Friday, December 26, 2014

Jesus Loves Ebenezer Scrooge, Too

    …[T]he Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
-Matthew 20:28 (NIV)

An unidentified man at LaGuardia airport was thrown off a flight Tuesday for being, well, kind of a Scrooge.
    The man apparently took umbrage when an airline gate attendant welcomed the passengers waiting to board with a cheerful, “Merry Christmas.” He lectured her, somewhat loudly, saying, “You shouldn’t say ‘Merry Christmas’ because not everyone celebrates Christmas.” When the agent asked what she should say, the man shouted, “Don’t say Merry Christmas” again before storming past her.
    It got worse from there, though, because once on the plane, a flight attendant greeted him with, you guessed it, a warm and friendly “Merry Christmas.”
    At this, the passenger kind of lost it. He repeated, loudly, that “Merry Christmas” was not an appropriate greeting given a diverse society. When other attendants came over to try to defuse the situation, he lectured them, too. Even when the pilot came out, the man refused to sit down and quiet his outburst. Eventually, with the man still telling anyone who would listen that “Merry Christmas” was inappropriate, he was escorted off the plane.
    Presumably by the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come.
    On the other hand, a few Christians called astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson “disrespectful” for his Christmas morning tweet:

On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy
Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642

    Clearly, in our world Christmas isn’t just a holiday. It’s an ideology that must be either opposed or defended. A news channel that shall remain nameless says we’re in a “war” that revolves around Christmas, though others would argue that Christmas is actually just an annual skirmish in the real war. Undeniably, it’s become a battleground where those who advocate runaway political correctness on one side clash with those who envision a sort of neo-Victorian world where everyone goes around wishing each other Merry Christmas and wassailing (whatever that is) and eating figgy pudding. Every year, someone somewhere gets very publicly offended by a nativity scene on public property, and then someone else gets publicly offended that they’re offended. (Really, with all this offense, why can’t the Bears score more than 20 points a game?)
    Well, listen: Christians who are offended with what Tyson wrote on his Twitter account and the guy at LaGuardia offended because someone wished him Merry Christmas have the same problem.
     The difference is, Christians should know better.
    The fact is, Jesus didn’t die for Christmas. Believe it or not, he didn’t go to the cross to secure my right to celebrate his birthday by putting up a manger scene at City Hall, having my family over for dinner, and going to a Christmas Eve candlelight service. I have no problem with any of those things. But neither do I need to force Christmas on those who for cultural, political, or religious reasons, or even out of general Scroogeishness,  don’t celebrate it.
     Jesus did not, in fact, celebrate Christmas. As near as I can tell, none of the Apostles ever so much as sent him a card on his birthday. Paul never writes a letter to answer the tinsel/non-tinsel controversy. It doesn’t seem that the church ever celebrated the birth of Jesus until 300 years after his death at the earliest, and even then the fixing of the date as December 25th was kind of arbitrary. Christmas just isn’t in the Bible.
    You know what is? Love for God and neighbor, that’s there. Non-resistance against those who lash out at us is there. (That was kind of a big one for Jesus.) Care for the poor is in there, I seem to recall. Not to mention exhortations like “live at peace with everyone.”
     The problem is this: when we get too caught up in defending our “rights” — to force  Christmas on our neighbors or whatever else we may feel we have the right to do — we turn away, at least slightly, from the transformative power of the gospel. Jesus, after all — the One whose birth believers celebrate at Christmas — stood up for the rights of others. He called the weary and burdened to follow him, and find rest for their souls. He taught about a life in which the first would be last, and the last would be first, in which rulers would be brought down and those in humble circumstances lifted up. He dared to say that the marginalized could be saved just like  the privileged. And when it came time to put his money where his mouth was, when his own rights were taken away, then in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “he did not open his mouth.”
    We may not be very good Americans if we suffer the loss of our rights silently, but it makes us excellent Christians.
    If I follow Jesus, then no human being, however hostile his intentions, is truly my adversary, and any attitude I cling to that pits me against him is, plainly, wrong. So I, for one, hope the church surrenders soon in “the war on Christmas.” I hope we just lay down our guns and give up. I hope we’ll respect our neighbors enough to wish them Happy Holidays or Season’s Greetings or whatever. That’s not giving up on Jesus — in fact, it’s loving people like he did. It’s attributing to them humanity and dignity. It’s letting them know that their opinions and feelings matter to us enough to influence the words we choose around them.
    That kind of love creates space in a relationship into which Jesus can step and do his work. It creates room for the Holy Spirit, in which the gospel can transform and redeem and restore.
     I’ve come to believe that the way most believers celebrate Christmas does nothing for the gospel. It’s more about us and those close to us, less about Jesus, and even less about others. So what if we had parties and invited, not our friends and family, but the poor? What if we gave gifts to those who couldn’t give back to us? What if we reached out in love and friendship to those who don’t recognize Jesus at all? Wouldn’t that honor Jesus more than the way we celebrate Christmas honors him now? Wouldn’t it better do justice to the gospel?

    I don’t mean to Scrooge up your Christmas celebrations. But do consider what your celebrations say to the world around you about the One you claim to honor, the One who came to this world to give himself.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Smell of Myrrh

    …[T]hey went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.  Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts  of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned  in a dream  not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
-Matthew 2:9-12 (NIV)

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gifts fit for a king, a king whose birth has been heralded by the rise of a star. While Israel sleeps (except for a few shepherds), unaware of the birth of their Savior, a group of star-watchers from the other side of the known world has already arrived at the end of their long journey.*
    They bring gifts, because they recognize the One who should be worshipped.
    But there are shadows around this child. Not all of Israel sleeps — Herod watches, and waits. He’s an old king, made paranoid by years of clinging to the morsels of power Rome has given him. His insanity is magnified by the boot-lickers that do his bidding, and he makes the wise men fear for the child’s life. Their feelings are confirmed by the dream they all have, and they decide to pick another route home, a route that doesn’t bring them back across Herod’s path.
    But first, they take turns kneeling down in front of the little one, placing their hands on his head, letting him grip their fingers. They smile, they shed tears, maybe, at the end of their long journey. They congratulate mother and father. And then they open their gifts.
    Gold, we get that. But frankincense and myrrh? Well, they’re perfumes — aromatic resins, more precisely. They come from any number of trees and bushes, and their scarcity and the work involved in harvesting and processing them makes them valuable. They were used by royalty. Frankincense was used in the Temple worship in Jerusalem. But not myrrh, not in the temple. Myrrh had two other very specific uses. Two other times the Gospels tell us about someone bringing myrrh to Jesus.
    The first is as he hangs on the cross, in the concoction they bring him to drink, maybe as an anesthetic.
    The second is after his death, when following the Sabbath Nicodemus brings myrrh and aloes to perfume his body with.
    Imagine bringing a casket to a baby shower, and adding it to the pile of strollers, diapers, and baby monitors on the gift table.
    Obviously, the wise men didn't know. They just meant to honor him with gifts appropriate to royalty, and that’s just what they did. It just turned out that the myrrh was appropriate in more ways than one.
    There are shadows around this child. Herod’s goons are on the way, and the shouts of joy that accompanied the news of Mary’s and Joseph’s baby boy would soon give way to wails of mourning and anger. It might have been that the scent of myrrh was heavy in the air around Bethlehem for a few days, as grief-stricken parents buried their children. It might even be that myrrh that the wise men brought found its way to one of those children’s bodies.
    Christmas smells like candy canes and fir trees, gingerbread and ham. But not for everyone.
    For some, at Christmas the smell of myrrh is in the air. The smell of grief and mourning, loss and pain and betrayal. This Christmas, the smell of myrrh in in the air in Peshawar, where 132 children are dead after terrorists broke into their school and started shooting. The smell of myrrh is in the air in Cairns, Queensland, in Australia, where eight children were killed Friday morning. The smell of myrrh is remembered in Newtown, Connecticut, on the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings.
    The smell of myrrh is in the air in Chicago, too, for families who have no heat or electricity, not to mention gifts. The smell of myrrh is in the air for people living on the streets, but also in the air for people living in expensive houses in tony suburbs. It’s in the air for my friend grieving the loss of his beloved wife, for families broken by divorce, for those spending this Christmas by the bedside of a dying spouse, parent, child, or friend.
    In our world, the scent of myrrh is always there, reminding of us sorrow, violence, pain, and our own mortality.
    That’s why he came, and that’s why he came as he did. He didn’t come with a sword, at the head of an army, conquering his enemies and dealing out vengeance and retribution. He came as a newborn, laid in a feed trough and swaddled with rags, with the smell of myrrh in the air, with no weapon to defend himself from those who would end his life before it began.
    The shadows didn’t know it, but on that day when he came, their time was up. He came to a world smelling of myrrh, of death and grief and pain and power and violence, and he didn’t try to deny it. He didn’t say it was our imagination. He didn’t raise a fist or a sword or even his voice. The fist that curled around his mother’s finger on that night would curl not all that many years later around an iron spike, pinned against a timber. He let the shadows wash over him and then, when they had done their worst, he came to life again. He just came to life and shrugged off those grave clothes — those grave clothes that had held all that myrrh for three days. Shrugged them off and left them in his tomb.
    When Peter and John entered the tomb, I bet they could still smell the myrrh. When Mary Magdalene fell at his feet, I wonder if she could still smell it. When he walked along with those followers on the road to Emmaus and shared bread with them, walked into that locked room and let Thomas touch his wounds, forgave Peter for his denial — I wonder if they could still smell the myrrh.
    In Jesus, the smell of myrrh, the rank odor of death and violence and sickness and pain, is transformed into something else. The smell of life, the scent of hope, the fragrance of renewal. This Christmas, though the scent of myrrh is strong in the air of our world, may we remember, and celebrate.

*The wise men may have come weeks or months after Jesus’ birth, based on the fact that he’s in a house when they arrive and that Herod kills children two years old and younger because of (we assume) the wise men’s time frame. But Jesus was probably born in an animal shelter near or even in a house, and the text never says how Herod decided on the age ranges of his victims. On the basis of the text, it’s just as likely that the wise men arrived in Bethlehem about the time Jesus was born.

Friday, December 12, 2014

In These Days

     In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)
     So Joseph went up…to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. 
-Luke 2:1-7 (NIV)

“In those days.” If you’re like most people, those are the words of the Christmas story you tend to skip right over. We’re anxious, aren’t we, to get right to the part about Joseph and Mary and the baby being born in the manger? We have nativity scenes with Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus, but nobody has a little Caesar Augustus figurine issuing a decree. No one has Quirinius, governor of Syria. I mean, I know it’s in the Bible, but, well, I’ll say it: Who cares which census it was that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem? Do we really need to know who was Emperor, or Governor? So maybe Luke was a history buff, but maybe we can be excused for thinking that the historical context he includes in his nativity story isn’t exactly vital to the plot. Whenever it may have happened, we probably tend to think, the point is that it happened. And the exact historical era in which it happened certainly doesn’t, in our minds, affect the significance of the events. 
     It’s interesting that we think that way, considering how much significance we attach to dates. Especially around this time of year.
     Christmas 1998 will always be hugely significant in my family. It was the first year we shared Christmas with our son, Josh. Christmas 1991 was the first one Laura and I spent as husband and wife. We have ornaments on our tree that memorialize those dates, and others as well: one ornament even has a recording of Josh as a three- or four-year-old saying “Merry Christmas.” (Well, it used to, until last year, when Josh accidentally pushed the “record” button and deleted it.) When I hang an ornament that my mom cross-stitched for me in 1980, or one that I remember my late grandmother giving me in 1978, I’m reminded of what I celebrated then, and with whom, and how much things have changed and how much they’ve stayed the same. 
     I’m also aware that others have “ghosts of Christmases past” that are a little less friendly. Maybe this is the first Christmas without a spouse or parent or child. The first since the divorce, or the diagnosis. Or maybe it isn’t the first, but they haven’t seemed to get much better and the reasons for sadness still seem much more compelling than the reasons for celebration. 
     And then there are those haunted by the ghosts of Christmas present, celebrating Christmas in a war zone and praying that Christmas won’t include gunfire. There are parents marking the passing of Christmas (not celebrating, mind you) without a daughter, kidnapped by extremists. And what of the parents who are living through Christmas with their children estranged from them? Or men and women trying to smile for the kids through the pain of a failing marriage, wondering if this year’s pictures will be the last with the whole family together? What of those spending Christmas alone at a nursing home, or taking care of a spouse who doesn’t even remember the Christmases spent together?
     That’s why, I think, “In those days” actually matters. Jesus came in those days when politicians consolidated power and armies fought wars and girls got pregnant out of wedlock and most people were so busy making a living and coping with their problems that they didn’t even notice his arrival. He didn’t come to neat, clean, shiny people who were lined up all in rows and waiting expectantly and obediently for him. He came to a dirty, noisy, chaotic world full of suffering and violence, victims and victimizers, and tedious, back-breaking drudgery. He came “in those days,” Luke reminds us, because it will not do to forget that “peace on earth” was conspicuously absent until he came. He reminds us because it’s so easy to forget that the pain and struggle and disappointment of our lives is exactly why he came. And where we can still expect to find him.
     Do you see? It’s because he came “in those days” that we still dare to hope in him in these days.
     In these days -- when politicians consolidate power and armies fight wars and girls get pregnant out of wedlock and most people are so busy making a living and coping with their problems that they don’t even notice his arrival – in these days he comes and offers peace on earth. He doesn’t promise to take away all the struggle and pain. He promises something far better – that what he brings will outlast the worst that life in these days can do to us. Disappointment and sickness and sadness and bitterness and weakness and poverty and ultimately even death will cower and wither and recede in the light of Bethlehem’s Star and his empty tomb. These days, for all their differences, are still a lot like those days. And just as he came then, to offer hope and healing and forgiveness and life, so he comes now. And whether this Christmas you feel much like celebrating or not, at the very least will you take a moment to remember that your life and the lives of those you love most are in his loving care and gentle hands? Will you stop and whisper a prayer of gratitude that even in days like these, still he comes?
     In these days, though, it’s hard to remember that, isn’t it? Even at this time of year. Especially at this time of year. We get sucked in, thinking that Christmas is all about getting the house looking just right or finding just the right gifts or cooking just the right food. And then there are those living lonely, empty, painful lives in the middle of all the activity, and they’re overlooked. They have no table loaded with good things to eat, no trees sparkling with lights or ornaments, and for them every night is silent. Either way, we forget that the reason he came was not to string lights or hang mistletoe or put retailers in the black, but that he came to show us that life isn’t supposed to be harsh and empty and barren of love. He came to tell us about a Father who loves us, and who wants to share his life with us. He came to give himself so we would know.

     We know that our lives should have meaning and purpose, but we sometimes don’t know what or how. Jesus was born for people exactly like us, people who wish that things were different but don’t know how to make them so. He’s didn’t come as part of a story about a distant time and place, where all is quiet and serene and babies snooze soundly in rustic-looking surroundings. Jesus is here, in “these days” in which we live, even when it’s hard to see his presence. But there he is, in a tear wiped away, a meal shared, a letter written, a thoughtful gift given, a door opened, a sermon preached, a song sung. Go where the people are. Serve those who need to be served. Pray for our world, and love the people around you. I think you’ll see him there.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Thoughts and Reflections on Ferguson and New York

   Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
    In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus...
-Philippians 2:3-5 (NIV)

Ferguson, Missouri. New York City. Stolen cigarillos. Illegal, untaxed cigarettes. A gun. A chokehold. Grand juries choosing not to indict. Anger, bitterness, frustration, fear.
     Black and white.
    Just when you think that we’ve made some progress in our country on matters of race, you see news stories like these and wonder. But then you forget that’s what the stories are about — the history in this country on matters of race. So much anger, fear, suspicion, so much history affects relationships even now. I think that’s what happened in Ferguson and New York. Oh, other stuff happened too, I know, though I’m not sure we’ll know exactly what.
    I have thoughts about it; not conclusions, not pronouncements, not sermons, not morals. Thoughts, reflections. I hesitate, though, because it’s so easy to be misunderstood. And so easy to be wrong. Not to mention that as a white male I could easily be a part of the problem instead of contributing to a solution.
    But I do have thoughts and reflections.
    I have friends and brothers and sisters in Christ who have been mistreated by police, seemingly for no reason other than the color of their skin or the accent with which they spoke. I also have brothers in Christ and friends who are cops, and for whom I would wish nothing that makes a difficult job more difficult, or puts them in harm’s way. And I don’t think my desire that my friends of different races and ethnicities be treated fairly and my prayer for the safety of my friends who wear blue need to be mutually exclusive.
    I know that I don’t, and can’t, understand entirely the experiences of black people. I was brought up to believe that if I found myself in trouble, I should go to the police. I have friends who were brought up to avoid the police at all costs. My parents never felt the need to tell me what to do if a police officer stopped me; I have friends whose parents taught them, in painstaking detail, to raise their hands, say “yes sir” and “no sir”, and do just what the officer says. I won’t ever, I suppose, completely understand the distrust of police that many of my friends have. But I know their experiences of being harassed, threatened, and even injured, largely because of the color of their skin, their style of dress, or their manner of speech are real.
    I also know that their experiences aren’t the only side of the story. I know many police officers who are dedicated to their jobs and take the notion of serving and protecting very seriously. I don’t think most police officers abuse their authority. Very few ever have a confrontation like the ones in Ferguson and New York, and yet they’re out every day keeping people like me safe. Seems to me we as a society have an obligation to acknowledge that, even as we hold accountable those who take advantage of the power they have.
    As children of God and followers of Jesus, we have a commitment to justice and righteousness. One of God’s fundamental concerns in Scripture is that people are treated fairly — and, specifically, that the strong not take advantage of the weak. Those in power are expected to show special care to those who are not in control of their own destinies. Sometimes unhealthy systems develop that work against righteousness and justice. Sometimes individuals become a part of those systems with good intentions, and yet find themselves tangled in its injustices. Seems to me that part of our responsibility as God’s people is to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, to speak up for those who have no voice.
    Paul says submit to the authorities, that God has placed them in power and that if we do what’s right we won’t have to be afraid of them. And yet that’s not the experience of some people in our society. Sometimes — maybe not in either of these cases, or maybe in one but not the other — sometimes people do right, and still find themselves on the wrong end of a stun gun or baton or 9mm.
    Some say Eric Garner and Michael Brown were looking for trouble. Witnesses and video make that, at best, debatable. Some say the confrontations and the failure to indict were racially motivated. It’s hard to know about motivations, isn’t it? And yet…these things happened, and two people are dead, and we have all this history, and it’s no wonder that people are angry and frightened. It’s no wonder that people are protesting all across the country.
    Those protests give me hope. There’s a long history of protest in this country that often has run in opposition to our long history of racial tension. The protests have been largely peaceful, but that’s not what gives me hope. The police presence at those protests has, in most places, been exemplary. But that’s not what gives me hope either. What gives me hope is the people at those protests, different races, different ethnicities, ages, backgrounds, joining together to make their concerns heard. There’s reason to hope there.
    My son goes to a very diverse high school in downtown Chicago. Some of his classmates, black, white, and other, have been part of those demonstrations. At church, our kids and teenagers enjoy each others’ company without thinking much about their differing races and backgrounds. I have hope that some of the growing pains of today make for a better society for our children. I have hope that God is in that, and that his church will be sensitive to his movement and brave enough to be in the vanguard of it.     
    One other thing, hard for white people to hear sometimes: justice doesn’t always mean equality. In God’s vocabulary, justice is those in power showing special concern for the weak. That means that those who are privileged in our world, whether in terms of race or economics or opportunity or power, have a responsibility to those who aren’t. There’s no other way to create a just society. Otherwise, the weak will always be playing catch-up.
    That shouldn’t really surprise us, though. After all, that is the mind of Christ. Isn’t that how he treated us?

    Told you: I have no answers. Just thoughts and reflections, maybe to go along with yours. May God bless our thoughts and reflections, and make them action, and may he use them to build a better world.

Friday, November 28, 2014

How to Follow

    Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
-John 21:18-19 (NIV)

A stray dog from Ecuador knows what following is all about.
    A few weeks ago, the dog chanced to meet up with a team of Swedish athletes in the Amazon rain forest. They were there on purpose, believe it or not, competing in a 430-mile endurance race called the Adventure Racing World Championship. The dog, which the team named Arthur, isn’t saying why he was there. He was pretty bedraggled, and had a nasty wound on his back, so who knows how long he had been surviving alone in the rain forest. But he accepted a meatball from one of the team members, Mikael Lindnord. And then he decided just to hang with them for the rest of the race.
    Keep in mind, this was a long-distance endurance race. As the team hiked and biked through the rain forest, Arthur stayed by their side. When the team got to the kayak leg of the race, though, event organizers told them they should leave Arthur behind. “A dog in the kayak didn’t seem like a great idea,” the team later posted on their Facebook page. So they shoved off, reluctantly leaving Arthur on shore.
    So Arthur started swimming. No kayak? No problem. He dog-paddled faithfully after them through the Amazon rapids. Lindnord helped the impromptu team mascot into his kayak, and Arthur finished the race with the team. (They finished 12th, in case you were wondering.)
    After the race, Lindnord mounted a Twitter campaign to raise money to bring Arthur back home to Sweden. Currently, he’s in Stockholm waiting out a mandatory 120-day quarantine, but when that’s over he’ll go to live with the Lindnord family in the town of Örnsköldsvik.
    Seems as though that was as much Arthur’s decision than the Lindnords’.
    At least 16 times in the Gospels, Jesus says “Follow me” to someone or the other. An obvious conclusion might be that Jesus wanted more than polite interest. He was looking for more than casual, comfortable associations. Jesus never told anyone to join anything, he never seemed interested in starting a religion or a sect or a political movement. He wanted people who would walk where he walked, go where he went, do what he did, and were willing to tie their lives and their fates inextricably to his own. He wanted followers, not out of egotism, like celebrities today accumulate Twitter followers, but out of the conviction that the way he was walking was the way of life, peace, and renewal. He was blazing the trails of his Father’s kingdom, and so he wanted people to walk those paths behind him.
    He told some who thought they wanted to follow him to sell everything they had and give it to the poor. He told some that following him couldn’t wait until after a family funeral. For some, following meant giving up their livelihood. He said that anyone who followed him would have to be willing to deny themselves, that it might mean not knowing where you’d sleep or what you’d eat. He said following him involved taking up a cross, carrying along the looming reality of suffering and death. He out and out told a few that they would die for following him.
    Jesus has never been unclear about the costs of following him. He’s always upfront about the conditions. It’s an endurance race through hardship and suffering. It’s a good life, full of hope and promise and peace, but it’s not an easy or comfortable life.
    Strange that the church has made following him seem to much easier than he ever did.
    The church through the centuries has tried to commodify discipleship. We’ve made it into a hobby. We’ve made it convenient, fun, and easy. Whether by dispensing grace in easily-affordable doses, or compacting a life of following him into Sunday morning installments, or turning it into studying and learning a book, we’ve taken all the messiness out of following Jesus. There’s no mud to slog through. No treks to endure. No hardship or pain or self-denial. Show up at church, write a check, serve at a soup kitchen, memorize some Bible verses, and you’re all set.
    Somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that following Jesus makes us purebreds, living in a comfortable house, eating gourmet food and sleeping on soft beds.
    Truth is, we’re Arthurs, every one of us: wounded, mongrel strays with no hope but staying on the heels of the One who has welcomed us and accepted us and invited us to go with him.
    You could argue that Arthur didn’t really have many options other than to follow the people who would take care of him. Truthfully, though, neither do we. In the end, we follow Jesus because we need to, and if we don’t understand that then we don’t understand what it means to follow him at all. We’re like Peter, maybe more than we’d like to admit; when faced with the option of turning back and not following him any longer, we can only say “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” It’s hardly a ringing declaration of faith, when you think about it, but it’s painfully honest. Where else would we go? Who else would care for us like Jesus, bind up our wounds, reach out for us when we’re barely staying afloat, and bring us home with him at the end of the journey?
    Let’s recapture in our lives, and in the lives of our communities of faith, what it really means to follow Jesus. Let’s learn together to put aside our self-interest for his interests, our chosen paths for his footprints, our comfortable lives for the difficulties of his. Let’s be where he is, loving the people he loves, serving them as he would. It may be a hard life sometimes, but it’s lived with him, in his presence, with the energy of his Spirit and the community of his people. It may be a hard life, but it isn’t a lonely one. It’s filled with joys as well as sorrows, and the joys are sure and true and lasting. It promises that when we’re cold and hungry, the One we follow will draw us near and fill us and warm us with his own life and love and sacrifice.
    Why would we not follow? Why wouldn’t we brave anything we have to so that we can stay close to him?
    Don’t be afraid. Stay close to your Master. You’re not home yet, but stay on his heels and one day you will be.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Freedom of Love

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us  and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  
-1 John 4:9-11 (NIV)

It seems the goal of parenthood is, over 18 or 20 years, to work yourself out of a job.
    I’d heard that before, but it really came home to me recently while going on a couple of college visits with my son. We got to learn a lot about some schools and get a little glimpse of what life would be like for him there. Based on the visits, he has a better idea of what he’s looking for. I have some thoughts too, about which colleges I think might be best for him.
    Of course, my ideas and his might be different.
    Which is why I’m thinking about the planned obsolescence of parenthood. When your child is newborn, he can’t make any decisions for himself. Doesn’t even know how. By the time he goes away to college, ideally he can make almost all of his decisions on his own. In between those points, parents make the decisions for their kids they need to make, while letting go a little more each day. Planned obsolescence. If we do our jobs well, by the college years our kids can pretty much get along without us.
    None of us like to hear that, though. I just wrote all that, but sometimes I don’t act as if it’s true. My son’s very responsible and trustworthy, and yet I remind him of things he already knows. Nag him about things he was already planning to do. It’s because I love him, of course, and want to make sure he’s on the right track. But it’s also, if I’m being honest, sometimes because I’m a little afraid to let him go. Because letting him make his own decisions means letting him, possibly, make decisions that are different from the decisions I’d make, and it means living with the possibility that he might not make the decisions that are best for him.
     I wonder if God ever struggles with that. I know it’s not good theology to assume God is too much like us — in fact, it’s idolatry — but I wonder how God feels when we, the children he loves, make bad choices, irresponsible decisions. That’s one obvious difference between my situation and God’s, of course; there are times when Josh’s decisions are better than mine, but when we make decisions of which God doesn’t approve, we’re always in the wrong. I wonder how it sits with him to let us make those bad decisions, go our own way, and ignore what he wants for us.
    Because I love my son, I want to keep him from trouble, grief, and pain. I want to protect him. That’s natural enough, and sometimes that’s what love looks like. But what our experience of God’s love reminds us that is that love gives freedom to its object. That’s how God loves us. He could force us to fall in line with his will. But he gives us room to choose to obey him or not, to walk in his paths or not, to be his people or not.
    In fact, as John put it, he showed us his love, not through control or coercion, but through sacrifice. In Jesus, he showed his love through suffering, through giving of himself. “He sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for sins.” In other words, his sacrificial love for us isn’t limited to those times when we do what he wants us to, when we make the right choices and take the right paths. It’s also, and even especially, for those times when we’ve wandered off track, gone our own way, and ignored his will. Even then, our Father in heaven did not  coerce us or manipulate us into doing what he wants. He came to us, through his Son, in love and sacrifice, offering himself.
    So maybe the love I’ve experienced from God in Jesus can help me know better how to love my son in the oncoming new realities of our relationship. Maybe his love can help all of us learn how to love the people in our lives without needing them to do what we want them to do. To love like God is to love with no strings, with no requirements. Love like his gives freedom to those whom we love. It doesn’t hold them tight, afraid to let them go. Rather, it sets them free to make their own decisions, go their own way, grow, learn, and experience. But always with the promise that we are there for them when they need us.
       I saw that the actress who played Mrs. Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory, Carol Ann Susi, passed away this week. You never saw Mrs. Wolowitz on the show, you just heard her voice, but the relationship between her and her adult son, Howard, was frequently played for laughs. He lived with her, in his childhood bedroom, until he got married. (Actually, for a while even after he got married!) She cooked him meals, did his laundry, ran his baths, and so forth. She was equally dependent on him. A frequent joke had Howard trying to escape from his mother’s neediness — but finding his own neediness getting in the way of his freedom.
    It was always funny on the show. But that reality would not be funny at all. It’s not the kind of relationship we want to create, with our children or anyone else. Real love, God’s love, sets those who are loved free. It doesn’t burden them with our neediness, imprison them with our expectations, chain them with our disappointments. It offers itself to liberate, redeem, and renew.         
     So I’ll ask for grace, while the next couple of years go by, to do a better job of loving my son more like that, more like God has loved me. I’ll ask for grace to give him freedom, even while I give myself for him.
    Maybe there are some people in your life who you could love in the same way. If not a child, then a parent. A spouse, a relative, a friend. Someone at work, at school, in your neighborhood, or at church. Try giving of yourself to them, with no expectation. (Not even unconsciously — that might take some self-reflection.) Show them grace, mercy, and forgiveness, with no need for reciprocation. Free them to make their own choices, cheer them when they succeed, and be there for them when they fail. And see if it doesn’t begin, over time, to transform your relationship.

    At the very least, they’ll get a glimpse of God’s love through you.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Hill Country

      “Now then, just as the LORD promised, he has kept me alive for forty-five years since the time he said this to Moses, while Israel moved about in the wilderness. So here I am today, eighty-five years old! I am still as strong  today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous  to go out to battle now as I was then. Now give me this hill country that the LORD promised me that day.  You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified,  but, the LORD helping me, I will drive them out just as he said.”
-Joshua 14:10-12 (NIV)

Age is relative. It’s all in how you feel, and most of the time I don’t feel very old.
    Really, most of the time I feel like I’m still too young to be running around unsupervised. I’m not old, not really, in fact I don’t even mind telling you my age. I’m 46. Not old at all, by most realistic measures. Still fairly young, by some. My health is good. I can still do everything I want to do.
    And yet, sometimes I do feel old.
    I catch sight of a gray hair in the mirror. I’m reminded of the bit of extra weight I carry. I do a couple of flights of stairs — I can still do them fast, but I’m breathing hard when I do. I play tennis with a younger guy and realize I used to move around like he does. I have to get out my glasses to read something — or worse, I ask my son what it says. Little things. Nothing debilitating. Just signs, really, like the first leaves starting to change color in the autumn. Reminders that old age is coming. Fifty is really close. Which means 60 isn’t as far away as it used to seem. Fact is now that over half my life is probably behind me.
    That’s a cheery thing to consider, no?
    The teenagers at church now call me “Mr. Odum.” (I always want to look over my shoulder for my dad when they say that.) I’m taking my son on a college visit this weekend, and I’m reminded that he’s growing up, that sooner rather than later now Laura and I will be empty nesters. No rush, but it will happen, and it will happen relatively soon now.
    So sometimes, yeah, I start to feel a little old.
    Here’s the thing, though: I wouldn’t do 25 again if I could. Oh, there are things I’d probably go back and fix if I could, and some things I’d like to be able to re-experience from time to time. There are things about the past I miss, and things about my current life that in ten years I’ll no doubt look back on with nostalgia. I don’t think this is the classic mid-life crisis, and I don’t anticipate buying a Corvette anytime soon. Feeling that life is going by quickly doesn’t necessarily mean feeling like it’s passing you by. Youth isn’t an ideal state, and isn’t to be worshipped or venerated.  That’s something our society, with its quirky and ultimately destructive emphasis on youth and beauty, needs to learn.
    See, I’m a lot smarter now, in a lot of ways, than I was 20 years ago. I’m a lot more competent at the things that matter than I was then. I realize that isn’t always the case — but it usually is. In our societal desperation to arrest the aging process, we short-change ourselves and those around us. We trade experience and wisdom gained through a few years of living for a preoccupation with staying young, and that’s a devil’s bargain. Age will always catch up.
    Caleb used to seem to me to be some cantankerous old fool who didn’t know that his day had passed. I mean, really: he’s grabbing his sword to run the Anakites out of their walled cities in the hill country at the age of 85? You want somebody to say, “Come on, grandpa, there’s a great assisted-living building in Jericho.” I wonder if the younger generation of Israelites started avoiding him during that 40 years of wandering. By the end of those four decades, it was only him and Joshua left from that generation of Israelites that left Egypt together. I bet he had some killer “back in my day” stories: “Back in my day, we got water from a rock. From a rock!”  I used to think he was kind of the Brett Favre of the Hebrews — amazing that he can still play, but doesn’t he know when to quit?
    Now, though, it seems to me that Caleb learned a couple of things over his long life. The easy one is that God could be trusted, that when he gives his word you can take it to the bank. That hill country was his. God had told him so. That’s the one we like to learn, the truth we love to come to believe. Our God is faithful to his promises. Most of us who are people of faith come to that one sooner or later. It’s comforting to us.
    But Caleb learned the truth that a lot of us never do, even though it goes hand-in-glove with the promise of God’s faithfulness. It’s simply this: when God gives a promise, he also gives a mission. That’s not as easy or comfortable. Most of us are tempted to think that old age is the time when we retire and enjoy the fruits of our labor, so to speak. And so we wonder why Caleb doesn’t just settle down in the countryside, plant a garden, play with the grandkids, and let the younger folks take the fortified cities. “You’ve earned it,” we’d tell him, and in doing so we’d be sentencing him to death.
    Because that’s when you get old: not when you start to lose your hair, or your teeth, or your hearing, but when you lose your mission.
    Losing your mission is what makes you miserable, makes you sit and wait for age to catch up to you. When you lose your mission, you lose your sense of purpose, your connection to the work that God is doing in the world now. You start making pronouncements that start with, “In my day…” instead of asking questions about the work God is about today. When you lose your mission, it starts to dawn on you that fulfillment of many of God’s promises are only recognized in the carrying out of the work he gives us to do. Like Caleb. That was his hill country, but he had to go take it.  
    So, instead of focusing on my age, I’m thinking about the hill country. I want to share life and love and joy with my wife as I get older. I want to do some things for the kingdom of God that I’ve excused myself from while my son was growing up. I want to be present for my parents and in-laws as they get older. I want to move gracefully and graciously into a new, and even better, relationship with my son. I want to pass on to the next generation what God has taught me through his faithfulness and love. I want to be bolder about sharing my faith with the people in my life, and at the same time better about hearing their stories and helping them see how God has always been the main character.  I want to keep learning, and I want to write, and I want to work hard to make my preaching deeper and better and more compelling.

    From where you’re standing, the hill country probably looks a little different. You know where it is, though, and you know that it’s worth spending the rest of your life fighting for, because it’s part of God’s work in your world. So don’t waste a moment worrying about your age. Think Caleb cared that his hair was thinning? God has plenty for you to do, enough to fill the rest of your life. Praise him for his promises, and get to work on his mission. That’s how you keep from getting old!