Thursday, March 29, 2012

Lent Day 37 - The Way Up is Down

Read Matthew 20:20-28 

Growing up, my brother and I were intensely competitive. Whether it was basketball, ping-pong, or board games, each of us wanted not only to beat the other, but destroy him in the process. Along the way, we discovered ways to emphasize the score when we happened to be on the winning end. One of favorite things to do during a game of checkers came from an early episode of The Cosby Show. Rudy, the youngest of the Huxtable clan, is only about five or six and challenges her older brother Theo to a game of checkers. Theo doesn’t really want to play, he’s got more important things to do as a teenager, but agrees anyway. At first, Theo puts it to Rudy jumping quite a few of Rudy’s checkers, but he is soon distracted by some of the other family events about him. All the while Rudy stays focused on the game. Eventually she sees her chance and seizes it. Jump. . . double jump . . . triple jump and then the now famous line, “King Me! King Me! King Me!” At least it is famous in the Sandlin household. My brother and I both loved to be able to yell that line at each other.

Most of us like to be the king. Maybe we don’t want to be king of the world, but all of us want to be numero uno at something. Whether it’s being the leading salesman or the best athlete or the gal with the most Facebook friends, we want to stand out; we want to be noticed; we want it to be our name on people’s lips. Our attempts to get to the front of the line can be innocent enough. Often we get there fair and square. Sometimes though, if we’re honest, we bend the rules to our advantage. Either way, rarely does our climb towards the top occur without some collateral damage. We trample on another person’s feelings, or interests, or rights in order to steal the spotlight, to grab the headlines, or to guarantee the promotion. Not that any of us would admit to such blatant disregard for others. As Phil Lineberger, pastor of Sugarland Baptist Church once said in a sermon, “We all want to be great, but we don't want folks to know we want to be great.” So we become masters of subtle self-promotion, but don’t be deceived, we all are looking for our own chance to yell “king me.”

This Sunday is Palm Sunday. Those who saw Jesus on that day may have thought that’s exactly what he was doing – grasping for power. As far as they could tell, Jesus had been jockeying for position for a few years now. They’d heard the reports of large crowds and miraculous healings. There were even a few rumors of mass feedings. He seemed to have everything in place for quite a run. He still had quite a few hurdles to jump. Mainly Roman hurdles, but the people longed for liberation and thought Jesus might just be the one whose shouts of “King Me! King Me!” could bring an end to the Roman occupation. So the people shouted and laid their coats at his feet because they could see that Jesus was a man on the move.

 Jesus was on the move that Palm Sunday long ago, but not in the direction of the people’s expectations. He wasn’t on the way up, as they hoped, but the way down. He wasn’t grasping for power but letting go. At least, that’s how Paul would describe Jesus’ journey a few decades later when he wrote, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross.” In other words, Jesus was showing us that the way up, is actually the way down. The path to a God kind of power isn’t in figuring out how to be the king, but in following the King who gave up his glory to serve us all.

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many – Matthew 20:26-27.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Lent Day 30 - Hide your face from my sins

When my children were younger they would often ask me to turn around when they wanted to do something that they didn’t want me to know about. My son was especially prone to this very direct form of parental evasion. “Dad, could you please turn around for a minute.” “Why?” “No reason, just turn around.” As I turned around, I could usually spot him doing something out of the corner of my eye that he had already been instructed not to do, like picking his nose. As he’s grown older, he’s learned better forms of dodging his father’s gaze.

Old habits die hard for all of us, though. How many adults still practice this childish behavior when it comes to seeking forgiveness from God? We pray God, please forgive me for what I’ve done, or sometimes even, for what I am about to do! We may even quote a scripture, like Psalm 51:9, “Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquity.” What we mean, of course, is God, please don’t look at me right now while I do what I want to do even though I know it’s not what you want me to do. What we want isn’t forgiveness but for God to feign ignorance of our transgressions.

True repentance looks different from that. The truly repentant heart desires not only to be set free from the consequences of sin, but even more so, to actually be set free from sinning. Look at the next few verses of Psalm 51. David doesn’t just want God to hide his face from David’s sins; he wants God to set him free from sinning. Verse ten continues, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” David wants his heart to be pure. Far from wanting God to turn around and avert his gaze, David longs to be assured of God’s attention and presence. “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” God’s attention and gaze provide David with both the ability and motivation to do what is right.

The next time you seek God’s forgiveness, remember, forgiveness isn’t about God pretending to be ignorant about our sins. True forgiveness is about God seeing our sins and doing something about it, namely, setting us free from both the stain of our past sins and the slavery of future sinning.

 Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting – Psalm 139:23-24.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Lent Day 16 - The blessedness of breaks

This Sunday marks the beginning of spring break for many in our community. Friends and family will embark upon road trips across this country. For many, a road trip is a necessary evil required for getting from point A to point B. For the attentive, however, the trip can be as meaningful as the destination so long as we remember to stop along the way. Eugene Peterson, who makes his home in Montana, explains that when his family takes a road trip they make a point of paying attention to those signs that announce “Roadside Vista Ahead.” He writes, “In anticipation we slow down. And then we look. We see where we’ve been; we see where we’re headed. Take a breather. Eat a snack. Enjoy the scenery. We can’t always be driving, watching the road closely. Not driving is also part of the trip – savoring what we’ve done, absorbing the landscape, letting the contours of the land and the colors of the horizon sink into our imaginations.”[i]

In the road trip of life, we often call such moments holidays or vacations or possibly even Sabbaths – moments when we can pause and relax and reflect. Sometimes, like during spring break, the holidays are set on the calendar for some general purpose – like resting in the midst of our work or school. Other times, these “rest stops” occur at the culmination of some great process and are often accompanied by some type of ceremony – a wedding, a graduation, the birth of a child. Sometimes they surprise us – like when we realize our children are no longer babies and wonder when that happened and how we missed it. Some such moments grab us when we’d rather not be taken hold of, like the death of someone we love. It seems almost sacrileges to call the death of a loved one a holiday – but if we trace the root of the word back to its original sense – a holy day, perhaps you’ll understand what I’m attempting to get at. For what can be more holy than pausing at the time of a friend’s passing from this life to the next to offer thanks, to express grief, and to ponder the meaning of it all?

True life requires such moments, moments of thanksgiving, moments of grief, moments of reflection. That is, if you want your life to be a human life and not like those of the animals who rush from moment to moment with no thought for the past and no understanding of the future. Moments of reflection help us put today in its proper perspective. They help us see the truth of our present situations in light of the larger narrative of our lives and, ultimately, in the light the even larger narrative of God’s life. Sabbath, after all, is not a repudiation of the rest of the week, but rather an invitation to put the rest of the week into proper perspective. Rest stops, whatever form they take, don’t keep us from the journey so much as they keep us journeying in the way God intends.

So this week blessings on you many travels, but also, blessings upon the pit stops along the way.

[i] Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over a Wall (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 137.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Lent Day 14: A Masterpiece of My Mess (Revisited)

Easier Than Honesty by Erick Sandlin
This is a re-posting of the very first entry on this blog. It fits in well with the season of Lent.

Have you ever had something you were working on become messed up? It’s a horrible feeling. I can remember a time as a child I was working on a painting. I had been taking art classes, and whether or not my talent warranted it, I took the whole endeavor rather seriously. Just weeks before the county fair (where I hoped to enter my painting and maybe win a prize) I was putting the finishing touches upon a dramatic landscape filled with billowing clouds and mighty evergreens. I was cleaning some brushes when I turned in time to see a classmate bump up against my painting creating an ugly streak right across the face of the clouds. “AHHHH! It’s ruined,” I exclaimed. My third grade heart with its oversized ambitions was devastated. My teacher came over to see what the commotion was about. She tried to calm me and assured me, that sometimes, what are initially mistakes, can become the workings of a masterpiece. And with skill and grace, she took brush in hand and worked magic on that canvas, redeeming the scar and making it an integral part of a glorious sky.

When I think about the grand story of the Bible, I see God at much the same work. Again and again, through our sins, we mar the work of God. Last Sunday, we looked at that first sin in the garden. We talked about the sad fact that in Adam and Eve we became takers instead of receivers. The pattern plays itself out in the next few chapters. Cain took Abel’s life. Lamech took revenge on a young man who had injured him by killing him and then took delight in having done so. Evil became so great that God attempted a new start with Noah after the flood, but even then, our fallen humanity failed to receive the new start with open hands. With the ground still moist, Canaan took some potshots at his drunk, naked father. Noah then took Canaan’s folly as a chance to curse his own flesh and blood. And then in chapter 11, the whole world, it says, took on heaven, building a tower to the skies that they might make a name for themselves.

The first eleven chapters of the Bible are enough of a mess that it’s a wonder God allowed there to be a twelfth. But as is his nature, we find God giving once more. His gift in chapter 12 is a simple but lasting promise. God gives Abram a promise that serves as the initial brush strokes in his great work of salvation history. For the rest of the Bible, the painting unfolds, stroke by stroke, color by color until God redeems our errors for his glory by painting the picture that culminates in Jesus Christ and the redemption of our souls – God’s masterpiece from our mess. Whatever messes existed in your past or exist in your life today, take time to thank God that he makes, as Isaiah puts it, beauty of our ashes (see Isaiah 61:1-4).

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”Ephesians 3:20-21

Monday, March 5, 2012

Lent: Day 13 - I'm bad at Lent (and I'm ok with that)

Read Luke 11:37-44 

Every religious tradition has a set of rules that helps distinguish insiders from outsiders. In my tradition (at least in the past) that involved no dancing, no drinking, wearing nice clothes to church, etc. I imagine in your tradition the rules might be a little different but the point is the same – to differentiate us from them. Where’s the danger in that? Well, Jesus says there’s plenty. First, we tend to pick the rules we like to keep, the rules that are easy for us to keep – so that we do indeed look different from “sinners” (at least on the outside, on the inside we have a way of looking a lot like them). And we create these little systems by which we reward one another for keeping the rules that are easy for us to keep. We puff ourselves up and put others down. And that’s why Jesus gets so upset. He’s upset with our self-deception. He’s upset with our self righteousness. He’s upset with the fact that we think we’ve arrived without his help. He’s upset, because he loves us and he knows that our game of self-righteousness is mortally dangerous. Unlike the grosser sins where our distance from God is fairly obvious, we’ve whitewashed our tombs so that no one, at times not even ourselves, knows the deadness inside. This is dangerous because we tend not do anything about the sins we are unaware of. It’s like undiagnosed high blood pressure. Self-righteousness is the silent killer of a life of faith.

Lent, itself, can be a practice that when done poorly perpetuates self-righteousness. One of my professors, Roger Olson, recently wrote of the trend of more and more Baptists celebrating Lent. He doesn't view Lent as an evil, but rather, something that's not necessary for the life of faith. As one of those Baptists he talks about, I appreciate his article. First, I appreciate it because I firmly believe that wisdom is often found in a dissenting voice especially when that dissent is about popular trends (This keeps me squarely in the Baptist tradition!). Second, I appreciate the warning that whether we observe Lent or not, the issue of our spiritual vitality cannot be reduced to our religious practices even if it involves them. Observing Lent or not observing Lent, just like the washing of hands or not washing hands, isn't what matters. Rather, Jesus says, what's required is obedience to all of God's ways, a complete surrendering of our lives to him. When we reduce our faith to either keeping or not keeping a certain ritual, we run the risk of thinking that by keeping our small list of rules, we have arrived at God's will for our lives.

Truth be told, I’ve had a lot of trouble keeping up with my Lenten commitments. And at least for the moment, I’m glad I’m not good at it. You see, I’ve been a Baptist for a long time. I’m pretty good at being a Baptist. I know all the ins and outs of keeping the outside of my Baptist cup pretty clean, as I’m sure you know how to keep the outside of your Methodist or Episcopalian or Catholic cup pretty clean as well. But I’m not so good at Lent. I’ve already messed up plenty this year. You'll notice I have not blogged like I said I would. Remarkably, like I said, I’ve found that failure to be a gift – a reminder that I too am a sinner in need of grace, a work in progress, a person who though not perfect, is still being made perfect by the One who already is.