Friday, October 25, 2019

Don't Be Afraid

     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)

McKamey Manor sits in a little community in Middle Tennessee called Summertown (Population: 866). It almost sounds like some genteel southern estate. But it is, by all accounts, anything but.
     You could say McKamey Manor is a haunted house, like the ones popular all over the country around Halloween, but that would be a little like saying World War II was a disagreement. They do one “production” (that’s what they call it) per week at McKamey. To attend, you have to be 18, have a sports physical from a doctor that attests to your physical and mental well-being, and sign a 40-page(!) waiver. You also have to go through a face-to-face screening before you can even be considered. There is a waiting list.
      To get some idea of the kind of experience you’d have at McKamey Manor, neighbors last year called police when they saw a woman being dragged, tied up and screaming, from a van into the basement of the house. Police found her there, tied up and shivering.
     Yes. She had signed up for it.
     The website warns that the “actors” (that's what they call them) in the house will come in contact with the “guests” (that’s what they call them). I think that means guests may be grabbed and even struck. The website goes on to warn that “guests” might be submerged in water, and that the experience will be “rough, intense, and very frightening.” Guests are encouraged to pick out a safe word that will end the experience immediately. 
     Oh, and it can last up to 10 hours.
     Not to worry, though, because the creator of McKamey Manor, Russ McKamey, says that in sixteen years no one has ever made it all the way through the experience. I think he means that everyone who’s been a “guest” at the Manor has quit before getting to the end of the experience. I think that's what he means.
     So why in the world would anyone do this? To prove their bravery? Test themselves? See how tough they are? I’m sure there’s some of that, but you’ve probably guessed the obvious reason: a considerable amount of money. 
     Russ McKamey offers $20,000 to anyone who can make it through without employing the safe word, running away, cursing, or hitting one of the actors.
     Fear is a funny thing, isn’t it? When we know it (mostly) doesn’t have lasting effects, we enjoy it. 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. Others like scary movies, or thrilling roller coasters, or extreme sports. 
     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 undoubtedly 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 should 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 McKamey Manor; it won’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. 

     Next to that, everything that’s ever frightened you is just another costumed pretender. 

Friday, October 18, 2019

Secular Work

    Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.    
-Colossians 4:23-24 (NIV)

I haven’t heard it so much in recent years, but growing up I sometimes heard someone use the expression “secular work.” Usually, it was used in apposition to “church work” or “full-time ministry” or some other term that denoted what you might refer to as clergy — ministers or preachers, in our terminology. Like, when a person left ministry for some other job, someone might say he had “gone back to secular work.” 
     It’s funny, my mom was a “secretary” at the church for a while. I never thought about it then, but I wonder if they would have called what she did “ministry” or “secular work”. My son is currently doing an internship with an adoption and family counseling agency that often partners with churches — ministry, or secular work? 
     Actually, I think there was something wrong with the terminology, and with the assumptions about what ministry is. 
     Like I said, I haven’t heard that phrase, “secular work,” in a long time. Maybe it’s kind of out of fashion, and that’s for the best. But I still think we sometimes fail to reckon with the idea that the work we do Monday-Friday might be every bit as much ministry as the work a minister, pastor, or other clergyperson does. Maybe it’s that term “secular” that’s the problem. We often use it in contrast with “sacred;” something that’s secular, then, is not connected with religion — and usually we mean organized religion — in any way.  
     The word comes from a Latin word, saeculum, that means “age” or “generation.” So something that’s secular is of the world, of this age. That’s true, of course, for most of the work we do. It has to do with the world. It’s of this age, as opposed to the age to come. That doesn’t mean it has no value, of course. Doctors work hard to heal people of this age, in this world. Financial advisors help people to plan their retirements in this world. Mechanics repair cars, plumbers fix leaks, bricklayers build walls — all “this age” activities. When a lawyer represents a client, or an advertiser writes a campaign, or a social worker gets a child out of a dangerous situation, or a teacher gives a lecture, their minds are all on “this world” problems, “this age” goals. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the work those people are doing should be thought of as having nothing to do with religion. 
     So, I’m a minister. That means that I don’t do “secular work,” right? Except, really, I do. Most weeks I help unload a truck full of food that comes from our food bank. Most Sundays I help give that food to people in our community who are food insecure. Yes, we’d love for all those people who get food from us to have a spiritual awakening and become followers of Jesus, but the fact is that receiving that food and then giving it out is a secular activity. It’s a “this world” solution that we offer to a “this world” problem. 
     Most weeks I make and answer phone calls, visit folks who are sick, talk to people struggling with problems, meet with repair people, and so on. You might be surprised at how non-spiritual — secular — a lot of a minister’s job looks. (That used to bug me sometimes, truthfully.)
     While you’re thinking about that, think about how most churches do a lot of stuff that looks, at least at first glance, pretty secular. We put together shoe boxes full of essentials for homeless people. We visit with nursing home residents. We provide candy and games for trick-or-treating kids and their parents at Halloween. We eat together. Our buildings are used by community groups. We collect coats and school supplies for kids. Most churches use a lot of time and resources to do things that don’t seem to have a ton of spiritual significance.  
     Of course, in being secular we’re just following Jesus’ example. 
     Jesus came preaching that the kingdom of God was breaking into this world. He demonstrated its coming, too, by healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the hungry, proclaiming good news to the poor. He didn’t tell a blind man just to hang in there until he died and went to heaven, where he’d be able to see. He didn’t reassure five thousand hungry people that their bellies would always feel full in heaven. He dealt with “this world” problems just as surely as a doctor or counselor or banker does. But he did those things in the Spirit of God. He embodied the idea that God could be secular — that he could break into a broken world and make it better as a prelude to the day when he redeems it entirely. 
     See, I think Jesus would have a problem with our idea that secular and sacred are opposite poles, that they are to be kept distinct and that they have nothing to do with each other. As I hope I’ve pointed out, our experience tells us the same thing. “This age” and “the age to come” have a connection, and that connection is Jesus. 
     That’s why Paul can tell slaves — slaves, mind you — to work at whatever they’re told to do with all their hearts. Their work might be secular, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t sacred too. It’s work done for the Lord, and it’s work that the Lord will use for his glory. And they will be rewarded for it.
     Don’t forget that human beings were made to work. God put us in the world to cultivate and take care of it. It’s in that way that we represent God in the world — that we’re made in his image. It’s easy to miss, but Genesis says that God “finished his work” of creation by putting people in the world to carry on that work. God is a secular God, and he works in this world and this age through his people. 
     Too often we think of our work as a way to get a check so that we can enjoy the rest of our lives. We make money at work so we can afford to give our families what they need, travel, enjoy some luxuries, and, when it’s time — stop working. Oh, we want to give some of what we make to the church so it can be used for spiritual purposes, sure. But I think we might see our jobs as a necessary evil so that we can have the life we really want. 
     Yet maybe it’s in working at “whatever we do” with all our hearts, as though serving the Lord, that we find the life God has actually given us. He would continue his work in the world through our work. When a human being creates something, it’s something that can be used for the work of God in the world. When a doctor heals someone, he or she is doing God’s work. When a mom or dad cares for a child, or for an aging parent, God is doing his work of caring through them. When a cook prepares food, or a waiter serves it, they are doing God’s work of service in the world.
     I’m so thankful when people give of their time and energy to do work at church, or on behalf of the church. But please don’t think for a moment that the “secular work” you do is any less the work of God in our world. Worry less about what work you do, and where, and for how much money, and think and pray about how you do it. Do it with all your heart. Do it to please the Lord, not because someone is looking over your shoulder. Work with joy and gratitude, knowing that God is at work in what you’re doing — whether you can see how or not.   

     God has always done secular work. He’s glad that you’re doing it too.

Friday, October 4, 2019


“…[H]er many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”    
-Luke 7:47 (NIV)

The Amber Guyger trial wrapped up in Dallas this week. Guyger, a Dallas police officer at the time, was convicted of murder in the shooting death of Botham Jean, a 28-year-old accountant. On the night she shot and killed Jean, Guyger had just finished her shift and was returning home. She went to the wrong apartment, and when she opened the door and saw a man she didn’t know, she drew her gun and fired. While Jean lay on the floor dying, she called 911 and talked to the dispatcher about how she was afraid she would lose her job.
     Given the choices of convicting her for murder or manslaughter, or finding her not guilty, the jury returned a verdict of murder. After a day of evidence and victim impact statements, Guyger was sentenced to 10 years.
     I’ve followed this trial a little more closely than I might have followed other trials in a city pretty far from where I live. Botham was a part of the fellowship of churches that I’ve been a part of all my life. He graduated from the same University I did. I guess that makes me feel like I knew him. But I didn’t. I only know him as a murder victim. But of course Botham Jean was more than just a victim in his murder. Ask his family, they’ll tell you. 
     And Amber Guyger is more than just the villain of the story. Ask Botham’s brother, Brandt. He’ll tell you. 
     After Guyger’s sentencing, 18-year-old Brandt addressed the court. Actually, he addressed Amber Guyger:
If you are truly sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you. I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you. I love you just like anyone else. I am not going to say I hope you die just like my brother did… I personally want the best for you. And I wasn’t going to ever say this in front of my family or anyone but I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do — and the best would be to give your life to Christ.  
     After his statement, Brandt Jean shocked everyone in the courtroom by asking the judge if he could go and hug Guyger. The judge allowed it, and while the judge wiped at her eyes and audible sobs were heard in the courtroom, Brandt came down from the witness stand and hugged Guyger. They whispered to each other for a minute or so, three times beginning to break the embrace. Each time it seemed that Guyger pulled him back. It’s hard to let go of that kind of love and grace, I guess.
     No one could possibly ask Botham’s family to forgive his killer. No one would dare say they should. How Brandt got there is hard to say, but I think it’s safe to speculate that his faith had something to do with it. He resisted the understandable urge to try to make some sort of sense of his brother’s murder by demonizing his killer. He remembered that, despite the terrible thing she did, Amber Guyger is loved by God. That was enough, it seems, to remind him to love her too.
    But the really interesting thing is the way Brandt’s gesture spread. Dallas County DA John Creuzot said of Brandt’s statement, “I think that’s an amazing act of healing and forgiveness that is rare in today’s society. That young man is 18 and he is a leader… He should guide us in leading.” The judge, Tammy Kemp, also hugged Guyger and gave her a Bible, saying, “You just need a tiny mustard seed of faith. You start with this.” 
     Not everyone is happy about the forgiveness shown in that courtroom. Jemar Tisby points out that Brandt’s display of forgiveness is “cheapened” if white Christians use it to say that racial injustices can be overcome if victims just forgive, ignoring or minimizing the work of repentance required of those who have been victimizers. I encourage you to read and reflect on his post. “Instant absolution minimizes the magnitude of injustice. It distracts attention from the systemic change needed to prevent such tragedies from occurring,” Tisby writes. We shouldn’t let Brandt Jean’s extraordinary forgiveness distract us from the work that needs to be done. Botham’s mother, Allison Jean, said Guyger’s sentence would give her time to reflect and “change her life.” The willingness of Brandt to forgive her should never be used to free us as a nation from the obligation of reflecting and changing, too.  
     Maybe it’s important to point out that Judge Kemp, like Botham and Brandt, is black. Surely we can honor their choice to offer forgiveness and love. But none of us has the right to demand that they do so, or that others share in offering that forgiveness, to her or to anyone who has treated them unjustly.
     Perhaps our struggle with showing forgiveness is that, so often, it is cheapened. Celebrities offer scripted apologies written by their media consultants when they get caught misbehaving. Sometimes human beings seem incapable of anything other than “Yes, but…” half-justifications of our worst actions, and so it should come as no surprise that we view forgiveness in those cases as letting the bad guys off the hook too easily. 
     And yet…there’s something about grace and forgiveness that has transformative power. If Amber Guyger truly received Brandt’s forgiveness, she’ll come out of this a different person. Not absolved, but different. Some will use forgiveness as an easy out, yes. They never received it, in that case, probably never even recognized that they did anything that requires forgiveness. The problem, I think, isn’t in the forgiveness itself, but in the way it is received. Those who truly receive forgiveness offered freely and generously see it for the extraordinary thing it is and come away with its marks dug indelibly into their hearts. 
    At a banquet, Jesus was confronted by a woman who Luke tells us was “a sinner.” Everyone knew her. Her presence was a scandal. The way she behaved was a scandal. But Jesus explained her actions to his host by telling him that her expressions of love for him came out of a deep sense of forgiveness. 
     To truly receive forgiveness is to have a love awakened that you thought you’d lost, or maybe never knew. Far from letting us off the hook, it puts us further on. It mandates that we go out and live with the kind of love and grace for the people around us that we’ve received. 
     That is, of course, the kind of forgiveness God has offered us in Christ. It makes us gasp, shocks us, can even make us angry. It’s not part of any equation we can understand. “Father, forgive them,” Jesus prayed as they murdered him. As we murdered him. “They don’t know what they’re doing.” 
     Maybe Amber Guyger will live the rest of her life marked, not just by the murder of Botham Jean, but by the forgiveness of her brother. Maybe she will see the responsibility that comes with Brandt Jean’s forgiveness to love those around her, to give her life to Christ in service of her fellow human beings.
     And maybe you and I will live our lives marked by the forgiveness we’ve received from God through Jesus’ acts of love. Maybe we’ll recognize in that forgiveness a responsibility to love the people around us in extraordinary ways. Maybe it will drive us to lives of service, kindness, and grace. Maybe it will push us to confront the unloving, sinful parts of our lives, to reflect on them, and to change by God’s grace. 

     Maybe it will lead us to truly give our lives to Christ.