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.
There’s an expression I’ve become rather fond of in recent days. If someone is being sassy or giving attitude or extra confrontational it is referred to as being “salty”. And perhaps this isn’t really a new expression…in fact it might be rather old, but I love how quickly a word or phrase becomes en vogue and we begin to use it frequently as part of the common vernacular. Even as recently as a couple of weeks ago I was in the school office and some of the other teachers asked me if I knew what being salty meant and I quickly attempted to show them the best version of sass that this 6’3″ straight-laced white male could muster on the fly. I’m not sure they got what I was going for, but it maybe communicated my understanding of what being salty meant.
Here’s where a little bit of wordplay can be fun. You might say, isn’t being salty a good quality? After all, “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet.” – Matthew 5:13 I’m not sure Jesus was thinking about the disciples being confrontational with each other and throwing shade about every little thing. In fact, a few of the times we see Jesus chastising the disciples is when they’re arguing over who the greatest is…in other words, getting salty over who’s better. Now I know we never struggle with this kind of saltiness in the church. We never get in petty arguments over getting our way or having things done the way we want them or the way they’ve always been. It reminds me of my one Nazarene joke. How many Nazarene’s does it take to change a light bulb? “Hey you can’t change that light bulb, my grandpa put that in”. Even our jokes are a little salty.
Truth be told, I’m just not that salty at all. In fact, I don’t think this is the kind of salt Jesus had in mind at all. I believe he was thinking about salt that brings good flavor to the world. I believe he was thinking about the salt that preserves and brings life to the world around it. When it comes to the current definition of salty, I just don’t feel like I ever need to find myself there. In the closing of his letter to the church at Rome, we read these words from Paul. “Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good. If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.” – Romans 12:16-18 These words of Paul have always been a way that I’ve attempted to live my life by. I don’t want to operate out of saltiness. My way, my opinion, my preference, my comfort, my…fill in the blank just isn’t that important. In fact the only thing that is important is my effort to live at peace. So maybe it’s time to lose the saltiness and actually become salt. I think we all could use it.
Today my little girl graduates from Kindergarten. Now I realize that for some of you this may not be that big of an accomplishment. Perhaps you may think that learning to write one’s name, reading a few sentences and mastering the art of coloring and cutting is not something that deems a ceremonious occasion. As a father of a beautiful six-year-old princess, I would have to respectfully disagree. Perhaps you are one of those who thinks that our society has become soft…that we celebrate kindergarten graduations and everyone gets a participation trophy and we don’t celebrate true achievement anymore. And I would have to simply reply, “Okay, let’s celebrate”. As a Christ follower I see no greater justification for a celebration than that which you deem unworthy of said celebration. Why you may ask? Grace.
Grace is defined within the Christian tradition as unmerited favor. It is that which God bestows upon us in a lavish manor even though we are undeserving. Someone once said it is getting what you don’t deserve and not getting what you do deserve. The apostle Paul put it this way in his letter to the church in Rome, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8 Christ died for us while we were powerless and unworthy. The highest and loftiest ideal in all of Christian tradition is the notion of grace. We sing songs, write poetry and stories and even create movements and name our churches based on the idea of grace. And what is it, but a celebration of something we didn’t earn; of something that we cannot achieve.
At the close of his letter to the church in Philippi we read these words from Paul, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:8. Might I suggest to you that kindergarten graduations and participation trophies and celebrating people in all facets of life is a practice of Paul’s challenge to the church and to us. The church has bought into the idea that we need celebrate only merit and things that can be achieved (an idea born out of our western consumerist culture)…but this is the exact opposite of grace. And if we are called to think about the noble, the good, the pure, the lovely, then shouldn’t our thoughts, our celebrations, our trophies, our graduations, our reasons to party be based in grace. There is no higher aspiration and the best part about it…we did/can do nothing to earn it. So bring on the Kindergarten graduations. Bring on the participation ribbons and celebration of what you may call mediocrity. Because in this “lack of merit” I see the truth about the only thing that truly matters. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me.”
For those of you who may not be following my family or I on other forms of social media I need to fill you in a bit. We have been sick. My wife and I for the most part have avoided the above referenced events, but our kids…well, they haven’t. And it’s kind of scary when kids get sick. You’re used to seeing these tiny humans navigate life at a ballistic pace and then all of a sudden they are reduced to couch sloths who want to binge watch Netflix kid programming that in turn might make you sick. But the scariest part to me of my kids getting sick is and always has been the fever. I guess this is partly due to the fact that I never run a fever and so it is quite foreign to be, but fevers are just weird. All of a sudden the body, via the Hypothalamus decides that the best way to treat the foreign invasion is by over-heating. This results in increased muscle tone, vasoconstriction, shivering and your kid becoming a human heating pad. It’s pretty crazy stuff. And eventually, if unchecked, the fevers can even become deadly. The body can, in it’s attempt at self-defense, roast itself to death. So yeah, fevers are a little troubling.
That which is meant for defense can turn deadly. It’s almost reminiscent to me of the struggle of the human will. The apostle Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Roman church, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” – Romans 7:19 Paul is alluding to the very war within the body that the will is waging with sin. The human will want’s to do the good, but often ends up doing harm.* Paul goes on though in the next chapter to give us hope for that which holds us back, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus“. The allusion being to that which he talks about in Galatians of being crucified with Christ. The Spirit of God within us puts to death the struggle of wills because it is no longer I who struggle against sin, but the Spirit of God within me that sets me free.
The scary part about kids being sick is that you feel like you always have to monitor them. Is the fever getting better? Is it getting worse? Are they acting more strange than usual? Likewise the presence of God’s Spirit in our lives must be given attention to. Am I giving myself over to God’s Spirit today? Am I producing fruit in line with who God is? Is it my will or thy will? Honestly, giving over the fever of ourselves to God isn’t easy. But the health and growth that occur when we sacrifice our will to God is something that not only leaves us changed, but also those around us. One might even say it’s contagious, but very much unlike the stuff my kids have been passing around. So may you find yourselves being made well by the presence of God’s Spirit today and see how it spreads into the lives of those you come in contact with.
*I realize this analogy is a bit of a stretch as fevers rarely do harm, but it is a possibility. And hopefully this post hasn’t incensed you germaphobes to reach for the hand sanitizer.