Thursday, October 31, 2013

More than a costume

Like most kids, I loved Halloween when I was younger. There was the candy, obviously, but also the costumes. Surprisingly, I can only remember two of the costumes I wore as a child. 

The first I remember because it was the go to costume in our house on many occasions – the hobo. The reason was simple enough. Dressing up as a hobo required little to no preparation. Put on some of dad’s old clothes. Smudge some of mom’s mascara on your face to look like you just spent a rough night out by the tracks. VoilĂ ! You’re a hobo. 

The only other costume I remember wearing was a Luke Skywalker costume. This wasn’t any Luke Skywalker, this was Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing Fighter Costume. You know, the orange jumpsuit costume. I remember this costume for one reason and one reason only – it was awesome! It allowed me to pretend I was something far more than a six year old boy – I was a rebel fighter pilot zooming through space to help defeat the evil empire!

It’s amazing how our clothes can change the way we perceive ourselves. We know that to a degree, we are the same person beneath our garments. But what we wear can cause us to lean into a certain way of being. Dress like a hobo and you just might find yourself acting like a hobo. Dress like a hero, well, you just might find yourself filling the part. There’s a reason we get dressed up for work or for competition or for an important event like a wedding or a funeral. Our clothing often helps us live appropriately in the moment in which we find ourselves.

It’s no wonder that the Bible often uses clothing as a metaphor for the Christian life. The apostle Paul was especially fond of this image. He challenged the Romans to “put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). He encouraged the Colossians to “clothe [themselves] with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience . . . and over all these virtues put on love which binds them together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12, 14). To the Ephesians, he returns to the image of armor, inviting them to “put on the full armor of God” (Ephesians 6:13).

At first glance, images like the armor of light or clothes made out of things like compassion and kindness, might feel like nothing more than a costume. When we attempt to put them on in place of our normal clothes of selfishness and sin, we might feel like we are just pretending to be something we are not. Remarkably, Paul claims these things are no costume. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has purchased these new clothes as our regular wear. If we’ll consciously put them on each morning, we’ll find ourselves leaning into the very life for which we were redeemed.
So go ahead and get dressed up both today and every day.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mug Shots vs. Family Photos

Over the last couple of weeks, several websites have come under fire for what some critics call extortion. These sites publish mug shots to the web and then charge people to have the photos taken down. The cost to have your mug shot taken down ranges from $178 to $399 per site. With four major sites in operation, getting a picture removed might cost someone as much as $1600.

Supporters of the websites claim that they are providing the public with an essential service by making public information more easily accessible to employers and concerned citizens. Critics argue that the way these particular webpages publish the information unfairly shames those who have been arrested but not convicted. For example, thanks to these sites, a person’s mug shot will often show up in a search engine’s results even if they were never convicted. This might lead a potential employer to wrongly conclude the person has been convicted of a crime.

I for one am glad that God is more gracious to us than we often are to one another. When it comes to our spiritual mug shots, not a one of us can take solace in the fact that our charges have been dropped. We are all guilty as charged, and yet, according to the scriptures, there is not a heavenly version of Christ Jesus has already paid the price to have our mug shots taken down. No matter how much our sin increased, God’s grace abounded all the more (See Rom 5:20). The only pictures of us in God’s kingdom are the ones a Father keeps of his children.

In a world that almost delights in shaming the guilty, it’s no wonder that some people struggle to understand the biblical assurance that God's love is a love that keeps no record of wrongs. Take some time today to sit with this glorious promise of God in Isaiah 43:25, “I am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.

Ponder, too, how might God's love shape our love of neighbor - even the one's with mug shots?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Learning to Listen for the Common Good

When I sit down with couples who are either married or thinking about marriage, one of the first things we tend to work on is the ability to listen attentively to each other. Listening attentively is more difficult than it sounds. Usually, when we are speaking with another person, our brain is preoccupied with what we want to say or accomplish in the conversation. As such, we often barely listen at all to what another person is saying. We catch words or phrases and assume that we know what they mean. “After all,” we think, “haven’t we had this argument a thousand times before!” While we look like we are listening, what we are usually doing is formulating our own response to what we think our spouse or significant other is saying.

Inattentive listening is disastrous for resolving conflict. How can we resolve a conflict with another person if we don’t actually pay attention to their point of view? Even more disconcerting, inattentive listening is devastating for the ultimate welfare of a couple or family. We can only have long term relationships with people we actually know. To know someone, we have to listen to them.

In marital counseling, we practice this by having one partner say out loud what they want or wish the other person would do (or stop doing) and how that would make them feel. The other person then, in his or her own words, repeats back the essence of what the other person is saying without jumping ahead to a response. The point of the exercise is to practice active listening. Active listening seeks to understand before it responds.

The practice sessions can be pretty funny. People have a hard time actually listening to their spouse or fiancé and not jumping to a response. Some remarkable things start to happen when we actually stop and listen to the other person is really saying:
  1. We often find more common ground than we anticipated. 
  2. We often find that what the person really wants is something we are glad to give them.
When we listen to each other in this way, we move from having winners and losers in our relationship to seeking the common good. The common good is a concept that has a rich history in Christian teaching. It is the idea that when society benefits as a whole, its individual parts also benefit. This is why we have public schools and public health programs. It’s why we work together as a city to promote, say, downtown businesses or the park system.

Seeking the common good is rooted not only in logic, but in the biblical story. In the passage we’ll be looking at this weekend, Jeremiah does something incredible, he tells the people who are being taken away into exile to seek the prosperity of Babylon, to pray for their captors, and to wish them well, for when they prosper, so will the exiles (see Jeremiah 29:4-7). Far from looking out only for themselves, the Jewish exiles were to look out for the welfare of their enemies! This is a radical example of seeking the common good.

Lately, in our country, we have been struggling to seek the common good. Instead, we primarily have wanted to seek our own way and our own will in the political process. This is true of Republicans and Democrats. It seems apparent that this is a way that leads to disaster for all of us. Our political opponents aren’t going anywhere, and yet, we have stopped listening to their concerns. In truth, both political parties have important concerns. Finding a solution to the enormous debt our country continues to build is a significant concern, but so is finding a way to make health care accessible to every person in our country.

My guess is that in reading that last sentence many of you have already fast forwarded to your particular party’s talking points. Such limited forms of communication have us like a couple fighting the same fight over and over again – stuck with no hope for moving forward. Perhaps, it’s time to go back to the basics. I don’t know if our politicians will do this, but we sure can. When is the last time you sought out a political opponent and asked them their opinion and then actually listened? Listening isn’t only helpful for seeking the common good, it’s essential!

If you don’t actually know any members of the opposite political party, that might be part of the problem. I’d encourage you to cross the divide by personally getting to know someone who doesn’t vote like you. At the very least, read some articles by thoughtful members of another political persuasion. So long as we are in this only to win it for the people who think like us, we’ll all be losers. When we learn to see our opponents as people with whom we are in this together, like it or not, then we might just have a chance.

If the Jewish exiles could seek the welfare of Babylon, surely we, as the citizens of this country, Democrat and Republican and anything in between, can seek the common good of the place in which we live.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. – James 1:19-20

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Save us from the maddness.

During a week in which most news about the government shutdown has simply reported that there’s no new news to report, one person is making headlines for his provocative words on the floor of the Senate. No, there’s no renegade Senator deviating from his party’s talking points. Instead, Barry Black, the Senate Chaplain, has started praying morning prayers that have turned this normally tame ritual into the talk of the town. Last Thursday he prayed:

Have mercy upon us, O God, and save us from the madness. We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcoming, our smugness, our selfishness, and our pride. Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew a right spirit within us. Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable. Remove the burdens of those who are the collateral damage of this government shutdown, transforming negatives into positives as you work for the good of those who love you. We pray in your merciful name, amen.
Yesterday’s prayer was even more pointed as he blasted those responsible for the shutdown over the fact that death benefits to the families of fallen soldiers have been delayed by the shutdown. These have been impressive, prophetic prayers, and both Democrats and Republicans have taken notice. Some have even responded favorably to his prayer. Of course, by favorably, I mainly mean, they think the prayer is spot on for the other side.

We’re like that aren’t we? We love to hear words of condemnation from on high, so long as they are aimed at our opponents. Just so we’re clear, such a response is not actually responding favorably to the Lord’s correction. Our first words upon hearing a tough word from the Lord should always be words of humility: “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).

Smugness? Hypocrisy? Pride? It’s not just politicians who need to confess such things. Far too often, those words also describe me.

Have mercy upon us, O God, save us from the madness, indeed.