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.
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.
I remember pretty vividly the day we brought our first born home. It’s not every day that you walk into an office building with an empty baby carrier and walk out with a baby. But here we were, at Bethany Christian Services, signing adoption paper work in order to become a mom and a dad for the first time. We walked in and we were ushered into a small meeting room and we signed so much paper work that it seemed like we were finalizing a mortgage. Then our case worker said those words that are forever written on my heart, “would you like to see your son”. We then walked into the room next door and met Jonas for the first time. We were in awe of how tiny he was and we even had to have help loading him into the baby carrier for the first time. I even remembered how slow I drove back to Donelson that day…and it had nothing to do with the traffic. And the one thought that kept repeating through my mind was, “man, I hope I don’t mess this up.”
It’s something that anyone that is a parent has said at one point or another. All of a sudden we find ourselves responsible for another human being and it is absolutely terrifying. It’s funny, but I think there is a verse in the Psalms that expresses this well, but is rarely used for this insight. “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” – Psalm 139:13-14 We often pause to reflect on the wonderful part, but rarely give said due to the fearful part. The word in Hebrew is yare’ and is most often translated as ‘actual fear’. The psalmist praises God because he is made wonderfully and this is easy to see. We are incredibly complex beings. But the psalmist also praises God because he is made fearfully. What does it mean for God to make us fearfully…?
I think it might be a bit like that feeling all parents get when we realize we are responsible for another human life. There is a fear, a reverence, a holy trepidation that the actions we take and the way we care for another influences who they become. As parents of teens and children, this can sometimes become overwhelming as we seek to trust God as he guides us into this responsibility. And the crazy thing about all of this…God made us all this way. Even more astounding is the fact that as the church we have been given the charge to engage all of creation with this same reverence and responsibility. We are God’s plan for redemption of all creation. And sometimes I look at the church and the world and think to myself, “Man, I hope we don’t mess this up.” And yet, the beauty in all of this is that God created us all this way. With freewill that often leads to things that could be considered scary and terrifying, or beautiful and lovely. So today, let us praise God. For you and I and all creation have been fearfully and wonderfully made and we have a mission before us. May all those we come into contact with realize that they too are fearfully and wonderfully made by a loving God who trusts all of us with each other.
When I learned to read I quickly became a little predictable. You see, we had this book that my parents got every once in a while and every time they would get it I would find myself rifling through the pages until I got to a certain section. It was either “Humor in Uniform”, “Life in these United States” or “The Best Medicine”. The publication was called The Reader’s Digest and I went straight for the joke sections. I remember going to my grandparents house and seeing their Sunday paper and going straight for the comics section (as long as my PaPaw was done with his puzzles). For a while I feel like I was almost obsessed with reading “The Far Side” or “Hogarth the Horrible” or “Get Fuzzy”. So yesterday, the superlatives at a teacher’s meeting for the end of the school year really didn’t come as too much of a surprise. That’s right, yours truly was awarded the Staff Comedian. Someone even asked if I was given the award because they were laughing with me or at me…? My response, “Yes”.
But I treasure this award…truly. I see laughter as a reflection of joy and I hold joy in the utmost regard when it comes to the life of faith. When the apostle Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit, you know the things in our life we see as a result of the living presence of God within us, it goes a little like this, “ But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” – Galatians 5:22-23 The first one on the list makes a lot of sense. After all, God is love. But the second one? Joy?!? It’s that important that it gets picked second. There is a story in the Old Testament where the people of Israel are overcome with grief and guilt. They had finished rebuilding the temple wall and in the process had discovered anew the law. After hearing it read the people began to weep because of how far they had fallen, but this is the response: “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Don’t mourn or weep…Go, eat rich food, and drink something sweet,” he said to them, “and send portions of this to any who have nothing ready! This day is holy to our Lord. Don’t be sad, because the joy from the Lord is your strength!” – Nehemiah 8:9-10 The joy of the Lord is your strength!
Laughter to me is a natural reflection of joy. I remember my wife and I reading about the biology of laughter some time ago. Evidently laughter, true laughter, is an almost involuntary response when your brain gets surprised…literally tickled. It’s our bodies way of showing us there is a new way to see the things around us and sometimes it can even be silly or absurd or flat out funny. Laughter is a reflection of learning and a way of showing us the joy to be found in and through the world around us. Maybe it might not be the best literal medicine (my money is on ibuprofen), but it does make life a little more livable. And if God’s joy is our strength and a reflection of the presence of God in our lives, then let’s find more things to smile, laugh and be joyful about each day.
Many of you know this last year I became a science teacher. What many of you may not know is that I teach at a Middle school that is on a university campus. Not only that, but our school is even part of the university system and we are therefore connected to the university itself. That means sometimes we even have to handle things on the main campus. This really wouldn’t be such a big deal except for the fact that it always seems like the business I have to handle is on the fourth floor of the largest building on campus. To top it all off, I usually have a limited amount of time to handle said business so I find myself parking on the side of the building that doesn’t have the elevator and then hustling up three rather large flights of stairs. Take note; I’m a relatively in shape person, but I still feel winded almost every time I run up these stairs. Especially if it is a day like yesterday when I had just done squats at the gym that morning.
But one of the joys of being a science teacher has also been the opportunity to marvel at the complexity of creation once again. The fact that my brain tells my legs to move up and down, then my legs can do that action, then my lungs seek to compensate for their effort by pulling in more air to oxygenate my muscles in my legs, while my heart is picking up its rhythm in order to move that oxygen to those legs faster. It all really is an incredible feat. One might even call it a gift. The writer of the book of James has this to say about gifts, “Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all.” – James 1:17 Our brains, our legs, our blood pumping, our lungs…even the breath in our lungs is a gift from God. I wonder if we would all be considered good stewards of those gifts?
A little bit later in that same letter James takes to task one of the gifts that we sometimes abuse; our tongue. Our ability to speak is an incredible gift. In fact, I’m amazed by it all the time. We push air in and out of our throat, it passes through our larynx, over our vocal folds and then somehow resonates enough to form sounds and then words and even sometimes notes of incredible beauty. We essentially take the breath of life, the gift that God has given us and transform it into something entirely new. But James actually has a word of warning for us here, “No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness.” – James 3:8-9 You could almost substitute the phrase, “breath use” for tongue in this passage. I realize that might be a little wordy and complex, but how often do we think about the breath we breathe as truly a gift of God i.e. the breath of life? And if it is a gift, are we wasting it? Are we using it for malice, gossip, evil? James himself said we praise God and yet speak ill, put down, judge and even curse those made in his likeness. Maybe some of us need to check our breathing. Maybe some of us should be careful for the day when we are left breathless and the gift and what we have done with it return to the creator. How will you sue your gift of breath today?
I have a confession to make. I’m not a writer. Yes, I write a blog each week and I occasionally write for other online venues, but I’m not really a writer. In fact, I get kind of jealous of my friends who have that title in their Twitter or Facebook bios. I really don’t feel like I’m there. You see, I’ve never had any formal training outside of my high school writing classes. In fact, my wife always feels the need to point that out anytime she has to proof one of my papers. Evidently, I either love, commas, way too much, or not enough (see what I did there?). But regardless of my lack of qualifications or my experience or my title, there is one thing I sit down to do every week. I sit down at a blank computer screen and I write. And some days I really enjoy it. Some days it feels like a chore. But I feel like it is important for my soul that I keep doing it…why? Because it reminds me of Who I belong to.
We are told at the beginning of the Bible that at the beginning of all things that the first thing God ever did was create. And although the Genesis account is a pretty incredible piece of poetic interpretation of creation, I find myself more and more being drawn to John’s account. It goes like this, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being.” – John 1:1-3 The Word. Jesus himself. Through his being all life came to being. This is one of the reasons I believe that communication brought to life through art and creativity is so important. You see, Jesus as the word/logos brought life into the universe. He is a creating/creative God. And we are created in that image. So in bringing forth words/pictures/images/art into the world we are participating in something that reminds us that we are created by Him to become like Him. Paul reminds us of how important our actions are in terms of how we go about life [you could read art here too], “Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him.” – Colossians 3:17 In the name of Jesus. The same name/word that gave life to all that is.
So today I want to encourage you to…write, even if you are not a writer. I want to encourage you to sing, even if you’re not a singer. To paint, even if you aren’t a painter. To capture images, even if you’re not a photographer. To dance, even if you’re not a dancer. I urge you to sculpt, compose, draw, chisel, play, tinker, choreograph, program, edit, or find any other form of incredible creative expression to bring life and communication into the world that wasn’t there before…even if you don’t feel like you are qualified. Because the Voice that spoke everything into existence created you and you are created in the Creative God’s image.
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.”