“Winning” isn’t anything

I just read that Baylor University, ostensibly a Christian school, allowed their football team to conduct its own internal investigations into accusations that some football players had engaged in sexual assault on campus, according to an investigation ordered by its Board of Regents.
They acted like they didn’t need to follow the law, or legal procedures under Federal Title IX. In fact, the president of that university (the famous Ken Starr) has just been demoted because the football department’s staff was never trained in Title IX procedures, which was apparently the university’s responsibility. The football coach was, of course, fired.
No matter now; one of the football players is serving 20 years for rape; another is serving 6 months for sexual assault.
Actually, no – THANKFULLY, no. I’m grateful the Law kept after the individuals who should have called those footballs players, that football department and the university to account, a long time ago!
Why was this allowed to continue at Baylor? Could it be that Art Briles, the coach, brought Baylor to its first successful season since 1980?
In other words, they were “WINNING”! And winning at any cost is, in some circles anyway, considered a virtue. But not in Christ’s circles. And of course, to the victims of these sexual offenders, the cost was far too high. (To win football games??)
We need to keep this in mind in the echo chambers of our mass media as we keep hearing Donald Trump diagnose our national condition as that of “losers,” and his main contribution to office that with him as president we will be “winning” so much we will get tired of it.
Mr. Trump doesn’t go into details often (it’s be yuge! Believe me!), but the whole notion of being winners deserves some examination.
It would be great to be strong, healthy, with an economy that provides for everyone. It would be great to be good, so that all our people have access to education and health care, and our communities are strong enough to be willing to care for the least-of-these. It would be great to be at peace, so that we would hardly know what to do with that “peace dividend” we thought we were going to have in the 90s. If you want to make America “great”-er, those are visions I can deal with.
But the essence of “winning” is that someone else must “lose.” I’m all for cheats and thieves to lose, but why should I consider it a good thing if I have more because I took it out of the mouth of someone else who wasn’t in on my scheme? Trump thinks that’s winning.
Why should I think I am finding peace by building walls and throwing out people who’ve been here contributing for a long time…or by attacking the innocent families of deluded terrorists? That’s not even peace. It’s détente. Trump thinks that’s winning.
And in which way are we going to win if we can’t even figure out which side of things Mr. Trump is on? He’s for and against abortion, for and against Obamacare, for and against everyone carrying a gun! Don’t we have to know the name of the game before we can win it?
The problem with winning as a goal, is that it is just too easy to cheat, to overpower others, to take things that don’t belong to you and to overlook real criminality as long as you get the prize in the end. The problem with winning is, it’s always making losers…and victims. And leaving aside the gospel for a moment, losers don’t usually really go away. You just have to deal with them again, bigger and madder than before. Ask Ken Starr.
No, Mr. Trump isn’t going to bring us peace OR winning. Jesus really already taught us that. Peace, real peace, comes from the Lord, and he showed us that the way of peace in this world is going to look radically different from what politicians must seek. Real peace comes from following Jesus, who bent down to wash the feet of others, touched lepers and told us to turn the other cheek if someone wants to hit us twice.
We really can’t have both this world’s ideas of winning and eternity’s view of peace, unless we’ve put “winning” in God’s hands. I don’t know how that works for Christian football coaches (although I’m QUITE sure it doesn’t involve overlooking rape), but for those of us paying attention to elections, let’s not lose our perspective. Jesus WON our salvation by letting the Empire nail him to a cross (and then rising from the dead). He seems to know something they didn’t. Let’s go with him.

Living in concert with the Holy Breath

So what it all comes down to, I think, is learning to live “in concert with” the Force.

Well, not the Force.  The Spirit.  It’s just that in our world, “the Force” makes more sense!

But the Spirit isn’t the Force.   The Force is impersonal; the Spirit is the living God.

And we’re just crazy enough to believe Jesus, that he has come to live within us, by his Spirit.  Or, if you like, by his “Breath” – in the Greek and in the Hebrew, the same word suffices for both.

When we come to trust Jesus enough to say we are his, he moves in, by his Holy Spirit, to live his life in us if we will let him.

And this is what “discipleship” is – learning to live alongside his life in us, in step with him, in concert with him.

I’ve read a lot of books about discipleship, about the nuts and bolts of setting up discipleship programs and discipleship team, but I feel like I just figured out what it is!

All the programs are about, are ways for us to pay attention, to lift our concentration from the pushes and pulls of our human self trying to survive in this world (aka, “the flesh), in order to hear from God about what is important today.

That’s what “spiritual disciplines” are – they are ways of quieting the mind and settling the appetites and ignoring the wants and fears and angers, long enough to encounter the still, small voice of God.

God very much cares about what we in our humanness want and need.  It’s just that if our objective is just to answer the calls of our “flesh,” we won’t live in the power of who we really are, and we likely won’t even make our “survival selves” happy.

Humans are made to seek meaning – but not just meaning.  We were made to live in companionship with God.  There’s that talk in the Bible about us being made in God’s image.  I don’t think that means we look like God; I think it means we have some of God’s characteristics, like love of beauty and a need to create and an urge to solve problems.  It pleases God when we live in the fullness of those things, but he doesn’t want to just watch.  He wants us in relationship with him, day by day.

And in that relationship (made available to us in Jesus), when the Spirit of God has come to live in us, we might start to see each day differently.  If we are paying attention.

Suddenly interruptions might not be annoyances, they might be holy appointments.  The person we share a bus seat with might get a prayer, even if they don’t know it.  And the answer to a question we are pondering may come out of nowhere (well, it will just seem that way).

And the things that have driven us before – anger, shame, anxiety – these things start to get smaller because there are bigger things to be done.  It is no longer so satisfying to be outraged every day, or to seek to control the bad things that might happen by pre-worrying about them.  These are practices, too – but not spiritual ones.

Discipleship, then, is just helping one another along the way to adopt the kinds of practices that will help us  hear  God’s voice by his Spirit, encouragement to understand and believe what God has said, maybe a kick in the pants when we are indulging the “survival self” more than the Spirit in our lives.  Discipleship involves the telling of stories, of success and falling down, so we can thank God together for the promise that he will never leave us alone.

I am learning.  Interested in what others think….

A little reflection of glory

Everybody’s got an agenda.

There are so many causes and efforts I am in favor of!  So of course my mail, email, Facebook and Twitter feeds include so many calls to action, it’s exhausting – and I wind up ignoring them most days.

But shouldn’t I be engaged in all these efforts, as a way to build the kingdom of God in our time?

That raises an interesting question.  Who does “build the kingdom of God”?

The Bible tells us that God is going to establish it.  We believe that Jesus initiated it in his resurrection.  But nowhere does it tell us to BUILD it.

The scriptures call us “citizens” of the kingdom of God, by virtue of our new identity “in Christ” – that is, that when we have put our trust in Jesus, we are joined to him.  His death becomes our death, his resurrection becomes our resurrection.  We, too, are children of God, and God is our Father.  And we are “seated in the heavenlies” with him, Paul writes in Ephesians.

So our task here is illumined by our connection to him, who sits at the right hand of God!  We become able to see his glory by the presence of the Holy Spirit within.  We live with a foot in each existence:  one in this world, and one in the next!

We don’t have to build the kingdom – it’s coming.  God has built it.

Our job is really, to reflect it.

That’s what Jesus is describing in the Sermon on the Mount.  Blessed are the peacemakers – not, if you are a peacemaker, you will be blessed.  Go be a peacemaker.  Instead, in the real kingdom of God, peacemakers are already blessed, as are the poor in spirit and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, etc.

In the kingdom of God, love is the order of the day; so is justice.  No one has to tell anyone to love their neighbor or extend mercy or do justice.  It just is that way.

And as those who reflect his glory in the midst of this world, our call is to live with that understanding – in the “real world,” defined as that which exists eternally in the presence of God, there is no hatred or warfare.  There is no racism.  There is no murder or rape.  There is no need and no poverty.  There is no threat and there is no fear. Our hearts know this, and we are called to live like it, right here in the midst of our neighborhoods and our jobs and our daily lives.

Not that we pretend those things exist here.  Rather, we ferret out of our lives the hatred, fear, anger, prejudice that lives there, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The kingdom comes and lives in us!

And then we are predisposed to loving others in a way that is truly a sign of another world to come.  After God has done this work in us, we won’t have to pretend to be loving or holy so as to give God some good PR.  We WILL BE loving and holy, as the Spirit has more room in us to display Jesus’ glory!

Once again, it’s the little things done in every Jesus-follower’s life that make big headlines in the presence of God but probably weren’t noticed by many in this life.  Nothing more urgent than the light within first.

Now, loving my neighbor may mean getting involved in some causes.  I’m all for that.  But Lord, do in me the prior work, so I won’t feel proud of my “sacrifices” or fool myself into thinking I’m building your kingdom.

Instead let me see the people you have put in my path, and help me to discern what I in my earthly self have stored away in my heart that violates your kingdom.   Remove from me the powerful impulses that oppose your kingdom and its ways.  Then let me love, whoever it is you send me, with the love of Jesus.

May it be so.

Without God’s love in my heart?

Sometimes I become aware that there is heart-03a standoff within me, between my will and the heart of the Holy Spirit within me.

Usually, it’s when I’m particularly devoted to being right today, and the Spirit is instead after something else.

You’d think God would be very devoted to being right since, after all, God is almost by definition, as the Creator of reality, right about it.  But it turns out that God’s priorities are different, much of the time.

In the last few years, a friend at church has brought us a challenge, to choose a “word for the year” in January, a word which would stand for a goal or a purpose or an aspiration. Sometimes I haven’t been able to choose one, but this year I chose “beloved.”

Not so much that I’m beloved by God (although standing in grace I believe I am!), but that everyone is beloved by God.  Not because everyone is so very loveable, but because God is love…and he made us to love us.

While I confess that being beloved by God doesn’t take the place of an individual responding to God’s love, I am also admitting that if I am a follower of Jesus, then I need to take into account the “belovedness” of everyone I meet.  They are each owed that status, and yes, that should make a difference in how I consider them in my mind and heart.

In my dedication to being right all the time, I sometimes forget that.

Sometimes, I become aware that my judgment of another person has run up against God’s prior consideration of them as beloved – that’s the standoff in my heart between me and the Spirit.

I met this standoff in the pages of scripture today.  In John 5, Jesus is being hassled by the religious leaders because he healed a man on the Sabbath.  Actually, he not only healed this disabled man, but he told the man to “pick up your mat and walk.”  I’m not sure how the leaders felt about the healing, and the walking, but the carrying of the mat definitely fit in the confines of the definition for work, and on that score, the man was violating the Sabbath.  Asked about it, the former invalid reported that the man who healed him told him to do it, and he was of a mind to do what that man said!

When they found out it was Jesus, the religious leaders entered into a debate with him about it.  And this debate comes to a conclusions when Jesus says, “You study the scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life.   These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life….I know you.  I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts.”  (John 5:39,40,42)

They do not have the love of God in their hearts.

               That’s the judgment on them.   They don’t believe in him, they won’t follow him, they won’t accept them, and all because God’s love isn’t within them.

I double-checked that in the Greek.  I wondered, was Jesus saying, that they did not love God (the love for God was not in them)?  Or is he really saying, as I understood at first, that their problem was they had not downloaded, so to speak, the kind of love God has into their own hearts?

It is the second.  It is a judgment on them by Jesus that their hearts are devoid of the love God has for others.  Though they are very religious; though they search the scriptures, and wait for the Messiah, and keep the law and know the rules…they are missing something fundamental.

God’s love for others.

And so they missed the belovedness of the disabled man, and why God would want to set him free without waiting for another day.  As they missed the belovedness of the woman caught in adultery, or Zacchaeus or Levi, tax collectors for the occupiers against their own people.  As they missed even the belovedness of the Samaritans…of the Romans…of themselves, to God.

So this year I see it.  And when there is a conflict between belovedness and something else, I am not so quick to dismiss the belovedness.  As Jesus says here, it is the necessary equipment to understanding the rest.

May it be so for us.

On Growing Old

This is a sermon from 2009.  Much too long for a blog post.  But then again, I was helped again by it, so I will share it.

God’s Word on the Tasks of Living:  Getting Older  2/22/09

When I first proposed this study series that we’ve now reached the end of, with the theme of “God’s Word on the Tasks of Living,” and I told you we’d consider such things as marrying and parenting and working and managing wealth, and then I tacked on the end there, “growing old” – did you wonder what it was doing there?

I mean, is growing old a task of living – or is it instead an obstacle to those tasks?

Consider, after all, that all those other things we’ve talked about are essentially productive:  growing up; making a home; raising up the next generation; having a life’s work; building wealth.

Is growing old really in that category?

Some would argue that it is precisely because getting old is essentially the opposite of being productive that growing old in our culture is fundamentally disrespected.

In America, we value beauty and vigor – the physical attributes of youth.  We value innovation, entrepreneurialism and flexibility – the mental attributes of youth.  We value cutting edge science and technology – the province, it seems, of youth.  All of those things have to do with reproducing and building and competing.

As we get older, the changes that happen to us become handicaps in just those areas – reproduction; building; competing.

Generations ago it used to be said that children should be seen and not heard; these days, it’s old people who we get the feeling should not be seen or heard.  Culturally, we disrespect age:  it seems to be ok to make fun of old people in commercials or TV shows.  Our culture seems to prefer that the active older folks live together (and away from everybody else), and once older people become inactive they drop from  our culture’s awareness — out of sight and out of mind.    Old folks, like children in ages gone by, are supposed to know their place.

 

This is not funny. The pressure on us to be young forever makes the rigors of growing older even harder – there don’t seem to be any compensation for the losses we feel in our body and strength.  Where once upon a time it was said that old folks were valued for their wisdom and experience, now as we age we sense not just our bodies but our value diminishing.

Baby boomers seem particularly to have been caught off guard by this – after all, popular culture as long as we’ve been alive has been about us.  We didn’t trust folks over 30, and now that we’re well past that, we cheerily claim that 50 is the new 30!  But we’re not getting away with it – folks in their 20s are now starting to blame everything that’s wrong with our society on old folks – you know, Baby Boomers!  And our protests that we aren’t old, that we can’t be old because we’re never going to get old, fall on ears which are not listening to us.

And so it’s with dismay we Boomers see ourselves becoming older people.  It isn’t just the physical changes and losses we fear – it’s the very disrespect we know is coming our way, and we know it, because we’ve participated in it.

So we shouldn’t be surprised by people like the famous actress I heard about a couple of weeks ago.  She’s in her 60s but goes through an extensive daily regimen of hormones and supplements to keep herself looking – ahem – 50.  By extensive I mean that she uses three different hormone creams placed on various parts of her body, and takes 60 supplement pills every day.  She claims to have beat menopause this way. She admits she’s a little over the top but says she does it because she wants to live to 110.

Perhaps she does.  But it seemed more to me, reading her story, that what she really wants is not to look a day over 45.  Ever.  No matter how old she gets, she never wants to look old or be called old or be written off as old.

 

That’s what’s going on in the world we live in, and it’s like the weather:  everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.

But when we come here on Sunday morning, it is my job to proclaim to you the truth of the real world –  the kingdom of God.  Here is where we get our heads set back on straight, to see things the way God sees them, after the world has done its darnedest all week to mess us up.  So what does the word of God have to say about getting older?

 

Whenever someone’s great age is mentioned in the Bible, it means something.   That’s because, during most of Bible times, reaching old age was rare!  I read that in the days of the New Testament, the average female who survived to the age of 10 could expect to live to the ripe old age of 34.  Compare that with our times in the United States:  in 1999, a 10 year old girl could expect to live past 80.

In the Bible, someone who had lived to have grey hair and wrinkles had survived many things that had killed off their peers, and was considered to have the mark of God’s favor on them.

So consider this:  from the Bible’s perspective, anyone can be young – it takes the hand of God to help you get to be old!

 

 

But the Bible does admit that if we get to be old, there are losses we endure.  At the end of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher (considered to be Solomon) gives a description of the diminishments of the body for one who reaches old age.  It’s written quite poetically:

Ecclesiastes 12

1 Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”-

2 before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;

(that refers to the dimming of vision)

3 when the keepers of the house tremble, (your hands shake)
and the strong men stoop,

(the legs go)
when the grinders cease because they are few, (the teeth)
and those looking through the windows grow dim; (the eyes again)

4 when the doors to the street are closed (the lips)
and the sound of grinding fades; (the teeth)
when men rise up at the sound of birds, (can’t sleep)
but all their songs grow faint; (can’t hear)

5 when men are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets; (we become unsteady and afraid)
when the almond tree blossoms (the hair turns white)
and the grasshopper drags himself along (small things are too difficult)
and desire no longer is stirred. (you can figure that one out for yourself)
Then man goes to his eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.

6 Remember [your Creator] —before the silver cord is severed,
or the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
or the wheel broken at the well,

7 and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

 

The Bible doesn’t whitewash growing old.

In fact, the Bible calls the diminishment of age what it is – decay, the approach of death – and God’s word knows just what ails us most in the midst of it –  it’s what the Bible calls “being enslaved by the fear of death.”

In all our culture’s disrespect of age and mockery of the old, that’s the thing that no one says – that what bothers younger people about old age isn’t really frumpy clothes or listening to stories about times long ago; what bothers us is that in our culture we’d like to pretend that death is optional, and obvious old age reminds us that it is not.

Years ago, I used to work with my mother, who wrote a syndicated newspaper column about food.  Once a month it was my job to read through the abstracts of nutrition and other medical research for studies that might be interesting to highlight in the column.

Reading study after study used to strike me funny after awhile, because it starts to sound like all these researchers believe that if they were able to identify and eliminate every cause of death, we would just stop dying.  In dry scientific lingo, it sounded like a report on the project of eliminating mortality.

At the time I was doing this reading, cancer death rates were rising, but this was actually a sign of success.  Do you know why?  Because fewer people were dying of heart disease!  Medical and lifestyle changes were reducing the numbers of deaths due to heart disease – so those people who might have died of heart attacks lived longer until they what they died from, was cancer.  It used to be that more people didn’t live long enough to get cancer.

I salute medical research and I appreciate my much longer probable lifespan, and I hope those researchers keep at it and eliminate many more diseases.  But no matter how much research we do, we are not going to eliminate dying, and the death rate has remained the same:  100%.

Though we like to keep the evidence of this quiet, the truth is, we’re all going to die.

The Bible knows it, and isn’t afraid to talk about it, and in the scriptures we read what we’re afraid to say:  the struggle we have with our bodies as we get older is the evidence of what Paul calls in Romans the whole creation’s bondage to decay.  The grinders are falling out and the knees are going and the, um, almond blossoms would be turning white if I let them.

The Bible isn’t afraid to talk about it because the Bible is about the solution to it.  The Bible says that Jesus came and took on our flesh and lived our life, and then he died our death – except he conquered death.  When Jesus rose from the dead, he was the first one to do what all of us who belong to him are going to do – rise from the dead.

In fact, the Bible says that Jesus entered death in a way that, because of him, we never will – if we have put our faith in Christ, when this heart stops beating we will go to be in the presence of God, never experiencing what Jesus did: the complete separation from him, the entirety of death.

The Bible proclaims that when we come to believe that Jesus is the one sent from the Father and that he did indeed rise from the dead –when we put our faith in him and turn our lives over to him — the Holy Spirit of God comes to dwell within us and we are reborn into a life that we will never quit living.  Though our bodies will die, yet will we live; and as those who live and believe in him, we will never die – and on the last day, even physically we will live again.

Forget the hormone creams and the 60 pills; Jesus has staved off death for me, permanently!  The life I live in the Son of God is his life now, and though I will change my address from this life to eternity, the me that loves Jesus now is the me that will be present with him then.  It is that life that I have already begun to live.

So how does it change my experience of aging if I am actively engaged in living a Christ-filled life now?  Paul writes about it in Romans and we read it this morning:  you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.  If Christ is in you, though the body is dead, the Spirit is life.  And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also…so, don’t live according to the flesh, but live according to the Spirit.  For you didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption – you are a child of God.  When we cry, “Abba!  (Daddy) Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

Paul says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed in us.”  Look around at everything in the creation – “the creation,” he says “waits with eager longing” along with us, for rescue from decay.  Paul imagines it this way:  that we, along with the whole creation, are groaning in labor waiting for the birth of the new heavens and the new earth, where we’ll get our new bodies, too.  Now we, and the whole creation, are subjected to decay and growing uselessness – but when Christ comes, all things will become new!

So the Bible’s take on it is that if we live long enough to experience the effects of dying on our bodies, it at least ought to be a reminder to us that we are going to escape the very worst parts of death, and that on the other side of physical death is what our faith looks to, a freedom from the slavery of decay and from our fear of death – a new life of no longer being stalked by death.

 

So can we really feel differently about the limitations of age and looming of death, just by believing that?  Even in the face of a culture that absolutely believes otherwise?

 

The other thing the Bible has to say about age, has to do with wisdom.  Wisdom is the province of the aged, and elders were to be respected and consulted for their wisdom.

Our culture respects knowledge and data and information – but wisdom is something else.  Wisdom knows what to do with the data and the information; wisdom comes with experience.

And wisdom, the Bible tells us, comes from knowing the Lord.  Richard Hays says that the old people we read about in the Bible, are “well practiced in watchfulness for God.”  Think of Simeon and Anna, those elder prophets waiting and praying at the temple for God’s provision of Messiah, who were rewarded by God with a glimpse of the baby Jesus.  Think of Zechariah and Elizabeth, faithful in temple service and in righteousness even though they were childless and so disappointed and disgraced by that – they are rewarded with the gift of being John the Baptist’s parents, and both of them prophesy about God and his character as part of that assignment.  They knew how to wait on the Lord; they knew, from long practice of prayer and trust and knowing God’s word, what God is like.  And they are held up for us as wise.

 

Contrast, however, the picture we get of Nicodemus the Pharisee leader in the gospel of John.  Nicodemus is not a kid, but Jesus does not consider him wise even though he is learned.  Nicodemus is curious enough to come to see Jesus, but he is so concerned about the fallout from that among the other Pharisees, that he comes by night so that he won’t be seen.

And when he does, Jesus answers the question he hasn’t even asked yet:  “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus says, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  Nicodemus is too old for Jesus’ confusing questions!

Jesus tells him again that it is being born by the Spirit, not by the flesh, that is important.  When Nicodemus says, “how can these things be?”, Jesus answers him, “are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

Their conversation goes on, but it is clear that Jesus thinks Nicodemus may have years but he does not yet have wisdom, because he does not have the wisdom of faith.  Nicodemus may know the data of the scriptures, but he does not know the wisdom of the scriptures, because he doesn’t yet know the things of the Spirit.

 

From this, we receive instruction about the difference between getting older as a child of God, versus just getting older.

As followers of Jesus, who have His Spirit, we are supposed to be learning his ways.  Through disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, giving, worshiping, even fasting, we become “well-practiced in watchfulness for God.”  The longer we’re at it, the deeper in Christ we grow, and the wiser we become.  So those among us with greater years have the potential to be those among us with greater experience in walking with Jesus, and greater wisdom.  Wisdom does not come just from racking up birthdays, but wisdom will come from long practice of walking with the Spirit of God.

But the Bible’s wisdom is this:  whether we are old or young, the beginning of wisdom is reverence of the Lord, and the glorious thing about this “being born again” thing is that it is never too late to start!  No matter who we are, we are called to turn our hearts toward God and turn away from sin.  We are called to receive Jesus as Savior and Lord.  We are invited into the community of believers, the outpost of the kingdom of God, the church.  We are instructed to pay attention to the word of God and obey it, to join in worship and in service, in prayer and in giving, to walk with Jesus, alone and together.  By these things, we are released from the slavery of our appetites and our sin natures and helped to pursue the things that are life; at the same time, our vision is lifted from the trivial things of this world to the eternal things of the next, so our perspective is changed.

Our knees will still hurt, but we are less likely to feel quite so sorry for ourselves when our minds are on what God’s mind is on.  We still fear the act of dying, but in the fear there is mixed a real eagerness to know what it will really be like to be with the Jesus we have come to know so well in prayer and worship.  And the jibes of those who dismiss us for being “old” still hurt our feelings, but they do pale in comparison to the prospect of actually being wise.

 

I’ve been reading a memoir called “Somewhere Towards the End” by Diana Athill, who is 91 years old – it is her memoir of aging.  She also wrote a book about her 50-year-career as a book editor, but in this book she writes about the curiosity that she no longer can get interested in novels, although she used to enjoy them so much.

I wonder if that has something to do with something else I learned about recently.  At the Midwinter Pastors’ Conference I went to a workshop on “Aging with Grace” and was reminded of Eric Ericson’s developmental stages.  If you ever took psychology you probably read about him and his developmental theories – he came up with eight life stages; each of them has a particular task.  Middle adulthood, he theorized, is concerned with what he called “generativity” – with production.  But Late adulthood – he proposed 65 as the starting age – is interested in what he called “integrity” – here’s what he means.  When we reach older adulthood and we realize that death is on the calendar for us, we begin to review our life to see if the whole of it was successful.  This is pursued through telling our stories to ourselves and others, and integrating the events of our lives together to evaluate the whole.  Another theorist, Robert Butler, says that we pursue this life review whether we want to or not, and if we won’t be conscious of it, we will do it through dreams.

So I wonder if Diana Athill isn’t satisfied with reading other people’s stories anymore, because whether she wants to or not, she is concerned with evaluating her own – maybe even enough to write a book about it.

The Bible has something to say about this, too.  If we have been attending to the disciplines of worship and prayer, we have been invited into confession – the act of telling the truth to God and to ourselves about the ways in which we have fallen short, stepped over the line and missed the target.  We do that because we want to be forgiven, and we are invited to:  if we say we have no sin, the Bible says, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  But, it says in the same place, if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness.  So, if we have been doing what the Master told us to do, we have been doing mini-life-reviews all along…and thus when the time comes that we feel compelled to evaluate our life story, what we should see are the fingerprints of Jesus all over it, writing “forgiven” next to the sorry parts.

God’s perspective on your life story, and on mine, is that Jesus takes our stories and weaves them into his own.  Paul says  “…it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  (Gal. 2:20)  As we grow in Christ, what should be seen in our life is the unmistakable evidence that his story is now being lived out in me.

Perhaps that explains one other thing that we see in the Bible’s old folks.  They were not exempt from having God doing an amazing new thing in or through them.  Abraham and Sarah were in their nineties, and they gave birth to the child of promise.  Hannah and Elizabeth were too old for such stuff, too, but that didn’t make it too hard for God.

New things are not off limits for old folks who belong to Jesus:  Simeon and Anna weren’t too old to believe that God really was going to bring a Messiah, nor were they too set in their ways to accept that the Messiah God brought, was the infant of a nondescript poor couple who showed up in the Temple one day, instead of what they expected.

If we believe the Bible we have no reason to believe that we could ever be too old for God to give us an assignment, or even an entirely new calling.  Remember what Peter quoted from the prophet Joel on Pentecost:  “in the last days…God declares…I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

And that only makes sense when you think about it – to the world, to our knees and our arteries, we are aging and dying, but in Christ, we have only just begun.

 

About Death (A Sermon)

John 11:32-37

 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

 

About Death

God hates death.

The Bible says, death wasn’t in the original plan. Death IS an intruder. Every time we say goodbye to someone who dies it feels all wrong – because it is.

Death is the logical outworking of being separated from God. Our flesh is no longer eternal, and the day comes when what is alive in us, is separated from it. Paul writes that not just our bodies, but the whole creation groans with us, in its bondage to decay. Decay is where our flesh is headed, too, though we fight it with everything we’ve got and we’re able to do a pretty good job for a long time…still, until Jesus comes, physical death comes to each of us.

Our strong desire to fight it is why we always want to find out WHY  and HOW someone died – so we can figure out if what befell them could possibly befall us. We want to figure out if we can control or head off what happened to them, as though if we could at least control THAT, we could control aging and death itself. Though we know death is the way of all flesh, we are always looking for an “out” for ourselves.

Though we have become masterful at medicine, medicine  is not the same thing as “mechanics.” Doctors probably have an even better understanding than we do that there is something about life and survival that is mysterious. An autopsy can tell us what happened to our late friend’s body, but they couldn’t quite tell us before it happened.

Surgeons and oncologists worked hard to save [the child who has just died of cancer], but they could not keep the cancer from creeping into his brain, until his little brain could not keep his body alive anymore.

God hates death, but he knows better than all of us the bondage to decay, as Paul puts it, we are in. Jesus’ healings were not really the answer to that bondage, even though the people who came clamoring to him can be forgiven for thinking that they were.

Jesus himself is the answer.  That’s why He didn’t heal everyone and he didn’t stay on the earth forever to effect healings.  His healings were a sign of a much bigger project:  that he had come to overturn and reverse our bondage to decay.  He conquered death and broke the chains of aging, decline and death…or to our vulnerability to everything going wrong, and death.  And His resurrected humanity was the first of millions who will rise from the grave, made new, as he was, in ways that cannot be corrupted.  He is the firstborn from the dead…but we who follow him will know a life and a body without death.

 

Jesus said to Martha in John 11, “I am the resurrection and the life.   Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.- do you believe this?”   That is really the question, isn’t it?

Martha said, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”  Jesus is the beginning of real life, eternal life, that cannot be undone by death.

casketWhen we talk about trusting God…When we talk about Jesus as Lord of our lives, we are talking about putting feet, day by day, to that belief. We are saying that we have glimpsed, or maybe been touched by, the Eternal God.  We have experienced the kind of love that made us. We are saying we are signing up with him, this Jesus who is moving toward rescuing the world and making all things new. We believe in Life, and in eternal life.  Remember us, Jesus, when you come into your kingdom!

 

But when we say Jesus is our Lord, there is more:  we are  giving him permission to overturn our plans. Though we have our hopes and dreams and have imagined a life for ourselves, we know                we are not God; he is.  And we say by faith, that we know he loves us more than anyone; his interruptions are for our good, even if we can’t see it at the time. Even if his interruption is in the very length of our lives

 

But here’s why we do trust him:   Jesus was so right when he said that when we try to hold onto our lives, we are going to lose them anyway. Until he comes again, we all die.  And though we work very hard at it and no doubt have succeeded in many ways in making the average lifespan longer, we never know in any individual life, just how long it will be – or how much notice we will get of its end.

James, Jesus’ brother, writes, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’”

So, instead of grasping at our lives, Jesus says, if you turn your life over to him, if you give it up, so to speak, for his sake and for his purposes, you will find it.

You will find your real life.

You may still go to the city and do business there – but your life will be grounded in the eternal, and what you do wherever you go will be transformed by the life of the Spirit within.  Who knows what he might have planned for you there?

 

Yes, as we know, physical death will still come, and we will still battle with decay and the intrusion of illness.           But not only will we find life on the other side of death, our lives on this side of it, are enriched and make sense because we know about eternity.   Instead of working hard to make a name for ourselves in this life, acquiring things and building castles so that we will not be forgotten, we know we are living forever, in the presence of God.

So our question becomes, what will we bring him as the fruit of our lives, when we see him?

I’m very impressed with Jimmy Carter’s hope, that in his project to end the devastation of Guinea Worm in Africa, that the last guinea worm will die before he does. That’s a legacy.  But it is also a gift to his Lord, who loves life…and hates death.

 

That doesn’t solve our problem, though, when we are standing at the gravesite, or watching the last breaths of someone we love.  How much we want power and control on that day, or the ability to turn the clock back, or to touch someone and do miracles! There are so many ways we want to undo what we cannot even understand.

This helps me:  Jesus wept, the scriptures tell us, at the grave of Lazarus, even though he knew he had the power to undo death…even though he could do the miracle and turn the clock back!  Even though he knew he was about to do just that.

He wept, along with those who had no hope, who thought even he was constrained by what seemed like the finality of death.  Why?

Maybe out of sorrow for his friends Mary and Martha, and their great grief.

Maybe out of anguish for his friend Lazarus and his suffering.

Maybe – and I think this is it – out of solidarity with all of us who have wept and will weep at graves, until the day that someone is weeping at ours.

God hates death.  Jesus hated death.  And he hated that his friends Mary and Martha, for as much as they knew and trusted him, didn’t know that even death had to yield to him…and that though they loved him, they thought he had failed them.  If he had been there, he could have healed Lazarus.  But he wasn’t there, and now death had Lazarus – and Jesus had let them down.

When we think of [the little child who died], still enduring his treatments, living in the hospital, with his parents living there with him, succumbing so suddenly to a cancer that did not stop growing, we wonder if some things are too hard even for God…or if God has failed us.

Perhaps others are sinners, but a two-year-old?  Lord, we prayed, why didn’t you answer?

 

It is normal for us to feel that way, deep in our hurt.  Perhaps it is even why Jesus wept at that tomb…that even with all Mary and Martha had seen of him, they still thought death held the last card, over even him.

But the truth of the gospel is that death does not get the last word. No, his body failed.  [Our other friend’s] body failed.  They could no longer stay alive, not without miracles.

But what about their selves? This is what Jesus has been telling us. He is life.  He brings life.  God is love. And God loved them.

Remember what we are told in Revelation, in its typical symbolic language.  There is coming another kind of day, in another kind of world. And on that great day, Death itself gets punished!                Death is thrown into the lake of fire!  “O Death where is your sting,” indeed? We are meant to feel about that exactly as we do:  take that, death!     Because God hates death, we are allowed to hate it, too.

Because in the new world of Jesus’ making, there is no more death – or crying, or tears, or pain. Thanks be to our Lord and Savior, who conquered death and was raised to new life – that was just the beginning. This world of death and sorrow is ending; a new world begins, where life reigns, and fear has no more place.

These are the things that animate us as we follow Jesus. We are, as Paul writes in Colossians, already living forever. Though we love this world, and this life, as all we have ever known, let us remember that its amazing, creative Maker, has promised us a home in another place…and Jesus himself says he will come to take us there, at the right time, when this body is no longer useful for us.

Do you think [our friends] saw him themselves this week?

We still cry.  We still shake our heads in bewilderment.  We just can’t believe such people can be gone, so quickly. Jesus cries with us.  Just as he wept at Lazarus’s grave.  He doesn’t leave us alone.

 

So yes, death is a part of life on this earth, but it is not a normal nor natural thing.  It is an intruder, never really welcome except as it ends our suffering in a world in bondage to decay. We are allowed to hate it.   We are allowed to cry.

God does.

But death does not win.

Don’t be afraid.  Jesus has got this.  He asks us…do we believe it?

Driving For The Truth

ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 12:  Eighty-eight-year-old Creola McCalister joins other demonstrators protesting the killing of teenager Michael Brown outside Greater St. Marks Family Church while Browns family along with civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton and a capacity crowd of guests met inside to discuss the killing on August 12, 2014 in St Louis, Missouri. Brown was shot and killed by a police officer on Saturday in the nearby suburb of Ferguson. Ferguson has experienced two days of violent protests since the killing but, tonight the town remained mostly peaceful.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

ST. LOUIS, MO – AUGUST 12: Eighty-eight-year-old Creola McCalister joins other demonstrators protesting the killing of teenager Michael Brown outside Greater St. Marks Family Church while Browns family along with civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton and a capacity crowd of guests met inside to discuss the killing on August 12, 2014 in St Louis, Missouri. Brown was shot and killed by a police officer on Saturday in the nearby suburb of Ferguson. Ferguson has experienced two days of violent protests since the killing but, tonight the town remained mostly peaceful. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

When Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, MO, a struggle ensued that I didn’t know how to enter into.

Because my first reaction is almost always, wait until we get more information.  We hardly ever get all the facts in the first rush of news (and that’s even more true now than it used to be, as 24-hour “news-ertainment” is unmoored from journalistic standards!).

But that position was regarded as betrayal, for those who said they knew that the police in Ferguson were out of control.  How could one stand back and “wait for more information” when ANOTHER unarmed young black man was shot to death by police who seemed to think their lives were unimportant?

And certainly I understood that, too – I know a young man would not deserve to die for stealing cigarellos.  And I saw, too, the predictable and immediate pushback from right-wing media – the release of a videotape showing Brown to be a hulking threat in the store, stories about how he reached for the cop’s gun, stories that undermined the testimony of the young man who was with him.

Those who didn’t get into the streets right away, were on the side of those who implicitly thought cops were always right when they shot black men.

Of course, by now, we know a lot more.  Not just about that story but so many others:  perhaps Michael Brown did reach for the officer’s gun, but we also know after a DOJ investigation that the Ferguson cops had been behaving like an occupation force toward the black residents of Ferguson for a long time.

To those of us who could never have found Ferguson on a map, that begins to make more sense, when the residents filled the streets and began to shout, “hands up!  Don’t shoot!”  It wasn’t just Michael Brown but years of feeling threatened.

So was I “right” to feel that we had to wait for more information?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, it’s true that more time equaled more information, and that information did not exonerate the police.  More time didn’t mean, wait and see that the police are right.

But it’s ALSO true that without people in the streets, without the national press and the TV cameras and everyone talking about what was happening there, perhaps no such investigation would have happened.  And two camps would have settled into opposition, sure of their accounting of events.

Of course, since then we’ve had Eric Garner, and Walter Scott, and now so many more I can’t remember the names.

And this week, the teens at the pool party in McKinney TX.

I’m still inclined to wait for more information, in each of these stories.  There is always more to it.  The TV news and the Internet media are hungry for sensationalism – the story is rarely the one that we first hear.

But now I know, it is betrayal to just “wait.”  Those of us who do want justice to be done need to drive for more information.  We need to demand it, wherever it goes, but from all perspectives.

This week, we have heard differing stories about how that pool party trouble started.  But so far we have learned not just that a white cop sat on a black girl who was quite obviously unarmed and no danger to him, but he also pulled out a gun and chased two black boys, while completely ignoring the white teens standing there!  We’ve also learned that white people at the pool had racist things to say, that the white cop in question had a blemished record, that a white man in the complex had a blemished record, too and he’s the one who called 911.  He’s the one standing over the black girl as the cop sat on her, and he’s the one who put up the signs all over thanking the cops for their good work.

As time goes on, we will learn more…but only if someone keeps asking.

So I don’t feel shamed by those of my colleagues who immediately hit the streets with the Ferguson protestors, even though I was invited and didn’t go.  I do think we always need as much of the whole story as we can get.

But we need to be discontented with only as much of the story as supports our previous point of view.  As children of the One who is the Truth, we need to insist on all of the story, so that we can reach to heal all of the wounds.  We need to demand it.  We need not to wait for it, but to drive for it.

Humility is Supposed to be our Brand

“He [Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”Humility Luke 18:9-14
The Pew Survey (“America’s Changing Religious Landscape” by the Pew Research Center) has pretty definitively put to bed the myth that our culture and nation is and always will be a Christian one.

“Christianity” is not understood
While Christianity is still the majority religion in our country, those who define themselves as members of no religion are the fastest growing group. If we ever thought the “Christianness” of our culture would keep the generations informed about the gospel of Jesus Christ, we’d better stop thinking it now!
The gospel has impacted our culture in some ways that few people realize come from Jesus, and these differences are welcome. For example, that all people are equal is a gospel idea – we are equal before the cross! There are no elites in the body of Christ – the Holy Spirit fell on Pentecost on sons and daughters, men and women, old men and young men. And the Apostle Paul reminds us that in the church there is neither “Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.” So when we lift up our American ideal that all men (and women) are created equal, that’s really a Jesus truth!
But there are other ways we sometimes think in church that don’t look so holy in the eyes of our neighbors, and it’s time American Christians took a good look, because we no longer are respected just for being churchgoers (in fact, in some people’s minds, that makes us suspect!).
I used to think, as a younger Christian, that the indwelling Holy Spirit and my relationship with God through Jesus meant that I was/we were obviously and automatically all going to be more moral and ethical than our unbelieving neighbors. I liked to go to Christian mechanics and hair-stylists and hire Christian plumbers because I just knew they would do a better job and would never cheat me.
But that’s not what the gospel of Jesus says. Of course we are “on The Way together” to being more like Jesus and less like the flesh, and like 1 Corinthians 13 urges us, believers are called see one another as we are going to be in the renewed kingdom and in that sense in love we “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things” – but the Bible also warns us that we are still prone to fall into temptation, that we can be deceived and that we all still struggle with our sin natures (or “our flesh”).

We are both who we are becoming, and who we’ve been
A wise follower of Jesus knows all of that is true – we are both who we are becoming, and who we’ve been. We are capable of being like Jesus, and just as capable of falling flat on our faces into sin.
And so, Jesus reminds us to humble ourselves and give thanks for grace.
It’s why he cautions us to see to the plank in our own eye before we get all exercised about the splinter in the eye of a brother or sister in the faith, judging not lest we be judged, too (while still helping one another get the wood out!).
My seminary professor taught me an old saying, that as followers of Jesus the good news we want to show others is not, “look how good and perfect I am,” but more like that of one hobo telling another hobo where to find bread …one sinner telling another sinner where to find forgiveness and grace, and mercy in time of need. We are sinners helping one another learn to walk in the way of Jesus. And helping one another up when we fall down.
This is what the brokenness of the world needs to see in believers, NOT the message that because we belong to Jesus we’ve got it all together and are in a good position to tell others they’re doing it all wrong and are judged by God (even if it looks like they are doing it all wrong).
Not only is this strategic in an evangelistic sense, it is also what is true, and by living in this humility we will avoid the disastrous fallout that has come in recent days, weeks and months. We are seeing prominent and proud Christians, who have loudly instructed the nation about morality, now weeping over their own fallenness as the world around them laughs and bitterly declares that “morality” is a joke.
The culture around us which does not understand or believe in the good news of Jesus, and more than that wishes to reject it as even being good news, is having a lot of fun mocking these stories, of Christian spokespersons who get caught molesting children (their own sisters!) or carrying on adulterous affairs or even pompously applying “church discipline” that demonstrates no empathy toward the one who has been sinned against, all in order to perpetuate an institution.
Sometimes, what the world around reacts to in these stories is the Christian devotion to the concept of grace, something they do not understand. Thus we will not capitulate to public calls to discard someone who has done wrong, even something heinous, even if they deserve it. We do so out of a hope of redemption. They consider this coddling someone but they don’t understand the gospel.

Not because of too much grace, but because of too much judgment that went before
But in lots of prominent cases, the Christian organizations or churches aren’t being castigated because of too much grace, but rather too much judgment that went before the present event.
They are caught in public pronouncements about others’ sin as though they did not ever do such things (“I thank you, God, that I am not like this tax collector….”) – and then there they are, with the evidence that they do, for everyone to see. It is then that their desire to apply grace looks like whitewashing, and it seems to betray Christian faith.
If we promote ourselves as “successful” in holiness and purity, too good to fall into the potholes that are around us all the time, then when someone in our midst falls in a hole, we are called hypocrites.
But, if we present ourselves as sinners saved by grace who are learning day by day to trust Jesus more, to obey him more, but whose power to do this contends with our own still-sinful selves, then our successes are to be moments for worship, and our pratfalls are moments for prayer and forgiveness, as well as living with the consequences.
Humble yourselves, Jesus says, that you may be exalted. For the proud are going to be humbled anyway – that’s just the way it goes.
The Christian world needs to resist the temptation to use anything about ourselves (and certainly the grace in which we stand) as a reason to hold ourselves up over others. “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor 4:7)

Humility is not Humiliation
Jesus showed us his life as an example of humility (how amazing!) and then led us to follow him in it. Humility is not humiliation. Humility is a personal decision not to seek status for oneself but rather to arrange oneself lower among others, even to lift up others.
In the case of Jesus, it was because he knew who he was and what he had come to do, and he used his power to undergird people who were being made new, and to shoulder himself the task of making all things new.
In our case, we are to pursue humility because we know who we are, in Christ, and no one can take that away. In that identity, we imitate Christ by refusing to exalt ourselves but instead by putting ourselves out for others in love and grace, knowing that Christ will thereby one day exalt us all.
Let us not be caught with our pride up in the air, and our humility down around our feet. We never know when what we are doing or saying will be made public, and yes, perhaps be misunderstood …and we might be talked about unfairly. If it is for being like Jesus, then great is our reward before God.
But if it is because we lost the plot, and thought belonging to Jesus made us better than our neighbors, and instead of who we pretended to be, we are found being sinners in need of grace like everyone else, then we will have contributed to the hardening of the hearts of others who say, “See? There is no truth in what they say.”
And let us pray for one another, and especially for those Jesus-followers who have fallen into this trap, so present in the news this week. Lord, have mercy on us, sinners. Thank you for Jesus who is making us new!

How can Jesus tell us to be at peace??

26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14)
nepal earthquake

As I write this, hope has gone dark that they will find any more survivors in Nepal after the 7.9 earthquake, but survivors there continue to sleep outside even if their homes are ok, because they fear the next aftershock will bring the building down.

As I write this, Baltimore wavers between rioting that included burning stores down and looting and street parties that police have been arrested in the death of Freddie Grey – but no one feels like this conversation is over.

As I write this, many Christians on Facebook are tempted to rule one another out of the body of Christ because of high emotion over the Supreme Court and gay marriage.

How is it that Jesus can tell us not to be troubled or afraid?

This is when I notice before that Jesus’ instruction to us about peace and not being afraid comes right after his description of what his Holy Spirit would do among us?

The Holy Spirit, he says, will teach us all things and will remind us of everything Jesus has said to us. And with that comes his peace, unlike the world’s peace. From that, we are to take action: do not LET your hearts be troubled and do not BE afraid.

Jesus had radically different ideas about what was wrong with things than we do. From Jesus’ perspective, we are all pretty confused about what is good and what is evil, what is safe and what is dangerous. We really aren’t good judges of what the real problem before us is.

Humans like to find one person, or a group of people, we can blame for things. In fact, the word “scapegoat” actually comes from the Bible! We are quick to blame things on someone or some group, and we want to push them outside the gates so we can live in peace. We forget that God is Love and that his goal in sending Christ to all of us, was that all humanity could return to him. It was worth it to him! He is breaking down the walls and the barriers. And while Jesus told us to be shrewd as serpents as well as innocent as doves, Jesus said that having contempt for others is on the spectrum with murdering them, and that to love our enemies and pray for them is akin to being like God. We may know exactly what someone is up to, and still love them as God does! Our agenda is his.

Baptized “into” Christ, we are safe in him – we have already conquered death in him, we already have “seats in the heavenlies” with him and there is nothing in all this world that can separate us from the safety of our future in him.

The Holy Spirit in us, then, reminds us that we can take some risks. We do not have to be defensive when people who are different from us display anger and hurt – we can safely listen to what they have to say. We don’t have to find a reason why the sufferings of someone else are their own fault and thus not our problem; everything we have has been put into our hands by our Father and we can share it freely, as he did. He does not run out and he doesn’t desire that we should be stingy. We can risk compassion and grace as God did.

God’s patience, love, mercy and grace in us, is God alive in the world! Christ’s Spirit in us empowers us, reminds us of what Jesus said and gives us courage to be peaceful in times which are not. We aren’t overcome – we know not only that this world isn’t all there is, but that these conflicts aren’t forever.

We also know, even if those around us don’t, that “might” doesn’t make “right.” Power, by itself, may get someone else to do what you want, but it doesn’t bring real compliance, submission or peace. All this world’s power is derivative. Cops who might beat up an innocent person derive the power to do so from the God who made them, as do the criminals who prey on the innocent. As do rioters who burn businesses down. But all of that is illegitimate use of power; it is sinful. God has noted it. Justice requires that it be recorded, and paid for.

How is it paid for? Even those instances of sin were paid for already by Christ on the cross, he who did not resist but shouldered the injustice done to him, and then demonstrated his conquest of it (and all those who wanted it for him) by rising from the dead, forever alive now.

For us to trust in brute power others is a shortcut like Satan offered to Jesus in the wilderness. It’s not only unnecessary it is foolish – we would sell our souls to get what we already have! In Christ we have the better thing: the powerful love of God that is capable and willing to see others as they might be in God’s realm, to forgive the weaknesses of today because Jesus has taken sin to the cross…and because we see a much better thing coming under the sovereignty of God.

This love and trust alive in us, Jesus said, is like a little yeast in a whole drum of dough. It fundamentally changes wherever it goes, without drawing a lot of notice to itself. And this is why we aren’t to spend our time being defensive or afraid, or judgmental and angry – by the way we interact with every bit of God’s creation, we can give the Holy Spirit rein within us to make a difference. Often we won’t even know the difference we made. It’s why Jesus just told us to follow him.

Let’s not be so surprised or troubled about the follies and disgraces of our day – there is nothing new under the sun. Let’s not feed our minds full of messages of fear and defeat (I’m talking about you, CNN), but instead hear the word of God. The Spirit within us is greater than the spirit that is in the world, the Bible says. Don’t be troubled; don’t be afraid. Peace be with us – and let us spread it around, in Christ.

Always Influencing Somebody (Whether We Know It or Not)

It’s one of the moments of my life that I am most ashamed of.

I was in seminary, full-time, working part-time, with four children at home. One of my children had recently had a birthday party and received a duplicate gift; I had taken a couple of the kids with me to the computer-game store to exchange it. That’s all I wanted to do – to exchange the game for one of the same value that the boy didn’t already have.

But the store clerk perkily informed me that the store allowed no returns or exchanges. Not even though the game had the store’s name on it and was still in its mint-condition shrink-wrap, quite obviously unopened. The manager was no help, either.

I was very angry. I thought it was a silly policy. I let them know I was annoyed. My children were backing away from me.

And then, as we began to leave the store with our useless duplicate game, the security agent at the door demanded to see my receipt for it.

I’d had no idea what was boiling around inside me, but in that moment it all came shrieking out. And I do mean shrieking. My children were staring in disbelief. Everyone in the store stopped what they were doing. All of my opinions about the exchange that wouldn’t happen, the store that seemed to imply the game wasn’t from their store but now implied I was stealing it from their store…all of that was reverberating around the I-Beams that held up the ceiling.

We were ushered outside. I sat in the car, where my preteen children informed me that I’d embarrassed them. But I’d deeply embarrassed myself, too.

Now, I can say that I was overworked, overtired and trying too hard – all that was true.

But I also knew in that moment, that even though I was in seminary, even though I’m a follower of Jesus and have been a long time, I’d been operating out of a framework about who I was, that didn’t come from the Lord.

I thought I was important, because I was very busy. I thought everyone else, who was less busy – and less important or productive – owed it to me to make things easy for me. I thought I had a right to be demanding, a right to be curt, a right to be irritable, even to my kids. I had an image of myself that came from TV, or maybe from advertising. And I’d just left a “testimony” still reverberating in that store, about who I was and what I really believed about my place in the world.

Ouch.

Today as I’m thinking about how to be a church that “makes disciples who make disciples,” it occurs to me that we are always influencing somebody, whether we know it or not, and we are always being influenced. And unless we are intentional about what’s feeding us, the messages of a world that wants to use us will feed us lies – and if we believe them (even without deciding to), we will contribute a little bit more to the brokenness and woundedness of this world.

So, “making disciples” is less a kind of religious tutoring relationship, than having and being spiritual friends who help one another “feed” better. It’s why Jesus put us in groups and talked to us in groups, in the Bible. It’s what church is for – to make a community which is supplied by the Holy Spirit with gifts to build everyone up. When we have friends like that, one may be down while others are able to lift him or her up. That one learns something from the Lord while down there, and contributes it to the wisdom of the group. Together we pray, we read scripture, we analyze and interpret in our lives and help one another along as we pray together and for one another. We hold out hope to each other. And as one grows up, that one turns around and raises up another – making disciples, who make disciples.

Those kinds of spiritual friendships don’t just happen, however. The gravitational pull of being a church in this world is to become a kind of “spiritual goods and services” consumer center. If all we do is go to church to sit back and enjoy the show, even the friends we have at church are unlikely to enter into the kind of real relationship that makes disciples. It’s hard, in the planning of church events, not to cave to a very human desire to compete in what the world does well. But if we are making disciples, more is at stake than attendance numbers. We need to be the kind of place where people are comfortable admitting their vulnerability and failure, their ups and their downs, so that others can be honest, too.

It’s even harder if we’ve been influenced to believe we are important because we are too busy for spiritual friendships, that winners never talk about failure and that we’re too valuable to our work to spend our time that way. But if we are there, we need it all the more!

One of my seminary professors passed along to us what I’m sure is an old adage – that ‘evangelism’ is just one hobo telling another hobo where to find bread. So is discipleship. It’s walking with Christ, allowing him to show us (or let us be confronted with!) the lies about ourselves and our lies that we’ve believed, and replacing them with truth that comes from him – and then sharing that with others as we walk together, being healed as we go along, discovering that we are more than productive, more than important, more than busy – we are really eternal, made by love for love, meant for relationship with God-in-Christ and with others, from which comes real Real-or-Fakelife.

“23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 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.” (Heb 10:23-25)