Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Starting the Second Half of Life


Yesterday, I had my fiftieth birthday. What do I do now?

To start with, I feel a freedom that I have not felt before. Whatever I thought I needed to prove, I don't anymore. To the extent I am going to "arrive" in life, I am there. I am finished with ladder-climbing and looking for where I go next. If the twenties were for learning, the thirties for honing, and the forties for staking my claim in the world, now is the time to take advantage of what I know, what I can do, and where I am. The search is over. Whatever I am going to be, I am.

I am at an age where I can consciously decide how to react to people and things. I simply don't have to worry anymore how I am perceived. Again, whatever I am, I am. What other people think or perceive has zero effect on how I am or am not going to change.


I do not mean to suggest that I am not going to keep learning, keep doing my best, or keep trying to help others. But I do mean that I no longer need to impress, no longer need to react, and no longer need to worry so much.

In other words, I find 50 to be liberating. I guess I feel like an adult now.


There is a lot still to do, and I have a half-century to do it. Yes, I know that demographics and statistics suggest I have some amount of time less than that, but I am telling you how I feel. I am halfway through. I have climbed whatever I am going to climb, and it is time to enjoy where I am. If the next 50 years are "downhill," I don't have to roll down fast. I can take my time.

I don't want to create a typical internet list, but I guess that is what is coming.

Here is what I intend, now that I am 50:
1. Keep learning, but learn what I want to learn.
2. Be intentional about more kindness and less snarkiness - I know by now which one is worth the time.
3. Love more.
4. Say what I mean, and not what I think anyone wants/needs to hear.
5. Relax.

Let's see how I do.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

MLK and The Most Excellent Way

One of the ministers at my church asked me to write a short article with some of my thoughts on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail" for our church newsletter.

Below, slightly edited so it will make sense here, is what I wrote. (Regular readers of "Blogarithmic Expressions" may recognize a couple of sentences from previous posts.)

Dr. King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in April of 1963. Four months later, he delivered his incredible “I Have a Dream” speech. My parents were in the crowd there as a part of the Freedom March, also known as the March on Washington.

I first encountered this Letter in a freshman philosophy class. That was 31 years ago, closer to Dr. King’s day than to today. Some of the circumstances he saw in the 1960s and I saw in the 1980s are still prevalent. We still face racial injustice.

Other issues of the sixties have been surpassed by issues unforeseen by Dr. King and unimaginable to the philosophers and political scientists of his time. We now see animosity directed toward “different” people … and the “differences” that give rise to hostility are many and varied and not always easily categorized. Officials lose their jobs because they express their religious beliefs. We experience vitriol in our public debate that has so deteriorated that many, if not most, of us would rather tune out than get involved.

I believe the problem is this: We don’t love each other enough. We are unwilling to put up with differences. We feel compelled to correct each other – just skim your Facebook feed if you don’t believe me. Too often, we decide that someone who disagrees with us cannot be trusted. Seeking our own way is the new normal.

In his sermon about Jonah, our pastor Brent Beasley said, “Am I prepared to reach out with God’s love to people who are different than I am, whom I don’t like, who make me uncomfortable?” Our church's written order of worship from that Sunday included this quote from William Carter: “When are we going to get it straight that the love of God is for all people?”

Jesus commanded us to love one another and told us people would know we are His disciples by our love. Paul writes: “Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.... Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.”

We still hear Dr. King’s call. Whether you choose individually to stand against discrimination or poison politics is your decision. Whether Broadway chooses to accept and love those who differ from us – the fundamentalist, the radical, the one who sincerely understands scripture differently - is for us as a congregation to consider.

But if we do not first heed the call of Jesus and Paul to love better than we do now, our other choices will be as “resounding gongs and clanging cymbals.” (1 Cor. 13:1)

Dr. King recognized this. The essence of his Letter is his impassioned discussion of “the most excellent way of love.” He closes the Letter by imploring, as perhaps only a Baptist preacher can: “Let us all hope that … in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

In the words of Dr. King, let’s follow Jesus and be “extremists for love.” It is, after all, the most excellent way.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

...That We Should Be Called the Children of God

Poets or children or lunatics.

Rabbi Yehuda Berg writes:"As children, our imaginations are vibrant, and our hearts are open. We believe that the bad guy always loses and that the tooth fairy sneaks into our rooms at night to put money under our pillow. Everything amazes us, and we think anything is possible. We continuously experience life with a sense of newness and unbridled curiosity."

It is a curious moment. When Jesus is asked who will be the greatest in the kingdom, His response is to grab a little child, pull him to the center of the crowd, and tell all who will listen that only those who become like little children will enter the kingdom.

The characteristics of such a child - what Jesus must have in mind - include things like openness, confident reliance, acceptance of gifts, candor (Mark Twain said, "Children tell all they know and then stop."), affectionate love, dependence, honest curiosity, and energy. A child comes into Christ's kingdom trusting and accepting what the Lord offers, loving God and God's people, innocently depending on God for everything, looking around with open eyes to take it all in and find a place to serve. Children are unpretentious, loving and praying and helping without stopping to look at themselves to see if they are doing it right.

Fredrich Buechner says that this passage from Matthew 18 - "become like little children" - may be the most tempting verse of all scriptures to sentimentalize. I think what he means is that it is easy for us to create a laundry list of characteristics of children to recite. We smile as we run movies in our own mind of our children or grandchildren, or of other precious children we have known, or of our own remembered childhood. The problem, for us, comes when we try to look at this verse not as a sentiment but as a command - if we are to wake up tomorrow and become more childlike, what would that mean? For, you see, we cannot just quit our jobs. We cannot abandon our responsibilities, for we have children of our own and elderly parents and employees and customers and clients and bosses and many others who depend on us. We have the worries of this world bearing down on us. We have been taught - carefully taught over many years - a set of biases and judgments and, yes, prejudices that guide how we see everything and everyone around us. Innocence is far behind us all.

Unlike us, children ask questions not so much to gain information as to reassure themselves that we adults are seeing the same thing they see. Buechner goes on to say that a child's "Why is the grass green?" is not an inquiry into the process of photosynthesis; the child wants to be sure that we also see the greenness. We adults, on the other hand, have moved far beyond the wonder of discovery; we ask so that we can know, can understand, can control.

And then Jesus's words become a problem. We cannot become a little child. It is impossible.

And what is impossible with us is God's specialty. Jesus calls the child into the middle of the circle and tells them (and us), flatly, that they (and we) cannot get into heaven absent a miracle. We cannot become little children, but God has already declared that He is our father. He offers us the right to be come His children. When Paul writes about it, he uses the term adoption. When Jesus describes the gift to Nicodemus, he speaks of new birth. Either way, the message is clear: we cannot do anything to become children, but God can - and does - make us His children.

It is a miracle, and like most of God's everyday miracles, we seem blind to it. Buechner continues:"In the realm of our blindness, we need poets or children or lunatics to show us the miracles that we do not notice." The poet writes it, and we chalk it up to metaphor. The lunatic tells us what he knows, and we say "there he goes, hearing voices again." And so,once more, enter that child that Jesus brings among us. The child shows us what our guarded, adult selves cannot see through our responsibilities and prejudices and education. There is a miracle going on - God is accepting us, adopting us, rebirthing us as His children.

What manner of love is this, that we should be called the children of God. And that is what we are.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sometimes We Are Not Ready for the Angel; Sometimes We Are Not Ready for the Message

The story of Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, has long fascinated me. Zachariah was a priest, described by Luke as "righteous in the sight of God." Getting the opportunity actually to go into the temple and present the incense offering was a rare honor. On this day as told in the first chapter of Luke, it is finally Zachariah's turn, and in he goes. He is promptly met by the angel Gabriel, who tells Zachariah that he and his wife Elizabeth (who is, according to Luke, "very old") are going to have a baby (who will turn out to be John the Baptist). Zachariah's response is "How do I know you are telling me the truth?" Perhaps as a sign, and perhaps as a bit of reprimand, Gabriel strikes Zachariah mute on the spot, and Zachariah does not speak again until the baby John is born.

Why would this righteous priest not believe a communication from God delivered to him face to face by an angel?

Perhaps Zachariah was simply not ready for a holy message. Like many of us, he was going through his churchy motions and making his religious noises, but the last thing he may have expected was for God to show up. I think failing to expect God to be in church is a danger for all of us; the phenomenon of tending the altar of God without really seeking God is particularly an occupational hazard for professional ministers, for whom the sanctuary can become routine. For God to honor their - and our - service and actually appear may not be on the radar of those who are simply going about their business.

There may be another explanation for Zachariah's immediate disbelief, however. Maybe Zachariah was ready for a message from God but did not prepare for the message to be personal. He thought God might speak to the nation, not to him. It is one thing to expect God to give a sweeping declaration to all people. It is something else for God to deliver an individual message just to Zachariah.

My thoughts turn to our nation. Ferguson and "I Can't Breathe" have highlighted simmering - and now often boiling over - racial distrust and tension. On one hand, we can look back at the sixties and say how far we have come. We can then look to the future and be optimistic, knowing that things will continue to get better. Comedian Chris Rock has recently reflected this optimism, saying that he expects his children to grow up in a much better racial situation: “It’s partly generational, but it’s also my kids grew up not only with a black president but with a black secretary of State, a black joint chief of staff, a black attorney general. My children are going to be the first black children in the history of America to actually have the benefit of the doubt of just being moral, intelligent people.”

On the other hand, an optimistic look at coming decades is of little import to those fighting the fight today. Whether the issue is race, socio-economics, or faith, what will happen in the future is distant. That is a message for generations, a sweeping gesture that is doubtless correct and in its own way uplifting but still remote, still impersonal.

Sometimes, we prepare for the general message and are not ready for a personal call. What if God wants me to make a difference in my community, today? What if I am supposed to be part of the answer? What if the angel is speaking a message to me that is about what I am supposed to do, not a broad dictate for the nation over the next fifty years?

This Advent, we hear the Christmas angels sing "Glory to God and peace on earth." That sounds so general, so futuristic, so all-encompassing - one day, God will wipe away all tears and end all strife, and there will indeed be peace on earth.

But what if those angels are singing now to us, individually? What if we are supposed to be making that peace? What if God is calling us (not someone else) to make a change here (not somewhere else) now(not in the future)? What if Christmas ought to be making a difference where we live today and tomorrow and the next day? What if peace on earth really is supposed to begin with me, with my neighbors, with my block, with my community, with my city?

Am I ready to meet the angel, and if I am, am I ready for the angel to speak to me ... about me?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Interstellar - The Father, The Ghost, and The Greatest of These

Warning: This blog contains spoilers. If you have not yet seen "Interstellar" and don't want me to ruin it for you, don't read the rest of this yet. Go see the movie, then come back and read.

And now abideth faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.

In her first line of the movie, young Murphy tells her father, "I thought you were the ghost." And the foreshadowing has begun.

I don't know that "Interstellar" is a great movie by most Hollywood standards. I have no idea if it will win many, or any, awards. But it is as imaginative and compelling a telling of the gospel as I have seen. I read a review by Jim Denison, whom I greatly respect and with whom I almost always agree, that was generally negative because the movie does not explicitly mention God and instead speaks a message that humans save themselves. Christianity Today's review had a similar response. With all due respect to both, I think these reviews miss the point of the movie by a mile. The movie never mentions God by name, but it tells the story of Christ in multiple ways. It is a palpable experience.

The setting and plot line of the movie are not really the point of what I take from the movie. (Whether Christopher and Jonathan Nolan are saying all of this intentionally or not is beyond me; the message comes through either way.) Yes, it involves a rocket-powered adventure to save earth from a dystopia of blight, overpopulation, and imminent doom. Yes, there are complicated descriptions of space travel, quantum mechanics, theoretical physics, surrogate biology, survival, exploration, and triggers of evolution. Yes, the film is long and relies on a lot of talking and a lot of crying.

On top of that are the most basic of symbols: dust and wind; fire and water; corn fields and ice fields; an unplayed piano; inscrutible mathematical scribblings; and, of course, the holiest of symbols, baseball. And most of this is set to the music of a dramatic cathedral organ.

It is all an elaborate device, pointing in one clear direction.

If you are still reading, you have seen the movie, or else you don't plan to see it and so it is ok if I spoil it for you. So here goes: Cooper is a trinitarian figure of the divine. He is the Father. He is the Ghost - if you have seen the movie, you understand. And he is the Christ, sacrificing himself and descending, through immense personal suffering, into the abyss as we see the flames grow in alternating scenes. He rises again, but not before his plunge into the inexplicable unveils the secret to overcome the curse that is taking over the world. It is a secret, a mystery, that he is able to share with the one who maintains - despite her own words and her own feelings - a stubborn faith in him and in his word. She finds the way to listen to him and to understand what he says, and from him she gains what she needs to solve the unsolveable equation.

She maintains her faith because her "dad said so."

Cooper promises her that he will come back. He will come again. She wants to know how and when, and he does not provide details, but he repeatedly says that he will come back. When he is on a distant world and all seems hopeless, he finds a way to come back. There is a literal second coming.

A critical part of the gospel story, of course, is the failing of humanity, of mankind. In the movie, the ultimate failures - deception, cowardice, betrayal, dishonesty, shortcuts, meanness, selfishness - are all portrayed in a single character. He believes that survival hinges on our response to the fear of death, and he relies on his own abilities, since "few have been tested as much as" he has. It is no coincidence that his name is Mann.

There is another character who fails. As Professor Brand dies, he confesses to what is later called a "monstrous lie," and it seems to us, at least for a moment, that Murphy's faith has been tragically misplaced. But we learn - as she learns - that her faith was not in Professor Brand but instead in the truth, in the hope that the unanswerable will be answered. And her faith is rewarded, but only through the unfathomable intervention of her father.

Dr. Denison is dismayed that Cooper says that the "they" who provide the help are really "we," that he and his kind have evolved into a future five-dimensional species that can communicate back to its more primitive self across time and space. But that is a device, a metaphor. Cooper is the Christ figure, and when he says that "we" are saving the world, the "we" is Cooper in all of his dimensions - father, ghost, and resurrected man.

So the movie starts with the hope of a new home and builds on the faith of solving the "problem of gravity." But as we all know, on top of all of this is the greatest of these. There are two critical speeches that make the point of the movie abundantly clear. The first of these, delivered by Amelia in her explanation of why they should choose Edmunds' planet, is her impassioned defense of the power of love. She argues that it is the only thing that reaches across time and space, reaching past its social utility, reaching beyond even death itself, and thus it should be trusted even though it is not measurable. She loses that debate in the moment, but the unfolding of events demonstrates that she is right - Edmunds' planet, where love tells her they should go, is the only one of the three planets that turns out to be what they need. She takes off her helmet and breathes.

The second speech is Cooper's explanation of why Murphy will return to the bookshelf to receive his message - because he loves her and she loves him, and that love will translate the message and obliterate the obstacles between them.

"Interstellar" tells the story of a world that is doomed to die. It cannot save itself. It needs supernatural help, something that, as the movie says, is "not possible ... it's necessary." It is a remarkable movie: birthed in hope, struggling with faith, complicated by the evil and mistakes of Mann, powered by love. It is a movie about the one who is Father and Ghost and, ultimately, the risen, living savior.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

What Hymns Have Taught Me

God in three persons, the Ancient of Days, the Incarnate Word, is the giver of immortal gladness.

This is my Father’s world. In summer and winter and springtime and harvest, the burning sun with golden beam, the silver moon with softer gleam, and the obeying stars join with all nature in witness to His faithfulness and love.

I am prone to wander. I was sinking deep in sin. Sin had left a crimson stain; He washed it white as snow. Seems now I see Him on Calvary’s tree. The way of the cross leads home. He sought me and bought me with His redeeming blood. There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains. No other fount I know – there to my heart was the blood applied. His blood can make the foulest clean. Are you washed in the blood? You shall be whiter than snow. Why do I sing about Jesus? Because He is my Lord and my Savior; dying He set me free.

Not the labors of my hands can fulfill Thy law's demands; these for sin could not atone. Thou must save, and thou alone. Have faith in God – He cannot fail; He must prevail. It is enough that Jesus died and that He died for me. We have heard the joyful sound: Jesus saves!

I once was lost, but now I am found. What a wonderful day I will never forget. After I’d wandered in darkness, I met Jesus. He met the need of my heart. My sins were washed away and my night was turned to day. Heaven came down, and glory filled my soul. Floods of joy roll over my soul since Jesus came into my heart. ‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus.

He triumphed over the grave and rose victorious for those He came to save. His marvelous, infinite, matchless grace is greater than all our sin. Now I belong to Jesus, not for the years of time alone, but for eternity. Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it! On Christ the solid rock I stand. I am standing on the promises and leaning on the everlasting arms.

Jesus loves me; this I know for the Bible tells me so. We come to the father through Jesus the Son, fairest Lord Jesus, the fairest of ten thousand to my soul. You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart! I stand amazed in His presence and wonder how He could love me. He walks with me and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own. I am filled with His goodness, lost in His love. This is my story: Oh, how I love Jesus.

There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place, and I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord. Holy Spirit, breathe on me until my heart is clean. I need thee every hour. Open my eyes that I may see glimpses of truth you have for me. Open my eyes – illumine me, Spirit divine. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage. Break me, melt me, mold me, fill me. Have thine own way.

How firm a foundation is laid for our faith in His excellent word: Holy Bible, book divine. Words of life and beauty teach me faith and duty; beautiful words, wonderful words of life.

We’ve a story to tell to the nations. Make the message clear and plain: Christ receives the sinful. Rescue the perishing. Let others see Jesus in you. Sing the wondrous story of our redeemer, who paid the debt and made us free. Send the blessed gospel light from shore to shore and let it shine forever.

Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling “Come home.” Arise and go to Jesus. Jesus, ready, stands to save. Though millions have come, there is still room at the cross. Just now, throw open the door and put your hand in the nail-scarred hand. Let Jesus come into your heart. Only trust Him. Jesus is merciful. Jesus will save.

Jesus: sweetest name I know. Jesus is Lord of my thoughts and my service each day. Just as I am, I’ll follow my Christ who loves me so wherever He leads. I surrender all to my blessed Savior. There’s no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey. We will follow the steps of Jesus wherever they go. I am weak, but God is mighty, and whatever I do and wherever I am, He leads me. Like a shepherd, He leads us. He has bought us, and we are His. Hold us who wait before Thee near to the heart of God.

Take time to be holy. Speak often with your Lord. Turn your eyes upon Jesus, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace. Just a closer walk with Him. Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and see what God has done.

Just when I need Him most, He is near to comfort and cheer. He hides my soul in the cleft of the rock and covers me there with His hand. Oh, what peace we often forfeit and what needless pain we bear because we do not carry everything to God in prayer. When I am sad, to Him I go. Pass me not, O gentle savior; open wide your arms of love. As He promised, I find perfect peace and rest. Gushing from the rock before me is a spring of joy.

Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight: the clouds will be rolled back as a scroll. The trumpet shall sound and the Lord shall descend! I have trophies that I will at last lay down. When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be! In mansions of glory and endless delight, I’ll ever adore Him. We shall gather at the river that flows by the throne of God and we shall meet on that beautiful shore in the sweet by and by. I will be there when the roll is called up yonder. I will sing the wondrous story of the Christ who died for me with the saints in glory gathered by the crystal sea. I am bound for the Promised Land! Made like Him, like him we rise. Ours the cross, the grave, the skies.

Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God… but, children of our heavenly king may speak our joys abroad! Rejoice. Bring forth the royal diadem. Crown Him with many crowns, lost in wonder, love, and praise. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Glorious is His name! O how marvelous, o how wonderful is my Savior’s love for me. Tell of His excellent greatness. O for a thousand tongues to sing! Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto Him against that day. Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say “It is well with my soul.” The body they may kill: God’s truth abides still. Love so amazing demands my soul, my life, my all.

Amen.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Benevolence of God

I had an enlightening discussion with a friend last week. She is of a different faith, or at least a strongly different version of my faith, and we were discussing our respective beliefs. Hers is a works-based rewards system; while she says that "faith in the gospel" is one keystone, she affirms that her religion teaches that what happens after death is based almost entirely on our earthly behavior. In her world, irrespective of one's faith, if one's actions have been "bad" during life, the afterlife will be, at least for a while, undesirable.

She then asked me what happens in my belief system if a Christian acts badly. My answer was that God still loves us, that we are still His irrespective of our actions, and that Heaven awaits us. I explained that just as her children will always be her children no matter what they do - they may move out, be kicked out, deny their birth, or be disowned by their parents, but they will still be the biological offspring of her and her husband - so too are Christians the children of God who will live forever with God. To be sure, we should "act right" and "do good" and behave and serve and live in much the same way her church teaches her to live, but our motivation to do so is not in order to earn anything but rather becaues we are changed people who are obedient and who want to live up to the standards set for us by God. When we fail to do so - and we all fail - God still loves us, accepts us, and indeed welcomes us.

I talked to her about conversion, a concept foreign to her. I told her that we believe our actions change once we enter into relationship with God because we are changed, that we transform into new creatures. I had clearly confounded her at this point. The idea of the old becoming new, of our literally changing as we are "converted" into a child of God was foreign to her. That we behave differently than we did before not out of fear but rather out of love was met with silence. The thought that God's love for us is not altered by our many mistakes and intentional failings stopped her short.

She paused, and then she said, "Well, your God is a lot more benevolent than mine."

That got me thinking. How often we take the most basics for granted. I have written before about our tendency to overlook the love of God. It is one of the first things we learn in Sunday School, probably right after we learn that God created the world. 1 John 4:8 tells us that God is love. Yet until we meet someone who does not understand God the same way, we can (and often do) fail to treasure this most basic characteristic of the Father.

God's love does not mean that God does not hate sin, that God likes it when we misbehave, or that we have a license to do as we please (despite my friend's comment that if she believed as I do, she would act quite differently in this life than she does - I think (hope) that she was speaking tongue-in-cheek). God's love does not lessen our obligation to obey or to look out for other people. Those Christians who live indiscriminantly because their "fire insurance is paid up" are missing both the point of following Christ and the present realities of abundant life.

But the fact remains that God loves us so much that He accepts and welcomes us in spite of ourselves. He offers an irrevocable gift. We enter into a relationship that means, in the language of the verse most of us memorized before any other, that we "will not perish."

How benevolent is your God?