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"

If you've enjoyed this post, consider subscribing by e-mail.  If you think others would benefit, share it with them. 

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.

If you've enjoyed this post, consider subscribing by e-mail.  If you think others would benefit, share it with them.  

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.

If you've enjoyed this post, consider subscribing by e-mail.  If you think others would benefit, share it with them.