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.
Last night was fun. How many of our days begin that way? I often wonder. But last night was fun for me because it was our first youth group outing here in Nashville and we went and played FootGolf (It’s basically what it sounds like…golf played with a soccer ball with your feet). And it really was so much fun. Seeing thirty or so middle and high school students run around a golf course kicking and laughing and having a blast. And I was right there with them. For about two hours we weren’t worried about schedules or upcoming classes or responsibilities (and most of them weren’t even on their cell phones). We were just present with each other in the moment. Say what you will about teenagers and youth ministry, but when it comes to playing together we know how to be present in the moment.
It’s actually kind of funny. Over the years you hear different critiques about youth ministry and one of those that always seems to come down the pike is that youth ministry is all about playing. All they seem to do is look for ways to have fun together. Can I flip the coin a bit? One of my main critiques of my peers and those older than me in the church is sometimes this…they have no idea how to play anymore? When do they make time to play? I’m not talking about scheduled recreation or hobbies, but opportunities for belly laughing and goofing off and losing track of time as you find yourselves just being fully present in play with those around you.
In his letter to the Corinthian church Paul writes this amazing passage all about love. And nestled in the middle is this verse that most read through the lens of spiritual maturity, but I look at it a little differently. The verse goes like this, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” – 1 Corinthians 13:11 Now I have the unique privilege of spending my working life around teens and my home life around kids even younger. It’s amazing to see the necessity of play in their lives. It puts them on equal footing, the expectations are understood and for the most part everyone is included. What if in speaking about love, Paul is referencing the loss of naiveté that is the heart of love. A love that doesn’t ask questions but includes everyone and draws them into a beautiful experience as one. You see, this is what play does. This is what so often we are missing as adults. So maybe today you need permission to…walk in the rain, jump in mud puddles, smell flowers, stop along the way, build sandcastles, watch the moon and stars come out, say hello to everyone, go barefoot, go on adventures, act silly, dance, fly kites, laugh and cry for the health of it, go wondering and wandering around, ride bicycles, draw and paint, fall down and get up again, talk with animals, stay up late for or even climb trees…in other words, play. Maybe this might be the way we see the Kingdom come crashing in on our lives once again.
It’s coming up on that time of year again. For some it can be a very joyous time. For others, it can be one of the worst struggles of the year. Strangely enough I’m talking about Mother’s Day. I remember for seven years of infertility, this was one of the most difficult Sunday’s in the church calendar. I even remember one year, shortly after a miscarriage, that my wife was even called upon to help hand out Mother’s Day gifts to the moms who were there that Sunday. And I imagine this Sunday can be difficult like that for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you have lost your mother this year. Maybe you don’t get to be with your family. Perhaps you’ve never had the family you wished for. None of these things should make you feel less or even allow a church to overlook you in their festivities. If anything, Monther’s Day should be a celebration of women regardless of their stage in life or the identity by which they are known.
One of the most frustrating things to me as a male is the degree to which we as the church often reflect society in the means of which we ask our women to measure up. Sometimes, even on Mother’s Day, women in the church feel the need to evaluate themselves based on a rubric that I’m sure the Bible never intended. Why in the world a Hallmark Card holiday would bring about this type of self-evaluation, I don’t know…but the phenomenon exists all the same. One of the passages of scripture that often gets pulled out for this type of self-inventory is Proverbs 31:10-31. This passage of scripture is known traditionally among the Jewish people as Eshet Chayil or The Woman of Valor. And if we read it at face value it can be intimidating…can a woman really be expected to do all of these things? If this is the ruler that anyone is expected to measure themselves by then not only would our women fall short, but I’m pretty sure most of the men would as well.
Sometimes, though, it pays to seek out an understanding of a Jewish text from Jewish history. I know it sounds crazy. But when it comes to this passage, the Eshet Chayil, before every Sabbath, a husband would read/recite this poem to his wife to praise her for all that she is (not all that she has done). It wasn’t a score card…but an embellishment and adoration of all that she was and meant to her husband and family before they entered into the rest of Sabbath. It reads a lot different now. Hear these words as if in adulation from a husband to his wife,
“‘Many women act competently,
but you surpass them all!’
Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” – Proverbs 31:29-30
And women of the church…this is who you are. When you enter through the doors of the sanctuary on Sunday morning, you are a woman of valor. When you find yourself worshiping although you are broken by years of infertility, you are a woman of valor. When you join the congregation in prayer although you’ve lost your own mother or even a child, you are a woman of valor. When you celebrate in the means of grace even though it seems you may never be called ‘mom’, you are a woman of valor. When you participate in the body of Christ, even when you feel misunderstood or undervalued, you are a woman of valor; and your worth is far greater than jewels.
Recently there has been talk about making Christmas bigger and better than ever. And something about this just hasn’t set right with me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas and big family gatherings and all the festivities around the church. But bigger and better than ever? I’m not quite sure those are the values that should qualify Christmas. It almost seems like more and more this is how society is trying to shape what began as something very different. You need to buy this better gift or your friend, spouse, kid, coworker, etc. won’t have a Merry Christmas. You need to make sure your debt ratio is getting bigger and bigger or Christmas won’t be complete. We have to make sure we capitolize on this season in our churches with as many activities to draw people in because this may be the only time of year we get to see them (well at least until Easter). We need to make sure everyone around us knows how big and important this holiday is because otherwise they’ll never understand the true meaning of Christmas.
To me it just all feels a bit off. The idea of shopping and planning and stressing and exhausting schedules seems so far removed from Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. One of my favorite versions of the Christmas story in scripture was actually written by Paul to the church in Philippi. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human.” – Philippians 2:6-7 The Christmas story is best categorized by words like emptied, slave, less, weak, humility, frail, fragile, etc. Not words like bigger and better. When God stepped into our world He became less. God became small. In fact, if you weren’t a shepherd or a magi (I’m not sure if I ever got to be one in one of the kid’s Christmas pageants) you probably didn’t even know about the first Christmas.
You may ask yourself though, why am I taking such issue with this? Because Christmas should represent our values as Christ followers and not as economists. Perhaps we should seek to embody the shepherds and seek out those who appear to be weak, vulnerable, less, frail and fragile this season. And when we find them it might be an opportunity for us to practice a Christmas value as we seek to enter into their situation with them. Perhaps Christmas is more about becoming like the broken, outcast, unloved, untouched, smaller and weaker because that is what God did for us at Christmas. So maybe for a moment this holiday season we all might find a way to try something different. It doesn’t have to be a huge gesture or anything massive, but maybe the smallest thing might become the most Christ-like as we seek to emulate the God who emptied Himself and became smaller and less for our sake.
One of my favorite events in the life of our church here in Odessa took place last night. For one night each year we roll out the red, or should I say orange, carpet in a big way. Our annual Fall Festival is awesome! We have about 50 or so volunteers rally to host over 500 people each year. There’s food trucks, inflatables, face-painting, carnival games, pop-corn, music and costumes…so many cool costumes. I love seeing all of the kids, and “adult kids”, coming to our 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 with this holiday full of spooks and ghosts and ghouls.
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 often become 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 night or who looks forward to Trick-or-Treating this coming week. 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 to 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.
I remember before my wife and I became parents we would often talk about how we would never tell our kids, “because I said so”. We both had always felt like this was a parental cop-out and were therefore determined to be able to help our children understand the reasoning and the logic behind every request that we placed upon them. As of today however, the running tally of how many times we have said, “because I said so” is roughly about 4,607,322…not that anyone is keeping track. Because sometimes you look at your amazingly beautiful, precious child and the amount of frustration boils up as your patience continues to wear thin and you just want them to understand your request but you really have nothing left and “because I said so” becomes that very necessary trump card.
Strangely enough though, I see a bit of Divine resonance in the phrase, “because I said so”. But I think it is all about where the emphasis is placed (did you see my hint?). There is a Psalm that kind of helped me to understand this a little more recently and it is probably familiar to many of you. Psalm 19 begins this way, “The heavens declare the glory of God…” It then goes through an incredible description of God’s glory and majesty and all that He has created and then it interjects with the following phrase, “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.” Psalm 19:7 It goes from all the splendor and glory of creation to a description of the law…huh? But what I see the Psalmist presenting before us is a case for God being able to say, “because I said so” So often we see the law of God and we simply see it as a list of what not to do and what to avoid and how we will get punished if we step out of line. But for the Psalmist the law was born out of the love that God, the God who made everything, had for us.
Now think about that love for a minute. God gave us stars and planets and nebulas and quasars and all of these amazing things to display His glory. God gave us cells and synapses and electrons and mitochondria and DNA to amaze and grab our attention. And God gave us His law, His instruction because He is the same God who created all those things and He may know a little about how life works best. So His law is not a limitation of life…it is an amplification of how life works best. Often times this is how I feel when I am trying to convey to my children why I want them to do something. I’ve been around longer, I’ve seen more life than you and I know how this all plays out. I don’t want you to do something because I am mean or conniving, but rather the opposite. “Because I said so” is a reflection of my love for you, because it’s me…and I know how I feel about You. May we come to feel the same way about the law of the Lord so that we can reflect alongside the Psalmist in the concluding verse of Psalm 19, “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”
One of the most common phrases heard around our house these days is, “that’s mine”. And it really is a rather recent development with our two youngest. Foster kids can really change your perspective…for a bit. Because for a while it seemed like they were super human because they really didn’t claim ownership to much of anything and so “those disputes” didn’t seem to happen. Boy was I naive. Now that #3 & 4 have been in our house for over a year the claiming of property seems to resemble the gold rush of 1849 more than the charitable sharing that typified their initial behavior. “That’s mine”, “I had it first”, “No” and “Give me” have become the calling card of all their interactions as of late. And I can’t help but wonder how much of this I have taught them.
Most of us learn the art of possession from an early age. We learn that things cost money and we have to work for that money and so through our toil these things take on a value that we assign. The problem occurs when we assign these things a greater value than we assign to other people. We don’t want certain people coming into our house because they might mess it up. We horde up or collect nice things because we we worked for it (Even the word horde brings to mind images of Smaug from the Hobbit). Yet at the end of the day, if we don’t even own the very breath in our lungs, do we “own” any of these things? Or do they own us? Jesus had this to say about the things on earth we lay claim to or possess, “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” – Mark 10:29-30 The crazy thing about that is the inference to the expansion of family and resources in the present age. A lot of folks might try to tell you that this is about God “blessing” you with bigger and better things, but it really is about something much richer.
I’ve begun to see it happen recently due to impending/ongoing threats to people’s homes and security in the United States. In the wake of Harvey and under the threat of DACA or Irma I have begun to see Christians open up their homes, lives and possessions to those who face the unknown. And this is what Jesus really is referring to in the passage above…a shared kingdom life. It’s a life that literally says, “mi casa es su casa (my house is your house)”, because the things that I have come to “own” are actually things that I am a steward of and so they are best used when they are shared. In fact, this is the “hundred times as much” that Jesus refers to in the passage above. It is not about me amassing wealth and being greedy, but about me belonging to something much bigger than myself by realizing I don’t own any of it. There was a wonderful quote from Mahatma Gandhi that describes our world and the need for this type of behavior, “The world has enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.” I hope today you find yourself letting go of the “that’s mine” mentality so that you can open yourself up to see how Christ could use you for those who need you in the worst way.