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.

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

One of the things I enjoy, when I have a free Sunday, is to visit other congregations. I enjoy worshiping in places and traditions that are different than my own. It reminds me that there are many ways of “doing” church – but there is one Lord, one faith, one hope, based on one God (Ephesians 4).

It is especially interesting to visit other churches during special seasons, such as the Easter season. And so, a couple of times, I have taken in an Ash Wednesday service as Lent begins.

ash-wednesdayHonestly, it feels awkward having someone mark my forehead with ash. It’s a bit embarrassing to walk around with the ash on my head. It’s outside of my comfort zone, and outside of my tradition. I can’t help but wonder if people notice, and what they think.

But isn’t that part of the point? Shouldn’t I feel awkward, knowing that the ash represents my mortality? Shouldn’t I feel humbled, as I recognize that the mark on my head is a symbol of my sinfulness? And just because it’s outside of my church tradition and my comfort level, does that mean I can’t learn from it?

The Church has had 2000 years to develop various ideas, practices, traditions, and belief structures. Some I have deep concerns with; some seem past their prime; but many of them can be a way to wrestle more deeply with my humanity, my mortality, and my immorality. Ash Wednesday is one of those.

Maybe it doesn’t work for you. And certainly there are folks who treat it as a magic cure for the sin that ails them. But for many, even most, I suspect that Ash Wednesday is a helpful reminder – a reminder of our brokenness, the brevity of life, and the basic need all of us have for the grace of Jesus Christ.

In fact, Ash Wednesday reminds me of one of my favorite verses in the Old Testament: Psalm 103.14. In context, verses 8-14 read (NRSV):

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
    nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
    so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
    he remembers that we are dust.

I’m dust. You’re dust. God knows we are dust. Even so, he chooses to surround us with His steadfast love. In fact, precisely because we are dust, God pours out His mercy, which is enough, no matter how dusty we are.

So, feel free to celebrate, or ignore, Ash Wednesday. But don’t miss the opportunity to use next Wednesday, and the season of Lent that it inaugurates, to open your heart and life to God. And be reminded how dependent you are on the grace only God can give.

Some thoughts on racism & prejudice

Jesus said: The poor you will always have with you. He’s right. But that also makes me wonder: What else will we always have with us in this life? If you took that phrase, and put a __________ in place of the word poor, how else could you begin this sentence:

___________ you will always have with you.

Here are some words that I think fit that space:

  1. Greed
  2. Gossip
  3. Grief
  4. Girls (That’s a good thing, especially since I’m married to one. And have two who call me Dad. And who, one day, will give me grandkids. Hey, that’s another really good G.)
  5. Grace (Thank God … Hey, there’s another really good one that also fits in the blank.)
  6. Gratitude
  7. Grumpiness (for those who choose not to cultivate item #6)
  8. Generosity (for those who DO choose to cultivate item #6)
  9. Government (That’s a good thing, right? Right?)
  10. Glasses (for me, at least)

There are a lot of things we will always have with us in this life. And that’s just 12 things that start with G. Some good. Some bad. Some, somewhere in between. We could fill that blank with a LOT of things, and we could make this blog very long. But let me just add one more thing we will always have with us in this life: Racism.

I wish it weren’t so. I wish that we could look forward to the day when racism would be done away with in this age where we live. But we can’t – because even though most people would run from the term, and a large majority of people have no desire to be racist, it will persist, for 2 reasons.

One, we are a people beset by sin. And sin is certainly not getting less, but more. And racism is sin.

Two, even those of us who would (appropriately) run from the label of racist, struggle with Racism’s cousin, Prejudice. And the truth, as I see it, is that prejudice is a part of every human heart.

Why? Because prejudice happens when I pre-judge someone. Before knowing them, or even knowing much about them, I am pretty good at subtly evaluating them, and making a judgment about them. In other words, pre-judging them – showing prejudice.

Let me go on to say that I don’t believe that all pre-judging is wrong. The truth is: all of us make quick decisions about people, based on little information. For me, the issue isn’t that we pre-judge; it’s what we DO with what our mind is telling us about that person, or that group, that we are assessing.

For example, I can look at you and decide that because you  (again, fill in the blank):

  • are old
  • are young
  • have long hair
  • have white hair
  • wear ripped jeans
  • wear an $800 suit
  • speak Spanish
  • speak poor English
  • don’t speak much at all

…you’re not like me, or you ARE like me – and then make decisions accordingly.

In other words, prejudice evaluates people on their differences. Racism, then, is one way we might choose to treat the person based on those differences. You see, I can’t help but notice what makes you different from me. But I can choose how I act (or not) on those perceptions.

There is NO doubt that Jesus came to set aside our differences. Not ignore them, but recognize them – and in the midst of them, call us to a unity we would never have on our own. At the very heart of the Good News of Jesus is that ALL are invited to drink of the water of life. In fact, as Travis & Dena Hurley point out in a very helpful article: inclusion of Gentiles in the family of God is at the very heart of the Gospel. Jesus didn’t come simply to invite individuals to receive His grace; He deliberately came inviting Jew & Gentile, slave & free, male & female, old & young, black, white and brown to experience His grace –together. In other words, Jesus invites us to look beyond our prejudices, and choose to welcome, and love, those who are different. And because the Spirit is at work, He brings us together, differences and all, and makes us one.

Sadly, racism will always be a reality in this world, because sin will always be a reality. But at the very center of the Church’s calling is to live another way, to BE another way; to allow the Spirit to lead us not to be defined by what separates us, but what unites us; to continue to grow in Gracism, not Racism – even as we look forward to The Day when all sin, all division, all racism will be done away with. Forever.

Don’t Rush to Easter

For many people, March is a really important month. For teachers and students, it’s the promise of Spring Break — and the opportunity to take a breather before the final push to finish the school year. For sports fans, it’s the “on-the-edge-of-your=seat” frenzy of March Madness. And every four years March is full of presidential politics. (Lucky us; this year is the year!)
And once every 3 or 4 years, Easter comes in the middle of the Madness that March can be. Maybe that’s fitting, for Easter is God’s response to the madness — the madness of humanity trying to find meaning in vacations, sports, politics, or wherever else we try to find joy. And in the midst of our lives, Easter is the story of One Life that changes ALL of life — and all lives.
It begins on Palm Sunday, when Jesus enters Jerusalem to cries of acclamation. It reaches its lowest point just five days later when Jesus heads to the cross to cries of “Crucify him!” There is simply no doubt that this is the most pivotal week in all of history. Even skeptical historians acknowledge that Jesus died this week — and go on to recognize that something happened at the tomb to change the hearts and actions of Jesus’ uncertain followers.
But before we get to the victory of Easter Sunday, we should take a few moments and reflect on the pain and the suffering and the harsh reality of Easter week, leading up to Easter. For it is during this week that the wheels of politics and religion and sin combine in an unholy trinity that will take Jesus to the cross. And before we get to the victory of Easter, we come to the harsh, cold, deathly reality of the cross.
Like the next person, I love Easter Sunday. I absolutely revel in its victory. But before we get to Resurrection Day, we should walk — slowly, thoughtfully, deliberately — each step of the way to Sunday. It takes us through the graveyard. It takes us through the harsh reality of death. And it forces us to face the raw nakedness of our sin.
It’s difficult, but don’t let it pass you by. Don’t rush to Easter. Dwell in the reality of this most painful week. For only when we truly understand the week leading up to Easter, can we truly understand — and live — the victory of Easter Sunday.