It’s dangerous to go alone.

It’s dangerous to go alone.

If I asked you who your heroes were growing up, chances are the answers would include some percentage of who you dressed up as for Halloween. They have a way of being colorful and memorable, but they’re usually not the most important characters in our stories.

When I was six, we got a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas. My grandparents wrapped the games in aluminum foil instead of wrapping paper (an option I still consider every December), but one game literally caught your eye above all others:  The Legend of Zelda, in a shiny gold box.

Zelda was (and is), above all else, a challenge. Unlike the repetition of Pac-Man or the linear progression of Super Mario Bros., Zelda immediately placed you in an open world with no directions or guidance:


The game begins by giving you choices and not telling you which is the “right” one. You can go east, west, or north. Or you can enter that black cave, where an old man will advise you to take a sword.

Continue reading “It’s dangerous to go alone.”

In Brightest Day

In Brightest Day

Wonder Woman cracked $100 million at the box office this weekend while boasting a 93% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, one of the strongest superhero films on a pleasantly crowded list. Four of the five highest grossing movies this decade come from the canons of Star Wars, Marvel, and DC. The Skywalker saga is the youngest of those, and it just turned 40. Someone who saw A New Hope in theaters as a teenager could be buying their grandchildren a Wookiee onesie.

Heroes transcend generations better than just about anything else. It’s never just kids today:  when I was growing up in the 1980’s, four of the five highest grossing movies were Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Batman. We surveyed our congregation to ask about their heroes both as a child and now, and some of our members from older generations responded with The Lone Ranger, Tarzan, the Professor from Gilligan’s Island, and Steve Austin (clarified, sadly, as the Six Million Dollar Man and not the WWE Champion). Heroes are profitable in any age.

Have this conversation long enough with children of any age and it’ll eventually turn to who’s the best, who’s the strongest?

Continue reading “In Brightest Day”

All Who Love.

All Who Love.

Every Sunday morning I get to stand up in front of Democrats and Republicans, and we try to figure out how to follow Jesus together.

Diversity is not often the church’s strong suit. Sunday mornings are still among the most segregated hours of the week; we don’t always look very much like our local soup kitchens and homeless shelters and many other of the least segregated hours of the week, places our worship should be driving us to. But perhaps a few first steps on the long road of diversity might fall along ideological lines.

In June 2014 Pew Research Center released a study on Political Polarization in the American Public. Among its many findings were three key points:

Continue reading “All Who Love.”

Known at the Table

Known at the Table

How do you know who’s in your inner circle? It’s the people you don’t clean up for before they come over.

Who fills in the blank:  “The house is a mess, but it’s okay, it’s just ________________.” It sounds like an insult, but it’s really an incredible compliment.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Dude, the house is always a mess. I don’t clean up for anybody.” Even so, there are probably levels of guilt associated with some people seeing your house that way, while others make themselves at home in it. I think this is still the test:  who are we okay with seeing our mess?

When Jesus is risen in Luke’s gospel, the very next story is of two disciples on the road to a place called Emmaus. The resurrected Christ comes alongside them, but they don’t recognize him. And after a long conversation on a seven mile walk, the two come to the place where they’re staying. Jesus does the “I’ll pretend I’m going on ahead” move, which causes the disciples to urge him to stay with them. It’s actually an ancient near eastern custom for a guest to refuse the first invite, which I’m sure created some awkward situations (“Stay and eat with us.” “Oh, I really shouldn’t…” “Oh, that’s too bad. Well, see you later!”).

They’ve been on this journey, and it would be easy for them to do that. They’re tired and they probably haven’t been home for a few days. It would be easy for them to say, “We’d love for you to come in, but the place is a mess,” whether it’s true or not. But they invite him in anyway.

When they go inside, they break bread together. And Jesus does something familiar:

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. – Luke 24:30-31 (NRSV)

These are the communion verbs: take, bless, break, give (they’re also present at the feeding of the five thousand). And it is in this that the resurrected Christ is made known to these followers. Not on the road, but at the table.

But Jesus never gets to the table if we don’t invite him in to our mess.

I get this backward a lot. But it is a dangerous thing to believe we have to clean something up before we can invite God in. When I am tempted to believe I have to fix it, I have to clean it up, then God can do x, y, or z in my life, I find myself keeping Christ at arm’s length, simultaneously acknowledging the house is messy but too embarrassed to invite him in.

And I also know this:  the house will get messy again, and probably soon. Mess multiplies. We have to believe grace does too.

If you think it has to be better before you let Jesus in, he’ll never get the invitation. Christ isn’t just here for our mess, he’s here in our mess. What if we could be people who were better at believing, “The house is a mess, but it’s okay, it’s just Jesus”? What if instead of believing parts of our lives aren’t in good enough order to invite him in, we were better at realizing that he makes himself at home with us as we are?

Because I think this is how we’re supposed to go out too.

The two travelers make the seven mile journey back to Jerusalem, carrying the news of resurrection. When they arrive and find the other disciples gathered together, they tell them Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of bread at the table. In that moment Jesus appears among them, again revealing himself in an intimate setting.

Verse 41 tells us the disciples experienced joy, disbelief, and wonder. The simultaneous presence of all three in the face of a resurrected Christ they don’t just see with their own eyes but touch with their own hands. Their theology is a little messy.

And what does Jesus say in this moment? “Until you get rid of that disbelief, I can’t use you”? “Until it’s only joy and none of the other, you’re not fit for the kingdom”? “Until you don’t need something so tangible to believe, you don’t really have faith”? Nope. Instead, freshly resurrected and in the midst of his friends in an intimate setting:

 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ is hungry.

(Incidentally, they give Jesus broiled fish. Isn’t this disappointing? He died for our sins and broiled fish is the best we can do?)

How else can you tell who’s in your inner circle? It’s the people who can come in your house and ask for food and you don’t think it’s weird. They just open the fridge. They make themselves at home. If you watch Seinfeld, notice that it’s not just Kramer (the weird one) who opens Jerry’s fridge without asking. Elaine and George do it all the time too. That’s Jerry’s inner circle.

Once again, Jesus is known to them at the table. He makes himself at home. In their external mess, in their theological mess, he’s just with them. He’s at home.

How does the story end?

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” – Luke 24:45-49 (NRSV)

Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations. This is the good news. This is what it’s all about.

And who’s going to tell them that? We are.

Messy people carry this message. Not shiny people, perfect people, squeaky clean people. The message is at its best when it is shared not from a fixed person to a not fixed person, but from a person who believes they are messy and forgiven to someone for whom that would be good news.

When we picture talking about about Jesus, we often drift to awkward conversations and the doorbells of strangers who aren’t going to invite us in. But the reality of resurrection is known best at the table. Some of the best theological conversations I’ve had in my life took place at a Waffle House at 3 AM; no one fixed is hanging out at that hour.

We are messy, forgiven people. And other messy people need to hear it.

If we keep waiting until we’re more clean, we’ll never invite him in. We’ll have a Savior we believe in but never really get to know. And we’ll never be able to share with people in language they can really believe in because they’ll be hearing it from someone who thinks they have to clean it up more on their own, instead of someone just as messy as them.

When we celebrate communion in the United Methodist Church, we offer this invitation:

Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another.

The table is for those who love God, need grace, and desire peace. And this is the invitation we want to give others. Messy, forgiven people who can tell other messy people that there is a God who makes himself at home in our lives.

If you go too long without blinking, people will start to wonder.

Maybe you’re the sort of person who believes in signs. Maybe your faith leans in to the miraculous, the significance in the seemingly insignificant. Maybe you believe this is how God still works.

Or maybe you’re the sort of person who thinks all of that is nonsense. Maybe you need logic and reason, facts and figures. Signs are quaint and miracles are rare; give me something I can understand, something I can explain, something I can wrap myself around.

The first Christians had both backgrounds. Some were Jewish, born and raised with an Old Testament God who did Old Testament God things:  floods and rainbows, frogs and locusts, pillars of cloud and fire. Their taste for signs and wonders worked backward and forward, drawing on a colorful history of God speaking in these ways to inform the search for a Messiah yet to come.

And some of the first Christians were Gentiles, born and raised in a Greco-Roman culture where professional persuasion was still new and exciting (and perhaps held in higher esteem than in our world of marketing and advertising today). Give me philosophy, give me reason, give me wisdom herself to show the way.

In the New Testament, Paul speaks to not just these two groups but their ideas as he opens his letter to the church in Corinth:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:22-24 (NRSV)

(Everyone should love something the way Paul loves commas.)

Some of us look for signs. Some of us want a better argument. But what we get is Christ: not just a Messiah, but a crucified one. It is not the sign they were looking for, and on its face it doesn’t make any sense. But somehow in receiving this Jesus, we get a taste of both the power of the miraculous and the wisdom of the ages.

This year in the season of Lent our church walked through a series on the seven signs Jesus provides in the Gospel of John. After performing his third sign in John 5 by healing a man by a pool who had been ill for 38 years, Jesus tells him to get up, take his mat, and walk. He does this on the sabbath, which means when the man made well encounters the Jewish religious leaders, what they see is a man carrying his mat. They see someone working on the sabbath. They miss the miraculous because they can’t see past the law. When they confront Jesus with this, he responds, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”

And so now they want to kill him, not just because he interprets sabbath differently but because Jesus equates himself with God. And Jesus gives a lengthy response to these religious leaders over 29 verses.

I’ve been rediscovering Eugene Peterson’s The Message this year, and his interpretation of John 5:39-42 is striking:

“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want.

“I’m not interested in crowd approval. And do you know why? Because I know you and your crowds. I know that love, especially God’s love, is not on your working agenda.

I’m not sure how high “don’t be a Pharisee” is supposed to be on our list. But this passage has stayed with me well past the third sign in this series.

Sometimes I encounter this growing sense or fear among the faithful that the Bible is losing its relevance in our world, especially with younger generations. As a 35-year old I can choose to self-identify with millennials when it serves me well and point the finger at those kids when it doesn’t. But when we perceive something we love to be under attack, we often rush in to defend it with equal or greater zeal.

But at least in my corner of the world, the biggest issue the Bible faces isn’t attack. It’s apathy. And if that’s the case, we don’t need a better defense. We need a better offense.

The phrase The Message interprets as, “You have your heads in your Bibles constantly,” is most often translated as, “You search the scriptures,” in more traditional versions. But I don’t think the Jewish religious leaders missed the miracle because they searched too much scripture. I think they missed it because they were holding parts of it so close to their faces they couldn’t see Jesus working outside their field of vision.

We all have our working agendas. Good grief, we do. Sometimes they even have a scriptural basis. But if whatever they are causes us to miss the at-work love of God, or fail to do more than simply acknowledge its presence, we’re holding them too close to our faces.

John’s gospel will go on to say that for us, love is the sign. Sometimes love is the miracle. And it is the best of our many options. God’s love, not just like but as a crucified Messiah, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on the surface. But in its presence we find a greater power and a deeper wisdom than anything we might search the scriptures or anywhere else for.

This love is not only the sign, it’s exactly what makes the Bible so urgently relevant. Our defensive arguments about scripture, even the ones that are actually well-reasoned and true, will never be as relevant as the forest narrative of scripture itself: God’s love made manifest in a Christ who died and a Christ who is risen, indeed.

I’m more of a philosophy guy than a signs-and-wonders guy. I get paid to search the scriptures. And I am fascinated by not just the trees but the branches.

But Jesus is also fond of saying that much of the work we do in judging others takes place with a thick branch in our own eyes. If we are going to see anything clearly, and if we are going to join the God who is always working in our world, we have to make sure our field of vision is wide enough to not miss Jesus.

Whatever our agendas and whatever we’re staring at – whether it’s the man by the pool hoping the water will cure him, the religious leaders with their nose in the law, those of us looking for a sign and those of us looking for an answer – don’t forget to blink every once in a while. Because none of us want to miss Christ at work. None of us want to miss the miraculous. And sometimes, just getting ourselves to blink can be its own little miracle.

Moochie and Sasa

For as long as I can remember, I have believed heaven looks a lot like 200 acres in West Tennessee.

My grandmother died in October. She was 86 and spent the last sixth of her life being almost exclusively in a doctor’s office or on her farm. It sprawls down a gravel driveway in Tipton County some 30 miles north of Memphis, sitting just off Bucksnort Road, a real name her 91-year-old husband says still gets a snicker at the DMV. He would know:  he’s still driving. Every morning to Burger King to drink coffee with his friends, every afternoon to a local pharmacy to play dominoes. The coffee comes in an old promotional mug promising free refills for the rest of the month. The good people at Burger King never stopped filling it up, giving that 5 AM crew what has to be thousands of dollars in free coffee by now. The dominoes are large print, and when he downplays how seriously he takes them he is trying to hustle you.

When she died six months after a stroke and 15 years after her health first started to turn, he came to my parents’ house in Knoxville for Christmas. It was the first time he’d been outside Tipton or Shelby County in 20 years. When the dominoes came out, he told my sister to call her bookie.

Moments like that make me smile because they remind me of a time when all of us were younger. My dad has no siblings and I’m the oldest of three; the firstborn of an only child creates a particularly potent relationship for both grandparent and grandchild.

Growing up I would spend weeks and later months on that farm in the summertime. When I was a kid, I thought it was heaven because it was a place where the word “no” didn’t seem to exist. Do you want to stay up late with your grandmother and watch Carson and Letterman even though you’re way, way too young to appreciate it? Do you want to get up a few hours later and fish with your grandfather? Do you want a burger and fries from Wendy’s but a Coke from McDonald’s because they have those Dream Team collectible cups and we’re only missing Stockton and Laettner?

My passion for sports flows from them through my dad and into my very blood. As West Tennessee Vol fans they hated Archie Manning almost as much as they loved his son. I think I might have always been a Celtics fan because that’s what tall, white, blonde-headed children of the 80’s gravitated towards if they played basketball. But my grandparents fed it with mail-ordered VHS highlight tapes from 1984-87. Even now during a particularly tense Boston playoff series I’ll hear the background music from those old videos floating around in my head.

And they both loved not just their favorite teams, but the sport itself. Going through her things after she died we found a $20 she won off my grandfather betting on Ty Detmer to win the Heisman in 1990.

994752_10104311722305825_8451868744090117980_nMy grandfather has been “Moochie” since his school days because he was so good at stealing bases people would say, in what I suppose is that 1930’s way, “He’s mooched another one!” And I just found that out four weeks ago, driving him back to Tipton County after Christmas. I never much thought to ask; growing up I just figured that was his name. When my grandmother (Sara; Sasa to her grandchildren) would get really upset with him sometimes she’d call him by his first name and I’d get really confused as to who Lawrence was.

She taught me to play gin rummy and when I beat her was the first person I ever heard use the cuss words you get in real trouble for. But I didn’t beat her much.

The farm was a place where it felt like Sasa and Moochie could make anything happen. But despite what seemed like limitless options, we fell into a steady routine:  driving into Memphis on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. We’d either eat lunch at Western Sizzlin before going to the Putt-Putt off Summer Avenue, or go to Hickory Ridge Mall and eat at Chick-fil-A back before you could find one outside a mall. On the way back we’d stop at Blockbuster Video so I could rent another Nintendo or Super Nintendo game. And then we’d go to Seessel’s on Austin Peay Highway, a Memphis grocery chain.

I was too young to tell you what made Seessel’s unique. But I definitely remember when it closed. Of all the fun we had at places much more exciting to a child than a grocery store, the memory of its absence stands out. I think it was the first time in my young life when something was gone, and it wasn’t coming back. The first time I understood that particular no.

As we get older and the no’s of our lives become much more unavoidable, so too did my eschatological view of the farm change. When it wasn’t so much heaven because I always got what I wanted, it was still a place I could go when I was getting even less of what I wanted in my real life back home. The property stretches out for what seems like forever; there are places you can go on that farm where there are no sights or sounds to prove anyone but you exists. At first I wasn’t allowed to go that far back from the house, and then I was more afraid than curious. But as a young adult and especially a young pastor, those big empty spaces became one of its best features. You can disappear and then reappear in a sense, where it’s just you and God and you can ask your questions loud enough without having to worry with them being heard by anyone other than the audience you hope is listening. You can scream and you can be thankful. You can question and plead and once or twice use some of the cuss words your grandmother taught you. You can be lost. And you can be found.

To this day when I find myself in a particularly difficult set of days or when the seasons of my life are changing, I will find my way to the back half of that farm. Her death won’t change that. But what it has done is teach me more about how unique each of those seasons are in our lives.

When my wife and I went to see her at a rehabilitation facility in July, I drove Alex down all those old roads in Memphis. The Western Sizzlin closed years ago. The Putt-Putt is still open; we stopped and played a round. The Blockbuster Video is now Discount Wigs 2; I’m unaware of the location of Discount Wigs 1. And where Seessel’s once stood is now just an empty parking lot, a sign of both what once was and what might be.

You can’t get them back, those days. And I think that’s okay and maybe even good. Their memory makes me far more grateful than their absence makes me sad. In some ways we carry them forward:  I work hard to keep the Western Sizzlin in Athens open, and we still find our way to some form of miniature golf on almost all our vacations. But if we’re looking for pure replication, we’ll always be disappointed. It’s never those days anymore.

But those days are good at teaching me to value this one. And today, when I think of heaven, I think of both a place where my grandmother is winning the rummy tournament, and a kingdom Jesus says in some mysterious ways is available to us here and now. It breaks through in places like the farm and, more than that, in the people we get to share those days with, especially the people close enough to transition from one season of our lives to the next with us. But it is available – at hand – on this day too. Teaching us to be thankful for what has been and to look forward to what’s ahead, but never at the expense of the present moment.

I could go on.

Recently I’ve become re-enamored with Eugene Peterson’s The Message. His contemporary paraphrase of the Bible turns 15 this year; when it was completed in 2002 I was between a pair of stints working in Christian bookstores from 2000-05, which can be plenty good at making one jaded towards anything that sells, even the Bible itself. But I’ve found myself returning to it over and over again these last few months.

The Message is and isn’t the Bible itself. But I think it’s at its best when it helps us re-examine the scriptures in a way that makes them not just easier to read, but easier to relate to.

One of the best examples of this I’ve come across is in the well-known works of the flesh/fruit of the Spirit passage in Galatians 5. The first part reads in most Bibles like a to-don’t list:

19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

Because the list starts with things that sound worse than what we would call our own sins (fornication!) and includes things we’re pretty sure we’re steering clear of (sorcery!), it becomes easier to dismiss the whole thing. Let’s be honest:  I don’t even know what licentiousness is. Google says it’s lacking legal or moral restraints, especially sexual restraints. I’m just trying to pronounce it correctly.

The things in here we’re more comfortable saying we struggle with – jealousy, anger, even drunkenness – come so late in the list, we can already convince ourselves the whole thing is for someone else. Someone worse. Sure, envy’s bad. We’ll work on it. But at least I’m no carouser, and things like these.

Peterson’s Message takes a list easily ignored and stabs me in the heart with it:

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

Me too.

This is January 4, which means maybe you resolved some things at midnight and by now perhaps we’re wishing another midnight was available. Christmas and Easter may fill the pews, but we’re all a little religious on January 1. It’s grace on a calendar page, thin on theology but strong in the force.

Maybe Peterson’s list includes some things you resolved not to be, or at least be less of this year.

Now, the second part of this – the fruit of the Spirit – the traditional reading still sings. It ain’t broke:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is comfort in familiarity and, more importantly, hope that God has planted something within us. Something life-giving and good. Something to be tasted and seen. And, in the very nature of fruit, something with the seeds for reproduction within, so we might share it with our world.

I do love how Peterson finishes the passage in verses 25-26:

Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original.

In this new year, I hope we find the fruit-bearing grace of God ready and willing at all of our midnights. I hope we taste and see that the Lord is good. And I hope we have far more interesting things to do with our lives.