Friday, February 28, 2020

Quiet Hero

     For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive?  And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?
     Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!  You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you! For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ,  but you are so wise in Christ!  We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!    
-1 Corinthians 4:7-10 (NIV)

I lost a good friend this week.
     I guess I’ve been losing him for a few years now (Alzheimer’s is like that), but this past Monday Darrell Hutchens traded in his earthly life to be with the Lord. He got the best end of that transaction, that’s for sure. I know that, but I still miss him. Been missing him for while, but still — seems like there’s kind of a hole in the world now that he used to occupy.
     It’s hard to describe that loss, isn’t it? But it’s real, that feeling of someone’s absence. Darrell was an elder at my church for 40 years, so the fact that I won’t ever see him in his accustomed pew again, or stand with him at the back doors to the auditorium “shaking out the brethren,” as he used to say, or hear him crack a joke — that makes me pretty sad. But it’s more than his physical absence. Back in my early years as a minister, I’d call him pretty often. He wouldn’t usually tell me what to do, that wasn’t really his style, but somehow talking to him about this thing or the other was pretty comforting. Even better was the way he had of making me think that he believed in me, that he trusted me, that he knew I’d make the right call. (And when I didn’t, that he knew I would the next time.) I’ve had minister colleagues tell me about elders who undermined them at every turn, and when they do I can only shake my head and say how sorry I am. Never once did I receive anything but support and love from Darrell. 
     I knew Darrell for 26 years. For all but the last couple of those years, we were together two or three days a week. We made difficult decisions together, prayed together, stood beside deathbeds together. I thought I knew a lot about him. But at his funeral this week, I discovered a secret he’d been keeping from me. 
     I knew he was retired from the Army, and that he was in Korea during the Korean War. I had the impression, from what he had told me about his service time, that he’d spent most of his time there as support, not right on the front lines. He didn’t seem to mind talking about his time in Korea, but he mostly did so by making jokes. I should have known it was deflection, but that never occurred to me.
      At his funeral, though, some of his grandkids had put together a table with military memorabilia. There was his dress jacket. A scrapbook. A Sharpshooter medal, like my dad has from his time in the National Guard. But also the secret, in its pretty velvet box: a Bronze Star.
     There was an accompanying note, from the verification for the award. It told of Darrell being part of a company of soldiers under attack, being knocked to the ground by an explosion, and then getting to his feet to carry a wounded man to safety “at risk of his own life.”
     My friend of 26 years was a Bronze Star recipient, and I had no idea.  
      In retrospect, though, I’m not surprised. I’m not surprised that Darrell would have done some courageous and selfless thing to help someone because I’ve seen him do that kind of thing for as long as I’ve known him. 
      Neither am I surprised that he never mentioned it, that it never came up in conversation. He would have felt the recognition was unnecessary because he wouldn’t have thought of the act as particularly heroic. In his mind, probably, he was doing what anyone would do and should do if they found themselves in that situation. Had someone else mentioned the medal, he would have probably blown it off with a joke, maybe about just being in the wrong place at the right time, or something like that.
     Self-promotion is easier than it’s ever been. All you need is a Twitter feed, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, or any of a hundred other social media platforms. You can promote your own opinions, accomplishments, brand, business, talent, or status in any way you want to. I suppose there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle, even if we wanted to. And sometimes that ability to self-promote is necessary and comes in handy.
       We’ve even perfected the art of the humblebrag, wherein you can tout your achievements in a way that sounds self-effacing. (Here’s a clumsy attempt by actor Jared Leto.) 
     Darrell, though, was a relic in that way. He was a product of and a throwback to a time and place in which you didn’t boast about your accomplishments. You didn’t humblebrag; you just didn’t mention it. 
      There’s a place and time for self-promotion, maybe even for a strategic humblebrag. But I think it’s better for people who want to follow Jesus to keep the self-promotion to a minimum. Paul reminds us, after all, that what we possess, attain, accomplish, achieve, or earn doesn’t make us different — read, better — than anyone else. Oh, we may be better at this thing or that thing, but not a better person.
     We tend to brag, I think, because we have a sneaking suspicion that we’re not enough. We want to be seen as competent, successful, interesting. We want to be admired. Boasting is our defensive reaction to feelings of inferiority and insecurity. It’s our clumsy attempt to vault over someone else in the rankings that are really only in our heads.
     Jesus taught us, though, that we’re loved and valued by God just as we are, even stripped of anything that other people might find admirable. God doesn’t love us for what we can do. He loves us for who we are.
     Paul reminds us, too, that the things we have achieved and attained aren’t only about us. They are, in one way or another, a gift. Ultimately, everything we have comes from God. Indirectly or directly, other people contribute, too. None of us only have ourselves to congratulate for our success. All of us need to thank God for his grace and generosity, and all of us have a long list of other people who have contributed to our successes. That doesn’t diminish what we accomplish, but it does put it in perspective.
     Not only that, but there is a time to accept dishonor over honor, poverty over wealth. There is a time for us to accept the judgment of others that we are, even, fools. That’s because, when we follow Jesus, there will be times that we’re misunderstood by those who don’t. When those times come, we must resist the impulse for self-promotion. We must pull back from the reflex toward self-aggrandizement. Because, after all, the One we follow did exactly that. He accepted dishonor, ridicule, mockery, and even violence and death. 
     In accepting the hatred of other people and returning love, he found God’s life.
     I’m convinced that Darrell didn’t brag about his accomplishments because he was clear on whose approval he most wanted.
     Thanks, my friend, for one last lesson.    

     I’ll do my best to do you proud.

Friday, February 21, 2020

The Habit of Going to Church

     Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together,  as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another —and all the more as you see the Day approaching.   
-Hebrews 10:23-25 (NIV)

The first time I can recall ever missing church just because something else sounded better, I was in college. It was Super Bowl Sunday, and what I missed was a Sunday night service. There was no one around to tell me to go, so I decided to watch the Super Bowl with some friends.
     I know. My rebellion was shocking.
     I grew up going to church. We were three-times-a-week people: Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night. It wasn't a decision I made every week; there was no decision to be made. We went to church. I wasn’t always happy about it. There were times when I wouldn’t have said I got much out of it. None of that mattered, though. When it was time to get into the car, we got into the car. As a teenager I sometimes missed Sunday night for a job. Other than that, I was there. 
     When I left for college, it was to go to a “Christian university.” I was a Ministry major. Where most people in college probably are dealing with pressure not to go to church, the pressure I got was very definitely pro-church. It was less strength of character than it was going along with the crowd, which happened to be heading to church.
     What I’m saying is that I don’t see going to church as something to be proud of, or something that makes me better than someone who didn’t. It was, as much as anything, a habit I picked up. I have some habits that work against me. My church habit, I think, works for me. But it is a habit. 
     Now, of course, it’s part of my job description. Folks would likely notice if I didn’t show up. I’d probably get a phone call. Still, if I changed jobs tomorrow I think the habit of church attendance would kick in again. 
     It seems like we disregard doing anything habitually, as though doing something out of habit doesn’t really mean anything. Of course, I know people who make going to the gym a habit. They don’t necessarily enjoy it, aren’t always motivated. But they go because they believe that it’s a habit that makes a difference in their lives.  
     I wonder if maybe we need to rediscover the habit of going to church.
     Maybe you want to stop me right there, with my use of the phrase “going to church.” I do understand that the church is people, not a place. In that sense, of course, you can’t “go to church.” You’re a part of the church. Here’s the thing, though: the church does get together at a set time and place.   
     Only, I’m not sure that for a lot of believers it’s a foregone conclusion that they’ll be there.
     I get it. There are a lot of reasons not to be. We’re busy, busy people. (Where are those 30-hour work weeks folks used to predict were coming?) Our kids’ schedules are booked as tightly as our own. There are a lot of reasons to miss church. 
     Besides, what are we actually going to miss if we average, say, twice a month?  
     Let me just ask this question: Why should all the other things we have to do be the reason we miss church? Why shouldn’t church be the reason we miss everything else?
     The answer to those questions says something about our priorities, what we consider important, or at least what’s most urgent to us. I know that  things can get complicated. I know there are times when it’s inevitable that you’ll miss church. There are exceptions to every rule, but exceptions exist as exceptions because they are not the rule. And I’m afraid that the rule for some of us goes something like this: “I’ll be at church on Sunday morning if there isn’t something more pressing going on.”
     If that, or something like that, is the rule for you, then I don’t think it’s because you’re a bad person. I don’t think it’s because you don’t love the Lord. I think it’s because you’ve convinced yourself, somewhere along the line, that church is one of several alternatives. It’s on the menu, but why would you order it every week? We have a tendency to see church with a consumer mindset. It’s an option, not an obligation. 
     Let me just quickly point out, if you’ll allow me, a few reasons why I’m convinced that church attendance is an obligation, a habit we should develop:
  1. Your attendance will be an encouragement to someone else, often in ways you don’t understand or can’t anticipate. Believe it or not, just seeing you there will help someone in their spiritual life. 
  2. The gifts God has given you are not for you alone. They are to be used in ways that lift up the whole church. How will that happen if you choose not to be there when the church is together?
  3. The New Testament is full of instructions for how we are to treat “one another.” In those texts, the “one another”s in question seem most naturally to be the church. The church gathered together (as opposed to the hypothetical church) is the laboratory in which we live and experience what it means to be a part of the kingdom of God, both receiving and distributing God’s grace in all its forms. 
  4. Paul pictures the church — the local church — as the “body of Christ.” In that body, he says that God has arranged the parts just as he wants them and that there are no unnecessary parts. (1 Corinthians 12) To functionally absent yourself from the church is to remove a part of the body of Christ.  
  5. I have never known someone whose spiritual life and walk with the Lord were improved by casual church attendance. 
  6. Why should we expect future generations of believers to take the church seriously if they see us treating church attendance as an option and not an obligation?
     I know very well that not everything that happens at church is good, or uplifting, or helpful in our walk with the Lord. I know that not every sermon is a home run and not every song sounds great. I know that the church can even do great harm. Still, God has chosen the church to be about his work in our world, and he’s chosen us in all our diversity, disunity, and even brokenness to be imperfect vessels of his grace. 
     Darrell Hutchens, a former elder at my church and a guy I admired and loved for nearly 30 years, used to often pray publicly for those who were “careless” in their attendance. I think he was on to something. We can be careless in our commitment to being at church. We can develop some bad habits.

     But we can also change our habits. Let’s develop the habit of church attendance. Let’s be willing to miss other things for the sake of that habit. Our churches will be stronger because of it. So will our spiritual lives.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Rats and Cockroaches?

    You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  
-Matthew 5:43-48 (NIV)

Very few people, I assume, buy a Valentine’s Day gift for their ex. But the San Antonio Zoo has a deal this year that might make you think about it. 
     For a mere $25, the Zoo will name a rat after your ex
     You say that’s not worth twenty-five bucks? All right, then, see how this sounds: After naming the unfortunate creature after your ex, the zoo will feed the rat to a snake on February 14th.
     Still not sure you want to drop $25 to buy a gift for a person who’s no longer your Valentine? Understandable. That’s why the Zoo has another deal that might be even better. For a mere $5, you can name a cockroach after said ex. And, yes, the zoo has plenty of birds and other animals that will be happy to wolf your ex’s namesake down. 
     You can even join in the fun — remotely, of course. The Zoo will be live-streaming the event on Facebook.
     Not only that, but you’ll also receive a certificate suitable for display on your social media.
     The zoo is obviously doing all this as a fund-raiser/PR move, with tongues in cheeks. Judging by the level of contempt and outright hatred that a lot of people seem to have for their exes, though, I imagine the zoo will have plenty of rats and cockroaches to feed to the animals on Valentine’s Day — ironically, a day that’s supposed to be all about love. 
     On Valentine’s Day, we celebrate those we love. We give gifts and do special things with spouses, romantic interests, sometimes best friends. We go to dinner together. We give candy and flowers. We celebrate romance, if we’re in a romantic relationship.
     In short, we celebrate Valentine’s Day by loving those who love us.
     And — the San Antonio Zoo hopes — maybe by resenting or hating those with whom we once shared something, and don’t anymore. 
     I don’t know if it was intentional or fortuitous, but a scheduling quirk put the National Prayer Breakfast the morning after the State of the Union Address last week. After one of the most contentious State of the Union Addresses in recent memory, political rivals had to sit in the same room together and pray. 
     The day after President Trump took a smug victory lap after the Senate impeachment trial, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi ripped up her copy of his speech, they and their colleagues had to listen to author Arthur Brooks keynote the theme of the Breakfast: “Love Your Enemies.”
     It’s worth a few minutes to read Brooks’ speech. But one thing he said in particular resonated with me: 
“How do we break the habit of contempt? Some people say we need more civility and tolerance. I say, nonsense. Why? Because civility and tolerance are a low standard. Jesus didn’t say, ‘tolerate your enemies.’ He said, ‘love your enemies.’ Answer hatred with love.”
     When it was President Trump’s turn to speak he began by saying he wasn’t sure he agreed with Brooks’ remarks. I imagine that was OK with Brooks, since as he pointed out they weren’t strictly his remarks, anyway. In point of fact, President Trump was disagreeing with Jesus. It was Jesus who seemed to come up with the revolutionary idea that love can’t be restricted to those who love us, to those about whom we have good feelings, who have done nice things for us, who make us laugh and who make our heart rates speed up. 
     Jesus called that kind of love easy. Almost anybody can love like that. What’s harder is to love like God loves: without discrimination. He loves the evil and the good, the righteous and the unrighteous. He loves by doing good to all people, no matter if they love him or not. God loves proactively. He loves first
     Jesus embodied that love: “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 
     So he demands that those who follow him love like that. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.
     Be honest, now: President Trump isn’t the only one who struggles with that, is he?
     We often say that’s the hardest thing Jesus asks us to do. Well, maybe it is. But I don’t think it’s quite as hard as we sometimes make it out to be. Part of the problem might be that we hear “love your enemies” and think that means we’re supposed to have warm feelings and pleasant thoughts about people who’d just as soon stab us in the neck than talk to us (or who we’d just as soon stab in the neck). But a minute’s thought will tell us that can’t be right. In Scripture, God is sometimes angry toward human beings who have disregarded him or hurt other human beings. Jesus himself was downright rude at times. But, as he points out, God sends his sun and rain on everyone, however he might be feeling about them at a given moment. God loves primarily by doing, not by feeling. And so should we.
     So Jesus gives us something to do: “pray for those who persecute you.” One way to love your enemies is to discipline yourself to pray for their well-being. When you ask God to heal your ailing parents, or to help your friend with her job concerns, or to bless your children, you can also ask him to bless those people you don’t feel nearly so good about. And the more bad feelings toward them are in your heart and mind, maybe the more you should pray for them.
     Maybe you’ll have the chance to do something more for them. Visit them in the hospital. Send them a Christmas card. Maybe, one day, talk with them about what happened between you. Maybe you’ll never have that chance. But your prayers will be a real act of love on your part. And, incidentally, they’ll make that enemy of yours seem less like an antagonist to you, and more like, well, a person. Over time, praying for someone can’t help but reshape your view of them. And even your feelings.
     Maybe right now you’d rather think of them as cockroaches. Rats. 

     Pray for them, and you’ll likely start to see them the way God sees them. And love them like he does.