Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Jogging - My New Forbidden Fruit

I have always hated running. To start with, I am slow. I have always been slow. So running was never about winning. Running was often about embarrassment, just trying hard not to finish dead last.

Then, there was football practice, where running was punishment. I always gravitated toward baseball, where running frankly was not all that important. At school, I was required to run as part of the dreaded "weights and agilities" intramural athletic program that solidified my distaste for running.

I ran a little bit in high school because I decided I needed to, but then I broke my arm and had surgery and got thoroughly out of the habit. I ran a little bit during college when I started feeling really out of shape, but I always hated it and always found excuses to quit pretty quickly.

The only time that running was ever minutely successful for me was the ten months I was engaged. I ran a lot that year with an upcoming wedding on my mind.

Since then, I have worked out off and on, using elliptical machines, stationary bikes, swimming, basketball, and racquetball. Every once in a while, I would take up jogging on a track for a while. But I hated every minute of it.

This spring, my weight was up, I was out of shape, and my knees were hurting. Gena wanted me to see a doctor about my knees, but I knew better. I knew that the pain was just nature's way of telling me that it was time to get back in shape. So, I went on my diet. I lost 25 pounds. And I started exercising again. First, walking two miles a day, then slowly adding running to the mix until I was running about a mile and a half at lunch time every day. And lo and behold, my knee pain went away.

Until it came back. About a month ago, the pain behind my right kneecap came back with a vengeance, and I could not run twenty yards without feeling as though my knee were giving way. I finally took Gena's advice and went to the doctor; several visits, some x-rays, and one MRI later, I have my diagnosis - the beginning stages of arthritis.

And my doctor said these words: "I forbid you from running or jogging again for the rest of your life."

Suddenly, jogging has become the most enticing thing imaginable. I sit on the stationary bike and look outside and envy those lucky ones who get to have the great pleasure of running.

Why is that? What is it about human nature that makes what we cannot have the most desirable thing we can picture, no matter how little we actually care for it?

It is, of course, a story as old as any. The phrase "forbidden fruit" comes from the story of Eve. And it is illustrative to us of the basic concept that much of what we think we want is really nothing more than rebellion, or our innate desire to change what is into what it should not be.

I will try to get over my newfound lust for the jogging that is not allowed to me. And when I have other strange longings, I will try to take a moment to figure out just why they have come to me.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Human Institutions

An older minister returned to the church he had pastored in his youth. The building had been renovated, a new sanctuary had been built, and the old sanctuary space was now the fellowship hall. Looking around the hall, the old pastor remarked, "I know this was the sanctuary, but now I cannot even tell which end I preached from."

Our human institutions change. What was once special - even sacred - to us can become mundane. It can become unrecognizable. At times, it can lose all appeal, even becoming scandalous. We look at what was once home and find that we cannot even remember where we stood and which direction we faced.

Jesus tells us that the greatest of our institutions will fall so that not even one stone will remain standing on another.

And yet we cling to our institutions ... to our churches, denominations, schools, conventions, alumni associations, clubs, jobs, organizations, teams, rotisserie baseball leagues, and political parties. Whether we are so attached to a memory or a name, or whether we simply do not have the imagination to see what could be for being caught up in what once was, we find ourselves dogpaddling against a current to preserve what we wish still were.

We are proudly pointing out the sanctuary that no longer exists, even when we don't remember which end we preached from.

There are, no doubt, human-created (I am trying, in my newfound gender-sensitivity, not to say "manmade") relationships and institutions worth fighting for. But that does not mean they all are. And just because something is worth fighting for today does not mean it will be worth fighting for tomorrow.

God sometimes takes away our institutions with a violent crash, and great is the fall of them. More often, I think, most of our institutions tend to wither and atrophy as their guardians revel in what used to be, what might have been, and what never was.

The problem is usually not the institutions themselves. The problem is our faith in the institutions. When we begin relying on what a university inherently is instead of working to make it better; when we count on what a denomination can provide instead of using a denomination to serve the Master of that denomination; when an alumni association becomes more important than either the school that granted the degrees or the alumni themselves; when any institution becomes the object of faith and adoration ... then downfall is inevitable.

When spouses pledge allegiance to the marriage instead of each other, trouble is brewing.

A church is not worthy of our worship. A convention made up of churches is not entitled to our fealty.

A teenager may stay in a dating relationship long after there is any real interest in the boyfriend or girlfriend simply out of the comfort of having the relationship. We all know the feeling of "being in love with love." Hopefully, we grow out of that.

But we don't seem to learn that lesson very well. We have a very poor understanding of the shelf life of much of what we have built, hanging on to a name or a tradition or a reputation when its raison d'etre has long past.

I am not suggesting anarchy. Of course we must work to preserve those institutions that are valuable and healthy.

But we must do so with discernment. We must do so with care.

And we absolutely must do so with our eye on the ball. The institution exists for a purpose, and our call is that purpose, not the tool we have crafted.

It is so fortunate that rubble is a raw material for God. When our monuments crumble under their own weight, God takes the broken pieces and fashions something better. The myth of the phoenix rising from the ashes is nothing more than a picture of God's miraculous re-creation that happens when we get out of the way, or when God gets us and our stuff out of the way.

We have to learn to tell the difference between the decaying and the re-created, the work of people and the work of God. Jim Elliot was paraphrasing the words of Paul and the words of Christ when he said, "He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."

As a sermon I heard this week reminded me, the destruction of what we would preserve is often a mercy, for as long as we struggle against the grain, we shut out what would be a work of God.

We must stop clinging to what we cannot keep.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Simple Acts of Grace

Earthshaking movements of God are hard to miss. We can reject them if we want. We can call them "natural" and choose not to see God's hand in them. We can even claim credit for them ourselves. But we cannot simply miss them.

But for every resurrection and each calming of the storm, I believe there are thousands - if not millions - of discreet acts of grace that God carries out every day, and they indeed can be missed. The writer of Lamentations tells us that they are "new every morning." God often surprises us with apparently small, minor events that we can miss if we are not ready for them... The unborn child's leap of joy inside Elizabeth. Jesus deciding to walk across a lake just as the storm has arisen. More fish than the nets can hold. The decision to look up into a sycamore tree when the short man just happens to be sitting there. The Master's wanting Mary to sit and talk instead of rushing to prepare the meal.

I think that human history's first example of a simple act of grace comes in the third chapter of Genesis. As you know, the first chapter tells the story of creation, and the second chapter tells us of the formation of Eve and the placement of the first humans in the garden.

We generally think of Chapter 3 as the story of the Fall, and indeed it is. It is the story of the first temptation, the first sin, and the first punishment for sin. But buried (to those of us who are not looking for it) in there is also the first act of grace. Verse 7 tells us that Adam and Eve, having sinned, suddenly realized their nakedness. Verse 21, which comes before the banishment from the garden, tells us that God "made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them."

Do you see it? Because sin made them naked, God made them clothes. Our loving God is always on the move to repair the damage that sin has done, usually before we are even aware of it. Where sin makes us naked, God makes us clothes.

Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. Paul said it, but he learned it from Genesis.

Friday, November 6, 2009

How Would the Story End?

Pastor Charlie asks an interesting question. He wants to know how we think the Prodigal Son parable would end if Jesus had not stopped where he did. Would the older brother have come in to the party? Would the younger brother have come out and joined the father in begging his brother to come in?

The responses have been varied, but most of them have disappointed me. Most have viewed the older brother as a stubborn and jealous prig who would have sat outside and sulked. Many have doubted the sincerity of the younger brother, accusing him of coming home only because he was broke and hungry and intimating that he would have picked up and left again when his belly and his wallet were once more full.

I don't think Jesus told this story in order to demonize either son. I believe He told it to help us identify with both of the father's children. But more than that, I believe He told the story to show how the Father - God - relates to both sons. And I believe that Jesus fully intended a happy ending.

Let's play this out, almost as though we had a "director's cut" DVD of the story with "alternate endings."

Alternate ending #1 - The Father tells the older brother that "all I have is yours, but now we must celebrate because what was lost has been found." The elder brother, in a fit of pique, turns his back on the father and returns to the bunkhouse, where he sulks and plans ways to expose his younger brother as a fraud. Why would Jesus tell this story? Well, perhaps to show that there are many of us who have stayed "in the family" but have never come to understand the love of the Father. Perhaps Jesus is aiming at the pharisees who created rules and waited to point fingers at those who broke them.

Alternate ending #2 - Noticing that neither his brother nor his father is in the party, the younger brother looks out the window to see his father pleading with the older brother to come to the party. Seeing his chance to hog the attention at the party and relishing being, for once, the only brother on his father's good side, the young recently-prodigal son turns on his brother as he self-righteously slaps the backs of the party-goers and accepts still more well wishes from those ranch hands who are genuinely glad he is back. Why would Jesus tell this story? Perhaps he would be emphasizing that while some of us will go to heaven and enjoy the fruits of the Father's house, others - by their own choice - will not. Maybe Jesus was emphasizing that we are only responsible for own decisions, and if others who have known the Father's love for years choose not to respond, that is beyond our control. Or maybe Jesus was in fact pointing out that simply returning from the pig sty when you are hungry is not a real repentence, that the prodigal son has far to go before he really understands what it means to love as his father loves.

Alternate ending #3 - Hearing his father say "all that I have is yours, just as it always has been," the elder brother is brought to his knees, seeing in his father's eyes the depth of love that has always been available to him. Hearing the father say that the celebration has broken out because "what was lost has been found" reminds the brother of how he has come through his own kind of lostness; even if he never physically left the estate, he has wandered in his mind and in his desires, and his father has never stopped loving him even when he did not love his father. The older brother understands the need for celebration; indeed, he needs to celebrate maybe more than anybody else in the house (including his brother) does, and he runs in before his brother ever even notices that he was late to the party.

I think Jesus had something like ending #3 in mind. I think the point of the story is that the love of the Father is transforming, whether we are derelicts who have wasted what we were given on prostitutes and "riotous living" or we are the seemingly upright who jealously guard our position and trumpet our own righteousness. I think Jesus' point is that the Father, just like the woman with the lost coin and the shepherd with the lost sheep, rejoices over each of us and expects us to join in the celebration, just as we would rejoice with the woman and as the angels rejoice with the shepherd.

Yes, Jesus did not end the story. He left it hanging. And yes, that leaves us the freedom to imagine alternate endings.

But surely Jesus did not tell the story as a downer, a finger-pointer, an indictment. This is a parable about the loving father, the father who has different kinds of children who squander what they have been given in different ways, a father who keeps his eyes open at all times for any chance to run to his children.

Just as the father runs down the road to the younger son, he comes out to the older son. He leaves His own house to welcome in the penitent and leaves His own party to plead with the impenitent.

The alternate endings really apply to us. Many of us are older brothers, and we certainly can eschew the open door of our Father and return to sulk in our bunkhouses. Some of us are riotous livers who may only temporarily come to our senses when our bellies are empty and growling. By leaving the story unfinished, Jesus gives us the chance to end it badly.

But I don't think that is Jesus' intention for us, nor is it the point of his story. The story is about a party awaiting both brothers.

The story is about the Father throwing the party.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Running with the Horses

My favorite hymn - one that I want sung at my funeral, among other places - is “It Is Well.” Perhaps you know the story of its composition, of a man's discovery that his wife and child have drowned while crossing the ocean to meet him... of his own struggle with grief and anger and all of the emotions that must come with a moment like that... of his ability to understand the comfort of God enough to say "Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, let this blest assurance control: that Christ has regarded my helpless estate.... It is well."

I think that an experience with the comfort of God has to be a part, if not the central tenet, of the testimony that most of us have to offer.

That does not mean that all of us have faced the tragic death of an infant child. Thankfully, I have not had to face that pain.

It does mean that we live in a world where bad things happen. God's comfort is only necessary because we are uncomfortable, battered, sick, sore, grieved, alone, abandoned, or desperate. I have seen clients go bankrupt. I have seen partners, clients, and my own company lose trials worth millions of dollars. I have seen colleagues belittled to their face.

But what I have seen as a lawyer pales in comparison to what life has shown me elsewhere. I have sat in the hospital with my very sick child. I have seen my own dreams dashed. I have waited through my mother’s cancer surgery. I have attended my father-in-law’s funeral.

And I am one of the lucky ones. I have not had to face a fraction of what many of you are facing right now.

I do not think there is a person on this earth who has not grappled with the questions that arise when we see reality - OK, God is all-powerful, so He could have stopped that bad thing. God is all-loving, so He must have wanted to stop that bad thing. God is all-knowing, so He must have known that the bad thing was happening. Yet, despite His knowledge and His love and His power, the bad thing still happens... and we cry, and maybe we get mad and shake a fist at heaven, or maybe we just shrug our shoulders and decide that God is not nearly as interested as He was back in Biblical days, when He always seemed to be appearing to folks and healing their leprosy.

Since people a lot smarter than I have turned this question around every possible way for centuries, my thoughts on it are unlikely to shed much new light. Still, they work for me. They may not work while I am at the funeral, or in the hospital, or struggling to pay the bills. But when I take a step two back, these thoughts make sense to me.

To start with, we live in a world where bad things undeniably happen, so the question “Why do bad things happen to good Christians?” assumes that Christians are entitled to some special shield from the rain and the shipwrecks. I choose to look at the question of “Why?” this way - Why not? Who better to receive and endure what life has to offer than those who are gifted with the Holy Spirit and who know the comfort of God? Now, I know that does not provide much of an answer to you when it is your child lying under the oxygen tent - believe me, Gena and I were there in the fall of 1996 while our 4-month-old Carolyn struggled to breathe under the watchful eyes of the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital staff. I think it is part of God's answer nonetheless to know that we Christians are the ones best equipped to handle life’s dangers and struggles.

If our world contained no pain, no evil, no suffering - if there were no opportunities for sin and no storms - how much less valuable would the comfort of God be. How cheap would be the free will given us. What a waste would be the peace that passes all understanding, and the incredible fellowship of the believers would never find a place. It is the black in the picture that makes the colors brighter, the rest in the symphony that makes the crescendos more musical, the choice to take the wide road that makes the narrow way more victorious. God is a brilliant craftsman, artist, composer, and director; His gifts are perfect. The phrase “no pain, no gain” is ridiculously overused, but it is true; there is a reason that we honor those who conquer Mount Everest more than those who can climb the hill around the corner. In facing, enduring, and conquering the challenges - the storms - we prove how much we have been given and what our true worth is.

If that is the world God has created for us in His love and omniscience, why should good Christians be, or even want to be, exempt from all it has to offer?

Additionally, I believe in a real, active Satan who is working evil in this world. One reason that bad things happen is because there is powerful bad that has a foothold in our world. Jesus discusses him throughout the gospels, and the prince of this world is still possessing, foiling, seducing, and corrupting God’s creations. I am in the middle of teaching a six-seek Sunday School series out of Job. Whether the Book of Job is a myth or a symbol or accurate history, the Satan it describes represents a palpable force in this world. You know the story... Satan shows up at a heavenly roll call, and God offers up Job. Satan is not allowed to kill him but is allowed to do pretty much whatever else he wants. As Job loses his livelihood, his family, and his health, his friends show up and tell him that all of this must have happened because of his deep-seated sin. Since we have read the first two chapters of the book, we know that Job is not being punished for sin but rather is being afflicted by a dark spiritual attacker.

Next, we may not always know what is bad. This is a hard lesson for litigators like me to learn - too often we are sure what a case is “worth,” and then a jury surprises us by bringing back a verdict that is a small fraction of what we predicted or that is orders of magnitude greater than the worst we feared. What that tells us lawyers is that we have become arrogant and lost perspective on what the real world thinks is good and bad and valuable and worthless.

It is the same thing with our human perspective of what is good and bad. We do not have the eyes of God or the perspective of the Everlasting One; and it borders on arrogant for us puny humans to declare that we know everything about what is good. I believe that there are things that happen that are absolutely for the best in the big picture. The problem is that we have no concept of the big picture. To use the words of a wise member of my Sunday School class, God is continually creating and painting and perfecting a huge mosaic, and even with scripture and prayer and experience, we see only a small corner. Or, to paraphrase a song from “The Prince of Egypt,” one thread has no idea of how the whole tapestry will look. Our view makes certain things appear certain ways, and we call them “good” or “bad”; from a heavenly viewpoint, those events may be good, bad, or neither.

I know that still does not answer many of the questions, and there are some things that are bound to be bad from any perspective: I do not believe that God thinks it is good when the four-year-old is killed by a drunk driver. Still, I do think that there are many times that we have no idea what the “good” result is.

A point that we cannot overlook is that sometimes God sends, or allows, calamity because we deserve it. I am not a proponent of the theory that we serve a wrathful, vengeful God hurling thunderbolts and conjuring up new diseases to punish the popular sin of the week; on the other hand, I do not believe you can read scripture honestly without recognizing that God often disciplines those He loves and that He sometimes punishes the evil.

Perhaps the toughest to accept but the deepest and most meaningful of the responses to our struggles is found in God's response to the complaining of Jeremiah: “If you have run with footmen and they have tired you out, then how can you compete with horses? If you fall down in a land of peace, How will you do in the thicket of the Jordan?"

If you have been wearied running with the footmen, then how will you ever run with the horses? You have to face and conquer the problems that come to you now, in a land of peace, so that you have some chance of victory when you face the swelling of the Jordan. If you did not recognize it, Jeremiah's words are Hebrew for “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” The phrase “no pain, no gain” is ridiculously overused, but it is true; there is a reason that we honor those who conquer Mount Everest more than those who can climb the hill around the corner. In facing, enduring, and conquering the challenges - the storms - we prove how much we have been given and what our true worth is.

Don't you see? God wants us to run with the horses. He desires for us to mount up with wings as eagles. His plan is for us to walk on water.

We cannot automatically and immediately run with the horses. We are not the gold that we need to be until we have first gone through a refiner's fire, where impurities and weaknesses are removed and only the finest and most valuable to the Kingdom remains.

It was the Apostle Paul who wrote that we all must suffer if we are to be joint heirs with Christ. We join in His suffering so that we can be glorified together with Him. I do not understand that, and I do not welcome it, but I believe it. You may well know real suffering right now. Maybe it is in your body or in your family. Perhaps your business or your farm is in such a state that you are truly experiencing travail. If not now, you will know it in your life, if you are lucky enough to live that long.

That is where the comfort of God comes in. There is no question that bad things happen. At least they are bad as far as we can figure. The fact that those happenings may be coloring our world so that tomorrow will be brighter does not help, for the moment. The idea that an evil person is being punished or a good person is being disciplined is irrelevant to us as we experience what seems like yet another crushing blow. As even more lightning seems to strike us, the thought of being able to run with the horses sometime in the future could not matter less to us.

How fortunate that we serve a God who does not leave us there! God, like God always does, seeks us out. He comes to us. At Christmas time, we call His coming “advent.” In truth, advent happens repeatedly - our God seeks us and finds us and comes to us.

Before we can run with the horses, we need once again to welcome and to wait upon Him.

It is then that the comfort of God takes over. We stop asking why bad things happen and start resolving to move forward despite the bad things. Then the colors of the great mosaic sparkle brightly around the black that has been recently painted.

Then, when we have waited for the Lord and been renewed with His strength, we are ready to run with the horses.


We are in the desert. A desert is a dry place. Nothing much grows. It is hot - not pleasant but maddeningly, drainingly hot. Scorching. When...