Hope in Charleston

I grew up in North Carolina, and visited South Carolina many times.  Growing up in the South had many advantages and liekwise many disadvantages.  One of those disadvantages was racism.  As we have seen through the last year, racism is alive and well throughout the U.S.

My heart breaks for the people in Charleston and Emanuel AME Church.  Church should be a safe place.  A place of worship.  A place of love.  A place of grace.  A place where everyone is welcome.  Instead it turned into a place where a terrorist attack occurred.

Evil exists everywhere.  Everywhere!  From the suburbs to the projects, evil persists.

As I’ve thought about this atrocity over the past few days I’ve had many thoughts of anger, frustration, and just really pissed off.  I’ve visited several predominantly black churches in my life, and every church I have ever been a part of was mixed racially.  This could have been anyone of my friends or loved ones at a prayer service.  We should never have to look over our shoulder in fear over who might be in our services.  We should be safe in houses of worship.

Then I saw the below video a few days ago.  I was shocked.  The pastor said below:

“I’m reminded by some news media person, “I wonder why all the nine families spoke of forgiveness, and didn’t have malice in their heart.”  You ought to know the nine families daddy!”

This pastor has every right to be angry and want revenge, but instead the church chooses forgiveness.  They forgave a man who hates them.  They forgave a man that killed their family members and loved ones.  They give the man a clean slate.

The church service begins by quoting Psalm 118:24, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  This type of praise, and this type of forgiveness can only come from one place, and that is from Jesus.

Dr. King Said, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

Forgiveness and love go hand in hand.  However, don’t assume that forgiveness is easy, in fact an act of forgiveness may be the hardest thing you ever do.  Author and speaker Brene Brown says, “In faith communities where forgiveness is easy and love is easy, there’s not enough blood on the floor to make sense of it.”

The last thing love and forgiveness are is easy.  The moment we come face to face with the evil that lives in us then we are more apt to forgive because then we understand that we too need forgiveness.

I don’t have the answers for racism, but I believe that grace and forgiveness are a good place to start.  As Paul wrote, “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”

This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it…even if we have been wronged.

Revisiting The Sopranos Ending

The Sopranos FinalThe Sopranos is one of those television shows thats timeless.  I’ve begun watching the series again, and I’m still blown away by the story and the acting.  If you remember the show’s creator, David Chase came under criticism for how the series finale ended.  The ending left many confused, mainly about whether or not the main character Tony is alive or dead.  Chase was just in the news a few months ago discussing the finale, and gave a few insights on what he wants viewers to come away with.  Chase in his own words:

“The biggest feeling I was going for, honestly, was don’t stop believing. It was very simple and much more on the nose than people think. That’s what I wanted people to believe. That life ends and death comes, but don’t stop believing. There are attachments we make in life, even though it’s all going to come to an end, that are worth so much, and we’re so lucky to have been able to experience them. Life is short. Either it ends here for Tony or some other time. But in spite of that, it’s really worth it. So don’t stop believing.”

After reading this, I had to watch the final episode, and I shared a few tears.  Tony is plagued throughout the series.  A man that is torn between a terrible lifestyle, and a man trying to be a good family man.  He goes to therapy.  He really tries to be a decent person…sometimes.

Tony is a man that is so flawed, and in need of so much help, but in truth he is like a lot of parents, and the family is sort of like the American family.  I know that is stretching it a little, but as I watch the final scene I notice little things about him that make me think, there is good in him.  Kind of like how Luke Skywalker noticed good in Darth Vader.

He sits down at the diner, and he doesn’t just pick a song, but he picks a song that identifies his life and his family.  Don’t Stop Believing by Journey.  In the words of David Chase, “it’s really worth it. So don’t stop believing.”  I think David is trying to show the audience that Tony still believes, and more importantly he believes in his family.

If you watch the video below you will see at around the 2:28 mark, Tony looks up at his son and pats him on the arm, the way a loving father would.  To me, that might be the most important part of the scene.  A father embracing his son.  In one act he lets his son know…I’m here and I love you.  As his son, A.J. starts to complain about his job they begin to have an enlightening conversation:

Tony: It’s an entry-level job. Now buck up!
A.J.: Focus on the good times.
Tony: Don’t be sarcastic.
A.J.: Isn’t that what you said one time? Try to remember the times that were good?
Tony: I did?
A.J.: Yeah.
Tony: Well, it’s true, I guess.

Focus on the good times.  Don’t stop believing.  Lessons from a fictional mafia family!

It is much easier to give up and quit, but Chase is showing us that life is much better when you are with the ones you love.  In all the problems this crazy family has had together they stick with each other.  Tony isn’t perfect, but at the end of the day he wants to be with the ones he loves.  He wants to eat at a little whole in the wall diner with his family, and remember the times that were good.

Our mortality is a sure thing.  We are all making our way to death, but while we are on the journey.  Let’s not stop believing.

You can watch the final scene here.

Sibling Rivalry

resentmentMy favorite parable in the Bible has to be the parable of The Prodigal Son.  I don’t think there is another story that shows the heart of God more than this one.  As I have been thinking about this parable over the past few weeks I have focused more in on the older brother than the younger.  The older brother is an interesting figure.  He is bitter, angry, jealous, prideful, sinful, and the list goes on.  More than all of those things I see resentment (feeling or expressing bitterness or indignation at having been treated unfairly).

Luke 15:24-32:

24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

This story shows a love that is not from here.  It shows a unique grace and love from heaven that is unlike anything.  And this grace makes the older brothers blood boil.

The brother is out in the field and doing back breaking work, and as the day comes to a close, after he has put in his extra hours he starts his long trek back home.  As he gets closer he here’s a sound that he has never heard or hasn’t heard in a long time.  Loud obnoxious music, and dancing.  The Bible said that he heard dancing.  This must have been a party that could have been heard for miles.

The older brother has worked hard and yet his undeserving younger brother has a party thrown for him. He can’t go inside. How could he go in?  This is not fair.  It is not just.  Justice would be his father making him grovel for forgiveness.  Instead the father lavishly gives it away without a confession!

The older brother is resentful because his brother has just been let off the hook for his wastefulness.  He is resentful because he has spent his life following the rules, never committing any major sins, never skipping school, doing drugs, etc., and his younger brother selfishly takes the fathers money and wastes it on prostitutes.  The younger brother left home to have a good time and left the older brother at home doing chores.  The younger brother is selfish, and yet his crazy daddy throws him a party he didn’t deserve, but if he did deserve it then it wouldn’t be grace.

What about us?  Are we older brothers?  Are we resentful because God is letting people off the hook left and right?  Are we mad that a bunch sinners are partying with their daddy?

There is a party going on and we have a chance to get down with God or be on the outside; bitter, angry, resentful, because he lets in those that don’t deserved to be let in.

Closing with Robert Capon:

“Look. We’re all dead here and we’re having a terrific time. We’re all lost here we feel right at home. You, on the other hand, are alive and miserable—and worse yet, you’re standing out here in the yard as if you were some kind of beggar. Why can’t you see? You own this place, Morris. And the only reason you’re not enjoying it is because you refuse to be dead to your dumb rule about how it should be enjoyed. So do yourself and everybody else a favor: drop dead. Shut up, forget about your stupid life, go inside, and pour yourself a drink.”

Christians Are Always Right

christians are always rightA concern I’ve had for a long time is the public image of Christianity in America.  From reality TV to social media we project an image in our culture that might be hurting us. The typical image I see is one of self-righteousness, the need to be right, and have all the answers.  I’ve watched throughout my lifetime as Christians have preached, showcased, and proudly displayed our moral stance, only to fall far from it.  Our problem is we tend to break the very rules that we hold others to (see Moses for an example).

Why do we feel the need to be right and righteous?  Is it attracting others to our faith or pushing more away?  I tend to think many are on the outside of what we are doing because our moralism and our stance is very unattractive.  It could be unattractive because people might feel like they can’t measure up to our standards of righteousness.  

In our world of social media, we also feel the need to comment on EVERYTHING that happens in the world from a Christian perspective.  Are we God’s PR agent?  

I love Paul’s stance, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Why can’t we do that instead? Instead of giving the world nonsense, why can’t we just give them Jesus?  The Gospel is the hope of the world, the most dangerous message in all time, and instead we give the world something else.  

Ghandi said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Last month I attended the Mockingbird conference, and I remember hearing one of the speakers say, “People are bad, Christians are people, Christians are bad.”  People fail.  Sin is our nature, but for some reason, American Christianity presents itself as an organization that is immune to being bad.  The Gospel of American Christianity is an invitation to moral living instead of an invitation into a relationship with someone who saved you from yourself.

I propose that we stop taking the position of the moral authority and the position of being right on everything.  I propose that we stop giving the perception that we are perfect and have all our ducks in a row because that sets up for failure.

I propose we listen more.  I propose we humbly admit that we might be wrong.  I propose that we silence our opinions, and love people that are different than us.

Jesus says in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Not if we are perfect, not if we can defend Christian principles, not if we vote Republican.  People will know that we are his disciples if we love.

The Dearly Departed

the dearly departedWe have all heard the quote, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  I’m sure there is a lot of truth in that.  However, what I keep asking myself is, “what if it kills me?”  What if the thing I’m most afraid of facing actually does kill my purpose and identity?  What if it takes away my rights?  What happens then?  What if I am to become the dearly departed?

I just recently re-read C.S. Lewis’ book A Grief Observed.  The book was made out of journal entries after the death of his wife, and how he dealt with it.  In it he says this:

“God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”

What if the whole point is our death?  What if God is knocking down our house of cards to show us what really matters?  To ressurect us into something greater than what we had expected.  The late Episcopal priest, Robert Farrar Capon has said:

“Jesus is only urging his disciples, and us, to do what he himself did in his own trial and passion: to lay down his life and to let God raise it up in his own good time…In Gesthemane, he prayed that God would “let this cup pass” from him. But he also prayed, “nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” Poverty, not wealth – death, not life – is the only material God uses to save us.”

and Capon again from The Foolishness of Preaching:

“Our preachers tell us the wrong story entirely, saying not a word about the dark side – no, that’s too weak – about the dark center of the Gospel.  They cant bring themselves to come within a country mile of the horrendous truth that we are saved in our deaths, not by our efforts to lead a good life

Maybe his will is to knock down our house of cards.  Maybe his will is for our death to occur. We might need to just drop dead.

God uses the circumstances that break us and kill us to save us.  As if to say, “now I can resurrect you!”

What if in our dying we find ultimate redemption?  Isn’t that what a picture of baptism is?  Doesn’t baptism signify our dying, and Christ resurrecting us?

Could the thing that is killing us bring us deliverance?  Look at Jesus.  Three nails brought about his death, but in that death brought deliverance to the world.

The fish in Jonah was both his death and the thing that brought him redemption.  For starters, the Bible says that “God prepared” the great fish for him, and then Jonah prayed in 2:1 “From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.”

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20

Capon again: “Because at the very worst, all you can be is dead – and for him who is the Resurrection and the Life, that just makes you his cup of tea.”

Christian Obedience School

Christian Obedience SchoolDoes my disobedience throw God off? There have been many times in my life where I thought “God must not love me”, or “I’m sure I’ve lost my salvation.”  I would usually have these thoughts right after I committed a sin, and felt a good dose of condemnation for it. It was in these times in my life that I truly believed that my position in Christ had everything to do with what I did or didn’t do, instead of what Christ did in his finished work on the cross. According to Romans 5:18-19 our obedience is really a non-issue with God.

“Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.”

Take for example Peter.  Jesus tells Peter that he will be disobedient by denying him, but what does Jesus do to Peter?  He restores him and makes no mention of his sin.  Christ was obedient not Peter, but yet Christ restores.

We also see in Matthew 18:12 a parable about a sheep who wanders off, but the shepherd leaves the 99 to bring the sheep back in.  The sheep’s disobedience had no bearing on his relationship with the shepherd.  His disobedience proved how much the shepherd loved it because he left his home to bring the sheep back to the fold. To me, this really sheds light on Isaiah 53:6:

“We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on HIM the iniquity of us all.”

We have all left the fold, but the Lord laid our iniquity on Jesus and gave us his righteousness.  The great exchange.  

To be clear, my disobedience may cause me discomfort, there may be very hard consequences for my actions.  As Robert Farrar Capon put it:

“You can’t get into hell by being bad. You get into heaven by being bad and accepting forgiveness. Now, that does in a way mean you have permission to be bad. If you want to stick your hand in a meat grinder, you are free to do that. It’s stupid, but God isn’t going to run the universe that way. God is not going to punish. He cares more about relationships than behavior.”

My disobedience may bring consequences, but my disobedience does not affect my position with God.  In Christ, I stand perfect.  To quote John Calvin:

“Now someone asks, how has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness to render God favorable and kindly toward us? To this we can in general reply that he has achieved this for us by the whole course of his obedience.”

His obedience, and not mine has abolished my sin, gave me access to God, made me righteous, and gave me favor. The moment I think my morality and good works makes me right with God, is the moment I mix law and grace and becomes my attempt to save myself.

“Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.” Romans 4:25

We need a savior

we need a saviorPicture Moses coming down off the mountain after meeting with God with the Ten Commandments in hand. Imagine him reading out the law of God to you. What goes through your mind? What do you think to yourself as you hear the new standard? If I was there, I would think…there is no way I can keep that! Imagine this scenario:

Moses: Hey everybody, God really would like for us all to do this. It will really make him happy, our lives a lot easier, and he will bless us if we do it. So it sounds like it is a good idea and he means business.

grumbling and murmuring among the crowd and finally Bobby speaks up

Bobby: Say Moses, does God know you killed someone?

Sam: Yeah, thats right you did kill that man back in Egypt Moses. Also, does God know that you forgot to circumcise your son?

Aaron: Hey Moses, we also kind of made a golden image and we have been worshiping it. Moses, I’m not sure this commandment stuff is going to work. We are kind of messing up already pretty bad, who’s to say we can actually keep all these rules?

It looks like they are setup for failure, but in reality they and we are setup to need a savior. The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world!

The law, by nature is accusatory. It reveals to you the true nature of your heart, and shows that you have no ability to fulfill God’s standards. In Romans 7:18, Paul boldly declares something we have a hard time admitting, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me.”

Who talks like that? Who says nothing good is in them?! Paul gives us nothing to hang our achievements or effort on. We hate admitting we are flawed. We think by our merit and bootstrapping ability that we can somehow save ourselves. Yes, even in American Christianity. Most of our sermons are ways to better ourselves. What we really need is a savior.

When people ask me how I am doing, most of the time I lie. I actually had a friend of mine text me the other day and say that he was living a nightmare. For some of us, no truer words have been spoken. In Alcoholics Anonymous 12 step program the first thing you admit is you are powerless. You might not be an alcoholic, but you too are powerless. Thankfully, in our weakness he is made strong. We need a stand-in. We need a savior. Not more do’s and don’ts.  A savior.

I love how God knew this even as Moses was leading his people. In Deuteronomy 18:18 we find a Messianic prophecy, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him.”

That is probably the best news they heard all day!

The law shows us our warts, imperfections, and sin. But, when I hear the law I also want to run. I want to run into the arms of the one person who is full of power and love. I can’t do it, but I found a man who did it.

We are all Billy Corgan

billy corganOut of all the 90′s alternative/grunge bands, The Smashing Pumpkins are my favorite. They have meaningful, deep, sad, and painful songs. Their music means a lot to me and touches me. The Pumpkins were by and large driven by lead singer and guitarist Billy Corgan. I don’t know much of Billy’s story, but he has never been without controversy or criticism. Billy has recently entered the news for taking some what of a career turn into professional wrestling. In one way or another, I believe we are all like Billy Corgan.

The Smashing Pumpkins created a masterpiece with their third album Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness. It was an album that was hard to top. As I’m writing, I have it playing in the background for inspiration, and it is still an amazing record. Billy has continued to make music through the years with the Pumpkins, but in the public eye his creations have not compared to his earlier records. Critics have pushed him and have been hard on him. If you have the time you should check out this Corgan interview where he let’s out a lot of frustration and anger about lack of positive reviews for his new album. He goes as far as saying to the interviewer, “I hope you and I are never locked in an elevator together. Because you would either kill me or I would kill you.”

What happens when the world sees you as peaking too early? How do you go on creating when everything is judged based on your past performance? How do you make something relevant after you have made what the world thinks is your best? What does it feel like to create something that so many people hate?

Somewhere he pulls his hair down over a frowning smile – Billy Corgan

Now Billy is doing something very different, he is making the odd choice of joining professional wrestling as a producer. Is this Billy trying to fit in with a different crowd? Is he seeking acceptance from a group of people because he didn’t get it from fans, critics, media, etc.?

We all feel the way Billy feels, and here is why: we all want acceptance and love for what we have done. Whether we admit it or not what we do is important to us and we all want to hear, to quote Billy; “You did a good job – it’s good you’re still here.”

We are Billy Corgans because we are searching for meaning, significance, love, and acceptance in what we do. Unfortunately, as Corgan says, “The world is a vampire, sent to drain.” Thankfully our worth and significance is not wrapped up in what we do or create, it is wrapped up in what He has done. Our creator loves what we do whether or not the world does.

We may not find acceptance in other people, fame, or from our own individual art work, but we can find it in Jesus. He allows us to come to him without meeting any preconditions. We can come as we are. As a failure or as a success.

In the parable of the prodigal son, we find the father running to a failure of a son and throwing a party for him. He just wants us, whether or not we produce something great or we spend all his money. He just wants us.

I’m grateful that God is pleased in who I am, all by myself.

I used to be a little boy,  So old in my shoes – Billy Corgan

Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Grace!

lorena and eleanorI love history and I really love presidential history.  I just finished a book about Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Jonathan Alter titled, The Defining Moment, that focused on his first 100 days in office. I’ll admit my knowledge of FDR was very limited up until the book.  I was very interested in learning more about FDR, but I came away with more intrigue in his wife Eleanor, so much so that I hope to read more about her in the years to come.

Eleanor was surprisingly nervous and adverse to moving into the White House, and secretly wished that her husband might lose the election.  She was very hurt, depressed, angry, and couldn’t express her emotions to her husband.  FDR was a man with his own unique struggles and problems ranging from health and infidelity.  After his first affair, things were never the same for their marriage.  In fact, they never again shared a bed after his first affair.

In light of all the abuse and crap that Eleanor went through in life, I found my heart going out towards her because of her pain.  In her seclusion she found refuge in a journalist and friend, Lorena Hickok, called Hick by all of her acquaintances.  Hick provided Eleanor comfort and guidance in a time that she needed it most.  Alter writes:

“Hickok eased those fears, suggesting a fresh path for the new first lady that influenced, to a greater and lesser degree, the roles that all women married to American presidents would play in the decades to ahead.”

To Hick she could be herself without fear of judgement.  In Eleanor’s state of depression she wrote Hick saying, “My zest in life is rather gone for the time being…If anyone looks at me, I want to weep.”

Hick was a true picture of grace to Eleanor.  She was the shoulder that Eleanor needed in her time of depression (they wrote thousands, yes thousands of letters to each other).  She was someone that she could run to and be…just be. She didn’t have be the first lady to Hick, just a friend that was hurting and needing someone to hear her.  FDR should have been the person that fulfilled this void in her life, but that was not to be.

Isn’t this what we all want?  Real, graceful, forgiving, understanding, and loving relationships?  Don’t we all want a place that we come to without judgement?  Don’t we all want relationships where we can be our real selves without the alter ego’s, identities, and masks?  Don’t we all want a place that we can be naked without shame?

I think relationships like this are rare, but I pray we find them.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.

Daddy, I just can’t

daddy i just can'tThe law will always beg you for more, but sadly you cannot satisfy its requirements.  Nothing is good enough for it.  No amount of trying to be good or holy can appease its requirements.  The more you sweat for it, the more it breaks your back.  It commands you to keep working but rewards you with no rest.  What you get is more commands, lists, and do’s and do not’s.  No matter how hard you try you will never make it happy.

Last week my son and I went out to practice baseball together, and it was a good time for me to have a talk with him about lying. The day before he had lied about something, and as we took a break from playing together we sat down on the field and began.  I asked him if he knew that lying was wrong, and he said yes.  He then told me, “everybody lies dad, except for Jesus.”

Fast forward a few days and my two and half year old daughter and I are in the drug store, and she is not listening to me.  She is strutting her stuff all through the store, and refused to come to me when I commanded her to.  I admit, she was cute, but it frustrated me.  As I told her that she should listen to daddy she said, “I just can’t.”

The law is evil in that we can’t satisfy it, but as Paul says it is in essence good.  Romans 7:12 says ,“So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.”  The law is good because it came from God, the law is the right thing to do, but as my daughter said, “I just can’t.”

I love how Paul words it in Ephesians 2:15, “by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace.”

The good news is the law is abolished. God made peace through the sacrifice of his son welcoming us all to the party. The war with the law is now over because grace won. The good news is even though we all say, “I just can’t”, Jesus says, “I can and I did.”

Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.  No sin, lie, adultery, you name it can come between me and him.  In fact, the God that I believe in throws parties for people who don’t deserve it.  He puts robes around them, rings on their fingers, and serves them the best meat and wine in town.  He draws all men unto himself without a requirement of good behavior because everybody lies, except for Jesus.