Happy Ending

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I don’t know if there are ever any true “endings,” until you die.  And from my experience of my dad’s, and even more so my son’s, deaths, for those still here these are not endings, either.  Much of my life has been impacted and shaped by their deaths.

Thus, I’ve come to believe sports appeal to us, in part, because they offer finite size and clear, non-negotiable parameters.  Games end.  Seasons end.  You “put them in the books.”  You might look back on them wistfully and imagine if only you could do them over again, but done is done.  Whistle blows, third out is called, horn goes off, bell clangs, and we have completion.  This, along with the temporary experience of focusing solely on the game and putting all of life’s troubles aside for an hour or three, give us a healthy break.  Completion feels really good.

This weekend, some of my favorite guys won a basketball game.  We won the two-day Kaiser University Seahawks Games high school tournament and brought home the trophy.  I love to win, so I enjoyed that.  But winning was not the best part.

In the final game, we got behind immediately.  We got way behind.  We got almost there’s-no-way-we’re-catching-up-now behind.  Of course, we all know that when you don’t believe you can win, you can’t.  Coaching means helping your team believe they can win when they suspect they can’t.  But you can’t believe for them, any more than you can hustle for them or make wise decisions for them.  You encourage them to believe, you motivate them to hustle, you instruct them on wise decisions.  Then they run out there and play and, as any coach at any level knows, how they play depends on them.  They can make great passes or stupid ones.  They can dive for the ball or watch it roll past their feet.  They can decide that a team is unbeatable, or that they can’t make a shot, or that the person going against them is impossible to defend.

I’m acutely aware that I’m not a great coach in a lot of ways. I could write a long post on that.  You may lodge your requests at the end.  But my players have taught me a lot.  

I’ve learned in coaching you can focus effectively on only a few things.  If you try to overinstruct, you leave your players confused and everyone frustrated.  “But I told them!”  I’m a coach of simple things.  We do a few drills many times.  We practice fundamentals hard.  We prioritize effort.  We can’t always make the ball go in the hoop but we can always work hard to get the rebound or get on the floor after a loose ball.  In fact, our pregame shout is, “Every loose ball is…OURS!”  And often they are.

We focus on character. You can focus effectively on only a few things and that includes the non-tangible, deeper lessons of basketball.  If you don’t prioritize talking about character, or who your players are as well as how they play, that easily gets lost in the louder demands of playing better.  When the ball goes out of bounds in a scrimmage, our guys will acknowledge “I touched it last.  Out on me.”  That’s not always how basketball works, but that’s how we work.

Today we pulled off a mighty comeback.  We were behind 17-6 after the first quarter, but I think we might have been down 17-2 before that.  If that sounds like a reasonable distance to close, you may be thinking of the Golden State Warriors.  We had won the game before 32-20.  We’d spotted the other team more than half the points we’d scored our last entire game, and allowed them almost as many points in that quarter as we gave up the whole previous game.  Rough start.

Our highest scorer could not play today.  Our second highest scorer, and co-captain, Barry, got his fourth foul in the first half.  He was as upset as I’ve ever seen him, frustrated with the calls and with himself.  I shouldn’t have kept him in after his third foul, but we had already reached the desperation point of needing to stop the landslide and regain ground.

To understand this story, you will need to know this: the refereeing we experience is often the biggest challenge to our character.  It certainly is my biggest challenge, nearly every game.  Coaches often complain about refs, so I’ll just tell you that the aforemention captain, possibly the nicest guy on our team, got a technical foul in the first game for patting an opponent on the shoulder.  I’m not talking about a shove that we called a “pat.”  Barry had fouled the guy and then gave him a couple soft pats, right on the shoulder where you pat people, to say, “Hey, sorry Man.”  Technical foul, they got a free throw and the ball back.  In the same game, two of our players got shoved hard–one knocked to the ground–after the play was over and the whistle had blown.  No call.  We not infrequently get three or four times more fouls called on us than the other team.  I watch our guys called for barely brushing their players and then their players whack our guys in the arms or give an elbow to the head:  no call.

Today was such a day.  Our other captain, Will, reached levels of emotional distress–okay, really upset and pissed at what felt like injustice–that he chose to sit out for the end of the game because he knew he’d lost it.  Will had played a tremendous game up to that point with at least five crucial–and dramatic–blocked shots.  He did not quit, but he reached his threshold and could no longer hold himself together, so he came out.  Yes, we needed him in the game to try to win but not as much as we needed him to live and model the right character.  Thank God, I didn’t have a split-second of saying (or even thinking) “Get back in there!”  Will is a mature young adult who knows his limits, who usually plays harder than anyone else.  He’d never hit this wall before, which should give you some idea of how the game went.  He took himself out because he couldn’t be who he needed to be on the court in those minutes, and who he is on the court ultimately is more important than how he plays on the court.

Our other captain, as I said, had four fouls very early and sat out the third quarter.  But during the third quarter, without him or our leading scorer, we made our charge.  We had closed it to 23-18 at halftime.  We put on a full-court press and dug in and found more grrr.  We got a handfull of steals (including several by Will), caused multiple turnovers, and made some great shots, including one of our reserves hitting three three-pointers.  We didn’t get lucky with every bounce going our way and we certainly didn’t start getting the calls our way.  But we worked harder.  We found a way.  I believe playing harder, digging deeper, finding you’re capable of more than you know, is a crucial aspect of how sports can develop character.  We showed tremendous character that way.

At the start of the fourth quarter, I tried to send captain Barry back in.  He said, “Coach, they’re getting it done.  Let’s let them keep going.”  You have to understand both this young man’s desire to play basketball and his respectful attitude to appreciate what happened in this moment.  He always responds to me, “Yes, Coach,” or “Yes, Sir.”  I don’t require that.  But he does it.  He also always asks for one more game, hates to be taken out, and generally wants to spend every moment he can playing ball.  He’s that guy.

So when he said, “Naw, Coach, they’re doing it,” I respected his suggestion and left the other guys in.  Barry then proceeded to holler himself hoarse, shouting for his teammates.

When I finally put him back in with four minutes left in the game, he took over.  He ran the offense, hit four of four free throws including the clutch two that put the game out of reach–or should have–and led the team.

Now I have to describe the end of the game where I saw our team’s character most clearly.

With six seconds left, we had a three-point lead–I thought–and our opponents took a long shot and missed.  We got the rebound.  Ball to Barry. They fouled Barry.  Three seconds.  Barry hit both free throws.  Game over?

The opposing coach, with whom we have a spotty history (last year he charged on the court to start a fight with Barry–nope, not kidding), went over to the scoring table and began a rant.  A long, colorful rant.  According to him, the scorer, who was a very young guy, by the way, had messed up their team fouls.  Thus, we should’t be in the bonus.  Remember, Barry had already made both free throws.  Their coach is arguing after the fact.  But he would not stop.  The refs threatened to give him a technical but let him keep going.  Then, and again I just have to ask you to believe me, they may have taken away the free throws and given the other team the ball.  This was not clear.  I mean, I asked and they did not tell me.

So picture this: we thought we were up by 5, three seconds to go.  Now they are inbounding the ball after a timeout on our end of the court, meaning within range of throwing up a shot, down by…two.  Did I mention about the officiating?

Okay, if you know basketball, you probably have realized that this is severely askew.  If the free throws didn’t count, they still fouled our player, meaning it’s still our ball with one or three seconds left (again, unclear) and all we have to do is pass it in and touch it and the game will be over.  If they get the ball, that has to mean the free throws counted.

But on the stat sheet I have in front of me right now, with stats tallied by my daughters but reflecting the official scorers final score, we won this game by two.  Not three.  Not five.  I don’t know how we lost the extra point–they subtracted both free throws and a bonus point?–but they were inbounding the ball with a chance to win the game that we understood we had already put out of reach.  

Now you have the picture.  But our guys didn’t react to this.  They didn’t freak out.  I sat down and our team stood and waited on the court while their coach blustered and berated a kid and screamed at the refs about how the whole thing was unfair and rigged (I might have agreed, but I think he meant it a different way).  In that moment, I saw what our players had done.

We made the comeback.  Their team threw elbows at our heads and we kept our character.  We got calls against us and we did not lose our cool.  We played harder and focused more and dove for loose balls.  Their player got a technical for slamming the ball onto the court (it bounced really high) after a call went against him; we talked with the refs about the calls, politely and calmly, during stopped time between plays.  None of the concerns we raised seemed to get any traction, but that’s what we could do, and we did it, and then our guys just ran harder.  Our tallest guys, who hated running at the beginning of the season, were outrunning the other team.

It was a glorious win.  Both of our captains manifested the spirit and character that earned them the position of captain.  One of our seniors, Gabe, who didn’t play last year and was still very green at the beginning of this season, played the best I’d ever seen him play.  This was Kaiser’s high school sports festival, so there were trophy presentations and a bit of pomp and circumstance.  Theparents of our players, and our girls’ team, gathered around and congratulated our players.

 

Yes, I like winning, and we got exactly the result I’d hoped for.  But so much more than that, I think it might have been my favorite coaching moment so far.

*Our guys didn’t give up or get discouraged when we fell behind.

*They didn’t let the bad calls get to us, even though some of them were flagrant and upsetting.

*Rather than quitting, letting up, or losing our tempers, we simply bore down and played harder.

*In the moment when the choice was between compromising his character and doing whatever it took to win, one captain asked to be taken out.

*In the moment when the other captain could have decided, “Okay, it’s up to me now,” he showed his belief in his teammates and asked not to be put back in yet.

In the way that coaches second-guess themselves, I wonder if, had I put him in at the start of the fourth quarter, would Barry have fouled out and not been available when we needed him in the clutch?  Remember, one ref had definitely zoomed in on him and was very quick to call him for anything.  

Even with all this, I did not manage to get all our players in the game.  That may be the hardest part of coaching for me.  Of course, most coaches will tell you there are times (and levels) to play everyone and times (and levels) where you can’t.  It still eats at me.  I experienced not getting playing time on my high school team after I had worked hard to become a good player starting in…fourth grade?  I know that feeling–at least how I felt–and I hate causing our guys to experience it.  There are games when I can get everyone significant floor time, others where I take a risk and a guy steps up or doesn’t, and then games where it feels like we’re fighting tooth and nail for every point and I can’t break up our momentum or lose the advantage that a certain player gives us.

Today, maybe because it was such a sweet victory, I felt especially bad that I didn’t play all our players.  I can’t tell you in this moment whether I made the right choice or not (and I’m guessing you fall on one side of that question or the other depending on your relationship with sports).  We either won by 2 or 4 or 5* and didn’t seem to have any extra margin or breathing room.  That doesn’t mean we would have lost if I’d put them in.  I don’t know how they would have stepped up.  Today, I didn’t risk finding out.  I pray those players can take that with grace, use it for motivation, and let it develop their character–but I really don’t say that lightly, since it took me years.  And God’s work in my life.  And years…

 

We pray before games and after practice.  I’m not always as consistent with this as I’d like to be, but I’m also someone who tries hard not to go through the motions.  Today, for the first time I can remember, I prayed in the huddle between quarters.  I asked for extra help from God keeping our patience, not losing our cool, and not responding in kind and escalating the rough play we were experiencing.

As we were in the parking lot about to leave, the organizer of the whole sports festival happened to walk by.  He stopped to tell me how much he appreciated the way our kids played.  He said he knew we came from a Christian school and he could see it in how we behaved in that final game when things got so heated.  I’d already seen this in our guys, but it was wonderful to hear that their character shone through to strangers, as well.

Lord God, may we always keep our character of reflecting your image in the world as our highest priority.  Amen.

 

 

*How often do you get to say that?

The Crying Prophet

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It’s first light, just coming over the horizon, but you’ve been up for an hour already. That’s early, even for you. Your brothers must have had a surprise, jumping on your mat to wake you and finding nothing except mat to land on. You’re on your second trip back from the well now, so your hardest chore is almost over. It’s a little risky, hauling water in the dark, especially now, when the city is going so crazy with Passover coming, but it’s obvious you don’t have anything of value, unless some lazy thug decides the water in your bucket is worth beating you up. But now home is within sight.

Today is the day. People have been talking about it all over your neighborhood. It’s actually funny to hear them talk about him because there’s always a better story. It sounds just like fisherman or hunters who keep outdoing one another.

“No, I heard he told the Pharisees they were children of hell.”

“Yeah, but my cousin said he heard directly that he walked on water. On top of the water!”

“Your cousin didn’t see that, though.”

“No, but he heard it from the guys who follow him everywhere.”

“So? We heard he cast a demon!”

“One? My aunt who lives in Galilee, where he spends all his time, said he cast out a whole legion of demons!”

“That’s just crazy. Nobody has a legion of demons.”

“Yeah, but that’s not crazier than Lazarus. You know what they’re saying about Lazarus, right? That’s a respectable family. They’re not gonna make something like that up. There were like a hundred people there. Who would make that up? I think that might be true…”

Then, every time, the talk turns to what he might do to the Romans. It’s always funny to hear adults whispering just like kids. That’s when you have to turn invisible to get to hear. Nobody does that better than you. How many hundreds of times has your mother told you never to speak to an adult except when the adult speaks first? You just took that as a strategy. Stand still, or sit silently, look away from the speaker, act like your attention is elsewhere, never ever make eye contact, and it’s like they can’t even see you. You’ve even heard some neighbors hint that you aren’t all that bright. Nobody cares if the slow child is hanging around, playing in the dust. Poor slow child. If they only knew how many secrets you’ve heard.

Today, you’re also telling a little bit of a not-quite-truth. Of course, it could be the truth.

“I got my chores done early. Can I spend the day with Daniel?”

Daniel might be there. If he was smart, he would be. But it’s not that likely, because Daniel is a little too cautious. But he’ll be out chasing around, playing hide with the others, so it won’t be obvious to anyone that you’re not with him.

Yeah, it’s a little crazy. But your mother is just happy the chores are done. Your dad won’t be back until late. He won’t even know you were gone. And one fewer child around to fight and get in the way? Mother’s fine to see you go.

The leaving part is easy. The arriving might be something different.

Everyone in town and every stray dog knows he’s coming today. The rumors about him disagree and conflict sometimes, but somehow there’s a one-hundred percent certainty he will arrive in Jerusalem today. They’re even sure which road he’s coming by. It’s as if runners are going ahead, announcing his coming, but that’s not something to say aloud. That’s what they do for victorious generals and, of course, the Roman Emperor, may the Almighty One remove him from that accursed throne.

But that’s why it’s irresistible. How many false Messiahs have come through Jerusalem? How many claiming they are “The One?” How many strong men have gotten killed in doomed uprisings? Too many.

But what if…? What if this really is the one? Today might be the day! There’s something different about this one, if any of the stories have any truth to them. He doesn’t claim to be Messiah loudly and proudly like they all did, but he’s done ten times more to make people think he is. He calls himself “Son of Man.” What does that mean? The old men debated that passage from the Prophet Daniel. How could this man, this son of a laborer, claim to be what Daniel describes? That’s impossible.

Unless…

So no one really knows who he is, not really. Maybe his closest followers do, but nobody here. The whispers have gotten louder and more excited; there might be ten thousand people in the streets when you get there, even going as early as you possibly can.

As you get closer–and it is a long walk, even for you–you can hear the crowd well before you see them. It’s loud, like a buzzing, like what they say locust sound like when they come in clouds, just like you’ve always imagined happened in Egypt. How many people can this be?

Too many. Change of plans. There’s no way you’re going to get even a glimpse of him unless he’s riding into the city on an elephant, like they say that one general did against Rome. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Then everyone would know his intentions for certain!

You’re doubling back on your path now, because the further outside the city you can intersect with his path, the better chance you’ll have to see him. Then what? Maybe try to walk along with the crowd? Not for the first time, you consider this could get dangerous. What if it turns into a riot? What if—just what if—the Romans have heard, since everyone knows, it’s the worst-kept secret ever—and they bring their centurions? That seems unlikely, but there are rumors…

Still, that’s exactly why you can’t miss it. What if…never to be said aloud, just in your own thoughts, and the Almighty’s ear…the centurions do show up, and he…he…someone who can overpower demons and tell a storm to stop, could he…could he wipe them out?

Any risk is worth the tiniest chance to see that happen to these evil dog occupiers. Right? After all they’ve done?

When you reach the road going this way, further from the center of the city, there’s still a crowd, but not as big yet. Oh, but they’re excited. It’s like one of those high holy days when everyone starts in early: people shouting to make themselves heard over everyone else’s shouting. It’s funny to watch grown-ups behave like this.

A bunch of them are waving branches around that they must have just cut down from the palm trees near the road. The smell is really strong and green. Is green a smell? They’re waving those branches around, fanning themselves, and it’s almost like sea waves. Crazy.

You keep pushing up the road, and there’s the Eastern Jerusalem gate where the Mount of Olives comes down into the city. You’ve come too far to hesitate or second-guess, but if your parents ever heard you had gone outside one of the city gates by yourself… Better not to think about it. You say a quick prayer that you won’t have the dumb luck of being seen by someone you know.

You pass through the gate, which is wide and if there are guards anywhere you can’t see them through all these people. He’s got to be close now. Everyone’s waving those branches and some are tossing them out on the road. But there’s something else on the road. What is that? You’re hiking up this hill and everyone here has committed to holding their space, so you have to squeeze in between people, but you’re really good at that, almost as good as you are at becoming invisible. You take extra care not to step on anyone and keep weaving in between families and shouting men and other kids jumping up and down, trying to see, even though there isn’t anything to see yet.

As you weave, you pass really close to the road. Those are people’s coats! Cloaks and shirts and all kinds of clothing, folks are just tossing them into the road. Crazy! You see a nice one that might be your size but it’s probably a really bad idea to grab it.

The shouting suddenly crescendos. People are going crazy now. You chose well. If you stop right here, you’ll be able to see him for sure. Especially if he’s on an elephant, or, more likely, a stallion or maybe an ox. But something in you, some weird urge, refuses. You push on, now bumping into people, but everyone is bumping and colliding. It’s that kind of crowd now. You’re not a pickpocket and you better not be mistaken for one now or you’ll get beaten or killed.

There he is! He’s on a…wait—he’s on a tiny horse. No he’s not; he’s on a colt. Maybe a yearling? Hang on—that’s a donkey colt! It’s too sturdy in the legs to be a horse colt, but it’s really young.

People are whooping and shouting and you’re laughing and you literally can’t hear yourself it’s so loud, but that is not an elephant! Why would he choose that? And he’s not…he’s not handsome. His eyes are…

“Hosanna!” everyone shouts around you. More cloaks thrown into the road. More branches. “Hosanna to the son of David!” “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Stop, stop!” someone yells behind you. You look back and almost jump into the street. It’s a Pharisee, a whole group of Pharisees, with their special cloaks which they have not thrown and they are not waving palm branches. In the midst of everyone screaming and crying out to the Most High, what are they saying?

A stout one who bellows like a shofar overpowers everyone around him: “Teacher, make them stop! Order your disciples to stop! This is heresy! What they say is an abomination!”

The colt is walking so slowly but the man stops it. He looks right at this Pharisee. What words could describe this man’s eyes? The crowd isn’t quiet but it’s maybe half as loud, with people pausing between shouts to see how the man will answer. Everyone says he doesn’t get along with the Pharisees; some even claim they want him silenced, or worse. But now you aren’t hearing stories, now you are seeing—and hearing—for yourself! No one will believe this. But that’s okay; you could never risk telling anyone, anyway, because if this got back to your parents…

“I could tell them to be silent. I could. But I tell you, if these were silent,” and he gestures with his arms at all of you standing close by, “the stones themselves would shout out.”

He didn’t say it loudly but everyone explodes with screams and hollers and “Hosannas,” what feels like ten times louder than before. Except you. You turn to look at the Pharisees and they are huddling together, no longer looking at the man, talking amongst themselves.

You aren’t yelling because you’ve determined you’re going to get as close as you possibly can now. There’s no way you’ll be able to follow along through the crowd, even though he’s going slower than slow, because their stacked up too dense and wild and that won’t work to sneak through, even for you. The only other choice is to go out into the road with him and his followers. You don’t belong there and they’ll throw you out the second they notice you, so that’s crazy and stupid…and here you go.

It’s not hard getting out there. Nobody’s pushing against you, once you take that step, but with all this wild crowd on the sides, there are only a few big clumps of people out in the road. You’re not going to blend in with any of these huge guys with beards and–

He stopped. He just stopped in the middle of it all and got down from his donkey colt. You freeze dead still. You’re about four people away from him, big burley men, but that close. If anyone looks at you now, you’re done. Maybe this is the time he does something powerful? But since the moment you saw that donkey colt, the military attack has seemed unlikely. Who attacks on a little colt? You’re just a kid and even you know that.

The man turns his head and for a split-second, you think he’s going to look right at you. But he’s looking down the hill. You suddenly realize there’s a tremendous view from here. You can see most of the city. You might be able to find your house if you looked long enough.

You’re not making any sudden moves, because this is how you’ve learned not to be noticed. But when you shift your eyes you can see the man’s face and when you shift them back, you can see the whole city.

He’s looking out at the city, then around at the group of men and women with him, then back out. He puts his hand on the nearest man’s shoulder.

“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

And he cries. His voice choked while he said that and now he’s standing there, crying. In the middle of this frenzied parade, you see tears dripping off his face. His followers are staring at him. You’re staring at him. Of the things you’ve seen today, this would be the hardest to explain, the hardest for people to believe; yet for some reason, this is what you most want to tell. Who is this man?

Then he looks at you. Not maybe. He’s looking right at you. His followers are staring at you.

Panic rises in your chest. He steps over to you.

And then he puts his arms around you and hugs you. His arms feel strong enough to snap you, or to lift the entire world, but his hug is gentle…and then he lets go and climbs back on the colt and he and everyone else move on. One of his disciples, a really ugly one, nods at you as he goes, like he knows what you know, what you now know.

But you stand there, alone, on palm branches and cloaks, as their shouting moves off into the distance.

Is that the Messiah? What kind of Messiah is he?

What’s going to happen next?

You start back for home.

Primal Scream

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There are times when I sit down to write and I just want to utter this guttural scream, like

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRGGGGHHH!

Somewere between Charlie Brown flying through the air after missing the football again (I know, utterly dating myself) and this guy.

I look back on my day, in my calm, I’m-not-breaking-dishware-nor-writing-emails-I’ll-deeply-regret-later reflective mode, and start noting all the things that contributed–and built up to–that scream.

Some days, many or most of the contributors are self-inflicted.  Those are fun days.  It takes special grace to let yourself off the hook when you’re directly responsible for all the blood-spurting bullet holes in your own foot.  Of the Jesus followers I know, most are better at extending grace to others than receiving it for themselves.  On those self-injuring days, there’s an argument in my head that boils down to: “But it’s true.  I did screw up.  I deserve to feel miserable.”  This logic would suggest that grace somehow depends on having a reasonable alibi: If I’m feeling bad but can explain why I shouldn’t, then I can receive grace.

But this is, in fact, the opposite of how grace functions.  I don’t need grace if I have mitigating factors for why I screwed up.  The argument “but I have it coming” does not render grace null and void.  The prodigal son’s speech, “Look, I deserve all this, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you, I should be demoted from beloved son to ordinary servant,” does not win the day.  He doesn’t even make it to the end before his father rudely interrupts him with an embrace and a robe, a ring and a party.

So if you step back and run that parallel, when you are castigating yourself and arguing for why you don’t deserve grace, God isn’t listening through the end of your speech.  He’s already getting the sandals for your bloody, bare feet, when it was entirely your fault they got bloodied.  Yes, you did this to yourself, so you must know that “I told you so” speech God has prepared for you?

God doesn’t.

Grace means that the almighty God of the universe has chosen forgetfulness.  Grace means God acknowledges that you screwed up, sinned, betrayed him, let yourself down, probably did some damage to other people, and now God is going to bless you instead of punishing you for that.  Sure, you can punish yourself. Free will means you can keep whipping yourself over those failures and refuse to take the robe God is offering to cover your wounded, emaciated body.  But you don’t have to.

However, grace requires acknowledging that you need it.  You can’t keep your prideful self-image and receive grace.  You can have one of those.  Choose wisely.

 

Today, however, was a different kind of wounding day.  (Yes, that was a long tangent, albeit a passionate one. I hope it was a helpful one.)  Few of them today were self-inflicted.  The scream at the beginning was pain that my soul absorbed today.  Sorry if that sounds overdramatic. It was a rough day.

I love young adults.  God has given me something, some combination of empathy and an 18-year-old’s sense of humor and compassion and a constitutional inability to grow up that, when combined with the trust many of them extend to me, blends into this alchemy of relationship.

 I also stopped playing God about…I’d like to say 30 years ago, but we’ll say 10-15 years ago, to play it safe. It’s been a process.

Therefore, when I hear an agonizing story from a young adult, I’m less likely to go into savior mode and more inclined to pray and listen to God for ways I can help.  Sometimes I get a nudge, or I intuit how to respond.  Sometimes I can’t do anything more than listen, which I’ve come to believe is love, in and of itself.

Sometimes, though, I want to yell at God.  I know that’s not very pastorly-sounding when I’m being all calm and composed and not breaking anything, but seriously.  I told my wife tonight that my biggest question I have for God might be why some people experience God’s presence while others never do.  I’m on the outside, only seeing it from my point of view and not through their eyes, so I don’t know if God is constantly seeking them, sending thousands of signs and they are choosing to ignore all of it.  That may be.  I’m big on the whole free will thing.

If, however, as this person described, they ask and ask and never experience the presence of God, never see anything that they can recognize as communication, and have no sense of God’s reality—GAAAAAAAH!!!!!  I. DON’T. GET. THAT!

Sorry.  *Breathe.*  *Breathe.*

I don’t get that.

I really don’t.

There is an approach to following God that says, “Never question God, because God always knows and you don’t, God always does what’s right while you don’t have a clue.  Trust God, give thanks for literally everything, and keep your doubts to yourself.”

That isn’t my approach.

I think hearing what I heard today tapped into deeper, built up pain over hearing similar stories from too many people who are dear to me, who are still lost/struggling/wandering far from God/deeply in pain.

I think we’re supposed to agonize over people who suffer.  I think Jesus did.  

I think we’re supposed to agonize over people who suffer.  I think Jesus did.  Most of the time, I’m too guarded and self-protective to let it hit me as hard as it should.  I’m afraid it will capsize my little boat.  I don’t have any advice on this, though I’m told sorrowing over others will expand our hearts.  

 

That was the worst of it today, but by no means all of it.  I took a score of other emotional hits, some related to our current situation, some to other people I love.  Then, as a grand finale, my “therapy” for the evening backfired.  

Which brings me here, on my couch (literally), writing this as therapy.  So thanks for reading and helping.  Thanks for letting me scream a little in a non-destructive way.  

If you pray: Pray for my friend, whose family has been through a nightmare and who has basically given up on God.

 Pray that I would have a bigger heart.

And maybe pray that I can see how God is present with people who feel so abandoned.  

 

To a Cynical Friend…

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Words that build or destroy.

Nothing new happens, but it happens to me, and that’s new.

 

You can be a cynic. It’s been done. You aren’t original when you decide that other human beings deserve whatever suffering they pull down on their own heads, like kids trying to get the food on the table by yanking on the table cloth. They did it to themselves. They had it coming.

You can decide that everyone is corrupt, everyone wants power, every promise is a manipulation and every kiss a ploy or a maneuver.

You’ll be right some of the time. People suck. A great number of people. For different reasons, I think, but their reasons don’t really matter if you’re going the cynical route. If they all suck rocks and you prefer to preempt—if you already know they have WMD’s and thus you have the whole war justified and plotted out—then their little stories of who violated them make no difference. In a sense, this is belief in original sin: people start out as violators rather than react to being violated.

But we disagree on this point: not everyone sucks. Some people are really pretty good. Probably a few people are great. I won’t argue numbers or percentages.

But we disagree on a bigger point, and this, I think, is the crux of our world view collision: people can get better. They can improve. I don’t mean they can polish their manners and learn to hide their motives. I believe in redemption.

We–not you and I, I mean humanity–have no common ground to build on if people cannot transform.  If people are intrinsically not merely flawed but warped, permanently and irreversibly, out for themselves and nothing else, then redemption makes no sense.

I see two possibilities for you if you hold to this cold, hard cynicism. In the first, you recognize this same darkness in yourself. You know what humankind is because you are of humankind and you see no good in you. You’ve looked. It’s missing. If everything is darkness and our eyes are adjusted, there’s no chance you would have missed the spark. That spark would have dazzled your eyes. You looked in you. You looked in others. You found no spark because no spark exists. We are darkness. We are loveless. We are.

Truthfully, I respect you more if you believe this, much as I respect (though utterly disagree with) those women who wear head coverings, refrain from jewelry, and remain absolutely silent in church, or the men who won’t wear clothes made of two types of thread and who give one another holy kisses because those are the instructions. Yes, you are a blind literalist, but you seek to live consistently, rather than picking and choosing your favorites.

The second possibility is much more common, in my experience: You believe you are the exception. You see with clear, undistorted eyes. You probably don’t say explicitly, “I’m the only one with a functioning heart.” You may not admit that you hold yourself as the unfallen among the soul cannibals. But in practice, if other people were like you…

You are picking and choosing, like that fundamentalist who uses proof-texts to argue how Jesus himself backs every prejudice, comfort and preference. You are scoring their ugliness through a microscope and your own through a blast helmet. And you cherry-pick. Of course there are people to whom you can point and say, “I don’t do that!” If I score everyone else’s actions giving no benefit of the doubt, no grace, but I excuse my own foibles because I know the mitigating circumstances, I can believe my own scoreboard. It makes total sense to me.

But in that case, I’m full of it.

I guess that’s what I’m saying. You’re full of it.

What do you believe about yourself? What do you believe about God? What do you believe about the child who pull’s his sister’s hair? What do you believe about the child whose uncle “visits” her every night?

If you truly believe you are superior, it’s because you are giving yourself the benefit of the doubt, allowing for all the reasons (not “excuses” when they’re yours) that play into your own imperfections. Are you sure you can’t offer that same generous measuring stick to others?

I Believe This

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“An empty stomach has no ears.”  

                          Sudanese proverb

Sometimes I watch the debates happening, the screaming and name-calling and ridiculing, and I feel absolute shame for the people who are supposed to be Jesus followers. I am ashamed for myself and I am ashamed for my brothers and sisters. 

I also believe that some of the conflicts come from a serious disagreement over definitions.  

Today, I want to be clear what I believe.  

Jesus, as depicted in the Bible, is God.  

The Bible itself is not God, but it tells us truth about God.

I believe in Jesus because of my experiences with him.  When I say “Jesus loves me,” I know that experientially, not merely because the Bible says so.  When I say, “Jesus has forgiven me,” I mean I have had the experience of forgiveness, not only the information.  When I say, “Jesus will always give me grace,” I know that because I have told Jesus to “f*** off,” for a long stretch of time, and instead Jesus stayed with me and refused to abandon me.  

I’m not debating whether or not you have had these experiences.  I’m not even debating whether or not I have–I’m simply telling you, yes, I have.  

If it sounds like I’m making really obvious statements, hang on.

I believe the Gospel that Jesus preached and that we, as his followers, try to live, tells us to love one another. 

Nope, don’t go away yet.  

Jesus even spelled out the ethos of this love: 

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Notice that’s not “do to others what you think they might do to you, if your roles were reversed,” or “do to others what you think they deserve or have earned or have coming to them.”  

If I were starving, I would have you give me food. If my baby were dying, I would have you save my baby, if you could.  If my marriage were imploding, I would have you help, if you had any means of doing so.  If I were trying to escape a country at war to save my children, I would have you help me–I would have you help me save my children.  

Therefore, if your children are starving, I will try to help them have food.  If your baby is dying, I will do what I can to help save your baby.  If your marriage is imploding, I am going to try to help, if there is any way I can. If you are trying to escape from a country at war to save your children from dying there…I am going to help you save your children.  

That is how Jesus says to love one another.  

Any Jesus follower who limits “love one another” to “try to get the person to become a Christian” has not fully understood love the way Jesus talked about, nor the way Jesus loved.  

Yes, I am ashamed of the debates I am seeing within the groups of people who call themselves “Christians.”  I am ashamed because I believe we should seek unity, we should respect and love and hear one another and try to understand our disagreements. I am ashamed because we’re making following Jesus look unattractive, or even appalling, and they don’t know us by our love for one another.  

But I am also ashamed, frankly, because I hear people who claim to follow Jesus talking in such a way that they do not seem to understand the commandment to love one another.  They act as if they have not read Matthew 25, in which Jesus identifies himself as those who need food and water, who don’t have a home and live on the streets, who are fleeing a war-ravaged country with children in tow, who are dying in a hospital bed or are imprisoned.  

It’s bizarrre, but in Matthew 25, Jesus doesn’t stop to explain how the prisoner–which is him–was framed and sentenced unjustly, though innocent.  Jesus doesn’t address the prisoner’s innocence or guilt at all.  He doesn’t discuss whether the sick person made poor life choices nor whether the hungry person was irresponsible.  He doesn’t even ask whether or not the stranger got into the country legally.  

He says this:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

And here is his conclusion, the wild twist at the end:

‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

All this means, to me, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ embodies both telling people about God’s saving love and forgiveness of our sins and loving people by doing for them as we would have them do for us.  

My blog is named, “Grace Is Greater.”  None of us love perfectly, none of us fully do to others as we actually would have them do to us. Jesus was perfect and we’re not. We are called to faithfulness, not perfection. I’ve lived among impoverished people for seven years and every day ask if I’m screwing this up.

I’m also not saying that I have a fulll grasp of the truth.  I’m sure I have blind spots where I have not yet understood the whole Gospel.  

But a person arguing that these actions are not how we follow Jesus, that the Gospel does not command us to love the least among us, that we should first measure people’s worthiness before deciding how (or if) we love them, or that certain people are outside the parameters of whom God calls us to love?  

I have to question if that person understands the Gospel. 

Thirty Reasons I Don’t Want to Leave Nicaragua

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  1.  I know for certain that God called me here.
  2. Spending 10 cordobas (30 cents) on tortillas every day makes a difference in my neighbor’s life.
  3. I can walk across the street to buy fresh tortillas every day.  
  4. I’m a mentor to a significant percentage of the young ultimate players in the country. Let’s see you do that in the States.
  5. It’s never winter but is Christmas for a month, yet Christmas is tranquilo. (Loud from bombas, but tranquilo.)
  6. I spend more of my time seeing what others don’t have and thinking about how I can help than seeing what others have and thinking about how I need more.
  7. I’ve learned to be grateful for running water.
  8. I’ve learned to be grateful any time our car runs.
  9. I trust our mechanics.
  10. I’ve gotten to know God better through people whose faith is stronger than mine.
  11. I get to use all my spiritual gifts here.
  12. It’s green.  All. Year. Long.  
  13. Yes, it’s hot, but I’ve noticed that the heat and humidity are actually great for preventing muscle pulls and other injuries.  
  14. I can play ultimate year-round.
  15. The elderly woman who sells me avocados smiles at me and hugs me.
  16. I get to help my neighbor prepare her sermons!
  17. Talking about God, being grateful for what God has done, praising God, is part of every normal conversation. 
  18. There are cool lizards everywhere.
  19. I get to encourage young adults to follow Jesus here.
  20. I get to live among people living in poverty and be their neighbor, not someone offering charity.  
  21. Our children assume that people look different than we do, come from different cultures, speak different languages, live at different means, and this is all normal life.  
  22. The elderly man on the corner always greets me with his toothless smile as his “Amigito,” little friend, though he is 5-foot nothing and can’t weigh a hundred pounds. His smile and greeting always lift my day.
  23. We’ve seen miraculous healings here.
  24. Kim has done extraordinary work here and has grown in her boldness and her leadership.  
  25. Kim and I, for many of the Nicaraguan staff at NCA, are the gringos who serve as the bridge people.  We’re the ones they trust and talk to.  
  26. I don’t feel like I’ve done a great job and I’d like to do better.
  27. Inexpensive, incredible local produce: limones, piñas, bananas, papaya, sandia, pepinos, mangos, hierba buena, etc, etc.
  28. I didn’t make this a list of individuals I’d miss, but some people dear to my heart who have changed me through our friendship.
  29. The sheer beauty of this country.
  30. Seeing God’s face every time I walk out my door: in the borrachos who hang out by our house, in the children who come to our preschool, in the teeny neighbor girls who love me, in the strangers who will return my greeting and blessing…

Strange Easter

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I’m trying to make sense of today.

I think the sermon went well, but I’ve had more post-sermon mental backlash than I’d experienced in a really long time.

It isn’t about me.  I know that.  God does what God does through a sermon.  The preacher does her or his best and then, ideally, leaves it to God to work in people’s hearts.

But most preachers I know deal with some version of this. Many don’t take Monday as their day off because it’s just too easy to spend the day stewing.  “Ideally” doesn’t tend to work the way one would hope.  


Today after church, I spent the majority of my socializing time talking with Sasha, the daughter of Gerry, who died recently.  She’s still in a lot of pain.  During my sermon, describing the women followers of Jesus who went to the tomb Sunday morning, I said, “Have you ever woken up, felt good, felt normal, and then remembered? Maybe a tragedy, maybe a horrible situation, and it hits you again as you’re waking up, a brick to the face. You wish you could have stayed oblivious for another 30 seconds, just to not have to remember how bad things are. But they are and forgetting doesn’t change it.”

Sasha gave me a thumbs up and a huge head nod from her seat, which caught my eye and I could affirm that yes, she knows exactly how this feels, suffering the loss of her father.  

So we talked a lot after church.  She made a horrible joke and laughed hard at it and it was so good to see her laugh. But we also talked about her fifteenth birthday coming up, which is so important in Nicaraguan culture.  She said, “I thought he’d be there with me.”  She started to cry, hard, and I got over awkward and put my arm around her.  


A friend drove us home after church because our car has broken down again.  We stopped on the narrow road so I could buy avocados from the older woman whose table is there.*  But she wasn’t at her table.  Another woman, holding her baby, was covering it.  I bought two avocados (avocados=points in my marriage) and was returning to the car when I saw the older woman crossing the road.  She’s very hunched.  Her voice doesn’t really work, a very quiet croak.  And she gave me a huge hug.  

I buy avocados from her, every chance I get.  I talk a little with her every time we see each other, whether or not I buy avocados.  But it’s a brief interaction, walking to school or stopping to say “hello” on my way home.  She’s on the other side of the table from me. Yet today she was so happy to see me and the hug, and her huge beaming smile, made my Easter, and that’s saying something.  

I love this warm culture.  I don’t love everything about it, especially the things I still don’t understand, but today Jesus in the form of this beautiful, hunched, loving, nearly-voiceless elderly woman gave me a hug in the street and Easter was real for me.  It’s Sunday.  The resurrection happened.  God is alive and living in Managua.  She sells avocados on the narrow street.  And she hugs gringos for no reason, just because she’s glad to see them.  


I spent a lot of time with my family.  That’s why I didn’t play ultimate today.  We got along as well as we do and talked and laughed and teased and snapped at each other, as we do.  We missed our eldest in Los Angeles.  We hunted for eggs and ate pie.

Then, when we were preparing for “family movie night,” a neighbor from up the street showed up at the door.  She was in tears.  She needed to talk with Kim.  What you can’t understand about poverty unless you see it up close–or live it–is that nothing works for you.  You’re working too many hours to try to feed your family and your drunken husband shows up just long enough to take the food you’ve got in the house and then, because you are working so much, your child is going unsupervised and the influence of the other kids is toward taking drugs and making terrible choices.  What do you do?  Work less?  You can’t.  Have your husband take care of it?  Ha.  Ask your family for help.  She did, and they were awful.  

And so she shows up, needing to talk to Kim, and Kim can’t solve the problems–we can’t solve poverty’s grinding attack–but Kim can listen and care and pray and try to think through possible solutions.  

And that’s Easter, too.  She is Jesus, as well.  


Today, I saw Jesus at least three times.  She cried twice.  Once she smiled and hugged me.  I couldn’t solve anything.  I celebrated Jesus rising from the dead.  I mourned with a girl whose father is dead.  She asked me if I’m still telling people about him.  I am.  I gave the sermon I had, I believe I gave the sermon God gave to me, and I both held back from saying things that might offend and offended people with things I said.

Step back. You know what’s going to happen next. You know what they’ll find when they get to the tomb. Go split screen in your mind. Picture this is what the women are talking about, this is the mood in their rooms as they light candles to go out in the dark to perform the last act of service, the final gesture of love for a man who can no longer do anything for them. Was he wrong? Were his teachings false? Was his belief in God too hopeful? Did God fail him? Do any of those questions even matter now that he’s dead?

Their hearts are heavy as stone and they’re trying to follow through with an act that is the right thing to do but in the end what does it mean for this dead man? And they’re going to an empty tomb. They’re minutes away from encountering angels. They’re about to find out that everything, everything has changed and Jesus wasn’t wrong about any of it. They just couldn’t grasp what he told them.

Easter means that although we’re still talking about taking care of Jesus’ body, Jesus has risen from the grave. We’re still discussing whether they’re going to come hunt us down because we followed him. We’re asking one another, “Who will roll away the stone?” We’ll get answers, and so far beyond the scope of what we could have imagined. 

Happy Easter.  Was yours strange, too?  

 

 

*Picture old metal table, half the size of a card table. 

Is It Saturday or Sunday? Manuscript

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I’ve never preached a Holy Saturday service. Christians also call it Great Saturday, Easter Eve, or Black Saturday.

If you do a Lenten reading of the Gospels, going back forty days and planning ahead to read the resurrection stories on Easter, Holy Saturday reading is pretty easy.

The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph. They saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was placed in it. 56 Then they went home. There they prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath day in order to obey the Law.

Verse fifty-five is for context. Verse fifty-six is it, and only the second half. They went home and prepared spices and perfumes on Friday, before their shabbat, their sabbath, had started. Jews observed the sabbath from sundown to sundown. This day, this Saturday, is also referred to as The Great Sabbath.

What happened during the Great Sabbath?

Nothing. The women followed the Jewish law by resting on the Sabbath. Nothing changed.

Jesus was taken and murdered, except it was state-sanctioned so we call it “executed,” betrayed by the religious leaders, who lied and framed him during his mockery of a trial, then turned him over to the soldiers who occupied Israel, who hated the Jews and with a full-throated, racist hatred. That sign, “The King of the Jews?” Step back from the double-meaning that you might know and think about that. They took a Jew and beat him viciously, then put him in a robe and “crown,” laughed at him and spat on him, then made a sign to let the world know that this ragged, bleeding criminal was the Jewish King.

Do you understand that? Soldiers for the occupying army are making very clear that any uprising under this king will fail. The Jewish leaders, the ones who turned Jesus over to this torture, protested: “Don’t say ‘King of the Jews,’ but ‘This man claimed to be King of the Jews.’”

19 Pilate had a notice prepared. It was fastened to the cross. It read,

Jesus of nazareth, the king of the Jews.

20 Many of the Jews read the sign.

That’s because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city. And the sign was written in the Aramaic, Latin and Greek languages. 21 The chief priests of the Jews argued with Pilate. They said, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews.’ Write that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.

22 Pilate answered, “I have written what I have written.”

They wrote in three different languages, “The King of the Jews.: They wanted everyone in sight, anyone who could read, to grasp that there would be no Jewish uprising, no Jewish King. This is what happens to a Jewish King.

Conquering armies conquer, and when there is any threat of rebellion, they usually crush it ruthlessly, violently. When King Herod thought there was the slightest chance of a baby growing up to overthrow him, he had all the children three years old and under slaughtered. All of them.

That’s the power ruling on Saturday afternoon. Saturday afternoon, Jesus is dead. The women are resting because that’s the law on the sabbath. The soldiers are soldiering, doing their duty. Beating and flogging and humiliating Jesus, that was just their duty, maybe something they enjoyed more because they really did hate the Jews or less because “let’s just kill him and be done with it.” Pilate went back into his palace. The crowds disbursed.

Joseph of Arimethea, who was on the Jewish Council. had not only a change of heart but such a transformation that he dared take responsibility for a dead criminal and provide him a place of honor to bury him. He took Jesus and had him buried in an empty tomb, not a pauper’s grave, not just tossed by the side of the road. It was a strange decision, to put this stranger, this false prophet, in an honored place of burial, where no one had been buried before. Then Joseph went home and rested, too, because anything that could be done, he had done.

 

Sunday morning comes.

Everything changes on Sunday. Literally everything changes for us.

Is is Saturday or Sunday?

 It was very early in the morning on the first day of the week. The women took the spices they had prepared. Then they went to the tomb. 2 They found the stone rolled away from it. 3 When they entered the tomb, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 They were wondering about this. Suddenly two men in clothes as bright as lightning stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified. They bowed down with their faces to the ground. Then the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 Jesus is not here! He has risen! Remember how he told you he would rise. It was while he was still with you in Galilee. 7 He said, ‘The Son of Man must be handed over to sinful people. He must be nailed to a cross. On the third day he will rise from the dead.’ ” 8 Then the women remembered Jesus’ words.

9 They came back from the tomb. They told all these things to the 11 apostles and to all the others. 10 Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them were the ones who told the apostles. 11 But the apostles did not believe the women. Their words didn’t make any sense to them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb. He bent over and saw the strips of linen lying by themselves. Then he went away, wondering what had happened.

 

First thing Sunday morning, nobody knows anything has changed yet. Think about this moment. This is our moment that I want us to understand this morning.

The women wake up, probably first, certainly very early. Or maybe they didn’t sleep. I’ve been there, both ways. Have you ever woken up, felt good, felt normal, and then remembered? Maybe a tragedy, maybe a horrible situation, and it hits you again as you’re waking up, a brick to the face. You wish you could have stayed oblivious for another 30 seconds, just to not have to remember how bad things are. But they are and forgetting doesn’t change it. Even worse is when the grip of grief and shock and sorrow won’t let you go and nothing you do can pry their grip loose, not even long enough to drift off for a few minutes. It’s “very early in the morning,” which can also be translated “at early dawn” or “before first light.” The women are trying to get to the tomb early. Do you know why? They want to dress the body before it starts to decompose. At this hour on Sunday morning, their direct concern is the practicality of dealing with a corpse.

Step back. You know what’s going to happen next. You know what they’ll find when they get to the tomb. Go split screen in your mind. Picture this is what the women are talking about, this is the mood in their rooms as they light candles to go out in the dark to perform the last act of service, the final gesture of love for a man who can no longer do anything for them. Was he wrong? Were his teachings false? Was his belief in God too hopeful? Did God fail him? Do any of those questions even matter now that he’s dead?

Their hearts are heavy as stone and they’re trying to follow through with an act that is the right thing to do but in the end what does it mean for this dead man? And they’re going to an empty tomb. They’re minutes away from encountering angels. They’re about to find out that everything, everything has changed and Jesus wasn’t wrong about any of it. They just couldn’t grasp what he told them.

Get this: Jesus wasn’t wrong about any of it; they just couldn’t grasp what he told them. How true is that for us?

Easter means that although we’re still talking about taking care of Jesus’ body, Jesus has risen from the grave. We’re still discussing whether they’re going to come hunt us down because we followed him. We’re asking one another, “Who will role away the stone?” We’ll get answers, and so far beyond the scope of what we could have imagined. What is Peter thinking about on Saturday? Imagine what Peter’s Saturday night was like…

When the women come back from the tomb, which does not have a dead body that “belongs” there, but which does have two beings dressed in white who don’t normally belong there, the men, the male disciples, the fishermen and the tax collector and the revolutionary, don’t believe them.

5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

They think the women are looloo, loco. This may be borrowing trouble, but do they not believe them because they’re women? Women were not legal witnesses in that time and culture, were the legal property of their husbands or fathers, and I don’t think it was a mere coincidence that these women got to be the first witnesses. These were women who had faithfully followed Jesus. On one level, God gave them this in keeping with how Jesus exploded the confining, smothering, dehumanizing roles of women in their culture. Jesus taught them as he taught the disciples, making them companions among his followers, receiving financial support from them.

On another level, the Messiah who taught that genuine, meaningful greatness comes from service, who washed his twelves apostles’ feet hours before he died, rewarded these women’s humble service by giving them the good news of Resurrection first. Isn’t that just like Jesus? The women came to the tomb to dress the body with spices and perfumes. For this tiny attempted action, they got to see angels, they got to hear news beyond their most desperate and ridiculous hopes. Jesus taught that a mustard seed of faith is enough to move a mountain, that giving a cup of cold water to any thirsty person is an encounter with God, that two tiny copper coins given in faith equal more than piles of coinage given for show, and their following through on this menial job instead of despairing and fleeing to their homes made them the first to switch from Saturday to Sunday Reality.

But the men laugh at them, or scoff, or ignore or rebuke or scold. The women are living in Sunday morning, they have moved through darkness and despair into Resurrection and hope. Sunday morning, the men are still living Saturday. Jesus is not in the tomb, but they still believe he is. The women told them the truth, and they brushed it off. There is the Reality that exists on Sunday, and then the reality the men are still living. They’re wrong. They’re in the dark. But right in this moment they are basing all their thoughts and decisions in this Saturday reality in which they believe.

Except Peter.

Peter has to see.

These are wonderful words to me: “But Peter.

But Peter got up and ran to the tomb.

Peter has to know. If there’s any slightest chance that the Saturday Reality is not the Final Word, not the Final Interaction Peter will have with Jesus, Peter has to see. I’m picturing that the rest of the guys are laughing and snarking at the women, or just won’t even respond:

“Yeah, right, there’s no body there, Jesus grew wings and flew away, did you see his body, you stupid—Peter, where are you going? Peter!”

He bent over and saw the strips of linen lying by themselves. Then he went away, wondering what had happened.

Even so, Peter is not sure. Now his reality is somewhere between Saturday and Sunday. There’s no body there. Jesus’ corpse is not in that tomb. What happened? Faith begins when the reality we “knew” with certainty suddenly gets shaken up and maybe, maybe…this is true? U2 describes this in a song: “At the moment of surrender/Of vision over visibility” When the vision of what is True becomes more real than what’s visible to my physical eyes. That’s the moment of faith.

But Peter is still going fishing on Sunday because that’s what he knows and he’s going back to the reality he lived before.

Jesus is going to have to confront Peter more directly, with a lot of fish, before Peter moves all the way into Sunday reality.

 

In which reality are we living?

I’m not saying if we just believe in Resurrection, all the bad things in our world will disappear. I am saying everything changes for us, in us, and the impossible things become possible.

Sunday morning, racism can change. It can. You know how I know? Slavery used to be legal. Slavery in many countries in the world became illegal when followers of Jesus spoke out against it, and fought it, and refused to accept it any longer because Jesus had changed their hearts. Jesus had taught them to see people differently. Jesus had overcome death and made the impossible, possible.

Sunday morning, death no longer wins. Sunday morning, the racist hatred that killed Jesus can be overcome by Jesus love in the power of His resurrection.

Sunday morning, the women go the grave to serve in the last way available to them and come back with a wild tale. They are the first witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus who is the Christ, after all.

Sunday morning, we can change the current epidemic of violence against women. The reports don’t mean it’s suddenly happening, they mean it’s finally out in the open, and in the light is where sin loses its power and God heals and restores. Sunday morning means we repent of sexism in our own relationships and then follow Jesus by speaking out and calling our churches first, and then our societies, to repentance. We aren’t living in Saturday anymore. It’s Sunday morning.

Sunday morning, we decide if we believe everything has changed or if we are still living in Saturday.*(Big old footnote)

Saturday, we have disciples who think their time of following Jesus has ended. Now listen to what happens after they experience Sunday:

27 When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. 30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

That’s Peter, the same Peter whose words on Friday were, “I swear to God, I’ve never heard of this man Jesus!” This is the difference between Saturday and Sunday. Peter says this to the exact same people who tried Jesus and convinced Pilate to crucify him.

Here’s what happens next in Acts 5:

33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 34 But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 35 Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”

Gamaliel speaks the truth of Sunday: if it is God, you will not be able to overthrow them; if you oppose what they do, you may even be found fighting against God.

Did the disciples believe they could change the world? I don’t know. But they did. The disciples, by the power of God through the Holy Spirit moving in them, changed the world. That tiny little band of Jesus followers who had given up on Saturday because there was no hope left in the world saw Sunday, found out that the women were right, and then saw Jesus Christ risen from the dead, right there with them, talking with them, answering their questions, giving them a hard time for their doubts. And they proceeded to preach the Gospel and all of us who have heard the Gospel have heard it because they spoke it and it spread throughout the world.

 

I will tell you the truth: Things look bad to me right now, in a lot of ways. Some things that I’ve prayed to see change seem to be getting worse. I know that sin and brokenness are real in the world and they have consequences.

But it’s not Saturday. Jesus rose from the dead. He did. It’s Sunday and I’m going to live like it’s Sunday.

The difference between knowing about God and knowing God is that if you know God, you also know that God can change you. If you know God, you’re already changed. You might have forgotten it, you might be ignoring it now, you might be doubting it, but God has changed you and will continue to change you. You’ve already lived Sunday. If you’re back to living Saturday, I get it. It’s easy to do. But it’s not Reality. That’s not the truth.

This is the picture I want to leave you with. It’s not a choice between Saturday when I’m hopeless and Sunday when I know I can make things happen.

This is knowing Jesus and the power of His Resurrection: If we live in Saturday, we are blind to the reality that Jesus has died and risen from the dead; we are weeping over an empty tomb.

If we live in Sunday, we follow Jesus who rose from the dead and will lead us where He chooses, in His power, and He will change us and change the world through us. Our job is not to laugh at the women when they come tell us. Our job is to run to the tomb, to believe the unbelievable because we know it to be true—vision over visibility—and then to follow Jesus, to live Sunday, to let God lead us where the Spirit’s Power will open the tomb and raise the dead to life again.

 

 

*This is an excerpt from my friend Erna’s blog, Feisty Thoughts. I considered including this in my sermon but didn’t.  

I need an Easter that has an answer for Trayvon, Tamir, Rekia Boyd, Sandra, Bland, and Stephon Clark.
I need an Easter that has something to say to survivors of Indian Boarding schools, and the generations of those traumatized by its legacy.
I need an Easter that has something to say about white supremacist evangelical Christianity.
I need an Easter that has something to say about white women who wont’ stop crying and recentering race conversations on themselves.
I need an Easter that has something to say to young queer believers who are considering suicide instead of coming out.
I need an Easter that addresses patriarchy in the Korean American church.
I need an Easter that sees and helps undocumented people whose families are being torn apart.
I need an Easter where you don’t have to be a perfect, super special, amazing immigrant for people to care about you.
I need an Easter that can dismantle the NRA.
I need an Easter that can address gun violence.
I need an Easter that addresses mass incarceration and the for profit prison system.
I need an Easter that doesn’t just talk about living water, but gets clean water to Flint.
I need an Easter where sexual violence against women, especially women of color, is talked about openly and addressed courageously.

Every year Easter is about individual sin. But I need an Easter that is big enough for our collective sin and brokenness, big enough for our systemic and institutionalized brokenness. I need an Easter that goes beyond the personal. The things that overwhelm my heart and soul right now have less to do with my personal wretchedness, than the brokenness of the systems I’m embedded in, participate in, and that impact me and the communities I love.

Enough

Standard

Too much is never enough.

God created us to be satisfied with enough. When we have the right amount, when we have our needs met, then we are working the way we are designed. We are built to have “enough.”

Too much is never enough. When we hear this, we usually think it means, “Even when we have too much, we still want (and believe we need) more; having ‘too much’ still does not fill us to the level of ‘enough,’ still does not satisfy us.” But in fact, too much is never enough because we have gone past “enough.” We have overfilled the tank, overinflated the tires, overwhelmed the mechanism. “Too much” is not good for us. We think we want “too much.” We think “Big Gulps” will make us happy, and we’re thrilled when we find that we can buy “Double Big Gulps.” Our new cars have larger cupholders so that we can carry sixty-four or one hundred twenty-eight ounces with us. We build bigger homes with more rooms than we need. We have more cars sitting in our garages and driveways than drivers in the home to drive them. We have overwhelmed our systems.

Target ran an ad campaign. They hung huge banners from their ceiling with pictures of all the great stuff you could buy in their store, and the banners randomly said, “WANT” or “NEED.” The Target marketing department was not trying to help us discern between our wants and needs. Quite the opposite. I walked around looking at the banners, with a bicycle helmet shouting “WANT” and a television set saying, “NEED.” I believe they were actually trying to muddle the line between the two categories. One Sunday in church, a precocious girl prayed after the children’s sermon, “God, give us what we want. Because what we want is what we need.” We all laughed and clapped when she finished praying. But I keep thinking about how untrue that is for us. What we have come to want is most definitely not what we need. I suspect most of us have lost track of what our actual needs are. God has blessed us by meeting our needs and we receive that blessing and want more.

Scripture tells us that wanting more than we need is bad for us. Do we believe that? The Biblical writers use words like “greed” and “gluttony.” Proverbs: “Human eyes are never satisfied.” When I discussed this with my young adult group, one of them suggested that this goes back to Adam and Eve, desiring

what they cannot have. Maybe all sinful hearts desire more than they need, but we are a people who often can indulge this desire. When God gives us more than we need, he intends for us to share. Repeatedly we hear that there is enough food in the world for everyone if it were distributed properly.

We’ve traveled so far down the road of having too much, we now have a hard time believing that it’s bad for us. Doctors tell us that obesity, especially in children, has reached epidemic levels. But we still want the oversized indulgence, be it a vacation home larger than our family needs for our full-time dwelling or an iPhone that has more apps than we could use in a lifetime. We have acquired a taste for gluttony and we simply don’t believe when God tells us that it’s bad for us and can never make us happy.

Another young adult suggested we’re like unrooted plants that thirst for more and more water, because no matter how much gets poured on us, we have nothing with which to hold it in so it just flows away. Plants don’t want too much water; too much water kills plants. Plants want enough water. Too much is never enough for plants and it is never enough for us. Enough is enough. Too much kills. We won’t believe this until we have acquired the taste for “enough.”

In his space fantasy novel Perelandra, C.S. Lewis creates a scene which has stuck in my mind since I read it as a teen. His protagonist, Ransom has just tasted a new fruit for the first time:

As he let the empty gourd fall from his hand and was about to pluck a second one, it came into his head that he was now neither hungry nor thirsty. And yet to repeat a pleasure so intense and almost so spiritual seemed an obvious thing to do. His reason, or what we commonly take to be reason in our own world, was all in favour of tasting this miracle again; the child-like innocence of fruit, the labours he had undergone, the uncertainty of the future, all seemed to commend the action. Yet something seemed opposed to this “reason.” It is difficult to suppose that this opposition came from desire, for what desire would turn from so much deliciousness? But for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity–like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.

As he stood pondering over this and wondering how often in his life on earth he had reiterated pleasures not through desire, but in the teeth of desire and in obedience to a spurious rationalism, he noticed that the light was changing.

When we enjoy something, we “automatically” want more of it. But is seeking more furthering our pleasure or diminishing it?  Is our desire for more simply our inability (or refusal) to be satisfied when we’ve had enough?  

Ice cream is a want, not a need. It is a luxury by any reasonable human standard. It is a wonderful, delicious, refreshing treat for many people, especially when eaten in hot weather. Having seconds and thirds of ice cream does not increase our pleasure of eating ice cream; it does the opposite. Our taste buds get choked with the refined sugar (which isn’t good for us in the first place) and we actually lose our ability to taste the flavors as vividly. Most of us will begin to feel sick to our stomachs eventually. Feeling bloated is not satisfying nor pleasurable, but many of us associate being stuffed, even to the point of discomfort, with satisfaction.

I’ve struggled with this.  When I eat ice cream, I want to taste more ice cream.  Most of my life, I’ve been very poor at practicing moderation. I’m finally making progress.  Anne Lamott describes a revolutionary challenge to her eating habits when a friend suggests that she eat only when she is actually hungry. Food tastes better and satisfies more when our bodies need it. We can develop the taste for enough just as we’ve developed the taste for too much. In fact, when we come to realize that we feel well—that this is how feeling well feels—we begin to lose the desire to overconsume.

Our eating habits are one example of our lifestyles of desiring too much. We learn to want more from seeing advertising, from watching others who have more than we do,* and from failing to seek our satisfaction in God. In the oft-quoted passage from Philippians, Paul states, “I have learned the secret of having plenty and of being in want. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Can I really? Can I really be satisfied with less, less than the neighbors or my friends have, less than I think I desire? If I were in a position of being in want, could I trust God and feel satisfied in Him nonetheless? How would that ever be possible if I have trained my heart always to want more?

Finally, yet again from one of my young adults, “If God blesses us with ample goods so that we have enough for ourselves and enough to share with others, we are stealing from them if we do not share.” I John: “How can you have this world’s goods and see another in need and not share and say God’s love is in you?” You can’t. It isn’t. There aren’t two possible answers for that rhetorical question. We could a)share what we have and feel God’s satisfaction or b)make ourselves sick by overindulging and ignoring those in need and not have God’s love dwell in us. Gosh, it feels like a no-brainer when I put it that way. Yet our daily choices are not for our own good.

We are sinners. Sin is that which God forbids us to do because it goes against our design and harms us. God loves us and tells us not to destroy ourselves. We don’t trust God, so we do what harms us. Then we get mad at God. This isn’t a new story. Our innovation is that we’ve lost track of why greed and gluttony are bad for us and we’ve become so myopic we can’t recognize how we are disobeying God or why we’re in pain. If we have too much, we need less. If we’re doing harm to ourselves, we need to stop! Buying more won’t make us happy—it hasn’t worked so far, it won’t suddenly start now.

Being part of God’s work, aligning ourselves with His purposes for good in the world, living according to our design by seeking our true satisfaction in Him and receiving every good gift He gives us with gratitude, these will make us happy. Even better and deeper than happiness, they will lead us into contentment and joy.

Enough is always enough. Any more than enough is too much. In His love for us, God desires to bless us with enough.

*A wonderful scene in a Veggie Tales video, The Toy that Saved Christmas, depicts two young carrots watching a TV commercial. The narrator says, “Billy has more toys than you!” The youngsters turn to their parents and crank up their best whiny voices: “Billy has more toys than me!”
The parents look quizzical.
Finally, one of them asks, “Who’s Billy?”
“I don’t know,” the child responds, “But he has more toys than me!”