Jesus Said “Grow Up”

I may write more about this later, when I feel I can do it successfully without preaching at any particular group of people. For right now, let me just say this:

If you dislike the idea of religiosity, a rules-based life that pits holy haves against heathen have-nots, then you’d probably like Jesus. A lot. I’m not saying that he didn’t have a standard for living–he did, and it was the most ethically challenging you’ll ever come across–but he didn’t have a lot of patience for people who wanted to turn ethical living into a pissing contest.

Jesus basically said that kind of religion was immature. Here’s how he put it in Matthew 5 (The Message translation):

38-42 “Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

43-47 “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

48 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

I love verse 48–“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up.”

Becoming a mature person, a complete person, is our goal. I believe the Scripture teaches that true completion is only found in Christ; this means we cannot realize our full potential just by living a moral and decent life. Without Jesus, there are aspects of our character left untapped and undeveloped.

Likewise it means we cannot be our full selves if we claim Jesus but don’t live according to his ethic. In other words, we can’t say we love Jesus but hate poor people. Or disregard the suffering of others. Or neglect to not only pray for our enemies, but respond to their slights with kindness and hope.

Why should we do this if we follow Jesus?

Because “God gives his best…to everyone, regardless: the good and the bad, the nice and nasty.”

“Grow up,” Jesus said. That’s what we’re all aiming for. That’s the goal of being human. To be the best person we can be. To do it, we all need a little help.

Sometimes, the most grown up thing we can do is ask for it.

No Sins But Our Own

More and more I become convinced that the biggest problem we have in American culture is our obsession with any sin that isn’t our own.

Cecil the Lion. Planned Parenthood. Barack Obama. Donald Trump. The entire GOP presidential field.

I get caught up in the hysteria. I’ve tweeted out things about certain cultural phenomena in an haughty, contemptuous way that only serves to reveal my self-ignorance. It’s a human reflex to see clearly the issue in someone else’s life while ignoring the massive dysfunction in your own.

But lately I’ve come to feel disgusted with myself when I point out the fallibility in others. I think of funny things all the time and normally don’t hesitate to share them; but lately, I find myself thinking more and more about the targets of my jokes. I think about their humanity. I think about what made them the way they are. I think about the burden some of them experience, of living under the never-ending spotlight.

That gets me thinking about myself. How would I hold up under scrutiny?

Truth is, I’m not sure. I know there would be plenty of people happy to take shots at the way I spend my time or my money, plenty of folks happy to pick apart everything from my choice of wardrobe to my choice of restaurants. I know there would be plenty of people just waiting for their chance to point out my stumbles and shout their disagreement with venomous glee.

I know this because it happens in everyday life anyway.

“You let your kids eat a McDonald’s?”

“Personally, I think anyone who buys non-organic milk is just abusing their children.”

“I would never allow my children to play in a public pool. Too many germs.”

Once upon a time we were a society that focused more on personal development within ourselves. We honored self-improvement. We praised folks who worked hard and overcame obstacles. We held people up for achieving things we had not yet attempted because they inspired us to want more.

Now we just tear folks down to our level. We don’t celebrate successes, we celebrate sins, because if there’s one thing we all know how to do equally well it’s screw things up. So we watch others. We wait. And when they succumb to being human, we pounce and pull down the rafters.

It’s easier to tear down someone else’s home than build our own.

And in a perverse way, we end up taking responsibility for the sins of others. We end up enabling the very destruction we celebrate, all because we get a kick out of the whole cycle. It sounds trite, but it’s true: if we would quit watching the Kardashians, the Duggers, the whomevers, they would fade away.

The same is true of the people around you. If we’ll quit looking for the sins of others, those sins will fade from our awareness. That’s not to say those folks will stop screwing up (they are human, after all), but we will stop looking for it.

And it’s a funny thing: when you quit looking for other people’s mistakes, when you quit obsessing over other people’s sins, two things happen. One, you start noticing things in your own life that need work, and two, you start developing a sense of compassion for others.

And that’s the key: we can’t have compassion for others if all we look for are their mistakes. And we can’t live our own lives to the fullest if we are too busy obsessing over someone else’s issues.

We are responsible for no sins but our own. That’s not to say we ignore evil when we see, or don’t confront sin when it bursts into our lives; we should be outraged at things like Planned Parenthood selling the body parts of aborted children or a sudden resurgence in the KKK.

But that outrage will only mean something, will only have resonance, if it doesn’t flow from our mouths and keyboards in a constant stream. Think of it this way: my kids know when I’m upset because I don’t talk and act upset all the time. In fact, I spend most of my words encouraging them, loving them, asking them questions and letting them know how much I truly love them.

Thus, it is the rarity of my anger that provides it power.

Jesus was the same way. He didn’t hesitate to call out sin, and there’s only one instance of him flipping tables. Christ spent the majority of his ministry speaking truthfully in love, calling people to God’s best by living it out himself.

His, it would seem, is a much better way.

When Christmas Sucks

This is a repost of a blog I wrote last year. After cruising through my social media feeds this morning, I felt like today was a good day to repost it. Feel free to share.

Sometimes, Christmas sucks.

It’s not a popular sentiment, I know, but I’ve seen a large number of Facebook posts this year decrying the Christmas season. Lots of people, going through difficult times, don’t want cheer spread into their lives, kind of like how I don’t want my neighbor’s leaves spread into my yard. It’s a war on Christmas of a different sort, and I can understand how some of those folks feel.

See, Christmas is the one time out of the year when we’re supposed to think about good things. It’s supposed to be a time when we tell others how much we love them and discover how much we are loved as well. It’s harmony and charity and family and joy – but some people simply don’t have that in their lives.

The wife grieving the loss of her husband. The child struggling to understand the illness of a parent. The suddenly single person sleeping alone in their bed. The family Santa Claus won’t be able to visit.

They are around us, everyday, and we do well to remember them. I’ve been there. There was a time when I didn’t want to see lights on a tree, or hear songs about joy and laughter. There was a time when all I knew was the freshness of my pain; everything else seemed silly.

Some people get angry over stuff like that. They insist that people in pain suck it up and not “ruin things for everyone else.” But here’s a secret, and it’s something that only those who’ve experienced a sad Christmas season know: hurting people don’t want Christmas to go away for everyone else, they just want it to go away for them.

In realizing that, I’m drawn back to something I read in Frederick Buechner’s book, Telling the Truth. Buechner talks about the tragedy of human life, how each of us will go through dark days that make us feel as though all hope is lost. This death of hope is never more profound then during the season of hope, when the disparity between what the grieving feel and what the populace celebrates seems almost unfathomable. And when your world is filled with pain, the last thing you want is a reminder that for other people, life is joy.

I’m not asking anyone to abate their Christmas celebrations. I’m not suggesting you curtail your festivities, or hide your happiness at the fullness of the season. I guess I just wanted to speak for those who, through the pain of life, might not have the energy to speak for themselves. I know how they feel. I know how it stings. I also know that healing comes with time.

If there’s no other comfort to be found during this time of year, the thing that gave me most comfort during the sorrowful Christmases of my past was the knowledge that the celebration going on around me was due to the birth of a small, helpless child. Unlovely, unknown, he came into this world to alleviate our sorrows, not by pushing past them, but by taking them as his own. He lived and died knowing the depth of human pain, feeling the sting of heartbreak within himself.

Christmas heralds the coming of God as the man of sorrow, well acquainted with grief, who would take our sin and sorrow within his own soul so we might be freed from such things.

There is comfort, however small, in that knowledge. Christmas honors the sadness of the broken by revealing the promise of their healing. May God bring those distraught during this season the peace of knowing that truth.

The Weapon of Kindness

ImageI don’t know how else to process what just happened. The only thing that makes sense to me is to blog about it, only I don’t want to blog in full detail because what if I’m wrong? What if the scenario I’m about to describe was real, even though every ounce of evidence I have tells me it’s not? What if, as a pastor, a minister, the shepherd of people’s souls, I made a mistake?

The solution is to not blog about the specifics – other than to say that my kindness, my innate sense of wanting to help people in need, is one of the most effective weapons against my soul. I can’t help it. I’m always willing to give people more leeway than they deserve; I could be happier, in cases like this one, if my natural instinct were defensiveness. To cut people off. To not be giving. To not trust, or at the very least, not be wiling to listen. I could avoid a lot of heartaches that way.

The thing is, though, that too many people need someone, anyone, to just listen. I don’t want to cut off that part of my ministerial self. I’ve seen too often how much it can bless the right person.

But then there are days like today when people prey on that kindness. They count on people like me being willing to err on the side of doing what’s right and good, and they construct elaborate webs designed to extract maximum empathy.

And what really sucks – the thing that I can’t get out of my head – is that I so badly want to spell out the details, put it out there for the whole world to read, and I can’t. I want people to know so they can be forewarned about stuff like this, but my brain keeps saying: but what if it’s true?

What if, despite the fictional county in Mississippi, the fictional city in Mississippi, the fictional address here in Georgia, the fictional brother here in Georgia, the dead-end phone numbers and the non-existent sheriff’s deputy, there was someone who needed my help and I let them down?

What if, God help me, the people actually show up at the church, put a finger in my face, and demand to know why I didn’t do something?

This is the price of being a pastor. It may seem like a sweet gig (and I hear enough comments from folks to know that a lot of people see it that way) but the reality is that if you are truly someone with a pastoral calling, a pastoral heart, it’s demanding in a way that few people could ever imagine. It doesn’t begin and end with the sermon, or the visitations, or the admin stuff in the office; it’s not over when the office hours on the door say the day is done; nor is it finished when you’ve done all you could for someone and they still choose to make a wreck out of their lives.

I mean, you know you have no responsibility for what any one person does, but the compassion and desire to help people choose God in order to avoid the devastation of sin is also the stuff that keeps you up at night, wondering if you could’ve done anything different.

It’s an agony that gets increasingly harder to bear. There are plenty of nights that it keeps me up, wondering, praying and wrestling with God to help me do a better job so that people might not have to suffer as much as they do.

And, to be honest, that I might be able to stand before God one day and say that I did my very best. And for God to say, “I know.” And for me to fall into His arms and say, “Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

As a human being, as a minister, that’s not too much to ask, is it?

My Struggle Against Grace

ImageThe students at my church, whom I love dearly, whom I would gladly do just about anything for (except for the typical stupid-youth-pastor stuff), have organized multiple benefit events to help my family with medical expenses. No one in my family is deathly ill, as one might think whenever the terms “benefit” and “medical expenses” are used. Rather, we’re just like a lot of American families who are besieged by medical costs in the 21st century: we make it, but just barely.

I’ve not talked about this much at all with anyone other than my wife and couple of close friends, mainly because I am ashamed that the kids believe my family is worthy of such lavish love.

Hello, my name is Jason, and I am a Christian who absolutely struggles with grace.

I am much more comfortable sacrificing. I don’t believe in a salvation that comes from works, but when it comes down to practical things, I’m quicker to work and suffer than I am to bask in unearned favor. Up until a few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that truth; but now, thanks to the extravagant and beautiful love of a few teenagers, I’m forced to admit that I have a problem with the essential truth of the Gospel.

I’m not good enough, and yet God saved me anyway. And not just saved me, but fills me, indwells me, uses me, and loves me as His own.

To be honest, I like suffering and sacrifice because it makes a good shield against those people who aren’t gracious at all. That sounds stupid, I suppose, but there are people who constantly remind you that they don’t think you’re special, that they don’t see any reason why you should be treated better than they. In reality, their attitude has more to do with their own inherent selfishness than with my undeservedness, but the subtle slings and barbs sting all the same.

Often, people on the road to hell want nothing more than to take you with them. And so I like being able to point to my life and use my works as a defense against those who would want to remind me of my unworthiness.

But when people come alongside you and overwhelm you with love that simply cannot be justified by your life…well, that strips away those defenses. It lays you bare before God and everyone else, and it exposes you for what you are: unworthy. Imperfect. Flawed.

The human response is to either recoil from such love, or to lamely attempt to justify it. I know that’s certainly been the case for me. Before my students put their plan into motion, one of their parents came to me and asked for my permission, told me that if I didn’t offer my blessing, the kids probably wouldn’t go through with it.

I hesitated. The large part of me, the part that knows my flaws and sins and unworthiness, wanted to put and end to it right then. A simple no, and I could go on living my life comfortably uncomfortable. The justifications were plentiful: it’s a down economy; we’re not that bad off; I don’t want the kids getting hurt if people don’t respond the way they might imagine; I don’t want them to feel like they have to do this.

But at my core, in my soul, I felt a conviction that told me I couldn’t say no. That I was going to have to, as my friend Polly Sage put it, suffer in a different way: receiving a love I could never earn or repay. So I gave my blessing. And thus began one of the most powerful struggles of my soul, a statement I don’t make lightly. The only other time I have felt this conflicted was after my daughter, Ruthanne, was stillborn.

In death, most people retreat from you. There is an instinctive notion within the human heart that a person who is grieving needs space, and so people withdraw, leave you alone; they don’t look at your life or question what you do. You are anonymous in grief, and even though your soul and mind might be melting from the white-hot pain and confusion, you learn to find a desirable peace in the solitude. Your foibles and internal flaws remain yours and yours alone.

Life – love – is the opposite. It doesn’t leave you alone, it drags you onstage, warts and all, and proclaims from the top of its lungs that you are special, beloved, worthy. And it’s there, in the spotlight, that you as the object realize fully just how flawed and ugly and worthless you really are. And you feel acutely that the audience can see – if not all, at least some of – those same flaws. You can feel the eyes of judgment on you, even if those eyes are far fewer than your mind tells you. You know the truth, and yet you’re spoken of with such loving terms that you want to believe and run away all at the same time.

Folks, that’s the Gospel in a nutshell. And I’m struggling with it.

I am so blessed to have students who have listened to my incessant cries for the church to be more compassionate, less judgmental, more others-focused, more willing to help the poor and unfortunate. Not just because they are a beautiful picture of the ability of the youth of our world to shine brightly the Light of Christ, but because they are showing me that God’s love is greater, deeper, truer “than tongue or pen could ever tell; it goes beyond the farthest star and reaches to the lowest hell.” I just never expected that they would then turn that love on me.

But no one does. That’s why the persistent cry from the lips of Christ was that “God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever would believe in Him would not die, but gain everlasting life.”

Today, I understand in an entirely different way, not just that God loves me, but that inside of that love are things I cannot comprehend, much less make my peace with. I am stripped naked, shown undone, and yet He still says, “Beloved.” Not because of me, but because that’s just who He is.

The same is true for you.

May you be so blessed as to discover the terror and wonder of that love so deep.