Monday, June 30, 2014

Monday devo: Psalm 37 as a picture of the Christian life

I feel like I've written on this before, but if so, well, it's worth writing about again. I was doing my daily "read through the Bible" plan this morning and it included Psalm 37. This morning, I was struck by the different imperative commands sprinkled throughout the text. As I began jotting them down on my kitchen whiteboard, it occurred to me that they form a sort of pathway through the Christian life. Of course, we rarely go straight down this pathway. Often, we end up circling back around to early stops along the way and picking up the trail where we left off. But I like the picture of these being stations along the pathway of the Christian life.

The psalmist starts by exhorting us to do the most basic of things required of a Christian: trust. We so often talk about the starting point of our journey with God as being the time when we put our trust in Christ, so this seems like an apt place to start. But the psalmist does not let us get off so easily. He includes the phrase "and do good." It is not enough to merely have faith without deeds, as James would say. The two go hand in hand.

Next, the psalmist commands us to delight in the Lord. It has been one of the special joys of my own Christian life to watch those who are new to faith. Their exuberance and enthusiasm is contagious and convicting. This is one station I need to circle back to more often.

The psalmist then goes on to tell us that we should commit our way to the Lord. Having trusted and delighted, we need to wholeheartedly dedicate ourselves to following him. We need to commit, a word that seems to have lost some of its meaning in our transient world.

Having done so, we are commanded to be still. This may be the hardest one of all. If we've just committed, shouldn't we be moving forward, taking action, doing great things for God? But he calls us to simply be still.  Why? I think the answer comes in the final command: wait.

Twice the psalmist exhorts us to wait. The first time is paired with "be still," as he tells us to "be still and wait patiently." Later, he again says, "wait for the Lord." Having come so far, we can be tempted to forge ahead on our own, to do the thing that seems wise and right to us. But having trusted and delighted and committed and been still, surely we know enough by now to know that our way is not the best way, that God has a better plan than we could ever imagine, and that he will do his thing, in his own time, and that it will be the perfect thing. Wait for him, and see what he does.

Trust...delight...commit...be still...wait. This sounds like a perfect roadmap to peace, if you ask me.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Mark Sanford, poster boy for the party of second chances?

The NY Times magazine has a feature story up on Mark Sanford, former governor of South Carolina, now member of the House of Representatives. Sanford, of course, infamously hiked the Appalachian Trail all the way to his mistress's house in Argentina, killing his marriage and, it seemed at the time, his political career. The utter ridiculousness of how Sanford's indiscretion came to light seemed to make the outcome of the story inevitable. The man was finished, at least as far as politics was concerned.

But a funny thing happened on the way to nowhere. Sanford regrouped, stepped back, and started rebuilding. Read the article and judge for yourself whether you think he is genuinely repentant or playing a political angle. Time will tell.

Another famously fallen political figure, my old boss Chuck Colson, is mentioned in the article. When I started working for him more than twenty years after Watergate, I heard from several still skeptical friends and relatives who just were not buying the whole "born again" thing. Time was never enough to tell them anything about Colson they didn't already believe to be true. Opinions are like that, and I guess we're all entitled to one.

A few thoughts on Sanford and the NY Times article.

Thought #1: I'm not surprised that Sanford is resurrecting his political career or the aplomb with which he handled the less than enthusiastic members of his constituency in the article. Nor am I surprised at the comments in the article about current South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. I've had the opportunity to meet them both, briefly, in the same context. While serving as an officer in a community organization, I twice went to the governor's office to attend the signing of an annual proclamation. The first time, Sanford was in the State House. He welcomed our group into his private office, a room just beyond the larger and more public office, where he greeted each of us personally, chatted comfortably, asked questions and showed interest in the reason for our visit, posed for pictures with us, then sat at his desk to sign the proclamation, handing the official pen to the eldest representative of our group. A year later, Nikki Haley kept us waiting in the hallway where she eventually swept out to cheerfully but hurriedly greet us, sign the proclamation with a borrowed pen while leaning on her secretary's desk, and seemed like she would have dashed off without any pictures had not a bold member of the group asked her to pause. I thought then, and I thought again now reading this article, that Sanford possesses a natural ease and charm that makes him a great campaigner, while Haley, whatever other good traits she may have, simply lacks that social grace.

Thought #2: Perhaps a campaign victory rally is not the best place to meet your boyfriend's child from a prior marriage for the first time. This might be particularly true when the prior marriage imploded very publicly, when you were the very public cause of that implosion, and when the child involved was still a child but old enough to know exactly what was happening.

Thought #3: A friend asked me not long ago why it was that Republicans seem to be so unforgiving of their politicians who have affairs. We talked at the time about how the Republican party has fashioned itself as a party of family values so marital failures seem to cut right at the heart of what we say we're about. As I read this article though, it occurred to me that it's deeper than just that. Reflecting on Sanford's early political career, the writer mentions that a younger Sanford once "castigated" another politician who'd had an affair. When one preaches family values, it is perhaps easy to use the failure of an opponent's family as a political edge. But having done so, a later indiscretion of one's own seems like a much more glaring act of hypocrisy.

Thought #4: As someone who once had to learn how to write in Chuck Colson's 'voice,' the quote from the phone call with Sanford sounds completely wrong in its wording but very true in its sentiment. Chuck was a big believer in using his story to reach out to others who were experiencing a spectacular fall from grace of their own making and encouraging them to look to God and not lose hope. But he was not a big believer in grammatically incorrect phrases like you got to and slang like 'cause.

Thought #5: Chapur does herself and Sanford a good turn by coming across in the article as humble, gracious, and cognizant of having done wrong.

Thought #6: If you're interested, here is a post I wrote for the BreakPoint blog back in 2009 when news of Sanford's affair first broke. Even those of us who worked and wrote for Colson could scarcely imagine back then that the mess Sanford had made of his political career would be anything less than permanent.

Fallout shelter needed

Huffington Post has a good article up by a child of divorce on the immediate and long-term effects: "Part of the problem with divorce, is that it is impossible to accurately predict the fallout."

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Ecumenical child of divorce

While I was on vacation last week, I finished reading Sir Walter Scott's excellent book The Abbot. Scott is one of those writers who, when I pick up one of his novels after not having read anything by him in some time, I inevitably think to myself, "Why don't I read him more often?" His work is so easy to read and so entertaining for all the right reasons.

The Abbot, if you're not familiar with it, is historical fiction. The overarching historical event is the imprisonment and subsequent, short-lived escape of Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary, who was Catholic, was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle. In Scott's story, a young man who is secretly the child of a Catholic family is planted in the household of a Protestant family of prominence who eventually make him part of Mary's retinue to keep an eye on her, but of course he instead helps Mary effect her ill-fated escape. Throughout the novel, the main character, having had his religious education split between two factions of Christianity, has difficulty forming a solid allegiance to or disavowal of either and seeks alternately the counsel of both Catholic priests and Protestant ministers, leading to some interesting passages on theology.

The discord between Catholicism and Protestantism, of course, consumed much of early English history, with monarchs seated and dethroned on the basis of their brand of Christianity, the result being that those whose religious practice was not in step with the current ruler found themselves worshipping in secret or setting off for distant lands where their views were tolerated or were the norm.

I'm not sure whether to feel encouraged or weary when I think about that history and the parallels I see in modern Western Christianity. On the one hand, I'm strangely and sadly encouraged by the realization that we haven't reached some new level of ridiculousness; nothing, after all, is new under the sun. And, of course, I'm weary when I realize that, lo these many years later, we are still waging the same wars, just sometimes with different names. This or that pastor or leader or writer says something that others disagree with and, instead of reasoned debate or gentle reproof, we unleash a torrent of vitriol. Sigh. I think I have decided on weary.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying that we should throw doctrine out the window and all just sing Kumbaya (although it does bring back some rather fond memories of junior high). But it seems to me sometimes that even in Christian circles we spend more time slinging accusations around like mud and valuing snarkiness more than actual Godliness. Can't we leave all that to the politicians?

All this is why the following short passage from The Abbot struck me as so true and sad and fitting.  The setting is the battlefield, where Mary's supporters meet the supporters of the Regent, James Stewart:

"God and the Queen!" resounded from the one party; "God and the King!" thundered from the other; while, in the name of their sovereign, fellow-subjects on both sides shed each other's blood, and, in the name of their Creator, defaced his image.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Monday devo: A new normal

A few weeks ago I was in a situation where I suddenly realized the person I was talking to thought I had just said the most bizarre thing. I was describing something that seemed perfectly normal to me and I could tell he thought it sounded completely abnormal. Slightly embarrassed, I laughed it off with, "Almost everyone in my family is like that. It doesn't seem odd when it's normal in your family."

I was talking about a physical oddity. But I've seen the same sort of thing happen in families with emotional and behavioral oddities. Like that frog you always heard about in science class as a kid, sitting in a pot of cold water that gradually comes to a boil without the frog having noticed, we become acclimated to the environment around us. Often, the weirdness of our situation doesn't occur to us until we see ourselves through others' eyes.

As I thought of this today, I was reminded of Jesus' words to his followers: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Really, Jesus? Love? That's it? That seems so, well, normal. So ordinary. How on earth is that going to send out a signal that we're your followers?

But of course, it's not normal at all. Normal is discord, and jealousy, and self-centeredness. Normal is greed, and gossip, and exploitation. Normal is sin.  Love, meanwhile, is so essentially a divine quality that the apostle John proclaimed that "God is love."

This is not to say that people who follow Christ have the love thing figured out. We're human (read, "normal"). And often we act in perfectly normal ways. But when we can get love right, really right, it has a powerful effect, shining a light not on us but on the one we are following.

And if get love right often enough and for long enough, who knows -- maybe it will start to feel normal to us.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Korean Child of Divorce

I've been waiting for this for so long, it almost didn't seem real anymore. Until I arrived home from a trip on Friday and found a package waiting for me. Four new copies of Child of Divorce, Child of God -- in Korean! The cover is beautiful, even if I have no idea what it says.

If you or someone you know reads Korean and would be blessed by this book, it is available from IVP Korea. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Monday devo: The scandal of worship

Every year about this time, I pull out my DVD of Jesus Christ Superstar. Watching it has become an Easter tradition for me. I prefer the stylized, artful presentation of the last days of Jesus to the blood and gore versions that have become popular in recent years. And, yes, I realize that there is a good deal of theological fallacy in the screenplay. After all, Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice are not exactly Billy Graham and George Beverly Shea.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the scene that takes place on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Jesus' crucifixion, the Sunday we just celebrated here in 2014.  My brother's family were staying with me this weekend and over breakfast, I explained to my three-year-old nephew that this was the Sunday that Jesus came to Jerusalem and that when he got to Sunday school this morning he would be given a palm branch to wave, just like the ones that people waved and threw down in front of Jesus' donkey so many years ago.

In the movie version that I have, the one from 2000, instead of palm branches the people are carrying signs, the sort of signs that you see at rallies and protests, featuring a picture of Jesus and the words "Jesus Rules." They carry Jesus into the city on their shoulders, like a rock star, or a superstar. Their exuberance and celebration is over the top, unseemly in a way, for someone who is supposed to be a religious leader.  It's scandalous, and part of me always feels just a tiny hint of sympathy for the Pharisees who are looking on this spectacle and feeling more than a little uncomfortable.

That small twinge of sympathy is always followed by a dose of conviction. Not because I felt sympathetic, but because my worship of Jesus rarely if ever rises to the level of scandalous.  I would happily stand at the side of the road and politely wave a palm branch. But would I lift the Savior onto my shoulders, parade him around, while holding a giant sign that proclaims my adoration?  Of course, neither of these are happening in a literal sense in my life in 2014. But I fear that too often I let my faith become polite, never rising to anything close to exuberance or scandal.

I'm not saying that I feel the need to jump around and shout. But I am saying that occasionally my beliefs, my lifestyle, my faith should strike someone as a little extreme. As in, "Sure, you're religious, but do you have to take it that far? Can't you just reel it back in a little and be politely, nondescriptly spiritual, without all this Jesus stuff?"

Actually, no, I can't. Because the truth is, in both a literal and figurative sense, Jesus rules. Hosanna.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Monday devo: A How-To Guide for Transitions

We all experience transitions in life, right? Maybe it's a job change or a move to a new place. A wedding, a divorce, a death, a break-up. A new baby, a new boss, a new pet. Every four years, we have the chance to elect a new president for our country and when that happens transition teams are set up to make the hand off from one leader to the next smooth and seamless.

Children of divorce experience lots of transition. One parent moving out, moving to a new house, a new school, a new stepparent, new stepsiblings, and the constant back and forth transition of visitation or shared custody. If the transition itself is handled well, the road forward is a whole lot smoother.

The Bible gives one of the greatest examples of transition at the end of Deuteronomy. After wandering the desert for forty years, the Israelites had finally arrived at the cusp of the Promised Land. Moses was going to stay behind, climb a mountain, watch his people enter their new home, and then transition from this life to the next. But his wasn't the only transition. The people, these thousands upon thousands of tired, excited, human people, were about to experience multiple transitions at once. They were leaving a life of nomadism and embarking on a life of settlement and all the war and hardship that come with settling in a land that others have already made a home in. On top of all that, their beloved leader who had been the only leader most of them had ever known was about to leave them while some other guy took his place. Handling that hand off badly could have spelled disaster for the people. But instead here's what happened.

First, Moses gave the people a pep talk. In Deuteronomy 31:1-6, he tells them that he's leaving them, but assures them that God is with them, that they have a great new leader, and that they'll be victorious in their new mission.  Then, he calls Joshua to the platform and, in front of all the people, he tells Joshua that he is the new leader, that he will lead the people to success, and that God will be with him.  It's a real "rah! rah!" moment.

But then something interesting happens. God calls Moses and Joshua aside and has a little chat with them, out of earshot of the people. In verses 16-21, God tells it like it is: Before Moses is cold in his grave, the people will be worshipping other gods, they will fall into chaos, and God will rain down punishment on them. Sounds rather harsh -- but then again, God wasn't being a naysayer; he simply knew the future.

Here's what I love about this story. Moses, the beloved leader, gives the motivational speeches out in public, for all the Israelites to hear. Then, in private, behind the closed doors of a pillar of cloud and a tabernacle, Joshua, the new leader, gets the real story. The people are left encouraged, Joshua is teed up to have a great start with them, and then he is given a reality check by the one person who could see the future.

Too often, transitions include one of these elements but not the other. Either we're all trombones and marching bands, or we're all gloom and doom and steel yourself for the worst.  This story shows how to achieve a happy medium. Yes, let's have some encouragement and motivation to get everyone on board and ready to face the future. And yes, let's have some honest conversation about the challenges ahead. But let's do both in the right way, at the right time, and with the right people present. How we handle the transition can make all the difference.