You are a Maple in Autumn

Right now I am on my back porch, and before me, rising approximately thirty feet into the blue sky, is a maple tree aflame. It is a maple in autumn.

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The maple is edged in rusty red and shot through with golds, and it bears an inner foliage still green but not for long. As green and full as that foliage once was, no one would deny that it is at its most beautiful today. Those greens have given way to a veritable rainbow of colors that do not simply comfort and shade, but captivate and dazzle. Those leaves have turned or are turning, and every few seconds another one breaks loose and rides the current of that liberating breeze until it is deposited upon my lawn.

Science tells me that this tree is deciduous, and that these leaves have been abscised because they are not currently essential. It tells me the rusty reds and the golds are the result of a change in the leaves’ pigments, as the carotenoids and xanthophylls and anthocyanins have revealed themselves in the wake of the dropping temperatures and the sun which does not shine so long these days. Chlorophyll is no longer produced, and so these pigment changes are the evidence that tree and leaf are protecting themselves in an inclement season. When a gust of wind tears a leaf from its place on the maple’s limbs, there is left a leaf scar, but these scars serve a purpose, protecting the naked limbs and preparing it to bear the foliage again in warmer, brighter days.

Those that fall upon my lawn we call “dead leaves,” but the maple no more considers them dead as it considers itself dead. No, these leaves fall to the ground and carpet the earth around the maple, and as they turn gray and brown and crackle underfoot, they release the last of their precious nutrients back into soil where it no doubt returns to the maple by way of the roots. So, the leaves that we see die are the leaves we see alive when spring arrives. What has fallen has fallen for the maple’s good, not its ill.

This is not resurrection. It is perseverance.

But what of the maple itself? The roots and the trunk and the limbs? In another month, it will appear to me as good as dead. If any leaves remain attached, too tightly fastened to be torn loose by the wind, they have shriveled and released whatever energy or food or chemical was in them. The maple stands naked and cold, a gray skeleton against a pallid, winter sky.

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Were I an impatient man, concerned only with results, only with what comforts me or what dazzles my eye, and I was unaware of what the seasons promise the future holds, I would certainly take an axe to that maple. There would be no point in leaving a dead, worthless thing such as I see it standing in my yard. I’d perceive the leaves it has dropped as nothing but a nuisance to rake together and stuff into trash bags. I would not realize my chopping and my raking to be the work of the murderer rather than the mortician. I would bring an end to life simply because I was not willing to accept that life – and endurance and energy and expectancy – does not always appear the way I think it should.

The leaves are not dying.  They are changing. The maple is not withdrawing. It is renewing.

May we who wander this earth and go back and forth within it be found as faithful as this maple. May the things about us that change and turn and often fall away do so out of our commitment to perseverance. As surely as the Son shines now, it will shine brighter and warmer in the days to come. Let us be ready.

Your Basement is Haunted

Memory is not so much a segment of the brain as it is a room in a house. It is a particular place within the home of your being. Specifically, memory is a basement. To get there, you must momentarily step out of daily life, open that creaking door that scratches across the threshold, and descend a rickety staircase leading to a place where you keep everything that, up to this point, makes you you.

Of course, like a lot of basements, the basements of our beings can be frightening places. Sometimes the swinging lightbulb flickers, casting unsettled shadows across the cold, stone walls. Here you find an overwhelming clutter – your dusty boxes full of long-buried emotions, your pile of excess mental baggage. Few trips to this basement are convenient, and even fewer find you emerging from those depths full of positive energy. Rather, even if your intentions for venturing down those stairs are positive, you usually return at a quickened clip, as if something long buried has uncovered itself and is close at your heels in pursuit, and you must surface and slam the door shut lest it leap back into the daylight with you. Lest it escape the bottoms of your past and come to exist again in your present.

 ...

Like many a basement in a gothic short story, the basements of our beings are haunted places. There are creaks and groans down there. The echoes of angry words we spoke to someone who we’re sure didn’t deserve it. Reverberations of hasty statements we regret we ever voiced. The basement is where the ghosts of our past reside. Some we can identify – people who we wronged mixed in with all the people we believe wronged us. All of them wander around down there, blind and lost. The only conceivable purpose for their presence is to feed our guilt or fuel our grudges. When we must descend into these cellars of our lives – whether in some fleeting, naive attempt at self-reflection or a necessary reconnaissance into our memories – we attempt to do all our business from the stairs, lest we disturb those spirits. We get in and we get out, and we try to forget anything we might have seen down there. At the top of the stairs, we wipe our feet on the dusty, cobwebby mat, intending to bring not even the smallest fragment with us back through that door into daily life.

And we wouldn’t go down there at all if it weren’t the only storage space we have. The problem is that a lot of the good stuff is down there, too. Reminders of good deeds done with no coercion, wise words we didn’t know we had in us, memories of inspiring, heroic folks with whom we once interacted. It is hard to believe how much clutter is down there, and harder still that none of it is very organized. The good words are mixed in alongside the bad, and the figures we revere mill about among the same ghosts from which we divert our eyes. There are all kinds of musty odors down there – they come from the open boxes, and just when one hits our nostrils and tickles our interest, another assaults us and we recoil and berate ourselves for ever thinking it would be okay to go poking around.

Even finding your way through such a mess is daunting.

Even finding your way through such a mess can be daunting.

Oh, we’ll try and spruce the place up a bit, especially if we find ourselves needing to venture down there on a regular basis. We’ll try to get it all organized and labeled. We make sure the good things are easy to access, and we don’t stack too many boxes atop each other because the last thing we need is them to all come tumbling down and spilling out like Pandora’s box. The goal is to avoid as much of a mess of memories as possible. There’s nothing more agonizingly tedious as cleaning up spilt memories by oneself. Sometimes, we’ll decide we need some professional help with our cleaning, and a lot of time these doctors we go to see help us. They remind us that as frustrating and intimidating as it is, the clutter is still important. They help us label things, and they don’t mind peaking into those dusty boxes with us. They help clear some room in the far back of the basement for those ghosts to wander about without getting in the way. Of course, the downside is that every once in a while one of these doctors isn’t paying attention to what he is doing and knocks over a box we’d rather not have known was there.

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For the Christian, when it comes to the basements of our beings, there is good news and there is bad news. The good news is with one’s salvation experience comes the presence of the Holy Spirit – the presence of Christ in our inmost being. The bad news is one of the very reasons he takes up residence in us is that, like those weirdos on Storage Wars, he is eager to get into that basement of ours and start rooting around. He’s convinced that everything down there – the good and the bad, the pleasant and the disturbing, the loved ones and the ghosts – means something for our present and for our future. What is more, Jesus himself agrees with this idea.

I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned… When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:7-11,13)

This is one of the many reasons why we pray. We seek God’s direction before we descend into the basements of our beings. We choose to go downstairs with his Spirit at our side. It’s not that the doctors don’t help – they do. It’s just that the Spirit is even more of a specialist when it comes to dealing with all of our clutter. He’s seen millions of basements like ours, and millions more that are far worse. He’s fought his way through many a jungle of cobwebs, braved even the most frightening collection of terrors, and withstood even the most rancid of odors.

Every one of our basements are haunted places, and merely getting organized isn’t enough to restore health to, and to draw wisdom from, our pasts. So we do not go in alone, but alongside the friend and Helper whose job it is to boldly yet gently show us who we really are, deep down.

The Losing Side

Since late Saturday night, I’ve willingly belonged to the losing side of an argument. Specifically, I’ve been arguing with several friends – primarily on Facebook and Twitter – that while the call to end Game 3 of the World Series was correct, the rule itself is bad. Several times I’ve ranted eloquently communicated that the obstruction rule in Major League Baseball should account for a player’s intent, and that, yes, umpires should be asked to judge intent. (They already judge intent when pitcher’s do or do not intentionally hit batters, but don’t get me started…) The point is, I knew going into the debate that I would be on the losing side of the argument, and, ultimately, I realize I’m off-base.

Pun intended. Or was it?...

Pun intended. Or was it?…

Sometimes, though, our principles and passions drive us to choose the losing side.

It is not for the usual reasons of occupational busyness that I haven’t written a complete blog entry or posted to Wonderstuff for several months. Rather, it’s because of another losing-side situation. I’ve been sick. For months. Since May, actually. I’ve been suffering continual bouts of nausea, fatigue and dizziness that often overcome me all of a sudden. Sometimes it hits in the morning before meals, sometimes after lunch, sometimes in the evenings. Since June, I’ve had a Gastric Emptying study, an Endoscopy, a HIDA Scan, an abdominal ultrasound, and even a CT scan of my brain. On top of these tests, each of which has revealed hardly anything wrong with me, I’ve filled my body with a veritable cornucopia of prescription medication. I’ve had two different medical referrals and gotten a second opinion, and I’m on a very long cancellation list for some hotshot doc in Dallas to have a go at me. I’ve completed Whole 30 in hopes that abstaining from all those foods and food categories would reveal that I’d developed an aversion to them. I’ve started juicing to be healthier and I’ve since ceased juicing to cut down on the extra acidity that has affected my esophagitis. I’ve even gone so far as to eat more than one salad per day! Unfortunately, despite all these efforts, there has been no escape from this problem. I’ve lost twelve pounds, but gained no relief. It’s a losing side if ever one existed.

That isn't a tumor. It's just the part of my brain that's committed to arguing that Game 3 obstruction call into the ground.

That isn’t a tumor affecting my feelings of nausea and dizziness. It’s just the part of my brain committed to arguing that Game 3 obstruction call into the ground.

Sometimes, we don’t choose the losing side. We just get the victory beaten out of us by forces beyond our control until losing is all that’s left.

However, I want to make it clear that the operative part of my title is not so much a word, but the gerund-izing of a word. Losing. Present tense. I’m losing.

But I haven’t lost yet.

There’s still some fight left in me. I’ve still got some argumentative angles for those naysayers who doubt an ump’s ability to judge the psyche of a professional baseball player alongside his physical performance. And I’ve still got some options to try out in an effort to heal my body of this odd illness. (Pray for me as I give up coffee – including decaf.)

Farewell, old friend.

Farewell, old friend.

My point is pretty simple. There will be times in our lives when we find ourselves on the losing side. Maybe we carried ourselves there, or maybe we were bound, gagged, stuffed in a trunk and delivered there. Maybe we went looking for a fight, or maybe the fight found us even though we were peacefully minding our own business. May we remember that we haven’t lost yet. For the times when we go to the losing side willingly, may we be strengthened by the indignation we bring there. May our twisted perfectly reasonable desire to poke the hornet’s nest with a stick serve to steel our courage and harden our resolve … for the times when we do not venture willingly to the losing side. For the time when we stumble upon the hornets nest and awaken its wrath. When those times happen – and as sure as the sun rises and sets, they will happen – we are going to need that courage and that resolve. We will be dependent on the strength and endurance that we’ve stored inside.

But when even that courage fails and that resolve fades and we can endure no more and we finally, at long last, turn our face to the sky in search of Another who can rescue us from the losing side, may we be greeted by an absence there. Instead, when we drop our heads under the weight of despair, may we feel His hand on our shoulder, and hear His voice gentle on our ear reminding us to “Follow me.”  After all, that has been His purpose for us from the beginning of time before there were even sides to choose and lines to draw, and it is a purpose that never changes no matter which side we’re on.

Wherever you are, always remember: you haven’t lost yet.

The Hall of Fellowship: Disagreement and Humility in Church (Part One)

Every church I have ever attended has had a “fellowship hall.” Even the Anglican church in Basel, Switzerland that my wife and I belonged to for three years had one (though they didn’t always call it by that name). If you’ve ever attended or belonged to a church in America that has its own building, chances are you’re familiar with the concept of a fellowship hall.

Fellowship_Hall

A fellowship hall is a room designated by a church for a variety of activities, the majority of which are meant as a celebration of community life. The descriptor is “fellowship,” a concept which harks back to the Greek word, koinonia, found over forty times in the New Testament. It means to be in communion with one another. And in our fellowship halls, we do just that, don’t we?

We put on prayer breakfasts and potluck lunches and appreciation dinners.

We use them for graduation recognitions and Bible studies and AA meetings and ministry events and leader workshops.

We rent them out for both wedding receptions and funeral receptions.

We hold special worship services in them. And youth rallies. And Vacation Bible School activities.

We organize community outreach events in them. And in the halls that double as gymnasiums, you’ll find church-league basketball games, all-night lock-ins and aerobic classes.

Fellowship. The communion of saints. Given the wide range of activities that take place in a fellowship hall, is there any reason to question its essentiality within congregational life?

After all, to be in fellowship with one another is a foundational precept of the Christian church. Our earliest creeds include the belief that believers exist in communion with one another. The early Church operated off of the model established in Jerusalem following Pentecost (Acts 2:43-47, 4:32-35). The Apostle John reminds the churches to which he ministered that those who “walk in the light” with God naturally “have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1:7). Like the old hand-folding rhyme reminds us, the church is indeed the people.

Some are tall, some are short, some are in dire need of a manicure.

Some are tall, some are short, some are in dire need of a manicure.

And yet, almost from the start, differences of opinion entered the church. Despite the the first believers being described in Acts as “of one heart and mind,” the people began to take sides on a variety of issues.

In Jerusalem, it had to do with nationality and cultural identity, the Hebraic Jews versus the Hellenist Jews.

Later, in Thessalonica, it was between those who continued working and those who retired early in expectation of the Second Coming, the breadwinners verses the idlers.

In Philippi, it was two influential women holding a grudge against one another, Euodia versus Syntyche.

In Galatia, it was theological disagreement between Jewish law and Paul’s teachings, the circumcised versus the uncircumcised.

And in Corinth it had to do with which visiting preacher you preferred … and which side you stood on in various lawsuits … and whether or not you believed it was okay to eat food sacrificed to idols. Yeah, Corinth had a lot of problems.

Okay, where to begin? "Dear Corinthians ... are you TRYING to annoy me?!"

Okay, where to begin? “Dear Corinthians … are you TRYING to annoy me?!”

Now, in some cases, the church leaders were able to settle the disputes and work out the problems that arose from these disagreements. However, in other cases, there is no evidence the disagreements were ever fully settled. But while a few became significant theological issues for Christians throughout the region, most others simply remained within particular communities. In other words, the presence of disagreement between believers was never fully eradicated.

This is why, for instance, Paul does not spend time in his letter to the Philippians hashing out the details of the disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2). Instead, he simply writes, “I urge [them] to be of the same mind in the Lord.”

On the one hand, that seems an almost impossible statement. We might think that for these two women to achieve such like-mindedness, one side would ultimately have to be proven right and the other side wrong. That, or both parties would have to simply forget about the matter on which they disagreed.

"I am sending to you my beloved Jerry, a co-laboror with me in the Lord's service. Receive him as you would receive me."

“I am sending to you my beloved Jerry, a co-laboror with me in the Lord’s service. Receive him as you would receive me.”

On the other hand, though, I don’t believe this is how Paul viewed the issue. I think he had come to accept certain disputes as inevitable. It is part of the nature of all communities. When you get different kinds of people together, disagreement happens. It happens between siblings, between spouses, between parents and children, between relatives, between neighbors, between townspeople, between citizens… the list goes on.

Disagreement is not an impairment of community; it is a symptom of it.

Now, over the centuries, we know that there have been monumental issues in the Church that have moved beyond mere disagreement and civil dispute. We know of many churches, as well as and many denominations (i.e. churches functioning in community with other churches), that have cracked apart and divided. Sometimes bitterly, but many times essentially. In fact, my very faith tradition is named for the Middle Age protestors who disputed the way the Church had been doing things in that time. History seems to show that every once in and while, division is necessary. It’s sad but true. However, I believe such monumental disagreements are far less prevalent, and such necessary divisions far less necessary, than we think they are today.

I’m not denying that disagreements can’t get out of control in this day and age. Nor am I advocating a fuggedaboudit ideology in which Christians avoid all manner of conflict in order to prevent division. Like I said, disagreement is a symptom of community, and we shouldn’t fear its presence among us. We will disagree from time to time. We’ll sometimes see things differently, even when it comes to seemingly important issues like interpretation, theology, moral conduct, politics, culture…

For instance...

For instance…

But here’s the thing. I’m only thirty-three years old and I have already witnessed first-hand two church splits. Both divisions were incredibly tragic and surprisingly nasty. I’ve also served in several churches that have experienced crippling scandals that saw many members turn their backs and walk away. I don’t want to negate any of the difficulties the people of these churches dealt with, but in each case it seems to me that what pushed the dispute into full-fledged division was a lack of humility.

What do I mean by “a lack of humility?” I’m talking about a shortage of individuals who have learned how to admit they don’t know everything about the issue at hand. Who are comfortable with the possibility that their opinions might not be fact, no matter how clear it seems to them when they open up their Bibles in search of proof.

When I was serving in my first youth ministry position, I remember arriving at the church on a particular night only to be waylaid by an elderly deacon who adamantly insisted I take a ride with him so we could talk. We ended up parked at a Sonic and after adamantly insisting I order a drink, he spent the next hour and a half telling me all the reasons why the young pastor who had hired me, and whom I dearly loved, was actually a selfish, envious power-hungry false teacher. The most frightening thing I remember about that night was not his fiery vehemence for our pastor. It was when I realized he was living beyond the range of argument. Not only could I not change his mind, but any difference of opinion was met with more frustration and adamant insistence in his rightness.

Welcome to Sonic Drive-In. Would you like fries or tater tots with your terrifyingly righteous indignation?

Welcome to Sonic Drive-In. Would you like fries or tater tots with your terrifyingly righteous indignation?

These experiences have made me sensitive to the paucity of humility in our churches today. Sometimes it takes the form of disagreement without a desire to compromise. Other times, it is revealed by a general indifference to actively participate with those people, (but that’s more for part two of this post). Ironic, considering how many activities still take place in our “fellowship halls.” Fellowship – from the Greek koinonia – means to coexist, and to do so in a tone of celebration. But genuine fellowship will not happen without a healthy level of humility.

This is what I believe Paul was advocating to the Philippian church. Urging Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord was Paul’s way of saying, “Hey, I know you have your differences, and I know you think the other one is wrong on some significant issue. However, that disagreement in no way prevents your mutual belief in the salvation of Jesus. So find a way to coexist in that hope, not because we all need to get along but because getting along is part of experiencing the koinonia we are meant to have with God himself. So, remind yourself that while you know some things, you don’t know everything, and stop allowing a difference of opinion to rob you of fellowship with each other and with your Creator.”

Paul wasn't as long-winded as I am.

Paul wasn’t as long-winded as I am.

The Church is filled with disagreements, but it is about so much more than those disagreements. We are not meant to be defined by what we disagree on. We are meant to be defined solely by the God who has called us and saved us. We’re meant to be defined by Jesus’ love for us.

Perhaps the churches that have fellowship halls should begin using them in ways that point its members back to this reality. In addition to the dinners and rallies and lock-ins and league games, maybe we can begin using those spaces as venues for patient dialogue and safe places for disagreement. Maybe these multi-purpose rooms can someday reclaim the true meaning of their names.

When They Just Don’t Get It

Yesterday, I received an unwelcome glimpse into the future of my vocation.

Recently, I’ve had the privilege to deliver the sermons in the morning and evening worship services while our interim pastor has been out-of-town. I don’t take these invitations lightly.

I love preaching. I love the preparation – the choosing of a text, the meticulous research. I love to jot down notes and good lines and phrases turned in captivating ways. I enjoy writing the manuscript. And, despite the unavoidable pain that comes from revising and cutting it down to size, I relish the way slashing paragraphs and removing unnecessary repetition seems to grant freedom to the whole enterprise. I even enjoy practicing the manuscript out loud, contending with it until I’m able to leave it behind without losing point or pace.

Cheater.

Cheater.

Preaching is as much of an art form, a specialist’s craft, as poetry, painting, playing an instrument or writing a short story. And even though I know I still have a long way to go before I can consider myself an accomplished craftsman, each opportunity afforded me is practice I need and practice I crave.

But yesterday, following the worship service, I came face-to-face with one of the drawbacks to the art form and to the choice to make preaching part of my career.

It wasn’t criticism. By now, I’ve preached enough sermons and taught enough Bible studies to receive a fair share of negative responses. A few have been called for, a few have not, and still there have been a handful of comments that were, without a doubt, the most selfish, insensitive and tactless attacks I’ve ever heard leveled against a human being. (That last group usually comes by way of e-mail, one of the many ways the Internet allows us to wage bloody trench wars against people we disagree with.) Criticism can be discouraging, and a few times it has sapped my sense of accomplishment, but, ultimately, negative criticism only makes the preacher work harder and pay more attention to the words and illustrations he chooses.

"Okay, so how can I keep this point from sounding like the vapid, ignorant utterings of a pea-brained liberal jackass with the common sense of a monkey throwing feces?"

“Okay, so how can I keep this point from sounding like the vapid, ignorant utterings of a pea-brained liberal jackass with the common sense of a monkey throwing feces?”

No, what left me so disconcerted with the preaching life was found in some of the conversations I had with people at the close of the service, no more than ten minutes after I’d finished delivering my sermon. Almost exclusively, they offered me positive comments and praise. However, the reasons they gave for why they enjoyed my sermon came directly from a viewpoint that I had spent the last half hour arguing against!

Yesterday’s sermon focused on the fact that the gospel of Jesus Christ erases all manner of distinction between a person and others. Drawing upon Galatians 3:28 (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”), my main premise was that while a lot of professing Christians continue to abide by the myriad of cultural, political, racial and economic classifications present in our modern world, the truth of the gospel is that salvation abolishes that way of life. And if we want to live as authentic Christians – rather than by a mere societal definition of the word “Christian” – we must submit to this radical new way of thinking and speaking and doing. There’s no argument here. The gospel of Jesus robs us of the permission to figure our identity by worldly standards.

Somehow, despite so carefully preparing my sermon and practicing the delivery, some people just seemed to hear the exact opposite message than I had intended. They spoke to me from particular cultural, political, and/or social perspectives, brazenly unaware that bad-mouthing or lamenting people who were different from them was the very thing I had spoken out against.

It was the presumptuousness that bothered me most. Some of these people simply assumed that I shared every one of their views, when, in reality, all I was thinking was, “Well, that’s not what I meant at all,” and “Were you even listening to the part where I said _________?”

Ah! He's saying something that sounds impactful. Quick, plug your ears!

Ah! He’s saying something that sounds impactful. Quick, plug your ears!

Look, I’m not a fool. I understand that I can’t expect one sermon to completely change every heart and mind, no matter how much preparation goes into it. And I realize that God is patient, and that he calls his children to be patient as well, and that changing minds takes time. In fact, that was one of the main points of my sermon – that sanctification is a struggle because we are constantly being pulled backwards into the old way of life, into cold legalism and the convenience of social distinctions.

However, there is something deeply disconcerting when the words you speak are not only heard incorrectly, but the people who most need to hear a message of deliverance interpret what you say as encouragement to keep on living the way they’ve been living. It made me wonder if this is always going to be an unwelcome aspect of the preaching life. Will anything ever break through to such people? Will the Spirit ever be able to convict them?

And how am I to respond? Granted, I was a substitute – a guest speaker. Communicating truth comes as one-shot opportunities for me right now. I’m not so sure it’s my place to stop the well-meaning commenters in the middle of what they’re telling me and say, “Wow, you just didn’t get it at all, did you?”

"C'mon, be honest. You were just doodling in your bulletin the whole time, weren't you?"

“C’mon, be honest. You were just doodling in your bulletin the whole time, weren’t you?”

As I ponder the next step and whether or not I’m really up for this kind of life, I realize there is not much difference between receiving negative criticism and receiving misguided praise. It still just makes me want to work harder – to meticulously pour over that next message (whenever the opportunity to preach comes my way again) and consider even more deliberately the audience to whom I speak.

And I realize something else, too. It occurs to me that it’s one thing to stand up on a stage or behind a pulpit and preach a good sermon. It’s a whole other thing to live as that very model of grace and Christ-filled patience in the midst of post-sermon conversations.

God have mercy! There’s no greater art form than that.