The Games We Play

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“Games, then and now, often possess this unusual, revelatory quality, offering participants and spectators new insights into themselves and the world around them.” —Dr. Ken Evers-Hood

My daughters and I love playing “The Game of Life.” For them, the game is about who can finish first. They love rolling a ten every time they set their fingers on the spinning wheel. According to the rules, the order in which a player finishes is inconsequential. It doesn’t matter. The winner is actually the person who finishes with the most money. So when we play together as a family we seem to be playing for different reasons.  Sometimes there’s even more than one winner.  I wish the real game of life would be so kind.  Even though finishing first or finishing with the most stuff isn’t what the Gospel says is the way that leads to life (Matthew 7:14), games do offer us great insight in who we are, whose we are, and the world around us.

There are three ways in which games help us understand identity. First, games teach us strategy. Some strategies call for a big picture perspective, like national politics, the stock market, and international diplomacy. Other strategies work on a smaller scale–how do I navigate my workplace, the local PTO, and how do we organize the best Strawberry Festival we can muster. Still other strategies work on the smallest scale, and it is at this level where we learn who we are and whose we are–teaching children about moving forward after failure, the whispered conversations of intimate relationships, communicating difficult news with an aging parent.

Secondly, games offer us a “no fear” arena. While playing a game you can learn the art of strategy, and if you fail, you simply play again. Right now I’m enjoying playing “Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time,” which is taking more time than I would like to admit. Every time I meet a “Big Boss,” the large villain at the end of each chapter, I fail over and over again. All I have to do is learn from my mistake, and try the level over again. There’s a freedom in playing when you know you can simply start over. In this way, games teach us about grace and the need for offering our neighbors the space to fail while we together seek God’s kingdom.

Finally, games teach us about what “winning” means. It would be short sided to look back and say that the times I didn’t finish “The Game of Life” with the most stuff was somehow a failure. The experience of playing the game with my daughters is fundamentally what it’s all about. The game is about the journey, the memories, the cultivation of trust, and time well spent. Games help us learn the art of working together, calling us to let go of fear, so that we might fall in love with the journey toward the Kingdom Christ established.

When Job, Occupation, and Vocation Collide

help wantedThere is a great difference between a job, an occupation, and a vocation. Your job is your list of responsibilities. If you work in a button factory, you might list “pressing buttons” as your first priority, but it’s certainly not your only job. If you have a family, I’m sure you’re preparing a meal for someone. If your heart isn’t as strong as it once was, taking an early morning walk is a daily job. Students do homework, spouses work on building a successful marriage, Grandmothers work on spoiling grandchildren, athletes train, scholars research, musicians compose, and the list goes on. Sometimes money is the payment for what you do. Other times the reward is a child’s smile, a spouse’s love, a better check-up, or the next great idea. Your job isn’t just what you record on your taxes; rather it is the daily activity revealing to the world who we are.

 
Your occupation isn’t always the same as your job. Your occupation is what occupies most of your time. For example, maybe your job is serving coffee at the corner coffee shop, but what truly occupies your time is worry. With each cup you pour, you worry about making ends meet back at home. Your job might be, “Barista,” but what occupies your soul is the exhausting anxiety of life’s unknown. Maybe your job is lawn care, but as you push the mower across someone else’s grass, you imagine what life would be like if you weren’t so lonely. Addiction is an occupation we’d rather not talk about. Sometimes addiction’s occupation is so powerful it dictates our job, working to feed the insatiable hunger of misplaced desire.

Vocation goes over and above a job and an occupation. Your job is your list of responsibilities, your occupation is what occupies most of your time, but you vocation is who you are called to become. God has already offered you a precious gift and unique talent. Have you ever wondered why you are so good with teaching the children’s moment in worship? Even though you don’t have a “psychiatric help: 5 cents” name tag, why do people seek out your opinion or guidance? Is everyone looking forward to your pie at the Thanksgiving meal? God has blessed you with a gift that you are meant to share with the world, and it is a gift meant to offer life. Life is quite beautiful when a job, occupation, and vocation all become one.

I’ve heard it said that if you do what you love, you never have to work a day in your life. Maybe that’s true. I would say when our gift meets a great hunger in the world we begin to understand what Jesus meant by “eternal life.”

The Hope and Fear of New

Mockingbird Meme 2The start of a new semester can sometimes be like watching two athletes in the Octagon.  In one corner there is a great hope.  On the first day of class everyone has a 4.0 Dean’s list opportunity.  How proud my family would be if the semester ended with the first class.  No blemishes, no lost assignments, and no double secret probation.  On the other hand there is a great fear.  With whom will I connect this semester?  Should I accept that friend request from the guy sitting near the back of the class?  Do I even belong here?

It’s like looking at a blank sheet of paper.  The empty spaces might be an expression of possibility.  Anything can fill in the blank–hopes, dreams, success.  The blank piece of paper can also suggest nothingness, failure, or paralysis.  The way you see the “blanks” greatly depends on how you see yourself and where you fit in.

It’s like that first day of middle school.  At what table do you belong?  Are you an athlete or a Mathlete?  Are you the hipster kind of geek or just a plain nerd?  Do you sit at the rich kid table or is your money too new to be accepted.  Maybe you got your clothes at Goodwill and you hope no one notices that you are wearing their last year’s jeans.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout doesn’t start her first day of school well at all.  She doesn’t know where she fits in.  She tries to be helpful, and it simply lands her in trouble.  In a town where knowing your place is as important Jesus’ return, finding yourself on the outside is a difficult road. It’s not that playing the role of the jock or the nerd or the popular kid is all together a bad thing.  The trick is to know who is assigning the parts.

The good news is that through our connection with Christ, we all have a place at the table of Grace.  Where the body is broken and the blood outpoured, we all receive the blessing of belonging.  The communion table is where the blank sheet of paper is filled with hope and life and the possibility only the Gospel affords.  At the table we are adopted and counted as God’s own.  It’s true that my 4.0 on the first day might only last the first day, but at least God offers graceful answers to any test life offers.

Stay awesome . . .

In Response to “The Middle Way is the Wrong Way”

I would like to share a few words in response to J.D. Walt’s “8 More Reasons the Middle Way is the Wrong Way.”

I often offer my congregation to meet a dichotomy with quick suspicion.  There is never only two options when walking with Christ.  Walt references Matthew 7 where Jesus says:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them (Matthew 7:15-20).

Jesus, later in Matthew, tells a parable about the judgment of nations.  Some do good works according to God’s will and others do not.  Those who do kingdom work are counted as sheep and sit at God’s right hand.  The others, the goats, are cast out and are not able to enter into the kingdom.  It certainly sounds like we are dealing with a narrow path that leads to life and a broad path leading to sin and destruction, a “this” or “that” way of following our Lord, but there’s more here than a lesson in being a sheep rather than a goat.

Some might say that seeing the world as either a narrow path of righteousness or a broad path of destruction makes things simple and easy.  Actually seeing the world in strict duality is devastatingly complicated.  If I commit a sin, any sin, fill in the blank, does that mean that I am on the broad path until I confess and am pardoned?  What about the sins of which I am unaware?  If I fail to feed the hungry today, does that nullify my walk?  Where do you draw the line?  Now, before you label me as a “to each his own,” kind of guy, hear me.  Here’s the mystery:  It’s not that we are either on this path or that; rather we are on both.  This is why we daily need to confess and seek pardon. The wheat and the chaff grow together.  At the time of judgment the times I served and loved are remembered and continue on in God’s heart.  The times I turned away and forgot the least and the lost, the chaff that is within me, is thrown into the fire. By the way, you need fire in order to make bread.  The problem is when the fire’s too hot, the bread burns and cannot be broken at the table with the wine outpoured.  Please hear me!  I am not saying that we should look for ways to create a little chaff.  The sins I commit unawares will be plenty to stoke the oven.  Go out and work to produce wheat!

And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn” (Matthew 13:27-30).

So, first, we have to be careful when we look at divisions in the church through eyes of “the straight and narrow” or “the highway to hell.”  Secondly, and maybe more importantly, I have found that when folks draw a line between us and them, they typically draw the line so that they themselves are “in,” so to speak.  Being more progressive (what does that even mean anymore, right?) I could say that the narrow path IS the path that I’m following through an ethic of salvific love that goes over and above our biology.  For example, here are two of Walt’s steps, and seriously . . . be fair.  Go and read his entire post.

1. The middle way offers a license to broaden the narrow way in the name of being more loving. The narrow way is actually willing to be completely marginalized and endure public execution as an act of love.

To say that full inclusion is the way of being marginalized and publicly executed certainly seems to fit.

5. The middle way tends to deduce its reasoning from the basis of human experience in order to bully tradition into departing from truth. The narrow way reasons that truth is the voice of love.

That’s what I’m saying!  Our history of human experience has shunned our homosexual brothers and sisters, but the voice of love should be our ethic.  Right on!
Look.  I’m not writing to poke fun or to be disrespectful.  What I’m saying is this discourse doesn’t really get us anywhere.  Those on the left and the right will both claim to be on the narrow path, and those with whom they disagree will be on the broad path to Hell.  All this gets us is lots of narrow paths leading to the reflection in our bathroom mirror.

Yes there is a Third Way.  There is life, there is death, and there is Resurrection. Resurrection helps us realize that the line between the sheep and the goats is drawn through each of us, not between me and my neighbor.  In other words, Peter and Paul argued about whether or not one should be circumcised.  This disagreement almost stopped the church before it started.  Then the church realized that circumcision is a matter of the heart, not rooted in someone’s flesh.  Both the circumcised and uncircumcised can both be on the path of righteousness.

Go Set a Watch, Man

watchman

On the heels of finishing The Faith of a Mockingbird (hitting the shelves of your favorite bookstore soon!), reading Go Set A Watchman has me asking, “Who is the real Atticus Finch?” Harper Lee’s latest (and second or is it really the first?) novel is due out in stores this week, and the reviews are hinting that Mockingbird’s moral hero is revealed to be a bigoted segregationist. Atticus, who once rose above a broken system offering prophetic wisdom ahead of its time, now seems tragically vulnerable to the successive fleeting narrowness culture can offer. Could it be that time (go set a watch, man) has changed his views or that he previously was naïve? Could it be that as a child, Scout’s memory of her father was idealized? Should we read Go Set a Watchman as students, understanding that this was the draft that gave birth to To Kill a Mockingbird as the final (and for over fifty years the only) word? Does a future revelation negate a saintly past?

The shock of reading Atticus’ support of segregation reminds us of a story’s power. Although Atticus in part was based on Harper Lee’s own father, he is a character. Our connection to fictional characters makes sense because we are all characters in a way. Our identity is not based in what we do or think or say, but our identity is rooted in what we and others remember about our thoughts, words, and deeds. At least, there is an intimate connection between our identity and our memory. Maybe that’s why Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” when he gathered with his disciples during his final meal (Luke 22:19). Maybe that’s why the thief on the cross asked Jesus to “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42)? Maybe that’s why the rain stopped when “God remembered Noah” (Genesis 8:1).

Psalm 139 reveals that God knows us better than we know ourselves—“O Lord, you have searched me and known me…even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.” Because God knows our story so well, the Psalms also guide our language in seeking pardon—“Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord” (Psalm 25:7). Near the end of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus offers a parable about judgment. He says, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 26:31-32). It is shocking to read about Atticus in Watchmen because we assume that he’s a sheep. He’s on the Son of Man’s right side standing with the good guys and girls. He can’t be a goat, right?

The mystery is that the line separating the sheep and the goats is a line drawn through each individual soul. The times we served and shared and loved are remembered and sit at God’s right hand. The times when we failed and faltered and turned away are crucified and burned away in the refining fire of God’s love. When the goat in us is turned away, will there be enough remaining for Christ to recognize us, or will Christ say, “I do not know you” (Matthew 25:12).

Maybe the shock in reading about Atticus’ confusing views is that it reminds us that we are just as complex and it scares the Hell out of us. Maybe that’s the beauty of it all?

A Good Father

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What does it mean to be a good father? What does it mean to be a bad father? Let me first offer some assumptions about fatherhood so that I neither lead you astray nor steal away your time. It is challenging to be a good father without first being a good husband. Even though I am for full inclusion in the church, marriage is more than an important step in the selfless parenthood journey. Learning to love your spouse (regardless of how your tradition defines spouse) in a covenantal relationship is important groundwork for learning how to love a child. Falling into love is real and exciting and breathtakingly wonderful, but love that is sustained in sickness, health, wealth, poverty, good times and bad is a love born out of a holy commitment when spouses offer selfless service to one another. Marriage isn’t 50/50. It is 100% all the way.

(more…)

What 'I Love You' Sounds Like

Pentecost“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (Acts 2:2-3). It is difficult to describe the indescribable. It’s as if the Gospel authors didn’t even try to explain the resurrection. Mary came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away. With the exception of Matthew’s description of an earthquake and an angel, that’s about all we have to describe Jesus’ resurrection. It could be that while Jesus walked with the disciples during the forty days after his resurrection he never revealed exactly what happened. I would imagine that at least Peter, James, or John would have asked. On the other hand, maybe Jesus did describe what happened in the darkness of the tomb, but even words couldn’t fully contain the “other” of what resurrection is or was or will be.

And then we have the day of Pentecost. Luke, the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, tried to describe what it was like for the Holy Spirit to come upon the disciples who had gathered together in one place. Just saying the first few words aloud should make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Go ahead. Read it aloud-“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” Don’t you almost expect it to happen again while reading it out loud?

On the one hand we have the darkness of an empty tomb, and on the other we have an ecstatic experience of a rushing wind and dancing fire. There’s such a stark contrast in how resurrection and Pentecost are described. It’s like when you are falling in love. You meet, you talk, you walk, you embrace. There’s something about the other person that wakes you up in the morning, but words just don’t adequately describe the butterflies in your stomach and the skipping beat of your heart. Then you say to each other, “I love you,” and then there’s something like the sound of a rushing wind and everything just feels right. You couldn’t describe it before, and maybe can’t after, but the world could be crumbling around you and it doesn’t seem to matter.

Jesus was raised and fifty days later Christ and humanity exchanged an “I love you,” that forever shook even the words on our tongue. Now that’s worship!

Understanding Privilege

housing

Talking about white privilege is a heated and difficult subject for some. You can almost see blood pressure raise and lips purse when mentioning the phrase in what was supposed to be polite Starbucks conversation. “I’ve never owned slaves,” or “I’ve worked hard for what I have,” or “Why does everything have to be about race,” or “If they wouldn’t break the law, the police wouldn’t arrest them,” are common responses. Fair enough. In my personal daily confession I’ve talked to God about these same reactions in my own soul. As a southern, white male, I’ve received an abundant dose of “us and them” from an early age, the most dominant story being that because segregation is no longer legal it no longer exists. To quote Atticus Finch during his closing arguments of To Kill a Mockingbird, “We know [this] is in itself a lie . . . a lie I do not have to point out to you.” It’s true that segregation is no longer legal, but segregation’s legacy has had a dramatic influence on our current relationship with our brothers and sisters.

Yesterday while in carpool I heard a story from NPR about segregation in the post-WW II housing market, and how decisions made under “separate but equal” have widened the gap between both separation and equality. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute detailed how Baltimore neighborhoods reflect a national legacy of segregation. During FDR’s New Deal, the federal government offered public housing to help alleviate the burden of a depressed economy. In the Baltimore area whites were offered suburban homes while blacks were offered urban housing. Even though housing was made affordable, it was not equally offered to all. Years later, as Rosthstein reports, the suburban homes offered now sell for around $500,000 while the urban housing available to blacks often deprecated in value. The accumulated wealth from suburban homes was often bequeathed to the next generation while those in urban housing had little to offer. Under the same government sponsored program both a cycle of prosperity and poverty were born.

Both whites and blacks during a segregated depression received government assistance, but the way in which the government offered subsidies have bolstered a system bent toward privilege for whites. I certainly don’t have all of the answers, but understanding this small snapshot of the “why” of privilege helps to crucify the blame that creeps into my soul when I hear stories of anger and violence. It is neither an excuse, nor should it be denied. While we fight the good fight for justice for all, maybe we should broaden the focus of a heated racial spotlight so that, Christ—the light of the world, might burn away both the sin in my own soul and the sin of an inherited system whose history we are quick (either through natural deafness or earplugs) to dismiss.

Understanding Privilege

housing

Talking about white privilege is a heated and difficult subject for some.  You can almost see blood pressure raise and lips purse when mentioning the phrase in what was supposed to be polite Starbucks conversation.  “I’ve never owned slaves,” or “I’ve worked hard for what I have,” or “Why does everything have to be about race,” or “If they wouldn’t break the law, the police wouldn’t arrest them,” are common responses.  Fair enough.  In my personal daily confession I’ve talked to God about these same reactions in my own soul.  As a southern, white male, I’ve received an abundant dose of “us and them” from an early age, the most dominant story being that because segregation is no longer legal it no longer exists.  To quote Atticus Finch during his closing arguments of To Kill a Mockingbird, “We know [this] is in itself a lie . . . a lie I do not have to point out to you.” It’s true that segregation is no longer legal, but segregation’s legacy has had a dramatic influence on our current relationship with our brothers and sisters.

Yesterday while in carpool I heard a story from NPR about segregation in the post-WW II housing market, and how decisions made under “separate but equal” have widened the gap between both separation and equality.  Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute detailed how Baltimore neighborhoods reflect a national legacy of segregation.  During FDR’s New Deal, the federal government offered public housing to help alleviate the burden of a depressed economy.  In the Baltimore area whites were offered suburban homes while blacks were offered urban housing.  Even though housing was made affordable, it was not equally offered to all.  Years later, as Rosthstein reports, the suburban homes offered now sell for around $500,000 while the urban housing available to blacks often deprecated in value.  The accumulated wealth from suburban homes was often bequeathed to the next generation while those in urban housing had little to offer.  Under the same government sponsored program both a cycle of prosperity and poverty were born.

Both whites and blacks during a segregated depression received government assistance, but the way in which the government offered subsidies have bolstered a system bent toward privilege for whites.  I certainly don’t have all of the answers, but understanding this small snapshot of the “why” of privilege helps to crucify the blame that creeps into my soul when I hear stories of anger and violence.  It is neither an excuse, nor should it be denied.  While we fight the good fight for justice for all, maybe we should broaden the focus of a heated racial spotlight so that, Christ—the light of the world, might burn away both the sin in my own soul and the sin of an inherited system whose history we are quick (either through natural deafness or earplugs) to dismiss.

Jesus is Alive . . . So Now What?

butterfly

Jesus is alive! He has risen. He has risen indeed…So what am I supposed to do now? Although they shared grief and sorrow (and fear) when Jesus was in the tomb, at least the disciples had a sense of closure. There is great sadness when a loved one dies, and yet when they breathe their last, sometimes you feel like you are exhaling for the first time. There is an odd grace in goodbye.

But Jesus is alive! This is certainly good news, but now our relationship with God is lovingly a bit more complicated. Paul writes in Romans 12 that Christians are to be a “Living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” A sacrifice is usually something finite and concrete, something you might offer for one particular need. The Jewish People would sacrifice an animal at the Temple as a means of thanksgiving or pardon or in celebration (or continuation) of blessings. Today we might make a special monetary gift or volunteer our time or take on a leadership role in the community or open our home to a friend in need. These sacrifices are a great thing, but they are all temporary.

The resurrection complicates our understanding of sacrifice.   No longer is sacrifice a one time offering toward a special cause or a temporary agreement to serve with a foundation. The tomb is about closure, but Jesus is alive. We are to be a living sacrifice, which means that we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving to always be in service to God’s kingdom. In other words, a sacrifice is no longer something we do, it is who we are. We no longer volunteer at church. We are the church. We no longer serve the body of Christ. We are the body of Christ. As difficult as it may be to die for what you believe, it is more difficult (and more blessed) to live for what you believe. You only die once. You have to live everyday. Jesus is alive, and through grace, so are we.