Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Shout out to Jesus--for Breathing New Life into the Bible Belt

I was born a Pharisee. My natural inclination is to think that I'm better than others. This is how I justify myself. To compound the problem, I was raised in a church that taught that Christians are better than others. Oh sure, the pastor paid "lip service" to our being sinners, but there was always this idea that, once we "accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior," we would lead good, moral lives--become pillars of the community. This teaching just made me worse. Of course, based upon what most of my friends from that time tell me, I covered it up pretty well. But then, I got married. You can't hide it from your wife. The problem with thinking that you are better than others is that you have to keep proving it to yourself. You lie to yourself, over and over again. The anxiety of performance is a death sentence. I was headed to suicide. We were headed to divorce after about 10 years. 
BUT THEN GOD, WHO IS RICH IN MERCY...I got invited to a Bible Study of Paul Zahl in January, 1998. Zahl said that we were inveterate sinners, full of libidinal urges, and that we had no "free will." He said that God met our inveterate sinfulness with boundless, confounding grace. I didn't get it at first, but as I fell on hard times in my life, I finally came to hear with new ears, to see with new eyes--I was a Pharisee. My efforts to be good (Deacon, SS teacher, generally moral person), were SIN. I was WITHOUT HOPE IN MYSELF. I HAD NO CONTROL WHATSOEVER OVER MY LIFE. BEING A SUCCESSFUL LAWYER WHO GAVE MONEY TO BAPTIST FOREIGN MISSIONS WAS NEVER GOING TO SET ME RIGHT WITH GOD.
As I write this, you must think I'm crazy--I certainly do. To think that Christianity was about being a good Southern Baptist (primarily giving to foreign missions) is so facile, so dishonoring to the God of the universe. I'm not alone in my view of Bible Belt pulpits. I have friends from the Florida panhandle who tell me that there's not a church there that they can attend.
BUT THEN GOD, WHO IS RICH IN MERCY...put Tullian Tchividjian in the pulpit at Coral Ridge Pres. Tullian, like Zahl, has returned to that old, old religion that was so brilliantly described by St. Paul, Augustine, and Luther. Their message is impacting tens of thousands of people in the Bible Belt. There are preachers stretching from Texas to Alabama to Virginia to Kentucky to New York to Florida who have been influenced and blessed by Zahl and Tchividjian. 
Thank you Jesus for saving me. Thank you Jesus for breathing fresh life into the pulpits of the Bible Belt.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

God "lays all His love" (ABBA) on us--the Incarnation and the Resurrection

We will never fully understand God, not even close.  We won't ever fully understand Jesus even though he walked amongst us for 33 years.  But what we can understand deeply and unequivocally are two basic truths about God, probably the two most important truths:  a)God is "with us;"  and b)God is "for us."  Two basic truths about God that are reflected by the two most important facts of Christ's life--his odd birth and his ignominious death.

First, as one of my sons said: "Dad, Jesus was born lowly so that all could come to Him."  This "lowly birth" meant that persons of any social status would not feel that Jesus was above them.  More importantly, the fact that God deigned to live amongst us--in this difficult sometimes seemingly God-forsaken world--reflects God's solitary with mankind.  God is not "above" our station in life.  God is not some distant puppet-master.  God is not dispassionate towards his creation.  No, God knows and experienced the troubles and travails, the pain and heartache of being human.  God is "with us" in a way that seems unimaginable, in a way that is unique in world religions.

Second, the Cross is a further reflection of God's solidarity with us (we all must die), but it also reflects that God is "for us."  Certainly God need not have died on the Cross.  From His divine standpoint, He could have been miraculously rescued.  From His human standpoint, it seems that Pilate would have let Him go if He had just responded to Pilate--if He had uttered a "single word" in His defense.  But no, He remained mute in the face of the religious persons who wanted Him dead and the bureaucrats who wanted to placate the religious persons and, thereby, maintain peace.

Christ went to the Cross to demonstrate the blood-lust, the inveterate sinfulness of mankind.  He went to the Cross to demonstrate that, even in light of our hopeless sinfulness, He forgives us.  "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."  To me, these are the most comforting words ever spoken by a man.  Since they came from God, they give us hope--hope beyond compare--hope with no boundaries--hope of limitless duration.

Praise be to the God who is "with us" and "for us."

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Candid Camera, "Signs," and Sanctification

A few years ago, a pastor was invested as the new rector at Christ Church Charlottesville.  Paul Zahl's sermon topic at the investiture--"Just Give Up."  During the sermon, PZ said that, if he had any advice to give to Paul Walker as the new rector, it would be to "give up."  You could hear nervous titters of laughter from the congregation.  If these words shocked me, someone who's listened to PZ for years, I can't imagine what the poor congregants were thinking.  'Just give up' doesn't sound like any Christian admonition or advice that I've heard before.

Yet, this is what Jesus was trying to convince the Pharisees to do.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made it clear that we can't keep the Law.  He analogized hate to murder, lust to adultery, and said that we are called to be "perfect as our father in heaven is perfect."  Jesus did the same thing in His parables.  Not one of us would act like the Good Samaritan--becoming unclean to help an enemy, then providing over-abundantly for him.   Like the Rich Young Ruler, not one of us would sell everything and give it to the poor.  So, if Jesus is trying to convince us to give up, what implications does this have for our Christian life?  Can we finally law down our merit-badge list of things that Christians do?  If we lay that down, are we called to do anything?

This morning, Debbie and I were discussing that life is not random.  Last Sunday, our SS teacher was teaching about sovereignty, and I asked him if he had ever seen the movie 'Signs.'  Yes, he had and he said: "Ellis, the longer I live the more I realize that life is not random."  Not to spoil the movie, but God uses weakness, quirkiness, and even death for redemptive purposes.  Shymalan (acting in his own movie) says: "It's as if it was meant to be," when he's asked about a tragic event in the movie.

Debbie and I were discussing how, if we just acknowledge that life is non-random, we see God working everywhere, and I do mean everywhere.  Last week, our cleaning guy was coming, and Debbie told him not to clean our son's room since he left it in a mess.  Debbie and I were discussing how to deal with this--take his car, ground him.  Our intentions were actually good.  We wanted to prepare him to live by himself at college.  We hadn't decided what to do.  We had discussed this with our son before, but he didn't think that cleaning his room mattered.  That nite, we were watching 'Raising Hope' with him.  'Raising Hope' can be inappropriate at times, but the love that the characters have for one another, and the humor that they share with one another, is simply amazing.

In this episode, the father and grandparents of Hope, a 2 year old, were debating about whether to spank her to deal with the 'terrible 2s.'  The discussion turned to whether the grandparents had spanked their son, Hope's father.  They claimed that they did, but it turned out that they hadn't.  "No wonder he never learned to keep his room clean."  "No wonder he's still living at home with his parents."  Our son then understood why we wanted him to clean his room.  It came from an outside source.  It is so difficult for teenagers to hear or receive any advice from their parents.  Keeping your room clean obviously isn't that big of a deal, but lack of self-control can bleed over into other aspects of your life.

Obviously, this a mundane example, but God lives in every aspect of our lives, mundane or otherwise.

Debbie recalled a Candid Camera episode where the flowers on the table were rigged to move.  Rather than trying to figure out what was going on, or marveling at the moving flowers, the people got up and moved to another table.  Debbie recalls being saddened that the folks were ignoring the wonder in their lives.  Debbie then said: "How can we ignore the wonder of Jesus in our lives?"

Which brings me to sanctification.  Per Jesus, we are called to 'just give up,' and look for God's actions in our mundane lives--the entry of God's kingdom into this world.  It can't help but gladden our hearts.  It can't help but cause us to be thankful.  With thankful hearts, we can love our difficult families.  With thankful hearts, we can face difficulties such as sickness, job loss, and death.  With thankful hearts, we can even forgive ourselves, and then others.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Purpose of Life And Of God's Curses

The purpose of life is to reduce the "Kramer"--Paul Zahl ("PZ").  Kramer is PZ's parlance for generational sin.  I think it's a take on "karma."  In any event, for someone who is completely opposed (and rightfully so) to ever telling us to do anything, PZ actually says to do something in this life.  That thing is to act courageously in those instances where generational sin may be broken or reduced.

PZ goes further and acknowledges that generational sin can't be reduced without the intervention of God.  PZ says that God is graciously constructing a path for us which, even though it has many seemingly unrelated twists and turn, can eventually bring about changes in generational sin.  He then goes to the point of view that we all experience at death--has there been any meaning to my life?  Yes, if there has been a break or reduction in generational sin.

If God is loving, then the curse of generational sin is loving.  This is where I probably go one step beyond Zahl.  It is the generational sin which brings us to a point of impasse such that we cry out to God: "Uncle.  I give up."  This has happened profoundly in my relationship with Debbie.

I've written before that God's curses in the Garden were loving.  God cursed work so that men wouldn't make it their god.  God cursed childbirth so that women wouldn't make children their god.  It wasn't until this morning that I finally understood God's curse of women's desire and man's control or leadership.  This arose out of Debbie's comments about this verse.

"Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."  Gen. 3:16.

Women often have unrealistic desires and expectations towards their husbands.  In our present age, this leads to divorce.

Men attempt to control or rule over their wives.  When they can't, in our present age, this leads to divorce.

As I've written before, if you don't experience a profound change in your marriage, it won't last.  According to PZ, it's only through the work of God that this profound change can happen.

If, when a woman learns that her husband will never meet her expectations for provision and intimacy, she says: "I give up--over to you God," then the marriage may be saved.

If, when a husband realizes that he can never rule his wife, he says: "I give up--over to you God," then the marriage can be saved.

It's only through surrender to something outside us (as per Alcoholics Anonymous) that we have hope for change.

But, we're only open to change when we have exhausted every last ounce of energy, strength, and conviction in trying to obtain from our spouse what we need from God--unconditional love.

As a wife releases her husband from her expectation of intimacy, he will become more intimate.

As a husband releases his wife from his efforts at control, she will seek his guidance.

That's the way that God works.  He brings us to the end of ourselves, through curses which are passed down from generation to generation, only to then provide a way out.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Wes Anderson's Rushmore--A Panoply of Grace


My daughter's fiancĂ©e is a huge fan of Wes Anderson, so we've been having a Wes Anderson film festival at our house.  My favorite was Grand Budapest, per my prior post, but now it's Rushmore.

As Debbie said:  Max Fischer is going to be okay-- at age 15, he understands grace and forgiveness.

Max Fischer is the 15 year old protagonist who goes from controlling his world for his own benefit to forgiving others for their benefit.  In terms of control, Max is Mr. Everything at school.  He is involved in every extra-curricular activity going, but doesn't pay that much attention to his grades.  Max appears sure of himself, so sure of himself that he expects that he will obtain his love interest--his beautiful young teacher.  Max seems to be grabbing adulthood by the tail as he becomes friends with a wealthy father of two of his obnoxious classmates (Herman).  Max seem to be a man of the world--a young man who seems perfectly at home at a wealthy boarding school.

But then cracks begin to show.  We learn that Max's father is a barber, not a neurosurgeon as he has told Herman.  Of course, Max's teacher rejects him.  In fact, she begins seeing Herman--a deep betrayal of Max by both of them.  We see Max hounded by the school bully.  Max drops out of school and begins working in his father's barber shop.  But the bad things aren't only done to Max, he also does bad things.  None of us are innocent.  Max hurts his young protege' by telling others something untrue about the young man's mother.  Max's world is crumbling.

How does Max respond?  He is no longer in control of what others think of him, or of his future.  He is at the mercy of the world or God or karma.

Max responds with unadulterated grace.  Max puts on a play that he has scripted and directs.  In doing so, he sets up Herman with his teacher by inviting them both to the play--after their relationship has fallen on the rocks.  He rejoins the two in a relationship that cut him to the quick.  His play is set in Vietnam--Herman served in Vietnam.  Max even gives his arch enemy, the school bully, a starring role.  He responds by telling Max that he's always wanted to be in one of his plays.  We never know what lies behind other's harmful actions towards us--sometimes they feel wounded by us or jealous of us, or just want to be accepted.  Max apologizes to his young protege' who forgives Max for telling other students that his mother gave Max a hand-job.  Wes Anderson gets forgiveness.  But he doesn't stop there.

During the last few moments of Rushmore, we hear the refrain played over and over again from
The Who "mini-opera:" "A Quick One While He's Away."  Pete Townsend sings over and over: "You are forgiven"--the last two minutes of the 9 minute song.  In the video, Pete ends the song by announcing to the crowd:  "you're all forgiven."  The forgiveness in The Who mini-opera, like the forgiveness in Rushmore, is simply breathtaking.  In The Who's song, the husband was away for "nigh on a year," so she takes up with Ivor the bus driver.  Then, her husband returns and forgives her--simply forgives her.  This is the story out of which springs the two minutes of constant refrains of "you are forgiven."

Lasty, on a more personal note, Max tells Herman that his father is a neurosurgeon.  Later, after Max's downturn, he invites Herman to the barber shop for a haircut by his father.  At the play, he is introducing his father to everyone--as a barber.

My own father was a small-town Baptist preacher, who spent his last 15 years of work as chaplain at Partlow.  Sadly, I was embarrassed that he was a chaplain and not a worldly success with a big church.  Now that I have a 180 degree different view of Jesus, I'm so proud of my father.  My father loved the residents at Partlow, and they loved him.  One of my daughter's good friends in school had Downs Syndrome, so there is some heritage at work there.

God bless Wes Anderson for bringing us this poignant look at the only true change agent in the world--forgiveness--which is synonymous with grace.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Opposites Attract--From Good to Bad to Good

We all marry the wrong people, because we are all sinners.  We all bring baggage into the marriage.  Sadly, sometimes the baggage is too much for the marriage to survive--even when the two people have good intentions towards one another.  Is there a view of marriage which gives the two people the best chance for survival of the marriage?

Opposites attract which begins as a good thing.  Your heart gets the pitter-patters, because you have come across someone who is innately different from you--yet they desire to be with you--even desire, supposedly, to spend the rest of their life with you.  This provides the intoxicating elixir called romantic love.  This is a good thing.  But for this romantic love, the human race would die out.

Yet, this state of intoxication doesn't last long.  The differences which were charming become tiresome and even the basis for disagreements and, many times, profound contempt for one another.  Take me and Debbie in our early marriage as examples.  I was organized--Debbie was not.  I highly valued truth--Debbie not so much. Debbie is very relational--I was not.  Debbie has great empathy--me not so much.  So, you can well imagine that we had disputes.  I valued having an orderly home and life over relationships with people.  This led to many, many conflicts over topics ranging from housekeeping, bill paying, parenting, to picking a church.  Our differences almost led to divorce.  This is the bad part.

Once you reach the bad times, the question is whether the bad times will continue to get worse (leading to divorce) or whether there will be redemption.  In order for there to be redemption, the differences must be seen not as issues to overcome, but as blessings.

Over time, I have come to appreciate Debbie's relational nature.  Thanks to Debbie, I finally have a relationship with my mother that I never dreamed possible.

Over time, Debbie has come to appreciate my organizational skills.  This has made our home more of a refuge from the disorganization of the world.

Over tine, I have come to appreciate Debbie's empathy.  This empathy has caused me to be empathetic towards myself, which has quieted the voices of suicide and depression.  Empathy towards myself has led to deeper relationships at work and in our neighborhood.

Over time, Debbie has come to appreciate the truth.  Speaking the truth allows us to deal with heart issues that we swept under the rug for years.

So, "opposites attract" seems to be a genetic and/or Divinely appointed means of building stronger and stronger marriages.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Religious Psychology, "The Road," and My Father

Paul Zahl, quoting Aldous Huxley, says that we all need a religious psychologist.  But I was brought up Baptist.  I was told, over and over, that the proclamation of the Word is what I most needed.  For once, the Baptists were actually right.  When the Word is rightly proclaimed, it pierces our hearts and changes our perspective on God, on people, and allows us to love more.  This piercing of the heart is where the psychology comes in.  Indeed, St. Paul may have been the first person to understand and write extensively about psychology.  "Why do I do the things I shouldn't do, and leave undone the things that I ought to do."

When we view Christianity as an interpretive lens for life, it becomes a true psychology--a freeing word--a means for "getting through the day"--because "nobody gets out of this life alive." (Axl)  One of the most helpful interpretive principals taught first by St. Paul, but really honed by Luther, is the principal that the Word first speaks Law, but then this is followed by Grace.  The Law exposes our sin, and Grace tells us that God is, nevertheless, on our side.  God is on our side even when we repeat sins--just look at the stories of Abraham, King David, King Solomon, and Samson.

This Law/Grace modality, which is a profoundly and uniquely Christian view, of interpreting life finally allowed me to deal with the life and death of my father.

My father was 47 when I was born.  He was probably a little old to be starting a family, but he wasn't willing to have children until he was able to provide for us.  My sister was born two years later.  My father grew up woefully poor on a struggling red dirt farm in northern Tuscaloosa County during the Great Depression.  It irks me to hear people compare our recent economic issues with the Great Depression.  No one in the US went hungry this last time, while millions were woefully destitute--suffering and dying from hunger and sickness--during the Great Depression.  Even the poorest in our country had cars, cell phones, flat screen TVs, and food galore this last time.  This is why my father waited so long to have children.

When my father died, in 1997, I was busy with my law career, with two young children, and our third child had just been born five days before my father passed away.  I wasn't there for him when he died--I thought that I was too busy to spend the time with him that he would have enjoyed.  I was a self-centered prick.  I was trying to make my way in the world, and it was extremely stressful.  Two of the attorneys that I worked mostly with had psychological problems which only exaggerated my own psychological problems.  This led, in part, to suicidal tendencies on my part, and on the part of another attorney who worked for one of them.  So, I wasn't there for my father when he died.

Then I read "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy.  My pastor and I were discussing McCarthy the other nite, and I told him that my lens for understanding the book was the Law/Grace dichotomy.  I told him that this caused me, and causes me, to weep whenever I read the ending of the book.  So, whenever I feel myself becoming hard-hearted or disconnected from my wife, I just read the ending of the book again.

He said: "Tell me."  After I finished, he said: "Wow, I've never read it that way before, but you're absolutely right."  I'm not looking for pats on the head--I'm telling you his comments to bring home the efficacy of the Law/Grace lens.

The book is about the journey of a father and son through a post-apocalyptic world.  The tale is so very, very dark that I've never read the entire book again and can't watch the movie.  This is the Law portion of the book--the portion of the book which exposes the sinfulness of man, the difficulties of this world, and the ever-present certainty of death.  Indeed, McCarthy always brings these truths to the forefront in his books.

"He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” 
― Cormac McCarthyThe Road

Then, you get to the end and the father dies, seemingly leaving his son alone.  The boy leaves his dead father on the beach, not sure of what to do--and utterly, completely alone.  When he gets to the road, he finds he's not alone.  Is this person going to eat him, kill him, rape him--we've seen all of these things in the book.  No, this man reflects Grace.  For this man is armed to the teeth--which is what was needed to survive.  He could offer greater safety to the boy than his father ever could.  He helps the son bury his father.  What's more, the man had a wife and child, and the boy had been yearning for companionship with another child, even subjecting he and his father to potential dangers to try and find a child for a friend.  The fact that the book is so dark only serves to make the light at the end that much greater.  The wife, the boy's new mother, holds him and speaks to him:

“The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him. Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you. She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn't forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.” 
― Cormac McCarthyThe Road

And McCarthy even expressly reflects upon the light.  Throughout the book, the father has a constant rejoinder to the son that they are "carrying the fire."  In this landscape where men have become the worst of mankind (cannibals, sodomists, etc.), the boy and his father had rejected that.  They were carrying the fire of what was good in man.  At the end of the book, the father tells the son, as his dying words, that he is leaving his son behind to "carry the fire."  The father then goes on ahead--to prepare a way--"for in my Father's house, there are many rooms.  If it were not true, I would have told you so."

“You have to carry the fire."
I don't know how to."
Yes, you do."
Is the fire real? The fire?"
Yes it is."
Where is it? I don't know where it is."
Yes you do. It's inside you. It always was there. I can see it.” 
― Cormac McCarthyThe Road
The word of Grace to me was that the father had done his job--he had walked beside his son in this life, and he was "going on ahead."   The father was satisfied at having done his job.  He wasn't looking for praise or affirmation from his son--he knew that he would hear "well done, good and faithful servant" soon enough.  These are certainly the words that my father heard when he passed away.  This gives me comfort--that, notwithstanding my abject failure at being a son--my father passed knowing that he had done his job, that he "had carried the fire."  The amazing good news is that he passed that along to me.  Now, I "love to tell the story, the old old story, of Jesus and His love."

Praise be to Christ.