Happy Ending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

*How often do you get to say that?

To a Cynical Friend…

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Words that build or destroy.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But in that case, I’m full of it.

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

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

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

Thirty Reasons I Don’t Want to Leave Nicaragua

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

Strange Easter

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I’m trying to make sense of today.

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Happy Easter.  Was yours strange, too?  

 

 

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

Is It Saturday or Sunday? Manuscript

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

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

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

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

What happened during the Great Sabbath?

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

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

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

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

Jesus of nazareth, the king of the Jews.

20 Many of the Jews read the sign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sunday morning comes.

Everything changes on Sunday. Literally everything changes for us.

Is is Saturday or Sunday?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except Peter.

Peter has to see.

These are wonderful words to me: “But Peter.

But Peter got up and ran to the tomb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In which reality are we living?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what happens next in Acts 5:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

What Neighbors Do

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A very brief one, stretching out St. Patrick’s Day a little longer.  I played in an ultimate tournament today and I am, paradoxically, both a little disappointed and immensely satisfied.

We have a team in town.  By “team,” I mean a group from a church back where we’re from who are here for a week+ to experience Nicaragua, see and help with what we do, and try to grasp what it’s like to live here.  Before we moved to Nicaragua, I did a bunch of these trips.  They’re increasingly controversial, with many insightful concerns being raised about them.  But I also know we would not have moved here if we had not gone (come) on several trips.  I can see both sides.

Last night, our neighbors Mileydi and Juan Carlos invited the team over for dinner, for, as she said, “real Nica food.”  The team had a wonderful time.  Mileydi and Juan Carlos are good friends of ours; Mileydi runs the preschool with Kim.  Mileydi and Juan Carlos are generous and hospitable, and that is one of the things I hoped our visitors would experience.  Receiving generosity from those whom, by your standards, live in poverty is powerful and humbling.  Doing so can break through some of the automatic superiority that most of us feel, whether we acknowledge it to ourselves or not.

I had told the team that we weren’t coming for dinner (a tricky dance in itself, but having us there would have really changed the dynamic) but that they could come back over for dessert, since we still had way too much left over from earlier in the week.  After dinner they returned, bubbling over with how much they’d enjoyed it.  My hopes were realized.  They ate dessert.  I drove them back to where they’re staying.

When I got home, Mileydi yelled across the street, “What about dessert?”

¿Quieres helado?”  (“Do you want ice cream?”)

“¡Si!”

¿Chocolate o vainilla?

“¡Vainilla!”*

Here’s the beauty of this moment:  it was so marvelously normal.

I’d thought Mileydi and Juan Carlos might come back over with the group and we would all have dessert.  They didn’t.  But I had offered dessert!

When you live among people in poverty and you are rich (as we are, in comparison) things are always a little weird.  You learn to deal with it.  That’s just one challenge of living in the community instead of outside of it.

But this wasn’t weird!  It was normal and comfortable and funny!  It’s the thing a neighbor would say, who is also a friend with whom you laugh and who, at times, makes fun of you.  It’s not giving because one has more and the other less but sharing because that’s what neighbors do.  You can ask, in a joking way, because that’s what neighbors do.

This may not strike you as a big deal, but it’s one of those moments when I realize, “This worked!”  We did this crazy thing moving into our barrio and we’re still the crazy gringos but somehow now we’re also the neighbors who laugh and look out for each other and can share ice cream without it feeling awkward or like charity.

Because that’s what neighbors do.

 

*Obviously this is a mistake, but that’s not the point of my story.

This Week, or What I Think Is Important

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This past week, a member of our congregation died.  Gerry was a servant-hearted man with a huge smile and three kids, 14, 8, and 2.  His wife loved him dearly, in spite of his many flaws, just like my wife loves me.  We celebrated his life last night. Today, his body was buried in the ground.

Today, we prayed for a friend at our school, Tom, who is flying to the US to receive treatment for the cancer that is in his lungs.  He has a wife and young child.  He is scared and trying to trust God and he wants more time to be with his family.  He wants to live.

Last week, we read with horror and despair that a young man who had been identified in every way as a threat planned and carried out an attack on the school from which he’d been expelled, killed 17 people–14 of his former classmates and 3 staff.  He shot them to death.  At least 14 others were injured and taken to area hospitals.  He had bragged on YouTube “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.”

People around me, people in my life, people dear to me are falling apart beyond my capacity to put them back together.  Admittedly, that capacity is woefully limited; I mostly rely on God’s power of redemption to healing.  But sometimes I feel like I can help.  Sometimes I’m praying hard and I can’t see anything but things getting worse.  

That’s all this week.  One week.  There’s more, of course.  A few major things going down with my family that even I, open window that I am, must choose not to share.  

Also this week: I shared the story of Isaac and Annalise with my senior Bible class.  It was the first class session in which they all stayed awake and all paid attention the entire time.  I think I’m a decent teacher in my own unorthodox way, but this class has been challenging thus far.  After going through Gerry’s very rapid decline and death, after discussing whether Jesus really heals people and if it’s as easy as it seems in the Gospels, I decided it was time to tell them my experience of God not answering our prayers for healing and of God answering our prayers for healing.*

So I find myself thinking about life and death right now.  It’s in my face.  People shared this testimony at Gerry’s vela (memorial/wake):  “He loved his family.  He loved his kids. Everyone could see how much he loved them!”  Gerry had some problems and his life was not easy, but that is how I hope and pray that I am remembered.  

Some kids went to school and never came home; a mechanic, a friend, a father was diagnosed with leukemia and died a few days later; a fellow teacher, a guy who loves our students with God’s love is fighting for his life.  I’m praying, we’re all praying, that he lives.  I don’t know what will happen, not because I lack faith, but because I’ve seen one of our children die who we were told would live and one live who we were told would die.  

I’m taking a deep breath, another one, and I’m going to tell you what I think is important, because life is too short and too uncertain.  


Nothing can separate you from the love of God.  Nothing.  

I’m encouraged recently that people I’ve been trying to love get that I love them.  We are here to love one another.  We are here to learn to love ourselves and become people who can love one another.  I’ve struggled my whole life to love myself, but I’m getting there.  That’s making it easier to love other people.  

I’ve struggled my whole life to love myself, but I’m getting there.  That’s making it easier to love other people.  

This life you live is grace and that breath you just took is grace and your eyesight and your ability to read are grace and your mental capacity to ponder how (or if) this fits in your worldview and applies to your life is grace.  The old woman who sells me avocados so I can give them to my wife, the old woman who smiles at me with such a wrinkled face and talks to me though her throat can barely make sounds, the old woman who today charged me ten cordobas less for my avocado and I have no idea why, she is grace in my life.  Getting to love young people who have energy and hope and believe the world can change even though they get knocked to the ground when their beloved dumps them,** this is grace in my life.  My children are grace in my life.  

Grace is greater.  God doesn’t hate you, dislike you, or find you mildly annoying.  God loves you, not “in spite of” how awful you think you are, as if that were a pretty big hurdle for God but somehow, somehow…  Grace is so wildly much greater that God delights in you and can’t get enough of you, never tires of your company, loves hearing from you no matter how you communicate, and would like to hang out with you for the rest of time.  

 There won’t always be one more.  There just won’t.  There will be a last one and after that, no more.  

At Gerry’s vela, his daughter Sasha sang a song for him.  She said, “Well, Poppa, I guess this is the last time I get to sing for you.”  That wrecked me.  It reminded me of giving the eulogy at my dad’s memorial, which was my last chance to honor him.  I start to breath heavily and feel my throat closing just typing that.  There won’t always be one more.  There just won’t.  There will be a last one and after that, no more.  

Don’t get stopped by the need to do something “big” or paralyzed that this isn’t “enough.” Use what you have to do what you can.  “Justice is what love looks like in public.”  Cornell West

Fight injustice in whatever way you can.  Side with the oppressed and the persecuted. Take the side of the lonely kid and the single mom.  Care more that there are people poorer than you than that there are people richer than you.  Don’t get stopped by the need to do something “big” or paralyzed that this isn’t “enough.” Use what you have to do what you can.  “Justice is what love looks like in public.”  Cornell West

Don’t get stopped by the need to do something “big” or paralyzed that this isn’t “enough.” Use what you have to do what you can.  “Justice is what love looks like in public.”  Cornell West  

The struggle to stay alive, to overcome depression and anxiety, the daily and hourly choice to stay sober, the work to become healthy and live healthily, these matter because you matter.  They don’t matter “if…” or “so that…”  You matter.  Your. Life. Matters.  

“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.”  Frederick Buechner

One of my biggest privileges in life is that I get to stand up in front of people on a regular basis and tell them God loves them.  I’m told, fairly often, that I’m gifted at this, that people like my preaching, etc.  You know what’s cool about that?  Not that it strokes my ego or even that it contradicts my ridiculously low self-esteem.  What’s cool is that means they are listening.  That means God has gifted me so that sometimes, when I tell people God loves them, they hear it!  How cool is that?

Nothing can separate you from the love of God.  Nothing.  

 

 

*I swear, if you tell me “God did answer your prayer, the answer was just ‘No'” about the death of my child…  Deep breath.  Deep breath.  I’ve been told that before.  Yes, really.  

**Daniel: “Well, I mean, I’m a little relieved.”

Sam: “Why?”

Daniel: “Well, because I thought it would be something worse.”

Sam: “Worse than the total agony of being in love?”

Daniel: “Oh. No, you’re right. Yeah, total agony.”

Love, Actually

Two Views On Social Media, Part 1

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I’ve given this a lot of thought.  I’ve spent way too many hours being angry at “people” for the stupid, ignorant things “they” say. I’ve let myself read through discussions of posts, seemingly for the sole purpose of getting myself angry.  What am I looking for?  What do I hope to find, reading through hateful statements that only provoke the next person to escalate?

I’m a fundamentally hopeful person, as in, “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  Hope rooted in God’s love.  I’m not blindly optimistic that people are just nice.  I don’t think they are, particularly.  Some are awful.  But I believe in love that changes us.  Not magical pixie dust love, but God’s love that we see every day in forgiveness and reconciliation, God’s love that heals and redeems.  

So this begs the question: if my basic orientation is hopefulness, if my central belief is in God’s goodness and willingness to love us no matter how we are and change us through this love, why am I so drawn to read people’s expressions of ugliness?  Why do I choose–why do I have to force myself to stop–reading some of the worst people have to offer? 

Honest answers.  Here we go.

I’m dying to tell them off.  I really am.  Deep in my crooked little heart, I have the same ugliness and sin and I also feel I’m right and smart and understand the world better.  Occasionally, not horribly often, a stranger or someone I barely know will comment on one of my posts in such a patronizingly simplistic fashion that I can only assume they believe I’ve simply lacked this information all my life:

“If you color with the green crayon, you’ll get green.”  

Ah.

 Now truthfully, that shouldn’t bother me.  I already knew about the green crayon, from way back, and this is not actually someone I’m close to and have tea with or who gives me helpful feedback on my sermons.  This is a person insulting my intelligence whose insult should have no bearing on me, because A)Who is this person? and B)That was a very patronizing thing to say, which reflects badly not on me but back on this person.

Yet some ferocious beast in me yearns to crush my keyboard into shards explaining just what an inane comment the stranger made and demonstrating to “the world” how much more I understand everything than this person does.  

Hm.  

If I weren’t careful, I’d suspect that this same beast is behind much, perhaps most, of the comments I read that enrage me.  If I were especially incautious, I’d infer that the same thing that offends me about them is within me, wanting to fire back.  If I were wildly reckless, I might even call that “thing” a spirit.

 Or just sin.  

And that would knock down my whole house of cards.  

I think Facebook, Twitter, perhaps all social media platforms that people use as spaces for uncivil (anti-social) debate, lend to the sense that there is this collective soul, a generic “they” out there who just needs to be straightened out.  In the old days, “they” were far away, out there somewhere.  Now they type!  And their comments show up on my screen!  I’m angry all the time when I’m on these days because They think such Stupid Things! But it’s rarely the same person twice.  I’m not actually mad (okay, I probably am) pissed off at everyone, or even everyone who might hold that position, but because there is a constant stream of “someones” saying stupid things,* I begin to lump them together.  

But this is unchristian.  I think that’s the best way to say it. Social media generates not only anonymous interactions, which we all know allow for some people to show their most hateful side seemingly repercussion-free, but generalizing interactions, removed from individual context or connection (I see the tiny little icon of your cat or a flag next to your comment, nothing more).  That lack of any rooting in our individual peculiarities and uniqueness, the things that can make us endearing to one another even when we disagree, leaves us in the same mindset that people have when they practice racism or sexism or homophobia.**  “You people make me angry; you people are all alike.”  

But that’s false.  When I’m collecting evidence of how stupid people are, reading through their comments, I’m lumping together the person’s Ayn Rand comment with the one about Vespugian immigrants threatening our jobs and the one about how recycling doesn’t matter.  They weren’t by the same person.  They might all disagree with one another’s comments.  The person unhappy with immigrants might hate Ayn Rand and recycle more faithfully than I ever dream of doing.  The anti-recycle person might spend evenings helping shut-ins by delivering their groceries.  Heck, the Ayn Rand fan might be quite hilarious and have great taste in movies.

But they aren’t people to me; that’s what I mean by “unchristian.”  Jesus, who is God Almighty existing before time, came to earth in a very specific time and place in a particular human body, and he became friends with individual people whose names we know, Peter and Mary and Lazarus and Levi and Joanna.  God in the flesh got to know them personally, individually.  Our most basic claim about following Jesus, even before “I’m a sinner,” is “God cares for me.”  Specifically.  Individually.  He cares for you, in all aspects and in most minute detail, down to the very hairs on your head.  

When I turn around and disdain people I don’t know based on a few words they type, I’m defying what my faith is about.  I’m left to conclude, then, that this compulsion to read comments with which I will disagree–and you know, the moment you start reading comments, where it will most likely go–is simply a temptation to sin.  Pride, arrogance, my need to be superior, maybe even insecurity and inferiority that drive me to “prove them wrong.”  Yeah, I can mask that as “getting a better sense of what people on the other side are thinking,” or some such smokescreen, but the real way to do that is to engage my friends in real, direct conversation.  I have enough friends who see things differently than I do (go figure).  

This means I am talking about “a spirit.”  I’m talking about exactly the spirit by which I do not want to be led in my decisions and actions.  It’s obvious, in retrospect, because I can see that my comment-reading-and-lumping almost invariably produces bad fruit in me–meaning it does bad things in my heart and mind, aggravates my insomnia, and doesn’t make me more Jesus-like, even a teensy bit.  You’d think that would have been enough to give me a clue, but funny thing about sin: it makes us think wrong.  It clouds our judgment and allows us to rationalize our destructive and self-destructive behaviors as somehow being benign or even productive.  

I am repenting here.  I hope I am also challenging our thinking on how we see and interact on social media.  You may be way ahead of me on this.  I want to stop dehumanizing people.  Jesus came to help us become fully human, to become the most alive and joyful we can be.  

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

I think this is what I’m saying: I want to interact with people as Jesus taught, not as the thief leads.  

 

 

*I know we don’t all agree on what constitute “stupid things.”  If, as in my subsequent example, you happen to love Ayn Rand, fear Vespugian immigrants, and despise recycling, I apologize; I wasn’t trying to single you out.  

**Don’t begin to tell me homophobia is not real.  I had a conversation not long ago with a self-proclaimed Christian who, when the subject of gays came up, stated “I hate them. I hate them all.”  

Rachel Denhollander, Costly Grace, and the possibility of Redemption, Part 2

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[I originally intended to post this and part one together.  Kim suggested that it might reduce the impact of Part 1 to make it that long.  My wife is wise.  I didn’t want to take away from Rachael Denhollander’s story.  I do think this will make more sense if you’ve read Part 1 first.]
 
 
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against “cheap grace.”
 

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”*

 
Cheap grace is excusing violaters, molesters, and assaulters, who have not asked forgiveness, much less demonstrated repentance.  Looking the other way in the face of such evil is the antithesis of the Gospel of grace, which calls all evil and sin into the light for justice as well as grace, for healing of the victim and then, we pray, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption for the violater.  Grace leads to transformation because God’s spirit works in us.  Anything that offers excuses instead of sincere repentance, that falsely calls victims of abuse “liars” instead of exhorting abusers to face  the “crushing guilt” of the abuser is not Christianity.  If it declares itself “Christianity,” it is a false Gospel.  Paul, the chief of sinners who experienced true repentance, wrote:
 
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—  not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!  As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!        Galatians 1:6-9
 
“Let that one be accursed” is a polite translation.  Paul is saying, “Damn them!  Let them be damned!”  Paul could not say this any stronger.**  The Gospel of God’s grace takes our breath away because it offers true, costly forgiveness for literally anything; God offers forgiveness freely because God pays for that costly grace that condemns sin yet sets sinners free.  Jesus gave his life for this.
 
Rachael Denhollander gives face and voice to true, costly grace.  She embodies the forgiveness that Jesus makes possible through his death and resurrection.  She offers forgiveness to her attacker.  She offers what she has received, what God has given her.  Through God’s love in her, she has the strength to forgive even this man.  
 
Contrast the women who received justice, who were able to face and address the man who violated them, with those who are disregarded, discredited, maligned, whose characters are torn apart, while the man who violated them continues on unperturbed.
 
Contrast the true Gospel, in which Rachael Denhollander can both confront her attacker–and the system that allowed him to continue–and offer him a chance of redemption
versus
a perverted Gospel in which an attacker takes no responsibility, is defended by people calling themselves Christians, and consequently experiences no guilt, no grace, and no redemption.
Where is the healing for the one abused?  
Where is the hope of transformation for the abuser?  
 
I understand why Paul speaks so vehemently.
 
 Every day, people are told that both of these contradicting things are the Gospel.  Are Christianity.  Are grace.
 
But I am compelled again to say what Rachael Hollander reminded me is true:
 
There is only one Gospel.
 
There is only costly grace.
 
Grace is greater.
 
 

“Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you. I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.”  Rachael Denollander***

Every abuser needs to hear these words.  This is their only chance for Grace.  
 
*Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.  
**Paul writes later in Romans that he wishes the false teachers leading disciples away would “emasculate” themselves, i.e. dismember themselves.  That’s vivid, too, but not in Paul’s view not even this is as serious as being damned.
***I encourage you to research what Rachael Denhollander went through to seek justice for her abuser under the law.  She paid a huge cost.  She exhibited incredible courage and faith.

“Those first few weeks and months waiting to see if anyone else was going to speak up was absolutely hellish. Within 24 hours, Nassar knew that I’d come forward. And I was alone. That was really scary.

In the first few weeks until the child porn was found, the things that were said about me, the things that were said about Jamie (Dantzscher), who was anonymous at the time, were really quite vile. And it demonstrated perfectly why these victims were silent.

I was not surprised. I knew what the cost would be.”

Final thoughts: we admire what Rachael Denhollander did and the incredible strength of her faith.  But she was attacked and threatened and bullied, called a liar and slandered in any number of ways by those trying to cover up what Larry Nassar had done to her, by those in power who had much to lose.

If we are living the Gospel, if we believe in Grace, we take the side of the victims and seek to empower them in their pursuit of justice.  We seek to amplify their voice.  If we are silent, if we pretend we don’t realize what crimes abusers have committed, if we turn away and close our ears to the cries of abused women and men, we put ourselves on the opposite side from God and we oppose grace.

Rachael Denhollander, Costly Grace, and the possibilty of Redemption – Part 1

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I haven’t written a blog post in January.  There are a number of reasons: numerous commitments, sick wife and son, waning motivation, prioritizing writing time, discouragement.

But I read a quote and feel compelled to respond.  Simply put, it epitomizes “Grace is Greater.”  I have to write about it.

“Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you. I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.”

Rachael Denhollander spoke these words, in a courtroom, to the man accused and found guilty of molesting her, repeatedly, when she was fifteen.  The accused, Larry Nassar, had more than 150 women testify against him.  They spoke their minds.  They spoke their hearts. As Denhollander expressed it:

I do want to thank you, first, Judge Aquilina, for giving all of us the chance to reclaim our voices. Our voices were taken from us for so long, and I’m grateful beyond what I can express that you have given us the chance to restore them.
 
Nassar was sentenced to between 40 and 175 years for decades of sexual abuse against one hundred fifty-six girls.  He also was found guilty and sentenced to 60 years for federal child pornography charges. He will die in prison.
 
The depth of Nassar’s atrocities, his sheer, depraved sinfulness (I’m guessing even secular folks may be comfortable with that description in this case) is difficult to fathom.  You and I might argue that he is beyond forgiveness.
 
But Rachael Denhollander has forgiven him.
 
I take her at her word.  She offers the man whom I would be sorely tempted to describe as a monster and an abomination her forgiveness and exhorts him–prays for him to receive, to experience, true repentance and then true forgiveness from God.
 
I have spent years (and years) forgiving some people in my life whose sins against me, by my own measure, are a trifle compared to what Ms. Denhollander suffered.  I try to grasp her process of saying with sincerity that she forgives her abuser and I fail.
 
But I believe her.
 
And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.
 
Reflect on these words for a moment.  Then consider to what “that” refers in her sentence:
 
“Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet.
 
The crushing guilt is what makes the Gospel of Christ so sweet.  The Gospel of Christ “extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found.”  To the extent that Larry Nassar is a monster, precisely to that extent God offers him grace.  Ms. Denhollander forgives/has forgiven Nassar and so will God, if Nassar truly repents.
 
Does that offend you?  Because I am offended.  I believe in grace and know that God’s grace has saved my life and yet I’m offended.  But it’s good for me to be offended. It displays for me my own hypocrisy, and yet proves my blog’s thesis statement: to whatever degree we grasp God’s grace, it is greater. than. that.
 
The power of the Gospel is that there is no one living who is beyond God’s grace.  No one.  God will forgive anyone who repents for anything, for everything they have done.  Me, Larry Nassar, you.  All of us.
 
Understand that no one is excusing Larry Nassar’s crimes, least of all Rachael Denhollander.  Her courage, determination, and persistance put him in prison, not single-handedly but as the single biggest contributor to bringing about justice for his abusive violence.  To excuse means to wave off, to look the other way or ignore, to accept an excuse as covering the sin.  Hardly.  Sin has consequences, and sins that harm others have greater consequences.   A sentence of two hundred years in prison is the opposite of “excusing.”
 
Grace looks directly at the crime, the sin, the atrocity.  It recognizes the crushing, appropriate guilt.  Then, while allowing consequences, it offers forgiveness and the opportunity for redemption.  None of this has anything to do with deserving or earning forgiveness: grace means precisely that you do not and cannot earn forgiveness.  Grace is giving something good when something bad is is deserved, giving love and forgiveness and love when condemnation and death are deserved.
 
Grace is more powerful than revenge.  Forgiveness frees the victim. It frees the victim from being a victim anymore, sets the abused one free from the power of the sin*, and, astoundingly, opens up the possibility of redemption for the sinner, for the violator, in a way that revenge never can.  We have historical examples.  Saul of Tarsus.  He hunted down followers of “The Way,” the radical heretic Jesus, and dragged them from their homes in chains, seeking their death sentence.  “Breathing violence and threats.”  Then Jesus redeemed his life.
 .
Confrontation, repentance, forgiveness, transformation.  Grace.
Paul understood the crushing guilt.  When he describes himself as the worst of all sinners (“the chief of sinners”), I don’t think he’s speaking lightly or being falsely self-deprecating.  I think he’s remembering accosting mothers and fathers in their homes, remembering the eyes of their children watching him make their parents disappear, turning their children into orphans, for the crime of responding to a teacher who taught love and forgiveness.
 
But that was ancient history and we elevate “The Apostle Paul” to saint status, forgetting who he was, what he was.
 
Today, Rachael Denhollander offers Larry Nassar forgiveness.  She points the way to his redemption, because God can redeem even his life.
 
#MeToo and #ChurchToo call out sinners for their sins, abusers for their crimes.  The women and men who have suffered abuse deserve a voice, they deserve to see justice for their abusers.  Then they must decide if they can forgive.  I’m not standing in their shoes.  I’m not claiming that I would.
 
I’m saying that Rachael Denhollander did.  She reminds me, I hope she reminds us all, of the breathtaking, shocking power of grace.  She’s my new hero.  Plus Jesus is my hero, for giving her the love and the strength to do this.  I’m pretty sure she’s fond of him, too.
 
 
 
*I don’t say this lightly and forgiveness for in some situations may be a lifelong process.