Saturday, January 29, 2011

For Good

My favorite song from the popular musical “Wicked” is sung almost at the end. It is the final meeting of the two main characters, who have been friends and enemies, partners and rivals throughout the show. When they meet, under less than ideal circumstances right before the end they sing this song, knowing that they will probably never see each other again. It is an apology and an affirmation and an acknowledgment of a deep and lasting connection, of the impact that a person can make on another life. It is titled “For Good” and composer Stephen Schwartz considers it one of the best songs he’s ever written.

“I've heard it said / that people come into our lives for a reason / bringing something we must learn / and we are led / to those who help us most to grow / if we let them / and we help them in return // Well, I don't know if I believe that's true / but I know I'm who I am today / because I knew you...”

The duet recognizes the influence that others bring to our lives. The impact that they make, often in surprising, but permanent ways. The turn of the phrase of the title is that the beneficial (for good) influence from those close to us has a permanent (for good) effect. It stays with us. We are different because of the good that others bring to our lives.

“It well may be / that we will never meet again / in this lifetime / so let me say before we part / so much of me / is made of what I learned from you / you'll be with me / like a handprint on my heart // And now whatever way our stories end / I know you have re-written mine / by being my friend...”

This week we conclude our series on Christian service by looking at the big picture, by taking a long view. To be honest when I first came up with “Marathon Service” as a title for this last week, I had in mind working for the long term. And yet, here I am today writing instead about the long term impact. I’m not sure how that happened, except that the Spirit leads in surprising directions sometimes.

I did a little research into the couple of verses I chose for our scripture this week and found a word I wasn’t expecting to find. Take a look.

Galatians 6:9-10 So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. 10 So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

I that there isn’t a whole lot of background that you can get from two verses. But I grabbed these for one simple phrase. “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right.” Pretty simple really. Just hang in there, says Paul, just keep plugging away. Service in the name of Christ is a marathon and not a sprint, as so many have written or said. So, keep at it.

And yet that hardly seems satisfactory. The idea that there is a reserve in me, that through sheer force of will, I can keep my nose to the grindstone, can keep putting one foot in front of another, driving myself into more and better service to God and my neighbor, is daunting at best, nonsense at worst. It just isn’t within me to keep going when I want to stop. It isn’t within me to keep serving when the energy runs out or the selflessness begins to wane. So, to what could Paul be referring when he says “let us not grow weary”?

The problems in the church at Galatia were many and complicated. There was division at the very core of the church. There was some serious theological debate, but mostly the division had to do with practice, how they lived out this new faith. It got to the point of name calling, of separation, of anger and frustration. All of this grieved Paul, as you might imagine. But he wasn’t ready to give up.

Chapter six begins with a conversation about how to deal with conflict. Using phrases like “spirit of gentleness” and “bear one another’s burdens,” Paul sets out a radically different tone for the church when it comes to division. Instead of the whoever shouts the loudest model of group dynamic, Paul wants the church to understand that there are different priorities, different methodologies.

He does include a warning of sorts, implying that there are responsibilities to those “who have been taught the Word.” There are expectations, there is a calling to live up to. There is a standard to keep.
It is in the midst of that conversation that verses 9 and 10 appear. “So, let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all and especially for those of the family of faith.”

It is that especially that caught me. At first it was an embarrassment. Surely, Paul, we aren’t to be an inward looking organization, concerned first with taking care of ourselves. Surely, we aren’t to have a me first mentality. What else could “especially for those of the family of faith” mean?

In Bill Hybels’ book “The Volunteer Revolution,” he talks about what it takes to engage in service for the long haul. He begins where we left off last week, with passion. Our goal, Hybels argues, is “to gradually align oneself closer and closer to authentic areas of passion and spiritual giftedness.” If this passion and spiritual giftedness is seen as coming from God, then we could argue that our first task to attain marathon service is to get closer to God and God’s action in our lives. Well, that seems a no brainer, really. If it is beyond my capacity to generate the energy to lifelong service, then I need the source of true power, the Holy Spirit.

But it is the second key to service longevity that unlocks the secret of Galatians 6. Hybels says that “I want to do the work God calls me to do in community with people I love.” To really sustain a servant’s heart, he argues, we need the support of the community. We need to be partnered with others who will help us stay fixed on the goal, stay true to the call.

That, I believe, is what “especially” means in verse ten. Not that Christians are more worthy of good works or acts of kindness than non-Christians. But that we are always on the look out for ways to cultivate the kind of relationships that will keep us connected, that will build up the body.

We are looking for and creating the kind of relationships whereby we are transformed by those who have come into our lives. We are made better, we are encouraged and equipped to be better, to serve with passion, to care with love. We have been remade for good, and we will continue to serve as long as we stay connected. We will not grow weary as long as we are sustained by the body of Christ.

Paul’s argument, then, would be that people do come into our lives for a reason, and we are in other people’s lives for a reason. And that reason is to be shaped for service in the name of Christ. And to be so shaped for good.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Carpe Diem

Seize the day. You’ve heard it before, I’m sure. Even before, or since, Robin Williams and that movie. I forget the name of it. Dead Poets Society. That was it. Over 20 years ago, so there are those out there who weren’t even alive when that was released. But it doesn’t matter! Because this isn’t about that movie, it’s about those words - which the movie used - that captured popular culture’s attention for a moment or two. Before the ADD kicked in and we were off to the next thing.

Carpe Diem! Seize the Day! Go for it! Just do it! Here we go! Grab for the gusto... OK, we may be commercial jingling our way off the subject just a little bit. And just what is the subject? Well, Romans chapter twelve is the subject. But that’s not exactly true. It is the context. The subject is a possible typo at the end of this reading.

Take a look:

Romans 12:1-11 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. 9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.

OK, first thing to mention is that I’ve messed up the theme breaks. If you follow the lectionary closely, you’ll find Romans 12:1-8 and Romans 12:9-21. The first part, we’re told, is Paul talking about gifts. That is one of his favorite subjects. He has a variety of lists of gifts of the Spirit sprinkled throughout the epistles. And here’s another one! Actually the gift part is verses 6-8. Prior to that it is a more general appeal, an exhortation. Paul is calling us into right relationship with God (verses 1-2) and into community (verses 3-5). Then he encourages us all by reminding us that we all have something to contribute. We each are a piece in the puzzle that is the kingdom of God at work in the church. We all have a part to play in the drama of the life of faith.

And then, here’s where it gets good in my estimation (not that the rest of it isn’t good. I mean “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” It doesn’t get much better than that. Look at “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” Wow, Paul is on a roll in this passage. Some of his best stuff. Seriously.) But from verse nine it is like he shifts into another gear. Invitation after invitation, encouragement after encouragement, call after call, Paul is trying to rev up our engines. Trying to build the excitement. Trying to get us to claim the joy of living as followers of Jesus Christ.

There is more after we stopped reading. And I encourage you to go grab a New Testament and finish chapter twelve. But I stopped at verse eleven for a very specific reason. It had zeal in it.

This week in our Shaped for Service series we are looking at passion. Passion for service. Passion in service. Passion as motivation for service. Passion as the determiner for what kind of service we launch. Passion. “Do not lag in zeal. Be ardent in spirit. Serve the Lord.”

Maybe it should be “Serve the Lord!” Or “serve the LORD!” Yee-ha! OK, maybe Yee-ha is a bit much to expect when it comes to service. But, you’ve got to catch the flavor of verse eleven somehow. You’ve got to grasp the passion that Paul presents (cool alliteration, did you notice?) And you’ve got to hear the story of the typo.

Actually, it isn’t a typo per se. It is more an argument - or an academic conversation, if you will - about the reading of the word at the end of verse eleven. If you check other translations, you will sometimes find the verse ending like this: “serve the time.” No, not in the sense of doing time. One reading of this word is that it is “kurios” - which translates as Lord. Serve the Lord. The other reading says the word is “kairos” - serve the time. Or as one commentator renders it - seize your opportunities. Make the most of the moment. Just do it.

“Kairos” is distinguished from “chronos” in that the latter is clock time and the former is “the right time.” When you ask what time it is, you are asking about “chronos.” But when you are asking if the time is right to make your move, to step out in faith, to take a risk, then you are asking about “kairos.”

Seize your opportunities sounds a lot different from serve the Lord, doesn’t it? Well, yes. At least until you realize that another understanding of “kairos” in the early church was as the Lord’s time. When will the Kingdom be established? In “kairos.” When will Christ be honored by all, when will every knee bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord? In “kairos.” The right time. In God’s time.

In a sense, though there is some disagreement as to which word went in verse eleven, to the first followers it didn’t matter which word you used there. The end result would be the same. Seize the day often sounds self serving. Do what you want to do. Don’t wait. Live to the full. It could be, and often is about self-actualization. But to the Christian, the challenge to seize the day would be to live more fully for Christ. Do what is within you, do what you love, not just for your own enjoyment, but for the building up of the community of faith, for the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

Fred Beuchner said that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Go with your passions. Go with what gives you joy. But don’t go selfishly, go ready to share, ready to include, ready to transform those around you.

When we serve with passion we discover that the day we seize is not just our own. It is woven into the tapestry of living called the Kingdom of God.

So, Carpe Diem. Go seize that day, as you serve the Lord.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Maundy Monday

OK, I know it isn’t Monday, but it will be soon. And I know it isn’t Maundy Thursday, but it will be eventually. A few months anyway. But actually it was the old The Mamas and The Papas song that came to mind as I was musing about the text for this week. (Mamas and Papas? My Lord, how old are you? Not nearly as old as my kids think I am. Just saying. But I do remember The Mamas and The Papas. So there!)

Monday Monday, so good to me, / Monday Monday, it was all I hoped it would be / Oh Monday morning, Monday morning couldn't guarantee / That Monday evening you would still be here with me.

Monday Monday, can't trust that day, / Monday Monday, sometimes it just turns out that way / Oh Monday morning, you gave me no warning of what was to be / Oh Monday Monday, how could you leave and not take me.

I never realized how “Tale of Two Cities” that song is. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Monday, Monday, so good to me / Monday, Monday, can’t trust that day.” Interesting, don’t you think? Which is it? A good to me day, or an untrustworthy day? Hmmm.

None of that is the reason why I went with the title you see above. I was merely thinking about the only time we usually see the passage I have chosen for this Sunday in our “Shaped for Service” series is on Maundy Thursday. You know, that Thursday during Holy Week, the few days before Easter, when we re-enact the Last Supper in the Upper Room. The commemoration that we’ve begun to change to Holy Thursday, because no one can remember what Maundy means and it makes us sound even more out of touch with reality. At least Holy Thursday sounds somewhat normal.

But, it is a bit odd that we always go back to the thirteenth chapter of John for Maundy Thursday. Because John is the only Gospel that never really discusses or even depicts the last supper. There is no “this is my body” in John, no “Drink from this all of you.” The very thing we’ve used to institute this sacrament that we call Holy Communion. How odd is that? It is as if John has a completely different agenda than the other three Gospels. As though he missed something vital in the story. Instead he spends time on this odd little event, a neglect of hospitality, a detail that was overlooked in the party planning. Surely that shouldn’t be the central focus of this moment. Should it? Take a look.

John 13:1-17 Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 And during supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. 5 Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. 6 He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, "Lord, do you wash my feet?" 7 Jesus answered him, "What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand." 8 Peter said to him, "You shall never wash my feet." Jesus answered him, "If I do not wash you, you have no part in me." 9 Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" 10 Jesus said to him, "He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not every one of you." 11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, "You are not all clean." 12 When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

I know it is useless to try and ascribe inner thoughts to the actors in the gospel drama, but I can’t help but wander what was going through Jesus’ mind when he got up and grabbed the towel and the basin. Was it a sigh at how such an important cultural greeting was missed by those who were charged to prepare the meal? Was it light bulb moment where he thought, maybe if I show them what I mean, they’ll finally get it? Was it yet another opportunity to present his incarnated message, to be the words that he spoke? Or was it just a matter of course - he saw a need and got up to fill it, not thinking for a moment on how they would respond to such an act?

In the minds of the disciples, there was something demeaning about kneeling to serve in such a humbling way. That’s why they all managed to overlook the opportunity. But for Jesus it wasn’t demeaning, it was an opportunity. An opportunity to serve. More than that, it was an opportunity to be who he came to be, to fulfill his purpose. After all he said “The Son of Man came to serve, not to be served.”

All the teaching about the action came after, when they were confused. “Do you know what I have done for you?” Nope, he could read it in their eyes, they didn’t get it. They were still looking for the best seats, they were still looking for their rewards in heaven, or on earth. They didn’t know what he had done, which means they didn’t know him. At all. We sometimes envy the disciples, because they got to spend time with him, they got to hear his voice and see his eyes, they watched his hands, they were right there. And they didn’t get it. They didn’t have any advantage.

Later on Jesus says “I’m giving you a new commandment.” That’s where the word Maundy comes from. The Latin maundatum or command. The new commandment, he says later is “Love one another as I have loved you.” Except it wasn’t new, not really. He had already acted it out in front of them. “As I have loved you.” By serving, by getting on his knees, by bending to a task that even fishermen thought was beneath them. Love like I loved, says Jesus.

It wasn’t supposed to be a once a year command. The church has turned Maundy Thursday into quite a ritual over the years. The Pope would find some beggars - or his people would find some beggars - and then very publicly would wash their feet. The monarch of England would do the same, until it got too uncomfortable for them, now they hand out some money. Maundy Money, it’s called. Once a year.

But it was never supposed to be a ritual. It was supposed to be a way of life. Oh, foot-washing isn’t a part of our culture, that isn’t necessarily what is supposed to be carried on. It is the willingness to serve that is the command. The Maundy. On Thursday, or Monday. Or any day. And even The Mamas and The Papas knew it wasn’t always going to be a piece of cake. Sometimes it’s a good day, all you hoped it to be. Other times it seems cruel, not what you expected. That’s a part of the risk of service. Sometimes it doesn’t turn out like you hoped, sometimes it isn’t received like you intended. And our inclination is to stop rather than risk doing it wrong. At least until we remember that Monday comes every week. Or maybe we remember that Maundy comes again and again, every time there is an opportunity to serve.

“Every other day of the week is fine ...” Fine for serving in the name of the One who served.


Saturday, January 8, 2011


Vampires - moody and sparkly and cool. Zombies - creepy and hungry and terrorist. It’s a scary world out there. At least that is what popular culture would have you believe. Threats around every corner, threats with power much greater than yours. Threats against which there is no real defense. So, eat your popcorn and hunker down and prepare to be scared out of your wits.

Of course some argue that all of this is more psychological than sociological. It is more about the fears within than about the fears without. Maybe that is why all those magazines and websites ask you to do a quiz to find out if you are more like a vampire – Team Edward, anybody? – or more like a zombie. I don’t know the kind of questions you might need to ask to determine which form of undead you are, but I’m sure they are powerful ones. Probably like the ones Paul would ask.

Wow, that’s a leap, you are saying. Well, maybe not. Especially if you look at our passage for this week. It begins with a declaration about death. Your death. In the past tense. Spooky. As in it already happened, but you got over it. Or you got better. Just like in the comic books.

OK, before I get myself farther in a hole, let’s just take a look at this letter to dead people. Or people formerly known as dead people. Or undead people. Or ... never mind. Just read.

Ephesians 2:1-10 You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ1 -- by grace you have been saved -- 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God -- 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

“You were dead.” Can’t get much more blunt than that, I guess. “You were dead.” We were all dead - or were all “children of wrath.” Now that’s a catchy phrase, don’t you think? Wonder what it means? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that dead people – living dead people that is, that’s who we are talking about – have nothing to focus on but themselves. A child of wrath, it seems to me, is one who is most concerned about his or her rights. About getting what is due. About slights real and imagined. About arguing about everything just for the sake of arguing.

Sometimes you just wonder about people. What’s going on in their little pea brains, anyway? Until you listen closer and decide that what is going on in most people’s little pea brains has been going on in yours, at least at some point in the not too distant past. We all have trouble getting over being dead. It kind of clings to us. Like the garlic bread we had for lunch. There is an air of dead, of children of wrath around us at times. It almost makes us disgusted at ourselves. Makes us wonder why anyone should bother with us, why anyone would bother with us. We’re just so ... so ... dead.

Which is why it is so amazing that there is another option. It is so amazing that God reaches right down into our deadness and rescues us. Amazing! Well, think about it for a moment. What is your inclination when confronted with a wrathful child? You want to walk away. You want as much distance between you and that one who smells like death. But God, says Paul, because of the mercy which defines our understanding of God, because of the love by which we have come to any awareness of God, reaches right into our deadness and pulls us out. Pulls us up.

We’ve been there too. For a moment, perhaps, a brief breath or two. We’ve felt loved completely, totally accepted and welcomed. You might have to think way back, or maybe it was this morning, but it is there. At least I hope and pray that it has for you. Oh, if we were to weight the days where we felt like death, the days of our child-like wrathfulness against the days where we felt seated in the heavenly places in Christ, we might be troubled by the pointer on the scale. We tend to retreat into death, into wrathfulness more than we really ought, more than we really want. But we can’t help but feel that is where we belong, or that is where we’ve earned a place.

Because the other is so beyond us. So out of our reach. How can we climb up into the lap of God? How can we make our way into the heavenly places? That is out of our reach, that exceeds our capabilities, we can’t stretch to that limit. Right! We can’t. We won’t. We don’t. Which is what makes it all the more amazing. We can put ourselves in death, but we can’t bring ourselves to life. We can climb down to the pits, we can claim the wrath that is within us, but we can’t get rid of it or climb our way up to the heavenly places. That’s God’s job.

Look carefully at the words Paul has chosen to describe this process. It is not your doing, it is not your willing, it is not you at all. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God ...” It ain’t about you. It’s about God.

No wonder we worship. No wonder we want to live lives of gratitude. No wonder we want stay close. No wonder. Because that is where we want to be. We’ve been down and we’ve been up, and if we are thinking at all, we prefer the up. We’ve been dead and we’ve been alive, and alive is so much better, so much more fun, so much more ... alive! And we’ve been wrathful and we’ve been Christlike - and while there is an odd sort of pleasure in getting our way from the terror of others, we must acknowledge that when Christ works in us we feel more complete, more right than at any other time.

Face it, there are a lot of the undead around us. Even here in our faith communities, even in ourselves more often than we would care to admit. That half alive kind of life that might bring us our rights, but never satisfies our souls. And yet we persist. It is the way of things, we say. We get so busy, as someone wise once said, making a living that we forget about making a life.

So, how do we hang on to it? How do we claim this gift, how do we transform ourselves from children or wrath, from the dead into those fully alive? Children of light, children of God in Christ? If it isn’t us, but God, are we doomed to follow this pattern over and over and over, waiting for God to rescue us one more time from the pit we have become so familiar with?

Last verse: For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. We can’t work our way into God’s presence, into God’s good graces, into life. But we can work because we’ve been there and want to stay there. We can work, we can serve, we can live that life of gratitude that expresses thankfulness with our hands and our hearts as much as with our words. This is what we were made for, Paul says, this life of service, this life of giving. The life of self satisfaction, self-centeredness is a dead kind of life.

And no matter how cool vampires and zombies might appear in our media - it’s no way to live!