Joy

We lit the advent calendar at church last week.  I like Joy.  Joy is good.  But dang it’s hard to describe.  Sort of like describing the smell of a lemon, the sight of a double rainbow after a storm, the feeling you get at the birth of a child.  I’m reminded of United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who tried but failed to describe exactly what amounted to pornography that was not entitled to the protection of the first amendment.  Eventually, Stewart threw up his hands and remarked, “I know it when I see it.”

I know what you mean, Judge.  Some things just defy easy description and must be experienced to be fully appreciated and understood.  So it is with Joy, yet we still try to put it in words.

Poet William Henry Davies’ very able attempt reads like this:

Now, joy is born of parents poor,
And pleasure of our richer kind;
Though pleasure’s free, she cannot sing
As sweet a song as joy confined.

Pleasure’s a Moth, that sleeps by day
And dances by false glare at night;
But Joy’s a Butterfly, that loves
To spread its wings in Nature’s light.

Joy’s like a Bee that gently sucks
Away on blossoms its sweet hour;
But pleasure’s like a greedy Wasp,
That plums and cherries would devour.

Joy’s like a Lark that lives alone,
Whose ties are very strong, though few;
But Pleasure like a Cuckoo roams,
Makes much acquaintance, no friends true.

Joy from her heart doth sing at home,
With little care if others hear;
But pleasure then is cold and dumb,
And sings and laughs with strangers near.

 

The Apostle Paul made joy a theme of his letters, referring often to his joy “in Christ”.  He spoke many times about the joy he experienced even while facing persecution, imprisonment and death.  Even in those times of adversity, especially in those times of adversity, Paul experienced the joy that comes of being in Christ.
The Psalmists also talked often of joy — the joy of salvation expressed through worship and praise of God.  Joy, for the psalmist, is described as a gift from the creator.  Joy, for the psalmist, is expressed in worship, and obedience, and reverence.
But perhaps my favorite illustration of joy comes from Dr. Seuss and the people of Whoville:
“That’s a noise,” grinned the Grinch,

“That I simply must hear!”
So he paused. And the Grinch put a hand to his ear.
And he did hear a sound rising over the snow.
It started in low. Then it started to grow…

But the sound wasn’t sad!
Why, this sound sounded merry!
It couldn’t be so!
But it WAS merry! VERY!

He stared down at Who-ville!
The Grinch popped his eyes!
Then he shook!
What he saw was a shocking surprise!

Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming!
IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?
It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”
And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

And what happened then…?
Well…in Who-ville they say
That the Grinch’s small heart
Grew three sizes that day!
And the minute his heart didn’t feel quite so tight,
He whizzed with his load through the bright morning light
And he brought back the toys! And the food for the feast!

…HE HIMSELF…!
The Grinch carved the roast beast!

Joy’s not easy to describe.  But I think Paul, Poet Davies, the psalmist and Dr. Seuss, are all saying essentially the same thing.  Joy is a gift.  It is of God and from God.  It is enduring.  And it can be experienced even in the face of tragedy.  It is joy that permitted Paul to praise God even while facing death.  It is joy that allowed the people of Whoville to sing despite the Grinch’s best effort.  It is joy allows us to walk boldly and in peace even when things are rough and the future seems uncertain.  And it is Joy that will enable the people of Newtown, Conneticut to slowly pick up the pieces, press on, and sing this Christmas.
Joy to the world, y’all!
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…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 Know I’m Right, But What About You?

No sooner had the vice presidential debate ended, but the networks immediately had snap polls telling us who had won. Interestingly, and perhaps predictably, the polls varied wildly from network to network. I had my own opinion, of course. But as I thought about who truly won the debate, the obvious question came to mind: what exactly is the scoring criteria? Are we voting on who won on substance? On style? On veracity? Or simply on who best met their debate and/or campaign objective? My completely meaningless take (as an Obama/Biden partisan): The debate was a draw on substance, a clear Ryan victory on style, a Biden victory on veracity and a marginal Biden victory on meeting objectives of the debate and/or campaign. That was my take, but my wife, and other people I respect a great deal, came up with completely opposite conclusions. But arguments are like that.

Sometimes, it’s hard to define victory in an argument or, perhaps more accurately, sometimes there are many possible definitions of victory (and loss) in arguments such that it is hard to tell who really won. There is what I would call a complete win (a/k/a win +1 on google; like on facebook, win with an * old school). In a complete win, you win on things like substance, merit and style so decisively that you not only win the argument, but you actually change the mind of the other person. A complete win is a pretty rare thing.  Down a bit from there is what I would call just a plain win. In a plain win, you win the argument on either style or substance or both and, as a result, you ultimately get your way, but you’ve done nothing to persuade the other person.  A plain win is more common than a complete win but not quite a satisfying.  Then there’s the win/loss — those times when you win the argument, but impair or destroy the relationship.  A very unsatisfying kind of win.   And then there’s the compromise — neither one of you really wins the argument and neither of you changes your perspectives, but, in the end, you agree to disagree peacefully.  The sort of result most commonly associated with the feeling of “kissing your sister”.  And then there’s plain old lose/lose. You lose the argument and you impair or destroy the relationship.  And you feel like crap when it’s over.

For most of us, our first experience with arguing came from listening to our parents. For some, this was a really traumatic thing — either because of the intensity or frequency of the arguments or because the arguments turned out to be a harbinger of irreparable harm to the relationship of two people who are very important to us. Even for those of us who experienced more benign types of arguments between our parents, the memories of those arguments are still a bit uncomfortable. At a minimum, we remember the temporary disruption in the harmony of our family or because the arguments were simply annoying, particularly when our parents were arguing over things that seemed so trivial.  But, for many of us, the arguments we witnessed may very well have been a somewhat choreographed performance — our parents arguing in front of us to model conflict resolution and to let us know that people who love each other can still disagree (sometimes vehemently)and yet stay together and still love each other when it’s over.

Perhaps more insidious and more dangerous than parents (or spouses, or siblings or boyfriends/girlfriends) arguing, are those relationships where there are no arguments — where one or more parties to the relationship stops arguing. Either because they have capitulated and given their will over to the other person in an effort to buy peace on the cheap or because one party has fought for so long that they no longer care whether the relationship lives or dies — they are now controlled not by anger or a desire to be right but by apathy, which is, ominously enough, the opposite of love.

There are plenty of good things that can come from arguing. Arguing with someone who is about to do something profoundly stupid, particularly if life threatening, is always worth the time and effort. Sometimes we are successful with our arguments and sometimes people change their mind. And sometimes that is a very good thing.

Sometimes arguing reveals the truth. Sometimes two people can hold opinions that are genuine and arrived at in good faith. And though those differing opinions sometimes collide, a thoughtful argument can oftentimes expose the weakness or weaknesses of one side or the other. Sometimes that leads to changed hearts and changed minds. Sometimes it simply leads to a different perspective. And sometimes that is a good thing.

Proverbs says that “iron sharpens iron”. Sometimes arguing sharpens our arguments, even if we were right to begin with. Even if we were right, arguments can expose our weaknesses, show us what we have not yet considered, or show us what might require additional investigation on our part. The result may be a shored up argument that can withstand even greater, and perhaps less well intentioned, assault. And that may prove to be a good thing.

While it is true that the enormity of the issues at stake in an argument might define the tactics used to win the argument, it seems to me that some tactics ought to be declared off limits in most, if not all, circumstances. Violence is not a legitimate tactic to win an argument. Why? Because if one of the goals of an argument is to get at the truth, or that conclusion that ought prevail, violence artificially distorts that process. A person who is bigger, stronger and more vicious and who resorts to violence when arguing, is likely to win most arguments. But that won’t mean he or she was right.

Other forms of coercion, like blackmail, extortion, or humiliation ought to similarly be declared off limits. So too name calling or other forms of verbal violence. Bringing up the past, when not relevant to the present, strikes me as “out of bounds”. Interjecting irrelevant issues, even if in the present, ought not be allowed. Lastly, walking out or walking away, ought to be a tactic of last resort. Certainly, walking away, if used as a last resort to avoid other less desirable tactics such as violence, coercion, or verbal abuse, may be an appropriate thing to do in limited circumstances. But generally, parties to an argument ought to stay and see the argument to a peaceful conclusion.

I had lunch recently with a fella who, like me, is a lawyer. In other words, he, like me, gets paid to argue. And after just a few minutes, it was clear that both of us enjoyed arguing, particularly with each other. And we had a good bit to argue about. Mainly, by his own description, he was a conservative republican and I am a left leaning democrat. And though we are both Presbyterian, he belongs to the conservative Presbyterian Church in town, and I am a member at a decidedly more liberal Presbyterian Church.

But he proved himself to be very bright, very knowledgeable, and a very fair debater. We “argued” about many things political and many things theological. I don’t think either of us changed our minds on any thing, but I will speak for myself and say that I certainly gained a different and valuable perspective on a number of issues and I certainly learned that there are smart, respectful and well intentioned people on the other side of issues that are important to me.

So much of the arguing that goes on today is over completely trivial matters. If we were to list the five most pressing issues facing this country, I suspect they are not the same things that we hear argued in our public discourse.  Same for our most valued relationships. The things that are most critical to the health of our relationships are usually not the things we argue about. We argue not about where each member of the family will spend eternity but why the trash hasn’t been taken out since Tuesday; not about how we express our love to each other, but about why people insist on throwing their dirty clothes on the bathroom floor. That sort of thing.

Individually, and collectively, we have lost the ability to argue civilly in a way that add value to public discourse. We argue about the irrelevant, we result to name calling and demonization, we begin each argument with a settled opinion and we guard that opinion zealously until one side or the other relents. We enter arguments ready to talk and convince, not listen and learn. This, unfortunately, is our culture.

And, of course, every Sunday, it is that culture that fills the pews of our church. People who have lost the ability to engage in reasonable debate in a civil society, do not suddenly regain that ability because they enter the church. And so, quite expectedly, we debate the irrelevant, we refuse to listen, we resort to name calling, we engage in verbal abuse and we irreversibly impair relationships.  And leave denominations.

As discussed in this previous post, one of the major theme’s of Paul’s writings, was the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Paul believed that Jesus Christ was to be the Lord of everything. Absolutely everything. And that God’s people should be unified in following Jesus Christ as Lord of everything.

In Ephesians 4:1-3, Paul encourages us as believers to be humble.  And gentle.  And patient.  And to bear with each other in love.  And to work for unity.  In an effort to keep peace among believers.

Paul spoke often about the Church and he used metaphors that emphasized the importance of church unity. In I Corinthians 10, verse 17, Paul refers to “one loaf” and says that though there are many of us, we all eat of the same bread.  In Romans, Paul refers frequently to “one body” and the need for each of us to perform our roles in harmony and synchronicity with the rest of the body; in I Corinthians and again in Ephesians, Paul refers to “one building” and reminds us that Jesus is the foundation and chief cornerstone of the house of God and that the purpose of Christian ministry is to build up the body of Christ.  And in 2 Corinthians, Paul refers to the church as “one bride”.  Just as a husband cleaves to his wife and literally the two become one flesh — that no one should dare tear asunder — so too the church is the bride of Christ — all of us cleaved together and bound to Jesus as one in the flesh. It comes as no surprise, then, that no one should tear the bride apart nor tear her from her groom.

I think Paul and I would generally agree on the importance of the unity of the church. Those of us in the church have our share of disagreements, just as any parties to a long term relationship would. Sometimes we argue about the trivial. Sometimes we bring up the past or maybe the irrelevant present. Sometimes, we resort to name calling, verbal abuse, coercion or, worst of all, violence to solve our disputes. And sometimes we grow apathetic and just walk away.

But sometimes I feel like we’re called to compromise, which can feel strange. Two parties, both following the same God but hearing different messages, compromising on an article of faith. That’s a bit strange and not easy to handle. Apostacy exists, but probably far less than we think.  As to the rest, I think we are called to compromise.  In the words of Demitri Kornegay, in his book Man Up!  No Excuses – Do the Work!:

What actions do you choose when confronted with those who don’t see things as you do?  Do you fight?  Do you argue?  Do you negotiate?  Do you surrender?  Let me tell you something right now.  If you live more than a few days you will find conflict is inevitable but combat is optional.  You don’t have to fight about everything.  Even the Marines have a saying, “Choose the Hill you want to die on.”
If you must fight about something, if there must be that thing that will make you raise your voice, grind your teeth and pound your fist on a desk, let it be something that has to do with respect, dignity and integrity; or someone’s attempt to deny another of one or all three of those things.

I agree.  And I do think it is somewhat ironic that Paul, who wrote so much about the importance of church unity, is the one who also gave us so many of those doctrinal things that seem to stand in the way of the church actually being unified.  And I question whether we are supposed to die on those hills.  At the end of the day, I think Jesus cares more about his bride than he does about any of the relatively small minded things that we argue about.  I think we are called to be peacemakers and to protect the unity of the church.  Shoot, I find myself agreeing with Paul so often now that I think we are well on our way to a full out detente.  And I’m ok with that.

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.

We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Program…

I don’t intend to use this blog for political purposes or to routinely reblog the posts of others.  Today, however, I’m doing both.

I’ve been really saddened by the events in my neighboring state — where good people overwhelmingly voted to amend the North Carolina constitution to restrict the rights of gay and lesbian couples.  I’m saddened for several reasons:  I have talked to some of my gay friends about this issue recently (including one living in North Carolina) and I know how strongly they feel about this and how hurt they are by this vote and that makes me sad.  I’m saddened also because I know plenty of people in North Carolina and, for that matter, my home state of South Carolina — that I believe to be good people — that did vote — or will vote when the issue is presented to them — to restrict the rights of their fellow citizens and that also makes me sad.  Lastly, I am saddened (and more than just a little ashamed) at my own silence on this issue.  I feel strongly that what the voters of North Carolina did was wrong.  Very wrong.  But it’s also wrong that I’ve done little to nothing to speak out on this issue.  Consider this my pledge to change that.

I’ve read lots of articles and opinion pieces on this issue.  I’m choosing to reblog this particular piece because it’s excellent, because my sister reposted it on facebook (and if she has the courage to do that then the least I can do is reblog it here) and because it comes closest to matching my own views (actually, this prior piece, and particularly this lady’s letter to her son, most accurately reflects my views).

My own views are this:  I believe in a creator/higher power of some sort, though I’m admittedly sketchy on the details.  I’m fairly certain that Jesus was a human manifestation of that higher power and so I call myself a Christian and attempt to follow Him.  Beyond that, I’m pretty flexible.  I think the Bible is an important instrument of God’s revelation of God’s self to man, but I don’t think it is the totality of that revelation.  That said, I have done my due diligence on the issue of homosexuality and I think the biblical case against it is pretty weak.  I have no qualms about setting aside the law of Leviticus because Jesus said we should (and because following it would likely lead to our immediate arrest and/or involuntarily committment).  If Jesus addressed the issue of homosexuality, I would find his thoughts very persuasive if not dispositive, but he never did (and that, at a minimum, should tell us how important he thought it was).  That leaves us with just a couple of passages in Paul’s letters — one of which is actually about idolatry and mentions homosexuality as a consequence and one which mentions homosexuality in the context of a long list of other behaviors — none of which are constitutionally prohibited.  So, again, I acknowledge the biblical case but don’t find it very compelling.

So I guess I’m left with this.  My faith calls me to follow a man-God/God-man who hung out with tax collectors, prostitutes and other societal outcasts; who spoke forcefully about a number of moral issues, including greed, materialism, adultery, divorce and hypocrisy, but never mentioned homosexuality; and who told his followers to love each other, unconditionally. The lawyer in me says the preponderance of the evidence on this issue is in support of my gay friends, so that’s where I am.  And, as my fellow Auburn alum, Charles Barkley, is fond of saying, “I may be wrong, but I doubt it.”

Anyway, do yourself a favor and read this outstanding and thoughtful blog post. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on this important issue of our time.  I promise your comments will be appreciated and respected.