Saturday, August 30, 2008

“A Better Life?”

“We want a better life for our children.” I wonder how many times this phrase has been spoken by the various political candidates as the presidential race goes into hyper-speed. Each time, I also wonder what that means. I know I have said the same thing—I too want a better life for my children. Or at least I say I do. But what is it that I want to be better?

If it means a safer, more physically comfortable one, one without major life challenges, or without experiences or want or hunger or thirst or poverty or risk-taking or failure, we are setting ourselves and our children up for disaster. It is those very challenges that develop character and create better people.

You may have heard about the nine-year-old New Haven, Connecticut baseball player, Jericho Scott, who was recently told he had to leave his league team because he pitched too well. Rationale from the parents on the teams that inevitably lost when they played Scott’s team went something like this, “He’s too good. Our children get discouraged when they have to play against someone that good.” By the way, it was couched in terms of safety—he might hit one of the children with his 40 mph fastball. Note: he has yet to hit a child with a wild pitch. But, of course he might.

Oh my, how sad. So what happens when these children face other obstacles in life where they are outmatched? Do mommy and daddy insist that those other obstacles just disappear so their little one never has to be discouraged? Probably—all in the name of giving their children a better life. Such a scenario guarantees weak, unchallenged, unmotivated children who do not know how to keep trying, or how to get up again after failure and learn something from it.

Many bad things might happen, just as this talented youngster might someday throw a wild pitch and end up bruising the batter. Do we create a better life for our children by protecting them from the things that might happen or do we create a better life for them by equipping them with wisdom and education and experiences that will give them the resources to face life’s complications? Of course, this is not always an “either/or” situation. There are things we need to protect them from in order to be good parents and grandparents and caregivers. I would suggest, however, that to protect them from failure, from feeling bad, from losing to someone better or more skilled, from being hungry or thirsty on occasion, from wanting something and not getting it, from knowing that all living things must die for the world to go on, will end up with a group of young people with almost no internal equipment to face their lives.

No matter how much we wish to deny it, we live in a world that seems full of random events. Hurricanes will form during hurricane season—and some of the will land in populated areas. Tornadoes, floods, volcanic eruptions, even meteor strikes, cannot be controlled or avoided. They happen. If nothing else, wild weather always reminds us that our hope of controlling the world—or making a perfect life for our children—is simply an illusion. Instructions found in the Bible about rearing our children insist that the best gift we give our children is the gift of wisdom. In this way, the ‘better world” is one in which they use that wisdom to face their hurricanes—or better pitchers—and become stronger and more capable in the process.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Lies or Truths?

There is a form of literature called “hagiography.” Somewhat like a biography, it is the telling of the story of a person’s life that deliberately accentuates his or her sainthood, or special gift of goodness and closeness to God. That kind of writing idealizes a person. No one can tell the full story of someone in a biography, but the hagiography intentionally picks and usually exaggerates the supernatural connection and decisions and accomplishments that seem beyond those that most normal humans can do.

Several weeks ago, I wrote an article for the Denton Record Chronicle musing on the song, “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” Today, I believe that in addition to our love, people will also know we are Christians by our willingness to tell the truth about ourselves. In other words, we as Christians must stop being our own hagiographers.

I write this because of my disgust over a recent YouTube segment. I will not reveal the details except to say that someone I knew was being introduced by a well-known TV evangelist. The evangelist said things about this individual which cast the person in a glowing, holy light of special insight into and heroic obedience to the will of God. Implication: “you, too, can be blessed this way if you will make the same decisions.” But it was, at best, a highly sanitized stretch of the reality. At worst, it was a pack of lies. I don’t know if the speaker didn’t know the truth, or if the individual had presented this version of life in this new setting. I do know that this was hagiography at its best—or at its worst, as the case may be.

It’s hard work to live as a Christian. It takes discipline and practice and repetition and intentionality to consistently live in the holy light of God and to speak truth. We all battle the human tendency to hide and blame others and be irresponsible and to stretch the truth so we look better. The entrance into the Christian world of grace and intimacy with God brings with it the understanding that since we have been reconciled to God, then we must also reconcile with the world around us. That kind of reconciliation demands that we forgive as we have been forgiven, that we love our enemies, serve others with generosity and lay down our lives for those who don’t deserve it. Not one easy thing to do among that list, and every single person fails repeatedly in the process of learning to be a mature and integrated Christian. It is grace, not our performance, that keeps us going. It is grace that gives us the courage to pick ourselves up yet once more, dust ourselves off, know that God still loves us, and head out again to offer bold righteousness and transforming love to the world around us.

When we write our own hagiographies and set ourselves up as models of Christian living and say, “See, it’s so easy. Do what I do and you will get all these blessings,” then we have done a terrible disservice to the community around us. By our lies, we set people up to be disappointed with God.

I admit that this tirade is clearly aimed at those who preach the “prosperity gospel,” particularly the TV preachers. They parade behind unimaginable riches, gleaned from the nearly empty checkbooks of the vulnerable people they prey upon. With perfect hair and teeth glaringly white, clothed in expensively tailored clothes, having traveled in comfort in private jets, they say, “Send me more money and you, too, can live like this. Because if you are not, God is not blessing you.” And it is all a lie.

Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Well, let us get free from those who would prey upon the vulnerable. Let us get free from those who write their own hagiographies and then preach riches as blessings. Let us get free to love.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Homework and Grace

School has started and we’ve all seen much buzz about the Dallas Independent School District’s new grading policy. My first reaction, like so many others, was simply one of horror. It looked like school administrators were removing any incentive for students to complete homework on time—or even bother to turn it in--or study for tests the first time around, knowing they could take them later without grade penalty or other repercussions.

Later, however, I took the time to read the whole thing, not just the snippets announced on the news or printed in the paper. Reading the whole report much more clearly shows the intent: let’s find a way to help our students learn the material and pass their courses. Let’s make sure that parents know what is happening. Let’s offer the second chance that every one has needed from time to time and see if this will help keep young people in school until they have mastered the basics of education.

The school district is trying to implement what is basic to the Christian world, what I’ve often called “the do-over.” It’s the “do-over” that shows us the grace of God. It is the nature of the good news, announced by the angels on the night of Jesus’ birth: a savior has come and this savior reconnects a broken world and broken people with an unbroken and holy God. In the Incarnation, i.e., the act of God taking on human form, the impossible becomes possible. In the Incarnation, the ultimate “do-over” takes place. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus give the ultimate second chance. And I don’t know one single human being that has not needed a lot of second chances.

However, most of us will ask at some point: when do we stop giving those second chances? Especially when the pattern seems to be set: no preparation, no forethought, no mindfulness, no consequences, and continued failure, be it academic or moral. Again, when I first heard of this policy, my immediate thought: no employer will ever again want to hire a graduate from the Dallas ISD. I myself am a proud DISD graduate, so this is not a pleasant thought.

Who would want to hire someone who always assumes that someone else is going to clean up his or her messes? Who wants an employee who has never taken real responsibility for personal failure and expects the system to always smooth the path in front without ever having learned the lessons from the past? Nobody—nor is this what the new homework/test policy advocates. But is this what the church teaches with its emphasis on the grace of God and the endless forgiveness promised by the good news of Jesus Christ? Is that what we get: a free “bye” on responsibility because we live in a world of grace?

I can just hear the Apostle Paul yelling out, “May it never be!” For the first century Christians asked the same question: If grace is so free, and if grace grows even more when we sin irresponsibly, then let’s sin with abandon!!!!! No, for then one has only seen just the surface of a grace-filled life. Real grace offers much more than that. It offers not only the second chance, but also the opportunity to grow through that. Real grace is only understood when we face squarely the messes we have made and then do two things: First, we acknowledge the sorrow of the wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness—which is freely given by God. Second, while walking with a light and free step in the midst of that forgiveness, we receive the consequences and discover growth opportunities through them.

In other words, we grow up. There are times when it looks like much of the world has forgotten that childhood is not supposed to last forever. But more on that another time. In the meantime, let’s just all do our homework and study for our tests. If we mess up, let’s hope that the second chance does appear, and receive it gratefully when offered. And then be sure and give that second chance to everyone else. That could change your life.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Church At It's Best

Why bother with church? Why take the time to get involved in something that seems to have little practical value, takes up time, requests your contributions, and asks you to offer worship and praise and adoration to a Supreme Being whom you cannot see or touch and who often seems confusing and invisible?

Well, I can think of dozens of reasons for all people to engage in the discipline of good faith development, but there is one that has particularly struck me this summer. As I wrote several weeks earlier, it has been a summer of sorrow for me as I’ve both presided over and attended many funerals, as well as hearing about severe illnesses of good friends. After I wrote that column, another beloved member of our congregation died. I found myself unable to stop my own tears of grief for days and days afterward. It just seemed too much loss.

In the middle of that sadness, I also saw the church at its best. The loving community moved forward to show the hope of the kingdom of heaven in support, action, prayer, worship and comfort. As we mourned our loss together, that outpouring of love and service also pulled back the curtain just a bit so that we could see more clearly what it really is like to live in the unfathomable loving presence of our God.

There are three major transition times in people’s lives when the tendency is strongest to turn to a place of worship: birth, marriage and death. Shortly after a child is born, many parents, whether regular church-goers or not, will seek either to have the child baptized or dedicated, depending upon the church tradition. At the time of marriage, many people, whether regular church-goers or not, will seek out a church and pastor for the ceremony, recognizing that marriage vows really are sacred and need to be celebrated in a place of worship. At the time of death, many families, whether regular church-goers or not, will turn to a pastor or request the funeral home to provide one in order to have a place to make sense of their loss and find hope for the life to come.

But church at its best happens when, at the time of life’s transitions, the church community is already in place. The word “family” takes on a whole new meaning. People you have served with and worshipped with and eaten with and sometimes even argued with then come forth to stand with you, offer hugs and meals, extra care and multitudes of prayers on your behalf. Church at its best means that many arms are extended to hold you up when you lose the strength to do that for yourself. Church at its best means that a call to begin a prayer chain will within hours create large circles of comfort and help, even from those whom you barely know, simply because you do worship together. Church at its best means you will later give that same gift to others when the transition moments of their lives take their breaths away as well.

Church at its best is better than anyplace else because it is the doorway to the place of true grace. Church at its best happens when people bring both their own best and their own worst into the community and experience together the transformation of grace offered through Jesus Christ. Church at its best happens when we bother with church.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Holy Meal

I recently heard about a movie named “Kids” where, according to the reviewer, “a band of teen-agers forages for sex, drugs, and booze on New York City streets.” Daily, the kids drank and smoked, and grabbed the always available fast food. The young people portrayed in this movie were apparently not an underprivileged group. Money was freely available. What they didn’t have, and what particularly troubled the reviewer, was the experience of regularly sitting down to a family meal. Meals were the ordered on the whim without concern for others. Each person ate in isolation. Without manners or grace, they shoved the grease-laden food almost furtively down their throats. This disturbing picture is becoming way, way too common.

Residents of this fast food nation of ours are rapidly discarding the convention of the family meal. Food is grabbed on the go, gobbled down in the car, eaten hurriedly at sports events, or mindlessly in front of the TV, and prepared so that no one has to encounter unfamiliar food or something disliked. The family meal is on its way out.

The family meal: that time when everyone present in a given household, and not necessarily related, sits down in quietness and intentional conversation, eats what has been prepared with gratefulness and good appetite, and shares what is there, whether it be plenty or scarce.

The family meal: the place where sharing and consideration of others become visible graces. Food is served out of common dishes, passed from person to person. One person taking too much means someone sitting right next to them may go without. It is where table manners are caught by loving example and gentle correction.

The family meal: the ideal time to celebrate our humanness, learning from and listening to one another, rather than acting like wild animals, grabbing first what is available and slinking away when satisfied.

The family meal: perhaps one of the most civilizing forces in society, is being discarded in the name of convenience and busyness. I’ve heard stories of people being denied employment simply by the observance of a lack of table manners. Weight gain plagues most of us because food, instead of being savored and really tasted at a given time and place and in the company of others, is poured unthinkingly down our throats in ever expanding quantities.

Much religious observance centers on the meal. In Christianity, the family meal has been codified in what is called the Mass, the Eucharist, the Service of Holy Communion, or The Lord’s Table, depending on the tradition. No matter the name, each can be called “the holy meal.” In each case, no matter what the tradition, the meal is communal. It is never to be consumed alone. There must always be at least two in attendance. No matter how small a morsel of bread, or how tiny the drop of liquid (wine or grape juice, again depending on the tradition), those morsels are partaken thoughtfully and gratefully in the presence of others.
This is the place we intentionally encounter the living presence of God. It is not to be entered into lightly. Again, different traditions do this differently, but in the United Methodist Church, the invitation to partake is extended to all. We say, “Come . . . come to this table that has been set for you. Lay down the many things distracting you for a bit. Come, savor the love of God and the grace given to you. Come, partake, receive.”
Ideally, the family meal should reflect the holy meal. Come, lay down the distractions. Come, savor the love that prepared the food, whether it be simple bread and water, or a feast fit for royalty. Come, eat with others and listen to their hearts while offering your own.

The re-engagement of that one act alone could turn our society around. Let’s give it a try.

The Courage to be Light

I learned earlier this week about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s death and offered prayers of gratefulness that such a man of courage and integrity could emerge from the corrupt regime of the former Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror. Solzhenitsyn fought in WWII as a Soviet Officer, and was held in high regard by his fellow officers. However, he, as did thousands and perhaps millions of others, landed in one of the many prison camps set up by Stalin.

Solzhenitsyn, unlike so many others, managed to survive, and wrote extensively of his experience. Knowing that anything he actually wrote in the camps would be taken from him—and that years would be added onto his sentences—he would write and then memorize what he wrote before he destroyed it. Using something similar to a set of rosary beads, he memorized over 10,000 lines of poetry which he was then able to reproduce after gaining his freedom.

All that was courageous enough, but the real courage came when he continued to speak out against the repressive government and continued to publish his revealing words despite threats of further imprisonment. He spent many years in exile in the US, but eventually returned to his beloved Russia and lived the rest of his life there.

I have long admired him and have read and re-read many of his works. His Russian Orthodox Christian underpinnings informed his writings. His passion for righteousness in the face of injustice permeated all he wrote. His flawed characters—and some of those were certainly autobiographical—struggled mightily with their own integrity and the price of remaining honest. How much easier to compromise with those in power and perhaps gain an extra crust of bread or a more cushy job in the camps! Only a little informing on one’s cell mates and perhaps a warmer blanket to keep out the Siberian cold might be his! Oh yes, only a little thing—just to be more comfortable.

Again, Solzhenitsyn survived. Most didn’t. The ones who did were the ones more likely to compromise their souls for a bit more food or warmth. This man decided his integrity was worth more than such things, and he was lucky to come through it alive.

His life and death speak to us as they echo the call of Jesus to those who would be his disciples. This high calling demands much and promises little comfort. Yet it also promises formation of character in a way that our lives become powerful messages of hope. That kind of character only comes through challenge and hardship. Those who choose to face those challenges with that kind of courage show us the way of Jesus. Not all will be as famous as Solzhenitsyn, but all can follow that path, and emerge, as did he, as a light that leads those around to the holy light of God.