Yesterday the world lost an icon. Stan Lee was the founder of Marvel comics and the creator or co-creator of some of the best loved Superheroes of all time. These characters and their worlds of imagination have become household names: Daredevil, The Incredible Hulk, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, The X-Men, The Avengers and many more. Of course, his most well known and most recognizable creation is that of Spider-Man. Spider-Man instantaneously spoke to every kid who ever wished they were more. Here was a teenager who went from super nerd to superhero overnight because of a bite from a radioactive spider. I know it always has me on the lookout for radiated arachnids. But Stan was quick to remind us of the cost that comes with great power. As spoken by Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, who Peter Parker loses early in the saga, “With great power comes great responsibility”.
A couple of weeks ago I got to lead a retreat for some of the young men from our church and strangely enough this was my theme. Responsibility is something we struggle with in our society today. We want to blame or vilify others for mistakes or missteps that we are often just as culpable for. We want to label other generations as irresponsible or lazy or divisive or fill in whatever moniker here. But the truth is, we all have the power to change the world around us. Some of it is on a small scale, and yet some of us may have an even larger platform. Stan Lee would have reminded us that with Great Power comes Great Responsibility. Almost sounds a bit familiar to those of us who follow Jesus. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” – Luke 12:48 A huge piece of our walk in this world is taking responsibility for the world, for each other and for our mistakes. We’ve been entrusted with so much and how we move about in this world matters.
For a while Stan Lee struggled with being a comic writer. There was a quote from one of his countless tributes yesterday that I think illustrates this well, “I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic book writer while other people were building bridges or going on to medical careers. And then I began to realize: entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it, they might go off the deep end. I feel that if you’re able to entertain, you’re doing a good thing.” And not only did he entertain, but he confronted racism, hatred, abuse of power and many other societal ills through his stories and through his occasional soapbox (you really should look up Stan’s Soapbox sometime). From one of those many engagements we read these words, “The power of love — and the power of hate. Which is most truly enduring? When you tend to despair . . . let the answer sustain you.” Stan Lee understood the power and responsibility that was afforded him through the pages of Marvel comics. He may be missed, but his influence is evident. Today may we understand the same power and responsibility is gifted to each one of us through whatever walk of life we are on. And may we find a way to let our light shine.
Yesterday I was having lunch with a friend and he asked me a pointed question about my morning routines. “So how many days a week do you usually run?” I responded with my typical five to six days a week, depending. He then asked, “Does your body not hurt?” And I thought a bit before my response. Yes, there’s the typical aches and creaks and cramping and soreness, but honestly I actually hurt more when I take off too many days. I thought about what that meant. Some days I wake up and I really don’t want to run. Sometimes I drive to the trail and hesitate for a minute before opening the door. I even recently reflected on this in another post, “I hate running…It seems like the first five minutes are spent just trying to convince my legs that they know how to do this.
Much of the time is spent making sure I’m looking out for cracks or potholes so I don’t twist my ankle or knee. Then there’s the inevitable argument going on in my head about how far I’m going to make it this time. And if I’m running on the roadway there’s always the extra need to be wary of drivers who aren’t wary of me…But in the midst of all of that my heart starts to find a better rhythm. My breath takes on a cadence that convinces the rest of my body that it knows how to do this. The sweat reminds me I’m alive and the clarity of thinking that comes puts much of my life in perspective. The aches that were present at the beginning take on a new feeling as they push me to keep going. So I run on; knowing that this is good for my mental, physical, emotional and spiritual well-being…I love running.”
The clarity of purpose behind my running makes all the difference in the world for me and my body. Sometimes I think we struggle with the idea of clarity and purpose in the church body today. There seems to be division and chaos ad nauseam, particularly in the church in America. And I’m not sure that this is so much an issue of unity as it is an issue of clarity as to what it means to be the body of Christ. The apostle Paul put in this way when addressing the church in Corinth. “…so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” – 1 Corinthians 12:25-27 Equal concern for each other; we are the body of Christ.
So our clarity is clear for the health of the body. Our concern is not for our own interest, but for the interest of others. We are the body of Christ. And as we have equal concern for each other we find not only clarity of purpose, but unity in the body. So maybe there will still be the typical aches and creaks and cramping and soreness, but we continue to move towards invoking the Kingdom of God in the world. Because this is who we are.
So I’ve been at Nashville first a little over three months now. I’ve seen homecoming, The Harvest Celebration and even gotten to lead my first fall youth retreat. But last week I got to experience something that I am sure is going to grow to be a favorite of mine as far as all church events go; The Community Fall Fest. There’s food, candy, decorated car trunks, balloon animals, inflatables, music and costumes…so many cool costumes. I love seeing all of the kids, and “adult kids” (present company included), coming to the church in their costumes for a night of fun and festivities. In fact, it seems that more and more each year people are really getting into the Halloween spirit. And yet, sometimes we in the church struggle with what to do when this holiday full of spooks and ghosts and ghouls rolls around each year.
I guess we could start by taking a look at our own history. After all, Halloween began as part of Allhallowtide, a Christian feast holiday. According to HistoryChannel.com, “In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints; All Saints Day…The evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween.” Halloween was originally part of a Religious feast intended to honor those who have gone before us. And yet so often we see all of the hullabaloo of Halloween today feeling like something different from it’s Christian roots and as becoming something else entirely. Even as I am writing this I am thinking about all of those who feel like Halloween is a dark holiday to be avoided at all costs…and I respect your opinion, but think with me for a moment. Try putting yourself in the place of one of the kids who got be at our Fall Festival last week or who looks forward to Trick-or-Treating tomorrow night. You’re telling me that for a day I get to dress up like someone else, go around to my neighbor’s houses and they give me candy? It’s almost kind of magical. And who doesn’t love another excuse to eat candy?
I have always looked at scripture a little differently and I hope you will amuse me here. To me, one of the saddest verses in all of scripture is found in I Corinthians 13:11 “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” So often we think of this as the natural maturation process, but what if it is talking about the loss of the natural wonder and love that comes with childhood? I think all too often we are ready to grow up and we miss the joy and simplicity of living that can be seen through the eyes of a child. Maybe if we began to see this holiday again through the eyes of a child and all the joy I saw last night we might be able to see it a little differently. Maybe the treat is found through the trick of seeing Halloween as a child. And maybe holidays like Halloween can be enjoyed in a new light as we seek to reclaim the world yet again through childlike wonder and joy.
Yesterday I decided to engage in a task that was a long time coming…cleaning out the youth supply closet. Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with a youth supply closet, I want you to picture your junk drawer in your house; and now it’s a closet. So as you can well imagine there were quiet a few things that needed to make the fifty foot trek to the dumpster. It also happened to be an incredibly rainy day. But on one of my trips to the dumpster I noticed a path being carved in the water before me. After dropping my load I came back to observe a single hornet that was carving the path in the water. He was holding on against the inevitable. Fall is coming…winter is coming…and a deluge of water was pushing against him and yet he still held on stubbornly against the inevitable. Here he was exposed to imminent danger (feet, cars, etc.) and yet he persisted. I almost wonder if he would have been safer to let the current carry him. Would he have found refuge further down the stream and then be able to live out his last few weeks in a better place; an open place?
I feel like we in the church can be guilty of hanging on to things we should let go of. Culture and the winds of change push us so aggressively that we are scared and so we hang on to that which we know/understand. The problem is that this isn’t a new problem. In the third chapter of the gospel of John we read about someone who was shook by all of the newness that was being ushered in. He was anxious about this Jesus character but could not comprehend why he should change or how he could change in order to accommodate his known identity, tradition, methods, etc. Jesus responds to him in part and eventually says to Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” – John 3:8 Those truly born of the Spirit know what it is to move by the Spirit’s leading. They know what it looks like to let go and allow the current of God to carry them into newness of heart and life (that’s a very loaded phrase if you dig into it).
So back to the hornet and hanging on. Sometimes what we perceive in fear may actually be the moving of God. Think about it for a minute Abraham left all he knew, Moses stood up to a god-king, Joshua faced down giants, 3 Hebrew children didn’t bow, Peter got out of the boat, Matthew left his tax booth, Saul forsook all he ever knew (it was rubbish)…they all let go of relative safety, what they knew and the tradition they had embraced in order to be carried by God’s Spirit into something unknown, foreign, scary and unpredictable…and the world would never be the same. So what are you clinging to today? What terrifies you about God’s movement amidst the winds of culture? Where is God calling you to pull up anchor and join the movement of His Spirit? May we be those born of Water and Spirit and not those who cling to dry and stagnant land amidst the current of God.
Fall is here (well only by namesake here in Tennessee). But the season has arrived and with it some of my other favorite things. No, the pumpkin spice takeover is not one of them; but baseball playoffs are. And this year my beloved Boston Red Sox are in the ALDS against the dastardly, villainous, maligned, evil empire known as the New York Yankees (Even as I type that name I have a sneer on my face). And last night was beautiful! The Red Sox handed the Yankees their worst ever loss in the postseason in fifty-four playoff appearances. It’s so good when we get to see the bad guys lose, and lose bad. And my favorite thing about all of this…? It’s just a game. At the end of the day I don’t hate (actually hate) the Yankees or the Georgia Bulldogs or the Jacksonville Jaguars or any of the rivals to the sports team I claim fandom to. In fact, if I set down to a meal with C.C. Sabathia or Aaron Judge we would probably get along just fine and find more things that we have in common versus things that divide us…even if they do wear the cursed pin-stripes. All I know is it’s a good thing that this narrative of good guys vs. bad guys is only played out in sports and sports rivalries.
Okay, so I used hyperbole to prove a point. It’s amazing how our cultural and even global narrative has become accustomed to an us versus them paradigm. It’s so much easier to understand who we are as long as we know who we are not. And the conversations and divides have become so sharp that we fail to see that we are all in this together. This thing we call life, this existence that happens on our planet is a shared experience and regardless of how we want to think about the other person and their experience, we all breathe the same air. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul has this to say about our shared humanity, “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.” – II Corinthians 5:15-16 We can’t regard each other from worldly points of view because Christ died for all. The great Catholic social activist and theologian Dorothy Day put it this way, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” Our narrative of villains and otherness and separation and divide really has no place when we know Christ and His Kingdom.
In his essay The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis had this to say about our encounters with our fellow humans, “You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours…our charity must be a real and costly love …next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.” In short, everyone we encounter is God’s image in flesh destined for eternal glory or eternal separation and this is who we interact with on a daily basis. There truly can be no villains or otherwise, but forgiveness and grace and mercy must reign over us and through us as we seek to be Christ’ ambassadors in this world. Is this easy? No. It’s much easier to write people off as Democrats or Republicans or Liberals or Fundamentalists or Progressives or Conservatives, etc. But as Christians, we don’t get to do this [full stop]. I must always strive to see every person as Christ would see them…even if they are wearing a New York Yankee’s hat. So may you and I treasure each other today. Because how we treat the creation says an awful lot about what we think of the Creator.
We live in a world of words. I wake up in the morning and one of the first things I begin my day with, outside of fumbling with the french press, is read. I read Facebook, Twitter, emails, The Bible, Instagram (pictures say a lot) and sometimes I may even have time to pick up a comic before my morning run. Then there is my morning run and my commute to work where I listen to Podcasts or Audio books. We literally fill our worlds with words. And unless you’ve been living under a rock lately you realize how divisive these words can be. I look at the reactions from my Christian brother’s and sister’s to the confirmation hearings surrounding Judge Kavanaugh and I am astounded at how much vitriol our words have been laced with on both sides of the aisle. It’s almost as if we have allowed our political and religious stances to embolden our language to the point that we don’t care how it makes another feel as long as we are perceived as being right…and our kids are watching our words.
We’ve always been told that our kids observe our actions and hear our words, but I think sometimes we forget about this audience. And how we react to political and cultural situations in the world around us actually effects how our kids will react as well. Now I don’t want to get into a political discussion defending one side or the other, but it is important how we discuss these things with our teens and kids. In his letter to the church in Ephesus Paul has this to say about our words, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” – Ephesians 4:29 Unwholesome talk that tears down or belittles another created image of God (I think it’s safe to say we have been guilty of this on both sides of the aisle, present company included). Instead we are to engage in talk that is helpful for building others up and benefits the ones who are listening. In other words, it is so important to think about the one’s who are listening.
So when we slander or doubt the validity of a person just because we don’t agree with their political affiliation, those who are listening receive permission to do the same. When we doubt the testimony of the powerless against the powerful we give others permission to continue to marginalize the weak. When we belittle others because in doing so we feel all the more right in who we are and what we believe those around us take on those same bully traits in their interactions with those they disagree with. I for one have had quite enough of the church finding itself divided into camps that the world deems necessary. I’ve had quite enough of our words becoming weaponized because that’s what the current cultural climate deems necessary. The way of the cross demands that our words and actions rise above the fray to show a third way and I think it’s high time we take into account the audience that is listening to our words. Maybe then we might be able to truly live into our role as the Bride of Christ, not simply for ourselves, but for the church that is being raised up by our words.
I haven’t had an old dog for quite some time. In fact, both of the dogs in my house are two years of age or younger. Which often results in things being chewed that aren’t intended for chewing (I may be a little bitter as one of these items was my most frequently worn Red Sox hat this last week). But I want to take issue with that old adage today, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. While perhaps this may be true for dogs, it is oft applied to humans and I’m not sure that this is exactly the case. Case in point; I have been a sufferer of teenage acne for going on 28 years. I have taken various pills, lotions, creams, etc in pursuit of a clear complexion over those 28 years. But most recently I have found the simplest method is to actually just wash my face one more time before bed. Now most of you at this point are putting your palm to your forehead and saying duh, but for me this was a completely new habit. And yet I have seen better response to this in my later years than to anything else I have done throughout my entire time of eternal adolescence.
It got me thinking about something my pastor, Kevin Ulmet, recently tweeted. He said, “The holiness of God calls us to transformation not continuation. That is a message of hope and change that we must teach and live in these days.” We as people of God are called to transformation and not continuation. And yet continuation is so much easier. Albert Einstein is often credited with the expression, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” And that’s sometimes the way we behave in this Christian life. We keep living the way we always live and are surprised that people are not impacted by our witness. We keep the same routines and schedule and we wonder why we feel relatively the same in our relationship with God. What we come to realize is that continuation is simply that…continuation.
In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul has this to say about transformation, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” – Romans 12:2 The word for transformation in the Greek here is anakainōsis which is defined as renovation, something becoming completely new. And that’s what people of faith are ultimately about; becoming completely new. Even the faith habits that we establish early on in life are in need of continued renewal and growth and transformation. After all, I’m not anywhere near the same person I was when I was fourteen…save the teenage acne. So let us learn new tricks. Let us discipline ourselves with new habits. Let us be transformed in new ways so that we don’t continue with the same old same old.