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.

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The Gospel According to Childhood Chores

The following is written in preparation for an upcoming sermon. If it sounds preachy or Christian-y, that’s intentional…

When I was a teenager, my parents found themselves frustrated with how forgetful I could be. Like most kids, I was tasked with certain chores every week. Unfortunately, I struggled with a lack of attentiveness, lost in thought and not always concerned with what should have been considered priorities of the day. So sometimes the trash didn’t get taken out on Thursday night, or the windows went unWindexed, or the soda cans piled up because someone just plain forgot to take them out to the garage, crush them into little aluminum discs, and dump them into the recycling bin.

"I'm saving aluminum ... and space!"

“I’m saving aluminum … and space!”

To combat this issue – or maybe just to wake me up to how troublesome my inattentiveness could be – my parents crafted a large, poster board chart complete with a detailed grid of black-lined rows and columns listing all of my weekly chores. They laminated this thing and affixed it to my bedroom door (totally ruining my chosen decorative aesthetic) along with a black dry-erase marker. The agreement was that every day I would consult the chart and do the corresponding chore or chores. On Friday, I would collect my allowance based on how many of these chores I completed.

The thing I hated most about the chart, though, was that in order for a chore to be considered “complete” and for me to be paid for it, I had to check off the corresponding box. For example, I might remember to take out the trash on Thursday night, but if I forgot to check the box before Friday afternoon, I forfeited pay for that chore. No check mark-o, no dinero.

I wish I could tell you that I quickly learned to complete my chores and check all the boxes, but, sadly, that wasn’t the case. On Fridays, that chart looked less like a blacked-out bingo card and more like a chessboard after the players have taken several of each other’s pieces.

Or whatever wackadoo game this is.

Or whatever wackadoo game this is.

But if the chart in all its formulaic detail taught me one thing, it was that I have a persistent problem with attentiveness. The chart didn’t create the problem, but it certainly made it obvious, just as my parents suspected it would. These days, my forgetfulness takes the form of remembering responsibilities my wife asks of me, or constantly misplacing my keys or my wallet because I’m rarely paying attention to what I’m doing when my hands absently put them down.

The Desert Fathers spoke often of the need to develop a deep awareness of God. I can only hope they didn’t feel the same about the location of one’s iPhone or sunglasses.

I sometimes find myself wondering whether or not the chart should make a comeback, either in my house or in my office. However, those teenage years spent with the thing affixed to my door taught me that as explicit and audacious as the chart was, it couldn’t fix me. And, thankfully, I’m now married to a wonderful woman who is willing to bear with me – in sickness and in health, in attention deficiency and total recollection – even when I let her down and forget to take care of something she asked me to do. And as inconvenient as it can sometimes be to engage in an impromptu scavenger hunt all over my house for my misplaced keys or my cell phone or my wallet (or, most of the time, all three), I have yet to experience any terrible or irreversible consequences born out of those delays. If anything, it’s made me more patient and understanding with other people’s absent-mindedness. We’ve all got our issues…

I feel your pain, Arny.

I feel your pain, Arny.

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore, the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. (Gal. 3:23-26)

Something like my love-hate relationship with the chart (emphasis on the “hate”) is the difference between living under the influence of “the law,” and living by faith in Jesus. Paul’s letters in the New Testament continually refer to the fundamental change that has taken place ever since Jesus died on the cross and was raised to life again. Before this earthshaking event, the only way for a person to be justified (that is, to be considered righteous and in good relationship with God) was to carefully follow a detailed set of rules and regulations. It started with what we know as “the Ten Commandments” but there was a lot more to the law than just those things. (If you’re curious how much more, just read Exodus through Deuteronomy and see if you can make it through the whole thing without the desire to bang your head on a table, either in frustration or because you passed out from boredom.)

But according to Paul, the only thing “the law” made clear was that no one could perfectly follow it in its entirety. In other words, just like my parents’ chart made it clear that I have a problem with attentiveness, the law made it clear that every person has a problem called sin.

Another metaphor I was toying with was how the invention of antiperspirant deodorant made it clear that, if left to their own devices, people stink.

Another metaphor I was toying with was how the invention of antiperspirant deodorant made it clear that, if left to their own devices, people stink.

There’s nothing religious or overly spiritual about this problem we Christians call “sin.” At its heart, sin is selfishness. It is rebellion against a certain standard of thinking and doing for the sake of temporarily indulging a personal desire that goes against the standard. We’re all guilty of selfishness from time to time – we’ve all got our issues.

The good news that Paul goes on to write about is that the law was never really meant to be the way a person becomes righteous or experiences a relationship with God. In his letter to the Galatians, he calls it a “disciplinarian.” In the Roman Empire, a father often instructed one of his slaves or appointed one of his house servants to the task of looking after his son. This “disciplinarian,” or guardian, would accompany the boy to school and would make sure he behaved himself and was faithful to his studies. Often, the guardian was given the authority to discipline the boy if he misbehaved. Additionally, the guardian would report back to the father on the boy’s progress and lifestyle.

And, suddenly, the theological implications in this film shine with new light!

And, suddenly, the theological implications in this film shine with new light!

Eventually, the boy would mature enough that he no longer required a disciplinarian. Paul claims this is what happens with salvation in Christ. We don’t need a disciplinarian keeping track of our behavior and revealing when and how we’ve gone wrong. We don’t live by that standard anymore. Rather, we live under a new promise. We are made righteous solely by our belief and trust in Jesus’ forgiveness. Or, as Paul writes, we are “justified by faith.”

Does this mean the problem of sin is gone? Are we no longer capable of selfishness? Nope – the problem is still there. However, the way we understand it and react to it has totally changed. We live under a constant reality of grace, a canopy of forgiveness that doesn’t change based on how obedient we are (or whether or not we knowingly check a particular box next to a list of good deeds). The law remains, but its purpose has been fulfilled. Lesson learned.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. 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. (Gal. 3:27-28)

We have come to Christ, who saves us and erases every human-made distinction by which we’ve grown up living our lives. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female…” That’s good news! It means we don’t have to view our lives in terms of nationality, political viewpoints, economic status, or even gender relations. And we certainly don’t view it based on how successfully one person or group follows the law as compared to another. The Declaration of Independence included the statement that “all men are created equal,” but the only place we will ever experience that statement to be fully true is under the canopy of forgiveness that exists at the heart of a relationship with Jesus.

Disorganized Religion and Disliking People

I’m growing weary of listening to people say that they distrust “organized religion.” Religion has nothing to do with it. What they really mean is that they distrust people.

Before any readers assume the following to be a rant in favor of religious traditionalism, let me be very clear about what I mean. I’m not advocating a certain style of worship or defending a particular denomination of Christianity. Rather, my weariness comes more from sadness and disappointment than with any personal offense that is taken. Of course, as an ordained minister, I am quite susceptible to insult when I hear people say things like, “I just don’t agree with organized religion anymore,” or “I believe in God, but I reject organized religion.” What these people are insinuating is that while I have surrendered my life to what is actually a very organized and structured system of faith, they’ve shrugged it off because it cramps their style. Ultimately, one of us is guilty of severe naivety.

Now, if you believe in a blending of relativism and syncretism when it comes to spirituality, then you are more than able to get away with rejecting “organized religion.” Syncretism is an attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures and ideologies. It’s the salad bar of religious expression. Relativism is the belief that knowledge and morality are expressed and understood differently depending on the culture or society in which you live – thus, truth is relative as opposed to absolute. Put the two together and you can mix and match and pick and choose the exact kind of spirituality that works for you – the perfect salad!

Go ahead and throw some chocolate pudding on there, too. That's not weird at all.

Go ahead and throw some chocolate pudding on there, too. That’s not weird at all.

I’m never sure what word people dislike more, “organized” or “religion.” I often want to respond to people who complain about “organized religion” by simply asking, “So, does that mean you subscribe to disorganized religion, or organized atheism?” In other words, what alternative do you believe in? Any system of faith that has no order or structure is, by nature, chaotic. It breeds confusion and disorder. There can be no unifying belief and therefore no dependable sense of community. People who reject organized religion, whether they know it or not, uphold a belief that any expression of faith is a solitary enterprise if it holds any meaning at all. Not only is it all about you and God, but it’s up to you and you alone to determine exactly what this God of yours is like.

Hmm... I think I'll make him a God who forgives. Unless you're gay, a Democrat, or watch R-rated movies.

Hmm… I think I’ll make him a God who forgives. Unless you’re gay, a Democrat, or watch R-rated movies.

As I said at the start of this, it’s not religion that these self-described non-conformists have a problem with. Religion has always been the fall guy for people. It’s not that I don’t understand this. However, as an ordained minister, one of the most difficult tasks I face is trying to defend religion to people who have been betrayed by certain religious malcontents. I’ll give you an example:

A young man grows up Catholic, attends an authoritarian Catholic school, and is molested by one of the priests. In his anger and his shame, he holds a grudge against both the criminal who took advantage of him and the particular form of religious expression that that man apparently represented. (Nevermind the fact that the minute that priest subjected a child to his selfish human desires, he rejected the spirit of the very faith he was supposed to live as an example of.) Allegations against the priest arise, but little or nothing is done to hold him accountable. The abused man finds no justice; therefore, he very logically puts a distance between himself and everything that smacks of that crooked priest, including his church, his school, the local diocese, and the Catholic Church itself. Perhaps if the leaders of his church had immediately dealt with the priest’s transgression, the young man would retain some trust of that particular religious organization. However, in both cases, it was not the system but the people who failed him. It was the people who did not embody and maintain the call to faithfulness and righteousness that their religion espouses and venerates.

"I'm a Chevy owner now also because that jerk drove a Ford!"

“I’m a Chevy owner now also because that jerk drove a Ford!”

Several years ago, there was a slogan that was often seen slapped across car bumpers and printed on T-shirts. It read, “I’m not religious, I just love the Lord.” As if the Beatles were right and love is really all you need. No rules. No traditions. Certainly no silly rituals. Just love, baby. Love! But even Christians who preach such an alleged truth have stripped Love of its full power and position. According to the New Testament, while love is the highest and greatest expression of one’s faith, it is by no means the only thing. The Apostle Paul reminds the church in Colossae to “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony,” (3:14), and he explained to the church in Galatia that while following rules and religious regulations may seem important, what really matters is faith “made effective through love.” Love must be the end result of all others aspects of a faith system – the final unifying theme of one’s religious expression.

It’s hard to keep from blaming Religion for all the bad things religious people have done. Sweeping generalizations are easier and more compelling than separating the glimmering needles from the smelly haystack. Over the last few centuries, many people, from Karl Marx to Sigmund Freud to George Orwell to John Lennon to Richard Dawkins to Bill Maher, have boldly spoken out about the inherent evils and detriments of Religion in all its many forms. But whether they admit it or not, Religion isn’t the problem. Just the crappy way some people live out their religious beliefs. I’ve written before that blaming religion for all of the world’s ills is akin to burning all the cotton and tobacco fields of the American South simply because there were once a slew of culturally racist individuals who forced others to toil in those fields. It’s not the cotton and tobacco fields’ fault that some people are stubborn and violent fools.

In other words, when we shift the blame off of people, we insinuate that Religion itself has inherently sinister motives. This is scapegoating by way of personification. This is stating that it influences us, and only in negative ways. If this were the case, we would be hard-pressed to find religious individuals who have influenced the world for good, but, of course, that task is not difficult at all.

Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Mr. Eko from Lost, the dad from 7th Heaven... Need I go on?

Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Mr. Eko from Lost, the dad from 7th Heaven… Need I go on?

Finally, to all those who have supposedly rejected “organized religion” – especially to those people who have rejected the word “Christian” for the less traditional-sounding “follower of Jesus,” or have decided that, like Marcus Mumford, it shall be mum’s the word on what one specifically believes – I make one final argument. It seems that in doing away with this stuffy and frustrating organized religion, the one thing you refuse to relinquish is belief in a loving and gracious God. In fact, when pressed, you become even more uncomfortable with the concept of God’s judgment and holiness. It’s all about love, baby. Love!

But ask yourself where that concept of a loving God first came from? Not merely a god who would look down in conciliating acceptance once you offered up the right sacrifice or performed the proper deed, but a God whose mercy is wide. A God whose nature, at its center, is Love. This isn’t a theological concept common to all religions throughout time. As a matter of fact, there are only two specific religions in which this characteristic is found to be at the heart of God. Unfortunately for the syncretists, neither fits in well at the salad bar. Sorry.

My point is, don’t let bad people steal your hope in the good. Don’t let cruel people rob you of your joy. Don’t turn your back on the grandeur and the beauty just because some misguided soul with an obnoxiously big hat sat in front of you and blocked your view. Lean over a bit, or move a few seats down. The show goes on, and it is more than worth the price of admission.

Bearing (Bad News) with One Another

“The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one…”

Ever feel compelled to deliver bad news to a friend? If you’re like me, on the rare occasion that you act on such a conviction, doing so is never easy. One of the main reasons this is difficult is that no one likes to receive bad news, and neither do decent people revel in delivering it. Another reason is that human beings have this odd and innate capacity for denial, and we can activate it in a myriad of ways. We can reject the bad news outright. We can refuse to listen. We might also project our uncomfortable feelings outward – call the messenger uninformed, uneducated, duped, or just a flat-out liar. We can even find ways to disprove what we don’t enjoy hearing, even if the bad news that’s come to us is spot-on accurate. On such occasions, logic becomes a doomed toy suspended in a tug-of-war between two fussing sides. Continue reading

Colliding Particles, Colliding People

The following is a post I wrote for another blog that I often contribute to. If you’re interested in checking that one out, click here.

Flying under the radar of most of the news stories of the past two weeks is a report out of Switzerland regarding scientific experimentation with particle smashing. Over the past decade, brilliant men and women have worked tirelessly in hopes of identifying and evaluating the elusive “God particle,” a hypothesized elementary particle that would provide explanation of how the universe was formed. Known as the Higgs boson in scientific circles, its searchers believe the particle indeed exists, but despite creating trillions of particle collisions over the past decade, they have not yet been able to clearly identify it. Continue reading