Tag Archives: grace

Some Assembly Required

some-assembly-required-mainThere are word combinations in the English language that I love:  “Pepperoni, Sausage, Extra Cheese,” hovers near the top of the list. 

There are word combinations in the English language that I despise:  “While you are up, can you…?”  Note to readers…waiting until I am up to have me satisfy your whims is not adorable; it’s annoying.  But I stray from the topic at hand. 

Because there is one word combination in the English language that makes me want to heave (as in, you know, projectile vomiting).  I am not talking about the mildly upset stomach followed by the quasi-catch-in-the-throat-near-miss vomit.  No, I am talking about solar system departure trajectory, full on, don’t-get-in-the-way-or-you’ll-be-knocked-down-and-covered-with-gastric-juices-for-life vomit. 

What words, you ask (so as to never utter them in my presence), might generate such a depraved, visceral (literally) response?  Here they are…mark them down…do not say them to me:  “SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED.” 

Now, I know that there are genuine he men and she women whose day is made more delightful by put-it-together-yourself-because-they-were-too-lazy-to-do-it-at-the-factory projects.  My hat is off to them (actually, my hat was off anyway, but I needed a handy cliché). 

Seriously, I know some ace project people who are both genuinely good at what they do and whose hearts thump with delight at the mere prospect of such projects.  You probably know some people like that too.  You may even be one.  You know who you are…you are barely on step one of the current project and yet you have already cast your eye on the next project.  God bless you. 

But…I am not a “SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED” kind of person.  This whacked me again when I was beginning to put together a chair.  Why I was putting the chair together is a post for another day.  But there I was, through no fault of my own, taking the chair pieces out of the boxes so as to lay them out and have each piece handy for the assembly. 

Unpacking the pieces is what got me riled up.  The pieces were each heavily fortified with nuclear detonation proof plastic and then sealed with THAT KIND of tape.  The kind of tape that will not detape itself…until you have tried to cut it with every sharp object at hand…and then cut your hand…until the tape finally yields only to reveal the INNER PLASTIC and TAPE. 

And this was my thought in that moment:  wouldn’t it have been easier just to assemble the stinking chair?!?  I mean, rather than wrap each little piece in multiple shrouds of bomb proof tape and plastic, wouldn’t it be simpler to just assemble the stinking chair?!?  [I know, I have said “stinking” twice…it’s for, you know, emphasis.] 

Of course the mere unwrapping of all the pieces is followed by the preliminary reading of the assembly instructions.  You have seen these instructions.  They are cobbled together by people whose first language is, indeed, English, but who have such demented minds that they use Google Translate to render the instructions through the entire list of available languages in the app before re-rendering the instructions in English. 

That process takes a sentence like, “Identify the four hex nuts and lay them side-by-side,” and transmogrifies it into something like, “Put your left hand in, take your left hand out, put your left hand in and then you shake the nearest dog’s tail until the dog eats the turnips left over from the guillotine.”  [This is not hyperbole; you know it’s true.] 

You have to read the instructions so many times that you forget why you started reading them in the first place.  And then you remember:  SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED. 

I so loathe those words…unless, of course, unless…they are about me.  Because I know that I am a horrible mess of a work in progress and I am so very grateful that Jesus has decided to work in me (and sometimes…rarely, but sometimes, through me).  I thank God that His work in me is not dependent upon my ability to bring it about. 

Oh sure, I read the instructions (His are plain enough) and I do my best to follow along.  But then I remember that it is God who is at work in me to accomplish His purposes. 

And the very funny thing is…He delights in the project–He’s one of those project types.  The Master Carpenter who labored over His neighbors’ household needs, is now at work to perfect His strength right here…in the middle of me.  

I, of course, am very much more complicated than a chair that comes in a box.  Presuming that I slog my way through the instructions, stick with the project, find that runaway bolt that must have rolled into the heater vent (again!), and connect all the connections…the chair will be assembled.  It will stay that way; it won’t try to disassemble itself.  But I will…try to disassemble myself, that is. 

And Jesus starts again…with me…putting me back aright and pouring out His compassion while I am in the very process of self-disassembly.  Oh, great love!  Oh, great mercy!  Oh, great power!  Oh, great patience! 

“Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).

 © All rights reserved.  Scripture quotations from the NIV.


Learning to Count

2-plus-2

2 + 2 = ??

You know the answer to that math puzzle, don’t you? And yet you hesitate because you fear there is some bloggish mystery about the equation that will result in a case of the chagrins if you blurt a wrong answer. You’re still holding back, aren’t you? Even though you are alone, in front of your computer or tablet and there is NO ONE watching. You are afraid; you are very afraid. Hey! It’ll be OK…give it a whirl…

So, 2 + 2 = ??

2 + 2 = 4 (Tada!)

You knew the answer all along because you mastered basic math skills back when you were a wee lass or lad. Simple operations, like addition, came right after the primary math skill: counting.

Crawling, walking, talking, household pet aggravation, accurate aim in toileting (at least for boys), reading, writing, arithmetic…these are some of the skills people aspire to acquire as they grow up. These are also some of the skills that we hope our progeny develop as they grow up. And the last one, in particular, is a skill Christians need to master as we grow up.

We want kids to learn to count; God wants His kids to learn to count too. Why is that? Because Christianity is not all “get”; there is a great deal of “give.” Now, let me quickly add (Ha! Get it? Add?) that this is not a “give” to earn or buy but a “give” that is a response to the lavish love of God.

How do we know this is true? Why, the Bible. Jesus, in cautioning a burgeoning yet perhaps uninformed enthusiasm in Luke 14: 25-33, tries to make sure that His followers “get it”–that is, that they “get” that counting is a key element in Christ following.

In that Luke passage, Jesus cautions the crowds to beware that family connections might become casualties if those in the crowd choose Him. He cautions the crowds that their very lives might be forfeit if they choose to follow Him. Count, He says! For the sake of it all, count!

Jesus points to construction contractors who count to make sure they have the resources in place to finish their projects. In similar fashion, Jesus says, governmental leaders, intent on warfare, do their “battle damage estimates” before firing the first shot.

This counting is not, I believe, a call to hesitation–a discipleship “speed bump” if you will–it is rather a call to “eyes wide open” discipleship. Knowing that following Jesus has some associated risk makes for more determined disciples. This is not a “Wow, that’s going to cost way too much so I’m going to back off,” message. This is a “Wow, this is important enough to mean something,” message.

A hundred years ago Eleanor Porter wrote a book about how a cheerful girl changed the outlook of an entire town with her indefatigable optimism. In 1960, Walt Disney (ever the marketer of good feelings) made the novel into a film starring a teenaged Haley Mills. The book and movie: Pollyanna. By sheer force of cheer, Pollyanna rescues a town, a church, and her family from a distasteful tendency toward the dour. The film paved the way for a label that came to mean a disingenuous cheerfulness: Pollyannaism.

That label, unfortunately, describes many in the believing community. It is talked about as a matter of faith: “just believe” and, to be sure, there is the highly commended, scriptural faith essential. And…if we have to lean…we should undoubtedly lean in the faith direction.

But there is also this call to count…and I think it’s a call often ignored in the Christian community. Again, not the counting to avoid, but the counting to proceed with determination down the path Jesus has marked for us.

Friends may indeed abandon; family may wince and walk away; treasure may be given over; reputations may be tattered; lives may be surrendered. All of them happily ceded as a result of this very basic math skill: counting.

I believe Jesus wants His followers to have eyes wide open. If our eyes are not wide open, they cannot see the cost of the following. But neither can they see the joy of the following. This is a joy in the same “joy family” as Jesus’ “joy set before Him” in Hebrews 12:2. This joy came as a result of enduring the excruciating challenge of the cross and finding joy on the other side of a hard obedience. Our joy can come in a similar way; it can come on the other side of “eyes wide open” discipleship as we count the cost of following Him.

This joy is not mere relief that the endurance test has passed; it is the incomprehensible delight at the things that God has prepared for those who love Him (1 Corinthians 2:9). Eyes wide open indeed.

© All rights reserved.  Scripture quotations from the NIV.


Yes, the Church Definitely Stinks! Letter to an (Absent but Vocal) Church Critic

sinners-wanted-001

[In response to a Facebook post about the sad, sin-plagued state of the church today.  Names have been withheld, changed, or translated into Common Eldarin & Westron to avoid offense.] 

My response:  Guilty.As.Charged. 

Is the capital “C” Church, and are all the many, many individual churches, populated by sometime cantankerous, grumpy, judgmental people?  Yes, absolutely; guilty as charged.  Do those same people fall short of biblical expectations for life and service?  You betcha! 

Should those facts make me stay away?  Better yet, should those facts make me stay away and then target those in the camp with explosive-laden complaint drones?  Well… 

There are a million reasons not to be connected with a local church or regularly in worship.  I’ve heard them all and, in moments of personal honesty, I’ve used some of them myself.  At the top of the list: many of the people you find there.  One seminary wag said it:  “Ministry is great, except for the people.”  Or, as a former parishioner of mine put it so eloquently, “I love God’s church; it’s God’s people I can’t stand!” 

There are a million reasons not to be in worship regularly.  But there is one overriding reason to be there:  God says so.  So, from a simple “obedience” perspective (for those of you concerned about the disobedient people in the church), I think you’d need to deal with that.  The Writer of Hebrews says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24,25). 

But, in the purity of the power of a relationship with the Heavenly Father, that’s not what moves me to be among God’s people, in church.  I don’t “have” to go; I “get” to go…and there are light years difference between those two things. 

The God who loves me wants me to hang out with Him AND He wants me to regularly hang out with those other people He loves…not so that we can all show off how much better than the rest of humanity we are, but to worship Him and adore Him and face our need for His grace and power to accomplish His purposes.  “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Jesus said…nothing

The church is not a beauty contest, it’s a “Critical Care Unit” — “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  That’s true before people come to know Christ and, sadly, still true after we come to know Christ.  This side of heaven we are still plagued by sin. 

Is the Bible full of calls to be better?  Certainly.  But that “betterment” is not a self-help effort.  It’s an “only Jesus can make this possible” effort.  And the very second we start to compare “betterment” we are in serious, serious trouble.  “Do not judge,” Jesus said, “Do not judge.” 

I think a wise church leader friend of mine is right: many in the church over the years have thought they were going to a spiritual Lowe’s to pick up the tools to be able to become better people (Let’s Build Something!).  When, in fact, worship is about God, not the life “score card” of the person sitting next to me–nor even my own spiritual “batting average.”  I don’t have to go; I get to go.  And, when I do go, I get to worship the God who loves this broken sinner.  And (and here’s the key point in this particular ramble): I get to hang out with others just like me who know they’re broken and who are partnering with each other and the Living God to experience grace such that we might show grace to each other and to the rest of the world. 

Do we get that right?  Sometimes…ok, maybe rarely…perhaps hardly ever…but when we do, it’s a wondrous thing to behold…and it’s worth every second of church-based stupidity I’ve ever experienced.  And trust me, as a pastor, I have seen, heard, felt, and been bashed by more of that stupidity than anyone observing from the sidelines will ever know. 

And…by the way…I do know that many have been egregiously wounded by those in the church…wounded by those who thought they knew better…or perhaps even wounded by those who did know better but couldn’t “speak the truth in love.”  This is not to diminish any of those hurts and pains.  It is to say, with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).  And, if we think we can have Jesus (Simply Jesus) without the pains, travails, and (yes) joys of the church, then I think we miss the entire tenor of the New Testament’s witness about the church. 

Winston Churchill, in commenting on the frailties of democracy, once remarked: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise.  Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others…”  The same could likely be said of the church:  “No one pretends that the church is perfect or all wise.  It’s the worst form of Christian gathering, except for all the others.” 

To a more “Christianly Correct” audience, perhaps it would be better for us to hear Billy Graham’s pithily profound observation: “There’s no such thing as a perfect church; if you think you’ve found a perfect church, don’t join it–you’ll ruin it.”  

I regularly hearken back to John Newton’s, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.” 

What do I see? Not how much better I can perform now, but how much I desperately need the power of God every day.  What do I see?  That grace is not a onetime proposition, but the constant outpouring of undeserving love on this weary and wary sinner.  Where do I see that best?  With and among God’s people…in worship…even when they’re cantankerous, grumpy, and judgmental. 

Before you discard the church, friend…remember that the church was (and is still) God’s idea (Matthew 16:17-19).  Standing on the outside looking in and lobbing verbal grenades?  Well, that’s someone else’s idea.


One “Aw Sh**” — Sin and Grace in the Christian Community

I know that I am a sinner.  I have often thought in recent years of a theology lecture I heard in seminary.  The professor was dealing with the notion of “sinless perfection.”  He was in his late 60s and, during the course of his lecture, he paused in a personally poignant moment to say, “The longer I am alive, the more aware I am of my sin.”

I know that I am a sinner.  I resonate with the words of the Apostle Paul who called himself “the chief of sinners.”  I listen with intensity to Romans 7:14-25, echoing Paul’s sentiment in verse 24, “What a wretched man I am!”  In concert with the Reformed theologians I admire, I know that all the decisions I make and all the actions I undertake are tainted by my sin nature and frequently directed by my “own evil desires” (James 1:14).  Trust me:  I know that I am a sinner.

So, when I stumble in major ways, I am never completely surprised.  Of course the word “stumble” might seem an attempt to soften the impact of one’s sinful missteps.  Perhaps so.  But I think that many of us, much of the time, are limping along through life anyway.  Stumbling is what we do–sometimes others see it; oft times they don’t.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of any particular stumble, a “stumbler” can feel like the embodiment of an expression I encountered years before while in the Air Force.  And it demonstrates, I think, how far short the Christian community can fall from the biblical mark with respect to treatment of those who stumble.

The expression in question goes something like this:  “One Aw Sh** wipes out a thousand Atta Boys.”  Former military readers will immediately understand.  For others, let me explain.

The military is a place that is intentional about the recognition of jobs well done.  But it is also an institution that has few tangible ways to reward folks when they do well.  You can’t give raises or bonuses; you can’t immediately promote people; you can’t even excuse them from facing hostile fire the next day.  What you can do is pause during the action long enough to say, “Well done!  Good job!  Thanks for serving your nation so faithfully!”  When I was in the military we called those kinds of expressions “Atta Boys” (Yes, women are also recipients, “Atta Girl!”) “Atta Boys” come in several varieties (medals, letters, etc.), but they are key instruments of reward and recognition in any commander’s leadership tool kit.

However “Atta Boys” have an evil big brother:  The “Aw Sh**.”  The “Aw Sh**” is often a knee-jerk response to some gross error in judgment on the part of the offending military member.  The power of the “Aw Sh**” is overwhelming.  If an “Atta Boy” is a shiny package, dressed with a bow on Christmas morning, then the “Aw Sh**” is September 11th–towering careers simply collapse.  I grant that the stakes are unusually high in the military, but I have seen one “Aw Sh**” take down officers in the middle of stellar careers, people who had accumulated a mountain of “Atta Boys” over the course of decades of service to their nation.

Now, what does this have to do with sinful stumbles in the Body of Christ?  This: everything a person has been or striven to be as a Christian can easily be swallowed up in one “Aw Sh**.”  I know the biblical standards for church leaders and the heavy investment in character the Scriptures mandate; I am not diminishing any of that.  What I am saying is that, particularly in moments of crisis, when church leaders are struggling with appropriate responses to failure, we must take the whole person into account.  Otherwise we may discard people as if they are so much septic tank toxic waste.

Jesus was heavily invested in the recycling business, but some reflective observation leads me to believe that church leaders often quickly bypass the recycle bin and head straight to the dumpster.  It is sometimes the case that an entire body of work, life, and ministry is compressed so tightly as to be seen through the lens of one episode of failure.

I believe that grace is “sloppy.”  The legalists own the bright lines in the sand and the sharp-edged shades of black and white.  Agents of grace, those who carry the name of Christ, and who believe that His model in dealing with sinners was gentle restoration, often color in more nuanced shades and move with less clear lines drawn in the sand.  Look with me at a few episodes from Jesus’ ministry.

I think one of my favorites is John 21:15-25.  Peter, the leader of the “remedial boys,” had committed the seemingly transcendent sin:  at a key moment in Jesus’ journey toward the cross, Peter had looked over at Jesus and said, “I don’t know the man!”  Surely Peter’s action is a contender for the unpardonable sin.  Jesus:  Messiah, Lord, Master, Teacher, Healer, Miracle Worker, The Son of the Living God (by Peter’s own confession), had been denied.  How much worse can it get?  All the sins packed into all the sin lists in Scripture seemingly fade away into nothingness in the face of this monstrous thing.

And yet, post-Resurrection, when Jesus encounters Peter on the Sea of Galilee shore, He deals with Peter in a supremely gracious way.  Jesus uses simple math (one statement of love to match each statement of denial) to restore Peter to first among equals within the gang of (then) eleven.  Peter was so deeply moved he said something goofy–again (see verse 21).  I think this passage has transfixed everyone who has carefully read it.  It particularly stirs my heart because of the spiritual and emotional distance Jesus traveled to restore Peter, the fallen leader.

A second favorite episode involves the little tree climber, Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus was not a leader among Jesus’ followers.  He was a notorious “sinner”–a “chief” tax collector no less, one of those men responsible for the weight of fiscal oppression felt by the populace of Galilee and Judea.  Zacchaeus was short in stature and short on character.  But he had heard that Jesus was coming and wanted to see Him.  We don’t know what Zacchaeus had heard about Jesus or what Zacchaeus thought of what he had heard; we just know that he wanted to see Jesus.  So Zacchaeus climbed a tree to secure a better view of Jesus.  Jesus spotted Zacchaeus among the tree branches and said that He wanted to go to Zacchaeus’s house.  Of course this caused the crowd to grumble; they knew Zacchaeus and they wondered why Jesus would want to hang out with such a dishonored man.

Yet Jesus did want to hang out with this particular sinner.  And, because Jesus chose to join Zacchaeus in his home, sometime during the course of that visit, Zacchaeus mended his ways and decided to make restitution to those he had cheated.  All this occurred without Jesus having done anything more than being a house guest.  Merely being in the presence of Jesus was enough to restore Zacchaeus to wholeness and “spur him on toward good deeds.”

I think the culminating episode is the account of the woman caught in the very act of adultery (John 8:1-11).  This pericope is not well attested in early Greek manuscripts.  But something about it demands its continued inclusion in English Bible translations.  The elements of the episode resonate with everything we know about Jesus and His compassion and His grace.  Many questions surround this story:  How did it come to be that she was caught?  Was she set up as a test case for Jesus?  Where’s the guy with whom she must have been caught?  Was that guy in collusion with those who wanted to test Jesus?  Was there no one in the crowd who felt any mercy toward her besides Jesus?

We don’t have the answers to those questions.  What we do have is Jesus dealing with a horrific situation in a way that transcends the legalistic impulses of that day and time.  Because, on one level, the legalists were right–this woman’s offense demanded the Mosaic death penalty.  That is perhaps the most dangerous part of legalism:  on one level, legalists are often right.  But Jesus doesn’t operate on the level of “I’m right; you’re wrong” or self-righteousness.  He operates at the level of genuine righteousness.  And His genuine righteousness is always fully flavored by grace.  After Jesus challenges those in the crowd to assess their capacity to throw the “first stone,” He looks at the woman and says she is not the object of His condemnation; she is the object of His forgiveness.  He challenges her to live rightly and He restores her–right there; right then.

Those episodes from the Gospels are typical of Jesus and several things strike me about the way He dealt with those who stumbled.  The most significant is that Jesus was never in the “Aw Sh**” business.  No one failure, indeed no pattern of failure, was large enough to eliminate people from life with Him or even leadership in the Kingdom.  Peter was not left in the throes of his betrayal, consigned to some structured rehabilitation period; he was fully, completely, and immediately restored to his leadership role.  Zacchaeus had his eternal inclusion in the Abrahamic heritage emphasized for the doubters in the crowd.  And the woman caught in adultery heard those most precious words from Jesus, “neither do I condemn you.”

The second thing that strikes me is that Jesus had total awareness of the nuances of each and every situation.  Of course, He’s Jesus and, being fully human and fully divine, He had thoroughgoing information about the hearts and minds of people.  When Jesus made judgments, and He made many, He made them in that fullness of understanding.  Church leaders will never have that complete understanding of the behavioral particulars, emotional dynamics, and spiritual complexities of situations of sinful failure.

The third thing that strikes me about how Jesus dealt with the failures of those around Him is that He didn’t have to worry about Paul’s caution in Galatians 6:1.  There, Paul reminds his readers, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit (NIV, “you who are spiritual”) should restore that person gently.”

Since those charged with church leadership are not Jesus, I have five suggestions for those of us who act in His name on behalf of His Church.

My first suggestion flows from James 1:19.  Especially when dealing with life altering consequences and the potential for shattered lives, leaders must be “quick to listen; slow to speak; slow to become angry.”  In the middle of what appears to be (and may likely be) gross failure, leaders must understand, as best we can, exactly what has transpired.  That need for understanding demands extraordinary listening, careful investigation, and avoidance of rushes to conclusions or penalties.  We are, I think (at least I know I often am), too quick to assess a situation and draw conclusions.  I think that my ministry experience tends toward rapid diagnosis and response.  I am usually wrong–or at least incomplete–with both.  Each case is unique and demands meticulous attention.  We need to listen; we must resist the temptation to speak too quickly.  We need to not think of people as their “category of failure” and think of them as, well, people.  This need to “cruise” in a lower gear is a factor in the next suggestion as well.

My second suggestion is simple, yet close to impossible:  we need to ensure that we are “spiritual” in the Galatians 6 sense.  Jesus didn’t have this problem, but contemporary church leaders surely do.  Certainly the Bible is full of admonitions about sinful patterns of behavior, prescriptions for leadership responsibilities, and outlines of restoration processes.  But what I want to know is:  Where are “those who are spiritual?”  Because they are the only ones commissioned as agents of graceful restoration.

Looking back over the course of my ministry, I’m convinced that I haven’t really met many “spiritual” people capable of this restorative task.  Perhaps I have been hanging out with the wrong crowd.  I have met many who thought they were “spiritual” and I have participated in leadership meetings where we all thought we were.  But I am not sure many (maybe any) of us were.  And–I would be so bold as to say that if we think we are spiritual, we are probably not.  For myself, I am convinced that I was rarely among “those who are spiritual” when I was attempting restorative stewardship of the flocks assigned to my care.

I am not completely certain as to a conclusion about this business of spirituality.  Fallen, sinful, stumbling church leaders do, indeed, have this task of reconciliation and restoration.  I suppose I would simply flash a giant, yellow caution light in front of all who undertake this task.  Slow is the way to go.

Third:  We must realize that we can never have all the information we need to make the kinds of weighty judgments we will be making.  Omniscience is a non-communicable attribute of deity.  We cannot and we do not know all things.  Therefore we must be more tentative, less dogmatic, and more graceful in the application of consequences based on our assessments.  We must choose our words carefully, knowing that they have immense power to further wound the already wounded.

Fourth:  We need to ask, “How does this fit with the rest of what I know about this person?”  In order to avoid an “Aw Sh**” situation, we must carefully put anyone’s failure in the larger context of their whole person, refusing to simply see the last thing (particularly if it’s a failure) as the totality of truth about that person.  It simply cannot be the case (most of the time) that an accumulated lifetime of service is so fragile as to be destroyed in a single instance of failure (*Please see Postscript below).  And, as leaders, we need the maturity to see past immediate circumstances in order to bring to bear our wider understanding of the lives we hold in our hands and the issues with which we wrestle.

Finally, I think we must err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion, involvement rather than disconnection.  There are places in the Scriptures (e.g., 1 Corinthians 5:1-5) where a period of exclusion from fellowship is discussed as a means of restoration.  Two things seem to be true about this practice.  The first is that we mere humans inevitably get this wrong.  If the subsequent reference in 2 Corinthians 2:5-8 is to the same person discussed in 1 Corinthians 5, the Corinthian church had let the whole thing go on way too long.

The other issue connected to exclusion is that I believe we often seriously misinterpret Jesus’ own words about the restoration process.  Jesus’ prescription for restoration does not, I believe, involve exclusion.  Matthew 18:17 is not, I contend, about excommunication or shunning or other exclusionary tactics.  It is exactly what it says:  a call to treat those who persist in stumbling the way Jesus treated Peter, Zacchaeus, and the unnamed woman–with grace and mercy and an invitation to Christ’s own presence.

I spoke earlier of “sloppy grace.”  What does sloppy grace look like?  As in all things Christian, I think it simply looks like Jesus; no condemnation (except, perhaps, for the legalists), gentle restoration, the realization that Jesus’ mere presence would be enough to spur folks on toward good deeds (Zacchaeus).  The cure for all things that ail stumbling believers is more time in His presence.  Jesus will help us kill our “Aw Sh**” tendencies and He will help prevent our discard of precious Kingdom citizens, but only if we watch Him in action and take our cues from His approach to people who stumble.

[*Postscript–Caveat & Alert:  There are particularly egregious failures (child sexual abuse as an example) that require: immediate removal of the person from any situation in which they can inflict further harm, a root level analysis of any person’s future leadership potential, extended periods of rehabilitation, and great caution so as to not create other opportunities for those who fail to wound additional innocents.  But even those failures, I believe, require an intentionality and purposefulness about restoration to some expression of Christian fellowship (not necessarily leadership) modeled after Jesus’ dealing with the failures around Him.]

 


The “Not So New Math” or When Does $29 Equal $1340?

Confession:  I am not a math whiz…adding and subtracting, simple multiplication and division; those operations pretty much exhaust my math skills.  I figure (get it? “figure”?) that, if God had wanted me to be a math whiz, He would not have overseen the creation of the MyScript Calculator app for my phone.  And, calculus?  Math with no numbers?  Why oh why oh why?

But, I am also not an idiot.  Stop:  put those hands down; I know you want to object to my self-descriptor, but you cannot.  Unless, of course, you post a comment; then I suppose you can…object…that is. 

So I was mildly (only mildly; I’ll unpack that momentarily) surprised when we were at the auto dealership last night.  My car’s lease had come up and it was time to make the dreaded decisions: purchase or lease; new or used; same make and model or different.  Some people love car shopping.  I rank car shopping down there with root canals (with or without Novocain) and expressing the slime from a MRSA infection.  [Yes, I know that was a gross mental image, but it’s truly how I feel about car shopping.] 

Meanwhile…back at the car dealership.  A nice chap (The Cheerful Car Chap or CCC) was very happy to see us when we arrived.  He held the door for us as we entered the showroom (partially to escape the ridiculous cold).  [On another note:  Polar Vortex, go back to the Pole or Poland, or wherever you came from; I’m done with the subzero wind chill.]  He asked us why we were there and that’s when I produced the ad his dealership friends had so kindly emailed:  the ad for a $29 lease!  I figured I could afford a $29 lease.  The CCC inquired as to our car preference. 

I shared with him that we were looking for something a little bigger than we’d had.  The compact I had driven for three years had been great: terrific gas mileage coupled with car doors that locked and unlocked electronically (that last bit is an entirely other story); that car had gotten me around town and up and down the East Coast. 

But it was a small car and I have, ahem, “girthed up” somewhat over the last few years. [Comments about my increased girth are not welcome and will be ignored.]  So I was looking for something with more ease of ingress and egress.  The CCC took us on a test run in a larger car and it seemed to be just the thing.  The CCC showed us the various available colors and we picked one:  blue (the lighter blue because the dark blue looks kind of purple in the dark under street lights; I know this because my friend has one and I had teased him about it.  Purple is fine for many people; just not me). 

We then sat down with The CCC to “do the deal.”  That’s when came the “math surprise.”  It wasn’t a complete surprise (as I mentioned earlier).  Unfortunately I have come to expect “car dealership surprises” packed into the fine print or hidden behind some obscure link on some not so crystal clear web site. 

The “fine print” (in this case) meant that $29 was just the beginning of the math problem.  To the $29, it seems, one must add:  the first month’s lease payment, dealer prep charges, documentation fees, taxes, tips, licenses, bonuses, flea dusting charges (threw that last one in there to see if you were paying attention), etc.  Final tally:  $1340 NOT $29. 

Since I had been half expecting additional fees and the final amount was in the price range we had anticipated, we went ahead and closed the deal.  My girthness now girths itself in a roomier ride. 

But the auto dealership is not the only place where very little can mean much, much more. 

When we come to the place where we recognize our need for Jesus Christ, we realize that we have very, very little to offer: broken and sin-scarred souls and a spiritual pauper’s faith (not even $29 worth, really…and…it turns out that the $29 we thought we gave Him, had itself been a gift).  He takes our $29 then does some Not So New Math:  grace “operations” that have been performed since eternity by a loving, Heavenly Father:  He turns our measly $29 into ever much more. 

Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3).

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every familyin heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:14-19).

Not bad…our meagerness being turned by God into a life that is much, much more than we dreamed possible:  wider, longer, higher, deeper.  Not bad at all for $29.

I think I’ll hoist my girth into the new car and go for a ride. 

© All rights reserved.  Scripture from the NIV, Zondervan.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Look, Mom, No Hands! (or Feet) & Other Focus Issues

​It was a summer when I was in Junior High School.  They called it Jr. High and not “Middle School” back then (which, by the way, is just a ridiculous way to describe an educational era, but that’s a topic for another day).  I was riding bikes with a friend.  We had old clunkers (long before they were fashionable):  big, white-walled tires, one gear, rear pedal brakes, wide handle bars, striped fenders, and a bell).  These are sold as “classic” models these days; back then they were decidedly not classic (nor even fashionable–certainly not “awesome” or “epic” or “legit”; nay, not even “cool”).

Anyway…we were heading down a long steep hill on a street in an old mill town in Western Massachusetts.  As we were heading down the hill, we were doing various things that I later told my own children to never try…weaving in and out of traffic; off and on the shoulder of the road.  And, in those primeval times, there were no bicycle helmets, fewer seat belts, and even fewer motorcycle helmets.

Anyway (again)…as we headed down the hill, my friend (whose name has been redacted to spare him mocking by his own progeny) decided to really show off.  [Now, showing off presumes there is some audience for the display–usually, for junior high boys, the desired audience is junior high girls; since there were none of those within sight I later wondered exactly for whom we were “showing off.”] 

My friend decided to demonstrate the time-honored “no hands” technique.  He did it really well and managed to maintain course, heading, bearing, and speed all the while.  I was impressed enough to give the “no hands” technique a go myself.  And, I am still very proud to say, I did it with equal aplomb.  But, not to be glossed over in junior high history annals as a mere follower, I decided to augment my “no hands” technique with the rarely seen (and legendary–we’re talking Knights of the Round Table or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. legendary) “no feet” technique.  So, I temporarily placed my hands back on the handle bars one at a time while I placed my feet up over the handle bars (I had to lift my left leg up over the bicycle’s bell–a tricky move which induced some unwanted bicycle wobble) and brought them into the center of the handle bars so that they were securely in place on the handle bars…feet neatly touching and resting right over the bike’s top tube.

Once my feet and legs were in place, I lifted both hands from the handlebars and “presto” I was riding “no hands” and “no feet.”  I looked over at my friend, wind whipping through my hair, a look of conquest on my face and said, “Look!  No hands or feet!!” in that triumphant tone known well in junior high school boy circles. 

[I did catch a momentary glance of what I later realized was “mouth agape” disbelief (you know, the cartoon kind–the jaw plummets to the ground and the entire mouth is left open like the entrance to some great cave) on the part of a passing car’s driver.]

However…my feelings of bicycling superiority and, yea, even near manly majesty, were quickly replaced by the sensation (at first ignored) that my entire bicycling enterprise was slowly listing to the right.  Then, realization and gravity both firmly set in.  Gravity, in particular, took hold in its insistent kind of way and we (that is, me and my bike…which, though chagrined at being ridden by such an idiot, was nonetheless gamely going down for the count with me) continued the glacially paced tipping to our right side.

I can only think that it was those super wide, white-walled tires that kept us up for as long as we were up.  And then, just as we (my bike and I) were nearly parallel to the ground, I had two near simultaneous thoughts:  (1) I was going to die and, (2) how was I going to explain my crumpled bike to my parents?  

[Those of you with more wits than I could corral at that moment will realize that if (1) came about, then (2) would clearly not be my problem.  But then junior high boys caught up in misadventure rarely muster anything remotely resembling keen intellect–Harry Potter notwithstanding.]

Finally we (my trusty bike and I) came into contact with the asphalt; we were probably going at least 40 miles an hour (I don’t know for sure; we didn’t have speedometers on our bikes in those days; we just relied on keeping up with the cars to gauge our speed.)  Once in contact with the asphalt we slid for several yards before coming to an abrupt halt caused by a close encounter of the concrete curb kind. 

And–I was not dead!  [I did have an abrasion the size of Fenway Park (Did you see how I snuck baseball in there?  Clever, huh!) down the entire length of my right arm.]  More importantly though…my bike was not crumpled!!  The handle bars would require some crude adjustment to once again be perpendicular to the rest of the bike and the right pedal had somehow been folded into a very cool “V” shape.  But all of that could be explained away using typical junior high school boy (JHB) syntax. 

[Parent, “Why are your handle bars and pedal messed up?”  JHB, “Ummm…are they?  I ummm…don’t know.  Maybe (insert name of any friend away on vacation here in valiant attempt to thwart fact checking) did it?”  Parent, “Isn’t (reinsert previous name here) out of town?”  JHB, “I dunno…is he?”  You can play this game forever; you just keep inserting different names until said parent assesses that the observed bicycle damage is not in the catastrophic range and loses interest.  Parent will then move on to, “What happened to your arm?”  JHB, “My arm, ummm slid hard into second?”  Parent, “Where’s your glove?”  JHB, “Ummm…I dunno…must be around here somewhere.”]

So I survived that moment of junior high stupidity.  As I’ve reflected on that experience over the years, I’ve thought several things.  Two primary things stick out:  (1) How could I be so utterly stupid?  But then, since I was a JHB, “stupid” was pretty much the default “operating system” for my life.  But, (2–which only eventually came to me) was, how important it is to keep one’s focus on the main thing.  In that case, showing off with stupid stunts was not the main thing (especially since there were no junior high school girls around); riding the bike was the main thing. 

God is good; I was not killed (and my bike was not crumpled beyond repair).  But less distraction than I experienced that day has been enough to derail the most significant of endeavors.  And that’s a shame–particularly in the Body of Christ.

I suppose this memory hits me at this time of year when I look around and see the so many (and so many well-intended) distractions of the Christmas Season.  How far we have come from the amazement of simple shepherds encountering the Baby Jesus for the very first time.  Wrapping (and rapping) and lights and K-Mart Joe Boxer commercials and Santa and Rudolph and the latest Hunger Games movie release and wars and rumors of wars and, well…you get the point, all have the potential to keep us from focus on the main thing–the main person:  Jesus.

“For me to live is Christ,” the Apostle Paul said.  “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life,” the Apostle Peter said.  If we lived 364 days with Paul’s motto in mind and we lived 364 days with Peter’s realization in mind, I think we would be less distracted and more focused as the 365th day (Christmas) approached.  We would be less prone to “fall off our bikes” doing stupid stunts and more likely to see past the distractions and discover the living Lord Jesus just there…behind the hustle, the bustle, and the tussles.  Jesus:  calling us to Himself; encouraging us to be laser sharp in our focus on Him…His will and His ways and His work. 

© All rights reserved.  Scripture from the NIV, Zondervan.


Out of Step (Parenting) & Other Cadence Challenges

​There is genuine beauty in the mobile symmetry of a marching unit.  Be it a band or a brigade, the simultaneously duplicated movements are captivating.  When I was in the military, I had the great fortune to command an Air Force Basic Military Training Squadron.  Twice weekly the unit, along with all the other Basic Training squadrons, would march in parade for family, friends, and distinguished visitors.  The Military Training Instructors, in their uniquely soft spoken and encouraging way, would work with the Basic Trainees to perfect the art of marching in step.  The best training instructors will tell you that, for optimal marching results, getting the entire group together (as a unit) at the beginning, is the best way to build the habits required for marching in step.  Later additions to the group, folks who were not part of the original unit, can throw things off completely.  The later additions can eventually catch the rhythm of the original group but it is decidedly harder.  Staying “in step” is a tough gig for the newbies.

Which is why I wonder why they call it “Step Parenting.”  Because this step parent is very, very rarely in step.  Step parents are from the outside–grafted into an existing family system that already has its distinctive movements and patterns and speeds.  Depending upon the ages of the “step children” and the whereabouts of other biological parents, step parenting can be a seriocomic marching disaster.  Zigging when needing to zag; zagging when needing to zig.  Marking time when everyone else is at double time; double timing to catch up to everyone else marking time.  It’s enough to make a seasoned marching veteran run for the hills–if only one knew where the hills have been hidden in the land of step parenting.

There is, in my step parenting experience and observation, rarely such thing as a “unit”–what usually exists is a series of momentarily coterminous “family-like” entities that bang into each other for relatively short periods of time.  Those collisions can be innocuous or they can be toxic.  As the outsider–the step parent–knowing which result will attain is tough to predict.  And, more importantly, knowing the cadence to try to help ensure a better outcome (to try to get in step) is nigh on impossible to predetermine.  More often it’s like playing Russian Roulette–only this revolver has a round in nearly every chamber instead of just one.  With each pull of the trigger, the step parent realizes, again, how out of step he or she really is.

Boundaries, other parent complications, schedules, tentacles of other step family connections, and financial issues all combine with some eerie atmospheric to make staying “in step” a challenge.

I know that there are step parents who have meshed really well with their step children and their other step relatives.  I marvel at the seeming miracle of it and applaud the sense of relational cadence those “in step” parents have achieved.  And yes…I have read the books (well, ok, I have looked at all the book titles on Amazon.com, skimmed some of the material, and read bits of it); I know that step parenting is much more art than science.  This particular artist is just desperately hoping for the “paint by number” version of the picture so that he has at least a fighting chance of getting one or two colors in the right places before it doesn’t matter any more. 

I look to the Scriptures to see Mordecai becoming an effective step (and later adoptive) parent to Esther and, of course, Joseph becoming the earthly father to Jesus; I am genuinely awestruck by the devotion to someone else’s children–a level of devotion that seems out of reach when one is so hopelessly out of step.

Here’s praying for the grace, the perseverance, the fortitude, and the devotion it takes to keep trying to get in step for this particular step parent.  

Psalm 121

A song of ascents.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
    where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip—
    he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you—
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm—
    he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
    both now and forevermore.

© All rights reserved.  Scripture from the NIV, Zondervan.


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