Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Happy New Year

I work in retail, managing a convenience store on steroids (20 gas pumps, 4 diesel pumps, 13 cooler doors, 4 registers, a brick oven pizza and deli).  It's a big operation, with two parrallel departments - a car wash and a detail shop.  Between all the departments there are over 100 employees - some know me well, but many only know me casually.  Brief interactions and occasional observations form the basis of an initial impression.

About a year and a half ago, I was at work, intensely focused on the pressing task at hand.  I don't recall precisely what it was.  Maybe balancing deposits, or entering invoices, or writing the schedule.  Whatever it was, my attention was wholly focused on the computer.  A few feet away, a detail shop employee was purchasing some junk food to carry him through his shift.  He looked over at me and said, "Phil, do you ever smile?"

It was an off-the-cuff comment, a casual observation, a simple question billowing out of one employee's first impression. This is how he saw me - focused, serious, intense, and dour.  It's not how I want to be perceived.  His question was an unintended rebuke, helping me see how my intense focus on managing the store well had eclipsed my joyful heart.  I didn't smile much at work.

More recently, we've been in the midst of a remodel.  We're adding a Tim Hortons to our existing food service.  To make some room, we decided to remove our flavor shots, an add on to the fountain machine that allowed you to squirt flavoring into your soda - vanilla, cherry, strawberry, raspberry, lemon, or lime.  It was a bit of a space hog.

I went to tackle disconnecting it.  I wasn't quite sure how to go about it, so I wiggled a bracket, which unexpectedly popped off.  A geyser of cherry syrup began spurting out, initially blasting me in the face.  Partially blinded by cherry syrup, I got the bright idea to stop the geyser by putting my hand over the spout.  This had the unfortunate effect of increasing the pressure of the geyser, like putting your thumb over a garden hose.  No longer shooting straight in the air, it was now spraying in a wide arc with increased forcefulness.  Deep red syrup was splattering the walls, the new Tim Hortons equipment, the blue prints, the ceiling (15-20 feet high), and, of course, me.

At this point, Karen, the deli supervisor, walked in and started laughing.  I joined in the merriment, laughing at the absurdity of the situation and my own clownish appearance.  As things settled down and the reality of the clean up set-in, Karen said, "It's a good thing you can laugh about it."

I suppose that's what I want - to be the kind of person who laughs at himself and his own embarrassing moments.  To smile freely and frequently.  To bring levity to the seriousness of work.  To exude joy, even under pressure.  To allow happiness to radiate through me. 

It's not just appealing, it's Biblical.  Joy and related concepts are spoken of well over 500 times in Scripture. It is approached from almost every conceivable angle.  It is commanded, expressed, longed for, described, anticipated, enacted, and promised.  And while much can be learned from a consideration of the individual occurrences, I will simply note that a concept mentioned this many times in this many ways indicates how weighty it is.  It is the meat of the dish, not a garnish.  Joy is not ancillary.

Two episodes can't tell the whole story.  But I do think they're indicative. I think joy shines through me more brightly than it used to.   I think my demeanor at work is more light than heavy.   I think my cheerfulness sets a tone for my employees and they respond in kind. And I'm fully anticipating that this will be a happy new year.  I hope it is for you too.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

God In Flesh

I don't write poetry.  This may be as close as I've come, possibly even crossing the line. Typically, the incarnation is approached from a historical or theological angle. This is my attempt to come at it from a practical point of view. 

The incarnation.
The all powerful God embracing impotence
A hurricane in a thimble.
The all present God confined to a space
Bethlehem, in a feeding trough.
In this manner
In this place
God arrives, in flesh.
Deity stripped of finery. 
The Desired of all Nations in his birthday suit.
The naked truth.
God undressed. 

It’s a bit awkward, don’t you think. 
All this skin.  
Too much exposure for a holy moment.
No pipe organs or stained glass. 
Rather dust and dung, flies and flesh.
We’ll avert our eyes,
swaddle him quickly,
lay him (modestly) in a manger.
Have we forgetten
That before the babe was wrapped in clothes
He was dripping with amniotic fluid,
Naked as a jay bird.

What if there is an implication in this.
A living parable,
A whisper of truth.
This is a frightening prospect.
If God came naked, so must I.
Stripping myself of self-sufficiency, hypocrisy, pride
 Laying aside the whitewash, the mask, the pretense.
Exposing my true self –
Which from some angles,
under bright light,
is mortifying
And, ironically, life giving

So I swallow hard, and begin unbuttoning.

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Christmas Lights

Despite landing just a few days past the Winter Solstice, the day with the shortest amount of daylight, Christmas is a season saturated by light.   When the world is at its darkest, we push back by illuminating anything and everything.  Lights are wrapped around trees, strung from gutters, and entangled in wreathes.  They illumine our oversized inflatable snow globes, Santa Clauses, Coca-cola polar bears, and Frosty the Snowman lawn ornaments.  Not to be outdone, Santa himself follows a reindeer with a shiny red nose that glows like a lightbulb.

Light even invades the first Christmas, long before LED bulbs and icicle strands.  Matthew focuses on a star that guides the magi.  Luke depicts the glory of the Lord shining around the shepherds and Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, poetically anticipates the birth of Jesus as the rising sun coming from heaven "to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace" (Luke 1:79).  A baby is born and the darkness is pierced, shadows are dispelled, a path is revealed.  The Christmas lights are lit.

In our day, Christmas lights are primarily decorative.  Drab winter is turned into magical Christmas with the help of oodles of lights.  String lights on a barren tree and it doesn't look so barren.  The browns and grays of winter are overcome by an array of illuminated colors.

But for all the luminescent beauty of light, this image of Zechariah's is not trimming. Light is only secondarily decorative.  Zechariah depends on a more fundamental function.  Light illuminates, reveals, exposes.  When we are engulfed in darkness we don't need decoration, we need illumination.  We need light just to keep from stumbling.  This is Christmas.  The manager scene is as much a sun rise as a baby's birth.  In Christmas, the light is just cracking the horizon.  Light is penetrating a dark world.

And this darkness cannot be restricted to that which is other and outer.  It is more personal.  It's not just a darkened world, it's a darkened heart.  I know what lies hidden in the shadows of my soul.   I am petty, arrogant, selfish, bitter, deceptive, angry.  There is a parade of ugliness beneath the surface.  Zechariah makes plain what is intended by the metaphor of light invading darkness when he says that the Lord will, "give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins." (Luke 1:77).

Advent is a reminder that what I need most desperately is not a life more attractively decorated, despite what the Sunday glossies would have us believe.  I need my darkened souls illuminated.  This is the sun that is rising.  The darkness of sin is being overcome by the light of the infant Messiah.  I It won't shine in full glory until Easter.  But those first rays of light breaking through the darkness are glorious indeed.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Don't Shoot the Editor

Recently, I received a complimentary copy of a magazine with a piece I wrote.  It is a bi-monthly publication that has a daily Bible reading with a short reflection on that passage.  As a neophyte writer, it's still a novelty to see something I wrote in print, so I quickly browsed through the magazine looking for my contribution.  When I found it, I was disappointed.  The piece ends with a brief prayer, which they included as I had written, but then added the Lord's Prayer to fill the space remaining on the page.  I didn't like it.  It didn't fit the theme I was developing.  It felt cobbled, sloppily tacked to the end of what I had written.  It wasn't my voice.  I value the Lord's Prayer, but I don't use it rote in my own prayer life.  I would never have written that myself. It put me in a bit of a funk.

A few days later I received a copy of an edited article I wrote for a magazine coming out in February 2012. The editor asked me to look through her edits and reply with any feedback. As I read through the article, I found that none of the edits were substantive.  Small changes in word order, replacing vague pronouns with clear nouns, and rewording a couple sentences was the entirety of the editing.  Ninety-nine percent of the article was left untouched.  I felt validated as a writer, pleased that little was altered.  In this case, my voice would come through clearly, unaltered by a stodgy editor in a remote windowless cubicle.

Soon after, I read Psalm 131
    My heart is not proud, O Lord
       my eyes are not haughty;
    I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.
    But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
      like a weaned child with its mother,
      like a weaned child is my soul within me.

The weaned child as a picture of a still and quiet soul.  It's compelling.  Only my soul is decidedly not like a weaned child, stilled and quieted.  My soul is restless.  More like a suckling child, rooting for its mother's breast, frantic for nourishment, unsettled and impatient.  That's why I react so viscerally to any tampering with my writing.  It is an expression of the proud heart and haughty eyes that are resisted by the Psalmist.  Mine is an arrogant pen.

I write to teach.  If you've read many of my posts, you probably recognize that.  Writing for me begins with having something worth saying, a nugget of truth that is worth communicating.  Hopefully it is something insightful and rich.  Trite is trite, no matter how it is packaged.  Let me not be guilty of serving up junk food on a platter.  What I write must have substance.

But I also don't want to be guilty of serving up bland or half-baked entrees.  Once the nugget of truth is settled on, the challenge in writing is figuring out how to communicate that well.  It's this challenge that causes me to labor over words, write and re-write, and even allow for editors to modify what I have written.  It can be an agonizing process with more time spent staring at a computer screen, reading and re-reading, than spent actually writing.  Energy spent makes me feel invested in what I have written.

This effort is always in service to that nugget of truth I am trying to communicate.  It's a truth that is not mine.  I merely convey what is laid out in the Word of God.  I am the messenger. If that is true, then I need not be so possessive of the things I write, nor fret over whether my voice shines through.  Self-promotion can eclipse that fundamental purpose of communicating that nugget of truth. But ultimately, God can be trusted with that.  It's his truth, after all.

It's mine to rest my soul.  Still.  Quiet.  Weaned.  Lord make it so.
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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

God Loves Bernie Fine

Bernie Fine, assistant basketball coach at Syracuse University, was fired on Sunday, November 27 due to mounting allegations of child molestation.  Three victims have now come forward and a slow stream of evidence has trickled out.  Most damaging, it appears, is a taped phone conversation between one of the victims and Fine's wife, who seems to acknowledge the abuse.  The news has put Syracuse basketball in the limelight, though not for the reason they would like.  Despite this team's realistic expectation of making a deep run in the NCAA, the focus is now squarely on the Fine scandal.  It has made national news, landing on the front page of USA Today this week.

I recognize that these are still allegations and guilt has not yet been proven.  It is possible that Bernie Fine has been wrongly accused.  That seems increasingly unlikely, but it is possible.  I write this post not to prove his guilt, but to offer a perspective if, in fact, he is guilty.  My thoughts are just as true if he is innocent, though that would throw Fine in a more sympathetic light.

Sympathy, for the most part, has been reserved for the victims, and rightly so.  They have been tragically violated and must deal with the horrid consequences of someone else's sin.  These wounds run deep and will not heal quickly or easily.  The allegations stem from incidents decades ago and these victims are still tending these wounds.  I wish them healing and peace.  I suspect we can all agree on that.

But what of the victimizer?  Bernie Fine's life has rapidly unraveled.  In the span of ten days he has lost his job, his reputation, and most, if not all, of his friends.  Admittedly, it appears he brought this upon himself, sabotaging his life with choices made and shameful behavior hidden.  He will face the consequences of these choices - socially if not legally.  But my concern, as a disciple of Christ,  is what the gospel has to say to Bernie Fine.  For if the gospel has nothing to offer victimizers, it is a flaccid hope, a shallow coping mechanism, a spiritualistic therapy for emotional hangups and little more.  I would hope the gospel is stronger than that.

Few of us could make the case that we are exclusively in the category of victim and never victimizer.  Our offenses may not appear as heinous, but we are guilty.  If the gospel has nothing to say to us in our guilt, we are in a precarious state, indeed.  So with that in mind, I suggest three things that I believe are true of victimizers in general and Bernie Fine in particular.

1.  God loves Bernie Fine
Bernie Fine bears the image of his creator.  That image may be severely marred, but it is not destroyed. God is able to see beyond the marring to a precious soul.  He sees Mr. Fine as someone of value and worth. He has tracked this corruption all along and grieves the derailment of Fine's life that is just now being exposed. In fact, exposure may be an expression of his love as he drags into the light what Bernie has sought to keep in darkness.  It is a severe mercy, to be sure, but it is mercy all the same.  God's love for Bernie is seen most profoundly in Jesus' crucifixion.  As it says in Romans 5:8, "God demonstrates his own love for us in this, while we were still sinners (insert "child molesters") Christ died for us."

2. Forgiveness is available for Bernie Fine
Christ's expression of love on the cross leads to my second point, that God offers to forgive Bernie Fine for molesting children.  No matter how heinous the crime, how long the abuse lasted, how many victims there may be, forgiveness is available. This is a hard pill to swallow for those who think only of judgment, but this is the scandal of the cross.  The cross is not merely an expression of God's love, it is the exacting of God's judgment.  Guilt must be atoned for.  In the cross, Christ offers to pay that price in our (and Bernie Fine's) stead. Paul, whose pre-conversion life included murder, says, "I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life" (1 Timothy 1:16).  In other words, if Paul could be forgiven, so can Bernie Fine.

This is not to say that Bernie can escape the consequences of his behavior.  Temporal justice must still be served, crimes must be prosecuted, and social consequences must be accepted.  He will never again coach Syracuse basketball, his reputation is forever damaged, and he may face criminal or civil charges.  This is all appropriate.  Forgiveness does not undo the harm that is done - for victim or victimizer.  This is divine forgiveness for the guilt that would bring eternal condemnation in hell.  But this forgiveness is not universally applied.  It is contingent upon repentance.  It is available.  It may not be accepted.

3.  Redemption is possible for Bernie Fine
If forgiveness erases the guilt of sin, redemption overcomes the tragedy of sin.  It is the promise that God can rebuild Bernie Fine's life. This need not be the end of the story.  God delights in taking broken and corrupt people who have hit rock bottom and transforming them anew.  "If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come." (2 Corinthians 5:17).  He is the God of second chances (and third, and fourth). God can take this tragic situation and use it to remake Bernie into a new man, one whom God can use to minister healing rather than hurt.  I have no idea what that would look like in Mr. Fine's case, but I know it is possible.  This too is contingent on a commitment to the hard work of transformation, but hope is not lost.

And if God would say these things to Bernie Fine, who I am to say less.  God loves him, is willing to forgive him, and longs to redeem him.  And that is good news for all victimizers - myself included.

For a post on a similar theme on a more general level, see  "Church is for the Empty"

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Gratitude: Prejudice

This concludes my reflection s on Luke 17:11-19, begun in Gratitude: Pause and continued in Gratitude: Point

Years ago, while I was in seminary, I worked at a residential facility for mentally handicapped adults as a Living Skills Instructor, a fancy title for a house parent.  I worked in the cottage, which housed thirty of the most independent male residents, functioning at about a fifth grade level.   These were special men and I grew to love them deeply.  They taught me much, mostly inadvertently.  

One of those lessons was about gratitude.  These were thankful men, some of the most thankful I have ever met.  Their gratitude was sincere.  It was as if their threshold of expectations was set very low.  They took little for granted.  Almost any good thing was treated as something unexpected , something to relish, something to be grateful for.  An extra scoop of brown sugar for their oatmeal, a new puzzle in the game box, some microwave popcorn to munch on while watching Wheel of Fortune, an offer to iron a shirt for them, helping write a letter to their family, all were occasions of extreme gratitude.  These were enough to clear the bar of their gratitude threshold.  Each was not taken for granted, not treated as an inalienable right, not assumed to be a given.  

Their gratitude set my ingratitude into sharp contrast.  It was through them that I realized that my threshold for gratitude was set higher. I took things for granted that they never would.  You'd think that these men had far less to be grateful for than I did.  They were confined to a residential facility, sharing a room with another resident, eating institutionalized food, with no hope of ever living independently, having a career, getting married, raising a family.  They were cognizant enough to realize what their mental condition ruled out for them.  At times they grieved this loss.  But that made their gratitude all the more convicting.  It came from an unexpected source.

In this story of the ten lepers who are healed and the one who returns to express gratitude, Luke holds back a detail until the last breath.  Only after he has told of this man's distinction as being the only one to return to say thank you, he reveals his nationality dramatically and with emphasis.  "He threw himself at Jesus feet and thanked him - and he was a Samaritan" (Luke 17:16).  At this, the reader is to gasp with surprise. 

For a Jewish audience, Samaritans were the  most unlikely role models.  They were  a hated people, viewed as half breeds.  After Assyria conquered the Northern kingdom of Israel, they took many of the inhabitants and relocated them, leaving only a remnant behind.  To fill the space, they colonized the area with Mesopotamians imported into the land.  These Mesopotamians intermarried with the remnant Jewish population and their offspring became known as Samaritans.  To pure Jews, they were seen as compromisers, traitors, nationalistic mutts.  Prejudice ran deep.  To see a Samaritan in a positive light was unthinkable for a Jew.

And yet here it was, a Samaritan putting this Jewish audience in their place.  Jesus responds by saying, "Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner? (Luke 17:17-18).

The Samaritans gratitude puts the Jews ingratitude in sharp contrast.  Shame on them.  And shame on me. When those I would least expect to be thankful outdo me with their thankfulness it serves as a implicit rebuke of how much I take for granted.  This Thanksgiving I'm reminded of my friends from the cottage and I set the bar just a little bit lower.  

Happy Thanksgiving

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Gratitude: Point

In my last post Gratitude: Pause I suggested that gratitude is our willingness to pause from the enjoyment of the gift to express gratitude to the giver.  This post continues my reflections on Luke 17:11-19.

I feel this post deserves a warning.  It's a bit deeper than any of my other posts.  I'll delve into Greek a bit (though I'll spare you the boring details). There is a path of logic I'll lead you along that I think is worth the journey, but it will take some mental engagement.  The point I'm making is clear (I hope) but not necessarily obvious from the outset.  So now that I've scared away most potential readers, on with the post.

When Jesus heals ten lepers in Luke 17, only one returns to say thank you.  In response, Jesus says to the grateful man who kneels before him, "Your faith has made you well." (NIV).  I'm dissatisfied with that translation.

The New Testament is written in Greek.  Our English versions are all translations, which is wrought with difficulty.  There is never a one-to-one correspondence between two languages.  Words in one language usually have a different range of meaning in another language.  In translating, it can be tricky figuring out the author's intent and how best to convey that in another language.  One tool that can help determine the author's intent in using a word or phrase in one context is by comparing to with another context where the author uses the same word or phrase.  Such is the case with Luke 17.

Luke has recorded this exact phrase ("Your faith has made you well") on the lips of Jesus earlier in the book.  In Luke 7, Jesus is anointed with perfume by a woman of sordid reputation.  The religious folk object, looking down their noses at this sinful woman and her extravagant display.  Jesus counters that those forgiven much love much - the self righteous have a polite affection for Jesus; this woman has a desperate love.  Jesus turns his attention to this societal cast off and says to her "Your sins are forgiven" and follows it up with this loaded phrase - "You faith has saved you" (Luke 7:48).  This phrase is, word for word, what Jesus says to another societal castoff ten chapters later, a leper.

This linguistic parallel is regrettably not evident in the English translations.  While the incident in Luke 7 is clearly a case of a sinful woman in need of "saving," this story in Luke 17 is in the context of physical healing, and so the translators assume that Luke has this in mind.  In that sense, "you're faith has made you well" fits perfectly.

But keep in mind that this is what Jesus says exclusively to the thankful one, not the afflicted ten.    All ten, after all, are healed.  Doesn't it follow that what Jesus offers the one grateful leper should go a step beyond that healing? In this sense, "you're faith has saved you" is a much better translation.  All ten share in the being made well.  But this one is offered something special - something offered ten chapters earlier to a broken woman.  Salvation - not merely from leprosy, but from sin.  It's through the healing that this man discovers the true nature of his malady.  Physical leprosy was destroying his body, spiritual leprosy was destroying his soul.  He had just encountered the great physician for whom healing his skin disease was akin to basic first aid.  This was a surgeon whose scalpel could heal the soul.  All ten are cleansed (Luke 17:14); but only one is saved (Luke 17:19).

So if you've followed me this far, we're ready for the payoff.  This is the second lesson that this text teaches me about gratitude; a lesson as subtle as the first was blatant.  The first was that gratitude is the willingness to pause from the enjoyment of the gift to express gratitude to the giver.  The second is this - God's gifts are pointing us to something greater.   He wants to use things that are temporal as giant pointers toward things eternal.  The gift of healing was intended to point them to a greater healing.

God has been gracious to me.  In this moment I have much to enjoy.  A warm fire glowing in our fireplace, a beautiful view out our sliding door of the tail end of autumn, a hot cup of English Breakfast tea I just brewed, a computer that allows me to edit all my first draft slop, a brownie I'm nibbling on left over from dinner with good friends last night.  It's all good.  But it's not complete.  In a few moments I'll have to leave for work. I'll leave behind the markers of serenity for a frantic shift at the store.  I want more.

My appetite for these moments of joy is stronger than what these moments can deliver.  I delight in them all, but I was made for more.  They last for a moment, or even a span, but they're not eternal. They are pointing beyond themselves to something greater, reminders that this is an appetite only eternity can satisfy.

In C.S. Lewis' autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he describes his pursuit of stabs of joy, moments of overwhelming pleasure and satisfaction.  They were good, but short lived.  He ends his book this way.  "But what, in conclusion of joy?  For that, after all, is what they story has been mainly about.  Those stabs of joy were only valuable as a pointer to something other and outer.  While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed larger in my thoughts.  When we are lost in the woods, the sight of a sign post is a great matter.  But when we have found the road and are passing sign posts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare.  They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up.  But we shall not stop and stare, not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their letterings of gold.  We would be at Jerusalem."

This Thanksgiving I'd encourage you to enjoy the good gifts God has given.  But don't let that be the end of gratitude.  All the good things God has given are pointing you to eternity.

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Gratitude: Pause

The story is recorded in Luke 17:11-19.  It goes something like this.  Jesus is traveling along the border between Galilee and Samaria.  Along the way he encounters ten lepers on the outskirts of a town, there because Jewish law demands that those with infectious skin diseases must live outside the camp (Leviticus 13:46).  These are the societal cast-off.  The men who stand at the end of exit ramps with their cardboard signs.  The people I tend to look right through.  But Jesus sees them.  He sees beyond their leprosy.  He sees individuals with value.

These men cry out for mercy and he responds, telling them to go show themselves to the priests.  This is the first step in an eight day process of cleansing laid out in Leviticus 14 that involves birds, scarlet yarn, hyssop, cedar wood, bathing, shaving, laundering, two male goats, flour with oil, and a partridge in a pear tree.  You can read the riveting account for yourself.   These men certainly have.  What to me is a boring litany of rules regarding how someone with an infectious skin disease is declared clean is pointedly relevant to these men.  Leprosy has controlled their lives.  They are intimately familiar with what God's Word has to say about their condition.

This cleansing process hangs like a checklist in their minds, one they have always dreamed of utilizing.  Now, Jesus has instructed them to take the first step.   But it all hinges on the priest determining that they have been cleansed from their disease.  And when they set out,  they are still covered in leprosy.  As they are on they way, the healing occurs.  And with this healing, their journey to the priest is infused with urgency.  Their minds are full of the checklist from Leviticus 14.  This is the key to their entry back into society.  They are dreaming of white picket fences, flannel sheets, coffee at Panera.  Leprosy has hijacked their lives long enough.  For the first time in ages, there is hope for their future. They are focused on completing the list.

All but one.  One, when he sees he is healed, returns to Jesus to say thank you.  This isn't on the list.  This is not part of the cleansing process.  The birds, the hyssop, the scarlet yarn - these will wait.  He will pause from the list to express gratitude.  And this is thanksgiving, our willingness to pause from the enjoyment of the gift to express gratitude to the giver.  It's this pause that I struggle with.

I suspect I am more like the nine than the one.  I like lists.  I work best when I have an agenda.  I enjoy scratching things off as they are completed.  I  do not like to be interrupted.  I have tunnel vision.

Plop me into that group of ten, healed on my way to the priest, and I'm more prone to continue on with the nine than to return with the one.   First let me get my feet under me. I'll finish the cleansing, move into a split level, lease a Corolla, start my new job.  Then I'll be in a position to properly express my gratitude.  I'll have Jesus over for dinner.  We can have the spiral cut ham with the cheesy potatoes.  But by then, there are new lists I'm focused on.

It's an implicit ingratitude.  If you asked me directly I would say I am thankful, but my failure to pause demonstrates that while I may enjoy the gift I am indifferent toward the giver.

November is an annual reminder of my failure to pause throughout the year to recognize how much God has given me.   Sure, it's been a busy year.  A year full of lists.  But it's also been a blessed year.  A year full of gifts from the hands of a loving giver.  Everyday I enjoy his gifts, both big and small.  Most are enjoyed with that same implicit ingratitude of the nine. But occasionally I join the company of the one and pause.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Church is For the Empty

This was published in the Syracuse Post-Standard in February 2009.  It was the first piece I ever had published.  I still consider it one of the best things I've ever written.  I thought I'd share it with all of you.  

I used to work with a woman whom, whenever the subject of church came up, said something to the effect that if she were to walk into a church, the walls would fall in on her. 

In her mind, her lifestyle was too wild for the fragile purity of the church. It was said as a lighthearted joke, but even so, the impression she had is disappointing to me.  Sadly, many Christians have communicated that the church is no place for those with sordid lives.

If that were true, the church would be no place for me.  I am a sinner, and not merely in a theoretical, abstract sense.  The catalog of my sins goes far beyond mild infractions or momentary slip ups. I have an established pattern  of deception that has compromised my reputation, strained my marriage, and damaged numerous relationships…My sinful choices have wreaked havoc in my life.

And this is why I need the church so desperately.  When criticized for spending time with those whom had a reputation as sinners, Jesus defended himself saying, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick…For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12,13). 

The church is a clinic for wounded sinners; a place of healing for those who have burned bridges and broken trust, for those who have binged on pleasure and purged on guilt; for those who feel hopeless, weary, empty, and beat down.  For those like me. 

The hymn "Rock of Ages" speaks of God's double cure - salvation from sin's guilt and power.  Through Christ I am delivered from sin's guilt in a moment when he freely grants  forgiveness to my troubled soul in response to my faith.  But I am delivered from sin's power over a lifetime.  I have destructive patterns that have been tread often enough they have become ruts.  Without continual focus, I settle into them quickly. 

The church helps tug me from those patterns through worship, meditation, prayer, teaching, fellowship, and service - all part of a spiritual therapy to aid in my healing.  I have good days and bad days; days of progress and days of setback, but all under the care of the Great Physician.

But while the church is intended to be a clinic, I've often treated it like a health club.  I've traded in my hospital gown for Under Armor.  Instead of addressing my ailment, I'm preoccupied with proving my strength and stamina. 

I want to be seen as a model of robust spiritual health, not a case study of spiritual frailty. Multiply that deception throughout a congregation and it's easy to understand why observers could see the church as unaccepting of those with lives in disarray.  My pride causes me to minimize and excuse my weaknesses.  But beneath the image I project is a more honest self, sweeping up the shards of my life and struggling to make sense of them. 

I believe that if the church is to live up to it's calling, then it will be through people like me being vulnerable enough to admit their need for help.  When I speak of my own failures, those around me feel safer to share their own. 

And as we bring these things into the light, they are that much easier to treat.  Ironically, in admitting weakness, I find strength.  As I tell my story I find support, encouragement, accountability, and, in turn, healing.

In the past I would have labeled my failures as a case of the sniffles - bothersome, but manageable with a box of tissues on hand.  More recently I've come to see my failures as a cancer of the soul demanding aggressive treatment.  

Martin Luther said “Be a sinner and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger.”  I believe the church is for people like that - those with a severe case of sin and strong confidence in God's ability to heal.   The church can not only withstand their presence, it was designed for them.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Pull of Spectatorship

This is the last in a set of post reflecting on Mark 1:14-2:17.  If you haven't already, you may benefit from reading the previous two entries, Navigator In Focus and Entertaining a Contrast.

In my last two posts, I have laid out a contrast in Mark 1:14 – 2:17 between those who are called to follow and those who stand by as spectators.  The section begins and ends with individuals,  each named, who accept an invitation to follow Christ.  Despite the uncertainty of the path, they put their faith in the one who will lead them.  The landscape is blurry, but the navigator is in sharp focus - and that is enough.  Between these stories are episodes of spectatorship, crowds, all unnamed, amazed at Jesus teaching and actions.  They're rubbernecking for a look at the spectacle.  But only for a moment.

I’d like to think of myself as squarely planted in the company of those who follow but I see the influence of spectatorship on my life in a number of ways.  It’s a pull that I resist, but not perfectly.  I’ll mention three ways I feel it - not to be exhaustive, but as a starting point.  Maybe you can relate.  

1.  When I Compartmentalize My Life
One of the differences between these two group, followers and spectators, is that for the former this is a process and for the latter it’s an event.  Once these followers set off, it changes the course of their whole lives.  Every aspect is influenced by their decision to follow – family, friendships, ambitions, priorities, values, possessions, and goals are all redefined once they set out.  They are uprooting.

But for spectators it’s just a brief interruption. They will go back to their familiar routine once the stir is settled. They're not relocating; they're commuting. Punch in, get their dose of Jesus, and then punch out. 

If I am to be a follower of Christ, then this is something that can not be tacked onto the rest of life, compartmentalized into a tidy block, squeezed between career and recreation.  It cannot be confined.  It is a new direction - one that should influence my life Monday evening in the way I relate to my wife and children and Tuesday afternoon in dealing with customers, cashiers, and other managers at work.  These are not separate spheres; they are stations on the journey.  And while I think my faith does infuse my life, it is often subtle and less obvious than it ought be.

2. When I Critique the Church
Spectators can be critics.  They watch as outsiders, evaluating merit. They are consumer and can judge their satisfaction with the product.
So can I.   I evaluate the church like I’m reviewing a performance.  The music was too loud, the transitions were sloppy, the harmony was flat, the sermon was dull, the outline was forced, the intro was rambling, the greeter looked grumpy, the thermostat was too high,  the slide changes were too late, the prayer was cliché, the crowd was quite small, the bathrooms were congested, and the tea was atrocious (N.B.  For the sake of all my fellow tea drinkers, never, ever, ever put hot water for tea in a carafe that was previously used for coffee.  No matter how many times you rinse it, it still smells of coffee, which makes for a really bad cup of tea). 

When I act as a critic I am treating the church as something outside of myself.   I'm going as a spectator, not as a teammate.  There is a place for evaluation, but more often than not, my criticism is not a stirring to be part of the solution;  it's a simmering discontent.

3.  When I Clench My Possessions
In each case those who follow Jesus leave something behind.  Simon and Andrew leave their nets (1:18); James and John leave their father (1:20); Levi (implicitly) leaves his tax collector’s booth.  They are leaving behind the familiar, the secure, the financially profitable, the status quo. 

Michael Card suggests that a possession is not so much something I own, as something that owns a little bit of me.  I own little of value.  I drive a used Chevy Lumina, I buy clothes on the clearance rack,  I have a "pay as you go" cell phone that functions admirably on the 1G network.  Until this year, we tuned our television with rabbit ears.  I live a simple life.  With one exception.  Five years ago we moved into a home that we absolutely adore.  It's in a wooded neighborhood on a picturesque pond.  It's decor is like an Adirondack cabin with wood stove, vaulted wood-paneled ceiling, loft space, and glorious views out our back windows and deck.  It's like a slice of wilderness plodded into a suburb just north of Syracuse, NY.  It fits us perfectly.  I love spring dinners on the deck, summer afternoons in the hammock, fall mornings as mist rises off the pond, and winter evening around the fire.  It's a gift from God.  One that I have a hard keeping a loose grip on.

I've share in an earlier post ("Welcome to My Blog") how I have a sense of God nudging me in a new direction as I pursue my calling.  So far he hasn't called me to uproot.  If he does, I hope I'll be willing to obey.  I suspect there will be resistance.  My fingers are squeezing tighter at the thought.

So there's my three to get you started.  Maybe that primes the pump as you think about the pull of spectatorship in your own life.  If you have any of your own to add, I'd be glad to hear them.  I am a pretty good critic, you know. 

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Entertaining a Contrast

This post builds on my previous post Navigator in Focus in which I suggested that discipleship is summed up with the concept of “landscape a blur, relationship in focus.”  We trust Christ as our navigator to steer our lives despite the uncertainty of the path.

Entertain – From the Latin entre (among) and tenir (to hold) conveying a sense of capturing one’s attention, mesmerizing one’s focus. 

Columbus Day weekend was one of those rare glorious autumn weekends in Central New York.  Sunny skies, mild temperature, and autumn leaves near peak splendor all converged at the perfect time.  So my kids made plans for the perfect way to spend this long weekend.  They would bask in the glorious hues of…television.  They had hours upon hours of the whole Disney Channel lineup on DVR ready to hypnotize them with an endless loop of laugh tracks.  As exceedingly cruel parents, we set limits on how much they could watch.  Minutes after the television was turned off, a consensus was reached.  The kids were bored.  There was nothing to do.  Nothing.  Ride bikes, fish in our pond, walk the trails around our house, draw with sidewalk chalk, jump rope, lay in their hammocks, play hide and seek, catch bugs, collect leaves, and a litany of other suggestions all amounted  to “nothing to do.”  Their hearts were set on “I’m In the Band” and “I Carly.”  They wanted to be entertained.  They’re not alone.

There is a chunk of material in Mark 1-2 that lands between the calling of the four fishermen, Simon, Andrew, James and John (Mark 1:16-20) and the calling of the tax collector, Levi (Mark 2:13-14).  In part, this interruption serves as a contrast to the calling of the disciples, a foil to the principle of “landscape a blur, relationship in focus.”  Sandwiched between these episodes of Jesus calling individuals to follow him is this highly concentrated dose of miracle stories.  Jesus

-        drives out an evil spirit (1:21-28),
-        heals Simon’s mother-in-law from a fever (1:29-31)
-        heals many who gather at her house ((1:32-34)
-        heals a man with leprosy (1:40-45)
-        heals a paralytic, (the one who is lowered through the roof into the house due to the large crowds)

He’s putting on quite a show.  A show that elicits great enthusiasm.  Three times the text mentions the people’s amazement (1:22, 27, 2:12).  Four times it mentions the swelling crowds (1:33, 37,45, 2:2).  There is a growing excitement surrounding Jesus’ ministry.  He is creating a stir.  People are clambering for a piece of him.  His fame is on the rise. The circus has come to town.

And yet, Jesus is attempting to quiet the buzz.  He withdraws to an isolated place (1:35), he tells the demons not to speak because they know who he is (1:33), he instructs the man with leprosy not to tell anyone after he is healed (1:44).  This all seems counterintuitive. He’s snubbing the reporters, avoiding the paparazzi, squandering this opportunity for exposure by riding the brakes.  As if this is not his intent. 

He recognizes that the burgeoning swarm is full of observers, spectators, crowd sitters. They crane their necks to get a better view.  They come for the spectacle.   They will go back to their routines in a moment.   This is built on curiosity, not allegiance.  For them, this has nothing to do with a journey, it is an event.  This is not about a navigator, it is about a showman.  This is not what Jesus is interested in. 

For all the enthusiasm in these episodes, there is a decided lack of intimacy.  In contrast to the calling of named individuals surrounding this text, none in these hordes of people are mentioned by name.  The only names that crop up are the four that have already responded to Jesus call, James, John, Simon, and Andrew (1:29).  Everyone else is nameless.  These crowds are not interested in relationship – they want to be entertained. 

There is contrast between the calling of the disciples, invitations to intimacy, and these episodes of box office success with people who are entertained, but never follow. 

And this is where I am convicted.  For all my finger pointing, I’m no different.  My kids learned it from someone and I would be hard pressed to build a case against the charge.  I tend toward inertia, preferring to watch rather than participate, taking my cues from those around me rather than taking initiative. 

I see it in countless ways.  Ways that I’d like to develop in my next post. But not now.  I need to catch up on the programs I've DVRed.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Navigator In Focus

I like this picture.  It was taken in our backyard last fall.  It’s a beautiful landscape, a pond surrounded by trees in the late hues of autumn.  It’s a scene I fell in love with the first time we saw this house.  But it’s not a picture of that landscape.  No one would mistake it for such.  In the picture, that landscape is all a blur.  Instead, it is a picture of relationship, of contoured intimacy, my wife affectionately nuzzled into the nape of my neck.  It is a celebration of well-worn love.  We fit together, a metaphor running beneath the image.  Landscape blurred, relationship in focus. 
Early in the gospel of Mark there are three episodes of Jesus calling men to follow him.  The first two are back to back.  He calls Simon (Peter) and Andrew (Mark 1:16-17).  Immediately following he calls James and John (Mark 1:19-20).  The third is separated by a chapter, when he calls Levi (Mark 2:13-14).  In all three episodes, these men are invited to join Jesus on a journey.  He calls them to follow and they accept the invitation. For the next few years they will spend their lives traveling with Jesus, sharing meals, listening to him teach, watching him perform miracles, asking him to explain parables, walking from village to village.  The decision to follow will change the course of their lives.  Each step takes them further from the familiar fishing boats and tax collectors booth. 
But what surprises me most is how little they know at the outset of this journey.  Jesus offers no details of the course they will take.  And he is frustratingly vague about the destination they will arrive at.  To Simon and Andrew, fishermen by trade, he offers the obtuse destination (or goal) of making them fishers of men, whatever that may mean.  James, John, and Matthew don’t even get that.  They get the invite with no mention of where they are going or how they will get there.  But they follow, stepping into a landscape that is blurry. 
There is a focal point.  The blurry landscape is the result a sharp focus elsewhere. That focus is on whom they will follow.  He offers a navigator.  “Follow me.” He will guide them on this journey. First and foremost, they are invited into relationship. They follow a person, not a path. The path is laid out as they follow him.   This is the beginning of discipleship, the conviction that I can trust Christ to be a reliable navigator in spite of the blurry landscape ahead. 
Recently I had a conversation with a friend about the new direction my life is taking. I told him I wasn’t sure what this will look like in 5-10 years, but I do have a pretty good idea of the next two or three steps I need to take.  Seems this is how Jesus navigates.  He tells me what I need to know for the next step or two.  He beckons me into the blur.  He asks me to trust him, to lean into him, to find rest in his well-worn love.  He won’t force me to follow.  But if I do, I’ll find that blurry landscape to be magnificent indeed.   

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Measuring My Life

On September 23, 1999 communication with the Mars Climate Orbiter was lost as the spacecraft attempted to enter orbit around Mars.  Designed to study the climate and atmosphere of Mars, the mission came to an abrupt end because of navigational error.  The spacecraft attempted to enter orbit at an altitude that was too low, causing it to disintegrate.  The deviation from the intended course was traced back to confusion over metric and imperial units.  The software was written based on metric units while the ground crew was entering course corrections based on imperial units.  That little misunderstanding resulted in a $327 million cosmic torch.  An understated Dr. Edward Stone, director of Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said, “Our inability to recognize and correct this error has had major implications."

If life is a journey, then destination is determined by the course I chose.  And the course I choose is determined by the measurements I use.  Metric units will not lead me to the same destination as imperial units.  Centimeters and inches are not interchangeable.  Slight changes in direction at the outset can have major implications on my course over time.  The measurements I use will make all the difference.

This weekend I went on a Band of Brothers Bootcamp, a trip designed to restore the hearts of men through a real encounter with God (www.bofbbootcamp.com).  It was a rich time of learning and reflection.  But on the first night as we were sitting around the fire getting to know one another, I found that I was in the company of some very successful men (by common measurements);  business owners with many employees and high profitability.  One was sharing about a particularly difficult year when he almost lost his business and his income was slashed by 90%.  It was humbling to discover that what he was making at a 90% reduction in his income was nearly twice what I make now, the high water mark of my economic prosperity.  I felt small, insignificant, as if I was a failure.  Jealousy welled up.  I even considered pursuing the same route, as I had been invited by someone into the same business a number of months ago. 

The fog lifted when I remembered that I have never used money as a measurement for my life.  I have made decisions all along without thought to financial remuneration.  I spent eight years in school to get a masters degree that prepared me for the abundant prosperity of ministry.  Even in ministry I didn’t choose the path to (comparable) prosperity.  When I was considering moving to Syracuse to pastor a small church, there was a larger church in Maryland that was interested in me.  They were so convinced that I was the man that they put their search on hold until they found out what I decided with this opportunity in Syracuse.  I chose to come to Syracuse.  I sensed God’s call here. 

God has been faithful.  He was always met my financial needs, though that has demanded careful stewardship.  We have done without many things.  But it hasn’t felt like a life of deprivation (my kids might argue otherwise).   If I haven ‘t written the program of my life to respond to dollars and cents , then I ought not be surprised that by that standard I’m the satellite that comes in too low.  I may not incinerate, but I do sputter.  But my program was written for other measurements. 

Lately I’ve been contemplating the first couple chapters in the gospel of Mark.  These chapters have spoken to me in powerful ways.  They have opened my eyes to what it means to follow Jesus.  They remind me of the measurements I have designed my life for.  In the next few blog posts I intend to unpack some of those lessons.  But it starts here.  With a realization that the course of my life is determined by the measuring stick I use.   What I value will influence my decisions.  My decisions will determine my course.  My course will determine my destination…though I wouldn’t object if that course just happened to intersect with a load of money.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Plodding Pilgrimage

In the Old Testament we find a number of depictions of journeys that serve as pictures of the Christian life.  So the story of Abraham, with his journey from Ur to Canaan.  And the story of the Exodus, with the Israelites journey out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and (eventually) into the land of promise.  And the story of the Babylonian captivity and the return to the land 70 years later.  These travel narratives serve as fitting parallels to the Christian life.  So in the New Testament, Peter calls Christians “pilgrims” (1 Peter 2:11).  Life is a pilgrimage, a journey with a specific purpose and destination.  This blog is a like a travelogue.  A journal of reflections in the course of the journey. 

But my pilgrimage has been a bit circuitous at times.  Years ago, Eugene Peterson wrote a book entitled A Long Obedience In the Same Direction.  And while I enjoyed the book, my own experience has not lived up to that billing.  Long – yes; obedience – sometimes; in the same direction – not by a long shot.  Even the more forgiving adage “two steps forward and one step back” is too tidy to depict my journey.  It still suggests a track that allows only for forward and reverse. 

For all my forward progress and backward regress there are many sidesteps. My pilgrimage is (unfortunately) not resolute. Seems I chase my tail sometimes. I distractedly sway to and fro, thinking I have a better route, a short cut, a new idea.  I lack initiative, hesitant to make decisions that I know should be made. I choose entertainment over enrichment, aimlessly surfing the net, browsing a magazine, flipping the channel. I procrastinate.  I make excuses.  I rebel.  I settle for the good rather than pursuing the best.  I wallow in self-pity and get bogged down by regret.

My pilgrimage is a convoluted mess; an entangled snare of twists and turns that I look back on and say, “How in the world did I end up here?”  I never would have projected that this is where I would be at the age of 39.   Never.  And the route I took to get here is still difficult to unravel.  Parts of it are just a jumbled snarl.

So a journey that could have taken a few weeks by the most direct route takes me forty years (well, 39 and change) as if I’m…well, as if I’m an Israelite wandering in the wilderness.  This is a plodding pilgrimage, a slow, heavy-footed progress.  But there is progress, as incremental as it may seem.  It is still a pilgrimage.  I am moving closer toward the goal to win the prize for which Christ has called me heavenward.  So today, in this plodding pilgrimage, I’ll walk resolute…barring distraction.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Welcome To My Blog

Today I launch my blog, another voice in the cacophony of the blogosphere.  I do so with realistic expectations.  My circle of readers will always be small – for some posts maybe even nil.  I do not aspire to build a following or start a movement. The explanation goes back to my birthday.  This summer my wife honored my 39 years of life with the book Blogging For Dummies.  She was trying to send me a message, which I hope was more weighted on the side of “You should be blogging” than “You are a dummy.” 

But actually the explanation goes back further than that.  Because for months Sue and I have been talking about what God wants for me. My job for the last six years has been as a retail manager.  I manage a large convenience store (think 24 pumps, 15 cooler doors, and a full service deli and brick oven pizza shop).  For the most part I enjoy the work, but it does not give me deep satisfaction.  There is the sense that God has something more for me. 

What I have realized is that what gives me the deepest satisfaction is preaching and teaching the Bible in a way that makes it come alive.  I love captivating people with the richness and relevance of Scripture.  Before working in retail I was a pastor for seven years.  And while that was closer to hitting the mark of being satisfying, there was enough about it that I didn’t enjoy that the thought of returning to the pastorate has not been compelling. 

Lately I have been contemplating the prospect of doing what I love without the baggage of all the stuff I didn’t.  To preach and teach without having to chair committees, plan services, lead worship, find Sunday School teachers, counsel parishioners, do hospital visitation, oversee the budget, follow up on absentees, and on and on.  None of those things are bad, but I found none of them enjoyable.
Maybe a distinction should be made between my occupation and my vocation.  My occupation is my job, Convenience Store Supervisor for Delta Sonic in North Syracuse, NY.  It pays the bills and provides for benefits.  It offers some security that each week there will be a steady flow of income.  All in all, it’s a good job.  But my vocation (in the truest sense of the word) is my calling.  And I think God has called me to preach and teach.  With occupation securely in place, I can pursue my calling, my vocation, with freedom.  I don’t have to worry about whether it is lucrative or sustainable.  I’m not bound by the shackles of having to support my family with it.  If God sees fit, this could some day grow to become my occupation, but until then, I can pursue it as a hobby – one that provides deep satisfaction in my life.     

So I am taking steps to make this a reality.  I’m starting to teach some and looking for opportunities to preach.  I’ve also started to write more.  For me, writing is just another avenue for teaching.  I write about the intersection of God’s Word and real life.  I realize that publication can be a means of gaining credibility and may open more doors for preaching and teaching, so I have begun sending out proposals to various magazines and journals.  Most recently, Weavings Journal accepted an article I wrote about fear and will publish it in the May/June/July 2012 issue.  All this is part of the process of pursuing my vocation while still gainfully employed by Delta Sonic. 

So the blog fits into this vision as a greenhouse of sorts – a place to put some seed thoughts down, ideas that could someday be the basis of a message or article. This is what God is teaching me, in the raw.  Just the process of writing things down is a discipline that helps crystallize an idea. This, even if no one ever reads the blog.  But this is also a place where I can put ideas out for some initial reaction. These are thoughts that will be in need of polishing.  I welcome any readers to rub a little and help bring out the shine.