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It’s Easy to be “Good” in Suburbia

In Devotional on April 8, 2015 at 6:28 pm

Good FridaySometimes I have a hard time understanding the extent of my sinfulness and, correspondingly, my need for Grace.

I’m a pretty good guy. I’ve mostly obeyed the 10 commandments; I often give money to people who need it, and I go to church every week. When I sit in the pew on Good Friday, I know that Jesus died for me, but it’s sometimes hard for me to avoid the thought that he died a little less for me than he did for the guy sitting three rows back.

Also to my credit, I confess to the sin of pride with some regularity.

This past Good Friday I became aware that I was as much in need of God’s grace as anyone. This epiphany probably came by way of the Holy Spirit, but also the questions evoked through a film and a book.

When I walked out of the theatre after watching Selma, I was left with the question, “Would I have participated in the march to secure equal voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.” I’d like to think I would, but I don’t really know. After I read a biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I was left with the question, “Would I have resisted the Nazi campaign against the Jews, like Bonhoeffer, or turned a blind eye as so many Christians did?” I’m not really sure I would have chosen the road of justice.

I am currently aware of situations where good people are eagerly wallowing in wounded pride rather than seeking reconciliation. My immediate reaction to this is self-righteousness–a self-righteousness rooted in the fact that right this minute I am not doing the same thing. Under the same circumstances, my sin might be the greater. God knows, and he doesn’t judge by what I’ve done or not done, but by the condition of my heart.

By focusing rather on the condition of my heart, rather than on what I have done or not done, has helped me to more fully appreciate my need for the Grace that was given on the cross–the Grace that is enough to cover the sins of the worst racists as well as the most self-righteous.

Do You Pray Naturally?

In Devotional on December 29, 2013 at 9:05 pm

PrayerPrayer is Supernatural

The last book Bonhoeffer published in his lifetime was “The Prayerbook of the Bible.”  He writes this book while in prison for his participation in a plot to kill Hitler, and the subject of the book is the Psalms.  Remember, the Psalms of the Old Testament are Jewish literature.  You can bet that the Nazis weren’t all that thrilled with publishing books celebrating Jewish literature.  Apparently he was unaware that such material had to be submitted to the Board for the Regulation of Literature before publication.  Bonhoeffer was sticking it to The Third Reich at the same time he was teaching Christians how to come closer to Christ Jesus.

I read about Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on prayer in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, a book I received from my parents last Christmas.

In this book, Bonhoeffer suggests that we naturally wish, hope, sigh, lament and rejoice—but we should not confuse these things with prayer.  Unlike these internal and natural impulses, prayer is supernatural in that it must be initiated from outside of us, by God.  For this reason, he encourages Christians to pray the Psalms as Christ did.  Our own prayers would travel to heaven along with those of Christ.

Metaxas points out that praying the Psalms was much too Jewish for the Nazis, and probably too Catholic for the Protestants, who don’t go for recited prayers, but Bonhoeffer was insistent that Christians must pray the Psalms.

Because of this publication of this little book, he Bonhoeffer was forbidden to publish anything again.

Whether you accept Bonhoeffer’s imperative on the praying of the Psalms, it is important to understand that prayer is a supernatural activity.  My problem is that I usually forget this and do what comes naturally: “wishing, hoping, sighing, lamenting and rejoicing” (Metaxas 368).

Praying with the Psalms—which means praying with Christ (as well as the historical Church)—will at least externalize the source of my own prayers and once again remind me that my ability to approach God at all is his gift of grace.


 

Your Money or Grace: You can’t have Both

In Christ and Culture, Rants on December 22, 2012 at 2:45 am

Untitled pictureOver two million people “liked” this picture on Facebook.

Shockingly, the person that “shared” it was a Christian.

I felt a rant coming on.

“Taxed to the ‘breaking point’? Come on!” I desperately wanted to point out that the United States has one of the lowest tax rates in the world. If our taxation levels are at the breaking point, I hope I’m on vacation when some actual hardship comes to North America.

I wanted to ask, “Who is this person who is ‘able to work, but refuses to work’?” Even if this described EVERY person on government assistance it would make up a small portion of the tax dollars collected.

It took a great deal of restraint, but I didn’t reply to this post.

Still, it’s been bugging me for months and then I re-read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Greenleaf.” Here she not only describes the exact sentiment expressed in the Facebook post, but she identifies its cause—one that would be completely eliminated with a basic understanding of the gospel, more specifically, the part about Grace.

Mrs. May, the protagonist of “Greenleaf,” owns a small farm and she believes it functions entirely by her efforts and hers alone. She declares to her city friends, “Everything is against you, the weather is against you and the dirt is against you and the help is against you.” She is blind to the fact that without weather and dirt, there is no farm—these things aren’t adversaries, they are gifts. And so is the help—the help is Mr. Greenleaf.

The narrator tells us that Mrs. May “had set herself up in the dairy business after Mr. Greenleaf had answered her ad.” Mr. Greenleaf‘s arrival precedes the establishment of the farm. Good thing too, because he is the reason her farm is as successful as it is. This is not, at first, apparent because the third-person narrator tells the story from Mrs. May’s perspective and is, therefore, not to be trusted to report things honestly. For instance, when the narrator reports a field had come up in clover instead of rye “because Mr. Greenleaf had used the wrong seeds in the grain drill,” we are receiving Mrs. May’s interpretation of reality. Mr. Greenleaf actually ignored her instructions because he knew better.

Everything Mrs. May has, comes to her through the created world and her good fortune at the arrival of Mr. Greenleaf. But she doesn’t see any of it. She places a high value on her own, relatively insignificant, efforts and a correspondingly low value on the many undeserved blessings she receives.

Mrs. May’s rejection of Grace is shown through various symbols. Among these is the “black wall of trees with a sharp sawtooth edge that held off the indifferent sky.” The sun, a symbol of providential grace, is blocked off from Mrs. May’s property. In one of her dreams, “the sun [was] trying to burn through the tree line and she stopped to watch, safe in the knowledge that it couldn’t, that it had to sink the way it always did outside her property.” Her dreams reflect her stance toward God and his gifts.

The Greenleafs, on the other hand, absorb grace in all its forms. The name is suggestive of their familial attitude toward grace, for green leaves soak up the sun and flourish. When Mrs. May takes a trip out to the farm belonging to Mr. Greenleaf’s twin boys, the “the sun was beating down directly” on to the roof of their house. Their milking parlor “was filled with sunlight” and “the metal stanchions gleamed ferociously.” By contrast, from Mrs. May’s window the sun was “just a little brighter than the rest of the sky.”

Mrs. May resented the Greenleaf’s. She means it as criticism when she says, “They lived like the lilies of the field, off the fat that she had struggled to put into the land.” Here we see that she both takes credit for God’s gifts, and she derides the Greenleaf’s for living out Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:28, “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.”

Once, Mrs. May flippantly says, “I thank God for that.” Mr. Greenleaf sincerely responds, “I thank Gawd for every-thang.” He lives out the Biblical injunction to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thessalonians 5:18).

O’Connor’ whole point with Mrs. May is to show that a denial of grace necessarily leads to ingratitude and resentment. Mrs. May’s life is defined by ingratitude, but she is blind to this failing. Ironically, she says to Mr. Greenleaf, “some people learn gratitude too late . . . and some never learn it at all.”

If you live in North America, you’ve won some sort of a lottery. You live in an affluent society where the infrastructure fosters wealth and where opportunities for work and education abound. You enjoy the highest standard of living of any time or any place in history. Even if you are in the lower-middle class, you take for granted luxuries not even dreamed of by the richest rulers of the greatest empires in history.

And you have all this either as an act of divine will or, if you’re not religious, as an accident of birth, but either way, you can take no credit for it. It’s an undeserved gift; it’s grace.

The appropriate response for grace in any form is gratitude and not resentment. When we understand everything we have as a gift, we are far more willing to give it away—and support our government giving it away on our behalf.

Mrs. May was so ungrateful for her undeserved blessings that she poisoned herself and her two sons. She created a false reality where Mr. Greenleaf was a parasite feeding off of her family.

If Mrs. May had Facebook, she certainly would have “liked” the photo. But she had no understanding of grace.

Application or Implication

In False Dichotomies - the lines between on December 2, 2012 at 12:00 am

When I was a kid, my Sunday School teachers were always asking us, “What’s the moral of the story?”  I’m wondering if this reductive reading of the Bible is embedded in the idea of the “Application”: the part at the end of the sermon where the pastor explains how the Biblical text applies to our lives.   I get the sense that this is the most important part of the message, but it feels as if it is the most difficult.  The difficulty may lie in the incongruity between the concept application and what the pastor is trying to do with it, for the word suggests a  very modern approach, and thus, a limited one.

Application

If I do some free association I come up with Band-Aids and other things that adhere, like those decals I used to stick onto my models of racecars.  To apply  means to stick something onto the surface of something else.

It follows then that to apply the lessons of a sermon means to stick its teachings onto me.  The limitations of this word are becoming obvious.   For one thing, the pastor does all the work and the listeners are passive, like a child receiving the Band-Aid.   And, like a Band-Aid, it makes us feel better, but it doesn’t usually stick longer than a day.  We walk away happiest if the bandage is one of those fancy kinds with cartoon characters on them.  We might even show our friends, who will be only temporarily enamored.

This is not a very good way to interact with any story for it makes it an object to be dissected and a resource to use.

The idea of application presupposes a gap between subject and object–between me and the text.  It suggests that there are things in biblical texts that I can extract and use.  These things are almost always ideas, that is, intellectual propositions.  It’s not that stories don’t communicate ideas, but that’s not all they communicate–stories are not primarily intellectual.  Stories that are, are usually boring.

Stories are not just ideas or morals, but experiences.  They don’t stick to our surface, but they penetrate us and the encounter is implicit and transformative.

Let me illustrate this with the story of “The Good Samaritan” found in Luke 10:25-37.

A lawyer, in an attempt to test Jesus, asks him what one must do to have eternal life.  Rather than answer directly, Jesus asks him what he thinks the Law says.  The lawyer correctly answers that he must love God and neighbour.

The lawyer then asks, “Who is my neighbour?”

If there was a clear intellectual answer to this question, Jesus could have simply told it to him–He could have delivered the application right then and there, but because the answer cannot be reduced to an idea, a story is necessary.

A certain man was set upon by robbers and left seriously injured in a ditch.  A priest and a Levite saw him, but walked past.  A Samaritan, thus hated by the Jews, helped the injured man and arranged for his care and promised to return.

If you were to apply the lessons of this story to your life, you’d likely be convicted to help others in need like the good Samaritan, and not ignore them like the priest and the Levite.  The problem is, I already know I am supposed to do this, and I also know that I will not do it to the extent that the God’s Law requires—and the lawyer knew this too.  So, this application adheres to the surface and will, consequently, fall off during the first bath.

Implication

Rather than application, I would like to suggest the word implication.  It suggests a lot more ambiguity than application, but that’s a good thing since the clarity of application is often achieved through a reduction of the truth to a moral.  Implication is not about how the sermon fits into, or onto, my life; it’s about how I fit into the story.  Implication bridges the gap between subject and object because I enter the story and it enters me–I experience the story.

I can enter this story at a lot of points.  I can enter it as the Samaritan and see that I am inadequate because I’m not enough like him.  But I can also be honest and see myself in the action of the robbers or the priest and Levite who are not so different than the robbers who harm the man through inaction (Where does your coffee come from?).  Let’s be honest, this is most of us.  I can also enter the story as the victim of the evil of others.  In reality, I occupy all these roles in various ways—I am in the story.  Implication is experiential.

Application puts me into the position of subject, therefore it favours a self-centred understanding of the story.  It’s about me and what I am supposed to do; I’ve got to be on the lookout for the people who have been tossed in the metaphorical ditch and do something about it.  But this story is not primarily about what I am supposed to do; it’s more about what I can’t do, and what Jesus has done.

Jesus is like the Samaritan.  He was willing to get into the ditch with the beaten man, and pay his bills and promised to return.  If the story is about me, it ends with my guilt as a crappy Good Samaritan, or as a priest or Levite.  Neither the Lawyer who questioned Jesus, nor I, am capable of meeting the injunction to “love your neighbour” as the Law requires.  The implicit meaning of the story is that I am not able to love my neighbour properly, but because Jesus did, I receive eternal life, as if I did—it’s about him.  When I understand that this story is not just about me and my inadequacy, but Jesus and his adequacy, I am free to love my neighbour out of gratitude because  I have been given the eternal life the Lawyer was asking about, even though I don’t deserve it.

Jesus refuses to give a straight answer to the Lawyer, as to who a neighbour is.   By refusing  to simplify the Truth to an application he points to something far greater–an implicit and transforming truth about God’s grace.

I am not suggesting that every pastor who uses the word “application” at the end of his sermon is leaving his listeners with a simplistic, individualistic idea.  I am just arguing that the word implies a limited understanding of story.  By using the word implication, we have a better tool to experience the transformative power of stories.

 

Those moments of bliss…

In Uncategorized on November 19, 2012 at 10:38 am

This feeling of bliss fell upon me.  I was in the medieval part of Renne, France.  It was in the afternoon and I was sitting in an outdoor cafe on an ancient street drinking something called Piçon biere.  It’s hard to describe, but I’d call it a moment of bliss.  It didn’t last long, but I thanked God for it immediately because I knew him to be the source.  But what do these moments mean?

In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis describes something similar.  Of these moments Lewis says, “the central story of my life is about nothing else.”   Lewis’ recounts three such episodes in his childhood.  The first occurred while the young Lewis, looking at a blooming currant bush, remembered a toy garden he had built in a biscuit tin.  A powerful sensation came over him which he describes as an intense desire.  Lewis senses this to be a supernatural encounter in that, following this brief glimpse, “the world turned commonplace again.”  The second event was through Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter when Lewis experienced a “trouble” which pointed toward “the Idea of Autumn”; he became “enamored of a season.”  The experience was again, one of intense desire.  The last glimpse occurred through the poetry of Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf.  Common to each of these experiences is the feeling of “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any satisfaction.”  He called this sensation Joy.

His description of these encounters implies that this was a meeting with the transcendent for they came “without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries” (20).

Later, Joy reprises its invitation.  Lewis uses the imagery of a sudden spring to describe the second summons of Joy.  The encounter came with a quote from and an illustration of Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods which produces the feeling of “pure Northernness,” a deliberately ambiguous term describing the feeling derived from “a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of the Northern summer, remoteness and severity . . . .”  This feeling awakens and fuses with the memory of Joy to create an “unendurable sense of desire and loss.”  He characterizes the feeling as “incomparably more important than anything else in [his] experience.”  From this point in his life, Lewis pursues Joy; he is on a quest to find its source.

A clearer idea of what these experiences may mean was suggested to me at a recent teacher’s convention.  Syd Hielema was talking about looking at our lives using the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Fulfillment paradigm.  I’ve looked at a lot of things with this template, from coffee to zombies, why not myself?

Here are Hielema’s questions:

Creation: How am I wired? What are my gifts? What gives me joy? In what situations in my past have I felt most fully “myself”? (Read Psalm 139:13-14)

Fall: In what ways do sin and fear affect me?  In what ways do I pretend to be someone I’m not?  What interferes with me loving God and loving others?  How do the wounds I’ve received from the brokenness of life affect me? (Read Jeremiah 17:9)

Redemption: Where have I seen God in my life? What helps me and what hinders me in terms of walking with him?  What am I quite clear about and what am I quite confused about?  Are there particular events or people that stand out on my road to Redemption? (Read Isaiah 43:1-2)

Fulfillment:  What might I be like when God has finished his refining work in me?  What might his universe be like?  How might I live anticipating that completion as a new creation?

It’s not very difficult to find creational goodness in ourselves, nor is it very difficult to see how we are distorted by sin.  The movements of redemption are also apparent when we look for them.  But the Fulfillment piece was something I figured was out of my experience–we get that when Christ returns.  But Hielema suggests that we might have the occasional glimpse by which we can extrapolate who we will be when God has finished his work.  And what it will feel like.

I instantly thought of my moment of bliss in medieval Renne. Are those moments that Lewis called encounters with Joy, a small sip of what it will be like when I am made new?

I’m looking forward to the next one.

 

 

Christian Tipping

In Christ and Culture, Rants on August 2, 2012 at 11:16 pm

Overheard one morning in a New York Subway near Broadway:  “I only made eleven dollars last night because it was a gospel show and the people only wanted the complimentary ice tea and they wanted it now!”

This young man experienced what so many in the service industry already know—when it comes to tipping, Christians are cheap.  Servers do pretty well in tips during the weekday lunch hour because the shopping and business crowd aren’t cheap.  Evenings are even better for tips because lovers, friends and partiers also aren’t cheap.  But the tipping pool dries up for Sunday lunch (and gospel concerts) because here come the Christians.

A friend of mine, and an experienced server, said that they had never met another server who wanted to work the post-church rush.  The reasons?  Customers on Sunday afternoons are “rude, impatient, and the least self-aware people [they] have encountered while working in the restaurant business.” And yes, Sunday afternoons are notoriously bad for tipping.

Here are some things you need to know if you ever go out to eat:

  • Servers make minimum wage or less.  Where alcohol is served they can be paid less because it is assumed they will make money on tips.
  • Many servers, especially when starting out, work few shifts and those can be as short as two hours.  In general, a server is lucky to get 20 hours a week in one restaurant.
  • Higher-end restaurant have fewer seatings, so, although the tips will be larger because the check is larger, the waiters make less money than they would in a restaurant with higher turnover.
  • The more courses you order, the more your server has to work on your behalf.
  • The person who waits on your table will split their tips with the kitchen staff.
  • In some restaurants, the kitchen tip is a simple 15% of the table receipts.  This means that if you tip only 10%, it is theoretically possible for the server to be out of pocket for the evening.
  • It is not customary to tip in all parts of the world.  The language of generosity is not the same everywhere.

My friend insists that there are some wonderful customers in after church on Sundays, but she added that she “would rather work Friday nights with the drunk people than Sunday afternoons.”

What do these this firsthand experience with Christians say about us and our Lord?

1 Timothy 6:18-19 (ESV) says of people who can afford to eat in restaurants and go to Broadway gospel shows: They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.”

What might we say about ourselves, and more importantly, about a life in Jesus if we were to follow Biblical teaching and be polite and generous customers?

My server friend is a Christian and she really enjoys what she does.  Perhaps it is because she is a Christian that she is such an excellent server.  It’s in how she views other people.  She works hard to facilitate their experience while in the restaurant.  She does this by showing respect and being pleasant.  She listens to what they say and tries to intuit what they need so that she can give them the best service possible.  This, for her, is the essence of the service industry, but is it not also the essence of living in Christ?  To love and respect people because they are created in God’s image and to put their needs over yours?

Yes, servers are paid to do this, but Christians are commanded to do it.  But there is an even more compelling reason—we have been recipients of God’s Grace and, so, out of gratitude we share that grace with every human being with whom we come into contact—including our server at a restaurant or at a Broadway gospel show.

. . . crossing the line between knowing and doing

I thought it was awesome that my wife’s reaction to over hearing the conversation in the New York subway was the same as mine.  We both looked at each other, I am convinced by the Spirit’s prompting, and whispered something like, “I want to do something about that.”  It turns out she’s much more generous than I am, because she doubled what I had in mind.  When I gave him the overdue tip, I told him that we were Christians and that this means we take joy in giving.  And we were sorry he wasn’t treated more generously the night before.  His face was a combination of disbelief and joy, as was that of his companion.

My wife explained to me her view as we walked away.  She firmly believes that the cost of the evening is not just the meals and the tickets to the show; it’s the tips as well.  If people can’t afford both, then they can’t afford to go out.  It’s wrong to make your server subsidize your night out.

For Christians to be considered generous, we need to exceed the standard.  The standard is around 15% in a restaurant, five dollars on the bed in the hotel every morning and at least a couple of dollars for every suitcase that someone handles for you.  And then, of course, we need to express the joy and gratitude that comes from living in the generous Grace of our Redeemer.  Perhaps then our servers would prefer spending time with us on Sunday afternoons, or better yet, Sunday mornings, than with the drunks on Friday nights.