Advent Reflections: Faith

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This is the first in a series of brief Advent reflections.

 

I was once conversing with a Ph. D. candidate at Cal Tech (CIT).  I had become good friends with his roommate, a fellow ultimate player and hiker, who had also developed an interest in spiritual questions.  My friend was genuinely seeking and we talked for hours while hiking about philosophy, theology, psychology, and nature.  The roommate, who had just met me, was taking the lay of the land with me, trying to grasp what level of religious nut he was addressing:

“Do you believe in the virgin birth?”

“Yes,” I said. He nodded his head, not in affirmation, but clearly having successfully categorized me.

I found that fascinating, because a woman who had not become impregnated by a man but somehow conceived and gave birth to a child strikes me as no more implausible than that this child would be the incarnate God or that after dying this same now-grown child would return to life after being dead and stay alive.  Permanently.  He would leave everyone he knew during his life and, with eyewitnesses, depart by going up into the sky until he was out of sight.

Naturally, biologically, none of these things happen.  They are either supernatural or not at all.  I’m not sure why he picked out one as being so incredible and far-fetched, so inconceivable, that my believing it made me one of  those people.  Personally, I would consider resurrection harder to believe than virgin birth, and certainly more central to my faith in Jesus as God.

But if a young woman came to you now and told you that she was pregnant but had never been with a man, you wouldn’t believe her.  At best, you would try to get her help for her mental health issues.

We talk about “what strong faith” those living in poverty have.  If tomorrow morning you woke up and discovered that your place in life had been switched with one of our Nicaraguan neighbors and you now had their home and resources and what they have to live on, would you thank God?

Faith, we learn from the Bible, means believing something you know to be true more strongly than you believe the evidence your eyes can see.  Sometimes it means believing in spite of what the physical evidence seems to indicate.

Why do you believe that in a certain city, on a particular day, one young woman came to be with child in a way different than any of the other times that has happened in human history?  Why would you disbelieve a girl who told you that now but believe it about that individual?

I believe in Mary’s pregnancy and giving birth without her having intercourse, because I believe in Jesus’ resurrection.  I believe in Jesus’ resurrection because I’ve experienced its power, God’s power, in my own life.  I know how hate-filled my heart was and I know I became able to forgive people, including myself, when I asked God to help me.  Actually, it was more like I became a Christian and God said, “Now you need to forgive;” he both told me what I needed and made it possible where it had been impossible before.

I suspect that much of what people call “faith” is something very different from biblical faith.  For many years, I thought I had a sound faith in God, but in retrospect I think I had developed my own bargain with God about what I would do and what I would get in return.  God didn’t sign that contract, but I thought we had an understanding.  I wouldn’t have described it that way, of course.  But I came to believe in grace after our son died and what I had called my faith shattered.  Faith is not a bargain with God.

The  New Testament compares faith with metals tried by fire.  Any part that isn’t the true, pure material gets melted away.   The shocking thing about faith is what must happen in our lives most of the time for our faith to strengthen.  I don’t think God tears the crap out of us because we pray for more faith and he says, “Okay, you asked for it.”  I do think that when our faith is untested and complacent, it’s often very weak or might not be faith at all.  That’s how the Scriptures describe it.  Until it enters the really hot fire, we can’t tell which part is the genuine metal and which part is the dross.  If you just say you have faith and there is nothing backing it up, no action or testing or trials, it’s…what’s the word?

Oh, yeah.  Dead.  Faith without works–accompanying action–is dead, i.e. is no faith at all.

Now if you’re saying, “Hey, I thought this was going to be a warm, fuzzy Advent reflection!  Challenging, introspective reflections are supposed to happen for Lent,” a)uh, sorry, and b)I think we’re right in that thick of that crazy dance we do with God in which he gives us what we need but has us take part in receiving it.  Put another way, faith in God comes from God, but God won’t do it without us.  When Jesus healed people–and to be clear, I fully believe the man Jesus walked around with his disciples and did supernatural acts that we call miracles–he frequently said, “You’re faith has made you well.”

“No, Jesus, you made me well.  I was there, I experienced it, this is not a detail I would miss.”

Both are true.  Of course Jesus healed them.  Jesus said their faith healed them.  Jesus tells the truth.

This means Jesus makes us part of the process of our own healing through giving us faith and leaving it to us to act on it–again, faith  is only faith if it involves action, “faithing;” if it’s not a verb, it’s meaningless.

Going back, then, when I say I believe in the virgin birth, I mean that I believe in Christmas.  I have faith that Jesus came incarnate to earth, to Bethlehem, to Nazareth and Jerusalem, and I am faithing that he is–not was, is–who he said.  He is who the Bible says he is.

I need God to give me faith.  I also need God to show me the parts of my faith that are not real.  Faith is a big deal.  We are saved through our faith in God; that’s the medium through which God saves us.

“I have been crucified with Christ;  and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” 

As Jesus followers, we live by faith in Jesus the Son of God. Our faith is in who Jesus is, his love for us, and what he’s done for us.  Advent means Jesus coming to us.  The Advent season leading up to Christmas is a time to reflect on where–or in whom–we have put our faith.  In what things do I trust for my well-being?  What do I believe will give me life?  Looking at the world around me, looking at all that my physical eye can see, do I have faith in what the world, the culture, the politicians tell me is true, or in what Jesus says is true?  When these come into conflict, which do I choose?  

And what are the daily expressions, the outward manifestations of my faith?  If we have only platitudes, this season is a very good time to make some changes.  Biblically, living by faith does not mean having a list of truths to which I give mental confirmation.  My friend’s roomie was asking, “Is this actually something you’re able to think, to convince yourself something that obviously can’t be true is true?”  

But what I was trying to say, and what I think I can say more accurately now than I could then, is “Yes, I Iive my life by faith that God is real and Jesus is God.  And, somehow, that faith is healing me.”  

What Do We Do Now, Part 1

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[TRIGGER WARNING:  I am addressing difficult things in this post that could potentially set off painful emotions or call up trauma for those who have suffered sexual violence. My intent is not shock value, but pressing people to empathize.]

 

 

 

You were raped. 

You were forced by someone you trusted, someone who used violence to violate you.  Brutal.  Shattering. Your life has changed.  You feel unsafe almost all the time.  You look at every one and try to decide if they might hurt you. You didn’t think your rapist would, and you were wrong.  Are you wrong now?  Can you take that risk?  How will you have an intimate relationship, ever again?  

You wake up Wednesday morning after the election to the reality that the man elected President said, boasted, “I just grab them by the p***y.”  The man who won the electoral college votes and will lead the U.S. for the next four years has claimed to be a sexual predator. 

Was he lying?  Boasting of something he didn’t actually do, ever?  What does it say about a man that he would claim to commit sexual violence against women but in reality doesn’t?

Or did he do exactly what he said?  Has he done that for years?  Has he done that or worse throughout his life?  

How do you feel now, after what you’ve suffered, to find that the President is also, by his own words, a violator?  To learn that enough people in the United States decided that this was not a deal-breaker, in the Election of 2016, that either the other alternative was worse or that this was somehow acceptable in our leader or that his positions or his party affiliation or his promises mitigated this behavior, this character.  

I’m asking you to empathize.  To try to understand how someone would feel.  To understand why someone would react strongly.  What kind of terror would that trigger in you, had you suffered this way?  

Is he a rapist?  I don’t know.  I know what he has said.  I know what girls under 18 have said about his walking in on them when they were not dressed.  I know that he has committed adultery against each of his three wives (his statement about “grabbing” was, of course, while he was married).  I know what is public knowledge about him.  

 I have heard, over and over, that “people are upset that Trump said mean things.” No.  People are upset, horrified, agonized, keening, that Donald Trump told us he committed sexual violence against women and we elected him President.  

If you are still reading this, I’m hopeful.  I’m hopeful that you are trying to listen, trying to understand.  We are in a very bad situation.  I’m not discussing whether he was a better choice than she was.  The election is over.  We are here now.  I pleaded and prayed that the Republicans would pick a different candidate, any other candidate.  I tried to make the case that Christians could not support him during the primaries, long before it was down to the two of them.  I wish John Kasich were our President-elect, instead.  He’s not.  

I’m speaking to everyone who wants in any way to help our country move forward, to reconcile, to seek peace and pursue it.  I’m specifically addressing Christians.  Exit polls show that 81% of white evangelical Christians voted for the President-elect.  I’m Irish-German.  I’m talking to people like me.  Again, I’m not debating who we should have voted for.  That’s over.  I’m addressing where we are now and where we will be tomorrow.  

If you are a follower of Jesus, I believe these things are non-negotiables:  

Your allegiance to Jesus is higher, always higher, than your allegiance to political party, leader, or anything else.  Jesus says that.  He says it about family.  He says it about money.  He says it about everything.  Obedience and allegiance to Jesus who is God comes before everything else, literally, and anytime there is a conflict of allegiance, we may struggle with living our belief, but our belief is clear: God first.  

We are to love God and our neighbor, which Jesus names as the most important commandment God gives–

36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

The commandment to love your neighbor is like the commandment to love God above all else.  They are related.  They are inextricable.  Through loving God, we love people.  Through loving people, we love God.  Jesus actually said that caring for people in need–hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, in prison, stranger (meaning immigrant, a foreigner to one’s country)–is caring for him (Matthew 25).  He so utterly identifies with them that to love them in practical ways is to love him.  When we talk about what it is to worship God, we must include this, because it’s arguably the most explicit thing Jesus said about how to love him.  

Now I’m asking you, as a Christian:  look around.  Open your eyes.  See what is happening.  Please, please stop criticizing the people who are reacting strongly in fear and horror.  If you are not, tell your friends who are to stop.  I cannot see how attacking them is loving your neighbor.  

Your sexually abused neighbor is terrified.  I’m picking one issue to try to make this clear, but there are many others.  I have been discipling and mentoring people for a long time, seeking to empower them to grow spiritually, in their capacity to love and be loved, to show grace and compassion. To be light in the world.  I started trying in my early twenties.  Now, in my late forties, I’ve gained a little wisdom and a lot of compassion, thank God.  I’m much less judgmental than I used to be, praise God for his mercy.  In these years, I have worked with and cared for many females and some males who have been sexually abused, raped or molested.  Not a few.  Many.  I am not making up their response, I am seeing it first-hand.  

Jesus also says love your enemies.  This is hard.  I’m lousy at it.  But I’m clear that Jesus commands it and does not make it optional.  Even if you believe that the President-elect’s opponent is “a witch from hell” (and I’ve heard this stated explicitly, and worse), even if you believe that her supporters are your mortal enemies who sought to destroy your country, you are called to love them.  Telling them to shut up, quit whining, quit overreacting, “deal with it,” is not loving them.  It is not showing compassion.  

Loving them means trying to understand “Why?”  That’s the path to empathy and compassion.  Please don’t argue that the last two elections the other side may have said the same thing.  So what?  Seriously, I’m asking this with all sincerity: how does that in any way impact how you obey Jesus in this situation?  “I told you so,” “In your face,” “You have no reason to complain,” and “You have no right to respond this way” are all responses that people make in political arguments, but your politics are not the most important thing in your interaction with those expressing their grief and horror.  Your relationship with God is.  Are you praying for the people grieving?  Are you asking God to comfort them?  Are you listening to them, really trying to hear, asking them why they are responding this way–not as rhetorical question or mockery, but with genuine desire to learn so you can better care for them?  

Are sexual harassment and attacks increasing?  Are people using the always-publicized candidacy and now the election as a basis, a warrant, to commit evil?  Do you see that happening at all?  I am seeing that.  I am seeing reports of increased, active racism, of threats and intimidation and violence.  

“What about them?  What about the rioters, what about the protesters who are committing violence?”  My belief is that we should never protest violently.  Protest is one of the crucial elements of democracy–I live in a country that represses protests–and I am a Jesus-follower who also agrees with Churchill’s view, 

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”― Winston S. Churchill

So of course I repudiate responding with violence, because I do not believe in the myth of redemptive violence, that acting violently against others will somehow bring God’s redemption.  That’s my understanding of Jesus’ teaching.*  I’m not defending or excusing those acts.  

But “What about them?” and “Yeah, well they’re worse” are not justifications for the Jesus follower.  They aren’t a free pass from loving neighbors, from loving those who are suffering, or from loving your enemy.  Take your pick.  Which applies to your situation?  Which category fits?  Who is Jesus calling you to love today?

If Jesus said to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love our enemies, that means there is no in-between whom we get to disdain and revile.  When I have tried to call people on not loving their enemies, I’ve been told, repeatedly, “They’re not my enemies.  I don’t have any enemies.  I just disagree with them politically.”  I cannot, for the life of me, understand how this makes belittling and name-calling acceptable for the disciple of Jesus.  

But I’m asking–pleading–for more than simply kinder discourse.  I want you to step out of your world and step into that of your opponent, the other side, the people who are behaving now in ways that make no sense to you.  That’s how we love our enemies or our political opponents.  Jesus always sides with the oppressed. He does.  Why are many ethnic minorities in the US terrified right now?  What are people saying to them?  If you disbelieve every report, every ugly incident, then I’m going to challenge you that you are in denial.  Has it gotten worse, or were these things already happening and now they are being reported?  Are grade school children who are legal US citizens being called racial slurs by their classmates and told to “go back home,” “we’re building a wall to keep you out,” “go back to Africa”? 

If that’s happening–and my teacher friends tell me it is–then what is our response as Christians?  

A Nicaraguan student in our school, a senior who may quite literally be a genius and who has been planning to apply to MIT, said to one of our teachers, “They’re not going to want me there now.”

How has having foreign students, “strangers,” impacted the U.S. throughout our history?  I would say they have contributed significantly to the greatness we claim for our country.  Historically and currently, I think this is inarguable.  

Many of those who voted for the President-elect are not racists.  But he had many vocal supporters who proudly and unmistakably are racist, members of racist organizations, and leaders of racist organizations.  I’m asking a serious question here: what do we do with the fact that 81% of white evangelicals voted for a candidate who was enthusiastically endorsed by the KKK?  I understand that Christians had different reasons than KKK members to vote for him.  But to the world outside the Christian church, what does that say?  No, that’s not their problem, that’s ours.  We are trying to be grace and love to the world in the name of Jesus.  Jesus told us to be salt and light for them. 

Again, I understand this is an uncomfortable question and it’s much easier and more appealing to point fingers at the rioters destroying property and committing violence.  But that, though horrible, is not sabotaging the witness of Jesus followers to the people who don’t know God’s love and forgiveness.  And again, I’m not arguing who you or I should have voted for; we voted, the results came in, we’re here. But we’re here getting news reports that the President-elect has named Steve Bannon as his chief strategist.   How would you expect Latinos or blacks or Jewish people to respond to this news?  David Duke proclaimed it an “excellent choice.”  How do Christians respond?

This is where we are:  the fact that such an overwhelming majority of white evangelicals voted for Donald J. Trump communicates that they support his actions, values and leadership. He is, overwhelmingly, their choice for President of the United States.  The divide in the US is deepening every day.  People who oppose Trump because they feel threatened for their race or gender or religion or orientation are angry, hurt, and fearful for their future, and the future of the United States.  

I know this:  the racists who voted for Donald Trump are not going to seek empathy, compassion and reconciliation unless God does a miraculous work of transformation in their hearts.  But God has already done a miraculous work of transformation in our hearts.  We are the sinners saved by grace.  We are the people who believe in repentance and forgiveness.  We are the people instructed to become all things to all people in order to help as many as possible to know God’s love and forgiveness.  We are the followers of a poor Jewish rabbi who, as a child, became an immigrant refugee fleeing the murderous violence of his occupied country’s oppressive leader; we are disciples of the incarnate Son of God who broke down the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and gentiles, between racially hostile enemies, and made the two one.  

 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”  

Racial reconciliation isn’t an agenda of political correctness, it is the work of Jesus and all who follow him.  Defending victims of sexual violence and seeking their healing by standing up to their attackers, that is the call of peacemakers…as in,

“Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

That is what we are. That is how we must act now.  Peacemakers.  Reconcilers.  People of compassion.  Jesus had compassion for the suffering, the oppressed, the outcasts, the lost.  I’m not talking about pity, I’m talking about compassion.  

Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.

–Henri Nouwen

We must follow Jesus there.  Because perhaps you weren’t raped, but your daughter or sister or mother was, if we see other people the way Jesus taught us to.  That’s how God understands our relationship to one another.  That’s who we are in Christ.  And I tell you God grieves for their pain right now.  Weep with those who weep.  

I have spent the past weeks, since the election, praying over my response.  I was asked directly by friends how I think we are to respond now.  I hope and pray this will help some people.  I am going to write a separate post to those who are reeling,who opposed Trump’s candidacy.  Preview: it will also say “love our enemies.”  

*I know not everyone believes this about Christianity.  I know the Old Testament has examples of God commanding his people to go to war.  I said “Jesus’ teaching” specifically.  The discussion of violence versus peacemaking as a follower of Jesus requires a much more in-depth discussion than what space allows here.  

When I Am Afraid Psalm 56 Manuscript

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I’m not a very good athlete, but I really want to be and I try very hard to be. It’s important to me, probably more than it should be, and I’ve spent a lot of energy in my adult life trying to channel this in positive directions. It has occurred to me, quite recently, that I might be a happier person if I just stopped playing competitive sports altogether and got my exercise in other ways. Then again, I might just go stark, raving mad if I did that, so I might be happy but insane, in which case maybe happy wouldn’t be the most useful measure.

This is now confession: when I was a kid, I was not very nice. I was mean. Not to everyone, notall the time, but to people I perceived weren’t as good as I was. I could be very cruel to kids who couldn’t play sports as well as I could. I believe one of the reasons I’m a coach now is so that I can be an encourager and help everyone who plays to see how good they can be. God’s redemption is that I’ve become an encourager instead of a discourager, I build people up instead of tear them down. I don’t carry my meanness as an 11-year-old like an iron chain around my neck and I’m not trying to pay penance or make up to God what I did earlier in life; Grace means that God has covered and atoned for my sins, and I’m forgiven and don’t have to fix that on my own, which I can’t. But I know what I did and what I was like, and I want to be a very different person now.

Sometimes it helps to look back to where we’ve been in order to gain perspective on what God has done in our lives. When we see only the six inches in front of our faces, we get very myopic and lose the bigger picture of how God is working in us. Also, I find it helpful to remind myself what I might be without God, especially when I am tempted to criticize myself for all that I should be that I’m not. Anybody else do that? “Why am I not more this or that, why can’t I be more patient, I should be more productive, other people can handle more, why can’t I?”

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that those are worthless questions, that they literally have no worth to me in becoming a godly man who gives others a glimpse of Jesus. Even though they sound like they are trying to motivate me to change, they aren’t doing that. All the leading questions that only lead me to criticize myself and that discourage me about what God has done and is doing in my life, I think those are someone’s voice other than God’s. The most effective lies Satan tells are the ones that have just enough truth to persuade us, or that nudge us away from God.

In contrast, when we keep the long view and remember what God has done in our lives, we see ourselves more accurately. This can actually help protect us from being led astray by these lies.

Remembering what God has done in our lives, how he’s changed us, how he’s come through for us, that is recalling his faithfulness. As we’ve dug into the Psalms together, over and over we’ve seen the psalmists recall God’s faithfulness. I know God will come through for me now, the psalmist says, because I remember that God ha come through for me, for us, in the past. God is faithful, God has shown us that he’s faithful, and even though it’s hard to see in this situation how things will be okay, I’m not judging by what I can see in this situation, I’m judging by what I’ve seen from God and what I know is true of God, yesterday and today and forever.

I used to say “I’m one of the least peaceful people I know, but I’m at peace about that.” My point was that I am what I am and where I am, and God has me. I’m growing in becoming a peaceful person and learning how to be that. I’ve identified my biggest enemies to living at peace with God and they are exactly what I described—self-criticism, self-doubt, focusing on what I am not instead of what God is.

As we’re nearing the end of our Psalm series, I’m going to share another Psalm that has been hugely meaningful to me.

Psalm 56

Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me;

All day long foes oppress me;

my enemies trample on me all day long,

for many fight against me.

O Most High, when I am afraid,

I put my trust in you.

In God, whose word I praise,

in God I trust; I am not afraid;

what can flesh do to me?

All day long they seek to injure my cause;

all their thoughts are against me for evil.

They stir up strife, they lurk, they watch my steps.

As they hoped to have my life,

so repay them for their crime;

in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!

You have kept count of my tossings;

put my tears in your bottle.

Are they not in your record?

Then my enemies will retreat

in the day when I call.

This I know, that God is for me.

In God, whose word I praise,

in the Lord, whose word I praise.

In God I trust, I am not afraid.

What can a mere mortal do to me?

My vows to you I must perform, O God;

I will render thank offerings to you.

For you have delivered my soul from death,

and my feet from falling,

so that I may walk before God

in the light of life.

David wrote this Psalm. I don’t know exactly when, but the intro to the Psalm gives this context, which fills in some of the picture for us: To the leader; according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths. Of David. A Miktam; when the Philistines seized him in Gath.

Briefly, David writes this Psalm for the music worship leader, to be used in Israel’s corporate worship. The Dove on Far-off Terebinths is almost certainly a tune without lyrics of its own to which the leader could put these words. A Miktam, which is a Hebrew musical term that seems to indicate what kind of poem this is—six of David’s Psalms are Miktams and the word appears nowhere else in the Bible.

My real question is, how soon after the Philistines seized him in Gath did David write this? While he was still their prisoner?

Briefly, the story is this: King Saul was pursuing David to kill him, because Saul was jealous of David and felt threatened that David would replace him. I Samuel 18:9. David was fleeing to keep from getting killed. He ran to Gath, where the Philistines lived, and their King, Achish, heard from his servants, “Is this not David the king of the land? Did they not sing to one another of him in dances, “Saul has killed his thousands and David his ten thousands?” That song, ironically, was exactly why Saul grew jealous of David in the first place. But the Philistines had more reason to hate David—why? He killed their hero, Goliath. So David looks around, realizes this was not a safe sanctuary to run to, and “So he changed his behavior before them’ he pretended to be mad when in their presence.”

He scratched marks on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle run down his beard. 14 Achish said to his servants, “Look, you see the man is mad; why then have you brought him to me? 15 Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? Shall this fellow come into my house?

And David escaped. I’m still waiting to apply that one. I figure someday I’m going to be in some horrible meeting and everyone is going to realize that everything that’s gone wrong is all my fault and I’ll just change my behavior, act completely mad, and they’ll say, “Oh, wait, he’s crazy, let’s just let him go and blame someone else.” That’s going to happen. Or maybe that’s my insecurity.

But seriously, this is a wild story and David recalls it in his Psalm, because he experienced God’s faithfulness. Inspired by this and many other times God rescued him from people, David writes this Psalm. Maybe while he was in the cave he escaped to, the Cave of Adullam we read about in I Samuel 22. Or maybe David wrote it years later, when he was living in a palace and no longer fleeing for his life every other day. The translation from Hebrew is “when the Philistines had seized him in Gath,”

though that could mean he’s writing about when that happened, versus he’s doing the writing when it happened.

Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me;

All day long foes oppress me;

my enemies trample on me all day long,

for many fight against me.

O Most High, when I am afraid,

I put my trust in you.

In God, whose word I praise,

in God I trust; I am not afraid;

what can flesh do to me?

David cries out to God for help and describes his troubles. “For people trample on me, all day long foes oppress me, my enemies trample on me all day long, for many fight against me.”

Then David recites what he does when he faces these troubles:

O Most High, when I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise; in God I trust; I am not afraid; what can “flesh” do to me. What can “mere humans” or “people” or “mortal men” do to me?

This is how I respond when I am afraid, David says.

My sister Colleen had me memorize these verses when I was a freshman in college. I’d just become a Christian, I was completely overwhelmed by school and culture shock—Los Angeles after rural Illinois—and just learning how to pray. I don’t know how many times I’ve prayed these verses in my life, but it’s a big number.

When I’m afraid, I trust God. O Most high, reminding myself who God is. I put my trust in you. Where do I place my confidence, my hope that I will be okay? I put that in God. Lots of options for where we can put our trust. But it’s God, whose word I praise, his word to me that I can rely on, that Jesus says not one tiny accent mark will pass away, heaven and earth may pass away but God’s word will never pass away, in God I trust, I will not be afraid. I find this powerful: we began with “When I am afraid,” and having cried to God, remembered who he is, committed to trusting him, remembered his word, now “I am not afraid.” Or “I will not be afraid.” I’m actively choosing that I’m believing in God’s power, not my fear. God is bigger. God is bigger than the boogie man, he’s bigger than King Aggoth and the Philistines threatening David, he’s bigger than whatever is threatening us right now.

I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me?

Now that’s a big question. I think we are past the naive response that of course people can’t do anything to us because God won’t let them. A friend of mine in this congregation was shot by a mere mortal. People do bad things and sometimes they do them to us. Sometimes God protects us and sometimes things happen to us anyway and maybe he’s protecting us and they still happen, like with my car accident. We don’t always know those answers.

The deeper question, that Jesus answers very clearly, is what do we really have to fear from other people? Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul;” and this is one of those moments when we have to ask, “Do I really believe this stuff?” I have no testimony for you of a God who won’t ever let anything bad happen to you or anyone in your family, where you’ll all die peacefully in your sleep in your mid-90’s. I can testify to a God who has shown me that death is not the end of us, it’s not the end of our life with God or with one another in God.

What can a mortal person do to me? Some bad stuff, but nothing God can’t overcome. That’s the answer.

In the Psalm, David switches back to his troubles:

All day long they seek to injure my cause;

all their thoughts are against me for evil.

They stir up strife, they lurk, they watch my steps.

As they hoped to have my life,

so repay them for their crime;

in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!

David is not trying to get revenge directly, but he’s certainly calling on God to do that for him. I just leave this one to God. We read the Psalms and they cry to God to avenge them, to repay. God might. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek, but the New Testament also lets us know not to get revenge but to leave the Justice in God’s capable hands. I just know that I’m counting on God’s mercy for myself, and I leave it to him how he gives it to others. But having said that, when people are committing evil, we pray that God will put a stop to that, here and now.

Having brought more of his woes to God—and many of us have a pretty good list of those, at least sometimes—David now returns to reciting God’s faithfulness:

You have kept count of my tossings;

put my tears in your bottle.

Are they not in your record?

Then my enemies will retreat

in the day when I call.

This I know, that God is for me.

In God, whose word I praise,

in the Lord, whose word I praise.

In God I trust, I am not afraid.

What can a mere mortal do to me?

God cares. David knows for certain that God is with him and cares about his suffering. God will come through for him. “Then my enemies will retreat in the day when I call.” We know David had experiences where he had to flee—like this one—and his enemies didn’t instantly go away. But his faith is in God who comes through for him.

This I know, that God is for me.

Memorize that. Not because you are righteous, or sinless, or even have gotten to church without yelling at your kids (or at yourself).

This I know, that God is for me.

That’ll change your life. All those self-accusations I described in the beginning, all the doubts we have about our ourselves and whether God can really love me when I do this or fail to do that, and these eight simple words: This I know, that God is for me.

In God, whose word I praise,

in the Lord, whose word I praise.

In God I trust, I am not afraid.

What can a mere mortal do to me?

David repeats this, emphasizing that God, the LORD< the ADONAI, the MAJESTIC, ALMIGHTY AND ONLY GOD, whose word he praises, this God he trusts. This stanza serves as David’s chorus in this poem. It bears repeating. In God I trust, I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me.

David concludes this psalm:

My vows to you I must perform, O God;

I will render thank offerings to you.

For you have delivered my soul from death,

and my feet from falling,

so that I may walk before God

in the light of life.

That would be the Old Testament way to say, “Thank you, God, and praise you.” As Matt House described a couple weeks ago, these offerings were calling the people into deeper relationships with God. Thank offerings were the visible, tangible demonstration of thanks. Honestly, our visible, audible offering of thanks is our singing. We won’t get in trouble with God if don’t sing, but we sing because we are thankful.

Why is David thankful?

For you have delivered my soul from death, and my feet from falling. So that I may walk before God in the light of life.

And if you’ve experienced this, you know exactly what David means. Have you had your soul delivered from death? Have you had your feet delivered from falling? Have you seen God change you from selfish and sinful to walking before him in the light of life? Again, this is why we remember, why we remind ourselves and recite to one another God’s faithfulness, how he’s transformed us, how he rescues us from physical and spiritual danger. Jesus delivers us from death and he delivers us for life, so that we may walk before him—where he can keep an eye on us—in the light of life, which is the light that comes from him.

I believe these are the steps to peace. Of course, you can use much more complex-sounding theological terms from the New Testament, but this is the core:

God is faithful

We put our trust in God

People can’t destroy our souls

God is for us

God delivers us from death

We walk with God

Of those six steps, God is five of them. The sixth is what people can’t do. Peace is not “chilling out,” or “it’s all good.” Peace in God is knowing that God will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and however big the threat people seem to pose, finally, ultimately, we have nothing to fear. We learn to live at peace by remembering God’s faithfulness—I was sometimes a horrible kid but by God’s mercy I didn’t turn into a horrible adult—and by putting our trust in God, committing ourselves to God instead of to our fears.

 

When I am afraid, I will trust in you,

in God, whose word I praise,

In God I trust, I will not be afraid.

What can a mere mortal do to me?

That’s Life versus Life or Death

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Today happens to be November 7th.  Tomorrow is Tuesday, November 8th.  People are freaking out.  Every presidential election for which I’ve been aware enough to grasp what’s going on has felt momentous and people on both sides have framed the decision as good versus evil, right versus wrong.  Us versus them.  

This election has intensified that message to the breaking point.  

I don’t want to talk about the election.  I’m anxious.  I wish I weren’t.  I do believe the decision is critically important for the US and, to a certain extent, the world.  I hope you vote(d) your conscience.  I hope God speaks (or spoke) to you to direct your conscience.  

I don’t know if this election is life or death.  I fear it may be, for some people.  I can’t see around that corner.  Maybe it’s better that I can’t.  I have enough trouble sleeping as it is.

Yesterday I got reminded again of the difference between “Oh, that’s life,” and life or death.  

Most of what happens to us, good or bad, we sort under the heading of “that’s life.”  We may not say it that way.  But what you had for dinner last night, the difficulty you’re having at work that’s causing you stress, the conflict with your spouse or parent or child or neighbor or friend, those are not the end of the world.  As my friend JV says, they’re not even the end of the week.  They’re just life.  The day to day.  Happy things and sad things and shows you get addicted to until you’ve watched every episode and then you find a new one.  You read great books (and spend time with friends.  Life.  Good stuff.  You live it and you just go along and you may pay careful attention or maybe you don’t and it rolls by.  

Then crash!

People die every day.  So many people die every day it’s hard for us to wrap our minds around how flimsy and slight our own mortality is.  Children die of starvation.  Adults die of heart attacks.  Strangers die and you read about it, or maybe you don’t, and your life goes on.  Because that’s what life does: it goes on. 

That’s life.  

Then it doesn’t.

Then it comes screeching to a halt.  

You look at the broken glass and the cuts on your arm and then at the blood on your shirt and then, slowly, at the car that crashed into yours and you realize, before anything else, that normal life just stopped.  It may start up again.  You may get that luxury again later.  But right now normal life feels like a daydream you just got yanked out of to face this.

It isn’t always death.  I had an accident last May that I survived, thank God for mercy, and didn’t sustain any permanent injuries.  But it could have been my last day to walk.  It could have been my last day to think clearly.  It could have been my last day to see my kids.  

Last night, I had one of those shattering glass moments.  Not every one of these can be shared.  Sometimes they happen and the world keeps plodding along and you look at the blood on your shirt and the cuts all over but they’re invisible to almost everyone else.

I’ve watched friends die.  I’ve held my son as he died.  Sometimes the world shatters, never to be whole again, and everyone sees.  When our boy died, it wasn’t a wound that heals.  It was an amputation.  You may learn to live without your arm, but it never grows back.  You don’t get “better” after that; you figure out if you can live without what you’ve lost.  Some can but some don’t.  

You may have had your world shattered, too.  If you haven’t then, I’m sorry to say, it’s coming.  Sometimes the pieces go back surprisingly clean–my ribs healed, I’m running again, I have no permanent injuries from what could have been a fatal accident–“fatal accident” still sounds too removed and distant–from what could have ended my life and everything I’ve tried to make of my life.  But in other cases, life afterward bears little resemblance to life before.  

As I keep hearing the noise of this election, as I fall to temptation and read people’s debates in the comments–and most people commenting suck at debating, I must add, because debating does not actually consist of name-calling, mocking, belittling another’s intelligence and character, and claiming moral superiority–the message that keeps coming through is that this is life or death.  

Is it?  

It might be, but as I’m facing life or death again right now, I’m not convinced.  Today is November 7th and tomorrow is November 8th and if, on November 9th, you are living the same way and doing all the same things but you may be really pissed off and discouraged about the results, then no, it wasn’t.  Not yet, at least.  As I say, it may become life or death for some people.  President George W. Bush’s election and subsequent choices to go to war against Afghanistan and Iraq became life of death for many people, US and Afghan and Iraqi.  

Life or death is disorienting.  It’s vertigo that doesn’t stop.  It leaves you feeling disconnected from everyone or nearly everyone else.  When our beloved sister- and brother-in-law suffered the death of their baby girl, God in his providence gave me a lot of time to walk with them through the first weeks of grief.  People say stupid things, trying to help.  But what feels worse is that other people get over it, even though they love you and care and grieve with you, they get over it because it’s not their arm that got amputated.  They are sad for  you, they may even know some of your grief, but their lives didn’t shatter.  That isn’t their fault, it just is.  Their life goes on.  For the most part, it goes on the same way it did before.  The best among us can grasp that, can empathize from their own shattering, and carry a little bit of the pain.  I don’t know if that carrying reduces the pain of bereavement, but it matters that someone is willing.  Because the other option is when they get over it, you feel even more isolated in your grief.  People can even convey, usually unintentionally, that you should get over it, too.  The pain is shocking and the isolation is shocking, and people still talk to you like life is normal.  Theirs is.  

Life or death.  How literally do you take that?  Many things can shatter us.  Divorce.  Chronic illness.  My dad suffered severe asthma and emphysema (what we now call SARS) and it both robbed his physical capacity and induced him to become embittered and depressed.  He was never the same.  Being physically debilitated exacerbated his mental and emotional struggles.  Chronic illness hit and shattered him…and his pieces never really went back together.  And I loved my dad.

Permanent injury, abuse, loss of mental capacity, mental illness, clinical depression.  Rape.  

I’m using the term “life or death,” yet I believe all these experiences are exactly what I’m describing.  In a sense this term is hyperbole, but our lives are made of core parts beyond simply our physically being alive.  They shatter lives and leave people to bleed and try to learn to walk again.  Or, sometimes, symbolically their spinal cord is injured and they will not walk again.  Ever.  

I don’t have answers.  I do have thoughts.  

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves 

The best way to protect yourself, to minimize the possibility that your life will be shattered, is also the worst way to live.  Some things are life and death, but there are things worse than death.  Failing to have lived is one.  

For me, the shattering event, Isaac’s death, broke my faith.  I had to choose between giving up having faith and finding a faith that could encompass and endure my infant son’s death and God’s not healing him when I begged.  

The answer was not to stop loving my children, but to learn to live in the reality that any of them could die at any time.  

It sounds like a cliche to say, “Remember what’s truly important.”  Then again, “”Until you know you’re broken, the Gospel will seem cliche.”*
Here’s how my friend described it.  

This is the sort of thing that reminds you of relative importance. This election is really important, don’t get me wrong…but we have limited control of that and worrying as much as I have about it is not productive, it’s damaging, and in the grand scheme of things, less important than other things. I am so bad with this, forgetting.. When family and friends suffer injury or disease etc, I finally remember again the relative importance of things, only to forget and have to be reminded again.

When you’re life is blown apart, you don’t forget.  There’s no losing perspective, because in that moment everything is clear.  It’s when we are in “that’s life” mode that we drift.  

My friend Fred, when he was dying of cancer, said something to me I will never forget.  He was describing how close he felt to God and how he could tell the difference between trivial things and the few that mattered:  

“I wish you could experience this without having the cancer.”  He wasn’t romanticizing; he was dying and fighting for every single day.  But he was also changed and he could see more than I could.  

By saying these things, I’m not suggesting that other things, the ones that are less than life or death, don’t matter.  Quite the opposite.  Our two temptations are to blow them out of proportion, which causes us to respond to them poorly, or to be lulled by them into not paying attention and sleepwalking through our lives.  

The wisdom we pray God gives us teaches us how to measure.  I think we learn to carry that mental yardstick, to pull it out and hold it up against the things that come our way.  When we’ve faced and survived shattering events, we’re able more accurately to size up events that are not.  

The final measure–and this is not a cliche in my life, but the reason I’m still here and sane–is resurrection.  Because even life or death does not get the final say if resurrection is true.  Resurrection–Jesus’, and through his, ours–becomes the piece that will not shatter when everything else resembles shards and rubble.  Life after death, life from death, means we don’t have to make the pieces go back together.  God might let those pieces go and make something new.  If that sounds too simplistic or fanciful or poetic (don’t I wish), I mean this:  my son’s death ended my life as I knew it but I didn’t kill myself or get divorced or renounce God forever, though at the time all three made more sense than ever praying to or trusting God again.  God made something new of me and a lot of the old pieces that I thought were me were just left in the wreckage.  

So when life threatens to shatter again, I see even that differently.  Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.  I can’t give that to you because it required coming through my own dark places and figuring out my way to trust God on the other side.  That doesn’t make me unbreakable now, but I know I will be whole again.  Maybe more so than I’ve yet been.  I hope.  

 

 

 

*Mike Adams, http://www.chiefsinner.org/

Open Letter to My Cub Fan Friends (and others who think about sports and fandom)

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I am not a Cubs fan.  I have not earned the joy that they are experiencing this October.  I am not a Die-Hard.  I have never said, “Wait ’til next year,” except sarcastically.  I chose not to be a Cubs fan at a very young age, when I was first starting to pay attention to baseball, because they were terrible.  Inept.  “Lovable Losers,” my dad* called them. I didn’t want any part of that.  I wanted to be a winner and cheer for winners.

I think that’s an understandable sentiment at 8 years old.  With the added perspective of 40 years, I see some flaws in it.  But I’m not holding those against my eight-year-old self.  When I was 8, my t-ball team was the Yankees.  I had a light-blue shirt with a hand-ironed “Yankees!” (with exclamation point) in those iron-on letters that my mom ironed on for me.  I was just getting into baseball.  I went from, the year before, going out into the field carrying my toy rubber mouse, Ralph (from Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse and the Motorcycle) in my baseball glove to, the following season, wearing a batting glove, keeping track of my hitting statistics, and caring very much if we won or lost.

That was summer of 1977.  Then in October of 1977, Reggie
ws1977_hr3newJackson became Mr. October.  I was just tuning in to Major League baseball for the first time, about to turn nine, and my dad
said, “Watch this, he hit a home run his last time up.”  I watched.  He hit another home run.  By the time he came up again, I was paying attention.  I was excited.  Could he?  Yes!  He did it again! Not just three home runs in three times at bat:  three pitches, three swings, three home runs!

And that was it.  I was hooked.  A Yankee fan for life, no better justification than a T-ball team, a shirt, and Reggie’s display of power.
 ‘
–I know, I said this is a letter to Cubs’ fans and I’m writing about the Yankees.  I’m done.  I won’t write more about them.  But I had to give you the background for why I feel the need to write to you.
 –
One of the values I developed early and hold just as strongly now can be summed up thus:  NO BANDWAGONING!  Period.
I’ve always considered this a transcendent and absolute value, based on absolutely nothing other than my own opinion.  No matter how bad your team is, no matter how long, no matter what a ridiculous oaf your team’s owner is or how heartbreakingly pathetic their bullpen, you stick with your team.  You may not watch every game or even pay close attention in horrible years, but you stick.  It’s my own view of loyalty.
 ‘
Unlike with theological beliefs, which I firmly believe must be rooted in something a little firmer than “I believe that because I believe that,” I’m perfectly comfortable with this opinion.  I’m also old enough to know that people may disagree.  They may feel fine skipping around switching teams every season.  They may move from Boston to Seattle and commit to the Mariners instead of the Red Sox.  While I know in my bones this is wrong, I don’t know it’s wrong in a politics-on-Facebook sense, in which people feel compelled (or impelled) to convince any who disagree of their wrongness.  If you do this, I won’t call you on it.  I may mock you, but if we’re friends, that’s going to happen, anyway.

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This bring us to 2016, The Year of the Cubs.  I’ve been joking since about May (or March) that The Apocalypse is Nigh, finish your bucket list, the world is about to end when the Cubs win the World Series.  I also held my breath through their losing patch, when they lost four, won 1, then dropped 5 more in July.  They followed that by going 10-6 and then ripping off their 11-game winning streak in August, which probably erased most doubts that they had any plans to choke this season.  The farthest behind they were in their division this season?  One game.  Honestly, I’ve been rooting for them the whole way and, as a confession, I’ve probably paid more attention to the Cubs this year than to the Yankees.**

I’m trying to say this:  I love this Cubs team.  They’re a blast.  They’re hilarious and full of themselves just enough to think they can do it, no matter what.  You gotta be to score four in the top of the 9th against the Giants in the game that could have evened the series and eventually sent the Cubs home.  The Giants thought they could win that and they had history and rings on their side.  They had to be convinced otherwise.  So the Cubs convinced them.
 cubspainting

But they’re also just plain fun.  They’re funny, they pull stunts on each other, they say great things in interviews like “I was just trying to get on base, Man!”*** and “I’m not a cleanup hitter, I’m just batting fourth.”****  And they play baseball right!  They beat out infield hits.  They dive into the stands for foul balls.  Or in the case of Anthony Rizzo, make acrobatic, impossible balancing-hopping-lunging off tarps and ledges catches–and if you watch these, which you really should, look at the faces of the fans after he makes these catches, and at his smile.  The Cubs are having fun playing baseball and they’re making baseball fun.  Even if you’re a lifelong, committed Cub hater (did I say, “Cardinal fan?”), I hope you can still admit that this is the way baseball was meant to be played.

There’s so much more.  Like Kyle Schwarber’s story.   I’m not the expert and I’m not trying to give any comprehensive report on their season.  If you’re a baseball fan, I hope you’ve been paying attention, because it’s not one to miss.  If you’re a Cub fan, you’re in heaven.  You gotta be.

I’m not a bandwagoner.  I’m not becoming a Cub fan.  I will never change teams.  The Yankees were one of the best things my dad and I had between us–he liked them only because I did–and he’s gone now; I can never change teams.

If the Yankees were playing the Cubs in the World Series, I would of course be cheering for my team, but I would be torn, and that is an amazing thing for me to say (I still know Ron Guidry’s ERA from 1978).

I was watching Game 2 of the World Series with my son, who  is 9.  We were cheering for the Cubs, of course, and got really excited when they staged their fifth-inning rally that effectively clinched the game.  We shouted when Zobrist tripled.  We roared when Schwarber singled him home.  And then I explained what happened when Russell walked Schwarber home.  We haven’t watched that much baseball together, but we went to a few games while we were in the States over the summer and he loved it.  It occurred to me that he may be bonding with the Cubs like I bonded with the Yankees. I’m taking that risk.

So thanks, Cubs fans, you true and loyal Cubs fans, for letting me share in your excitement this year.  This is yours, not mine.  I am enjoying this vicariously, alongside you, through you, and for you.  I am enjoying your enjoyment.  You deserve this for your tinker-evers-chanceyears–decades–half centuriesWHOLE centuries of loyalty!  Thanks for letting me come along.  Thanks for letting me add my comments on your FB celebrations without saying, “Hey, you’re not a Cub fan!”

 I’m not.  But I’m a baseball fan, and this is beautiful baseball.  Plus, a bunch of my dear childhood friends are Cubs fans–I did grow up in Illinois, which will do that to you–and I’m rooting on behalf of all of you:  Weinrich, Carla, Steve, Daron, Matt, Sharon, Dan, Ann, Rhonda (forgive me if I forgot anyone) and my  Jennifer, brother-in-law, Tim, who has said, “Wait till next year” with a smile on his face, and meant it, up until this year.

This is the year.  The series is 1-1 right now, going back to Wrigley.carlajustone

Go, Cubs, GO!

*Dad had a love-hate relationship with the Cubs, or perhaps scorn-hate.  We listened to all their games on WGN and he would follow–and then complain how bad they are.  I think he liked them, but he would never admit that. He mostly referred to them as “The Scrubs.”
**The Yankees were bad: six games above .500, 4th place, showed up just enough at the end to get wild card hopes up before getting swept by the RED SOX (grrr!) and choking until it was out of reach…then sweeping Boston when the latter had already made the playoffs and were playing their subs.
 ‘
*** and **** Javy Baez and Ben Zobrist, respectively.

Psalm 146 manuscript

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[A sermon I wrote for our Psalm series at International Christian Fellowship,, given 10/23/16.  This was one of those weeks when what I wrote and what I preached were significantly different.]

I may offend some people this week. For the people who say, “Well, you offend me every time you preach,” I’m sorry. That is not my intention. It’s a gift, just not one I’m able to return. But this week, we’re going to talk about a sensitive subject. Honestly, I think we should preach about this more—it’s central to Scripture and, as we’ll see, deeply reflects God’s heart, but it’s hard because most of us struggle with either not wanting to sound self-righteous, being all too aware of how we fail in this area or, paradoxically, both.

So what is “it,” you say—or I hope you say, cause that means you’re paying attention. Listen to the Psalm and see if you can tell.

Psalm 146

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!

I will praise the Lord as long as I live;

I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals in whom there is no help. (Heb. Teshua, literally salvation)

When their breath departs, they return to the earth;

on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,

whose hope is in the Lord their God,

who made heaven and earth,

the sea, and all that is in them,

who keeps faith forever;

who executes justice for the oppressed,

who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;

the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.

The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;

The Lord loves the righteous.

The Lord watches over the strangers;

he upholds the orphans and the widow,

but the way of the wicked he will bring to ruin.

The Lord will reign forever,

your God, O Zion, for all generations.

Praise the Lord!

Here is Psalm 146 in The Message translation:

Hallelujah!

Oh my soul, praise God!

All my life long I’ll praise God,

singing songs to my God as long as I live.

Don’t put your life in the hands of experts

who know nothing of life, of salvation life.

Mere humans don’t have what it takes,

when they die, their projects die with them.

Instead, get your help from the God of Jacob,

put your hope in God and know real blessing!

God made sky and soil,

sea and all the fish in it.

He always does what he says–

he defends the wronged,

he feeds the hungry.

God frees prisoners–

he gives sight to the blind,

he lifts up the fallen.

God loves good people, protects strangers,

takes the side of orphans and widows,

but makes short work of the wicked.

God’s in charge—always.

Zion’s God is God for good!

Hallelujah!

We pray the Psalms. We can take most Scripture and turn it into prayers—there are probably some passages that would not make very good prayers, but generally, praying the words of the Bible is a good idea, because it gives God the opportunity to make His Word shape our hearts. If you pray I Corinthians 13 over and over, and believe, even a little bit, that God will work in you, you will become more loving. That will really happen. We’re not going through the motions here; God is alive and he changes us. The very thought that you want to be more loving, that you would desire in the least to become more loving and would even consider reading a passage on love daily means that God is working in your heart. We’re not naturally patient and kind or tend to seek the other person’s way instead of our own. If you want to be more of that, make this prayer a habit, a daily seeking God through his Word. It’s not going through the motions, it’s the act of coming before God and letting these words he inspired, letting this message that resembles him, resonate in our souls and take root there, which is how God’s Holy Spirit works in us. In fact, when you’ve spent enough time with God, the question becomes not “Do I believe God will work in me in this way,” because we know he will, but “Do I want God to work in me in this way?” If you pray for God to help you love your enemies, God will help you love your enemies. Loving your enemies can feel like weakness, it can cost you the opportunity to get revenge and hold bitterness and even fight back. When we pray God’s Word, it’s a serious question, not a rhetorical one, if we want to be transformed to be more like Jesus.

So we come today to Psalm 146. We’ve talked about how there are different categories of psalms and how the Psalms are our prayer book. If we follow God long enough, likely everything in the Psalms will eventually reflect our experience, how we’re feeling, what we’re going through. But we pray God’s Word not simply because it reflects and helps express what we’re saying to God, but also because it helps shape who we are and what we hope to say to God. The Psalms remind us of the truth, restore our perspective, and challenge us to live in the world that we know, by faith, is real, rather than the world that our physical senses report but which is often so misleading.

Psalm 146 begins with rejoicing.

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!

Several of the psalmists like to address their own souls. It’s an interesting conceit (“conceit” means literary device, by the way, not “conceited,”) kind of like when you give yourself a pep talk in the mirror. “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, praise his Holy Name.” It’s a calling of one’s self to rise up in praise. It’s also fascinating, in terms of consciously addressing our souls as an aspect of ourselves. In Psalm 34, David asks, “Why are you downcast, O, my soul? Why so disturbed within me?” It’s also a great way to talk to yourself without sounding crazy. Although honestly, I guess these days that might still sound a little nuts. Sometimes when I’m playing a sport and the game isn’t going well or I don’t think I’m performing up to my expectations, I’ll go off and have a little chat with my soul, see if I can get us–my soul and I–back up to acceptable.

Seriously, though, it means calling to oneself in the full depths of who you are, the opposite of going through the motions and just saying words.

Remembering that this prayer is poetry, put to music, repetition makes sense.

I will praise the Lord as long as I live;

I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

The Psalmists, like nearly nevery poet, use repetition for emphasis and to bring out specifics. In this case, the same thought is repeated twice, the only difference being that the Psalmist specifies,–I will sing praised to my God, accentuating the form of worship—singing—and that God is not an impersonal deity, but my God, the God with whom I have an intimate relationship.

Psalm 146 basically has two ideas that flow together: Don’t and do.

Do NOT put your trust in princes, which in the writer’s context would be those in power, those who rule and wield authority. Don’t have your confidence, your security, in the people who appear, in the physical world, to be running the show. That’s not where your trust belongs. Not only in princes, in rulers, Presidents or politicians or even leaders or bosses, but in mortals, period. Sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. People made from dust and God’s breath, which is all people.

When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.”

Of course we trust people, we trust our spouses and our friends–but don’t put your trust in them, i.e. don’t have your hopes for your life and well-being in people who are in charge, but, as Eugene Peterson, the translator of the Message, puts it, “Don’t put your life in the hands of experts who know nothing of life, of salvation life.”

Why not? Well, clearly they don’t have the understanding or values that you have, if they know nothing of salvation life, and that is the way you live by. But also, because though they might seem so powerful, their power is very limited: “When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.”

Here come the Do’s—Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.

Many people, then and now, place their hopes for happiness, for success, for good happening in the world, on people instead of in God. But that is false hope. This is real hope, because unlike those whose breath will depart, who will die and whose bodies will go back to being dust, whose big plans and campaign promises and loud claims will all just be gone, God, the one true God, the God who made a covenant with Abraham, who appeared to Jacob, delivered his people from slavery in Egypt and provided for them—this God is faithful. [Ex. 3:6 God of Ab, Is & Jac] “God of Jacob” used more in the Psalms than anywhere else. His plans do not end at anyone’s death. In fact, the death of Jesus, far from being the end of God’s plans, led to his resurrection and the fulfillment of his plan for atonement and salvation. That’s the difference between putting our trust in a mortal and putting our trust in God. Seems obvious when you put it that way.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever, who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. Do trust in God who created everything, God who is faithful.

We transition here—at least it feels like a transition to us—from God the all-powerful, God the creator of heaven and earth, God who chose the Israelites and who is eternally faithful, to God who brings about justice for those suffering injustice.

Deepening the contrast between the ageless undying God and time-bound mortals the psalm proclaims the blessedness (or “happiness”) of those for whom Israel’s God is their help. This help, ezer, is the specialty of God. Throughout the Hebrew Bible God, not mortals, is the primary source of this help — one of the very few exceptions is the help the first woman in the garden is to provide her partner.”*

Now we’re going to look at all the things God does for which the author praises Him:

1), God does justice for the oppressed (v 7). Biblical Hebrew has many words that mean “to oppress,” at least twelve different words signaling a variety of kinds of oppression. This oppression, ashuqim, is primarily financial. It is characterized as defrauding one’s neighbor in Leviticus 6:2-4 and withholding wages in Deuteronomy 24:14.

  • 2), God is the one who gives food to the hungry (v 7).

  • 3), God sets the prisoners free (v 7).

  • 4), God opens the eyes of the blind (v 8).

  • 5), God lifts up those who are bowed down (v 8).

  • 6), God loves the righteous (v 8).

  • 7), God watches over the strangers (v 9). Strangers here are resident aliens, immigrants. This Psalm, though we don’t know the author, was almost certainly written after Israel’s return from captivity in Babylon. Imagine how the Israelites feel now about this characteristic of God. God had commanded them, repeatedly, to watch over the stranger, the immigrant, coming into their lands. God watched over and protected them when they were forced to be strangers. This may be a celebration of rebuilding Jerusalem—“look how God watched over us when we were strangers and returned us home!” When you have had the experience personally, compassion for others’ suffering comes much more easily.

  • 8), God upholds the orphan and the widow (v 9). Remember, in this time in history, women often had no means of supporting themselves. Paying work was not available to them, so if they lost their husband, they also lost their means of survival, as we see in the book of Ruth. “Orphans” in this case might even be those with a mother who has no way to feed her children, in addition to those with no parents. “Throughout the scriptures the ill-treatment of widows and their children is a mark of depravity, injustice and oppression.” But God defends and provides for them.*

  • 9, God brings the way of the wicked to ruin (v 9).

What does it mean for God to “keep faith forever?” If I “keep faith with you,” that means I have proven worthy of your faith in me, I have kept my promises, I have upheld my part. God keeps faith forever. How? According to Psalm 146, He created us and everything. Then he keeps faith by doing this:

He executes justice for the oppressed,

He gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;

the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.

The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;

The Lord loves the righteous.

The Lord watches over the strangers;

he upholds the orphans and the widow,

but the way of the wicked he will bring to ruin.

For the Psalmist, that’s what it means for God to keep faith forever. He is for the oppressed. He is their advocate, their defense, their deliverer, their salvation. He gives them freedom. He lifts them up. He gives them sight when they are blind. He upholds widows and orphans. He watches over the strangers. Strangers means foreigners, immigrants, non-natives.

Listen again to this list, and tell me where else you find a very similar list in Scripture:

justice for the oppressed,

gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;

opens the eyes of the blind.

lifts up those who are bowed down;

loves the righteous.

The Lord watches over the strangers;

he upholds the orphans and the widow,

There are a lot of right answers. Scripture has, by a conservative estimate, over 2,000 verses on people in poverty, how God sees them and how we treat them. Luke 4, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, has a list just like this. Isaiah 61, which Jesus reads in the synagogue in Luke four, has a list just like this (makes sense, huh?). Matthew 25, in which Jesus describes the judgment before God and how people have loved him by loving those in need or failed to love him by refusing to love those in need, has a list very much like this.

I’m going to say some obvious things, and then a few that maybe aren’t so obvious.

First, this is God’s work in the World. If we believe the Psalmist, who here is making absolute claims about the character of God—in fact, acting on those claims to worship God for these characteristics—then this is who God is. Period. God specifically cares about the oppressed. One aspect of God’s faithfulness is his caring for people in these situations, whoever they are.

Second, these are things for which we should praise God. God gives justice to the oppressed—praise Him! God feeds hungry children—Hallelujah! These are glorious things God is doing, literally things that bring God glory.

Third, our trust is never to be in people, in the sense the Psalmist uses here. We know our salvation comes from God. Our help comes from God. That means even though we need to rely on other people, the ultimate source of our help will always be God. Here’s how I understand this: we rely on people, we lean on them, but we always remember that they are sinful and fallible like we are. They are never our ultimate hope. Ever. We never imagine that the leaders of our country, any country, will save us. How could they? They’re just people. Likewise in our relationships, with our co-workers and supervisors and supervisees, when we have our heart’s trust, our faith, in God, then we know we can give grace to our friends and employees and bosses when they fail—which they will. It’s been a process in my life not to give too much power to people, not to have my happiness and well-being depend on whether this or that person thinks well of me. They may think poorly of me because I have failed or because they lack grace, and either way, though that may hurt, it’s not the end of my world. My world ends and begins with God. So does yours. That frees us to have healthy relationships.

This is a psalm of rejoicing in what God does, in what he has done and will do, how he is faithful. He is faithful to bring the way of the wicked to ruin, perhaps not as quickly as we would hope but he will do it. He is faithful to lift up those who are bowed down and give justice to those who have been cheated, taken advantage of, robbed, swindled. That will happen. This is a certainty and we praise God in this knowledge, we praise God in faith that he will accomplish all these things.

If you are against the people that God is defending in this Psalm, you are on the wrong side. You want to be on God’s side. God always sides with the oppressed. Jesus revealed the character of God and stood with the weak, the outcasts, the defiled, demon-possessed, he made friends of drunkards and prostitutes and people whose title in society, according to the more law-abiding, was “sinner.” If we read through this list and find that, for any reason—politics, personal preference, profit, property values, our biases and discrimination—we line up with the oppressors against the oppressed, we need to change sides. Now. The question is not whether God is on our side, it is always and only are we on God’s side? There really is no other question. If we’re offended by that, then the offense needs to wake us up.

This Psalm describes who God is. If we want to become like God, if we want to be transformed into the image of Jesus, which is the life of a Christian, then this is who we seek to be, too. Following God, taking up our cross and following Jesus, means doing these things. I’m not talking about legalism here, I don’t mean that you need to make a checklist and be certain that by the end of next week, you have freed one prisoner (guilty or not), lifted up one bowed down, loved one righteous (which might be hard to find), lifted up one widow and one orphan—okay, check. I’m alright with God.

Neither am I talking about debating US or Nicaraguan policy. What we think about social programs or how many people we correct on Facebook is not the issue. Today, I am just talking about how we know God and what we do in response.

Our God, the God of Jacob, the God who loves us personally and intimately, even former scumbags like Jacob, whom God redeemed and transformed, this same God who knows us all better than we can even grasp, he calls us to know Him, as well. To love God we draw near him and his heart becomes our heart. His Spirit dwells with our spirit. Our thoughts start to resemble his thoughts more—Paul writes in I Corinthians that “we have the mind of Christ.” And we become the people who care about these, about justice for people who are living in poverty or are oppressed or suffering. We praise God and say, “Me, too!” There are a million different ways for us to be part of God’s work. I know many of us are. But I think it’s crucial to say, this is not optional. This is not one of the many diversions we might pursue as disciples of Jesus. This is central. Because again, this is who God is. This is God’s character. This is God’s glory.

Please listen carefully to what I say next, because I think it’s crucial for our understanding of obeying God, but it can also be misunderstood. We care for people in need and seek justice for the oppressed, and the suffering because that’s what God does. Yes, we do it because we care about the people who are suffering—but what happens when we decide that we don’t really like the people who are suffering around us? What happens when we’re trying to love our neighbors and our neighbors piss us off because they are dishonest or repulse us because they smell bad or act vulgar? What happens when we start thinking they aren’t really worthy of our help? That they’re lazy and don’t deserve it?

Scripture says shockingly little about whether the people in need are worthy of our help. That just isn’t a measure the Bible uses. Judging how others behave in need, when we ourselves are not in need, is like judging how people act when drowning, when we are standing on the shore. “Wow, you’re just wild and hysterical and totally out of control.” Yeah—they’re drowning. They can’t breathe. As a pastor friend of mine said, lost sheep behave badly—cuz they’re lost. They freak out.

Because this is true, our first and central motivation to love our neighbor as ourself is that God says to and God does it. He loves in the way we’re supposed to love. Jesus came and loved and died for a bunch of unworthy, undeserving people. This room is full of them. Thank God, praise God he did that. Hallelujah that he didn’t decide if we were working hard enough to earn his help or had the right motives in asking for that help. We weren’t, and we didn’t, and he died knowing that. The change comes after, not before.

Getting personal for a moment, I deeply believe that loving people in need, like so many things in our lives of following Jesus, is a matter of small steps in the right direction. If I look at my situation—I live in a poor barrio and am always surrounded by people suffering dire poverty—I’m not doing enough, because there is always more I could do. But the measure is faithfulness, not perfection, and being willing to obey what God tells us to do. This is not a competition—in fact, it’s a cooperation. How do we, as the body of Christ, reflect the image of God to the world by loving people in need?

Praying the Psalms means rejoicing in who God is and what God has done. God is the one who does all these things. We join God in his work because he has loved us enough to make us partners with him—that’s what being part of the Kingdom of God means, being subjects of the King who join in what matters to him. If you walk out of here feeling guilty, I have failed, and I do not want to do that to you. God delights in us, I know that. I hope you know that. We are learning to delight in God, to adore him for who he is and what he does, not just for us but for everyone. We can’t always see that justice is happening for the suffering and the oppressed—or for us, frankly—but by faith, God is doing these things. And God has both the big picture and eternity to work with. Some injustices may only be righted in the day when every knee bows to God and every single person speaks their recognition that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God. That will be a good day. Maybe a little daunting, but I’m looking forward to it. Ready, even. Come, Lord Jesus.

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus says something shocking–”Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Now how are we going to do that? Well, the obvious answer is only with God’s help. But as I study Scripture and read what Biblical scholars say, a much better translation for Matthew 7:? is “Be merciful, as your Heavenly Father is merciful.” First, striking that “perfect” and “merciful” could be interchangeable words, or related enough that you might choose one or the other. Second, that’s what Jesus tells us to be: merciful, as our heavenly father is merciful. Mercy triumphs over justice, James writes. Our God, who is all powerful, uses that power to show mercy. Hallelejuh, and may we become more like Him. Amen.

*Insights and Hebrew help gleaned from this commentary.

Psalm 146

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I preached yesterday (8/24/16) at International Christian Fellowship on a Psalm that tells us not to put our trust in “princes” and then describes God’s faithfulness in terms of how he cares for people who are suffering.

The sermon refuses to upload–maybe because it’s Monday morning–so here is the link.  NOTE: Start at 40 seconds in (:40), as that’s where I start speaking.

What Poverty Looks Like: Some Examples

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We’re at Selva Negra this weekend. Selva Negra is a coffee farm/tourist resort above Matagalpa. We’re in the mountains. Selva Negra has some of the best hiking trails I’ve found in Nicaragua. It has a beautiful chapel. The kids love being up here and for about two days and two glorious nights, we don’t sweat every moment. It’s cool. Sometimes, to our bodies that have adapted to tropical heat, it’s nearly cold.

This morning, I got up early, prayed, then hiked (and prayed some more while hiking). When I got back, Kim, our friend Kelly, and I did a brief yoga routine. Then I prayed earnestly for a hot shower. Selva Negra has solar heated showers, meaning the sun heats up the water with a solar panel and a big water tank. The “Welcome, Guest!” pamphlet suggests that 2PM is the best time for a shower, i.e. the time most likely to provide hot water. But I was cooled down after my hike and yoga and a bit chilled and the thought of a cold shower made me cringe, while a hot shower—which I rarely ever desire in Managua—sounded delightful. Like putting on warmer clothes when you’re cool or drinking a hot beverage to warm up, taking a hot shower after cooling down from exercise is a pleasure we left in the Pacific Northwest when we moved to the tropics. Except today, except here.

And…YES! Hot water! Instant happiness delivered from a shower head. Then I had to exhort myself not to stay in very long in case Kim also wanted a shower, because hogging all the hot water is one of those gain-the-whole-world-but-lose-your-soul acts in marriage. That might be a little strong, but you know what I mean.

Invariably, I feel refreshed and encouraged when we visit here. I also remember how this experience is an extravagance that most of our neighbors in our barrio never have. I suspect that we should always carry, somewhere in our minds, the reality of what we can do that others cannot. If we’re going to live lives of justice and seek to love our neighbors, I think we have to make that commitment. I mean all of us. Where we live now, this comparison is rarely out of our immediate line of vision. This weekend is a break, in that sense, too, a change to be refreshed and recharge our batteries.

I prefer to resist the label “the poor” when speaking of people who live in poverty, because it reduces human beings to their living conditions. It’s an easy shorthand, but we see a wide variety of people in our little sphere, and though most of them suffer the same economic level—more poor than you or I will ever be—they have differing personalities, struggles, responses to their life situations, faith, etc. When we’re talking about world population statistics, I understand why we have such general labels for the people trying to survive on less than two dollars a day. When we have them as neighbors, calling them “the poor” feels disrespectful and diminishing.

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Estafani

Our neighbor, who is also one of the women who runs our preschool with Kim, has four children. Six of them live in a one-room home with a dirt floor. She has twin daughters, one of whom was severely ill recently. We asked for prayer for the little girl and Kim bought a little medicine for her. Doctors and decent medical care and even adequate knowledge of basic health do’s and don’t’s are all privileges that come with wealth. We’ve seen that repeatedly in our barrio. But this one caught me off guard: with the other children, just a small expression of kindness for this family. The kids, who are very sweet, were grateful to receive the food. One of the little girls took a bit, looked up and exclaimed, “It’s cold!” And they were all amazed.

They don’t have a refrigerator. Their tiny house has beds, of a sort, and they wash their laundry by hand outside and cook over a fire outside, and never had they tasted fruit from a refrigerator before.

If you’re willing, I want you to take a moment to contemplate that. I imagine that I’m stretched by hoping for a hot shower when “everyone” takes hot showers for granted.  Think about your life. Think about what you’ve had all your life. Now think about a life in which you never had a refrigerator. It is for most of us, to lean on Princess Bride semantics, inconceivable.

Our neighbor across the street, with whom we are very close and to who I often refer here, asked after about the third time she’d been in our kitchen, “What is that?” pointing to the microwave. Same reflections, but even more so. What life could you have lived in which you’ve never seen a microwave oven?

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Celebrating a birthday with Juan Ramon’s family.

Consider our dear friend, Juan Ramon. In the past two weeks, he’s gone back to work as a security guard for an electrical supplies company. His schedule is 7AM-5PM for a week, then 6PM to 5AM for a week. Juan Ramon and his wife are raising three kids, including a very young daughter. But he’s also struggled to find decent work, taken jobs that turned out to be little more than employers taking advantage of desperate people (buy your own uniform, provide your own tools, then we’ll give you a few hours of work here and there, as we feel like it), and scraped together anything he could find, month after month to feed his family. Juan Ramon is also a regular lay-preacher and -teacher at his church. He also takes classes all day on Saturday working toward his high school diploma, which due to severe circumstances he could not finish when he was a teenager.

I know, some of you have schedules that bad or worse. But he will bring home $200 a month for that schedule. In a country with >50% unemployment, there aren’t better options. He has certainly looked and searched and knocked and prayed, every day.

Those are a few examples. They aren’t the worst. Women are beaten by drunkard husbands every day. Those same husbands drink away most of the tiny income on which their family is trying to survive. Our friend Bella tries to help these women grasp their own value and the cyclic nature of their abuse. But many ask, “How would I survive if he wasn’t here?”

I know this is hard to read. This is the world we live in—you and I, not just here in this barrio, because as Paul Farmer* said, “Not two or three worlds, but one.”

I don’t have any rules or even guidelines for how you should spend your money.  Please don’t hear me posturing as an expert here.  But I know we who have much are responsible for what we have. I believe we can view this with grace, not as a red hot poker of guilt but as a measuring stick, a level we carry with us to evaluate how we live in this one world. What are the steps we can take in the right direction? If your part is not to work directly to alleviate the suffering of people living in poverty, then is your part to share your resources with ministries and organizations that do? God loves us and delights in us. He desires that we make the world more loving, more generous, more full of kindness and grace. “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” means all that and more, so if you buy into that prayer, it follows you are on board with this thesis. Jesus also makes clear that the purpose behind his commands is that we will experience joy, the deep, life-changing joy of being fully alive and loving others as we love ourselves.

It’s a scary thing to suggest that God shows his love for us by lavishing material wealth on us. That view implies that God loves people living in poverty less. “No, he just blesses them differently,” people say. But maybe those people should come have that conversation with our neighbors and explain how that works theologically. I have no idea why I was born into a middle class family in the most affluent country in the world. But I know this: it wasn’t because I was better or deserved more or was more loved by God. I also know this: if I keep my resources all to myself, that means I believe God cares about me more than about my neighbors in poverty. It doesn’t matter what I say I believe; that action reveals my belief. Jesus commands us to care for those who are materially poor (and there are certainly many other forms of poverty) and makes that about as clear as anyone could possibly make anything. How exactly we go about that in our individual lives is less clear, though we get some suggestions (feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit prisoners, welcome the stranger/alien/immigrant, don’t ignore starving folks lying at our gate and share are all explicit).

So I will risk repeating myself here: what is your part? To work toward breaking the cycle of poverty for people directly, or to share part of your abundance to make it possible for others who are doing so?

Speaking of risks, here’s one: ask God the answer to that question.

 

 

 

*“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” ― Paul Farmer

Wrapping Up Forty-Seven

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I have two hours left of being forty-seven.  I committed to writing this blog for a year and that year also ends tomorrow.  I haven’t decided whether I will continue to post regularly, post intermittently, or focus all my writing time on my fiction.  I’ve been reasonably satisfied with how this has gone.  I think one of my gifts is writing, but you’re not a writer unless you write.  This has been a good step toward being a writer.                        A writer writes.

Originally I thought I would write a post each day; that turned out to be a little ambitious, but it looks like I’ve published one hundred twelve, which isn’t bad.  Fifty-four of them have some connection to grace (at least according to the search bar).  I’m glad that some people have felt encouraged, challenged, or have experienced a little more grace here.  If reading these posts has helped anyone with their marriage, aided them in coping with depression, helped even one person to face their addiction or just wrestle a little more honestly with God, I’m gratified and count it more than worth my effort.  May it be so.  

So what will my final post of the year be about?  

Sports.  

Yep, sports again.  Specifically, continuing to be an athlete as I grow older.  

If that doesn’t interest you, may I recommend looking through the older posts in case you missed that one on The Lord of the Rings or would prefer to start reading my novel or want to know what living in Nicaragua is like for us.  Plus, there’s a bunch of posts on Grace.    

If you’re still in, say you’re also in your forties and want to keep playing sports or realize you’re going to be in your forties someday or would just like to be a little healthier, here we go.  

 

The throw was deep and I immediately went after the disc.  It was going long and I was last person back on defense. I knew I had the best angle on the disc.  I knew he was coming up behind me.  If it went slightly long, it would be out of bounds.  If it came down at all, I would knock it away.  I gave one glance back to make certain of my read then raced as hard as I could for where it was coming down.  Just as it came in reach, he got past me and I lunged, diving forward and up as far as I could…and plowing into the ground empty handed as he caught the score.  

“You okay?” the twenty-three year old, recent college ultimate player asked as I lay chest-down, tasting grass.  

“Yup,” I said, taking the hand to get back to my feet, looking at the stretch of mud from my ribs down past my knee.  

He scored on me.  Not my man, I switched to help, and he made a great catch, all true; nonetheless, he scored on me.  

And I know this for certain:  there was a time when I would have gotten to that disc first.  

I’m not a great athlete but I really like playing sports.  I’m not an ironman, I’ve never competed at a high or national level, and except for that time I won a disc golf tournament (and briefly set the amateur course record) I’ve never earned any money from sports.  However, facing forty-eight I can still play ultimate and basketball against people of my level who are a lot younger than I am and hold my own.  Sometimes I do better than hold my own.  The key is finding a small enough pool to look like a big fish.  

Just kidding.  The key is not dominating against five-year-olds.  

Here’s what I’ve learned about staying active into my late forties. The first section is general suggestions on getting (or staying) active and the second is a few ways I’ve adapted to having an aging active body…while refusing to give in.  

 


 

Find the Thing

Figure out what activity you enjoy.  I think if you only marginally tolerate exercise, it’s a struggle to make yourself work at it hard enough to stay in shape.  I’m fortunate that I love the sports I play.  I don’t have to convince myself to play them, to make the time, to go all out.  But I’m not a runner, for example.  If I had to stay in shape by jogging I would get very unhappy in about two days. I can run 3-5 miles, but if I run hard enough to push myself, mostly my thoughts go like this:  

“Wow, this hurts.  

Huh this still hurts.  

Would you look at that?  it hurts.”  

Someone very dear to me recently took up kick-boxing.  I would never have pictured it, but she likes it enough to be more active.  Another wonderful friend recently started Orange Theory Fitness and says it has changed her life.  Find the thing.  If you haven’t found the thing and think you hate activity, I’m suggesting you have yet to try the right one.  One more amazing woman has a passion for roller derby.  Roller freaking derby!  And she’s gotten into fantastic shape and it has made her life better and more full of joy and community (and slamming into people).  My happy place is throwing or chasing a piece of plastic.  What’s yours?

Some of you know the sports you like but just “don’t do that anymore.”  I want to go on record as saying it’s not more adult to stop playing sports.  Yes, there are times when adult life requires us to prioritize some things over others, but there is nothing responsible or mature about not taking care of your body.  Granted, if you played American football in high school and you’re in your sixties now, you might need to find a satisfactory alternative.  

Some folks are very happy going to the gym four times a week, lifting some weights, running on the treadmill, and I say more power to you!  For me, being able to continue playing competitive sports motivates me to stay in shape.  I simply need a goal to keep me focused, to keep me working out.  Keeping up with 16- to 25-year-olds (and certain 30- and 40-somethings) on a field or a court does that.  

Also, and more importantly, I have a 9-year-old son.  I committed, when I became an “older father,” to stay active for him and for my daughters.  Doing the math, I will be 58 when he’s 19 and I’m determined still to be able to run and play sports with him then.  My personal goal is to be able to play him one-on-one in basketball when he’s 18 and not embarrass myself.  If he doesn’t like basketball, the general idea still applies to whatever he does like.  

My point is, what motivates you?  I work out and keep in shape because I love ultimate and I work out and keep in shape and play ultimate because I love my children and my wife and want to stay active and healthy for them.*

Gimme a “Y!”

Now I’m going to tell you a crucial non-secret to my still being able to sprint up and down a field for two hours in the Managua heat: I do yoga.

Sometime in my late 30’s, when I was spending more time injured than playing, it dawned on me that staying in good cardiovascular shape wasn’t going to be enough.  Even having good muscle tone wouldn’t cut it.  I had a nagging, recurring injury in both calves, just above the achilles, and nothing I did seemed to prevent it–until a sports therapy guy explained that my problem wasn’t in my achilles or calves but in my hips.  They were very inflexible (there’s a political joke here somewhere, but I’m going to let it pass).  I had done some basic stretching that I’d learned in school sports–some of which was wrong–but I got serious about yoga when I realized it was that or stop playing.  

I know some folks are spooked by the spirituality associated with yoga.  I don’t do any of that.  I pray to Jesus, the same one I always pray to, while I’m doing yoga.  In fact, doing yoga and praying is the one thing that, if I will take the 20-30 minutes, will always lift my mood.  Even just sitting and praying doesn’t always do that for me.  This makes sense to me, because we are souls and bodies united, inextricably intertwined.  If I can make myself do it,** I can alleviate depression, cope better with anger, relieve stress, all through those thirty minutes of yoga.  So yeah, I’m a big advocate. 

But focusing on our topic, when I was in high school I could not touch my toes.  When I was thirty, I could not touch my toes.  Nowadays, after a few minutes of yoga I can palm the ground.  I am absolutely convinced that I can still play sports because I took up yoga.  Don’t be put off by perceived weirdness or spirituality you disagree with–there are many varieties of yoga and some of them have no hint of spirituality that might make you uncomfortable.  And don’t write me off as a heretic–Jesus and yoga go together in my life.  

This quote sums up what I’ve learned:

Aging is a deterioration of connective tissue. The stiffness, shrinkage, and drying up of aging occur directly in that great web of fiber that ties us together. What exercise does is resist this stiffening. Most of those complex physiological processes that we call training come, at bottom, to maintaining the lively resilience of our connective tissue. Age is what makes it tight, movement is what keeps it loose. If you can’t stay young, stay loose.

John Jerome, The Elements of Effort

I’m often childish and immature, yet this birthday still seems to be happening, so staying young isn’t working.  Thus, I’m staying loose.

Eating To Be Active

Eating well is crucial to staying active.  I’m not going to give you my exact eating habits, because I don’t think that’s the point.  I’m figuring out what’s working for me.  I think improvement in all areas of our lives usually comes through small steps in the right direction.  Sometimes small steps have big results.  

I live in a land with wonderful, abundant, inexpensive fruit.  It’s not the fruit of the Pacific Northwest that we miss so much, but tropical fruit also rocks.  Almost every day, one of my meals is a smoothie. I usually add almonds for protein, and will throw in pretty much any fruit we have on hand, fresh or frozen, meaning usually some combo of: pineapple, watermelon, banana, mango, pitaya (dragon fruit) cantaloupe (just “melon” here), lemon, papaya, calala (passion fruit), plus chia seeds, mint (big winner!), spinach, cucumber, and dates.  Kim is much braver and will throw in veggies galore.  Her smoothies are always good, I just don’t always watch when she’s making them.  

Switching to having a smoothie meal every day has made staying in the shape I’m after much easier.  Far from losing on nutrition, I’m doing better than I used to at getting all my servings of fruits and vegetables each day.  I’m a big proponent of making the fruits and veggies the massive base of the pyramid.  

I know a lot of people who used to eat terribly and have changed their habits.  I would include myself in that crowd.  When you eat so poorly, you don’t think you feel bad because it’s what you’re used to.  In other words, you don’t know what feeling good feels like!  A constant diet of fast food, for example, tastes good, gives the sugar and salt and (bad) fats high, and even though there’s the crash afterward, that’s just normal, right?  

Changing eating habits requires enough time for your body to start recognizing how “good” actually feels.  it may involve some withdrawal.  Large amounts of processed sugar give a lovely hit!  Losing that regular high feels worse…until it starts feeling a lot better.  I’m talking from personal experience now.  I still eat much more white sugar than is good for me, but I’ve also learned that if I try to be absolute, I end up in the abstain/binge cycle, and I really hate that.  I’m learning moderation, which is coming late in my life (see above about “childish”), but I’m all the more grateful for it’s arrival.  Also, I like chocolate as much or more than anyone else I’ve met, male or female.  So, knowing that I will eat chocolate, I budget for that.  I avoid desserts or snacks that I like less, knowing that I’m going to want chocolate anyway.  

Here’s my testimony:  eating poorly now makes me feel awful.  A greasy burger and fries might smell and taste delicious, but my body quickly reports that was a bad idea!  When I was visiting the States, I went with my best friends from high school to a restaurant specializing in big burgers and other massive sandwiches…and I had a salad.  With chicken.  And they mocked me, as I knew they would.  And getting “the business” from them didn’t feel nearly as bad as digesting one of those sandwiches would have felt. 

My suggestion is start small.  Make one change at a time.  Do real research on nutrition.  Watch a couple documentaries.  Fed Up is excellent and gives you the indelicate truth about processed sugar.  Then pick out something you could take out if you’re eating unhealthily and something you could add that you’d enjoy.  I love the smoothies I make.  As with exercise, I think if eating healthy feels like a chore or being robbed of something enjoyable in life, we’re much less likely to do it.  So if you want to eat healthier, start with something you already like.  

It’s also both…and.  We’ve developed our current tastes and we can develop new ones intentionally, pro-actively.  I used to gag on broccoli, but I knew it was healthy and I just set myself to learn to tolerate it.  I now enjoy it, not even slathered with cheese but just straight up.  I didn’t used to be a salad eater, but now I’d choose a hearty salad over a greasy sandwich nine out of ten times.  Maybe eight.  Most of the time.  

Okay, that’s my encouragement on healthy habits.  Change is hard.  Always.  But in the long run, positive changes are much easier than dealing with the consequences of bad habits.  

 


 

Accepting (a Few) Limitations

Here are a couple of adjustments I’ve made with age:  I now walk more than I jog.  If I’m trying to get cardio exercise, I will not run on pavement.  I mean almost never.  I have to be extremely desperate to do that now.   It’s just too hard on my legs and does more harm than good.  Walking fast–I know, this sounds like I’m a geezer–does as much good for what I’m after and costs me much less, as in, I never get injured walking but I used to get injured somewhat regularly when I jogged.  And I didn’t even like jogging, I just did it to be able to run for my sports.  Turns out if I run in my sports, do yoga, and walk hard, I get the same bennies.  And I’m happier.  I find it easier to pray when I’m walking fast than jogging, because of the aforementioned mental dialogue.  

I don’t lift weights as much as I used to because it’s too hard on my joints.  I still lift some, I still do some push-ups and crunches and pull-ups and whatnot, but I’ve cut way down.  I had to give up some vanity on this one for the good of my body.  I could look more buff, but again, the frequency of pain and injury was too high.  Yes, someone will quickly point out that I was doing it wrong if I kept getting injured.  Probably true.  If you have a personal trainer or belong to a gym with good instructors, awesome.  I don’t and cutting back was a good trade-off for me.  Again, my goal is to play the sports I love.  I’d like the edge of being a bit stronger, but not at the cost of being on the disabled list for weeks or a month at a time, which had started to happen (especially from shoulder pain).  

Keeping Up Is Not Keeping Up

Here is a grim truth:  I have to work much harder to maintain what I can now do.  I’m not as fast or as agile as I was, I don’t jump as high or bounce back as quickly.  I gain weight faster and lose it slower.  And for this current level of ability, I have to work about ten times harder than I once did, when I could get in shape in a week and all I had to do was show up to play.  Now I have to eat right and do yoga and exercise with little impact on the days in between and do some more yoga and limit my bad foods and wrap my ankles and plan carefully for my pre-game meals and drink a lot of water and a homemade electrolyte/protein drink and did I mention the yoga? 

But the alternative is to quit.  I’m not quitting.  I hope at fifty-eight I’m writing about how this can be done into ones sixties.  I’ve seen guys do it (looking at you, Andy).  I’m aiming for that.  Having role models helps.  

I was talking with a couple of guys near my age recently.  We’ve all played sports a long time.  Those discussions spurred this post.  We all know we were better athletes when we were younger.  We might be wiser and craftier and possibly even more skilled now (I can throw a disc much more accurately now than I could in my twenties) but we still can’t do what we used to.  

The dynamic tension is this:  I must learn to be content with what I can do now while still striving for my best and resisting the further degradation of my abilities with every fiber of my being.  Bottom line, that’s the fire that keeps me running.  I can still do this.  I still want to do this.  I want to do this as well as I can for as long as I can.  I will not go gentle into that good night.  

Yet the flip side is I am so much more grateful for every day I can play, for every chance to run hard and experience joy (for me, a way of worship God) in exercise and exertion, for the ability to push myself and test my limits and press a little beyond what I thought I could do.  I’m so grateful to be able to play sports with my kids!  I love coaching and helping young folks develop their character and all the strengths and healthy habits that sports can imbue.  

So gratitude makes contentment possible, even as I’m striving for more.  Even as I’m pushing myself harder.  

I’ll end with this:  I struggle with depression and playing sports, exercising all out at least a few times a week, is a crucial element of keeping myself stable emotionally.  Those natural highs of my beloved endorphins that God designed into our systems serve as my leveling mechanism.  My wife, who loves and understands me, graciously allows and encourages me to do what I need to do to be healthy (btw, she also does yoga every morning).  I have the funny “advantage” of not only enjoying my sports but also relying on them for my emotional and mental health.

As I think about it, though, I don’t believe I’m different than everyone else in this regard,I may simply experience it to a greater degree: everyone’s emotional and mental health, long-term, depends on staying active.  God made us this way.  

And I’m grateful. 

I’m also going to get to that disc next time.

 

 

 

*Through no fault of his own, and in spite of having been a great athlete, my dad was not able to be very active when I was growing up, especially as I reached my teen years.  

**Everyone who deals with depression is familiar with the line between when I can do good things for myself and when I feel incapable of making those choices (or of caring).