Remember This.

There is something about turning middle age that causes many of us to focus like a laser on our own mortality. And with that comes the almost irrepressible compulsion to share our maternal or paternal wisdom with our children. The blog “Shit My Dad Says” is devoted almost entirely to this phenomenon.  There’s just stuff we’ve learned along the way and it seems like such a waste not to share these things with our children. And so we do. Early and often. To our children’s dismay.

But I have often wondered, if I only had a few more days or weeks or months left with my children, what would I choose to tell them?  What are the really important things I want them to know?

Surely Jesus must have asked himself this question during the forty days between Easter and his ascension into heaven.  He had spent his entire ministry imparting wisdom to his friends and followers. But his ministry was coming to an end.  Of all the things he had tried to teach them, what were the most important things that he wanted them to remember?

As far as I can tell, it looks like we have about nine recorded accounts of Jesus talking to his disciples during that forty day period after Easter.  So what did he say?  Of all the many things that Jesus tried to teach his disciples, what were the essential things he wanted them to remember?

Well, it turns out that Jesus says about what we would probably say if we had just a limited amount of time left with our children.

He tells them not to be afraid.  That everything is going to work out okay.

He tells them to love each other and to take care of each other.

And he tells them that he loves them and that he will see them again some day.

I guess Jesus knew that his parenting days were over. There was no more time for speeches, lectures, or even parables. It was time to boil an entire ministry down to the very basics. And so he did: Don’t be afraid. Its going to be OK. Love each other. Take care of each other. I love you. I’ll see you again.

Words to remember.

Peace.

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Peace

There He is.  The Prince of Peace.  Watching our chaos:  A country at war for nearly a decade; a government so dysfunctional that its leaders have taken the economy hostage and are threatening to throw it over a cliff; a town completely heart broken, busy preparing twenty precious and bullet riddled children for burial while the rest of us look on in shock and horror; families in constant conflict, with husbands and wives arguing endlessly over meaningless things while brothers and sisters are at each other’s throat one minute and united in open defiance of their parents the next.  And then there’s me, and maybe you, with our chaotic and stressed out minds, wracked with doubts and regrets and indecision and constant worries — so conflicted that we can barely move, much less act with any real conviction.  And in the midst of all this madness stands the Prince of Peace, watching.

I desperately wish He would do something.  Fix something.  Fix me or others around me.  Instead, it seems like everywhere He goes, chaos follows.  But in my better moments, I know it’s the other way around — everywhere chaos goes, He follows.  I know He’s been there amidst the fog of war, the heat of those political battles, the stress of family conflicts and the utter despair of the grieving parents of Newtown.  And He’s been there with you and me as we wrestle our stressed out thoughts struggling to keep it all in the road.

I get it that the Prince of Peace is needed most at scene of chaos.  And I get it that we are supposed to follow along.  But honestly, I wish He traveled with a giant spotlight — one with enough amperage to allow us to see clearly for miles and miles.  If He did, I think I would still follow but, no doubt, I would occasionally run ahead — either in search of the next adventure or at least in search of the next exit so that my family and I could get the hell out of some of the chaos around us.  But this is a Prince that travels light — with just enough light that we can see little more than our feet in front of us and then only if we stay close.

I suspect the Prince of Peace is more comfortable with chaos than I am. He was both made for it and born into it. I guess in that way, He’s the perfect travel companion. And so we travel with Him. Lugging our chaos from place to place.  In the dark.  Barely able to see the ground in front of us.  Following a Prince who is in search of more chaos, another place that could use His peace.

I know He is in Newtown this week.  I hope and pray that the people there can feel His presence and that they stand close to His light.  They are surely experiencing a chaos I can only imagine.  But the Prince is comfortable there.  He’s there right now.  No doubt.

My Jesus is Blue. What’s Yours?

Do you believe in a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus? – CNN Belief Blog 

My quiz results suggest I lean toward a “blue state Jesus” (which is sort of funny since I live in the reddest of red states…)  But, in light of the very conservative church background of my childhood and the fairly liberal church participation of adulthood, it’s no wonder my results are somewhat mixed.  Interesting quiz, though.  I do think a lot of the cultural and political discord of today can be traced to these differing views of the divine.

So which are you?

Do you believe in a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus?

Do you believe in a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus? – CNN Belief Blog – CNN.com Blogs.

…And the Power of Forgiveness

A follow up to my previous post entitled “The power of an apology”.

Colossians 3:12-17 (NIV)

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.  And be thankful.16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

I generally enjoy accusing Paul of putting hard edges on Jesus’ otherwise grace-filled teachings (See this post for proof).  But on the issue of forgiveness, it may actually be Paul who is the softee.  In the passage in Corinthians cited above, Paul says that we are to forgive as the Lord has forgiven us.  That sounds like a mighty tall order but, frankly, it’s not nearly as scary as Jesus makes it sound in the Gospels.  Jesus, when speaking of our obligation to forgive, is far more blunt:

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Woah.  That’s heavy.  It’s one thing to say, as Paul does, that we are to forgive as the Lord has forgiven us.  It’s a whole other thing to say, as Jesus does, that if we do not forgive as our Father has forgiven us, our Father will not forgive us.  That’s strong stuff.  And I don’t think it’s a misspeak.  Or a typo.  I think Jesus probably meant what he said, because it’s repeated over and over in the Gospels.  And, for that matter, we pray that very language every Sunday at my church when reciting the Lord’s prayer:

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

The truth is, that’s not really what I want.  I don’t really want God to forgive my debts the way I have forgiven the debts of others.  I want God to forgive my debts way beyond that.  But that’s not what I pray for and that’s not what God has promised me.  And I find that a bit scary.

Forgiveness is hard to define, much less practice.  I suppose on some level, forgiveness is a choice.  But sometimes it feels like anything but a choice.  In fact, sometimes it feels like an almost impossible path to choose.

I suppose on another level, forgiveness is an act.  But generally, if seems more like a process or, at the very least, a whole bunch of acts.

But some times I think forgiveness is neither an act nor a process but rather an emotion  or a feeling.  I mean, it’s easy to say you’ve forgiven someone but much harder to know whether you really have.  As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography, it’s hard to describe forgiveness, but you know it when you feel it (actually, that’s not exactly what Justice Stewart said about pornography, but you get the picture).  Whether or not we are able to pinpoint our specific act of forgiveness, we are often able to identify the feelings associated with forgiveness.

What I do know is that beyond the unmistakable biblical mandate to forgive, there’s lots of other good reasons to practice forgiveness.  In fact, one could argue that forgiveness is a health issues as much as it is a theological or moral issue.  And precisely because it is a health issue, forgiveness and its benefits have been studied by a number of health care institutions, including the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School.  Both those studies, and many others, have shown that those who work through a process of forgiveness (much like a process of grief), enjoy healthier relationships, lower blood pressure, less anxiety, fewer symptoms of depression and lower risks of alcohol and drug abuse.

So why don’t we do more of it?  Forgiveness is difficult and, in those times when I’ve needed to practice it most, I’ve given myself lots of reasons not to.  And those reasons are varied:  the offender doesn’t deserve it, revenge is more appropriate and feels so much better, I can’t just act like it didn’t happen, I don’t want to reconcile with the person and I have no interest in being their friend, I’ll look weak or, my personal favorite, it’ll seem like I’m condoning their behavior and I don’t want to be an enabler.

But forgiveness is required.  Our need for forgiveness is deep rooted and, when given, is beautifully redemptive.  I discovered one of the most beautiful stories of the redemptive power of forgiveness just a few days ago.  I was sent an email about a program sponsored by an organization called Restorative Justice.  The email was announcing a speaking engagement of two women bound together by tragedy:  the death of one lady’s child at the hands of the other lady.  I leave you with a letter that the perpetrator’s mother wrote some years ago — a letter that beautifully illustrates the redemptive power of forgiveness:

Two mothers,  that’s what we were… two mothers, alone with our pain.  Not to say we didn’t have people  around  us, we did. When the jury went into deliberation we could hear the quiet chatter of the reporters, police  officers, family and friends echoing  in a void we could not touch.

And then, one by one the people disappeared up the hall, looking for coffee and a bite to eat. In the awkward silence the victim’s mother and I found ourselves standing alone on opposite sides of the corridor. I went over to her; the one whose son my own had killed.

They were only sixteen … the thoughts  in my mind went round and round, searching for some understanding, some reason why life had taken our two sons so young. Holding out my arms I approached the fragile woman with caution.

“We’re in this together.”, I whispered.

The grieving mother hugged me back and then quickly released my embrace. “I must go.”, she whispered. “My family will be coming back soon and they won’t understand.”

Within the hour we were called back into the courtroom and the judge announced the verdict.  “Guilty”, he said. “Ten to life.”

That night I cried myself to sleep. Brutal scenes from prison movies  and stories  of rape and violence flashed through my mind as the relent less sobs racked my body with grief. Towards morning I had a dream. The victim’s mother was leaning over my bed compassionately holding out her arms to give me a hug.  “We’re in this together.” she said, and I awoke with my arms reaching high in the air.

It was almost twenty years later before I saw the woman again. She had come for my son’s parole hearing and was waiting for the proceed ings to begin. Over the past several months, a mediator from the Restorative Opportunities Program had been helping my son communicate with her and her daughter through a series of letters. When the daughter agreed to meet with my son, two ladies from the program filmed their healing exchange and then brought it to my house for a private viewing. They also showed it to the victim’s mother  who lived across  the country, near her daughter.

After watching the video, the victim’s mother was so touched by the changes she saw in my son that she offered to speak on his behalf at his parole hearing. She also asked to meet privately with us after the hearing. It was during this time that the two Restorative Opportunities mediators helped  the victim’s mother  and my son speak openly about the horrible night he killed her son. After so many years of keeping it all inside, my son was finally given the opportunity  to express how sorry he was and offered  to answer  any and all questions the woman needed to ask.

After a couple  hours of frank discussion she turned to face me.  “And I want to apologize to you.” she said. “Apologize to me?” I asked, rather shocked by her offer.

“Yes” she said. “I was so angry and hurt that I think I treated you poorly during the trial.

She looked relieved when I told her my only memory of her was our short exchange in the hallway outside the courtroom while waiting for the verdict to come in. I shared with her that, “I cried myself to sleep that night and towards morning I dreamed you were leaning over my bed to comfort me. ‘We’re in this together,’ you said kindly, and when I awoke I was reaching up to hug you. I have no memory of your treating me poorly. In fact, I’ve been praying for you all these  years;  that someday you might  find forgiveness  in your heart so you won’t have to hurt so much anymore.”

Just then, the victim’s mother pulled out a plastic bag she’d been holding on her lap.

“I brought you a gift,·she said, passing it to my son across the large oval table.

“A gift?” he replied, his wide-eyed surprise impossible  to conceal.

“Yes, it’s a dog,” she said, as he pulled the small stuffed animal out of the bag.

“A dog! Just what you always  wanted!” I said, recalling our prison  visit conversations over the years.

“And when you get out I’m going to buy you your first real dog.” the woman promised. Then, quite unexpectedly, she pushed back her chair and went around the table  to embrace my son. Without a moment’s hesitation  he stood up to accept her hug. Before going back to sit down, the woman whispered something in my son’s ear.

As the meeting came to a close the woman asked if she could continue to contact us, to which of course, we both heartily agreed. Once everyone  was gone I asked my son what the woman said to him while they were hugging.

Turning the little dog over and over in his hands he replied quietly, “She said, ‘I forgive you’.”

Forgiveness.  May we give it and get it today.  Peace, friends.

The Power of An Apology…

On October 27, 2010, Declan Sullivan, a student at the University of Notre Dame, was killed when a hydraulic lift from which he was videotaping the Notre Dame football team practice, collapsed. Within days, with investigators just beginning their work and lawyers warning of potential liability, Notre Dame University President Rev. John Jenkins issued a statement of apology in which he said, in part:

There is no greater sadness for a university community than the death of one of its students under any circumstances. Yet this loss is more devastating, for Declan died in a tragic accident while in our care. For that, I am profoundly sorry. We are conducting an investigation and we must be careful not to pre-judge its results, but I will say this: Declan Sullivan was entrusted to our care, and we failed to keep him safe. We at Notre Dame — and ultimately I, as President — are responsible. Words cannot express our sorrow to the Sullivan family and to all involved.

Apologies come in all shapes and sizes.  There is the “I deeply regret” apology where the apologizer connects the with the consequence of his actions but does not actually  accepting blame for the act itself.  Then there’s the “mistakes were made” apology, that acknowledges that something wasn’t done right by someone, but does not accept responsibility on the part of a specific person for a specific action.  There is the vacuous apology extended to “those who misunderstood me” and the equally hollow apology directed to those of you “who feel that way”.  Then there is the “I’m sorry, but … apology that simply shifts blame to someone or someplace else.  And lastly, there is the “I’m sorry I got caught” apology which is, of course, no apology at all.

Some apologies are the stuff of legend.  Who can forget Bill Clinton’s non-apology apology in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal?  And then there was was the Mel Gibson apology after his anti semitic tirade following a DUI arrest; the Tiger Woods’ apology after word of his multiple affairs and Kramer’s apology after his racial tirade in a comedy nightclub; or Chris Brown’s apology for beating up his girlfriend Rihanna and Kanye West’s apology for interrupting Taylor Swift at the CMT Awards.  This political season alone has brought us a rash of new apologies:  Todd Akin, a Republican Senate candidate from Missouri, for his reference to “legitimate rape” and his suggestion that it does not lead to pregnancy; Richard Mourdock, another candidate for U.S. Senator, for his suggestion that either rape was God’s will (according to the interpretation of some, though not me) or, that a pregnancy occasioned by rape, is God’s will.  And then just last night, in my home state of South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley’s attempted apology upon word that 3.7 million social security numbers may have been hacked from South Carolina Department of Revenue web servers.

All of these apologies are memorable.  Only a few were meaningful.  A good apology is powerful in part because it is sincere.  A good apology is completely genuine.  It accepts full responsibility and does not attempt to shift blame.  It speaks of repentance and tries to make amends.  It is timely given and given with no expectations.  But perhaps the real power of an apology, appropriately given, is that it can mark both an end as well as a beginning — an end to active conflict and a beginning to the long process of reconciliation, redemption, and forgiveness.  And, ultimately, healing.

See this related post on forgiveness.

I Give Up

I have found an area of agreement with Paul. And it feels, well, ok.  (See this post for why that is more than a little surprising).

I’m a Presbyterian now so I guess that makes me part of the chosen.  But it hasn’t always been that way.  If you grow up unchosen, as I did, at some point you have to “give your life to Christ”.  It’s a public thing.  Basically, you respond to a song at the end of a church service, with everyone staring at you, knowing good and well that attached to every staring eye is an empty stomach.  You’re the only thing between all those people and the buffet line.  It’s a little intimidating.  Suffering for the gospel starts early for the unchosen.

I accepted my invitation one night after dinner at church camp (I’m clever that way; not a hungry person in the crowd).  I was nine years old.  I came forward to strumming guitars and a room full of people singing I Have Decided To Follow Jesus.  When I got to the front, someone asked me if I wanted Jesus to be Lord of my life.  They way I figured it, some grown up was lording over virtually every part of my life anyway.  “Yea, sure,” I said.

Paul talks alot about the Lordship of Christ.  Perhaps Paul and I should have talked before I made my fateful decision that night.  Because this Lordship stuff is tough.  In part because Paul says that Jesus is the Lord of everything.

For by Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones of powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him and for Him.  He is before all things and in Him all things hold together.  And He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have supremacy.

Everything?  Talk about a control freak.  Geesh.

It seems to me like there ought to be some things that are just off limits.  And as to what those things are, I’m open to negotiation.  My church life?  Jesus, take the wheel.  My family life?  I get that.  My free time?  Yea, sure, some of it anyway.  My work life?  We can talk about that.  My finances?  My priorities?  My body?  My speech?  My thoughts?  Everything?

Everything, says Paul.

This Lordship stuff is tough but I think Paul is right on this one.  I think Jesus wants to be Lord of everything.  And I’m not there yet.  In fact, it’s difficult for me to even imagine how life under Lordship would work.  It’s difficult for me to imagine a life in which I completely give up control of decisions involving my finances, my family, my work, even my thoughts.  Maybe I’m the control freak.  But just the thought of that makes me very uncomfortable.  Like most folks, I value my independence and my self sufficiency.  Giving that up makes me nervous.

But whether I knew it or not, the decision I made nearly forty years ago, was to give myself wholly and unconditionally to God.  And that means making him Lord of my life –every part of it.  As Paul says in the fourteenth chapter of Romans:

For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9

So, Paul, I’m with you on this Lordship stuff.  I think you’ve got it about right.  That doesn’t make it any easier.  And I still think you’re wrong about some of the other stuff.  But I’ll save that for later.

An Open Letter to Paul

I have a confession to make.  Over the last 10 plus years of teaching sunday school, I’ve spent little to no time on a large section of the New Testament.  Basically, I’ve chosen not to give Paul any airtime.  I just don’t care for the guy.  And that’s wrong.  I admit it and I’m here to make amends.

But first, let me explain myself (and get in a few more digs).  First, I’ve got an authority problem.  As in, who is this guy and why do I have to listen to him?  As I understand it, Paul was born two years after Jesus’ death.  Ok, fine.  I suppose you can claim to be an authoritative expert on the teachings of a man you’ve never met.  Particularly if you do everything you can to soak up the first hand knowledge of those who did know Jesus really, really well, like his disciples.  Except, in Galatians, Paul tells us that he’s never spent any time with the disciples, except for a brief visit with James, Jesus’ brother.  Ok, so you’ve never met Jesus and you haven’t bothered to learn from those who knew him really well, but I’m supposed to base most of my religious life on your writings?  You’re losing me, dude.

Paul claims — I mean tell us — that he knows Jesus personally because Jesus spoke to him directly for a five year period (after Jesus’ death) while Paul was in Jerusalem.  Believe it or not, I’m ok with this.  I think Jesus probably did speak to Paul this way.  I think Jesus speaks to a lot of us in this way.  In fact, like Paul, I had my own five year period back in my mid twenties, where I was convinced that Jesus was interacting with me in a real and personal and very significant way.  So I have no doubt that Paul could have had this same sort of experience.  My problem is not that it didn’t happen, but that even if it did happen, it doesn’t make Paul all that unique.  Paul may be divinely inspired but I’m not sure he’s any more divinely inspired than a lot of other people who have interacted with God in real and personal ways.

And that’s my other problem.  Interactions with God are, by their very nature, unique and personal.  God interacts with us when, and how, God chooses.  It’s different for each of us.  So is our interpretation of those interactions.  The messages that we take from those interactions is subject to our own bias, prejudice, and misunderstanding.  At least I know mine are and I have no reason to believe that Paul wouldn’t be subject to the same limitations as I am.

And then there’s the whole persecuting Christians thing.  I get it that he eventually gave that up.  Good for him.  But, seriously?  One day you’re stoning Christians — or at least watching passively as Stephen is murdered — and the next you’re calling yourself the father of Christianity and telling us all how to live?  I got a problem with that.  It’s like the guy on the corner downtown.  One day he’s high on crack and the next day he’s passing out religious tracks telling me I’m going to hell because I wasn’t immersed.  Whatever.

And then, there’s the biggie.  I think you’re just too darn conservative.  I think you listened to story after story about grace, and redemption, and reconciliation and forgiveness and some how came away thinking it was all about homosexuality, adultery, alcohol and dancing.  I don’t get that.  Unfortunately, lots of your followers do.  You’d be amazed (but hopefully not proud) to see how many people seem incredibly dismissive of Jesus’ message of grace but are more than willing to lift high your banner opposing gay marriage (you do talk about gay marriage, don’t you?).  Whether you intended it or not, I think a lot of your writing has given people cover to be less than graceful and I think that’s unfortunate.

So there you go.  I’ve been wanting to get that off my chest for years.  I’ve had my say.  Now it’s time for you to have yours.  The next few weeks, you’ve got the floor.  I’m going to do my best to give you a fair shake.