Labels, or Life?

When I was a kid, I remember being called “Four Eyes.” Certainly I wasn’t the only one to wear glasses, but apparently mine were noticeable enough to give me a nickname. A label.

In our culture, we are good at labels, because they tell us who we are, and who we are supposed to be. And so, when we know someone’s “label,” we can pigeon-hole them in a category that tells us what we can expect people with that label to do.

So, we might say: Oh, of course you feel that way about this issue, you are a Democrat; a Republican; or you’re one of those Independents. It’s no surprise that you joined that demonstration; you’re an immigrant, you’re an environmentalist, you’re an activist.

Labels tell me who you are, and what I can expect you to do, and be. In his poem, The Unknown Citizen, W.H. Auden points to a man who is and does, what he is supposed to be, and do.

Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

There is a woman in the Bible who society expected to just go along with the label they had given her. Instead, in Mark 7 we read about a Gentile woman who refuses to be limited and boxed-in, and this labeled, no-name, pagan woman stands up in the presence of Jesus.

The truth is: she had no business being in the presence of Jesus because of her labels. She was a Gentile and she was a woman, and so she should have remained silent and off the pages of scripture. Even Jesus seems to recognize this, when he says: It’s not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.

Wow! What happened to Jesus, meek and mild? Is he being harsh, living down to the expectations of all those around him?

Or is it possible that this is another Peniel experience (where Jacob wrestles with God)? Is Jesus inviting this woman to wrestle with what she really wants?

If so, she takes the invitation, and Jacob-like, she parries with Jesus. Lord, she says: Even the dogs eat from the children’s crumbs.

And this wrestling, this Psalm-like defiance, gets this woman what she needs – and she goes home with more than leftovers, for she wrestles from Jesus wholeness for her demon-possessed daughter.

Is it possible that Jesus wants the same thing from us? Is it possible that he calls us to choose between labels and life? It seems to me that the more tightly people hold on to their labels, the less likely they are to hear the invitation to life that Jesus offers.

The Bible is full of people like Jacob, like Ruth; like Bartimaeus, and Zacchaeus, the 10th leper, and this Gentile woman; individuals who are ready to break beyond their labels, and to wrestle with the Divine, and grab hold of Jesus, and not let go of the wholeness, and the life, that he gives.

How about you?

Five Funerals & A Wedding

Do you remember the movie, “Four Weddings & a Funeral”? Yeah, well neither do I. That’s not completely true; I remembered the name of the movie had something to do with a bunch of weddings and a funeral, but I didn’t remember the exact title, nor have I seen it. So why am I mentioning it? Because the past three weeks has been something like that movie.

On the day before Christmas eve, I helped family and friends say goodbye to Lina, a 93-year-old member of the church where I serve. Then, today, I did it again, and helped those who loved Murrell say goodbye to him — on what would have been his 93rd birthday. That’s two people, 186 years of life, and hundreds of memories.

In between, there were three other funerals, of folks ranging in age from 32 to 82. That’s five funerals in exactly three weeks. And, with a wedding I will be attending this weekend, it has almost felt as if I am living a movie — a difficult motion picture, where I have witnessed and shared more than enough grief and sadness.

Death is hard. Really hard. When you love someone, it’s hard to say goodbye. And sometimes, especially when it comes suddenly or way too soon, it feels downright impossible.

The only way – the Only Way – that we can get our arms around the gaping grief of losing someone we love is by remembering that there is A Set of Hands that are big enough — the Eternal Hands of Our Loving God. And when we hold the hand of God, we do so, not just for a season, or for a lifetime. But for Eternity.

Our hands grow weary, and eventually will go still – but the hands of God never grow tired. They never lose their strength. Not for a moment does Our God lose his ability to hold your hand in his great hands of love & comfort.

And here is why in your most difficult moments you can put your grief, and your life, into the hands of God – because He did not stay removed, withdrawn, isolated, in some heavenly dwelling. No, our God took on skin and bones, feet and hands, and walked among us, and loved among us.

In the person of Jesus, God touched the hurting and the heartbroken, bringing healing and hope. And then those same hands of love and compassion were nailed to a cross – the same hands that gave life to this world, went lifeless and dead.

And he did this, so that our broken, aching, sinful world could be made whole.

But that was not – is not – the end of the story. For on the third day, Jesus was raised from the dead, to life. And in the process, Jesus defeated all the evil and brokenness and sin in this world – including our biggest and greatest enemy; Death itself.

This is why we can trust the hands of God. This is why you can find hope and comfort and compassion in the hands of God; for he came, and he died, and he was raised to life. So that Death does not have the final say.

Our God does.

As I stood before the family and friends of the 32-year-old man who had died suddenly, I could not answer the biggest question that hung over them: Why? But I could point them to Who – the One who is present, even in our deepest and darkest grief and pain; to the One whose hands are big enough: today, tomorrow, and every day. For He is the one at life’s beginning, and He is the one at life’s end. And He is there for us every step in between.

The Way Is Made By Walking

Years ago, I was driving from Kentucky to Tennessee for a week-long ministry class. When I was about an hour away,  my car started acting up. I had to make an unexpected stop in Morristown, Tennessee, and a minister helped me get my car to a shop — and drove me the hour to where my class was to meet. I would pick up my car on the way home at the end of that week, but it meant that while I was in Tennessee, I would be car-less.

Have you ever had no way to get around except for your two legs? For many people in our world, this is an everyday reality. For people in Jesus’ day, it was just how you got around. But for me, for five days, it was a new situation forced on me by circumstances.

Thankfully, I had friends in that class who gave me a lift whenever we had a class activity or outing. But in the evenings and the early morning, I was on my own. The school where I was in class was across the street from a college, so I walked over there for a meal or two and for their library. There was a gas station down the street that had some essentials to sustain me through the week (pop tarts, any one?).

In short, I learned I could make my way by walking. There is something about slowing down and taking life one step at a time. I couldn’t fly by it in my Mazda; I had to walk through it slowly, patiently — especially when we got hit by a late winter Tennessee snowstorm.

Even so, I was glad to get my car back at the end of that week. And I can’t imagine trying to do life without the modern miracle of the combustion engine.

But times like that week in Tennessee can teach me something, if I will slow down and pay attention. Life is not about speed, but faithfulness. Faith is a journey, not a sprint. And there are things I miss by whipping through life, instead of walking it one step at a time.

In fact, I believe that faith is more like walking than driving; it is more like taking deliberate and intentional steps, than it is hurrying those steps so I can just get to the next place I’ve got to be.

Life is a faith journey, that we take one step at a time. And when we do, the promise we have is that we don’t walk alone. He walks with us — and He provides friends for the journey.

I’ll still be driving just about everywhere I go. But when I get there, I hope to take the time to embrace each step — and keep walking in the ways of Jesus.