Friday, May 27, 2016

Unwritten Rules

     I have applied all this to Apollos and myself for your benefit, brothers and sisters, so that you may learn through us the meaning of the saying, “Nothing beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another.
-1 Corinthians 4:6 (NRSV)

If you’re much into baseball, then you’ve probably seen “The Punch Heard ‘Round the World” — Rangers infielder Rougned Odor catching Bluejays outfielder Jose Bautista with a right cross after Baustista’s hard slide in a game last weekend. It’s just the latest entry in a long series of baseball altercations that revolve around what pundits refer to as baseball’s “unwritten rules.” 
     The fight really started during the playoffs last season, when Bautista flipped his bat in celebration after a clutch home run against the Rangers. That’s one of the unwritten rules — you can’t celebrate a home run in a way that the other team might consider showing up their pitcher. So, you can pump a fist as you round the bases, or high-five your teammates at the plate, or even go back out of the dugout and tip your cap to the crowd. But you can’t flip your bat. You might hurt the pitcher’s feelings. 
     So Bautista was on base in the game last weekend because Rangers pitcher Matt Bush had hit him with a pitch — almost certainly intentionally, almost certainly in retaliation for the bat flip. That’s another unwritten rule: there are times a pitcher must throw at a batter. In the logic of baseball’s unwritten rules, Bautista had earned a beaning by celebrating a home run he hit off an entirely different pitcher in an entirely different game that happened last season. Oh, and Bush wasn’t even on the team last year when the bat flip happened. 
     And then there’s the matter of the hard slide. Bautista slid late, and he slid at Odor instead of at the bag. This is most commonly done to break up a potential double play, which is ostensibly what Bautista was doing in this case. But it really looked more like he was trying to hurt Odor to get some payback for getting plunked. It’s another of those “unwritten rules” of baseball, though in this case it runs counter to a new written rule that says a baserunner can’t interfere with an infielder trying to turn a double play. 
     If you’re confused, don’t be surprised. You’re not a Major League baseball player, and so the minutiae of the unwritten rules understandably eludes you. But note this: at any time, the progression of events that led to the punch could have been interrupted, either by application of the written rules or by one player choosing not to escalate. But, with everyone reading off those unwritten rules, the two teams moved inexorably toward the punch.
     That’s the problem with unwritten rules: they generally have the power to escalate conflict, but none to  resolve it. 
     It’s a good thing the church has never had a problem with unwritten rules.
     All right, I’ll wait while you catch your breath and wipe away the tears from the outburst of laughter. 
     Historically, I guess it’s true: the church has created, lived with, and divided over a lot of unwritten rules. The excuse we’ve used is the importance of being doctrinally correct, and so strong-willed leaders have forced their understandings of what “right” is on the church at large. And so we’ve been inundated by unwritten rules about everything from the relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit  to the relationship between grace and works to the amount a believer should give every Sunday. We’ve had, at various times and places, unwritten rules about how many converts a Christian should make, how many drinks a Christian can have, and how churches should be governed. In my own little fellowship of believers, I’ve known folks with hard and rigid unwritten rules about how many cups we can use in communion, whether it’s OK to have Sunday School classes or not, and whether or not it’s OK to clap in a worship service.
     But the church does have written rules: the Bible, of course, though sometimes certainty on what is written in the Bible can be hard to come by. There are some disputes in the church that could be settled by an appeal to Scripture, but the fact is a lot of our disputes come from the fact that honest people who want to please the Lord read the Bible differently. And, maybe, once we’ve made our cases to each other, it’s important to assume the best of one another and agree to disagree. Instead of going beyond what is written and judging brothers and sisters who see things differently, we could give each other a break and praise God for our diversity. We aren’t, after all, the Lord’s people because we have the Bible exactly right.
     We’re the Lord’s people because of Jesus, the One through whom God has made himself known most clearly. John the Evangelist calls him the Word made flesh, and so maybe we should turn to him as the “written” rule to displace our unwritten ones.  Through Jesus, God says “this is who I am and this is what I care about most.” The early church even read their Bible, the Jewish scriptures, through the lens of this new thing God had done in Jesus. Those Old Testament texts had meaning back when they were written, but they took on new meaning as the church saw them in a different light, the light cast by Jesus.      
     Remember the lesson of baseball: unwritten rules have the power to escalate conflict, but none to  resolve it. When we go “beyond what is written,” we get in trouble. When we make our opinions on the Bible equal to the Bible itself, when we make tradition into law, or when we read the Bible without “reading” the Word made flesh, we invariably get it wrong. We hurt people, we divide churches, we fail in our responsibility to be salt and light, and we bring shame on the name of Jesus. 
      This is a particular danger for people who take their identity so heavily from Scripture. We can easily allow ourselves to make the mistake of those who ended up opposing Jesus’ work because of their unwritten rules. 
      If you can’t imagine Jesus doing what you’re doing, saying what you’re saying — then you’re wrong.

     That’s a rule you can write down.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Close to Mom

For this is what the Lord says…
As a mother comforts her child,
    so will I comfort you….
-Isaiah 66:12-13 (NIV)

Mike Trout lives with his mother. But he’s decided it’s time to move out.
     It’s not really all that unusual for a 24-year-old to live at home. There’s a lot said these days about the lack of good jobs for young adults, so for a lot of 20-somethings living on your own isn’t economically feasible. Others are still in school, working on a college or graduate degree. Some, maybe, have chosen to live at home to help parents who have health problems or economic problems of their own. Living with your parents at 24 is really nothing to be ashamed of. 
     For Mike, though, it is unusual. He isn’t in school. His parents are fine. And Mike Trout does have a job. It is seasonal work, but it pays pretty well.
     You may have heard of him, even. 
     He’s an outfielder for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He’s a four-time All-Star, two-time All-Star Game MVP, 2012 American League Rookie of the Year, and 2014 American League MVP.
     Not to mention the fact that he’s just entered the third year of a 6-year, $144.5 million contract. He’s set to make $15 million this year. So he thinks this is a pretty good time to move out. You know, now that he’s getting pretty self-sufficient.  
     So Mike bought a 300-acre farm. Not in Los Angeles, though. He’s really not interested in living a Hollywood life. Nope, his new home will be in Millville, New Jersey. Where he grew up. Just a few minutes from his mom. 
     I’m thankful to be able to say that I understand that impulse to stay close to your mom, close to your family, close to your home. I grew up in a family that was close, loving, nurturing. I’m thankful for a mom who put my sister and me first, always, who told us she loved us a lot but showed us even more. I’m thankful, too, that she didn’t smother us, or try to pull us back into the nest when it was time for us to leave. I’m thankful that she loves my wife and my son as much as she does me. 
     I moved 600 miles away, but that didn’t have to do with wanting to get away. It was because I knew that distance didn’t mean we couldn’t still be close. 
     So I’m thankful to be able to say that I understand the impulse to be close to my mom. There are a lot of people this Mother’s Day who can say that too, I’m sure. Even if they’re separated by distance, even (especially) if their mother has passed away, they understand the impulse to be close to her. If you’re in that category, be careful that you don’t take if for granted. It’s easy for those of us who have been so blessed to forget that not everyone understands the impulse to be close to their mother. There are many in our world, in fact, who would be downright puzzled by it. 
     There are those whose mothers treated them as though they were an inconvenience, an obstacle to the life they really wanted, told them in word and action that if only you hadn’t come along I could have had the life I was meant to have. Their mothers weren’t present for them in any real way, and they can’t fathom a world in which mother means anything more than the woman who gave birth to you.
     There are those whose mothers gave them up. Maybe for good reasons, maybe because they knew they couldn’t take care of a child, but who gave them up all the same. And maybe they were fortunate enough to find someone else who would be Mom to them, and maybe they have no resentment toward the woman who gave birth to them. Or maybe they still can’t understand why she’d leave them alone in the world. Either way, she’s not Mom, not really, and never will be.
     There are some for whom the roles of mother and child have been reversed as long as they can remember, some who have had to take care of their mothers, apologize for them, cover for them, clean up after them, wake them up, call 911 for them. Habits, addictions, have turned the relationship from one of closeness to one of codependency, at best. To escape from their mothers, in those cases, must seem far better than to be close.
   If you understand the impulse to be close to your mother this Mother’s Day, thank God for it. If you can, tell your Mom so as well. Tell her thank you for all she’s done for you, because you probably don’t know the half of it. Forgive her failures, and thank her and love her for what she’s done for you.
     If you don’t understand that impulse, then I hope you’ll understand the promise of God in Psalm 27: “Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me.” What you didn’t get from your mother, your God will provide. He has more than enough love and grace to make up for what you didn’t receive, and he will happily pour that love out in your life. 
     We often think of God as our Father, and rightly so. But, now and then, you get a glimmer in the Bible of God as our Mother as well. “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.” I think of the comfort my Mom has given me — the comfort of acceptance and kindness, the comfort of knowing that whatever is going on, she’ll be there for me, the comfort of her faith in me — and I understand what the prophet is getting at. I understand it when I think of the ways I’ve seen my wife comfort our son. I understand — understand doesn’t really cover it, does it? I know intuitively — why I should want to be close to God. And what I can expect from him if I live near him. 
     So whether you can be near your mother today or not, I hope you’ll know too that your God is not some angry deity to fear. He’s a God of comfort, and he wants us very much to live near him. Wherever you make your home, don’t go far from him.

     And thanks, Mom, for showing me so much about the God who comforts me, and for so often and so faithfully being the one through whom he comforted me. Happy Mother’s Day!