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.