Thursday, July 18, 2013

Loose Lips

shipsProverbs 10:1-17
by Daniel Harrell

I spent this past week kayaking on Lake Superior where I capsized for the first time.  In happened in the face of a pretty nasty north wind that churned up four foot waves--big when you’re in a kayak. It was good to get that over with. Like falling off a horse, they say you’re not a true paddler until you’ve keeled over at least once—though I would have preferred water warmer than 38 degrees. I was paddling with an old buddy of mine with whom I have traversed numerous waterways between here at the Atlantic, both the blissful calm and the turbulent chop, both the literal and the metaphorical. Paddling on Tuesday through some especially dense fog--another kind of adventure--navigating solely by compass toward our next destination, we reviewed some of the larger decisions we'd each made in our lives, many of which were made, like major decisions tend to be made, in the dense fog of uncertainty. The compass in these moments is what the Bible calls wisdom, will if you find it, Scripture says, "you will find a future, and your hope will not be [sunk]."

Wisdom is personified as a woman her in Proverbs, raising her voice at the crossroads, promising to “love those who love me, and to be found by those who diligently seek me. I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice. Happy are those who keep my ways." Wisdom is female, perhaps because her ways are not particularly cut and dried or black and white. ABC News' Cokie Roberts recently quipped that women tend to think in "fifty shades of grey." While her reference was to that saucy bestseller especially popular among female readers, I'll take a different road here, having not read that book, and liken fifty shades of grey to that fog on the lake. Sometimes wisdom entails walking by faith;   taking a direction without a certain destination, not knowing exactly where you’ll be until you get there. “Wisdom,” Jesus said, "is proved right by her actions."

For King Solomon, son of King David and ancestor of Jesus, authored much of what Proverbs teaches. Granted one wish by God for anything he wanted, Solomon asked for wisdom by which to govern wisely. Delighted, the Lord supplied Solomon’s wish in abundance, and Solomon became widely acknowledged as the smartest man on the planet. In the end, however, Solomon’s shunned God’s gift, and went on to make catastrophic choices that eventually brought his kingdom to ruin. "Those who walk in wisdom come through safely," Solomon admitted, "but those who trust in their own wits are fools." Wisdom is proved right her her actions.

And yet even in failure, or perhaps because of it--you’re not a true paddler until you capsize--Solomon’s name remains synonymous with wisdom. In somewhat random fashion over the next several weeks, I’d like to navigate some of this wisdom with you as found in Proverbs chapters 10-12, sayings specifically ascribed to the king.

Chapter 10, Proverb 10: “Whoever winks the eye causes trouble, but the one who rebukes boldly makes peace.” You may remember that old Seinfeld episode where a bit of grapefruit pulp from Jerry’s healthy breakfast squirted into George’s eye. George went through the entire day unable to stop winking. As a result, everyone he encountered hilariously misinterpreted everything he said. Try it yourself. Devote a day to following every statement you make with a quick wink and watch the reactions. There’s a great deal of suggestive power in closing one eye. Beyond any flirtatious connotations, winking is the non-verbal admission of deception with an added twist of complicity. A wink both acknowledges the lie and invites the deceived to partake in it. The Hebrew word for wink also means to pinch or to bite. Winking attempts to dilute deception with playfulness, but making light of deceit actually increases its darkness. Not that the Lord is opposed to facial gestures per se, but an effort to unwisely minimize wrongfulness, is, well, nothing to wink at.

The second part of this couplet commends a bold rebuke. “Whoever winks the eye causes trouble, but the one who rebukes boldly makes peace.” Solomon denounces winking as taking permission to distort reality to serve your own needs. You knowingly deceive others but also yourself. There's the true story of a church that completed its “phase-one-58-million-dollar-building-project-hallelujah,” only to have their celebrity Senior Pastor publicly acknowledge an illicit affair he’d been having with the church secretary. Such sin remains remarkably unimaginative, demonstrating again the high correlation between oversized sanctuaries and oversized libidos. Absolute power absolutely corrupts. Making this particular account more disturbing was that church elders knew of the Senior Minister’s sin but “winked at it” rather than jeopardize the building project’s completion and the church's financial investment. The neighboring community responded by shaking its collective head, chalking up the whole scandal as yet one more reason to spend Sunday mornings on something more worthwhile than worship.

Granted, it would have been awkwardly unpleasant for somebody to have confronted this senior minister; but if anybody had cared enough about the man or the church, they should have done it. Maybe that was the problem: nobody cared enough. Or maybe the responsibility of caring felt too heavy. It is much easier to categorize another’s sin as none of your business. If nothing else, you'll get to relish the ensuing gossip and scandal, which all of us do love. Besides, who am I to rebuke the minister or anybody else? Isn’t that the Holy Spirit’s job? Yes. But what about when we close our ears to the Spirit? Who’s to say that you can’t be the hand of the Holy Spirit to smack some sense into a sinner’s head? Such confrontation does take courage. Therefore Solomon tacks the adverb “boldly” alongside rebuke.

However "to boldly rebuke" is not authorization to be judgmental and Pharisaic. Jesus’ admonition against pointing at splinters in other's eyes without acknowledging the 2x4 protruding from your own still applies. Blessed instead are the peacemakers, Jesus said, which Solomon asserts to be the goal of bold rebuke. We confront the hard reality of sin for the sake of shalom. A bold rebuke should work like sunlight. It unambiguously exposes the wrong yet also provides the warmth required for repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation to occur. If you care about somebody you don’t wink at their sin, you muster the courage to smack them upside their head. But you then take that same hand and guide them back onto the way of righteousness that is the path to life—a path you’re more than willing to travel alongside them—because you love and because you care.
“Whoever winks their eye causes trouble, but the one who rebukes boldly makes peace.”

Chapter 10 Proverb 17: “Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but one who rejects a rebuke goes astray.” Smacking somebody upside their head is one thing, getting smacked upside your own is another. Who likes being told they messed up? Who likes being exposed, corrected and humiliated? Nobody. Nobody likes feeling stupid or guilty or found out. Consequently we’ve conditioned ourselves to respond to correction with anger and resentment. We deny, defend, evade and pretend, all in order to rationalize our wrongness. However, instead of letting resentment be as a green light to self-righteousness, we need to see it for the God-righteous red-light it might be. Angry at being corrected? Don’t be a fool. Take a deep breath and pay attention, you may end up learning something.

While in New England last week speaking at a faith and science conference in June, I was a reacquainted with an old friend, Deb, who is the new president of the organization that sponsored the conference. Deb is formerly professor of physics and astronomy and I knew her and her husband, a biology professor, from their days as students at MIT and Harvard respectively. They both attended my church in Boston and I had provided their premarital counseling 20 years prior, a fact I had completely forgotten until Deb introduced me to speak. She said that my counseling had clearly served them well, though I can't imagine what I would have known about marriage way back then that would have helped anybody.

An encounter with Deb that I did remember followed after preaching some sermon science to make a point about sin. Having read a few articles about thermodynamics, I tried to assert that entropy in the world was a result of Adam and Eve biting off more than they could chew. By way of refresher, entropy is the amount of energy in a closed system unavailable for work. That's what the article said. The way entropy works out in reality is in the fact that left to itself, everything naturally moves toward disorder and decay. You have to clean your house, it doesn’t clean itself. Inasmuch as disorder and decay are contrary to order and life, apt characteristics of God, it follows that entropy must have been absent from creation in Genesis. Why would God make a world destined to die?
After the benediction, Deb approached me somewhat hesitantly. Maybe I’d best stick with theology on its own merits, she meekly suggested, and leave biology and physics to the scientists. Unless the world operated according to a whole different set of rules in the beginning, entropy had to present in Eden because without it there could have been no organic life. Death and decay are essential for new life to emerge. Without entropy, the ensuing overrun of bacteria and bugs alone would have totally overwhelmed Adam and Eve. Eating forbidden fruit would have been the least of their worries. According to the laws of nature, of which we believe God himself to be author, even without biting that apple, Adam and Eve still would have died. Physical death has never been a Biblical evil. Jesus himself dies for the sake of new life. The death that separates us from God is not physical but spiritual death, that loss of relationship with the Lord that happens when we reject his ways and refuse to have faith. That’s the death that Adam and Eve brought into human existence. Entropy may not occur in heaven, but if it doesn’t, it will have to be because new creation operates according to a whole new physics, one that hopefully excludes at least some of the bugs.

I told Deb I remembered her rebuke from twenty years prior, and she was embarrassed to say she remembered it too. But then I told her how her rebuke had led me onto a twenty year quest to understand science better, so that the next time I used it in a sermon I at least approximated what was scientific fact. I went on the write a book and speak and last week with my lecture receive thanks and appreciation for what I said (as a pastor) from all of the chemists and biologists and physicists in the room.
It is our pride that prevents us from welcoming rebuke and correction; pride that operates as a sinister kind of "phantom wisdom," duping us into thinking we know it all and are therefore unteachable. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga Jr. describes pride as that stubborn amalgamation of ignorance and arrogance, rendering fools as those who are often in error but never in doubt; people who go on to give others "a piece of their mind they can hardly afford to lose.”

“Whoever heeds discipline is on the road to life, but whoever ignores correction wanders astray.”

Chapter 10 Proverb 19: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech.” Do you ever feel at the end of the day that you have talked too much? In preaching classes I teach I’ll often tell students that the first skill any preacher must master is not the ability to speak, but the ability to stop. That way your congregation can always have something good to say about your sermon. Even if it was bad, at least it was short.

Many years ago I had the privilege of studying under Henri Nouwen, the late Catholic priest whose writings have been for many the way of wisdom. Nouwen asserted how any speaking we do should emerge from and return to a place of silence. Silence, he said, represented obedience (obedience from the Hebrew word to hear). It is only in our own silence that we can hear the Spirit and the people with whom we speak. So often in our listening we hear only our own voices, our own anxieties, our own anxiousness to respond to rather than to understand words spoken to us. Nouwen wrote, “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing…not healing, not curing…[not fixing, not doing something] is a friend who cares.” There’s an ancient and familiar Stoic maxim that says because you have two ears but only one mouth, you should listen twice as much as you speak.

Silence creates space for God to work and to heal. It prevents your words from taking precedent over his word. One of my mentors, a saintly man now gone on to glory, used to tell me that whenever someone called me in a crisis and needed to see me right away, the best thing to do would be to put them off for a couple of weeks. That way when we eventually did get together, the person’s problem would likely have already resolved itself. Our time together could then be better spent giving thanks rather than giving advice.

Solomon concurs, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” I used to teach an occasional graduate school course in psychology and liked to employ a Socratic methodology of sorts, with its dialogical give and take, the only problem being that in my own eagerness to speak, my Socratic sometimes turned sarcastic. One time the topic of “anger” came up and I asked the class for a definition. A student responded with “mad” to which I quickly retorted, “Well that’s a no-brainer, it’s easy to throw out a synonym, but is that really a definition?” “Well how about this,” she replied, “anger is the feeling you get when your professor mocks and belittles your attempt to participate in front of the entire class.” Uh, yep, that would be anger.

“Listen and understand,” Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel, “it is not what goes into your mouth that defiles you, but it is what comes out of your mouth that defiles.” Watch your mouth and you’ll take the spiritual temperature of your soul. Speech serves as a reliable thermometer for what’s going on inside. But speech serves as a thermostat too. Your speech can also control your spiritual temperature. Proverbs declares that “Whoever guards his mouth and his tongue, guards his soul from trouble.” Watch your mouth and you’ll gauge your soul. Watch your mouth and you’ll guard your soul.

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech.”

Enough said.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Forward Thinking

beecherPhilippians 3:12-16
by Daniel Harrell

I heard fine reports about David Fisher’s visit last Sunday. Our former Senior Minister, whom I’ve known since our Park Street Church days together in Boston back in the early 90s, enjoyed being back here where he spent so many meaningful years.  Likewise we enjoyed our visit to Brooklyn for my end of our preaching swap. Brooklyn has traded its reputation as a hip-hop borough for a hipster vibe—revealing itself to be the new nexus for the young “eco-conscious, agrarian-seeming, hair-celebrating locavore.” According to one report, a shopper in a Brooklyn boutique fell in love with a pair of leather boots. She asked the salesperson: “Are these locally made?” The salesperson’s reply: “No. They're made in Manhattan.”

David’s church is not quite all that, but it is remains a fitting place for a Colonial minister to preach. It’s called the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, and while nobody wore buckles on their hats like we do here, Plymouth does have its own piece of the rock: Plymouth Rock, just like ours that sits out on the hearth. Everywhere you turn at Plymouth there’s also tribute to its famous founding pastor, Henry Ward Beecher, hailed in a recent biography as “the most famous man in America” (antebellum America, that is). Beecher was the first real celebrity preacher, his fiery and flowery sermons filled the broadsheets of his era. Plymouth Church was reportedly the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad; fugitive slaves regularly hid out there on their way to Canada. Beecher regularly held mock slave auctions in church, raising enough money to purchase freedom for enslaved Africans. 

Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman all came to hear him, with Mark Twain describing Beecher’s style: as “sawing arms in the air, howling sarcasms this way and that, discharging rockets of poetry and exploding mines of eloquence, halting now and then to stamp his foot three times in succession to emphasize a point.” The vast, ornate sanctuary (by Congregational standards) sits close to 2000 and the pulpit was the same one Beecher used. Statues and portraits adorn the hallways and gardens, and in the sanctuary windows stained glass venerations of Beecher’s deeds were installed after his death, competing with Jesus himself, all contributing to the sense that the church is still haunted by Beecher’s ghost, appropriate, perhaps, to this Holy Ghost Sunday we call Pentecost.
To haunt means to “be persistently and disturbing present,” which aptly depicts the first Pentecost. Technically I should say the first Christian Pentecost since Pentecost itself is an ancient Jewish feast celebrating the spring harvest. Also called the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost (meaning fiftieth) occurs fifty days after Passover (that’s seven weeks plus one day, seven days being the signal for creation and an eighth day being the classic Biblical depiction of heaven). Pentecost, along with Passover and Tabernacles, was one of three Jewish feasts that required traveling to Jerusalem, so crowds from all over the Jewish world were gathered to celebrate. 

In the book of Acts, Jesus’ disciples were there too, when suddenly the Holy Ghost became “persistently and disturbingly present” first by a mighty wind (wind being a Hebrew synonym for spirit), followed by fire (a symbol of power) shaped like tongues (a symbol of speech). Haunted by the Holy Ghost, the disciples blew out onto the streets, creating a holy disturbance for the gathered Jewish pilgrims. The crowds couldn’t believe what they heard—rube Galilean fishermen speaking in their own native languages. But the crowds did believe what they said—and some 3000 turned to Jesus that day to be harvested. The church was born as the gospel spread to the whole world.
The apostle Paul encountered the Holy Ghost on his way to Damascus. He was on a mission to destroy all these new Christians when Jesus burned him into one too. Paul launch a whole New Testament full of churches, including the one at Philippi, to which he wrote the letter we read from this morning. Philippians contains many memorable verses that define our faith, and I’ve spent these Sundays since Easter focused on those “most likely to be cross-stitched” since so many have. This morning’s notable verses follow after another cross-stitched set we looked at two Sundays ago. I once saw them cross-stitched and appropriately hung over a toilet. Writing of his own vaunted accomplishments and success as a Pharisee, Paul nevertheless concluded that “whatever I gained, I now regard as a load of (literal) crap for the sake of gaining Christ.” On that Damascus Road, Jesus had condemned Paul not for his wickedness as a Pharisee, but for his goodness. Paul’s pretentious reliance on his credentials had paved his road to perdition. “I now count it all garbage,” Paul wrote, “compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord for whose sake I have suffered the loss of all things so that one way or another, I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

“Not that I have already attained this,” he quickly adds in our verses this morning. “I haven’t yet reached my goal,” or as other translations put it, “I’m not perfect,” which may come as a relief to us all. Except that unlike most people, Paul doesn’t use imperfection as an excuse. It’s his motivation. “I press on to be perfect,” he writes, working out his salvation “with fear and trembling” as he phrased it back in chapter 2. Is Paul saying that grace still takes effort? Yes, but not to attain. Grace has never been a reward for good deeds. But grace is the fuel of a righteous life. The grace that saves is the grace that motivates us to live lives worthy of it. As fuel, the grace that motivates also empowers. “Work out your salvation” Paul wrote, “understanding that God is doing all the work.” It’s the Holy Ghost inside us making righteousness happen. “I press on to obtain what Jesus has already obtained for me,” Paul explains, “though I do not consider myself to have attained it yet.”

OK, so language is still a little confusing. And analogies are hard to come by. Paul tries a racing analogy. “Forgetting what is behind (both his successes and failures, his pride and his guilt) and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal of the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Jesus is Paul’s finish line, but he’s the starting gate too. This only adds to the confusion. And I’ll admit I’m not much for racing analogies since the last race I ran had me coming in dead last. How about adding a wedding analogy since Paul uses these elsewhere too. It’s easy for couples in the throes of wedding planning to treat racing down the aisle as finally crossing a finish line. But if you’re already married, you know that by getting married you’re just getting started. That’s OK, because you soon find that loving somebody enough to marry them only makes you want to know them more. And the more you know the more you love. I think that’s what Paul means here. Knowing Christ made Paul want to know Christ more. It kept him running his race—even though he’d already won!

Another illustration that I like to use to explain this passage comes from snow skiing (which is OK since it snowed two weeks ago and Dawn and I still needed long underwear at Target Field on Friday night). I like to use skiing to explain this passage, but not because I’m a better skier than I am a runner (or a husband for that matter). Being a bad skier is actually what makes this analogy work. My favorite part of any ski trip is hanging out in the lodge at the end of a long day on the slopes, sitting by the fire and drinking hot chocolate. The last time I did skied (which was the last time I skied--in New Hampshire some years ago), I’d spent most of the day zipping down intermediate blue trails, succeeding just enough to delude myself into thinking I was ready for black diamond. I reserved the expert trail for the end, fully anticipating a triumphant descent and my fitting reward of hot chocolate by that roaring fire in the ski lodge once I gracefully reached bottom. However, once on that black diamond precipice, my complete lack of skill was totally exposed. I tried to translate my nifty blue trail maneuvers to this much steeper hill, but after a couple of lame efforts, I fell flat on my back, which most times would have meant would have meant simply getting back up, but this time, with the cliff coated in hard New England ice, and I in my slick nylon coated parka and pants, I couldn’t get up because I couldn’t stop. Screaming and swirling and flailing, I spun and slid all the way down the mountain not stopping until I reached the base of the hill, a few yards from the steps of the lodge, after which I got up, went inside and drank my hot chocolate.

This is my point: whether on my feet or my butt, for better or worse, one way or another, I still made it to the lodge. Holy Ghost gravity hauled me home. Pentecost guarantees that even Christians who are bad at being Christians still make it down the mountain.

You may remember my sharing with you a story last fall about being considered for an excellent job opportunity in one of my favorite cities (I mean, besides Minneapolis). I was flown in for interviews which I thought went tremendously well, and I left excited and confident about what I was sure would be a fabulous fit. Like Paul, I had proudly relied on my impeccable credentials and accomplishments, which I presumptuously figured made me a shoo-in for this new position. Instead, I soon received my rejection letter with the requisite “so many qualified candidates” blather leaving me both dejected and resentful. Then came a phone call. It was my rejecters calling me again. Had they recognized their error? Had they reconsidered their ill-fated decision? Had my creamy resume risen back to the top? Hardly. No, they just called to ask me to be a reference for their preferred candidate—a good friend of mine whose name (unbeknownst to him and with whom I have chuckled about this during the ensuing years) I had submitted as a personal reference for me. 

Of all the nerve! They wanted to know from me if there was any reason they shouldn’t hire my friend for my job. Now was my chance to bring some even distribution to the unfairness of life. While I couldn’t come up with any real reasons not to hire my friend, I probably could make up a few. Since I couldn’t have this job, why should anybody?

What I didn’t tell you last fall was that the job was Senior Minister of Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn. When we arrived there last weekend, their Associate Minister who greeted us introduced himself by telling me he had been on the Search Committee that rejected me. “I remember you so vividly,” he announced, which obviously was not a good thing given the outcome. Then to my horror, he went on to say how he had been the one who called me about the reference for David Fisher. And then he told me he’d never forgotten what I said. Well, this was just great. So much for “forgetting what lies behind and pressing on.” How do you forget what’s behind when it gets thrown back in your face ten years later? I braced myself to be scolded for my past pettiness and petulance. Humiliated afresh for my former bitterness. Clearly this guy had known how awkward I felt then. Why did he even let David use me as a reference? And why bring it up now? Must we relive that embarrassing nightmare?! I’m supposed to be your guest preacher this weekend!

 “I’ll never forget what you said,” this Associate Minister remarked. I closed my eyes for the shameful impact. “You immediately replied what a great choice we’d made and how you couldn’t imagine anyone more perfect for the position. I thought that was so gracious and honorable of you, given the circumstances. We hired David right afterwards.” Really? I said that? You thought that? About me? Pathetic and petty me? Seriously? Wow, talk about sliding down the hill on my butt: I skidded right into that lodge. I came in last place and still won the race! Holy Ghost gravity pulled me all the way home.

If you recall the Pentecost story, you’ll remember Jesus’ disciples as a pretty pathetic bunch too: betrayers and deniers, cowardly deserters of their Lord at the one moment he could have used their help. Left to die, unjustly executed on a cross, Jesus rose from the dead and came looking for them, only to find them still hiding out in fear of the authorities. Though maybe they were now scared of him. Jesus showed himself risen, and forgave them their sins, but that only eased their fear enough for them to go back to their old fishing jobs. So Jesus showed up yet again, and prodded them on to Jerusalem to start spreading the gospel, but they only made it so far as a hotel room still too scared to say a word to anybody. But with the Holy Ghost gravity, even these disciples who were bad at being Christians still got down the mountain. They got down onto the streets, finally opened their mouths and changed the world.

The Holy Ghost got me through my sermon last Sunday too, despite the ghosts of the past and Henry Ward Beecher haunting me from every corner. One of the many things I like about the Pentecost story is how in the crowds each heard the gospel in their own native language. We tend to attribute this to a miracle of speech, but it was also a miracle of hearing; a miracle that still happens and not only in Pentecostal churches. Often on Sundays after I preach somebody will thank me for saying what they needed to hear. When I ask what it was, they will relay words I never actually spoke. That’s the Holy Ghost gravity, translating one set of words into a language of healing and help. Just like when my words of disappointment and bitterness somehow were heard as enthusiastic endorsement.

I preached my Prodigal Son sermon last Sunday and afterwards a young hipster greeted me at the back of the church. He was wearing lipstick—which may be a Brooklyn thing—but it also made me wonder whether he might be somebody’s own prodigal son. Perhaps he heard me say how the father’s irresponsible love of his son in the parable is the same as God’s love for us, but I don’t know. He didn’t say what he heard. He just stood there in silence with tears in his eyes, and I knew one way or another, for better or worse, Holy Ghost gravity would pull him home too.

Monday, May 06, 2013


nowherePhilippians 3:7-11
by Daniel Harrell

Watching it snow in May has been enough to turn this Southerner into a raving existentialist. Here’s a scenario went through my mind: While up late trying to figure out what to say in this sermon, suddenly it’s 2 in the morning and I imagine myself going for a walk to clear my head. It’s cold out, snowing and slippery. Springtime in Minnesota. Once outside, I get an uncharacteristic hankering to walk along the creek, intrigued as I suddenly am by the unusual quiet of the night. I stroll down to the water’s edge, where the current rapidly courses up to the bank due to recent heavy rainfall and snowmelt. I curiously step too close to the edge, slip, bump my head on a rock and tumble into the torrent, unbeknownst to anyone. No one sees me fall. No one hears me splash. Unconscious, I am carried over the Minnehaha Falls down to the river and eventually washed out to sea.

Dawn awakes and wonders where I went. By 8AM she’s panicked and calls the police who initiate a search, but nobody thinks to check the river because Dawn knows I’d never go down there late at night in the snow. The search continues for a while, but finally dissolves into futility. There are tears (a few). Some nice remembrances (perhaps). But in time life goes on. Danielle gets promoted to my job. Revival ignites. Years later when asked whatever happened to her husband, Dawn sadly shrugs and shakes her head, saying how we have to live life as it is rather than as we wish it was. More years pass and no one asks anymore. Silence descends over this work I now so energetically sustain and value. It’s a potent irony. In the end, all of my conscientious effort at life evaporates into nothing.

OK, so it probably won’t happen like that. But it will happen one way or another. It is the perfect statistic. One terminal existence per person, each of us ultimately destined to a noiseless absence, our obsessions and energies over meaning and worth rendered absurd. Novelist DH Lawrence despaired that: “The search for happiness … always ends in the ghastly sense of the bottomless nothingness into which you will inevitably fall if you strain any further.” Famed French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre concurred, “All human actions are equivalent ... and ... all are on principle doomed to failure.” Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher (and whose 200th birthday we celebrate today), is considered the father of modern existentialism. For example, “I see it all perfectly;” he wrote, “there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.” 

Existentialists characteristically stress the utter pointlessness of human existence. If you’re doomed to die no matter what, why bother? Que sera, sera. You may find this depressing. A result of seasonal affective disorder, perhaps. Existentialists say they're just being realistic. It’s always darkest before it goes pitch black.

You can try to deny it. Or fight it. The premise at one local anti-aging clinic here in Edina, is that aging is an error you can fix. Your body naturally reduces its hormone levels over time which cause a rise in many of the diseases associated with aging, such as heart disease and dementia. By medically replacing these hormones, the clinic asserts you can stave off these diseases and effectively recapture your youth. The problem is that according to a recent study by government and independent health researchers, artificially increasing your hormones later in life also increases a risk stroke, blood clots, gallbladder disease, urinary incontinence and cancer. Hormones or not, you still die in the end. 

Then there are the Trans-Humanists, committed to the elimination of existential risk through the acceleration of human evolution beyond its current limits. Technology is the savior here, imagining a future of cyber-humans whose brains no longer degenerate, our lives and thoughts preserved though social media, our bodies cryonically frozen until nanoelectromechanical systems and synthetic organs advance to the point of replacing our messy and error-prone biology. The enlightened Trans-Human Manifesto confidently envisions “broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.” Unbuckle your seat belts.

Ethicist Gilbert Meilander, author of the provocatively titled Should We Live Forever? The Ethical Ambiguities of Aging, observes how “The classical understanding of virtue referred to what philosophers in recent decades have come to call human flourishing—the excellence that realizes and expresses the full potential of our human nature. Because that nature is an embodied one, we might suppose that, whatever human flourishing involves, it must include the aging and decline that characterize bodily organisms. Since, however, we are rational animals, our full potential may be realized only through our freedom to remake ourselves, transcending indefinitely the limits of the body. We try—rightly I think—to cure and even eradicate disease, but whether we should approach aging in the same way is deeply puzzling. Still more, when we notice that some of the more ambitious proposals for age-retardation seems rather like a desire to escape bodily existence itself, we may begin to wonder whether the aim is to transcend or to transgress the body’s limits.” 

Kierkegaard posited that while humans are indeed rational animals, we are also ecstatic animals. We possess an innate sense of transcendence which fuels our hunger for immortality. Prolongation of this life, sadly, no matter how long we prolong it, constantly fails to slake our hunger. It’s like a dinner party that won’t ever end. Or worse, a party that ends badly. “A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater.” Kierkegaard wrote, “I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.”

 Existentialists describe life as existing in three dimensions: you, your world and that ominous maw of death they call the void which suffocates everything with its grim inevitability. To this three-dimensional existence, Kierkegaard advanced a fourth. Somehow, despite humanity’s most horrendous inhumanities—war, terrorism, torture and all sorts of individual evil—people persist in remolding new meaning and purpose. That survival and hope persevere in the darkest of voids testifies to this fourth dimension, which Kierkegaard recognized as the Kingdom of God. Human flourishing cannot happen apart from resurrection. By rising from the dead, Jesus changes everything—and not just the horrible deeds that kill, but the honorable deeds in which we falsely place our confidence too.

This was the apostle Paul’s existential realization as he languished in the darkness of his Roman prison cell contemplating execution. His words have proven worthy of cross-stitching, and I have devoted these Sundays since Easter to them. “God who began a good work among you will bring it to completion.” “Living is Christ and dying is gain.” “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow and tongue confess him Lord.” “God is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” I’ve seen this morning’s verses cross-stitched and hung in numerous places, most memorably over the toilet in a guest bathroom.

Chapter 3 commenced with Paul taking aim at those who insisted Christian faith be augmented with conformity to Jewish ceremonial ritual, specifically circumcision. Salvation by faith through grace by itself was not enough. We waltzed through this confusing territory last Sunday, confusing since Paul also argued that our salvation by grace be “worked out with fear and trembling” (coincidentally, the title of a Kierkegaard classic). Paul’s point, however, was not that our work can earn our salvation—grace is no reward for good behavior. And yet grace must still show itself to be true. Good works of love are the visible fruits of salvation.

Customarily, we Americans presume ourselves to be basically good people, exceptional sometimes. 71% of Americans still believe in hell, but less than ½ of 1% ever imagine themselves going there. After all most of us do not murder, do not cheat or steal to any criminal degree, do generally behave with baseline levels of kindness, and do as little harm as possible. There are mistakes to be made, a few sins here and there, nobody’s perfect, we’re only hummus, which is all fine and good until you find yourself at the edge of that existentialist void and discover that being good doesn’t do any good. You’re going to die anyway.

This is what happened to Paul. If anyone had any reason to think himself exceptional it was him. As the Pharisee Saul, his credentials were impeccable: circumcised on the eighth day, a descendent of Abraham of the tribe of Benjamin, as Hebrew as you could get; zealous and blameless as to the law, a very holy man. Yet happily riding down that road to Damascus, Saul was violently cast into darkness by the light of Christ that exposed Paul’s whole life as a sham. “Whatever gains and assets I had, these I have come to regard as loss and liability, and flush down the toilet because of Christ.” It’s not as if Paul now minimized his credentials, humbling considering them to be no big deal. Uh-uh, Paul looks at his impressive successes and accomplishments and he is horrified.

I’ve told you about how easy it is for pastors to visit people who’ve just received bad news—whether it’s the bad news of sickness, a lost job or a troubled child just flunked out of school. Any pastor can pay that visit. People who’ve received bad news are actually glad to see us. As bad as bad news can be, it can also be the threshold for spiritual conversion. Good news, on the other hand, is spiritually perilous. It takes a better minister than me to visit a person who’s just scored a large bonus or bought a huge house or been promoted at work or whose child just got into Harvard. When things are going good, the last person we want to see is a minister. We don’t want God meddling with our success. We stay off Damascus roads. Jesus did not condemn Paul’s wickedness as a Pharisee. Jesus condemned Paul’s goodness. His treasured reputation and achievements were all garbage, filth fit only for law-abiding dogs. “I regard it as all rubbish,” Paul wrote, “compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord for whose sake I have suffered the loss of all things.”

All that mattered now was being found by Christ as having no righteousness or goodness of his own. “[Grace] works like a trap,” Kierkegaard said. You cannot capture it. It has to capture you. There was an exceptional time in my life when I’d committed some spectacular sins, which I shamefully tried to hide though they ate me up inside. When I finally confessed, I did so to Christian people I didn’t know so well, not wanting to risk disappointing those I cared for most. These Christian acquaintances quickly brushed my iniquities aside, kindly providing rationalizations and excuses to guard my self-worth. Nobody’s perfect, you’re only human, everybody makes mistakes, you’re still a good person. Yet ironically, all their unconditional support only made things harder. It wasn’t my self-worth they needed to guard as much as their perceptions of me. How could we still be friends if I was a real sinner? Feeling this burden, it is was unbearably stressful to finally confess my sins to one of my oldest friends. Given our longtime relationship, I knew I would deeply disappoint him. But grace works like a sweet trap. My friend assured me I needn’t worry about disappointing him. He’d never thought that highly of me.

The efforts we make to impress and to generate admiration and attention, the résumés on which we count to earn merit and favor, these all inevitably evaporate into nothing. In the presence of Christ—whatever was gain is counted as garbage. And this is good news. Paul flushes all his meritorious efforts and credentials down the toilet gladly. Paul gladly gives up what is exposed as nothing so that he might attain everything. His loss is gain. His defeat is his victory. His death is his life. Grace captured him. “I have been found” he writes, “with no righteousness of my own that comes from obeying the law, but only that which comes through faith in Christ”—and not even necessarily his own faith. The phrase is just as easily translated as the “faith of Christ” such that in the end what saves us is not even our own faith—which can be so wobbly and uncertain—but instead Jesus’ faith in us based on what he has done for us and in us and to us. Grace is a sweet trap.

Grace is our hope—a hope that ethicist Gilbert Meilander describes as the virtue that sustains us on our way toward the true beauty we long for, the genuine  goodness that finally catches our heart and holds us still, protecting us against any presumption that an indefinitely extended earthly life could ever quench our longing, whether that life be organic or virtual, by way or hormonal replacement or technological trans-human cryonics. Our longing is for more than this life’s dinner party, sumptuous as it may be, something other than just indefinitely more of the same. Our life, however long, always seems less than complete.

This is why the communion table has always featured only a bite of bread and a sip of wine. It was never meant to be life’s banquet, but an hors d’oeuvre for the real thing. It whets our appetite and arouses our hope. As we gather around it, let us gladly flush our gains as losses, that we too, like Paul, may find ourselves sweetly trapped by Christ.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Work It Out

trophyPhilippians 2:12-13
by Daniel Harrell

If this passage sounds recently familiar its because you’re remembering Jeff Lindsay’s sermon from New Year’s Eve Sunday from these same verses. Following in last fall’s series on light, Jeff focused on Paul’s encouragement a few verses later that we “shine like stars in the world.” As far as this this morning’s passage, he did point out the awkwardness we Protestants feel at being told “to work out our own salvation” since as Protestants we’re all about being saved by grace alone. Tack on the “fear and trembling” part and the verse feels like a throwback to a pre-Reformation recipe for medieval Catholic guilt. “Fear and trembling” is an idiom long associated with divine judgment, setting up Philippians 2:12 as a legalist’s dream verse, and most likely the basis for another idiom that many people think is somewhere in the Bible; namely, “God helps those who help themselves.” Legalistic types worry that salvation by grace alone is nothing but dangerous permission to slack off when it comes to obedience. Work out your salvation yourself or you’re doomed.

Normally I’d wait a little longer before returning to a passage to preach, but you can’t do a sermon series from Philippians and skip this one. I was tempted to just replay Jeff’s fine sermon, but that would make me a slacker. So instead I’m working it out with fear and trembling myself. This the fourth in a series I’ve entitled “verses from Philippians most likely to be cross-stitched.” Philippians ranks as a favorite book in the Bible due to its prolificacy of memorable exhortations. We began in chapter 1 with: “God who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Then we looked at: “Living is Christ and dying is gain.” Last Sunday brought us to chapter 2 and the collection of verses where Jesus is praised as the humble then exalted Son of God at whose name every knee will bow and every tongue confess his Lordship. This morning’s passage, well-known though it is, is less likely to be subject to needle and thread. It’s not nearly so much endearing as it is confusing.

Verse 12 begins with Paul commending the Philippians’ reputation for obedience. They are Christians who hear the word of God and do what it says. Obedience derives from the Greek word “acoustic,” which while placing an emphasis on hearing, also means that to hear something clearly is to heed it too. Good behavior is evidence of good listening. Likewise bad behavior results from selective hearing. Paul sits chained in a Roman jail and worries that the Philippians’ obedience may falter, especially given that it hinges on their humble and selfless love for each other. Nobody wants to hear about humility. While admired in others, it’s rarely a virtue you seek for yourself. Modern advocates of the importance of high self-esteem would go so far as to deem humility to be hazardous to your psychological health. In cultures devoted to self-confidence and personal ambition are paramount, Paul’s admonition that we “in humility, regard others as better than yourself” is bad advice. 

Yet as we read last Sunday, Paul lauds Jesus’ humility as the hallmark of virtue. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus ,” he sang, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Humility and human are tightly entwined, both deriving from the word humus meaning ground or dirt. Some say humility is therefore all about “remembering where you came from;” but Christianity tends to shovel a little deeper. We all come from the dirt, Scripture says, made of the dust of the ground. But Scripture also insists that you are dirt, ruined by the sin in your life. No one can stake a claim to righteousness based on his or her own obedience, for as Paul wrote elsewhere, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

This severe, self-effacing character of Christian humility led the great theologian Karl Barth to equate it to a “startled [self-]consciousness of having nothing to assert in one’s favor.” To be so startled by our own deficiency may be what Paul meant by fear and trembling. You work out your salvation without any confidence that you can actually pull it off. On the one hand this feels like a set-up for more religious guilt, but on the other hand it does keep away any temptation toward selfishness and conceit. In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul uses fear and trembling to describe his inadequacy in preaching the gospel so that he has to rely on God’s grace. In 2 Corinthians 7, fear and trembling describes the Corinthians’ own obedience at hearing the gospel taught by Titus, realizing how they too needed God’s help to do it. In Ephesians 6, fear and trembling describes servants’ regard for their masters, analogous to the way we are to regard Christ as Lord. Fear and trembling is not so much quaking and shaking in the presence of God (though some of us could probably use a little more of that), but to that startled self-consciousness at our own scarcities and weakness. We’re just not as fabulous as we sometimes like to think ourselves to be. 

At a graduation ceremony in Wellesley, Massachusetts last year, the English teacher giving the speech began by shocking the cap-and-gowned seniors. He said, “Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field. That matters. That says something. And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same.  And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same. All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special. You are not special. You are not exceptional.” Really? I’m not special? I’m not amazing? 

Imagine anybody ever saying that about a high school class in Minnesota! Every child is above average, right? Especially here in Edina as I understand it. The English teacher’s speech was so shocking that a video of it went internet viral. He had to go on television to defend it. He said, “In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another — which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.”

Just because somebody says you’re amazing doesn’t mean that you are. You have to do something to prove it. Applied to Christianity, God may love you just as you are, but that doesn’t make you amazing. It makes God amazing, which is why we sing about amazing grace. But to sing about grace without it having any effect is only hypocrisy. You can do nothing to earn your salvation, but you still must do something to prove you received it. Paul doesn’t say to work for our salvation, but he does say work out your salvation. Exercise it. Over and over, here in Philippians and elsewhere, Paul pleads with believers to live lives “worthy of the gospel,” worthy of grace, humble lives that look like Christ’s life. Not for humility’s sake, but for the sake of love. It was love that caused Jesus to humbly set aside his equality with God for us and it is love that spurs us to humbly set aside ourselves for others.

The Toronto Star ran an obituary last month for Shelagh Gordon, a 55-year-old woman who died suddenly of a brain aneurysm.  Given how so many obituaries read like résumés, Shelagh’s denoted nothing by way of extraordinary accomplishments. All it said was that she had been a loving aunt and a special friend. Surprised by so meager a mention, a newspaper reporter decided to explore a little more deeply and see what such an ordinary life looked like. She crashed the funeral and interviewed Shelagh’s friends. It turns out that Shelagh Gordon didn’t have a great job, she wasn’t married and never had children, so she wasn’t successful in any traditional sense. All she did was love people. And the people she loved couldn’t stop telling stories about her kindness. If Shelagh noticed your boots had holes, she’d press her new ones into your arms. When you casually admired her coffeemaker, you’d wake up to one of your own. A bag of chocolates hanging from your doorknob would greet you each Valentine’s Day, along with some clippings from the newspaper she thought you’d find interesting. It was said that Shelagh made people around her feel not just loved but coveted. Hers was not list of achievements, but a legacy of relationships.

Funerals serve as tearful goodbyes to a departed person’s life, but as the reporter found, funerals are also lenses through which we assess our own lives. Some fear and trembling can show up here too. We hear of such humble and loving people and wonder how we could ever measure up. What makes a life worthy? We easily ascribe value to the amazing: To the Bachs and the Bonheoffers, the Mandelas and the Mother Theresas, people who’s lives changed the world in extraordinary ways and influenced millions. But Shelagh was an ordinary woman who only a few people ever knew, each of whom had their worlds changed in ways a Mandela or Mother Theresa never touched. She changed them by loving them deeply and personally, in simple and ordinary ways, inspiring them to do the same to others though she probably never realized it. The reporter concluded, “Her life revealed that it doesn’t take much to make a difference every day — just deep, full love —and that can be sewn with many different kinds of stitches.”

So many of you gushed this week about last Sunday’s memorable Innové Award presentation. It was great. Amazing even. A number of you said it was the best thing you’d ever seen happen in church. Extraordinary. But when you stop and think about it, the things we’re trying to do with Innové are actually pretty ordinary: feeding hungry schoolchildren, making a college experience possible for a handful of students with disabilities, teaching men to be good boys, providing some clean water and interest-free loans, some fresh produce on a bus. In the vast scheme of things these are fairly unremarkable, except that these humble and ordinary acts, done with love, are the epitome of the gospel God calls us to obey.

 To call last Sunday amazing reminds me of a Sunday last year when  one of you gushed about a sermon I preached. You called it perfect. Talk about fear and trembling. I wasn't sure what to do with that, I should have quit while I was ahead. I hope I just said thank you and praise the Lord. Though at the risk of sounding cheeky, I told you how I wish I'd said something along the lines of "it's too soon to tell." That's because the true measure of sermonic perfection can only be the effect it has on our life as a congregation afterwards. The same with last Sunday. Describing last Sunday as amazing doesn’t mean that it is because while all these ideas we celebrated and funded are good things to do, we haven't done anything yet. We haven't fed any kids or made an interest free payday loan or loaded a bus with with fresh produce. We don't even have a bus to load. We still have something to prove, and this should humble us and even make us a little scared. We still have to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. This is our obedience, and from obedience, no doctrine of grace can save us. In Jesus’ famous parable of the talents, where two stewards entrusted with their master’s money had increased its worth, a third steward gets sternly castigated by his master for burying his allotment in the ground. The steward put forth fear of the master as his excuse, not wanting to mess up what his master had given him. However the master quickly retorted how if the steward truly thought the master to be as imagined, the steward’s fear would have motivated him to get off his butt and do something. As it turned out, the steward wasn’t afraid. He simply didn’t care. Thus the master branded him “wicked and lazy” and cast him into the darkness to weep and gnash his teeth.” The moral seems to be this: refuse to work out your salvation and your salvation may not work out.

This should humble us, and even make us a little scared. Not scared of God, I am sure, but scared of ourselves and of the says we can so easily sabotage our salvation. Which is why Paul tacked on the cross-stitch worthy news of verse 13. We can work out our salvation because in the end it is God who does the work in us, hand in glove as Jeff put it, enabling both the desire and the effort to do what pleases the Lord.” What God demands, God provides. His spirit inspires both the will and the deed, the desire and the effort. As Karl Barth put it, “Salvation, the promised final deliverance that the Christian as such awaits, claims the movement, the activity, the work, the life of the whole person. In the reality of the kingdom of Christ, everyone who [will be] there [then] puts their future salvation into practice [now].”

God is the one who works in our work to provide both the will and they way. This humbles us too. Because God is at work, we praise the Lord instead of ourselves, which keeps us humble. “As for me,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “God forbid that I should boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live,” he said, I’m dead as dirt, “but Christ lives in me.” The same with us. Do you see any humility or willingness to place the interests of others ahead of my own? That’s not me. I’m dead as dirt. That must be Jesus in me. Do you see any loving my neighbor as myself? Do you see me forgiving people when they wrong me? That’s not me. Do you see me regarding others as better than myself? Serving them with ordinary and beautiful acts of love everyday? That’s not me. That must be Jesus in me. Jesus at work in us, enabling both the will and the work for his good pleasure.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Good Attitude

DFC_20120824_PediAwareness_Thrv01_CaitlynnePhilippians 2:5-11
by Daniel Harrell

This has been a bad week: from the winter that won’t quit to Senate gun debates and a shaky stock market, from the horrible fertilizer factory explosion in Texas to the horrific Boston Marathon mayhem that played out like something from a Scorsese movie. As one website put it, “Maybe next time we have a week, they can try not to pack it so completely to the freaking brim with explosions, mutilations, death, manhunts, lies, weeping, bloody gunfights and lockdowns. You know, maybe try to spread some of that total misery across the other 51 weeks in the year. Just a thought.” None of it ever makes any sense. Dawn and I knew people who knew each of three victims killed at the Marathon on Monday. For such a large city, Boston can be a pretty small town. We know people who knew Sean Collier, the MIT police officer. We have friends who were at the hospital when Richard Donahue, the wounded transit cop was brought in and the first bombing suspect too. We know folks who lived down the street from the house with the boat.

My former church in Boston held a prayer gathering downtown on Tuesday. It was a full house. Then President Obama spoke to a packed South End Cathedral on Thursday. I find it fascinating and strangely comforting that the initial impulse of so many people following tragedy—believers and nonbelievers—alike, is to pray. Rather than fretting over “where was God” or how he could allow bad things to happen, the initial impulse for many is to rush to where they believe God can be found. That we do so instinctively turn to God in our troubles, and for some only then, may suggest why Scripture has God allowing the troubles he allows. We realize afresh every Easter season how the spring bloom of resurrection and eternal life emerges solely from the fertile soil of suffering and death. Paul joyfully expressed this disturbing gospel truth to the Philippians as he sat chained in a Roman prison. Jesus himself, King of kings and Lord of lords, is crowned only once he submits to death on a cross. This is God’s glory, Paul writes, a strange and redemptive reality that shines at the center of the Christian faith.

This morning marks our third in a sermon series: “verses from Philippians most likely to be cross-stitched.” From his Roman imprisonment to what was likely the first church in Europe, Paul penned words that have become framed favorites among believers for centuries. We began with chapter 1 and verse 6: “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Last Sunday we looked at verse 21: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” This morning brings us to chapter 2:5-11 and one of the grandest Christological expressions of all Scripture. These inspired and inspiring verses soar in their praise of Jesus Christ as the lowly turned lofty Son of God whose name, in fulfillment of all prophecy, spurs every knee to bow and every tongue to confess his Lordship.

While Paul hoped for release from prison and a return trip to Philippi, he knew chances were good he could end up executed for refusing to worship Caesar as Lord. Paul wasn’t worried about dying—to him that was gain—but he was worried for the Philippians. Like any church comprised of sinful people (which is every church), it risked division and rancor from within. Paul appealed to the unity that was already theirs in Christ, even if they had yet to fully experience it. He writes, “If there is any encouragement in Christ (which there is), any consolation from love (which there is), any sharing in the Spirit (which there is), any compassion and sympathy (which there is), then make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind—the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

By “one and the same mind” Paul meant that mindset of abject humility that drove Jesus to the cross. While admired, such humility is rarely sought and often begrudged as hazardous to your psychological health. In a culture where self-confidence and ambition are paramount, Paul’s admonition to “regard others as better than yourself” is just plain bad advice. Still, Paul lyrically points to Jesus’ humility as the hallmark of virtue, who despite being God in the flesh never considered equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself for our sake and became a slave, regarding us as better than himself, as impossible as that sounds. Maybe it came easy for Jesus. If you’re equal to God you can act as humbly as you choose and still be God.
Harder for us ordinary schmoes. For us to regard others as better than ourselves is a sure recipe for life in loser-land. Be a doormat and you’ll get treated like one. “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus said “only those who humble themselves will be exalted.” But this simply isn’t practical. Christian scholars have tried to lessen the impact by insisting that by “humble yourself” Jesus only meant that you acknowledge your intrinsic “creatureliness.” Since the English word humility is related to the word human, both deriving from the Latin word humus, meaning ground or earth, to be humble is to remember where you came from, that you are “dust and to dust you shall return,” that the meek shall inherit the dirt. On the one hand this punctures any inflated sense of self-worth or conceit, but on the other hand, it also can become a rationale for self-conceit or used as an excuse for self-centered behavior. When we choose badly we'll often plead, “I can’t help it, I’m only human.” And then of course, there’s the observation about how it really doesn’t do much good to exalt the humble anyway. People don't remain humble long once they’re exalted. The genuine article is hard to find.

Then again, we watched on Monday as scores of Bostonians, with little concern for themselves, ran toward the explosions, assisting the bloodied and injured in humble ways that were nothing short of heroic. The same with the way an entire whole city willingly abandoned the streets to make space for the bravery exhibited by scores of law enforcement personnel, police who then humbly discounted their bravery as just doing their job. It was another glimpse of the beauty that can emerge from intense sorrow and tragedy—a beauty which the Bible labels as the power of resurrection.

I talked to a number of Boston friends this week, and read the Tweets and Facebook posts of others. One of whom, named Steve, is a big Marathon fan, having run the race himself five years in a row. Steve is an assistant church facilities manager and a good athlete, but far from what you’d describe as an elite runner. The joy of competition or setting a good time was not what got him to run 26 miles. What got him running was the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a local hospital devoted to eradicating cancer in children. Thousands of weekend runners raise money running the Marathon every year. This is another reason the Boston Marathon is so sacred. The ones who run for charity are never the elite runners, they cross the finish line  a couple of hours after. It was mostly them and their supporters who were harmed by Monday’s bombing, and who remain fearlessly determined to run again next year.
For Steve, his passion for children’s cancer comes from the cancer his daughter Caitlynne contracted when she was seven. The good news was that her tumor was localized in her right leg. The bad news was that her leg had to be amputated. Steve and his wife Doreen were totally devastated, as were all of their friends. And yet we all rallied, including the Boston Red Sox and their Jimmy Fund, coming alongside their whole family with prayer and support, because that’s what people instinctively do when tragedy strikes, believers and nonbelievers alike. Steve and I were remembering this week the hours spent on the say of Caitlynne's surgery. She not only survived, but thrived, thanks to all this support and to a remarkable piece of surgery performed at Children’s Hospital.

Out of sheer gratitude for all of this, Steve started running the Marathon to raise money for other kids. And each year, during the last mile, Caitlynne ran with him. She’s 18 years old now and has received a full ride to Boston University. It is another glimpse of the beauty that can emerge from sorrow and tragedy—the power of resurrection.
The resurrection of Jesus turned tragedy on its head. Suddenly loss now meant gain, leastness meant greatness, being a loser meant being a winner, death meant life, ankles become knees, and humility became the epitome of strength. It sounds crazy, and by itself, humility is crazy. But humility is never meant for humility’s sake. Christian humility serves the cause of love. It was love for sinners that caused Jesus to humbly set aside his right to exalted grandeur, and it is this same love, this same mind, that spurs us to humbly regard others as better than ourselves. Humility orients you away from delusions of self-importance and frees you to love courageously as Jesus modeled. “We love,” the apostle John famously wrote, “because God first loved us.”

Despite all the horrors that engulf our world, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things. Love never fails. Jesus’ love even conquered death, so we cannot lose heart. God who began his good work among us will bring it to completion himself. Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Christian hope translates life’s tragedies into a beautiful tapestry of redemption, pointing toward that day, when by grace, all things will be made new and love remains. Confidence in that day gives us courage to live humbly in the present—as justice gets done against perpetrators of evil, as comfort is blanketed on those who mourn, as prayers are instinctively offered for peace, as doctors reconstruct bodies as previews of resurrection itself, as thousands run marathons to raise awareness and money for these causes, even as our own Innové project refashions profit-making business into the making of beauty and peace and justice and grace in the world—everything humbly done to serve the cause of love which is the cause of the name that is above every name and before which every knee and ankle that serves as a knee will bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Job Well Done

Philippians 1:3-11
by Daniel Harrell

Some things just take a long time to complete. Back in 1992 my wife Dawn decided she’d cross-stitch a Christmas present for her father who’s always loved gifts made by his daughters. For Dawn, the subject of the cross-stitch wasn’t so hard to decide: her dad served as a medical missionary in Angola and enjoyed CS Lewis. Put together Africa and Aslan and that meant cross-stitching a lion. Ten Christmases later, in 2002, Dawn was still working on that lion. Initially the problem was that the pattern was too tiny to read—so she enlarged it into eight pages taped together. It covered her bedroom floor. Not only was the pattern intricate, but it required some 200 different colors of brown thread—who knew brown came in so many shades? She’d gotten fairly deep into the project when she realized her count was off. So she ripped out the stitches and started over. The same thing happened a second time, causing no small amount of frustration.  Dawn began to resent her pet cat just for being a distant lion relative. 

Her sister intervened, and forbade that Dawn rip out the stitches out a third time. Her sister said that cross-stitching, like life itself, gets complicated and you inevitably lose count. The challenge is to deal with it and move on. Which is easier said than done. Daunted by both the enormity of the undertaking and the lack of headway despite her diligence, Dawn boxed and re-boxed the lion as she moved and married over another ten years. Some things just take a long time to complete.

This applies to people too. I received a framed, cross-stitched rendition of Philippians 1:6 many years ago: “The one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” It was crafted for me by an old girlfriend as her way (I think) of reminding me that I had plenty of room for improvement. You may remember my preaching this verse on New Year’s Day a couple of years back. New Year’s always brings with it resolutions for a better future--a calendar inspired chance to finish things this time that we’ve failed get done in the past. We resolve to be better people, to make those changes we need to make. And yet having tried and failed so many times before, most of us refrain from resolutions because we know we can’t keep them. Why compound the failure with only more frustration? Better to just box up the whole mess and avoid the disappointment. 

But this is what makes Philippians 1:6 such good news. You don’t have to try so hard anymore. You don’t have to avoid disappointment. “The one” who began a good work in you is no other than God himself. And He’s the one who promises to bring it all to completion.

Philippians is a favorite among the apostle Paul’s letters. Many of its verses are habitually committed to memory. They appear on greeting cards, t-shirts and websites, and they get cross-stitched for gifts. It is to these particular verses in Philippians, the ones most likely to be cross-stitched, that I’d like to devote my energies for this Eastertide and into Pentecost.
Paul embedded this verse within an extended salutation wherein he thanks the nascent Philippian church for their financial support. He describes their support as their sharing or “partnership” in the gospel—the gospel being the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Nevertheless, as I mentioned last Sunday, the resurrection can be very upsetting. For Jesus to rise from the dead means that everything said about him is true: He is the Son of the Living God, the King of kings, Truth and Life, Master and Lord. To believe in Jesus means you have to live your whole life differently--which Paul and the Philippians were only to eager to do. 

Their “sharing” in the gospel is a translation of the Greek word koinonia which we typically translate as fellowship. Koinonia means to have all things in common; it’s where we get words like community and communion. Koinonia was epitomized in these early churches where everybody gave up everything so that no one would need anything—these communities held all things in common. In this way fellowship is connected to stewardship, the economic concern Christians share for each other’s well-being, and a convenient way to remind you that our church fiscal year ends this month and yes we’re running behind again.

The koinonia of Philippians 1 is certainly economic. The life and mission of the church always requires financial support. And generous giving grows out of a generosity of spirit. “Your heart is where your treasure is,” Jesus taught, meaning that you can tell everything about a person by what they do with their money. Therefore Paul speaks to a koinonia of spirit--both with Jesus and with each other. It is love for God and neighbor that motivates us. Elsewhere Paul writes about the right hand of fellowship (koinonia), which we still extend to each other whenever we pass the peace. More than a handshake, the right hand of koinonia tangibly acknowledges our common bond to each other through Christ. In 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks of communion as our koinonia in the body and blood of Jesus. More than partaking of bread and wine, communion is our partnership in the Jesus’ death and resurrection: His dying and rising will be our dying and rising too. No longer fearful of any condemnation due to our sin, the communion table looks to that day when we will rise to feast with Jesus at his table forever. God who began his good work in us will definitely get it done.

Specifically described as God’s good work yet to be completed, Paul’s emphasis in Philippians is plainly on the future. His gospel reference is to God’s saving work, which we all know can take a lifetime. Christians might customarily speak of somebody getting saved, but in reality we’re just as much people in the process of being saved. Like Peter who sank when he tried to walk to Jesus on the open sea, our troubles and doubts still overwhelm us and drag us down too even with Jesus right in front of us. Paul pens these words while chained in a Roman prison with no guarantee of earthly release. For Paul, the “day of Jesus Christ” might mean the day that he dies, and he’s fine with that. “To live is Christ and to die is gain” he will write. For Paul, death is no longer terminal. The resurrection has opened the way to new life. So certain is Paul of this new life that he can live in the present as if his future has already happened--because it has. God always finishes what he starts.

Theologians have long described Paul’s confidence in terms of “realized eschatology,” which is just an arcane way of saying that God's future can be experienced now. His good work is already a job well done. The substance of Christian hope is not on a future that might happen, but on God for whom the future has already happened. We neither worry nor fear despite the troubles we endure in the meantime; the certainty of our future enables us to endure our troubles. We hope in the God who always finishes what he starts.

This Christian hope for a certain future drastically differs from that hope we mean when we say, “I sure hope the Louisville Cardinals win the NCAA Basketball Title tomorrow night and save my March Madness Bracket.” That’s a future that may or may not happen--as Louisville came close to discovering last night against lowly Wichita State. Christian hope is not like my hoping that my University of North Carolina Tar Heels would have won the championship. That would have been delusional hope this season. The University of Michigan, however, has made it to the Championship for the first time in twenty years. 1993 was the year of their vaunted NBA-ready Fab Five team, which I mention since that was also the year they succumbed to my University of North Carolina in the championship game in a most memorable fashion. 
Given no hope to win, my Tar Heels took Michigan down to the wire, leading by two with eleven seconds to play. As basketball aficionados will recall, this was when Michigan’s Chris Webber, his team with the ball, called the time-out that the Wolverines did not possess. This resulted in a technical foul, two more points and the ball back to North Carolina. Game over. I couldn’t believe we’d won!

I recorded the game on a trusty videocassette, which for those under 50 is this rectangular box with black tape inside that people used before DVRs or YouTube. I watched the game again the next morning to be sure that I hadn’t been dreaming. I watched it any number of times after that, just for the happiness of it all, and each time I watched I would still feel anxiety and stress at the end of the game even though I knew the final outcome. The only difference was that now I neither worried nor feared no matter how anxious I felt when I watched because North Carolina won every time! That’s what Christian hope is like. In the end, no matter how troubled and anxious life gets, God always wins.

“This is my prayer,” Paul writes, “that your love may overflow more and more with sincerity and understanding to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness—a righteous character that comes from Jesus—to the praise and glory of God.” How can Paul pray that the Philippians be pure and blameless and righteous? Nobody lives that kind of life no matter how hard they try. But this is the point: Paul’s prayer is already answered. In Christ we are pure and blameless and righteous already. It’s just that our experience has yet to catch up with reality. Thus we need not worry or fear in the meantime, God who began a good work in us will bring it to completion. Even when we fail, the cross of Jesus stitches us back together so we can get back up and show what resurrection looks like. To be blameless and righteous is not to be flawless, but rather honest and humble and full of grace.

God is the one who began a good work among us and it is God who will bring it to completion. Christian hope is based on his work in us, not on our own ability or accomplishments. Christian hope fosters no illusions of human self-improvement. As opposed to those who’d look on the bright side and deny the effects of evil and sin, Christian hope understands that any real hope cannot found itself upon personal potential or wishful thinking. Christian hope views the effects of evil and sin for the tragedies they are, but then translates them into what they really are by the power of the cross: Suffering, rather than meaningless pain or just desserts, translates into meaningful redemption and reinforced character. Death, rather than a terrifying end, becomes the gateway to new life. Christian hopes stitches life’s tragedies into a beautiful tapestry of resurrection, pointing toward that day, when by grace, all things will be made new. Our confidence is in the Lord who always completes what he starts.

When we Harrells relocated to Minnesota almost three years ago, Dawn unpacked a box and found that unfinished African cat staring her in the face. Had it really been twenty years she’d been working on this thing? She determined again to finish in time for Christmas. Like Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, that lion started following us everywhere: on our road trip to Yellowstone and back, whenever we got on a plane, on a cabin vacation where Dawn so wanted to read a book. But rather than getting frustrated by the project this time, she grew increasingly excited as the lion’s face took shape and she could anticipate its joyous completion. Finally, on the last night of sewing, as the clock approached midnight with only the whiskers remaining, she realized too late that she didn’t have the right whisker color. Obeying her sister’s voice, she dealt with it and made the best of it, just like the Lord does with us, making us into the absolute best because it is God who does it.

It was beautiful. Dawn took the finished lion to Needlework Unlimited. The ladies who blocked the stretched fabric on which it was stitched and straightened the edges oo-ed and ah-ed. The framers oo-ed and ah-ed. Dawn posted her finished work on Facebook and Facebook oo-ed and ah-ed too. She sent it home and her dad was delighted. He said it was worth the twenty year wait, and like Aslan himself, as CS Lewis writes, it was “so bright and real and strong that everything else began at once to look pale and shadowy compared with him.” God will finish what he has started in us, because in Christ, he is already done. In time our experience will catch up with reality. We neither worry nor fear despite the troubles we endure in the meantime.

“I am confident of this,” Paul insists. And we can be confident too.