Monday, January 28, 2008

Potsherds and Goats

"The strength of a man's virtue must not be measured by his efforts, but by his ordinary life." - Blaise Pascal, Pensees 352

The scene is early August, 1998. Shelby's wasted and withered body lays in his hospital bed. The cancer, or perhaps the cure for it, had taken its toll. No morphine to cut the pain, this 81 year old man's family gathers around him to provide what comfort they can. His daughters, and their children and grandchildren come in from all over the country to make vigil at his side, knowing that the end will be soon.

In his younger years Shelby was a hard man. An over the road truck driver in the 40's, 50's, 60's and 70's, Shelby drove Highway 78 from Atlanta to Birmingham, then on to Houston, Texas. The days before the interstate system meant that Shelby had long hours of hard driving. For Shelby, hard driving also meant hard living. He knew the watering holes and used them often, frequently being thrown out of them for fighting. In the 40's and 50's this was what being a man meant, and Shelby was truly a man.

His family lived a couple hundred miles away, his wife Olive raising his four daughters as best she could, seeing her husband on weekends. His daughters knew the man on weekends, a father who drank as hard then as he did during the weeknights. He asked his teenage daughters to drive him to the tougher parts of town to the local watering holes to buy moonshine and other forms of liquor for him. The daughters grew up and moved on, still calling him daddy but never forgetting the man of their childhood.

His grandchildren faired some better. Never seeing him drink in front of them, Shelby kept his beer in the boat shed and would frequently slip off to cut the edge off of his day. The grandkids knew when Bigdaddy's nose was red, which it frequently was, he would be in a good mood.

In 1980, Shelby retired and came home to his wife and the remains of his family. The itch to be gone, though, continued, and Shelby took a small driving route for a local bank, driving daily between branches in a small Nissan truck provided by the company. From 6:00 am to 6:00pm five days a week Shelby was once again free to drive the roads.

His wife and family had been members of 8th Street Baptist Church for 40 years or better, but in 1980 Shelby began to attend regularly. He and his wife became friends with the long time preacher and his wife, the couples began to make trips together, Shelby, of course, acting as chauffeur. They traded their small house on 40th street for a small new house next to the preacher and his wife. During these years, his drinking became less and less, whether from the necessity of age, or the realization that a man can be defined by things other than how he holds his liquor (or fails to). His church attendance increased, and he began carrying his bible to church. This hard living man was granted at least a partial repreave. He could begin to repair his relationships with his wife, his daughters, and his grandchildren. And though not perfect, he made the effort even in the ordinary things he did.

Fifty one years earlier and half a world away, a Bedouin boy named Mohamed Ahmed el-Hamad was looking for some lost livestock in a mountainous region of the Dead Sea. While throwing a rock in a high cave, the boy heard the distinct sound of breaking pottery and went in to investigate. What he found was numerous unbroken clay pots through out the cave dating back some 2,000 years. But as if finding ancient pots was not enough, contained within those pots were the Dead Sea Scrolls - Jewish writings from the time contemporary with the times of Jesus.

The find was incredible. Eleven caves containing thousands of manuscripts. Ancient copies of Old Testament books, including one 27 foot scroll containing the entire book of Isaiah, commentaries on various books, pieces of other books, and a treasure map some believe contain the locations of the Temple's furnishings before its destruction in 70 A.D. All wrapped in linen and stored in ordinary, run of the mill, clay pots. The find advanced biblical understanding of not only Jewish thought at the time of Jesus, allowing us to step back in time and walk with the people who Jesus walked with, and enter their minds to better understand the Scriptures.

What does the Dead Sea Scrolls have to do with Shelby?

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. (2. Cor. 4:7).

When Paul spoke of treasure in jars of clay, he spoke not of scrolls hidden in the hills of Qumran, though he might have known about them. He spoke of us, and that while the outside vessel is ordinary and common, rough and chipped, the treasure inside is far surpassing that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. For in us, His people, there is a treasure that reveals the all-surpassing power of God.

It is amazing how God uses the ordinary, and perhaps the unlikely, to show forth His power. A hard living truck driver, with a body broken and emaciated by its many years of exposure to the elements, spoke simply "I love you" to his wife, daughters, grandchildren and great grandchildren and went to sleep. The pot was broken, and the treasure revealed. The Shelby of 1979 was not the Shelby of 1998 in that hospital bed. And the treasure revealed in those final days of his life revealed more than the all the Dead Sea Scrolls combined.

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. (2. Cor. 4:10-11).

My Bigdaddy did not teach me how to live as a man, but he did teach me how to die as a believer. And for that, I am thankful.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Singing with the Midnight Choir

"Nothing ain't worth nothin', but its free" - Kris Kristofferson

In the 1970's, Larry Gatlin wrote a song which many Christian found offensive. (Strange, because Gatlin himself, even then, professed a strong faith in Christ.) When you really read the words to "The Midnight Choir", it is both convicting and troublesome:

The doors to the mission open at seven.
And the soup will be ready about nine.
Right now its six-thirty, they're ragged and dirty,
they're standing, and sitting, and laying in line.

First they'll do a little singing,
then hear a little preaching.
Then get saved for the third time this week.
A bowl of soup later and a pat on the shoulder,
and by midnight they're back on the street.

They walk to the corner of Fourth Street and Broadway,
then take the first alley on the right.
One of them asks a stranger, "How 'bout a hand",
and he gives it one finger at a time.

Then they spot an old buddy with a bottle of heaven,
then pass around what means everything.
One bottle for four, thank God, someone scored!
Now the Midnight Choir starts to sing...

"Will they have Mogen David in heaven?
Dear Lord, we'd all like to know.
Will they have Mogen David in heaven,
Sweet Jesus, if they don't, who the hell wants to go!"

On many levels, this song is convicting. It portrays the world view of the homeless and alcoholic men and how they see what others do to them. Well meaning people open the soup kitchen to feed these men. But that bowl of soup comes with strings attached. They are expected to accept Christ. For the problems of these men have a simplistic solution - what these men need is a good sermon, a good invitation, a bowl of soup and a pat on the shoulder and their world will be changed. You can almost here the Sunday report, "We had fifteen saved this week at the shelter!" as if what happened that week was a powerful show of the Gospel. Then they are sent back into the harsh realities of the world to face the cold nights and the rejection of society.

In reality, or at least in my realty, Christians are often seen as only willing to invest a few hours of time to assuage their own guilt toward those who are beneath them socially, and completely unwilling to invest their lives for these strangers in any meaningful and long lasting way. They have given them nothing of value, but the warmth of a bowl of soup on a single night and pronounced them whole. (You can start feeling guilty now.)

You can also see how these homeless men view salvation, or at least the profession of it, as a ticket to their nightly meal. Sufficient numbers of them must profess Christ each night in order that all may partake in the soup that will be offered at the conclusion. In short, profession of faith is the price of admission to dinner, much like the waiter bringing the check to the table after dinner.

While I realize the song is fictional, it is convicting for me of my attitude toward those in need. I often overlook their immediate needs (dinner, a clean bed, a bath, a friend, etc.,) for what *I* think they really need - which is, obviously, a profession of faith in Christ. At least, I can say, I have done something for their eternal destiny even if I ignore their immediate destiny - a back alley at Fourth and Broadway.

I also realize that I am often the guy, who when asked to give a hand, gives it one finger at a time. I can honestly say I have never flipped off a homeless guy. I also don't tend to judge them. (I am smart enough to realize that they are not stupid enough to be in the position they are in without at least trying something different.) When I see them downtown, I often wonder about their past and what they have experienced that led them to the point in their lives where they accepted the fate to live under the overpass. But I must also confess that I have never helped a homeless guy off the street, nor tried to help them to reach a more stable way of living. Yes, I can be made to feel guilty and convicted for how little I do to ease the problems of those less fortunate than me. But there is no way that I do enough (whatever "enough" is).

But the song is troubling to me for this reason: While these fictional men are concerned about the deep theological question of whether there will be "Mogen David" in heaven (serious theologians know its going to be Dom Perignon with caviar chasers ), I constantly wonder what it is that would keep me from wanting to go to heaven. Is accepting Jesus just really seeking to get my nightly bowl of soup? Is my acceptance of Jesus the means for me to gain heaven, or is Christ the point of heaven?

I confess that in my early Christian life, heaven was the "anti-hell". (You know the sermon as well: "Hell is terrible. It is awful. The fire never quenches. The teeth are always gnawing. Its painful. Its awful. It smells bad. Bad people will be there. You want to avoid hell for sure! If you don't accept Jesus Christ, you will go there."). No one wants to go to hell, so for sure I want to do whatever it takes not to go there. I constantly thought about what I was saved from.

Then came the next phase, what I like to call the "Southern Gospel phase". ("My mansion, just over in glory, in the city built four-square, on streets of gold, with gates of pearl, and jasmine walls, yada yada yada.") How heaven would be like living in Mountain Brook, only, everybody there is rich and has nice things. I, too, can have all those things I have always wanted here but couldn't afford! Makes me feel so much better about my current lack of stuff by knowing in my deepest spiritual sense, "I have laid up my treasures in heaven". God is going to compensate me for not having all those things I covet here on Earth but don't have. Except for the hope of those things nice things, I wouldn't really like heaven (except for the fact it was the "anti-hell", in which case I would be content with just a cabin somewhere up there, but if I work hard enough on Earth and have enough personal righteousness God has to give me a mansion).

But as I have grown more (not that I am by any means mature - just ask my wife), I have realized that heaven is not about avoiding hell, or gaining mansions, or streets of gold. Those are my "Mogen David". Rather heaven is about being with the God of Eternity who gave Himself for me in Christ, that I could be what He created me to be - to enjoy and glorify Him forever.

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far;... Phil. 1:20-23.

There are many things I want to be in heaven - I disparately want my family there, my children and wife, my parents, my siblings and their families. My friends, my co-workers, the people who come to me for help (well, most of them anyway). The drunks on the streets. Many of these things are my unspoken "Mogen David" and very dear and important to me. But, while at first blush it is blasphemous, for the Christian, of all the people and things possible to be in heaven, if Christ is not there, who the hell wants to go? We have placed all of our trust in Him and His work. We have committed our life to Him. As Christians, we have earned nothing of ourselves, but we owe it all to Him. And to Him belongs all the glory.

Lord, as hard as it is, please remove my Mogen Davids, and help me to focus on Your love for me, and Your presence in my life for all eternity.

Look for me on Fourth and Broadway - first alley on the right.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Most Likely to Become a Nun

"We make a living by what we do, we make a life by what we give." - Winston Churchill

I have always been a good student. Through high school and college I rarely had to crack a book to make goods grades, and in college even failed to bother buying many of the books for my classes. By the end of college, my dream, much like many college kids, was to retreat into a monastic world of intellectualism and Christian thought where I could reflect deeply on the things of God and not be bothered with the things of this world. I could easily have become a nun. (Though, I really don't think I would look good in those dress thingys). How much easier and more pure my life would be if I could be in the world as little as possible! And how much more godly I would be as a result of being separated from so much temptation. Convent life is for me! No temptations with the flesh (only the mind) and no confrontations with a sinful world. And you can study and daydream about God all day long!

But reality set it. It was during those same college years that I begrudgingly worked numerous jobs to pay the the bills. By far, though, the hardest physical job was one I held on 10th Ave North in Birmingham. I worked in warehouse that sold nuts and bolts and washers, and similar type fasteners all over the Southeast. A huge warehouse, I had to know the difference between and location of Grade 2, Grade 5 and Grade 8 bolts and screws, with matching washers and nuts. I had to climb racks of bolts, each sorted by diameter, grade and size to piece together orders. I had to maneuver a forklift in tight areas, load and unload semi-trucks. The summers were sweltering, as there was no air conditioning in that building. The winters were equally harsh, though we did have a few gas and diesel space heaters we would gather around when the chill got too bad. All this for the whopping total of $4.25 an hour. And besides, I got to learn a lot of interesting new linguistic combinations from that bunch of blue collar guys with whom I worked. (I had no clue that a particular cross species mating combination was even possible, but apparently when you drop a keg of bolts on your foot it brings it to mind.)

As I think back on it, I'm glad I worked with bolts, rather than nuns. I am still not sure how I managed to work 40 hours while taking a full class load in college. That company was good to me, allowing me to be gone for class, but demanding I be there all other times. This gentile intellectual (mental is probably a better word) boy from a middle class family went to college with grease under his fingernails and wearing a blue collar warehouse uniform. (Rich preppy college chicks really dig that.) I learned that hard physical work is not beneath anyone and certainly honorable, but also not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Since then, there have been numerous jobs I have held, some paying better than others, but each with its own difficulties commensurate with the pay. But of all the things I have done to feed and house my family, what I do now is probably the most demanding. The stress is huge. One mistake and bad things happen. The hours are long and hard, the work load cyclical, the people I deal with at times are obnoxious, and the time it calls for me to be away from my family overwhelming. I have missed sporting events and school concerts, holidays and birthday celebrations all in the pursuit of the vocation in which I participate. Make no mistake, those are big sacrifices, not only for me, but for those who I care about and who are closest to me.

But along that way I have met people in need, worked with people in need, and played with people in need. I saw real hurts and real joys of real people expressing themselves without regard for what others mights think. And those people have had the opportunity to see a Christian where they least expected to find one. (Not that I have always been the best example.)

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life... (Phil. 2:12-15).

As I grow older I understand more and more what it means to "work out my salvation with fear and trembling". It doesn't mean to hide in the cloisture of the convent, or create a sacred bubble that the world cannot penetrate. (Failure to sin from lack of opportunity is not the same thing as being sinless.) It means, at least for me, to be in the path of this crooked and depraved generation, shine like the stars and hold out the word of life. It is facing the temptations and knowing that through God's strength they hold no power. It means coming into contact with people from all walks of life and showing them the Gospel of Christ in me.

If I fail in this world, there's always the nun thing. Just call me Sister For The Luv.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Playing God

"People don't come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God." - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

A few years ago, Burt made a comment in a service that has stuck with me. "What would you do if you won the lottery?", he asked. "I would be able to give a lot of money to the church, and to various ministries, and Christian causes. How great that would be for the cause of Christ! And I would get to play God, deciding what God wants supported, and what he doesn't."

Burt's point was a good one. We should not play God. But as illustrated recently to me, there are many ways we try to "play God", and they always end tragically.

The church began, I am sure, with the best of motives. It set out its goal "to evangelize the lost, and reach the multitudes, in response to the command of God in the Great Commission." Who can argue with that?

But God's blessing, this church thought and taught, was seen in growth, and to grow, you have to give the "lost world" what it wants - programs that meet their perceived needs. And that is what they set out to do - children's choirs complete with hot dog suppers, youth programs and trips, men's clubs and women's clubs, fifth Sunday singin's, that Old Time Religion preachin', a bus ministry (for the poor, of course) and a smug sense of "this is what it means to do church, to reach people, to really minister." They counted the nickels and the noses, and measured their success by these really important things. It was evident to all that God was blessing them. Their programs were really active, and the juggernaut they created could now build upon itself.

Though not the "top tier" church, younger pastors would still drool over the opportunity to lead such a "vibrant congregation" to show their talents in growing it larger, and better, and put on display their skill at church growth, and allow them to step to the next level in their careers. However, the pastor was treated like a coach at the University of Alabama: when a pastor didn't deliver enough nickels and noses, the "parking lot committee" was quick to vote him out and look for someone who could. (You know the parking lot committee: that is the committee that meets each Sunday in the parking lot to have the pastor for lunch.) If God wasn't blessing enough, it was surely the pastor's fault, because he promised he could deliver.

And the people expected a show. Each Sunday, as the people came in, they were treated to their show du jour. Like an episode of Dr. Phil, the people were called to daydream over their relationship with God, feel guilty, sometimes even for sin, and invited to make it all right with God by walking the aisle and giving tearful confessions. The services were intentionally designed to play to the emotions. By the end of the show, everyone was made to feel better about themselves (or worse, depending on how you analyze it), complete with new resolutions to do better until next Sunday, when they would start it all over again. The cycle was seemingly endless.

But scandal hit in the early 90's, and the bubble of godliness was busted, because, as everyone knows, among God's people, there can be no "real" sin. That would be hypocrisy, and when hypocrisy is exposed it is truly the unforgivable sin. Disillusioned, members left in droves to other churches where the programs were better, and the music was better, and the preacher was better, and their children were cared for better, and their parents could play in junk bands, and where the illusion of godliness was once again paramount to the reality of sin.

All that was left was the shell. The building, a parking lot, and a sign where cute and witty quips would be replaced every four or five months with other cute and witty clips, except twice a year it carried the words "Revival - Everyone Welcome." The remaining members took the pastors they could get, as opposed to the pastors they wanted. Theology and soundness were no longer important, they needed someone in their pulpit if they were to have any hope. So they kept attempting the illusion, but no one was willing to daydream with them any longer.

In 2007, they finally threw in the towel, and sold their property. The building sold for quite a bit of money and they needed to distribute those proceeds appropriately and fairly. A few wanted it paid to the remaining members for being faithful through these years, taking their "portion" guised as "benevolent" fund distributions. But most knew their obligation to give it away and this was their final chance to "play god". After much contention, they chose to divide it among numerous programs of other churches and several nonprofit charities and TV preachers. They had fun fighting for and picking out their favorite things to do with "God's money", all the while lamenting the death of their church. But in talking to those remaining members, the real question is whether it was ever alive.

You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. (Rev. 3:17-18).

If Christ's words to the churches in Revelation mean anything, it is this: Christ is the center of the church, and the reason for its being, the focus of its worship, and the One who draws his people to it. Charles Spurgeon, a Baptist preacher, summed it up. "Jesus said, 'Preach the gospel to every creature.' But men are getting tired of the divine plan; they are going to be saved by a priest, going to be saved by the music, going to be saved by theatricals, and nobody knows what! Well, they may try these things as long as ever they like; but nothing can ever come of the whole thing but utter disappointment and confusion, God dishonoured, the gospel travestied, hypocrites manufactured by the thousands, and the church dragged down to the level of the world."

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
(1 Tim. 1:15-17).

I am not trying to be judgmental of the methods and tactics of others to "reach the lost." But the cautionary tale of this church is one I have seen many times over. The Gospel is not methods and tactics. The Church is not programs for our kids and seniors, or productions each Sunday, and "revivals twice a year". It is not nickels, or noses. It is not preachers. And we are not called to paint for this world the illusion of God in our midst to be attractive and active for them. That is playing God. Rather, the church is the fellowship of believers, acknowledging the saving work of Christ in their lives together, and proclaiming it to the world through those very same lives. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the irresistible Grace of God which calls us to fellowship, and not our programs and personalities. To make it the latter is to "play god".

I, for one, am glad that our church does not rely on gimmicks, programs or theatricals to proclaim the Gospel of Christ, nor is it centered around charismatic individuals and personalities. That is a big and real temptation we have fought off.

Thank you, Lord, for our church. Help us to be your light and salt to those whom you are continually calling. Keep us from our own illusions of You that usurp Your authority, and help us not to eye with envy the illusions of others.


Monday, January 14, 2008


"A man finds room in the few square inches of his face for the traits of all his ancestors; for the expression of all his history, and his wants." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Face One:
John grew up with a very troubled childhood, sexually and physically abused from the age of four to the age of 12, when he was finally removed by the authorities. Relief came for him in the form of government intervention and caring Christian couple willing to take this troubled boy in. To see John's face in his teens would belie the terrible history he had. His face always smiled, and voice always cheerful, his countenance always lifting. John became active in their church's youth group. He did not have an easy fit, and developed only a few close teen friends. He talked very sparingly of his past, and few of his close teen friends knew his past and current struggles. Time passes, like it always does, and youth grow up and move off to college, and those friends were off to begin their own lives. All except for John. The history of abuse and an uncertain future filled with loneliness, scorn, and nonacceptance took their toll. On Good Friday, 1984, John took his own life.

Face Two:
Ray was the minister of education at a fairly good sized Baptist church. He, together with his wife Pat, were a young married couple planning their family and their life together. Ray is a big man, or to hear him tell it, "he grew out instead of up". His laugh was sure to brighten your day and his willingness to listen to you without judgment was self evident. His wife was equally accessible, and together they modeled humor and acceptance. It was this couple that, early in their marriage, was called to take in a young troubled boy named John, and they did it without ever a hint to others of either John's problems or any resentment of their calling to clean up this mess created by someone else. They did it with the same joy they approached every other aspect of their life. To see Ray's face was to see joy and hope in all of life's situations. Except for that night. The 15 second announcement must have seemed an eternity, and just as vivid now as the day it was made. The congregation, gathered to remember the death of Christ on Good Friday, 1984 was darkened by the untimely death of a valuable soul. The announcement added lines of sadness to that face that were not evident before.

Face Three:
Lelton was working class man, whose face carried the lines of many years more than his fifty some odd years. He had raised his children in Birmingham, during the height of the racially torn times of the sixties. Though he rarely talked about it, he had taken Japanese lives in the Pacific theater during World War II, and seen some of his own comrades die. He was part of the aptly named Greatest Generation. A good father, grandfather, and husband, he made a living by working hard his many years selling educational supplies to schools and libraries. Money was not always there, but being a child of the depression, both he and his wife Margaret knew the value of frugality and how to stretch every dollar to meet the needs of the day. As an educational book salesman, he knew his product, but his intellect was much higher than the educational books he sold, or the job which he worked, both of which seemed beneath a man of such intelligence. While traveling, Camel cigarettes and WAPI talk radio were his constant companions. A deacon in his church, Lelton would work his weekends repairing appliances and "piddling" on things that needed to be done for the church. It was no surprise to anyone that Lelton and Margaret took into their home a young man from 500 miles away who moved to Birmingham to go to college, giving him a home away from home.

Face Four:
Julian, together with his brother, owned a construction company that repaired fire damaged homes for insurance companies.
There were no fish symbols on his business card, no Scripture verses on his fax cover sheet. He didn't need them, as his life spoke volumes. His face showed the humility of a man deeply committed to Christ. He enjoyed his work, and treated people ethically, modeling his business after another Carpenter who lived long ago. In and out of the church, Julian was the model of a gracious and humble man, his face always with a smile and a word of encouragement, or willing to meet and pray with anyone concerning the need of the day. When there was a need, and Julian was able to help in any way, he would quietly and unannounced do it. Julian neither wanted nor desired to be the center of attention, and shied away from it. Julian was the type of man whose face reassured you things were going to be ok, not by what he said, but just by his presence.

Face Five:
As I stare into my own mirror and shave each morning, I notice more and more lines appear in my middle aged face. The face I see in the mirror is not just mine, but the composite of so many people who have entered my life and impacted who I am. Those lines reflect for me the years of living that make up a life shaped by so many others, more than even mentioned here. When I look in the mirror I see John's face, teaching me the value of friendship, the need for community and acceptance despite our problems, the value of being there when people need the physical touch of our Saviour, and that sometimes the face of youth can hide the pain and fear that will surely show years later. I see Ray's face, teaching me laughter and joy, even if punctuated with pain and disappointment, and that our faith in Christ carries us even when we feel as if we have failed. Though the face of the college boy he took in has changed, I see Lelton's face, reminding me that life is more than things, it is people, family, and community. I see Julian's face, reminding me that true Christian commitment should not be confused with, nor relegated to the relatively few truly called professional ministers. I see the face of my children, who look to mine to find safety, comfort and answers to life's questions. I see a face that stands in the gap, not just for the future of those who will follow me in the faith, but in honor and memory of those who have gone before me.
I see many more lines on this face than mentioned, and many more faces that have shaped my own.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. (Heb. 12:1)

If I don't wear this face well, I owe an explanation to each of these for failing the lessons their faces have given to me. More, I owe it to Christ, who put each of them in my path to shape how I look.

Thank you, Lord, for the lines on my face, and the great crowd of witnesses who put them there.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Sweet Smell of Righteousness

"The thing that really separates us from God is not so much our sin, but our damnable good works." - John Gerstner

In my line of work, twice a month I come into contact with a vast gathering of many different type of people - a collection of people I jokingly refer to as "the Great Unwashed". From all walks of life, these people with relatively small problems filter into my life, some with the swagger of bravado, but most with a bit of fear. Dressed in jeans, shorts, flip flops, beer shirts, golf shirts, button downs, "urban" attire, and thrift store clothes. Some are climbing the social ladder, some already have climbed it, some are still in school, and many come clearly beaten down by life, by drugs, by alcohol, or by spouses. It is literally a room full of ordinary people, each believing their problem is more important than everyone else in the room, and for them that is true. Of all the ways I could describe those two days a month, like long, busy, tiring, interesting, they are never dull.

Before you think me some kind of saint for working here, understand it is not only a part of my job, but I view it as a distraction from the other rather mundane parts of my job. I view a part of my job there as helping the Great Unwashed in some small way leave changed people, having either assuaged their fear, or removed their bravado. I'm pretty good at both, I think, and usually gentle about it. And the people provide a relatively endless supply of interesting stories and humorous anecdotes. (Not much saintly in that last statement, now is there?)

But yesterday something interesting happened. An older man (by older, I mean say mid 60s, which is really much younger now than it used to be) walked in, dressed in his coat and tie, nice pants and shoes, carrying his briefcase, carrying himself with his own sense of style and debonair. He sat there all day, surrounded by the rest of the Great Unwashed, looking relatively out of place by his style of dress. To look at him in the room you knew he was a bit different, if not by the way he dressed, then by the casual way he sat in the room. I knew who he was, having been at least partially prepared for his visit in the weeks since his problem began, and his emails started. So I had advanced notice this gentlemen thought himself better than most, and more clever than me, seeking to justify his actions that led to his problem by casting blame on others, and combat was going to be inevitable.

Late in the day it came his turn for me to deal with him. As he approached and we began to discuss his situation I noticed an odor. That might be a bit weak a statement. I noticed a stench. A disgusting stench. The kind that makes you gag just at the memory of it. Like a bad mixture of dog feces and weeks of body odor rolled into one overpowering smell. So strong was the odor that the person helping me had to leave her position, not trying to be rude, but understandably trying to avoid the odor. (Besides, there was little she could do to help me anyway.) I could not hear his story for his smell. Not that I would believe it anyway, but I could not get past the smell. The more I sat there, forcibly locked into conversation with his combative personality, the more I just wanted to get rid of him, or at least find some way for him to get away from me. I was successful. One more story for the water cooler, and another inside joke with the other people I work with.

On the drive home, though, it hit me. This gentleman was obviously oblivious to this odor. He didn't smell it, or surely he would have washed. Am I just as oblivious to the stench of my well dressed and presented righteousness to God?

John Gerstner once said, "The thing that really separates us from God is not so much our sin, but our damnable good works." What a truth. How can God ever get past the stench of my righteousness? What have I done, or can do, to make God stand up and take notice of me and be impressed? God allowed me to see that man was like me presenting myself to Him.

All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
- Isaiah 64:6

What hope is there for any, much less for me? I am by no means Mother Theresa. If you were to know me, you would know that is true. But every once in a while, in my callous world, God reminds me that even if I were, it wouldn't be good enough for Him to get past the stench of this righteousness I call mine to hear an argument about myself that is useless and untrue.

What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Phil. 3:8-11.

Thank you, Paul, for speaking the obvious. Ditto, God.


Tuesday, January 8, 2008

True Worship and Love

"Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness" - C. S. Lewis

Worship has always been for me a thing to attend, and the Gospel mere words on a page that I believe. But the power of the Gospel Sunday in our worship was literally overwhelming for me.

The music was, great, the message was, exemplary, the setting, ornate. Often in our worship service I have seen God's presence in each of these: the music stirring a song of joy, or reflection, or of peace; the Message, bringing hope in a particularly dry time in my life; the prayers, offering me a window into the soul of the pray-er, and transporting me into the presence of Almighty God. Often I have seen Christ in the pieces, much like a guitar played on only one or two strings. But Sunday was different. I saw Christ in the SERVICE. Not like a well-played six string guitar, but rather like a harp in the hands of an expert, played to the tune of the Gospel He died to bring us, displaying the grace of God His Spirit imparts to us, as shown through His people, in concert, live, for the world to see.

The service was not pretty. In fact, it was the most painful worship service of my life. To the backdrop of the church's Elders, the announcement was made that a trusted member of the church, the finance secretary, had taken money from the church's accounts. The finance secretary stood at the podium and confessed her sin, and simply requested forgivness. The hurt was evident in the faces and voices of the elders who spoke, and the congregation who listened. And the easy thing for everyone would have been to express their anger, and explain how bad this sin was, and go away disillusioned and angry. The tension in the service, the reality sinking in, lead me to wonder was this really a good idea to make such an announcement. How would this congregation respond? Would they treat her with kindness, or, as the Gospel dictates, would they treat her with love?

Paul said it well: Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (I Cor. 13:6-7). In that service, in the face of the very people who should be offended, there was LOVE. All those things Paul said about it, they were there. Love, for Christ, love, for her, love, for His church. She stood before us, exposed and vulnerable and found a congregation of God's people willing to protect and walk the journey with her. You see, she was not a weeping sinner, trying to make it right with God on display for our amusement; she was a sister, trying to make it right with us, the very people she offended.

Only the Spirit of God can do that. In the surreal moment of that long service, sin was not on display. Rather, God's love was on display through His people. This time not just the musicians, the pray-ers, or the preacher. All of God's people displayed it.

What hope I have, that despite my sin, I am loved. I felt safe. I felt protected. I felt loved. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8: 38-39).

Community Presbyterian Church is properly named. We are truly are a Community of God's people.