanksgiving shopping with the Holocaust, or Stalin’s purges, or the Killing Fields? Might that be overstating the case just a tad? I won’t be shopping on Thanksgiving - though, to be honest, it’s not due to a more highly-developed sense of morality. (It’s due more to the fact that I don’t like shopping anytime.) I think retail workers who do have to work on Thanksgiving should be very well compensated. But I don’t think the retailers who open their doors on Thanksgiving, nor the shoppers who walk through them, are monsters simply for doing so. 
     Human motives are complicated and messy. You might wonder how a person who considers Thanksgiving shopping monstrous spends the day. In prayer, giving thanks? Affirming and strengthening family relationships? Helping the poor?  Or drinking too much, fighting with family, and yelling at football players on a TV screen? You might wonder about a person who shops on Thanksgiving. Have they lost the true meaning of the holiday? Are they too caught up in consumerism to be truly grateful for what they have? Or are they using the opportunity to be better stewards of their resources by trying to save some money? Are they enjoying the company of family and friends at the mall? Will they come home and thank God for blessing them with the means to buy gifts for the people they love? 
     Is it monstrous, or even just a little wrong, to shop on Thanksgiving? It might be a matter of gratitude, mightn’t it?
     Long before there was a Thanksgiving holiday, or a debate over whether the open-air market should be open on it, a diverse bunch of Christians in Rome had a similar set of questions. The particulars were different: should all Christians observe Jewish food laws and holy days? Or did worrying over those observances betray a lack of faith and freedom in Jesus? Not surprisingly, the answer to that question might rest heavily on your heritage and background. Jewish Christians might say the food laws and holy days came from God, and look down on Christians who didn’t observe them as pagans. Gentile Christians might claim food laws and holy days had been superseded by faith in Jesus, and that Christians who insisted on observing them were weak in their faith and in bondage to a law that Jesus had annulled.
     In his letter to the church at Rome, however, Paul doesn’t give a quick and easy answer. He suggests, instead, that they’ve missed the point. “Observe the law, or don’t,” Paul writes to them. “Whichever side of the fence you come down on, as long as you’re giving thanks to God you’re on the right side.”
       If we asked Paul about going to the mall on Thanksgiving, I think he’d say, “What’s a mall?” And if we explained the concept of a mall to him, then I think he’d say, “What’s Thanksgiving?” But then, after we explained all that, I think he’d say much the same thing he said to those Christians in Rome way back then. “Do what seems right to you, and give thanks to God while you do it. And you might find you aren’t on opposite sides after all.”
     That doesn’t work with every issue, all the time. That’s never how the Bible resolves doctrinal or ethical issues that cut to the heart of the gospel, for example. But for questions like food and holy days, it works pretty well. Or, maybe, for questions like whether or not to go shopping on Thanksgiving. Do what your conscience tells you is right, and give thanks to God while you do it. Oh, and try not to call someone who comes to a different conclusion a monster. 
     Hopefully, we’ll remember that when the issue isn’t whether or not to hit the mall on Turkey Day. Maybe we’ll remember it even when there’s no argument to be won, no idealogical ground to defend, when it’s just God and us. Maybe we’ll remember that sometimes the best way to decide what to do in life is to do what our consciences say is right, and give thanks to God while we do it. 
     For believers, Thanksgiving shouldn’t be just a holiday. It should be the attitude with which we approach everything in life. Thanksgiving “consecrates” what we do, Paul writes elsewhere. Our lives become holy ground when we develop the habit of giving thanks to God.
      So go to work on Monday, and consecrate your workplace to God by giving thanks. Give thanks for your colleagues, for the work you have to do, for the benefits you get from it. Go to school, and give thanks for your classmates, your opportunities to grow, your teachers who give of themselves to help you learn. Give thanks for your spouse, your kids, your parents, and consecrate your home and family to the Lord. Give thanks for your friendships, for your church…set them apart as holy ground, fit for God’s presence.
     And, yes, go to the mall on Thanksgiving, if you choose. Give thanks for the prosperity you enjoy, for the people who help you, for the people for whom you’re buying. Give thanks, and consecrate that mall for God.
     I’ll be home, consecrating my TV screen.

     Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Swap Meet Treasure

“On the day when I act,” says the LORD Almighty, “they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him. 
-Malachi 3:17 (NIV)

Matthew Carlson couldn’t believe his eyes. But there it was, mixed in with a bunch of costume jewelry on a table at the Glendale, Arizona swap meet he was checking out. He knew it immediately: the gold and purple, heart-shaped medal with the portrait of George Washington was unmistakable. When he turned it over, the inscription removed all doubt: “For Military Merit, Clarence M. Merriott.”
     Matthew had found a Purple Heart, the medal the United States armed forces award to those killed or wounded in action.
     The vendor wanted $40 for the medal. Matthew Carlson talked him down to $20, then took the medal home to keep it safe while he figured out what to do next. Who was Clarence Merriott? the Vietnam War veteran kept asking himself. What did he do to win the medal? And the question that maybe bugged him the most: How did his Purple Heart end up at  the Glendale Park ’N Swap?
     Matthew found the medal certificate folded in the bottom of the medal’s presentation box. The certificate said the PFC Clarence Merriott had been killed in action on June 19th, 1944. Because of privacy concerns, the Pentagon doesn’t release any information about the recipients of military awards or their families, so Matthew wouldn’t be able to track down any more information on Clarence Merriott’s family that way. A couple of months later, Matthew - who calls himself a “computer illiterate” - asked his son if he knew how to find things on the internet. 
     It just so happened that his son did, indeed, know how to do that.
     A quick Google search sent them to a website honoring the men of the 300th Engineer Combat Battalion, and told them that PFC Merriott was one of 90 men killed when their landing craft hit a mine just off Utah Beach at Normandy. They also found out that Merriott was from Stillwater, Oklahoma. Through connection after connection, including the couple who ran the website on the 300th Engineers, a US Congressman and his grandfather, and the Adair County Historical Society in Stillwater, they were finally able to track down a scrapbook of clippings about men from Stillwater who had gone to serve in World War II put together between 1943 and 1945 by a teenaged girl. It was fragile, and had been sealed in an archive box. In the scrapbook they found a yellowed newspaper photo of a smiling young man in a dress uniform, his hat cocked to the side of his head. The article reported that Clarence Merriott had been missing since June 19th, 1944.
     A few pages later, they found his death notice.
     With a genealogical search and few phone calls, the Historical Society staff were able to locate Clarence Merriott’s sister’s grandson. The medal had been given to Clarence’s sister, and then passed down to her son, but had been lost in a move.
     Last Monday, Veteran’s Day, it moved one more time to Stillwater, where it will reside in a case in the Historical Society’s museum.
     Matthew Carlson was there for the transfer ceremony.
     Strange, isn’t it, how over times treasures can be lost? One generation’s prized possession becomes in a subsequent generation one more thing to be moved. Valuable memories get lost. Works of art forgotten. Medals misplaced. It’s not that anyone means for something important to be lost. It just happens. People forget, and then they forget that what they forgot ever mattered. 
     Over and over again, the Bible calls Israel God’s “treasured possession.” Sometimes the world has forgotten that, even Christians, who of all people ought to know better. Sometimes Israel themselves forgot. They lost themselves, some of them - lost their special relationship to God, lost it in corruption and idolatry and eventually exile. But always there were people who remembered, who God raised up to remind them of who they were. They were God’s treasure, and even if they forgot God wouldn’t. A day would come when he would act to spare them and save them and make them again what they always were to him. He would restore them to the place of honor and glory that he always intended for them to have. 
     And then Jesus came, talking about a kingdom that was like treasure hidden in a field, something so valuable that you’d joyfully sell everything you have to own it. He talked about organizing life in a way that gained treasure in heaven instead of material wealth. He warned that we should seek God’s kingdom above anything else, and that whatever we value has a gravity that pulls our hearts to it. Jesus said that seeking this kingdom - God’s kingdom - would make all of us, Jew and non-Jew, the people who God intended always intended for us to be. And to open that kingdom to us, he went so far as to sacrifice his own life - an act God vindicated by raising him from the dead. One of those Jews who came to have faith in Jesus later wrote that the riches and mystery of God are hidden in him.
     Too easily, though, we get lost. We wind up in the swap meets of our world, mixed up with worthless things and selling ourselves for a fraction of our worth. We forget who we are and what we’re worth - God’s treasured possession, and of infinite value to him.
     Thankfully, God doesn’t forget. The price paid to redeem us speaks eloquently of how much we mean to him. And even though we sometimes forget even that, God isn’t content to leave us in the world’s bargain bins, sold out, cast aside, and forgotten. He has redeemed us in Jesus and won’t rest until we’re safe with him in the place of honor he’s arranged for us.
     This is God’s work. It’s because of his initiative, carried out by his grace, and motivated by his love. Our work is to receive it with joy and to remember it in the choices we make, the things we do and say, and the way we live our lives. Its to live like the valued, treasured people that we are, in gratitude for the One who made us his.
     One day, who we are will finally be made clear. We’ll come home, to the place God has prepared for us, and we’ll finally get to see for ourselves just how much we mean to him. 

     Until then, may we live like we’ve already seen it. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Post-Halloween Spookiness

    “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.
    “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
-Luke 12:4-7 (NIV)

     Every time I walk by the big bowl of candy sitting on my kitchen counter and eat a bite-sized Milky Way or Three Musketeers, I’m reminded that another Halloween has come and gone. The folks in my neighborhood will take the spooky graveyards and Grim Reapers out of their front lawns this weekend. Our decorations will be put away until next year. The candy’s still there, what the kids who came to our church’s “Trunk or Treat” and our door didn’t get, but eventually that will be gone, too.
    The name “Halloween” is an abbreviation of All Hallows Eve, of course – the night before All Saints’ Day. It also coincides with an ancient Gaelic festival, Samhain, in which the world of the dead was said for one night to sort of seep out into the world of the living. The dead could walk the earth, and caused all sorts of havoc if people didn’t wear scary costumes to mimic them and drive them off. Somewhere all that turned into kids going door-to-door in fun costumes, asking for candy.
    But Halloween always reminds me of the ways we deal with the things that scare us. I heard this year about a haunted house operating in the Chicago area that offered a monetary prize for people who made it all the way to the top floor. The catch is that you have to sign a release before you go in that allows the “spooks” to touch you. Some of us, at least, like the kind of heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping fright we get from people dressed up in scary costumes at an elaborate haunted house. We’ll pay for that. But the real frights, the things that really scare us: well, that kind of fear we don’t need. It’s one thing to be frightened by a pretend vampire jumping out of a dark corner at you. It’s another thing entirely to face, say, the loss of someone you love or your own mortality.
    At their heart, aren’t most of our fears connected to pain: the pain of illness or injury, the pain of grief, the pain of having something you value taken away, the pain of being laughed at? We fear the things that we perceive can make us suffer, in one way or another. And that’s normal, of course. Healthy, even. The problem with fear, though, is that it can drastically warp our perspective. Fear can easily become so overpowering, so strong, that everything we do becomes about avoiding the things we’re afraid of.      
    At first glance, what Jesus says about not being afraid doesn’t seem awfully comforting. “Afraid of a little persecution?” he asks his disciples. “Afraid of physical pain? Of death? Let me suggest to you guys that who you should really be afraid of isn’t so much the person who can kill you as it is God, who can throw you into hell after you’re dead.” I can imagine a lot of silence after that, a lot of shuffling feet and cleared throats and chewed fingernails. “Uuuummm, o-kay. Thanks, Jesus. That, uhhh….helps.”
    Something tells me that you don’t like to think of God in those terms, either. Hell just isn’t an idea we spend much time considering. Most of the time we avoid talking about it entirely in our church, and quite possibly that’s true in your church, too. Maybe there are some good reasons for that – hell has at times in church history probably been overused as a motivational tool.
    Still, Jesus is right. Fear can make you do crazy things, and fearing the wrong things can make you do crazy things for all the wrong reasons. Fear can lead you into addiction to whatever you think will ease your fear. It can lead to abuse and even violence. It can lead you to make some decisions out of self-interest that needed to be made self-sacrificially. By reminding us to be afraid of the God who can throw us into hell, he helps us to realign our priorities. There are worse things than difficulty, pain, loss -- worse things even than death. The worst that can happen to you, Jesus says, is not your worst fears coming true. The worst that can happen is that you might sidestep all your worst fears but find yourself estranged from God and recipient to his terrible justice.
    But as quick as he says that, Jesus reminds us that the God he’s talking about doesn’t make throwing people into hell his primary agenda. God takes care of the dime-a-dozen sparrows – surely Jesus said that with a smile. “Not one of them is forgotten by God.” God knows you intimately, right down to the number of hairs on your head. “Don’t be afraid.” he said. “You’re worth more than many sparrows.
    So which is it, Jesus? Do we fear God as the One who can throw us into hell, or trust him as the one who knows how many hairs there are on our heads? The only answer, I think, is the one that’s inevitable: yes. Yes, God has the authority to throw us into hell. And yes, he chooses instead to come to us through Jesus, to remember us with love and grace and forgiveness.
    Most of what we fear is the equivalent of people dressed up in scary costumes; it can’t do any real damage. Especially not when there’s a God in heaven who keeps track of birds and hairs on human heads. Especially when Jesus Christ came into the world and faced his own fears.
    As Halloween comes to a close, I hope you’ll think about what you’re afraid of. What’s going to happen at work? How a medical test will go? That your children will be hurt? That you’ll hurt, or die? Instead of living scared, live in faith and trust and reverence. Fear God, as you’d fear anything or anyone that’s completely beyond you and above you. And love him as your Creator who knows every hair on your head and who loves you enough to carry a cross for you.

    Watch him unmask everything that’s ever frightened you as just another costumed pretender.