Posts Tagged ‘grace

27
Nov
17

No monsters… no saints

“For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship…”  Ephesians 2:8-10, NRSV

Cars on the highwayWHEW! We made it!

Sometime after 9:00 pm, in the non-Daylight Saving Time pitch-blackness of Saturday night we finally pulled into our driveway and turned off the Prius’ purring engine, thanking her for her faithful service.

Achy muscles uncoiled themselves and stiff joints popped as we disembarked from the 11-hour drive from Houston to Kansas City.

My wife and I then both made a secret pact that we would not do that again anytime soon… that is, at least not until the next auspicious family gathering.

Eleven hours is a LONG time to drive. You need a few diversions along the way – for sanity’s sake. And if you have taken a lengthy trip by car recently, you probably played some of the same road games we did as you drove. There is, for example:

  • … the ever popular, “Find the mutually acceptable and also reasonably audible radio station” game.
  • … or the “Let’s make detailed plans for the next three years of family vacations” conversation.
  • … and who doesn’t love the, “speculate at length about whether this is the same route we took last year or not” diversion?

Yes, these are all a ton of fun. But I have to confess, one of my favorite long-car-trip games is known by the initials: I.P.A.

But instead of standing for India Pale Ale, this IPA means Instant Personality Assessment.

And you know how this one goes because you have played it yourself… on multiple occasions. It goes something like this:

  • “Look at that clown in the silver Camry. Why is he going so slow? Doesn’t he know the speed limit is 75?”
  • “All these Texas drivers in their pick-up trucks… They think they own the road!”
  • “Did you see that guy up there in the red SUV? He must be texting or something. He’s gone onto the shoulder TWICE!”
  • “Whoa… watch out for this lunatic coming up on the left. He’s GOT to be going 85!”

After a while, it becomes abundantly clear that there is only ONE CAR on the entire highway that knows how to follow the basic rules of common sense in driving: YOURS.

Conversely, it is also clear that a dangerous, self-absorbed, psychopathic fiend of some kind pilots every other car on the road.

It sounds funny when you say it out loud, but that description is really not too much of an exaggeration. Most of us, as we drive, tend to ascribe outlandishly vile personality traits to the other drivers on the road… while assigning outlandishly saintly qualities to ourselves.

Of course in our hearts, we know neither of those statements is really accurate. The truth lies somewhere between them.

The drivers of the other cars are NOT actually monsters.

And by the same token, WE are not actually saints as we drive our cars.

Each of us is an imperfect, stressed, hopeful, excited, dismayed, wounded, confused, emotional, beloved child of God… doing everything we can to make it safely from Point “A” to Point “B” in our brand new, beat up, smooth, junky, clean, filthy, pickups, sedans, coupes, clunkers, SUVs and 18-wheelers.

We are each looking for a point of refuge or an anchor in a fast-spinning, ever-changing world.

We imagine we will find it just around that next bend in the road or at the truck stop. Surely it will be there when we get home!

Too rarely do we stop and let this truth from this passage from Ephesians settle down over us and calm our restless hearts; we don’t remember that we are not saved by our superior driving skills, the charity of our fellow motorists, or by our St. Christopher’s medals as we ply the highways.

We are – and have ALWAYS been – saved by grace and grace alone.

 

Happy motoring!

01
Aug
17

Judgment Day

Judgment“You’re too…”

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a sentence that began this way?

If so, you know that there are an unlimited number of adjectives that can follow. Almost all of them involve some central element of your identity, measuring it against an understood standard of acceptability.

You might have heard, for example:

“You’re too short.”

“You’re too tall.”

“You’re too fat.”

“You’re too skinny.”

“You’re too weak.”

“You’re too liberal.”

“You’re too conservative.”

“You’re too country.”

“You’re too city,” or many, many other versions of the same idea.

Unfortunately, I doubt there is a single person alive who has not heard at least one “You’re too…” in their lives. The world seems to be well stocked with folks who are willing to judge and assess others.

And even though these one-liners usually maim and wound, I have received a few that I have considered helpful. In a quiet restaurant for dinner, hearing my wife say, “Honey, you’re too loud,” is of benefit to me and the other diners. “You’re too hard on him,” is useful feedback when I am being overly critical of one of my children.

But helpfulness is not usually the outcome. Most of the time, “You’re too…” comes off as an attack on a fundamental component of the divine wiring of one of God’s beloved creatures.

When you hand out one of these “scorecards” to someone, you might think you’re being helpful – like that time you told the girl she was too short to be a dancer or told me I am too goofy and irreverent to be a pastor – but it is more likely the case that your “open, honest” assessment serves only to bolster your own (perhaps) sagging ego while tearing others’ down.

But here is the question I really want to ask on this whole topic: given the fact that each of us has been stung by one of these “You’re too…”s at some point in our lives, how do we deal with them?

My personal tendency is to give them too much credence. My Myers-Briggs ENFJ personality type (Extroverted-INtuiting-Feeling-Judging) leads me to place a HIGH value on the opinions of others. I know I have blind spots concerning my own behavior and feel like I want to stay open to points of view that might be more objective than mine.

In practice, I have a really hard time hearing a “You’re too…” and blowing it off.

You might be like that, too. Or you might be exactly the opposite. You might be like our current president, for example. You might treat every word of criticism as “fake news”… not worth the air it takes to speak it.

Somewhere between those two extremes – I believe – lives a healthy “middle place.” It is a place that doesn’t brush off every critical comment as useless and irrelevant, but at the same time, is not crushed by them.

I believe there is such a place. And I further believe we arrive at that healthier place when we realize the true source of our worth. You see, when we lean toward believing that our worth comes from living up to the expectations of other people, we tend to give those opinions too much weight. We empower THEM to define US.

Conversely, when we see our intrinsic worth as completely self-generated, we seek no higher authority than that one that stares back at us from the mirror. We’re like, “Hey… whatever he says, goes.”

Grasping our worth as something bestowed upon us by a wise and loving Creator helps us keep the slings and arrows of criticism in their proper place. It helps us consider the value of each criticism… helps us graciously receive the stuff that applies, dismiss the stuff that doesn’t, and altogether avoid the temptation to “kill the messenger.”

The psalmist reminds us of the enormity of the miracle of human existence when he says this about people:

“Yet you have made them a little lower than God,

    and crowned them with glory and honor.

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;

    you have put all things under their feet,

all sheep and oxen,

    and also the beasts of the field,

the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,

    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.                        Psalm 8:5-8, NRSV

Wow! Really? Can that be ME he is talking about?

Yes… yes, it is. And you know what else is cool? He is also talking about YOU!

 

Abundant blessings;

20
Jun
17

LOVE NOTICES

Happy older driversBut Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.”

Luke 8:46, NRSV

Have you ever noticed? Jesus notices stuff.

For sure he notices the things that are right there… big as life… smack dab in front of his face… like 99.8% of the rest of us.

But he notices other things, too… things that escape the notice of 99.8% of the rest of us.

Jesus notices people. He notices words. He notices attitudes. He notices the movement of the Spirit as it blows through the world.

And you know what else? He notices YOU! And he knows the joy his noticing brings.

I thought about this the other day when I experienced first-hand the joy of being noticed.

My wife and I were traveling home from a thoroughly delightful afternoon with family. It was the late afternoon hour when the sun was just beginning to set. The temperature was perfect and the air was clear, so the windows of the car were open as we drove. There was some good, bouncy music playing on the radio and we had a pair of satisfied smiles on our faces. (And yes… that is a picture of us there at the top of this post.)

Usually – especially when I am driving – this is not the case. Most of the time when I am the driver of the car and my wife is the passenger, she is nervous and on-edge. Let’s just say she and I have two different driving styles… and for some inexplicable reason my preferred style seems to make her jittery.

HOWEVER… on this day I was really trying to be conservative and cautious as we drove along those familiar streets… braking WELL in advance of the changing stop light… slowing down to allow the gentleman to my left to come on over into this lane of traffic, etc.

I thought to myself, “I wonder if she will notice how sensibly I am driving. And if she does notice it, I wonder if she will SAY anything.”

For a brief moment I considered speaking up… bringing my reformed, prudent driving approach to her attention, just in case she hadn’t really noticed it on her own.

But then, in the very next instant, she DID notice! And she DID say something! And it was genuinely POSITIVE and AFFIRMING… something like, “Honey, you sure are doing a wonderful job behind the wheel there.”

I’m not going to lie… it was AWESOME! A real rush of validation and joy. It also gave me a real incentive to drive the same way the next time we are together.

As I reflected on my experience further, I realized Jesus had the same skill… the skill of noticing the unnoticed… and then COMMENTING on what he had noticed.

The stories of his noticing are legion; Jesus notices the little children the other people are trying to shoo away; he notices that power has gone out of him when the bleeding woman touches the hem of his robe; he notices the man who has been sitting by the pool of Bethsaida for 38 years, waiting to be healed; he notices the blind man by the side of the road; he notices the hypocrisy of the Pharisees; he notices the generosity of the widow bringing her small, insignificant coin to the Temple.

And so many more…

I guess you could say Jesus shows us that loving is noticing.

But as you watch him at work, it seems that the reverse is also true: Jesus also demonstrates his love in the act of NOT noticing.

He intentionally doesn’t notice the hideous condition of the leper’s skin as he reaches out and touches him; he doesn’t notice the lack of education or insight of the fishermen he calls to follow him as disciples; he doesn’t notice the second-class status of the women he chooses to include as partners in his ministry; he doesn’t notice the high social status of the religious officials who seek to discredit him; he doesn’t notice the sins of the woman caught in adultery.

I guess you could also say Jesus shows us that loving is not noticing.

It all makes me wonder: what am I noticing today? What am I NOT noticing?

And maybe more importantly: how are both my noticing and not noticing serving to demonstrate love?

So that’s what is on my heart today…

Thanks for noticing!

 

Abundant blessings;

13
Jun
17

Humble learning

Welcome-to-GI

“… but wisdom is with the humble.”
Proverbs 11:2, NRSV

I learned something this past week.

I learned that Grand Island, Nebraska is actually a pretty cool place.

I learned this as a result of spending three days in Grand Island at the Annual Conference of the Great Plains United Methodist Church.

It was a “command performance” kind of thing… meaning that attendance for me was not optional. Fortunately my wife agreed to go along at the last minute.

And since I am persuaded that this kind of thing is good for the soul, I have a public confession to make: when I first heard about the location of Annual Conference, I was not all that excited about spending three days in the town of Grand Island, Nebraska.

In fact it is possible I even poked a little fun at the notion that the word “island” is part of the name of a town in the state of Nebraska. I may also be guilty of encouraging my friends to wear Hawaiian shirts for each day of the conference… as a celebration of “island life.”

But then we arrived in town. And drove around. And met people and saw sights.

And as a result… I learned! I learned that Grand Island is a wonderful, clean, vigorous, engaging city of 48,000 souls on the plains of south central Nebraska.

(I’m still not entirely sure where the “island” part of the name comes in though.)

In the process of learning these things about Grand Island, I learned another important lesson. I learned something about learning.

Here is what I learned: sometimes learning happens when a vacuum gets filled. For me, there was an empty place in my mind called “the location of Grand Island, Nebraska.” I filled that empty space by looking on a map and finding it… right there off of Interstate 80, about 90 miles straight west of Lincoln, NE.

That’s one kind of learning.

But I learned that there is also another kind!

On some occasions, an unlearning has to happen before new learning is possible. That is because knowledge that is askew or off-base has to be corrected, re-shaped, or removed altogether before it can be replaced by something a little more reflective of reality.

In my case, for example, I first had to unlearn (or “dump,” to be a little more scientific about it) my earlier perceptions about the kind of town Grand Island was before I could replace them with the truer, better, more informed picture.

In thinking about these two kinds of learning, I also discovered that people LOVE the first type (the vacuum-filling type), but are not at all fans of the second type (the one that begins with unlearning).

It may be because the second type of learning requires HUMILITY… the willingness to begin by saying, “You know what… I was wrong about that.”

This is not a sentence that comes easily to my lips. I like to feel as if I have a few things figured out at this fine, ripe age I’ve attained. Retracing and retracting are not actions I rush to embrace.

And yet…

… my sense is that the learning that begins with a humble retraction seems to settle in at a deeper place inside me. It feels somehow “heftier”… a little more like WISDOM or INSIGHT than just information.

That may be what the writer of Proverbs meant by saying that “wisdom is with the humble.”

So then where does that leave us?

It would be hard to argue with the conclusion that the world has rarely had a greater need for wisdom and insight than it has today. At the same time, the world seems to be facing a desperate shortage of humility – the key ingredient of wisdom.

Because after all… when you already have all the answers, why look further or deeper?

Fortunately we have the prophet Micah to remind us what is good. And so, in case you have forgotten what he said, here is that reminder once again: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8, NRSV.

To paraphrase the most interesting man in the world: Stay humble, my friend. Gain wisdom.

Abundant blessings;

25
Apr
17

Good luck!

Clover picHey… check out this clover from my back yard.

I guess clover is supposed to be a bad thing to have in your yard, but I really like the look of it.

It transports me to Ireland for a fleeting moment… and reminds me of childhood days of long ago.

No, I never did live in Ireland, but behind our house we had a big field of clover. I can remember getting down on my hands and knees and searching through the field intently… studying each plant closely. I was searching diligently for that magical and elusive FOUR LEAF CLOVER!

And then one time, when I was nine or 10, I actually found one! Yeeeehhhaawwww!

I could hardly contain my excitement and joy! I ran inside to show it to my mom and little sister.

Mom told me that if I wanted to keep it really safe I should put it between the pages of a big book to flatten and preserve it… and then of course I should also remember which book I had put it in.

This advice from my mom made sense, but I was really not sure whether I would actually follow it. You see, the whole reason I went looking for a four-leaf clover in the first place was for the GOOD LUCK it would bring me. And at that age I was really not sure how wide the “luck radius” for a four-leaf clover really was.

I mean, did it work only if the clover was physically in my possession? Would I be OK if it were three feet away? Or six feet? Or a couple of miles?

On the other hand, I knew that if I carried it around with me, I would probably either lose it or destroy it.

What to do?!

“Well, the thing for you to do…” said my Today Self to my 10-year-old self, in response to his dilemma, “… is to grow up a little and dump the whole idea of the good luck talisman in the first place.”

He/I continued: “I mean really; think about it for a minute. How could that green plant, or that penny you found on the street the other day, or that rabbit’s foot you carry around in your pocket influence the outcome of the events of your life?”

You do the best you can… you pray and commit the outcome to God’s hands, and then you just get on with your life! It’s not about luck. It’s about hard work, persistence, and God’s grace… not necessarily in that order.”

And then, if my Today Self had a Bible with him, he would turn to Matthew 6:34 in the “lilies of the field” portion of the Sermon on the Mount and read where Jesus says to his listeners, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worriers of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Hopefully 10 year-old me would hearken and understand the message.

But it also caused me to realize how tempting it is to become caught up in different types of this kind of “magical thinking”… like baseball players who wear the same socks when they are winning… people who toss a handful of salt over their shoulder after they spill it… or those who practice the careful avoidance of cracks in the sidewalk (you don’t want to break your mother’s back, after all!) when they walk.

An attraction to shortcuts and “magic potions” seems to be particularly strong when we talk about the whole area of relationships, too. We each hope to discover that ironclad phrase or action that will bring us true love or will inoculate us against hardships.

Alas, there is no such thing.

Ultimately we find out that relationships – like most of the rest of life – require hard work. They take time and attention, just like the garden out back. And just like your garden, the health of our relationships tends to rise and fall in direct relation to the time and care we put into them.

But most of all, they take PRAYER.

We might not ever be able to grow a crop of four-leaf clovers, but with prayer and a lot of good, old-fashioned “elbow grease” – as my dad used to call it – we can grow sound, healthy relationships with those we love.

 

Abundant blessings;




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