Get Real

Years ago, we did a series at church we called Get Real. The purpose was to look at some real stuff Jesus challenges us with, based on the book of Matthew. One Sunday during that series, we talked about real forgiveness. One of our groups got into some real difficult stuff — wrestling with how forgiveness fits when a person has been really hurt.

I have a friend who was in that group, and as she prepared for her ninth-grade small group that night, she was concerned what she would do if the teenage girls brought up similar stuff. If they talk about really big stuff, how would she handle it? But things didn’t go as she expected. Instead, the real stuff the girls were dealing with included this concern: How am I to forgive the girl who poked me with an ink pen, and the teacher didn’t see it, but only saw me telling her to stop?

Truth is: what strikes you as really real may not phase me much; what really grabs me may be something you bounce back from easily. But in either case, it’s really true that to live is to deal with real stuff.

This morning I read a curious passage that has made me think about what’s real. It’s the story of King David doing a census of his people, and the trouble that ensues. I read the version that’s found in 1 Chronicles 21, but the story is also told in 2 Samuel 24. It’s a story that gets real — real fast.

First off, David makes a real choice. He chooses to order a census, even though a key advisor says, “NO! Don’t do this!” Now, we’re not sure why counting the people was wrong, but it may have something to do with David’s pride, or his purpose. Maybe counting the people is prelude to taxing them.

In either case, David chooses to do wrong. And so, right out of the gate this story deals with real choices and real guilt. Even though the two versions of the story point to two different sources for the prompting that leads to David’s decision, there is no doubt that David makes a choice. He ultimately can’t lay the blame for his decision at the feet of Satan or God or outside forces. He chose. It is clear that David has sinned and is now dealing with real guilt. As David himself says in 1 Chronicles 21.8, “I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing” (NRSV).

Which leads me to think how important it is for David, and for us, to take real responsibility. What we need, and what our world needs, is for people to step up and say:  I chose. I’m responsible. I’ll face the consquences. Which is exactly what David does in this story.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t other factors that come into play when we make decisions. Of course there are environmental factors involved. Of course our nature and nurture play a role in who we are and what we choose. But at the end of the day, I am affected by my circumstances; I am not determined by them.

The story also makes clear that there are real consequences for our real choices. David has to face the reality that the choice he has made affects him and his leadership; it also affects the people he leads. This is a vital truth. In fact: why are we ever surprised when our real choices have a real affect?

Yesterday, my son was riding with me to the church office, where I would be working and he would be connecting with our student group. As we turned off our street, I asked him if he had his stuff for a basketball game he had later that day. Oh, no, I don’t, he said.

I immediately got frustrated, as I turned the car around. Except, I was just a little too far past the store entrance where I was attempting my turn. And a car was coming. So I ran up onto and down off of the curb. I got upset. And it had consequences. My son saw my lack of self-control and my anger. My car felt it, and who knows what impact it had.

The point: real choices have real consequences. And while I have real questions about 1 Chronicles 21, and where David’s prompting came from, and how God responded, and the extent of the judgment — the simple truth is undeniable: what I choose, changes things.

But this is where the tide turns. For another lesson of 1 Chronicles 21 is that, even in the midst of my choices, there is real mercy. In verse 13, as David wrestles with the consequences of his sin, he says, “I am in great distress; let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for His mercy is very great” (NRSV, emphasis added). And we see that mercy unfold, as God relents from the full extent of punishment.

Now, again, I read this chapter and I definitely have real questions. But bigger than my questions is my confidence: God is merciful. And that mercy is hinted at in David’s act of sacrifice, where he pays a man named Ornan for his land and for the resources necessary to make a sacrifice to God. In verse 24, David says to Ornan, “I will not take for the Lord what is yours, nor offer burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”

I’ve heard that phrase — I will not offer sacrifices that cost me nothing — used to describe David, and how we ought to do likewise. And that’s a valid point. But something else strikes me about this phrase. It’s this: we have a God who does not offer sacrifices that cost Him nothing. 1 Chronicles 21.24 is a glimpse forward, I believe, to the day when God will make a sacrifice that costs him everything — to the time when, in a complete act of mercy, God offers Himself for all the choices we have made and the consequences we then face.

So, even though I cannot explain the severity of the consequences in 1 Chronicles 21, I cling to the severity of God’s mercy expressed so fully and so powerfully when God Himself becomes the sacrifice.

Which leads me to one more real thing I find in this chapter: real hopeAfter David’s sacrifice, and after the punishment comes to an end, the field of Ornan becomes a sacred place — so sacred that at the beginning of 1 Chronicles 22, David says, This is the place where God’s house will be built. The Bible tells us that the construction will be carried out by Solomon, but the writer of Chronicles makes it clear that the real beginning of the project starts here.

And that temple will be built as a place of worship, forgiveness, celebration, and community. It will begin as such for the Jewish people, but it will also be a glimpse forward — when God will not be contained in one building, or in one people, or in one place. For 1 Chronicles 21 is the beginning of God’s redemptive work, where through the grace of Jesus, real forgiveness and real hope are offered to all people. Real love and real life reach every corner of creation. Where the “realest” revelation of God is seen in His presence among us in Jesus the Son, and His ongoing presence among us through His Spirit. And that’s real truth, that really changes things. Forever.

What My Visit to the Dentist Taught Me About Church

I went to the dentist last week for my twice-a-year checkup. For some people, those 2 times a year are to be avoided. But not for me. I don’t mind going to my dentist. Really.

One reason: I’m a dedicated flosser — something only my hygienist truly appreciates. But I also don’t mind going to the dentist because, as I was reminded this past week, there’s a lot I can learn. About church. About faith. About life.

For example, on Thursday when I was scheduled to go to the dentist, about 10:30 that morning I happened to look at the calendar on my phone. It reminded me I had an appointment at 9am. Oops! I promptly called, and they graciously rescheduled me for later that day.

So, even though it was on my phone, and they had sent me a postcard, and they regularly call to remind me, I still forgot. So, lesson 1: communication is important, but even with it we still forget stuff. So, keep communicating, but let’s make sure we show each other grace.

Julie and Bea are the two hygienists who work on my teeth. Bea has gotten good at remembering my name, that I serve at a church — even remembering where I serve. She recalls all this even though she must have hundreds of patients, most of whom she only sees twice a year.

Which makes me wonder: how many folks treat Church like the dentist? Show up when you’re supposed to, go when you have to (because that tooth isn’t getting any better on its own), and generally only do as little as possible. I can understand that attitude about the dentist, but not about Church. We need to worship, to share life together, and to go through good and bad as a family. And besides, in the Church, we never pull teeth (though we do sometimes step on toes).

At times, when Julie was cleaning my teeth, it hurt. There’s one tooth in particular that is really sensitive, and I’m really not a fan of Julie messing with it. But I’m reminded that pain has a purpose. It shows me, and those taking care of me, where some attention is needed. It reveals what isn’t healthy. Without pain, I wouldn’t know what’s wrong.

I was talking with a friend today. He’s been having a rough year health-wise. It’s forced him to adjust his schedule and his life. As we talked, I realized: pain has helped him change his life. I wouldn’t wish pancreatitis on him, or anyone. But that bout with pain has led him to re-evaluate and reassess what he’s doing and why.

Simply put, it’s just a daily and dental reality: pain teaches us, and changes us, in ways that the pain-free life never can.

Also: going for my semi-annual checkup (and the pain involved) is a much better experience because I know Julie & Bea, and they know me. We talk about family. We talk about sermons. (Weird, I know.) We even talk about the challenges we face. It’s not that we’re just filling roles: you clean, I’ll sit and occasionally spit. It’s that we have gotten to know each other. And that’s from only seeing them 1 or 2 times a year; imagine what it would be like if I interacted with them weekly. It’s really true: dentists, like church and life, are better when it’s not something you go to, but about relationships you have.

Even so, it’s hard to talk with your mouth full. I love how my hygienist will ask me a question while she’s picking at my teeth, the suction thing is in my mouth, and all I can say is, I’b fide. How bou chu? Still, I’m learning to never stop laughing, even when your mouth (or life) is full.

One of the dentists in the office is 78. They said he’s not going to retire. While I’m sure at some point he’ll have to hang up the drill, that’s a good reminder for all of us: we don’t retire from faith, or from our purpose.

Speaking of my dentist, the truth is: I only see her (or him) for maybe a minute. And that’s during a long visit. (Two visits ago, I did a running count in my head while she was in the room with me: it was about 37 seconds). 98% of the help I get is from the hygienists and the frontline people. I think that’s a helpful reminder about how Church functions: Most of the encouragement and support you’re going to get isn’t from the people with the titles, from the ones in charge. Your faith will grow most through relationships with the folks you spend time with, and who are able to spend time with you.

My dental visit reminds me that it’s good to have a regular checkup. Even with faithful brushing and flossing, plaque and other gunk begin to build up on my teeth. Even with faithful worship, Bible reading, prayer, and sharing with others, spiritual plaque and gunk begin to build up in my life. I regularly need others to take a close look at my life, and help me clear away that stuff that I simply cannot see on my own. The truth is: we simply will not be able to see all of our spiritual blind spots — that’s why they’re called blind spots.

Finally, I was told once by Bea that every mouth has a story. Since she’s a hygienist, she spends a lot of time on people’s mouths. But each mouth isn’t just a pile of teeth; it’s a part of a person. And though she works on all kinds of mouths, each one belongs to a person with a life full of dreams and disappointments, hopes and hangups, gunk and grace. Bea isn’t just cleaning teeth; she’s sharing life, if but for a moment, with a unique creation of God. And each person who sits in her chair shares something in common with every other person who sits in that chair: a need for a check-up, offered with a smile, and a healthy dose of grace.

Letter to My Daughter Upon Her Graduation

So, last week, I looked at commencement speeches, and what they say about us. This week, I want to continue on the graduation theme — but on a much more personal level.

Today, I write a letter to my 18-year-old daughter who will, in 3 days, graduate from high school. Consider this my commencement speech — for one.

Dear Ruthie,

There are few things in life a guy can point to and smile broadly. Work accomplishments: rarely. Bank account or house size: not hardly. Sports team accomplishments: big deal.

But I am proud and grateful that I can point to you. You and your brother and sister are a source of joy and gratitude for your mother and me. It’s truly amazing to have a front-row seat to watch you grow. I love your sense of humor. I marvel at your vibrant self-expression. I’m impressed to see you come alive on stage.

But now, of course, the scene changes, as you move from high school to college and life beyond. You are incredibly gifted, and I look forward to seeing how your gifts will come together for you, and for those around you.

And as you prepare to take this next step, let me offer these humble reminders:

  1. Remember you are loved. Nothing compares to this truth, and nothing can change this truth. You are deeply loved — by God, by me and mom, by so many people who have been a part of helping you reach this point. That love, which begins and ends with God, is the source of your greatest identity. Don’t ever let circumstances, or people, or struggles, or successes keep you from this vital truth: You are loved. Deeply, eternally loved.
  2. Love sets you free. Because of this truth, you are set free to roam around in the great big embrace of God’s love. This Love opens doors to meaning and purpose that this silly world with all its silly concerns, simply cannot. Because you are loved, you have the freedom to explore who you are in this love. One of the things that graduates often get told, is: Do what you love. Let me modify that slightly: Do what you love because you are loved. Life isn’t about simply pursuing whatever you want; it’s about understanding that because you are loved, you are free to explore what that love sets you free to become.
  3. So, don’t settle. Don’t go the easy path, or walk the wide way that most everyone else is. Don’t be afraid to do the hard work of finding God’s path for you. And keep walking it, even when it’s hard to see far ahead, and when the way gets steep. The popular path is popular because everyone’s walking it. And everyone is walking it because it’s easy. But the most important things in life, including walking the way of faith, are a challenge. But it’s in the challenges that you find who you are — and who God is calling you to be.
  4. With that in mind, don’t be afraid of mistakes. You’ll stumble. Maybe even fall hard. As your dad, I really don’t want this for you. But I also understand that the failures and struggles in life are often what teach us the most. So, when you do hit a wall, or fall flat on your face, get up. Learn from it. And keep going.
  5. To do this, you’re going to need faithful friends for the journey. The longer I live, the more I realize I can’t do life on my own. I need friends to walk with me, to walk alongside me — challenging me, encouraging me, and picking me up when I don’t feel like getting up. Don’t ever go through life without at least 2 friends who are faithful, full of faith, and with you whatever you face.
  6. Remember grace. Don’t ever let go of grace — the powerful life-giving presence of God that is as essential as air. When you stumble, grace is there to pick you up. When you feel elated at your successes, grace is there to ground you. When you’re not sure what’s next, or where to turn, grace is the whisper of God that says: I’m here. I know you can’t see very far ahead. That’s ok. Just trust me for the next step. I’m here. Without grace, you’ll just spin your wheels. With grace, life’s successes and failures always come into perspective — for grace gives meaning to all of life.
  7. Finally, remember this: mom and I are always here for you. No matter where life takes you, or where you choose to go, we’re here. Our love won’t ever run out. Our listening ear will always be available. And though our love is imperfect and incomplete, it’s a glimpse of the Love that is perfect and complete.

So, never forget, and always remember: We love you!

Dad & Mom

What are the odds?

I write 3 days before the Kentucky Derby (and 2 days before the Oaks, for all you Louisville-area readers). Earlier this week, my middle child was at Churchill Downs, where she got to spend some quality time with a Derby horse. Of course, that horse IMG_6574(along with every other one that will run for the roses) gets odds assigned by people whose job it is to guess how fast a particular horse can gallop 1.25 miles.

That’s a job I would not want, nor would I be any good at doing. But it got me thinking: what areas of life do I know about where I could assign odds? So, in the tradition of the Derby, here are odds on things I DO have a clue about. (Note: odds are for entertainment purposes only).

Odds that…

  • I will take a nap tomorrow, on my day off? 2 to 1
  • I will eat too many Qdoba chips now that my son works there? 1 to 2
  • I will make Qdoba my go-to place for Tex-Mex, now that my son works there? 75 to 1 (500 to 1 on Moe’s Monday)
  • When my wife turns 50 next April I will do something more sinister than write a blog about her? 1 to 3
  • I will jump out of a plane again? 300 to 1 (because, really, isn’t once enough?)
  • I will use the word shalom in my next sermon series on Genesis? 1 to 2
  • Campfire Conversations will be one of my coolest-ever summertime church ideas? 4 to 1
  • I will finish my doctorate? 2.5 to 1
  • I will finish my doctorate next year? 12 to 1
  • The horse my daughter is posing with will actually win the Derby? 50 to 1 (The horse’s name, by the way, is Fast and Accurate. Sounds like the oddsmakers disagree.)
  • I will begin working on my Spanish again, even if just the Duolingo app? 4 to 1
  • I will get our kitchen wall fixed this year? 6 to 1 (really needs to be 1 to 1)
  • A cat will make me cry? 10 to 1 (Not because I don’t like cats, though I’m certainly not their biggest fans. The simple fact is that I’m allergic to cats. It’s not good. Trust me.)
  • I will cry at my daughter’s graduation next month? 15 to 1 (Not because I’m not one of her fans. Really. The simple fact is that I’m just not allergic to her.)

Ok. Enough on placing odds on the less-than-essential stuff. Let’s talk about things that really matter. What are the odds that, five years from now…

  • Sunday morning will still be the most segregated hour of the week? 20 to 1 (wish I could put these odds much lower than that)
  • Divorce will be less common in the Church, as we get serious about marriage, faithfulness, and commitment? 4 to 1 (Isn’t it time we got real about love and grace in our homes?)
  • The American Church will be known for love more than for anger or partisan politics? 3 to 1 (Isn’t it time we got real about love and grace in our world?)
  • Christians will need grace in every aspect of their lives? 1 to 1 (I mean, what else would you bet your life on?)