Thursday, December 22, 2011

Missing Christmas - What Are We Waiting For?

Like many churches, my church is just about to finish a four+ week time of celebrating Advent, a time often described as one of waiting. There have been times this year when that waiting theme has puzzled me.

I recognize the importance of remembering and reliving the waiting that the people of Israel did for the coming Messiah. The meaning of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is of critical importance in understanding God's plan. For a people whose faith centered around prophecy and the promises yet to come, the idea of waiting with expectancy is a vital lesson.

The problem is this - I don't have to wait. Christ has come, both in the bodily sense of His incarnation at Christmas and in the spiritual sense of His having come to live in my life. I can "wait" in a historical re-creation kind of way and ponder what it would have been like to have to wait for the Messiah, but I need not actually wait.

This thought about Advent waiting has led me to think that those who are still waiting for Christmas may well have have missed it. In discussing Missing Christmas, I do not mean Skipping Christmas, like the hero of Grisham's novel of that same name who desperately wants to avoid wrapping one more gift and decorating his house one more year. I can understand being fed up with the commercialization and the hoop-de-do of our Christmas schedule.

No, I am talking about those who miss Christmas, who don't get it, who are still waiting because they have never understood - never received - the coming of Messiah/Christ in the first place.

If we look back on the first century folks, we often ask ourselves how and why they missed Him. After all, they were supposed to be looking for Him. They were students of prophecy and knew their scripture. They could recite Isaiah and Micah, Zechariah and Jeremiah. They knew Messiah was coming. And then He came, and they missed Him, and they kept looking.

Our common Sunday School answer is that they missed Him because they were looking for a military/political king. They wanted the victories and the white stallions and the public homage. They were not ready for a suffering servant, much less for a baby born to an unmarried virgin in a feeding trough. They were not interested in what caught the attention of shepherds, the lowest of the low.

I think that explanation is right, up to a point, but I do not believe it goes far enough. I believe they missed Christmas for the same reason many people today miss Christmas. That reason is largely political, although not in the stallions-and-banners sense. It is not that we want military victories, necessarily; but it is that we want what is immediate, what is tangible, what is seemingly most important to our survival. To first century Israel, that meant escape from the suffocating occupation of Rome. To them, then, Messiah would be recognized in the way He threw off the Caesars. To twenty-first century Americans, it means escape from unemployment and war and inequality and unendurable political discourse. It means more money and better health and more vacation time. It means the right person in office and enough food on the table for everyone.

And, of course, there is nothing wrong with any of that. As I have written numerous times, I believe that we must be about helping the poor and feeding the hungry (here and here, for example), and I maintain that we must participate in the political process (here and here, for example). I think that seeking success is a natural goal for all of us.

Jesus, though, did not and does not come primarily to meet our political aspirations. Jesus' role was and is spiritual. To the first century people He saw, He came primarily to solve their soul's overwhelming problem. He said that He came "to seek and to save that which is lost." The angel told Joseph to name Him Jesus because "He will save His people from their sins." To the twenty-first century people He now sees, Jesus comes for exactly the same reason. We have a sin problem, a soul problem, a spiritual issue that pretermits and underlies all our other ills.

There is a new popular holiday song that you have probably heard on the radio - it plays on both religious and secular stations - called "Christmas Shoes." It tells the touching story of a poor boy who wants to buy a new pair of shoes for his dying mother. He cannot afford to pay for the shoes, and the singer/narrator tells of giving the boy the money so he can buy the shoes. The singer says that in doing so, he has learned "what Christmas is all about."

Of course Jesus is concerned with the poor and the hungry, and as His people, we must be about His work, including giving shoes to kids and sick mothers who need them. But those kind of political and social issues are not the reason He came. They are not what Christmas is all about. The visitors to Jesus' birth brought gifts to Him; they did not come looking for gifts from Him. That metaphorical Little Drummer Boy, who had no gift to bring, did not come to the manger looking for a handout.

And I think that is why people miss Christmas. When a baby is born in an out of the way hamlet and does nothing to depose the emperor, sabotage the invading armies, eliminate all poverty, change the course of elections, or add to our bank accounts, we all too often miss Him. It is not that we are unconcerned with spiritual things; it is just that we are far more concerned with the political and the social and the financial. Like our predecessors twenty centuries before, we miss Messiah because we refuse to look beyond what we have decided are the pressing issues. We think we understand the world and that we know best how to solve its problems. Buying a poor boy a pair of shoes for his mother is surely a byproduct of Christ's coming, but it is not, despite the song, "what Christmas is all about." When Jesus comes with a different perspective and a radical program - faith in the living God - too many don't or can't or won't get it. And they end up missing Christmas. They come to and leave another Advent still waiting, whether they know it or not.

Jesus is not now, nor was He ever, bound by (or really concerned about) our political agenda. Jesus is not tied to what we want or expect Him to do. He comes to be God with us. He comes to shepherd His people. He comes to reign as King, not a military victor or a source of welfare, but as Lord.

Christmas is about a Savior. You have been waiting a long time. Don't miss Him.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Rhetorical Divide: Lawyers and Love

This week, I was privileged to be asked to speak to the Dallas chapter of the Christian Legal Society. This blog is the text of my speech.

In First Thessalonians 4, Paul writes this: “Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all the brothers. . . . Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.”

I want to start with something that will surprise you. I want to read to you part of a letter I wrote about a month ago that was published in The Battalion, the Texas A&M school newspaper, the week after the Aggies demolished my Baylor Bears. (At this point, I quoted from the letter to the editor that I reprinted in full here.)

I have a unique job. I am proudly a lawyer, trying cases and showing up in appellate courts. But I also wear the hat of client. With a case load of between 2500 and 3200 cases in at least 28 states, I work regularly with fifty or more outside firms. These dual roles give me a fairly unique perspective on our law practice.

I want to talk about an important topic today, a problem that I think is perhaps the most significant issue we deal with on a day to day basis, and what we lawyers can do about it … although none of us had a class dedicated to it in law school.

I want to start by talking about the substantial level of incivility and unpleasant talk, what I call the rhetorical divide, that colors – or fouls – way too many conversations that surround us. You all know what I am talking about.

It pervades our politics of course. I cannot go a week without receiving, on one hand, emails that talk about the godless, socialist, Dem-Libs and, on the other, polemics bewailing the idiocy of the backwards mouth-breathers in the flyover states. One side angrily screams “class warfare;” the other side is incensed that their opponents would dare accuse them of “class warfare.” And on it goes.

(The next three paragraphs will be familiar to you if you are loyal reader of Blogarithmic Expressions, as they are lifted from a previous blog.)

I have a friend who goes all the way back to elementary school. We were in the same church youth group. We have not seen each other since high school, but through the magic of Facebook, we are once again “friends.” She has spent her adult life in politics, now writing for news magazines that you have heard of and advising candidates of a certain political persuasion. She feels compelled to post editorials – some by her and some by others – on Facebook. I try hard not to take the bait… but one time I was weak, and I asked a question about a position she had taken. I got a response that started with “with all due respect.” You know to brace yourself when you see that, because you are about to get clobbered.

Anyway, she proceeded to write for about seven paragraphs, ending by proclaiming … I kid you not … that anyone who would ask the question I had asked was, and I quote, “proven to be not only an abject failure” but also “immoral.”

This is where our political dialog has gone. In what should have been a light-hearted exchange between two old friends, I was called both an "abject failure" and "immoral." If a semi-public forum where a politico is responding to a "friend" produces this type of name-calling and insensitive rhetoric, it is not hard to understand how bad the hard-core political debate has become. Too many of us want everyone else to shut up so that we can speak. We simply cannot tolerate opposition. We no longer try to get along in what our grandparents would have called the required fashion.

I believe that there are some obvious things to blame. Our emphasis on freedom of speech has – rightfully in my view – strengthened in recent years, and with it has come burgeoning courage to speak our minds. Understanding our rights has led people to feel free to express themselves. And I guess that is the point, but the exercise of freedom without accompanying it with some common sense is often a mistake. The deregulation of the airwaves has led to talk radio of every stripe. Married to all of that, of course, is technology and its great and terrible gift inflicted on us, the internet, which has given a microphone to everyone and access to just enough political information to make us all think we know everything. Too many think they should be on talk radio, and when they can’t get through, they take to cyberspace.

With the tenth anniversary of 9/11 a couple of months ago, we heard a lot of hand-wringing about “why can’t the nation just come together like it did a decade ago?” I understand this – after all, we were, in a way, united. Less than a year after Bush v. Gore and the circus atmosphere that surrounded the 2000 election, we shared momentous times of tears, patriotism, and resolve. What we forget is the hatred that was immediately registered towards certain Americans based on their religion. What we don’t recall is the debate that ensued about the role of God in flying those planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. While we were united under the red, white, and blue, much of our political rhetoric was divisive and cruel. And, of course, any such solidarity was short-lived. Fast forward to the emails you all remember getting about candidate Obama on one hand and candidate Palin on the other and you will readily admit that 21st century American dialog has sunk further.

The same issue has infected our practice of law. We all know what it is like to deal with lawyers whose strategy in the courtroom is trial by ad hominem: the attempt to convince the jury that either we or our clients (or both) are inherently objectionable and therefore whatever we say must be discounted. In our sound bite world, too many lawyers have bought into the idea that jurors expect Rambo litigation filtered through Howard Stern. Courts by and large exercise their discretion not to intervene with even a curative instruction, so the lawyers who practice this way feel encouraged to continue. Our temptation to fight fire with fire and turn up the sarcasm and vitriol is palpable.

The rhetorical divide also shows up, ironically and disastrously, in our religious life. My own denomination has been riddled for over thirty years with accusations, name-calling, rejection, and abandonment. I do not believe I am going out on a limb to suppose that most of you can point to the same kinds of history in your own church – whether the issues are related to gender, sexuality, abuse, biblical interpretation, social justice, or politics.

But maybe the full affront of this divide did not really come home to me until I was … wait for it … playing internet spades the other night. Let me just say, the world of internet spades is full of crude, rude, and downright mean people. I fancy myself a pretty good player, and I routinely get cussed out, called R-rated names, and generally denounced as subhuman. These comments are directly related not necessarily to how well I am playing but instead to how closely I agree with or track the pattern of the person doing the talking. I am not the only victim – even when my play is deemed up to snuff, I watch the conversation among the other players. It is demeaning and, to me, a little frightening.

Among the many benefits of my competitive debate career – learning about a vast array of topics and public speaking and organization and thinking quickly on your feet among them – the most important thing I got out of it was the recognition that there are at least two sides to every question. It was not unusual to argue against a certain case in a negative round and then turn around in the next debate and argue in favor of precisely the same policy. I do not suggest that this translates perfectly into the real world – no doubt many arguments and positions we hear and read are not well thought out and are made mainly to harass. Still, the ability to understand the thought processes and rationale of those with whom we disagree is a skill that should be displayed more often than it is. It was Aristotle who said that the mark of an educated mind is to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

Please don’t think I am just throwing stones at everybody else. It is not just everybody else. I suffer from the same disease. I try not to send the snarky emails, and I assure you that I am overwhelmingly polite when I play internet spades. But I can snap at my wife and be unreasonable with my kids. Somehow, at work, when I think I am just being direct and to the point, I can come across to others as being rude. Unpleasant, even.

The First Amendment and talk radio and the internet and our inability to see both sides of the question and bad spades etiquette are all causes of this problem that you can read about in Psychology Today or hear about on the Today Show. To say that is not news.

So, after recognizing what we all see and hear, it is time to address what I think is the problem that underlies all of this, a difficulty that is far more threatening than an insufferable talk radio host or a malicious email.

The problem is this: We don’t love each other enough.

Jesus commanded us to love one another and told us that the way people would know that we are His disciples is by our love.

We don’t love each other enough. We don’t like each other. We are unwilling and apparently unable to put up with our differences. We feel compelled to correct each other. We distrust each other’s motives. If someone disagrees with us about a point of policy, we decide that their entire ism runs contrary to ours, and we then decide that they cannot be trusted.

We don’t love each other enough.

Love is not a feeling. Love is not a reaction. The love of God, fully revealed in the love of Christ, is expected of us. Christian love is modeled on the love of Christ for us. 1 John 4:8 tells us that God is agape, a term best defined in first Corinthians 13. We read that scripture and understand that love is patient, and kind; it does not envy or boast or seek its own. Love is not rude or easily angered. It is not self-seeking, and it keeps no record of wrongs. Love is a serious of choices, of actions, and of intentional concessions; but it is not a feeling.

We are not kind to each other. The exercise of patience with the opposition is a lost art. Boastfulness abounds. Seeking our own way is the new normal.

What do lawyers have to do with all of this? It is not our fault, right? We don’t cause the problems; we just zealously speak for and on behalf of the people who are fighting with each other. We do what we are told – that is the essence of representing clients, right?

Right?

We all know the command of Christ and the language of 1 Corinthians 13, but we do the lawyerly mental gymnastics that result in exceptions. The result is that we deem certain others as unworthy of our love – offensive opposing counsel, abusive judges, uncivil members of the public (whether they are serving us at the drive through window or cutting us off in traffic), ungodly co-workers, and apparently just about anyone who strongly disagrees with us.

(Again, the next four paragraphs are lifted from a previous blog of mine.)

What compels lawyers to make these exceptions? What makes us feel able - even bound - to change the rules when they apply to us? Could it be said that we are playing God? After all, that is the first and greatest temptation, found in the third chapter of Genesis: “Don’t you want to be like God?” The forbidden fruit story is about the lie that the serpent offers: if we eat the fruit, we can be like God. We lawyers are not like a four-year-old who does not know better when we are tempted to disobey; no, the temptation is all about what we do intentionally. The lie is that we can know good and evil just like God does. This is what speaks to us – the chance to make more of ourselves than is intended, than is good for us, than we can really be.

In the end, while the fruit may have been lovely to look at, its taste would not have compelled Adam and Eve to break the rules. What made the difference was that they wanted to know what God knows, to see what God sees. The temptation was to go beyond their limited human view and to become godlike.

That is, always has been, and always will be Temptation #1. We do not like natural limitation. We chafe under the idea that there is something out there that is better, stronger, faster, smarter than we are. That is why “The Six Million Dollar Man” was a hit TV show. It is why movies like “Transformers” and “Superman” and “The Incredibles” tickle our fancy – the idea that we can transform into something more godlike holds great sway. The ubiquitous nature of WWJD bracelets and bumper stickers adds to the temptation, because the truth is that we are not Jesus and cannot do what Jesus did in every situation – our call is to do what Jesus called us to do. We can almost never walk on water or raise the dead, and we don’t get to make the rules. That is the province of God.

To let go of this temptation is to accept that we are only what we are. We can achieve, we can grow, and we can learn; and indeed, we can often do what Jesus would do. Still, there is only so far we can go. That acceptance – which is ultimately the key to reliance on God – is difficult for most of us lawyers. We can’t accept that there are things we do not understand, that we cannot do. Ultimately, it plays out in our making exceptions. We play God. We choose not to love.

What are you doing to demonstrate the love of Christ in your work?

About six weeks ago, I was leading a retreat for a church in San Antonio based on Brother Lawrence’s work “The Practice of the Presence of God.” Lawrence was a famous French monk who spent his life working in the kitchen and fixing sandals. In my sermon on Sunday morning of the retreat, I quoted these words of his:
The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer. In the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Supper.

Do you remember when you Christians decided to become lawyers? Do you remember the excitement about actually helping people and those long nights pondering how you could make the law work within a biblical construct? Do you remember asking yourself questions about how you could reconcile everything that you were learning in law school with what you were learning in Sunday School?

Sure you do - we all wrestled with questions in law school about how could we square our Christianity with the practice of law - how could filing a claim be consistent with forgiveness, how could cross-examination and praise flow out of the same mouth, how can we defend rapists, how can we help big corporations shamelessly pursue the almighty dollar – and we reached a place of comfort.

We learned that we can be forgiving and praising and comfortable with the choices of our profession and actually help people. We stepped up to a profession where we could be trusted. We wanted – rest assured we felt righteous about wanting – to be the one in whom the world puts its trust, because we are Christians and we can make a difference. We were ready to be Brother Lawrence in the courtroom and the board room.

What does love mean to a lawyer? Does loving require us to be weak? I don’t think any of us would describe Jesus as weak.

Does love mean we must always agree to requested extensions? I don’t think so. I don’t think love means we abandon zealous representation of our clients. I do think we will be easier to work with than lawyers who are not practicing in love, and I do believe that we will likely extend courtesies more often than others.

How can we turn the other cheek and stay in practice? Can we be aggressive while being faithful? Is it possible to disagree passionately while still loving?

I believe the way I was treated at a football game by some A&M students begins to answer some of these questions. We introduce ourselves and have a relationship before a conflict starts. We understand and address the potential for dispute before we start sniping at each other. We love each other.

I am not going to give you a laundry list of pointers on how to practice law in love today – I could no more do that than I could give you an instruction manual on how to raise your children in love or deal with your spouse in love or be loving while attending a Cowboys game. Love comes from our relationship with the One who is love. The solution comes not so much from having an instruction manual as it does from recognizing that we must love at all times, even in our workplace, even when we disagree, even in the midst of a discovery dispute.

That said, I can give you some broad ideas. I believe that there are at least three areas that we have to recognize as our domain for addressing the rhetorical divide, three places where we lawyers can love enough.

First, there is our conversation. Let me quote Robert Redford’s lawyer character from that mediocre 80s movie “Legal Eagles:” “well-chosen words are the tools of our profession.” We can – we must – take ownership of our words. Some of us have been so close to our profession for so long that we have lost sight of the power of our words. The rest of the world looks to lawyers to pick the words by which we live. We are the wordsmiths, the models, the writers. It has to start with us.

You litigators in the room – let me say that better – we litigators in the room have choices to make. Without in any way weakening our positions or diluting our rhetoric, we can radically affect the tone of our dialog with one another. Some motions simply need not be made. Many others can be made honestly and directly – and persuasively, I might add – without lowering ourselves to our baser impulses.

You non-litigators are not exempt here. You make the phone calls, and you posture, too. Perhaps more directly, you draw the lines and set the wheels in motion that can run afoul of the rule of love.

We lawyers are the users of words, the masters of the lexicon. The term “silver-tongued” does not have to be followed by the word “devil.” We ought to retake ownership of our language and our turn of phrase to start the rhetorical world spinning in a different direction.

Perhaps something as simple as being the one to seek reconciliation is the right first step. I once had an assistant who wondered why I was the one always writing the “I’m sorry we have gotten crosswise” letter or email. The answer, of course, is that being right is rarely as important as loving one another.

No, we will not change the politics and the entertainment and even the email world very quickly. But we hold the key. We are the lawyers.

Second, we need to love better in the decisions that we make, the advice we offer, and the judgment we exercise. We lawyers are the guiders of decisions. When I started my law practice in Nashville, the very wise senior partner of my firm pointed to all the books in our law library – remember the days when law firms still used books? – and said, “Lyn, anybody can learn how to look something up in a book if he knows where to look. Our job is to know where to look. Nobody can know all the law, but good lawyers know where to find it. We are hired, not for our knowledge, but for our judgment.” You can blame choices on your clients all you want to, but every one of us knows that the world looks to our judgment at crunch time. The question then becomes – for us, for the Christian lawyers – how our faith informs our judgment.

How can that matter? We have to pursue our clients’ best interests. We are not in the business of changing our clients’ minds, are we? Well, remember that I am a client as well as a lawyer. There are many times that the railroad will make a decision based, at least in part, on the advice and judgment of our outside counsel. In my mixed client/lawyer role, I often find myself suggesting that we take an appropriately aggressive course that will not do as much personal damage as an alternative. We don’t have to make the motion for sanctions at the same time we ask for evidence to be excluded. It is a choice.

Now, I am not suggesting that as Christian lawyers we should advise our clients to abandon their best interests. I am not suggesting we leave the law books behind in favor of Sunday School quarterlies. But I do challenge you, the Christian lawyers, to ask yourselves if, in the exercise of your professional judgment, you can make a difference. I ask you to measure your judgment to see if it includes justice, mercy, kindness, patience, and love.

Third, and most important, we are depositories of trust. We have a model here, since our faith is all about placing our trust in Jesus Christ. You all know that, as lawyers, we are in positions of trust. To do our job, we have to have the trust of our clients. We want it. We seek it. As Christians, we have to be worthy of that trust.

Do you deserve it?

Those of you in the room who are parents, think about what you do to make yourself worthy of the trust of your children. Imagine being less than your absolute best, most loving parent when your child is counting on you most.

I know that lawyering and parenting are different. I know that our kids are more important than our clients. But the position of trust is analogous. The law calls it a fiduciary responsibility – for you and me and all of us Christian lawyers, it means walking worthy, having the mind of Christ, loving enough, whether we feel like it or not.

We can look around this room to see lawyers who deserve to have this trust because they operate on the basis of love. Famously, lawyers like Abraham Lincoln inspired this trust because of their choices growing out of their lives of faith and love. I think of my own grandfather, C.F. Wellborn, city attorney in Gladewater, Texas, who made countless choices that many other lawyers – his own wealthier and more famous lawyer brother among them – would not have made because they were the right and loving thing to do. He probably left some dollars and some elections on the table, but when the chips were down, people trusted him first.

We don’t love each other enough.

That has to change. The rhetorical divide has to be bridged. We have to love each other more.

And I say, let the lawyers lead the way. Let’s model love. Let’s be kind. Let’s choose words that don’t injure. Let’s don’t keep a record of wrongs. Let’s start bearing all things and hoping all things and believing all things. As hard as it is for this Bear to say, let’s start emulating some young Aggies I met at Kyle Field a month or so ago.

It is clich√© to say “why can’t we all get along.” And it is clich√©, in 2011, to answer that question with excuses about the internet and our freedom of speech and talk radio. It is not even enough to blame it on internet spades.

Let’s start loving each other more. And let it begin with us lawyers.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Meaning of Fifty Years

Below are comments I made at the celebration of my parents' Golden Wedding Anniversary.

What does this celebration represent? What is The Meaning of Fifth Years?

According to the National Family Growth Survey and the National Center for Health Statistics, only 65% of American marriages manage to make it ten years. Census Bureau statistics show that no more than 5% of marriages in this country make it to fifty years. That makes this event we celebrate tonight a statistically significant achievement. Then, when you think about the times in which we live, and in which Mom and Dad have lived as a married couple – the sixties, the seventies, the Me decade, postmodernism, Generations X and Y and whatever we are in now, the so-called post-Christian America - you realize what American society has decided about marriage over these past fifty years. When Mom and Dad married, more than 85% of American adults were married; now, that number hovers just over 50%, and just over a quarter of American adults under the age of 30 have chosen to tie the knot. Pew Research’s latest survey shows that nearly 40% of survey respondents say that marriage is becoming obsolete.

That can make this anniversary sound pretty impressive, but we all know that statistics can lie. So let’s move beyond statistics. Basic psychology teaches us that the most common stressors we face, in marriage and in life, include money issues, health issues, deaths of loved ones, moves, job changes, and kids. This marriage has survived by my count at least twenty-four different jobs, eleven moves, cancer in each spouse, deaths of parents and siblings, the bursting of the internet stock bubble, miscarriages, church splits, and me.

As an only child, I have had a unique perspective – the best view in the house - to watch this marriage. In thinking about what I wanted to say tonight, I have decided to focus on what I have learned from watching Mom and Dad be married. There are, of course, a plethora of things I (and most of you) could say about both Mom and Dad individually. These are two of the smartest, most involved, most varied, and most dearly loved people around. They have more degrees, life experiences, and friends than anybody else I know. Each of them is a teacher, an example, a writer, a speaker, a role model, a witness, and a leader.

But I want to focus on what I have learned from the two of them together, because, after all, tonight is a celebration of what they have done together, what they have made together. If you noticed, every single picture you have seen up on this screen has included both of them. I have lots of great and funny and candid pictures of each of them, but tonight is about the two of them together.

So, what have I, the only child with the ringside seat, learned from the fifty-year-old marriage? In the best Baptist tradition, I have three points to make.

1. Having a lot in common is overrated; having the right things in common is essential.

I did not know Wayne and Faye Robbins in 1961, but here is what I know about them. One was from Covington, Tennessee, the son of a farmer, who had grown up chopping cotton until he found baseball as a way out, a way to college, a way to being something more. The other was the child of a Texas school principal who became an attorney, the valedictorian who was ABD on a doctor’s degree from Vanderbilt. One had worked on church staffs and for Baptist Student Unions, as well as for more than one denominational college; the other had been a military policeman, a radio announcer, a private detective, a high school teacher, and a professional baseball player. One had been engaged – or nearly engaged – multiple times; the other never had. One had a brother who was a nationally known preacher; the other one had a brother who was a 16-year-old kid. One was at home as a native Texan; the other was a stranger in a strange land. One was nearly eight years older than the other.

Still, and despite these myriad differences, they shared critical things – faith in Jesus Christ; an experience in the church and parachurch groups like BSU that inexorably shaped their souls, minds, and hearts; dreams about family; a love of books and movies and history; a sense of calling.

When Gena and I married, we were very, very different people. We still are. There were those – and sometimes we ourselves were in this camp – who felt we were too different from each other to make a good marriage last. It was Gena who saw the fallacy in this line of thinking long before I did, but in retrospect, Gena’s understanding of how our differences would fit together and support each other made sense to me because of the model I had seen growing up. Gena and I, like Mom and Dad, share the critical things in common, and we are well into the twenty-second year of our marriage.

What all this tells me is that having the right things in common is far more important to marriage than having a bunch of random things in common. Being quote-unquote happy with your life or with each other every second is not really the right measure. Whether or not you both enjoy the Beatles or shellfish or taking walks in the rain or the other things that internet dating services ask about (so I’m told) pale in comparison to sharing the critical directions and convictions. Mom and Dad’s fifty years have taught me that.

2. Success is measured in terms that have little to do with what you will see on the news.

Every one of you knows Mom and Dad, and I know that you would all call them successes. My 46+ years of watching them has taught me a number of things about success:
a.First, we live in this world, and pursuing things that this world says are important – things like career and education and recognition - is not bad. It is how gifted people function in the world.
b.Second, when you pursue those goals honestly, you don’t always become rich and famous. Mom and Dad are comfortable, but they are by no means wealthy. They are, both individually and together, well known in a variety of spheres, but neither approaches celebrity status.
c.Third, pursuit of those goals – career, education, recognition – has to give way to more fundamental ideals. We could spend all night listing those ideals, but I am thinking about things like seeking and then following God’s call on your life; loving your family; loving those who are not your family; serving your church, even when your church is not serving you. I am talking about being available to coach your kid’s team and direct his play, developing yourself to know right answers so that you have right answers to give when the opportunity presents itself, going to visit car wreck victims who are friends of your son a thousand miles away but whose accidents happened in your home town (that happened twice, by the way), having the ability to write newspaper articles and poems and Sunday School lessons and military biographies and devotionals and sermons and letters and internet chat posts that actually mean something.

Mom and Dad are successes not because of the house in which they live or the numbers in their bank account. They are successes not because of the number of times their names have been in the paper. They are not even successes because fifty people showed up here from eighteen different cities as far away as California and Kentucky just to congratulate them on this occasion.

No. Mom and Dad are successes for entirely different reasons. I hope you think they are successes at parenting. They certainly are successes at grandparenting. They are successes at traveling. Far more importantly, they are successes at making and keeping freinds.
Mom and Dad are successes because they have heard the divine call on their lives – both individually and as a couple, a family – and have followed it. They are successes because they have both made themselves better and smarter than either had any right to expect to be. They are successes because everyone around them looks to them for modeling and advice. They are successes because they have loved people they did not know who still needed loving and loved when they did not feel like loving and loved when they did not even understand how to love. A Golden Wedding Anniversary is not just a lifetime achievement award. In this case, it is a clear mark of success. I have learned much about success from Mom and Dad.

3. A life spent in pursuit of and celebration of a relationship with Jesus Christ is a life well-lived.

This is not news to most of you, and I don’t intend for this to turn into a sermon. I want to make this last point instead to focus on how Mom and Dad have demonstrated the interrelation between their loving marriage and their lives as two disciples.

Mom and Dad do not agree on all religious topics. That is ok. Remember my first point – it is not necessary that they have everything in common. What they do agree on is the critical nature of their understanding of God’s will for their lives. What they do agree on is that their lives and our lives should revolve around a relationship with Jesus.

Mom says that I first asked her to explain the Trinity to me when I was three years old. That may say something about me, and it may say something about how God speaks to children, but it doubtless says something about the focus of our home life as I was growing up. It was the nature of things for us to discuss complex issues, and it was the nature of things for us to discuss issues of faith; so a complex issue of faith was, of course, second nature. To say that we had religious debates is really to misunderstand the nature of this family. It took Gena a while to understand that our intense discussions, often peppered with disagreement, were not heated disputes but rather were, and still are, thoughtful and penetrating examinations of concepts of passionate importance to us. As I grew up, the most important thing for us to discuss was the spiritual issue of the moment. This was never put on, artificial, or difficult – it was simply the way things were. It still is.

Please do not understand me to be putting Mom and Dad up on some sort of religious pedestal. That is not what I am doing. I don’t believe their intense focus on the things of God is anything different from what is demanded of all of us. Perhaps Mom and Dad are better read on these issues than many, and doubtless they can both articulate these concepts better than most; but I maintain that all Christian life is, or should be, centered on the faith, its questions and issues, and the discussions that naturally flow from it. Mom and Dad demonstrate the centrality of faith that should characterize all of us. That does not mean you have to be a stick in the mud who is unable to talk about baseball or popular music or politics or “The Andy Griffith Show;” I believe our family can go toe-to-toe with anybody on any of those things. It means that life starts and ends with our relationship with God and His call on us.

One of my best friends is a pastor in San Antonio. I listen to his sermons on the internet when I cannot hear him in person, which is most of the time. A month or so ago, he preached a sermon on First Corinthians 7, the passage where Paul instructs husbands and wives how to give themselves to each other. In his sermon, Bryan talked about God’s intention for marriage: how it is good and right for us to be married to someone who is radically different from us, as men and women inherently are and as Mom and Dad – and Gena and I – are. My friend’s sermon discussed marriage as a kind of workshop for being God’s people in the world. As we learn to live with and love and forgive and make allowances for someone so different under our own roof, we practice the love of God; we then are more ready to display the love that is just as necessary with others outside our living room who are also quite different from us. My own pastor preached just last Sunday on the connection between love of God and love of neighbor, reminding us that we often best experience the former by practicing the latter.

Mom and Dad’s married life has in turn been a workshop for me. I have seen two people who approach faith very differently, who think of church differently, who teach Sunday School differently, who pray differently, who love God’s children differently. But despite those differences, they have taught me the importance of approaching faith, thinking of church, teaching the scripture, prayer, and the love of God. None of you who knows them has any doubt of their faith and their relationship with Jesus Christ.

A marriage of fifty years deserves a party, a round of applause, and some time to reflect on what those years really mean.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Bear in Aggieland

To the editor of The Battalion (the Texas A&M school newspaper):

I am an alumus of Baylor, the father of a current Baylor student, a member of the Baylor Alumni Council, and an adjunct professor at the Baylor Law School.

I bought a ticket for Saturday’s “Battle of the Brazos” football game. Before leaving home, I put this note on my Facebook page: “On the road to College Station for the last foreseeable Baylor-A&M game. While I thoroughly enjoy rooting against the Aggies, we have to have a healthy respect for their good team, their rabid fans, and the awesome Kyle Field experience. Sic 'em.” I had been to games at Kyle Field before, so I knew what an incredible atmosphere the Aggies create for the games. Despite the unease between the two campus communities arising both out of the conference alignment situation and our natural rivalry, I was really looking forward to sharing in what may well be the last Baylor football game in College Station.

Having bought my ticket on eBay, I assumed I was getting it from some rich Aggie season ticket holder who could not make it to the game. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself in the middle of the A&M student section. Yes, I was the guy in green and gold about ten rows directly behind the Aggie Band. I am not ashamed to say that I was a little uncomfortable. For a Baylor fan, this could have been a scary place from which to watch the game.

It is the nature of competitive football for fans to support their own team and deride the other. Collectively, the Aggie fans were appropriately disdainful of the Bears, and there were one or two cheers (and one particular gesture – you know which one I mean) led by the Yell Leaders that crossed the line of offensiveness.

But I write to tell you how impressed I was with the individual A&M students who surrounded me. Not a single person was rude or even anything less than a perfect lady or gentleman. The people directly around me introduced themselves and talked with me. The young man in front of me, when I jokingly remarked that I hoped these new friends of mine would protect me if my Baylor shirt and cap attracted some mischief, said, “We Aggies are generally self-correcting. If anything happens, you let me know, and I will take care of it.” Chris, the Aggie sitting next to me, kept up a running conversation with me about the game throughout out the afternoon. As I turned to leave, the same young man in front of me (whose name I did not get) made a point to catch up with me and shake my hand, thank me for coming, and wish me safe travels going home.

We live in an increasingly uncivil world. I bleed green and gold, and I guess I was surprised that the middle of the A&M student section, during a rivalry football game surrounded by the disagreements and hurt feelings of the past weeks, would be a place where I would find such friendliness, sportsmanship, and genuine acceptance. I congratulate your students and your university. You showed me hospitality and some real hope for how we can all get along in the coming days.

While I did not Whoop, and I sat down to try to stay out of the way when everyone else locked arms and started swaying, I can say that I truly enjoyed my three and half hours in Aggieland. I even found myself enjoying the War Hymn – after all, any song that makes fun of Bevo and that school in Austin cannot be all bad!

Gig ‘em, and sic ‘em.

Lyn Robbins

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Blinded

The story of the Damascus Road, of Saul’s becoming Paul, is known well. It is the original “Blinded By the Light.”

Do you ever wonder what went through Paul’s mind immediately after blindness struck, while he was still on the road toward Damascus? He had not yet met Ananias. What he would later describe as “scales” had not yet fallen from his eyes. He was just blind.

Put yourself there for a moment. Saul/Paul knows what he saw… whom he saw. He knows the voice he heard. He knows that he is different, but what now? What difference will it make that he saw that light?

The truth is that there are many stories of blindness throughout scripture, and even beyond scripture, that teach us much.

Samson had it all. He was a judge, which was about as important as he could be. He had fame, a sexy girlfriend, and power. He could do whatever he wanted, and he knew he was destined to deliver the people of Israel from the horrid Philistines. But it was not enough for him. He got lazy, and he forgot who gave him his power. He lost it all. And then, he was blinded. Not by a light, not in the same way as Paul. No, Samson was blinded by the bad guys. But he was blinded just the same. And Samson learned. He began to understand what he had thrown away. He knew that he could never get back what he had lost. And yet, he felt power return, and he knew that God had not forgotten him. Even at the end of his life, he fulfilled God’s destiny.

Jonah could tell Paul, and us, that sometimes the dark is the best place to learn. Jonah spent three days in the dark. Not because his eyes did not work, but because the sun does not shine inside the belly of a big fish. Whether or not the Jonah story is a metaphor is not the point. The point is that Jonah was so far onto the wrong track that God had to stop him cold to get his attention.

Think back further, to a ninety-year-old woman. It was not per se blindness with her. It was something different, and perhaps more personal, than that: pregnancy at the age of ninety. Nine months of bloating, swollen ankles, and kicks on top of osteoporosis and hearing loss! God got Sarah’s attention. So she laughed. Wouldn’t you? Can you think of anything funnier than turning up your hearing aid to find out that you are going to be pregnant, when you have been childless for ninety years? That’s a riot. It took Sarah a long time to get to the point where she thought the birth of Isaac was a great thing. She had to go through months of something she had never experienced before, and she had to do it with a dried up, elderly body that had no business going through it, and a husband who was ten years older than she was. It was no more natural for her than blindness was for Paul.

Then there is John, who was exiled. Not just away, but alone. Just John on a very small island, with nothing to do but write letters. It wasn’t long until he started seeing things.

Maybe this happens more than we think. Maybe there are times that God has to make sure there are no distractions, when He has to get our complete attention.

For Job, it happened when he lost it all.

For Philemon, it happened when he lost something (or should I say someone). It was devastating to him. He had to review his whole life – what did he really believe? What did he value?

Helen Keller could not remember losing her sight, because she lost it when she was less than two years old. She got sick as a small child, and the disease left her without sight and hearing: Blind and deaf and unable to talk in the back woods of Alabama. She was never in the belly of a fish or on a desert island, but I can’t really believe that anybody has ever been more alone than she was.

For Martin Luther, it was betrayal. A man of God and a preacher of the gospel, he was called a heretic. Talk about being blinded… for him, it was being blindsided.

For Corrie Ten Boom, it was a prison camp, a concentration camp built for Jewish people. She was not Jewish, but she was imprisoned among them. And only because she had tried to help.

And of course, there is Jesus. He knows about being alone and being betrayed. For Him, it was not three days in a fish or on a desert island. It was in a tomb. There is no darkness darker than that.

It would not be hard to decide that God is smiting us with blindness, but that conclusion is inconsistent with what we know about God. God did not smite Paul. In fact, God saved Paul. Remember your Exodus? “While my glory passes by, I will hide you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand as I pass. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen. For no man can look upon my face and live.”

Yes, when Paul met the risen Jesus on the road, blindness was a gift. God protected him so that he would not be overcome by seeing all there is of God. Paul was not then ready, not then able. One day, Paul would be ready, and he would understand. He would write that the gift of the Holy Spirit means that we can become able to see the full glory of God. But on the road, Paul was not yet ready.

When Samson was blind, he saw that he was not self-sufficient. We are not the source of our own strength. We owe everything to God.

In the darkness, Jonah learned that God never takes His eyes off of us. His plan for us endures even the weirdest circumstances and the widest detours we can take. When Jonah’s soul fainted within him, he could remember the Lord. Jonah’s prayer went up to His holy temple, and he cried out to God, and God answered.

Sarah learned to see that there is nothing that God cannot do, even when we have given up all hope. He showed her, in what she thought were her most useless days, that He could use her for His purposes. It was a vision from which ninety years of life had blinded her.

John learned that when there is nothing to see, God sends vision. He learned that Jesus Christ is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, that He is worthy to receive glory and honor and wisdom and blessing and riches and power. He learned how extravagant the love of the Father is, that we should be called children of God!

Job never learned the answers to all his questions, but he came to know that it is OK that we don’t understand it all, for we are only human. Where were we when God laid the foundations of the earth? Do we know what it sounded like when all the morning stars and the angels sang together for joy? No. We know that the redeemer lives and that He will stand at the last day. That is enough.

Philemon learned that we must love and forgive, just as God loves and forgives. He learned that what he had lost was really useless until it was touched by God.

Helen Keller learned the name for God. She had always known Him. He came to her in her silent darkness. But now she knew His name.

Martin Luther learned that our God is a mighty fortress.

Corrie Ten Boom learned that there is no place, no matter how dark, where God cannot find us.

What if we are suddenly alone? What if we are betrayed, abandoned, rejected? What if we lose those we love? What if we cannot see what Christ is setting before us? What if everything we understand is suddenly taken away? What if we are asked to do something that all common sense tells us we cannot do, because we are too old or too young or too weak or too … whatever? What if we are blinded by a light?

Or what if we simply lose focus?

We are often blind. We cannot see what is there before us. We lose our focus. I was in a bookstore the other day, and some of the Christian bestsellers illustrated the point so clearly. One was all about how we can simply decide to be happy. Another proclaimed that the single most important issue before us is how the United States chooses to treat the current political nation of Israel.

The number of Christian books that were focused on Jesus was way too small.

We can lose our focus. Our blindness can be self-inflicted. There is nothing wrong with the power of positive thinking. Many Christians hold pro-Israeli political views. I am not disparaging either. But neither is the point of what we are about.

Like Paul, we are blind. Like Saul, perhaps we need to be blinded from the things that have captured our focus.

There is so much that we need to learn, to see. And the only way we will see some of it is if we don’t see anything else. We need to see Jesus. We need to learn about Him. We need to know what it means when He calls. We need to understand to see people and to love people the way that God loves them.

When a storm tosses a child of God into the sea, God sometimes send a fish, but that is to save, not to harm.

Paul learned much that he could only learn first as a blind man: God is the king who is immortal and invisible. Even after he got sight back, Paul would not be able to see God, to understand God, to take God in. Whether we have eyesight or not, God is invisible to us: not because He is transparent but because we have limited vision. At best, we see through a glass darkly. One day, we shall see Him face to face. Now, we are beginning to know in part, but we are still so blind. One day, we shall see God and know Him fully.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Creating God in Our Image: Post-Modernism Run Amok

There is a bracing article in Tuesday's USA Today. George Barna, religious pollster whose new book cites some breathtaking trends and data, is quoted in the paper about "designer" Christianity. Barna says, "People say, 'I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.'"

The attractiveness of this view, of course, is easy to see. When we are the ultimate authority about all things supernatural, religious, and extra-sensoral, nobody can argue with us. The article sites a woman named Sheila who says that her religion is "Sheilaism... just my own little voice."

I understand where this comes from. Philosophically, today's post-modern denial of ultimate truth means that everybody can reach his or her own conclusions. And, to be fair, there are doubtless many questions asked sincerely in our churches for which there is not a single clear answer. We can and do have legitimate disagreement and debate about a number of issues of the faith. When this debate is allowed to extend to what are the bedrock tenets of doctrine and ultimate answers are not agreed upon, however, the healthy discussion becomes an excuse for designer Sheilaism.

Empirically, so many authority figures in the church have turned out to be charlatans, definitive hypocrites, laughingstocks, or combinations of all of the above that the public ideal of church or religious authority is often dismissed. Even when they are not Ernest Angley or Jimmy Swaggart, preachers have gravitated (like much else of our public rhetoric) to extreme positions that make little sense to many.

Separate and apart from its leaders, the church itself is to blame. The debates between the liberals and the conservatives, the moderates and the fundamentalists, the mainliners and the evangelicals, the moderns and the traditionalists, the black-and-whites and the authentics, and the serious and the casual among churchgoers have left many both in the church and without it who could not care less.

But I think there is another reason that we may be, as Barna says with only a hint of tongue-in-cheek whimsy, headed for "310 million people with 310 million religions." That reason is a tremendous arrogance. It is simply very difficult for most modern people - at least most modern Americans - to accept that they are not the final authority on everything. We live in a world where we have so trumpeted our "rights" that we have created a false sense of superiority in each individual, and any institution that dares to assert guidance or principle that overrides individual choice is derided.

Of course individuality, freedom, and personal rights are critical. Historically, however, these concepts have carried with them understandings of both horizontal and vertical responsibility. Horizontally, our freedoms have always ended at the end of our fellow citizens' noses. Vertically - as countless of our historical documents and speeches demonstrate - our freedom has been viewed as bestowed by and subject to higher power. I am not suggesting that our nation's founders were beholden to any particular brand of current Christianity; but it is either ignorance or the worst kind of revisionism to argue - as many now try - that the nation's fathers were not profoundly influenced by their view of God.

To form our own versions of "Sheilaism" is to say that we have the last word on what God is like. It is to make God into our image. It is the folly of Job's friends, who all demonstrate throughout that story a combination of proclaiming that they know what God is like and projecting what they think God ought to be like. The grand finale of that story is not God's answer of their questions but rather the self-evident question that God presents to all of us who get too big for our britches: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?... Tell me if you know."

This is ultimately a failure of liberal Christianity. We can say what we like about fundamentalists, but fundamentalists do not fail to recognize the authority of God. It is those of us who attend the moderate and liberal churches who have to look in the mirror and ask if we have so abandoned the fundamentalist slant that we have forgotten the fundamental: God is God and we are not. In the beginning, God. God is creator and sustainer, and we are subject to God's laws and rules and - yes - grace.

The temptation to make God over in our image is clear, but so too is the solution. The authority of God exists even when God's messengers are flawed. The sovereignty of God is supreme even when God, in God's grace, allows us choice. The power of God is always present even when God withholds judgment.

We have to recognize our weakness, our need, our failings. The Bible calls that sin. Sheilaism cannot save anyone. To channel Dr. Phil, "how is that workin' for ya'?"

God made man in His own image. In the image of God created He him. Male and female created He them.... And God called His creation good.

We would do well to remember.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

It's The Way Things Ought to Be

Tomorrow, we leave to take Trey, our oldest child, to college.

I have not cried.

I suppose that there will be some weepy moments as we drive away, leaving him on the campus that I know so well. I suppose that, remembering how it feels suddenly to be "on your own" no matter how responsible you are, I will have a stirring in the pit of my stomach as I realize what he is feeling.

But I am not sad.

This is the way things ought to be. This is what we have been shooting for since his birth. Parenthood is the job you strive to work yourself out of.

I have friends whose children are leaving for school as well. One says she does not know what she will do without her only child, who will be several states away. Another says that if I say I haven't cried, I am lying.

Well, I'm not crying, and I'm not lying.

I remember a sermon that I heard Dan Francis preach years ago. The title - not original with him - was "Roots and Wings." It struck me then that a parent's job is to ground the child and then let the child go.

We have worked hard on the roots for almost 18 years. Now, we turn to the wings part.

I will write again when we get back. Perhaps I will have been stricken with loss, with the knowledge that never again will our family life be the same. Maybe the idea of not having Trey around all the time will have torn me up.

But I don't think so. The truth is that he is gone much of the time now, even when he is "at home." The fact is that he is very ready to be on his own.

Where he goes, I know the way. I know that he will encounter uncertainty, temptation, hard times, rejection, failures (both large and small), and days of utter loss. But there will also be discovery, challenge, fun, achievement, growth, and (undoubtedly) love. There will be friends, old and new. There will be new knowledge. His academic world - defined by the nature of high school as English taught by those to whom it has been assigned, math, history taught by coaches, foreign language, and basic science - is about to discover psychology, political science, literature taught by those who write it, history taught by real historians, music theory, philosophy, and scores of subjects he has not yet really imagined. Before him lie principles of deontology, third world literature, theoretical mathematics, rhetorical criticism, quantum physics, and great texts that will boggle his mind even as they fascinate and elate him. Names like Kierkegaard, Plato, Burns, King, Ellison, Hawking, Arendt, Teresa, Rawls, Einstein, Malthus, Russell, Jefferson, Aeschylus, Watson and Crick, Locke and others who may be no more than game show answers right now will become permanently etched on his emerging understanding of humanity and his role in it.

Yes, he is ready. Yes, we will miss him, but how exciting this is! How right it is that he step out.

Our little boy is long gone. Tomorrow, we take him to college.

It's the way things ought to be.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Songs of "Wicked": The Gospel in Three Acts

Last week, I had the pleasure of seeing the musical "Wicked" for the second time. What a great show, on so many levels.

As I listened carefully to lyrics of songs that blew past me the first time, I was struck with three of them particularly. No, I do not think the plot of "Wicked" is the gospel or an allegory of the Bible or even something that particularly tells part of the Christian story. What I do think is that these three songs, taken out of the context of the story of "Wicked" and viewed on their own, can be used to describe with some specificity three major acts of our Christian lives.

If you don't know the story of "Wicked," I don't think this blog will spoil anything for you, at least not any surprises or major plot developments.

- The first song is Elphaba's solo "The Wizard and I." Regardless of what ultimately turns out when she meets the wizard, think with me here just about what this song says in the context of what we see and feel when we become Christians, when we enter into a relationship with Christ. It is at that moment when we realize that, walking with Jesus, we are empowered to new things. We understand that a relationship with Christ means that we are changed, we are different, we are loved.

Elphaba sings, in part: "He'll say to me, 'I see who you really are.'... Once I'm with the wizard, my whole life will change, cause when you're with the wizard, no one thinks you're strange. No father is not proud of you, no sister acts ashamed, and all of Oz has to love you when by the wizard you're acclaimed... And one day, he'll say to me, 'Elphaba, a girl who's so superior... would it be all right if I de-greenified you?' Oh, what a pair we'll be, the wizard and I! My future is unlimited... And I'll stand there with the wizard, feeling things I've never felt... and so it will be for the rest of my life, and I'll want nothing else till I die. Held in such high esteem, when people see me they will scream for half of Oz's favorite team: the wizard and I!"

I do not pretend that conversion is purely so emotional, nor have I forgotten that, in the show, the wizard fails to live up to Elphaba's dreams. Still, I cannot miss the first act of the gospel here - the change that we know is coming upon us when we first choose to walk with Jesus.

- The second song is "Defying Gravity." Act Two of the gospel, following our conversion, is the move from understanding Jesus as Savior to understanding Him as Lord. It is the beginning stages of knowing what walking out on faith really means. There is much we cannot do in our own strength that faith allows us to do.

Elphaba sings: "Something has changed within me. Something is not the same. I'm through with playing by the rules of someone else's game. Too late for second-guessing, too late to go back to sleep. It's time to trust my instincts, close my eyes, and leap. It's time to try defying gravity, and you can't pull me down... There's no fight we cannot win, just you and I together, defying gravity."

Faith is a mystical thing. It defies the rules that the world understands but fulfills the plan of the Master. Those who choose to remain earthbound will never understand. It is Act Two of the gospel.

- The final song is "For Good." Having been converted by our relationship with Christ, and having exercised our faith, we are ready to affect the world. We love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and as a result, the world is changed.

"I've heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason, bringing something we must learn. And we are led to those who help us most to grow ... I know who I am today because I knew you... Who can say if I've been changed for the better? Because I knew you, I have been changed for good... So much of me is made from what I've learned from you. You'll be with me like a handprint on my heart, and now, whatever way our stories end, I know you have re-written mine by being my friend... I do believe I've been changed for the better. Because I knew you, I have been changed for good."

Isn't that how the gospel ought to play out? Walking with Jesus, we are changed. Like "The Wizard and I," Jesus and I together offer promise to my life that I could not see before my conversion. Like "Defying Gravity," our willingness to step out on faith makes things possible that are nothing more than wild fairy tales to the rest of the world.

But the reason for all of that is so that we can touch the world for good. Because the world knows us, those who have chosen to walk with Christ and defy the world's gravity, the world is changed for good.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Did God Really Say That?

The story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis 22 is another one of those Bible stories that even those of you not immersed in the church know, at least tangentially. According to scripture, God tested Abraham, telling him to take his only son Isaac up a mountain to sacrifice him there. Obediently, Abraham headed off with his son. When the boy asked where the lamb was for the sacrifice, Abraham responded that God would provide. Atop the mountain, Abraham bound his child and raised the knife before the angel stopped him. Then Abraham saw a ram caught in a thicket nearby, and Abraham sacrificed the ram instead of the boy.

Because my pastor preached on this story recently, and because the lectionary made this the topic for many churches in the last couple of weeks, I have found myself in several deep conversations about this passage. The basics of the conversation are this: Did God really tell Abraham to kill his own child? And if God really did that, why would I want to follow such a mean, sadistic God?

I think God really did say it, but I respect those who do not. I understand the interpretation that says that God did not say it, but I want to explain why I disagree.

To begin with, however, let me explain the other view, at least as I understand it. The writer of Genesis collected oral histories that had been passed down, augmented, interpreted, and amplified. Those stories were about people like Abraham, who lived in a primitive time. Abraham himself lived among the Philistines, a primitive people worshiping a god called Dagon. The culture times in general, and the Dagon-worshiping Philistines in particular, called for child sacrifice. It would have been exceedingly natural for Abraham to believe that God wanted him to sacrifice his child. The story then progresses to a point where the angel stops Abraham's hand just in time, and Abraham learns that our God does not demand child sacrifice and is in fact interested in far more loving and heart-oriented ways.

I agree with everything in that previous paragraph, but I disagree with the conclusion that God did not say what Genesis 22 records. Let me see if I can explain why.

First, scripture is clear. It is hard for me to interpret away "God tested Abraham.... Then God said, 'Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there....'" Redacting or smoothing out the difficult parts of scripture that don't line up with our theology on the basis that they are just "interpretations" is a slippery slope towards making God over in our image. It could be our theology that needs to be polished a little.

Second, I believe there is a strong difference between saying that God is "mean and sadistic" and saying that God is "demanding." Through the very life of Jesus we find out that God demands that we - like Arbaham - are to put away the things that bind us, that we leave father and mother and sister and brother, that we take up our cross to follow. The example of Christ is His willingness to give up His life and God's willingness to sacrifice God's own son. The parable of the pearl of great price teaches that we are to give up all that we have to gain the kingdom of God. And on, and on, and on. Nothing about that is easy.

What would be mean and sadistic would have been for God to allow Abraham actually to have killed his son, but the story does not end that way. I am not minimizing the test, but the test was ultimately not about child sacrifice; in fact, one point of the story is that God decidedly does not want child sacrifice. The test was about obedience when we do not understand. The test was about trusting God.

When my children were small, before they learned to swim, they would stand on the side of the pool. From the water, I would call on them to jump. I did not explain that my arms were strong enough to catch them. I just asked them to jump. I taught them to trust me. They learned to jump into water and know that their father would provide protection. It even turned out to be fun.

Third, I do not think that Abraham believed that God would ultimately require him to kill Isaac. Remember, God had already told Abraham - in covenant language - that he would have offspring as countless as the stars, and that this covenant would be accomplished through Isaac. Those words had to be ringing in Abraham's ears as he led Isaac to the mountain. Indeed, Abraham's words in the story are plain: "God Himself will provide the lamb." Abraham's obedience here is counted, we are told, as faith. Abraham believed God and did what God told him to do.

Fourth, we must always read stories like this, especially from early in the Old Testament, with an understanding of progressive revelation. When our two-year-old daughter wants to touch the shiny round red thing on the stove, we yell "no." We tell her not to touch the stove without explaining either the theory of thermodynamics or how our owerwhelming love for her means that we are denying her the temporary fun of touching the burner; similarly, God's early explanations to the chosen people were direct without including all that we now know about God and theology. As scripture stories begin, we learn that God is creator. Quickly following that is the idea that God demands obedience. Then, we get a long lesson in the holiness of God and the holiness God expects from God's people. We start getting some ideas that God gives to us and answers our prayers in the stories of Samuel and Kings, and the Psalms of David finally begin to talk of God's love. It is not really until the writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah that we begin to get a clear definition of the love of God, and of course it is not until the appearance of Jesus that we see the love of God fully. And yes, there are early glimpses of God's grace - clothes for Adam and Eve, the mark of Cain, an ark for Noah - but the concept of grace as anything other than a form of one of many religious adjectives for God ("gracious") is scant before the prophets.

In other words, as of Genesis 22, God is still in the business of teaching the basics of obedience. I am not suggesting that God was any different than God is now - no more sadistic or cruel in ancient times than today - but instead that God was reinforcing a prior issue. God called on Abraham to obey and expected obedience. That of course foreshadows our Lord calling on us for radical obedience. Greater love has no one than this, that we lay down our lives.

That is hard. It is difficult. But it is not sadistic. We know God better than that. And the God we know better than that now is the same God who called to Abraham.

Fifth, the ram in the thicket no doubt is a type for Jesus, the substitutionary atonement who takes our place atop the sacrificial pyre. If the call had not been there to sacrifice Isaac, the shedding of that ram's blood would have meant far less.

Some are frustrated that they do not hear God speak today in the same way that Abraham and other Old Testament figures heard God. Some figure that if we don't have burning bushes and talking donkeys today, then perhaps those Old Testament stories really are not so literal. Maybe they are just interpretations of events told in dramatic ways.

I often share that frustration, but I come back to this: Unlike Moses and Abraham, we have scripture to record the words of God. Unlike Balaam, we have Jesus and the indwelling Holy Spirit of God to speak to us constantly, showing us what God wants and what God is like. Those ancients who predated Pentecost and the gathering of scripture did not have those advantags, and God compensated by speaking to them in other ways.

It is fortunate that God has never asked me to sacrifice any of my children, for I am pretty sure my faith would not stand up to the test in the way Abraham's did. In fact, other than Abraham, the only person to have such a requirement was God Himself.

Yes, I believe God really told Abraham to take his son, his only son, whom he loved, and sacrifice him on the mountain. I believe Abraham followed because Abraham obeyed God, and because Abraham remembered the covenant of God and knew that God had long-term plans for Isaac, and because Abraham believed that the God who tested him was also the God "who will provide."

Is it a hard story? Oh yes. Does it teach us much? Oh yes.

Friday, June 17, 2011

When God Is Silent

There are times we have to hold on to that which we cannot see or hear. We have to hold on to what and whom we know.

That is true with marriage and with friendship and with why we are still in our jobs.

And it is true with God.

God is not talking to me right now. I am reading scripture every day. I am active in church. I am praying. I am listening. God is silent.

I have learned not to be upset about that. I remember times of clarity in the Word of God and in the word of God. I remember times of direction and spiritual certainty. I know without doubt that God has spoken to me multiple times.

It is just not happening right now.

And that is ok. The will of God has been demonstrated clearly at times through study of scripture, through prayer life, through worship, through the voice of a friend or a mentor, and through experiences. Other times, the will of God is elusive and even silent, for a while.

God is not playing tricks. When I am hearing Him clearly, I walk, obedient and trusting, with Him. Then, when the voice of God is not clear, I walk where I know to walk, and I trust that I am walking where He wants me to walk. A big facet of faith is trusting that I am being led, even when I don't hear the commands. I have to trust the signs - my talents, my likes, what I am obviously good at, what the right people ask me to do – in concert with those times of my clear understanding of God’s voice through scripture and prayer and all those things I put in the paragraph above. If I walk where God is leading when His voice is clear, then I know I am on the right path when I don’t hear Him so well.

The silence of God can be like the doldrums. Literally, the doldrums are those periods at sea when there is no wind. A sailing ship that hits the doldrums can’t go where it wants to go. It is at the mercy of the current.

In life, the doldrums are those times when we have no wind in our sails. We feel powerless to control what is happening to us. We feel that life is moving along without us.

We have relationship doldrums, where those around us seem to be moving at a pace that does not include us. Those we love and those with whom we spend time have not really changed, but we are not feeling any excitement, any spark, and transference of energy between ourselves and them. After a while, we can wonder if we are in the wrong boat and whether anybody we know ever cared about us.

The periodic silence of God is the spiritual doldrums, when it seems that God has ceased speaking, when Bible study holds little of new interest, when worship itself seems routine. Before long, we can wonder if we ever really heard God speak. We wonder if the current will just sweep us away.

I have grown to understand that the doldrums are a natural part of life. It is the rest in the symphony that makes the crescendo that much more important. It is the black in the painting that allows the master to create that extra perspective. It is the doldrums that allow the best of the sailors to watch for and take advantage of the slightest breeze; before he knows it, he has found the headwind.

Doldrums are not fun, but they are not a disaster, and they are certainly not unique to any of us. Part of maturity is knowing they are coming and recognizing them when they arrive. I try not worry about them, and I do my best not to let them throw me off my game. Perhaps the silence is meant to allow me to take advantage of the rest.

We walk by faith, not by sight... or by hearing. We know what we know. Those who love me still love me. God is still present, even if quiet.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Theology of Exhaustion

I don't mean to whine. I know that lots of folks are busy.

I am tired. I am so tired that I cannot make a meaningful contribution to a conversation with my wife about upcoming birthday parties and whether to buy new cushions for the outside furniture. I am so tired that random songs are going through my head with no explanation - today it is "Pancho and Lefty" and "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?".

So, not to whine, but here are my last six days - I taught at a trial college for 30 excellent young lawyers who want to get better. When your students are 27-to-40-year-old professionals, there is no letting up or sliding. You have to bring it, constantly, for four days from 8 till 6. Then, each night of the college, there were fun but draining social events. Two of the nights, I took friends from the college to see Gena and my two daughters in a local production of "The Sound of Music." (I guess that explains one of the songs in my head.) One night was a ball game, and one night was our traditional trip to Trail Dust to go dancing with the students. To top it off, Saturday morning brings a mock trial for the benefit of the students, and this year, I was one of the participants in the mock trial.

The college was over at noon on Saturday, and I promptly drove to Houston for a wedding, after which I drove back home, arriving at 2:30 this morning. Later this morning, I taught Sunday School, sang in the choir, saw my two older kids off to youth camp, and brought my youngest and her friend home for a sleepover.

I had to clean the pool filters.

Enough whining.

In the midst of all this, God speaks.

Not, today, with complex deontological prompts. Not in eight-part harmony. No, today, I hear the age-old message to be still and know that He is God. Today I hear, through the haze, that it is all ok, that I can let down for an hour or two, that I am covered in the cleft of the rock.

Jesus famously told his apostles to go away with Him to rest. In truth, He did not get much rest, since the demoniacs and the physically ill and the hungry never left - or leave - Him alone. But He calls for me to rest, and to rest with Him.

Frantic pace is not bad... it is just frantic. It needs some balance.

Today, I am finding that balance in a simple concept - when I can't, He can. When I am weak, He is strong. He watching over Israel slumbers not, nor sleeps.

It is ok for me to be exhausted, to whine a little, and to take a nap.

He's got me covered today.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Good New Days

Periodically, I get an email that is making the circuit, reminiscing in a “Pleasantville” sort of way about halcyon days gone by, when movies cost a nickel and nobody had to worry about locking their doors, when the harshest word on television was “Gee whiz” and nobody had ever heard of AIDS. Merle Haggard would be proud.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that the language and the subject matter on television are dangerous. We eat too much fast food. The internet brings much bad with its good. Our political debate, with its talk show extremism and unwillingness to accept the truth when it is placed in front of our eyes on certified public documents, is depressing. Casual public immorality, STDs, the pandemic of divorce, and the level of disrespect for what I would call basic values are distressing.

Still, I think the status quo has a lot going for it. I am excited to be raising teenagers in this era. The opportunities that abound dwarf what was available for me, much less for my grandparents. Health is much better, wealth is significantly greater, and educational horizons are exponentially beyond what the “Leave It to Beaver” generation could have reasonably anticipated.

To reduce this thought to a microcosm, consider how I spent my day today so far. Let me catalog for you – not in a Twitter “here is what I am having for breakfast” kind of way – how I have spent the three and a half hours I have been awake. I am struck by how I routinely conduct my life today in ways that would have been unthinkable fifteen years ago, much less in the 1950s.

I was awakened by an alarm on a clock with a digital readout. I did not have to wind the clock. I was able to press a “snooze” button which automatically programmed the alarm to reset and sound again nine minutes later.

I did not have to worry about having enough hot water for my shower.

I pressed a button so that my garage door would open and pressed another button so my car would start, without my having to turn the ignition with a key. On the way to the airport, I listened to ESPN radio, where I heard discussion about a basketball game. I did not have to wait for details about the game, because I had been able to watch it live, in high-definition color, last night. Instead, I heard analysts from five or six different locations offer opinions and anecdotes about the teams.

If snooze buttons and national sports radio do not sound vital, keep reading.

I interrupted listening to the radio broadcast to make a couple of phone calls while I was driving. I did not have to take my hands off the steering wheel to do this, however, because I could simply push one button and then speak to the microphone invisibly planted somewhere in my car. The calls went through flawlessly. One of the calls was to the airline, where a disembodied voice told me to which terminal I needed to drive to catch my flight.

When I arrived at the airport, so that I will remember where I parked my car, I pulled a portable telephone out and used it to take a picture (!) of the sign indicating the section of the parking lot where I was. I did not have a ticket for the airplane, but that was OK. I walked up to a small machine and typed in a number. Shortly, the machine gave me a piece of paper that allowed me to move through security and later board the plane. The security process involved my sending my bags through one machine and walking through another. Nobody touched me, and I was through the entire process – which included a longer line today than usual – in about ten minutes.

While waiting to board my plane, I read, on a small device I keep attached to my belt, about twenty communications – we used to call them “letters” when they arrived on paper – sent to me by friends and work colleagues this morning. I was able to answer them and send my responses within minutes of when they had been sent to me; in one case, a colleague and I exchange seven letters in the space of about twenty minutes. On the same device, I checked into what is called a “social network” site long enough to catch up on the goings on of about seventy-five of my friends in about nine states.

Still using the same device, I read an editorial from the Los Angeles Times and two articles written by recognized scholars, one in Dallas and one in Louisville.

When the time came, I boarded the plane, showing the airline employee the piece of paper I had gotten out of the little machine when I arrived at the airport. (That is the only piece of paper I have touched for the whole morning other than a napkin.) Now I sit in my seat, typing this essay on a portable machine with capabilities that would have required a large room to hold fifteen years ago.

I was not "dehumanized" by this technology; I was simply helped out. I still read books, talk to people face to face, walk around in the sunshine, smell flowers, and pat the heads of puppies.

Yes, there is much about today that is not as good as “it used to be.” But there is also much today that makes life so much better. That is worth acknowledging.

OK, now I am going to shut down this computer and turn on my portable DVD player, which is plugged into a small outlet in my airline seat. I will listen through noise-canceling earphones.

And I will watch an episode or two of “Magnum PI,” a show from back in the good old days.

Monday, May 16, 2011

News for Readers of Blogarithmic Expressions

I am pleased and excited to announce the publication of my new book, In the Court of the Master: An Ordinary Man's Walk with an Extraordinary God . For those of you who regularly read this blog, the style and subjects of my book will be familiar. I have chosen my practice of law as a motif on which to build a discussion of some of the questions that face both us Christians who wonder about facets of our faith and non-Christians who are curious what this whole "church" thing is all about.

Here is the blurb my publisher wrote: "In the Court of the Master: An Ordinary Man's Walk with an Extraordinary God is an examination and exaltation of the Christian life from the perspective of a practicing attorney. Taking images and language fresh from the courtroom, Robbins provides a unique perspective on living with Christ. The author is not only familiar with legal terminology and understanding, he also possess a thorough knowledge of Christian hymnody and contemporary culture. In the Court of the Master will provide the reader with a better understanding of what it means to live before the only Judge who truly matters."

I hope you will be interested in reading the book. The easiest way to get it is to go to my new website, www.LynRobbins.com, and click on the "Order Lyn's book" tab. You can also order it through Amazon.com. I don't know yet what stores (if any) will stock it on shelves. There will be a Kindle and a Nook version at some point - they may be ready now, I am just not sure. My hope is that the book will be interesting to you and will be something that you can share with others who may be asking some of these same questions. I also hope that it will open some doors for me to speak to churches and groups and congregations, so if you know of any...

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read this note of shameless advertisement. If you have questions, you can email me at Lyn@LynRobbins.com.

Mixed Emotions, Two Weeks Later

Two weeks ago, I posted a blog here that has gotten more reaction than almost anything else I have written. The reaction has not come from only one side.

Some of my friends have shaken their heads and wondered where my sudden "liberal angst" was coming from. Why would I worry about patriotic Americans celebrating military victory?

Some of my other friends have wondered why I hesitated at all in the blog. How could I possibly understand anyone celebrating the death of any human being under any circumstances?

It tempts me to take the earlier blog down, but that would be the chicken way out. I wrote that in the heat of the moment. So I think it is fair for me to come back now and ask if my reactions are different.

Well, we know more facts now. It looks as if, in fact, there was no wife-as-a-shield, and it looks as if there was not the "firefight" that was initially reported.

On the other hand, I am becoming more and more convinced that the vast majority of those celebrating were reflecting on a military victory in a way much like many celebrations of our past, from Bull Run to VE Day.

So here is my take now. I have no problem with the military action. I have no problem with those who celebrate our military victory.

Where I think my reaction was justified was with those who have - or appear to have - blood lust for an individual. The word I used in my original blog was "giddy" - some of those whose celebration approached "Ding Dong! The witch is dead!" appeared to me to be bloodthirsty. The celebrations of some seemed to me to be bloodthirsty, kind of like some fans of football or Nascar or hockey who seem to be there just to see the bloodshed or the fight.

I know that was not most of you. I know that exultation in this great turn in the War on Terror is not an unChristian act.

All I meant to do was express a view that I felt - and that I still feel - that perhaps the worst part of war is this emotion that is brought out in some of us to revel in the blood sport. As I said in the original email, that should give us pause.

That is my only point, but I still believe it. Once we have paused and evaluated why we feel the way we do, we can move on. But we ought at least to think about it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Cost of Doing the Right Thing

Interesting story on the cover of today's USA Today. It seems that churches who want to practice forgiveness are running into resistence from their attorneys and insurance companies.

This caught my attention. I am, among other things, my church's attorney. I am called upon to give advice about things like liability for the church. When asked, I advise the church on what actions might expose the church to liability.

That is a legal opinion. When I advise a business, I expect the business leaders to take my legal advice and apply business judgment to it in order to decide what to do. It is not different for the church. I give a legal opinion and expect the church to apply the church's collective judgment in deciding what to do.

The story in the paper is about a church who had a staff member who sexually abused some girls in the church. The church is apologizing and publicly accepting some of the blame. The church's insurers are apparently apoplectic. The article quotes a number of people about the "widespread issue" of churches taking actions in violation of the wishes of their attorneys and insurers.

I say good for them. Of course actions of a church are often going to be costly. Nobody ever said anything different. The insurers and the attorneys are right to say that taking responsibility and offering an apology is bad from a liability standpoint.

So what? Since when is doing the right thing governed by the cost?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Mixed Emotions

Osama bin Laden was a very, very bad man. He was responsible for more evil than virtually anybody else we have seen in decades. Certainly he was in the same league with Milosovic and Pol Pot in character if not in sheer numbers. He had blood on his hands.

Still, it is hard for me to be totally joyful about a sniper's bullet to the brain killing a human being.

I understand just war. I understand self-defense and defense-of-nation and defense of all that is good. The man had to be eliminated from the world stage, and it needed to have been done years ago.

Still, I was much happier with the capture and trial of Saddam Hussein. There is just something about that intentional sniper's bullet to the brain.

As the news comes in, it is becoming clear that capture was an option given to bin Laden, who instead chose to grab a weapon and apparently use one of his wives as a shield.

My politics tell me this was a great thing. My national pride tells me this was a great thing. My cold examination of the world stage now vs. eighteen hours ago tells me this was a great thing.

What I am finding interesting is the spectrum of reactions within the Christian world. On one hand are many of my friends who join in the national celebration. I have read the words of those who have confidently pronounced last night's killing to have been God's judgment. On the other hand, I read the words of a young friend - a college student at the top of her inquisitive game - as she asks if God can ever be pleased by a murder. I resonate with the words of Father James Martin, who says, in the midst of his joy that bin Laden has left the world, "[a]s a Christian, though, I can never rejoice at the death of a human being, no matter how monstrous he was." For many, intentional and directed killing of an individual is more than a little troublesome.

I tossed and turned last night. Not so much at the act of killing bin Laden, for I know that war has its own rules, and when we find a cruel and evil person of this magnitude - who has lived to destroy... who revels in beheadings... who is trying to shoot back - we have little alternative. War is not murder, no matter how well-meaning my young university friend and her honest questioning may be.

No, I did not lose sleep over the demise of bin Laden. I tossed and turned at the reactions of so many who were celebrating. Reading the Facebook posts of Christian friends who were positively giddy at the thought of the death of another human being is a sobering experience.

I am not saying that they were wrong. I am not suggesting that they are bad Christians. I am simply trying to process the thought of such exuberance over any human being's taking a bullet to the brain.

I know the reactions this blog will draw from many. Please understand that I understand the necessity of eliminating this kind of enemy. If it could not have been done the same way we got Saddam, then so be it. War is hell. And this war is different from any we have fought before; instead of a nation-state enemy whose corporate defeat can be easily celebrated in an impersonal way, we now fight a collection of individuals. We choose to treat them not as criminals with basic rights to be observed but instead as military targets. I don't know another way to protect ourselves. This war becomes Hell-plus. If you comment on this page and say that ridding the world of Osama bin Laden was worth any moral price, I am unlikely to disagree.

That is not my point. My point is only that such revelry in the death of another person - another creation, no matter how flawed and how guilty, of the Father - ought to give us pause.