It Seemed Like a Good Idea…

Recently, I stopped at a convenience store and popped into the bathroom. When I went to wash my hands, it was one of those new-fangled combo deals — where the sink and the hand dryer are all built into the same vanity. And there was only one of them in this particular restroom. So, I waited for the guy in front of me to finish washing his hands, and as he dried his, I got started with the water. I was probably in his personal space, but, really, with only one sink, am I supposed to wait until he finishes the whole process before I get going? Anyway, as I washed, the air from the dryer was like a storm in that little sink — blowing the water places it wasn’t supposed to go.

Now, of course, it wasn’t that big of a deal. But it got me to thinking: What else seemed like a good idea when somebody drew it up, but doesn’t work so well in practice?

Well, just in the bathroom, I can think of at least a three more:

  1. Doors that open toward you when you exit. I’ve just washed my hands; why would I want to grab a door handle that’s been handled by hundreds of other people? I mean really, unless space requires it, why would they ever install bathroom doors that you push to enter, and pull to exit?
  2. Shower heads that are too short. This, of course, is a hotel deal. I was never very good in science, but it seems to me to be a basic principle that water always flows downward. So, whether the shower head is mounted four feet up, or eight feet up, it still goes to the same place. Therefore, my vertically-challenged friends can take a shower no matter where the shower head is placed; but we who are north of six feet really appreciate it when the engineers don’t design the water to come out at our navels.
  3. Finally — and this is my biggest pet peeve when it comes to restrooms — automatic anythingWhether it’s automatic toilets that don’t flush, or automatic soap dispensers that don’t dispense, or automatic sinks that don’t produce water, or automatic towel dispensers that don’t give you enough paper (like the one at my son’s work, which one time generously gave me 3/4 inch of paper for each wave of the hand). It used to be that “the wave” was a public sports cheer we all did in sync at the game; now it’s the game we all play at the sink in public restrooms. Is it really too much work for us to flush our own toilets (er, well, bad example, at least in men’s rooms). Is it really too much work to pull out our own paper towels?

And it’s not just restrooms that are full of things that seemed like a good idea. Life has those, too. My life has those, too.

It seemed like a good idea to:

  1. fix the leak myself
  2. eat that extra scoop of ice cream
  3. try to surf off the back of my friend’s boat
  4. watch just one more show on netflix

It also seemed like a good idea to:

  1. skip time in prayer
  2. yell at my kid when I was upset
  3. hold that grudge
  4. scream at that guy on the interstate

In other words, I wish it was just in public restrooms where dumb things happen. Sadly, it’s also in life. In my life.

So, how can I not believe in grace? How can I not cling to it fiercely? For what else makes sense in a world where just about everyday, I can say, But it seemed like a good idea….

Why Geese Can’t Act “Un-geesy”

Snapshot #1
Likely, you’ve heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Conducted in 1971, carefully-screened college students were chosen to play the role of prisoners and guards. The experiment was to last 2 weeks. The project coordinator, Philip Zimbardo, had to shut it down after 6 days. Why? Because the ones who were given authority in the game moved from acting to becoming.

Snapshot #2
In his book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, Andy Crouch highlights Gary Haugen’s 15/70/15 principle, which applies to public justice systems around the world. This principle states that in a typical police force, 15% are honest and honorable; they simply cannot be bought or corrupted. On the other end of the spectrum, another 15% are corrupt, bent on using their power for their own sake. But the rest, the vast majority (70%) are just ordinary people who can be swayed by pressure from either direction. How they act will probably be due to which 15% have the largest influence in their context.

Snapshot #3
A couple of months ago, I arrived for church services and was walking through the parking lot to the building. As I did, some stuff on the ground caught my eye. I walked over to find a fast-food bag that someone had left, with sauce dipping cups laying around it. Clearly, someone had enjoyed a feast, and had left the remains for someone else to clean up. Right before I came across the trash, I had walked past a bunch of goose poop that also soiled our parking lot.

For me, all 3 of these “snapshots” point to the human condition. Power is easily misused. Authority can quickly turn from being benign, or even beneficial, to malignant. And when prison guards, or anyone with authority, misuses it in hurtful and hateful ways, we call their actions inhumane — that is to say, not acting in a human way.

And while leaving fast-food trash in a church parking lot is not a big deal, it is a minor offense against what it means to be human. And so, that Sunday, while it was frustrating to have to walk around all of that goose poop, I don’t blame the geese. They are just being geese. They were just acting geesy. So, when a goose snaps at someone, or leaves some crap for someone else to clean up, we don’t say: You’re acting un-goosy! There is no such thing as a goose acting “un-goosy.” Why? Because there’s only one way for a goose to act: by instinct.

But there is a way for people to act “un-people-y.” It’s when we choose, on the one end of the spectrum, to leave our trash for someone else to deal with — or, on the other end, when we mistreat our fellow human beings. In ways small and significant, when we act against our calling, against what we were made for — we are acting inhumanely.

Another word for this is sin. To act, to choose, another way than the way God designed us to be, is to choose to act in a way that harms others, harms the human community, harms this place we call home; harms us. And while geese and their “geesy ways” will probably never stop annoying me, what is more devastating is when I choose to act inhumanely. When I choose to act for self. When I choose to act based on what I feel, rather than I know. When I use others, belittle others, mistreat others.

In these ways, and so many more, we are forgetting who we are, and who we are truly called to be. That is to say: human. Which is precisely the reason Jesus came, “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” (Philippians 2.7-8).

And so, the path from inhumanity to true and restored humanity? It’s through a cross, and a human who took on himself ALL our inhumanity — making us, finally and fully, truly human.

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.