All Dressed Up With Somewhere To Go

How to hike in a wedding dress — The Drawhorns

A few years ago a consumer research firm did a study about gift cards.  Gift cards for coffee, books, music, clothes, food, etc.  It represented about one billion dollars in unredeemed gifts.  You know, grab one at the check-out, for Target, Best Buy, Home Depot, etc.

          Here is what they found in the study – most folks don’t use their cards:

          %50 did not have time.  Half did not have the time.

          %37 did not find anything that they wanted.

          %14 lost the card.  %12 let the card expire.

Folks are willing to give, the question is how well are others ready to receive?  It is the thought that counts, we like to tell ourselves.

          What happens when God is the one sending the gift card?

          Jesus is tangled up with the Chief Priests and the Pharisees in today’s Gospel.  He has come to Jerusalem, and he is nearing the end of his time on earth.

          Back in Chapter 21:23-27, the political and religious leadership have asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things?”  How can you say what you are saying?  Do you not understand that you are treading on thin ice?

          Jesus and the disciples have already left Bethphage at the Mount of Olives.  Jesus has already been greeted with Hosanna to the Son of David on the streets of Jerusalem – palm branches laid at their feet.  Jesus has already turned over the tables in the Temple, “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.”  Afterwards the blind, the lame, the weak, the small, surround Him then and there for healing.  

          Jesus comes to the holiest of places, the Jerusalem Temple, in earnest, and that is where He is asked, “By whose authority?”  “By whose authority do you do these things?”

          It is an escalating situation; dangerous.  Jesus knows this.  Rather than give his accusers the satisfaction of answering their questions in kind, tit for tat, Jesus answers them with stories, with folk tales, with parables; there is a left-handedness to his response.  Jesus is swinging a truth hammer, but it is a velvet hammer, and God’s love is the force behind it.

          There are three parables that Jesus gives in response to the question of authority – One, The Parable of The Two Sons and the Vineyard; Two, The Parable of the Vineyard Owner and the Tenants, and now Three, The Parable of the Marriage Feast. 

This third response or parable contains a message for Christians, a warning.

          The story of a King giving a feast is mostly self-explanatory.  The King goes to great trouble for his guests; however the guests all seem to have other things to do.  The King gives the benefit of the doubt and sends messengers to the guests; and still there is an aloof response; perhaps it is a matter of being too self-involved to be interrupted by God.  And for those who were cruel to the King’s servants, the King returned their cruelty.  Instead the King gives the feast to the unusual suspects, those perhaps farthest from the minds of the original guests.

          The King also means to maintain order within the Feast, so that those who are not properly prepared or attired will not be welcome.  The King is in earnest, and will only have those guests who are prepared to change, to be transformed into his expectations of a proper guest, who will be feasting.

Tom Long once related something that, as he himself admitted, may sound like the set-up for a joke but that is actually a real story.  He said that one day Barbara Brown Taylor, Fred Craddock, and he all attended an Atlanta Braves baseball game.  Unbeknownst to them and to others in the stands that day, a drunken man several rows ahead of them was apparently causing problems.  The next thing they knew, several burly men wearing bright yellow shirts with the word “SECURITY” written across their backs barreled down the aisle, lifted this apparently troublesome man from his seat, and carried him clean out of the stadium.  The crowd sat in stunned silence until finally the somewhat high-pitched voice of Fred Craddock piped up to say, “Obviously he didn’t have a wedding garment on!”

          The message is clear – there will be a gathering with God, whether we like it or not.  God means to have a feast whether we like it or not, and God means to have the feast with or without us. 

          Biblical scholars would have us remember a few things, a few historical parallels that might illuminate this parable with light from behind:

Those servants sent with the King’s invitations are perhaps the Old Testament prophets, as well as New Testament missionaries.  They are the mistreated messengers.

          The burning of the rebel’s city may be an allusion to the destruction of the Jerusalem in 70AD; an event that may have occurred as this Gospel of Matthew was being assembled in the early years of the Church.

          The final invitation to “all comers” is the fruit of the mission of Paul to the Gentiles – there is no filtration process in the call that comes from a desirous and loving Maker.

          It is a challenging message; challenging that notion that sometimes creeps into our minds and our hearts that God exists for me as far as my imagination, mind, or desire are willing to travel.  Somehow God is at the end of a string that I carry in my pocket.

          The end of this Third Response is what perhaps some of us should stay up at night and think about.  “The wedding feast” of this King is not meant to symbolize any reality known in this life – it is the life to come.  And the garment required of anyone who attends is a grace, a wholeness, a healing, a “rightness” that is a gift from God alone.  Some might say we need to see the marks of the Carpenter in our lives, in our behavior, in our consciousness, before assuming that we are robed in righteousness as a wedding garment. 

          Lest I misspeak, I am going to quote biblical scholar Douglas Hare on this point – “This man is speechless because he has no defense; he accepted the invitation of the Gospel, but refused to conform his life to the gospel.”

          The motivational urge of this parable is for us to live our lives with God with a sense of urgency, gratitude, and humility.  The message is that there can be no substitutes for the first place in our minds and hearts; no substitute for our first allegiance and obedience. 

Another writer, Fred Craddock, puts it this way – “Matthew knew how easily grace can melt into permissiveness,” and that a misplaced sense of confidence, or a posture of naiveté, may in the end have fatal and eternal consequences.

          Another note of clarity is offered by scholars Davies and Allison, who make the pointed observation, “Christian readers of this parable who necessarily identify with those at the King’s banquet, cannot read the text and feel self-satisfaction over the wrath that overtakes others.” 

They must ask themselves the question, that has been asked by Christians throughout the centuries, “am I like the man improperly clothed?”

Am I perhaps among the “many” who are deaf, despite my profession that I am among the “few”? 

God’s judgement comes as a blanket spread over everyone. 

          I am reminded of that old saying from childhood – “be careful about pointing a finger at another, because what you will see is three fingers pointing back at you.”

          And so we stand beneath the light and the lens of this parable: am I living the sort of life where I am too busy to be interrupted by the notion that I am living on borrowed time, land, and resources? 

Am I too busy to be interrupted by a reality that includes God?

How do I find myself oriented when these invitations are issued?

What and when and where is that invitation being offered in my life?

I believe the apostle Paul is given to us in the lectionary today as a boon and a compass in what might feel like the deeps waters of anxiety.

          The apostle Paul is giving some very good advice to the Philippians –

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.  

          Find a way to be busy, but become busy with Kingdom busyness.

          Fill the spaces of your life with things that are commendable.

          It can be hard – life is sometimes so noisy, so busy.  Sometimes so repetitive, so boring.  Perhaps the most difficult task is listening for God in our lives, in our hearts, when there are so many other things pressing upon us.  Our family, our work, our friends, our pleasures and leisure; all of which are gifts from God, but also each of which can become the very things that keep our compass needle spinning.

          The message of the apostle is essentially the message of Jesus within the parable, live with a sense of urgency for the things that we know are of God, and if we are confused, simply return to what we have learned and received and heard and seen.

          There is a wonderful story about some young men applying for a job in a telegraph office as a Morse Code operator.  A young man answered an ad in the paper for the job and entered a large and noisy office.  There were people coming and going and throughout the building there was the loud clackity clack clack, of Morse Code tapping in the background.

          A sign on the desk said – Applicants.  Sign your name.  Fill out the form.  Wait.

          This young man sat down with seven others.  After a few minutes the young man got up, went into the office, and walked in.

          The other seven sort of looked around at one another.  “What’s going on?  That guy is cutting in line.  What does he think he is doing?”  They sort of complained and muttered and groused.  They nodded their heads at the thought this last one to come in would be shuffled out as presumptuous and not really with the program.

          And so they looked around at one another and said a collective, “Yeah.”

          After a few minutes the young man came out of the office and stood by the boss.

          The boss said, “Gentleman.  Thank you for coming today.  The job has been filled by this young man.”

          “Wait a minute.  Wait a minute.  He was the last one in this morning.  We did not even get a chance to interview, and he get’s it.  That’s not fair.  That’s not fair.”

          The Boss, nodding his head, said, “You fella’s have been sitting here for the last hour.  Carrying on, talking to each other, laughing, having a big ol’ time.  The telegraph has been ticking the whole time; the whole time in Morse Code.  It has been ticking out this message, “If you understand this message, then come right in.  The job is yours.”

          “Not one of you were listening.  Not one of you understood, or bothered to ask.  So the job is his.”


          Today is a day to ask ourselves, “Are we listening?  Are we hearing and inwardly digesting the message?” 

The message is from God:  I love you, and have better things in store for than you can give to yourselves.  Let me give it to you.  Accept my invitation.  Use this gift card that I am bringing to you.

          God intends to have a feast, and God intends for us to be there; the question is will we live a life in order to be interrupted by God’s gift?  Is this a gift card that we can afford to ignore?

Virtue Is Its Own Reward

The story is told of a politician, a poet, and a farmer who discovered a bottle with a genie inside. One of them rubbed the bottle and freed the genie, who generously offered to grant one wish to each of the three.

          The politician went first, and wished that he would be granted a peerage and daily access to the king’s throne room where he could work his agenda’s to his own benefit.  His wish was immediately granted.

          The poet came next, and wished that all the beautiful women in the world would suddenly fall at his feet in adoration. His wish was immediately granted.

          The farmer came last. Of the three, he was poorest. Of the three, his needs were the greatest. The genie invited him to take his time and to think of the one thing that would give him the greatest pleasure in life.

          At that, his face lit up and he said,

“That’s easy. I wish that my neighbor’s potato crop might fail.”

          It’s the old temptation of measuring our success by another’s’ failure.

          At dawn and throughout the day, the owner of a vineyard hires workers. They reach an agreement about wages; and the workers go out into the vineyard to do the work. About five o’clock, merely one hour before the end of the workday, the owner hires the last workers. To the surprise of all, he gives the last ones hired a full-day’s wage. Those hired first think they will receive more, and grumble when they are paid the agreed-upon wage. 

They grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ The owner of the vineyard finally responds: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

Jesus is telling us about God’s generosity, and the chord that God’s generosity sometimes strikes in the heart of human beings.  In the story Jesus illustrates how things are rolled out in the Kingdom.  The generosity and sovereignty of the owner is laid bare for all to see, and therefore unmasks the selfishness that lives within the human heart.  It is a story meant to awaken us to the competing reality that the Kingdom presents in the face of our measurement of the world.

I would say this is one of those parts of the Bible that might keep me up at night.  As Mark Twain said, “It’s not the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that keep me up at night.” 

“‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 

I might go so far to say that the power of this story lay in this small detail; Jesus is not just offering a conjecture about the nature of the Kingdom of God.  This directive of openly paying the last, first, closes the fire escapes of misunderstanding just how serious Jesus is in making his point.  There can be no mistaking the trajectory that Jesus is introducing.  This story reverse engineers human expectations. 

The landowner could have alleviated so much drama among the laborers had he simply kept his generosity a secret; had he not created a situation that would lay bare the envy, jealousy, and misplaced entitlement lurking within this situation. 

This story is representative of the one telling it – the life that Jesus lives among us lays bare those things that actually motivate our lives.  In the presence of his light, in the presence of his example and how Jesus lived, we cannot help but find the corners of darkness that live within us.  Beside Jesus, we are all unmasked.

God’s kingdom is about a generosity on a scale and of a kind that frustrates the assumptions with which we order our worlds.  Often what we call generosity is actually about something we perceive that we have earned or that we deserve.   

“Fair is fair.”  “Me, My, and Mine.”  “I should get what I deserve.”

Generosity in the Kingdom is something that is unhinged, unhooked, from the moral calculus so often attached to the efforts that we make in life.

Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?

How would any of us answer that question – “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

Jesus is telling a story about his Father in heaven by telling a story about a landowner that would be familiar to his followers.  It is a story about God; and secondarily it is a story about how some of us, some of the time, react to the reality that God’s ways often are not our ways.  And there is a warning. 

If we remain steadfast in imagining that Kingdom values are reflections of our values – our rights our due, our just desserts, there is a good chance that we will find ourselves sour and bitter at some point on the journey; perhaps at the end.

It’s interesting, I don’t know about you, but more often than not when I read this story I inevitably think of myself as one of the aggrieved all-day laborers, automatically assuming that I have been wronged; looking over my shoulder at these late-comers.  But what if one of the kernels of Good News in this parable is that Jesus knows that some will hear it and know that they are the ones who have come late to the vineyard? 

What if we could read the story and see that we are indeed one of the latecomers – what good news.  There is always still time.  The landowner is generous beyond our simple imaginations of what is fair.  How differently the story goes if we can remember a time when we hoped beyond hope for something, found ourselves lost and overlooked and forgotten, and then looked up to find that someone had remembered us.  How differently the story reads if each one of us had spent the day waiting, and then been “found” at the last minute; and found in such a way that nothing really was ever lost.

What does it say about human nature that most of us probably, automatically, hear this story in such a way as to naturally sympathize with the aggrieved parties? 

That is why we should give thanks that the story isn’t about us, whether we showed up late or early, worked a lot or worked a little.  The larger trajectory of the story is about God, and counter-intuitive forces at work in the Kingdom that God brings, and how that trajectory has been at work throughout scripture. 

There is always the human tendency to impose our way of thinking upon God; that desire, that assumption, that His ways are indeed our ways.  Warnings against this form of idolatry, making a god in our image and likeness, is apparent through the entire biblical narrative.  Isaiah speaks the warning most clearly, and we recite that warning at Morning Prayer in Canticle number 10 –  Quaerite Dominum
          Isaiah 55:6-11

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, *
    nor your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, *
    so are my ways higher than your ways,
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Jesus in his parable is certainly not abrogating the valid and necessary principles of justice. Rather he is giving us an opportunity to grasp that God’s nature is to be extravagantly generous, beyond the rational rules of exchange.

How do you find parables to suggest the possibility of love to someone who has never experienced a relationship beyond that of a business contract?

Jesus is reaching for parables and metaphors to explain something that is fundamentally counter-intuitive to how we live most of our lives.

Jesus himself is the best parable of the extravagantly generous God. He makes far too much wine at the Cana wedding; far too much bread for the hungry crowd; he tells a story about forgiving a debt far too large ever to be paid; and he tells us to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven.

And as the ultimate revelation of extravagant affection, he willingly gives up his life for us on a cross. Paul refers to “Christ crucified” as foolishness to human wisdom (1 Cor 1:22-25).  Where the world might reach for power to conquer minds and hearts – God reaches for love, God introduces generosity.

The good news of the gospel is that we share the extravagantly generous Spirit of Jesus.  The most basic good news of the Christ is that God loves us beyond the categories of we consider generous. 

St. Anselm – God is that than which nothing greater might be thought. 

The real adventure of living begins when we too can act with extravagant generosity, beyond the rational rules of justice. God’s kingdom is meant to be a new order of grace. Isn’t there always something unexpected and wonderful about a gift of love, even a kind word, giving another the benefit of the doubt in our heart of hearts? 

It is wages that are earned ; but God’s grace is far different than a wage.  God’s grace is a gift, and a gift can only be received.  What a tremendous invitation.  What a tremendous invitation to be released from that sometimes determined, focused, and calculating energy that we spend on making sure that the world, that others, are measuring up to our expectations.  That we are getting what we deem is our due. 

How heavy that yardstick must be – how heavy – the yardstick that we carry and hold over others to determine just how worthy they are of our expectations; all the while we are standing beneath another means of measurement.  The measure drawn in heaven.  The measure taken by Christ, the only one worthy of determining the scales in which we all will eventually stand.  There is a gift of freedom for each of us in the life, and in the mouth, of the one who may say,

“The last will be first and the first will be last.”

Here is another story about grace told by writer and pastor Denise Banderman.

In the spring of 2002, I left work early so I could have some uninterrupted study time before my final exam in a Ministry class at Hannibal-LaGrange College in Missouri. When I got to class, everybody was doing their last-minute studying. The teacher came in and said he would review with us before the test. Most of his review came right from the study guide, but there were some things he was reviewing that I had never heard. When questioned about it, he said they were in the book and we were responsible for everything in the book. We couldn’t argue with that.

Finally it was time to take the test. “Leave them face down on the desk until everyone has one, and I’ll tell you to start,” our professor, Dr. Tom Hufty, instructed.

When we turned them over, to my astonishment every answer on the test was filled in. My name was even written on the exam in red ink. The bottom of the last page said: “This is the end of the exam. All the answers on your test are correct. You will receive an A on the final exam. The reason you passed the test is because the creator of the test took it for you. All the work you did in preparation for this test did not help you get the A. You have just experienced grace.”

Dr. Hufty then went around the room and asked each student individually, “What is your grade? Do you deserve the grade you are receiving? How much did all your studying for this exam help you achieve your final grade?”

Then he said, “Some things you learn from lectures, some things you learn from research, but some things you can only learn from experience. You’ve just experienced grace. One hundred years from now, if you know Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, your name will be written down in a book, and you will have had nothing to do with writing it there. Someone wrote it, someone paid for it, other than you.  That will be the ultimate grace experience.”

Frailty Along The Way

When I was the young rector of my first parish in the Mississippi Delta, I used to play ping-pong some afternoons with the older and wiser Presbyterian minister in the town.  It seems that I was pre-destined to win a few of those games.  And while we would slap the ball back and forth this younger minister would ask the older minister questions about the life and work we shared.  Once I asked, “What is the hardest thing for you?  What do you find is the most difficult part of being in the local church?”

Without missing a beat, and hitting a very good shot, he said, “Church discipline.”  He paused, and said, “And I believe that you will find it the most difficult as well, because you seem to be in this game as a pastor.”  Not death, not crisis, not carpet colors, or raising money, or soccer, or home games at the college . . . church discipline.

            “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies . . . probably because they are generally the same people.” – GK Chesterton.  

Every now and then I meet a person who is excited about discovering new faith in Christ, a new love for the Church, only to become discouraged when they realize that this “new” life within the Body of the faithful can sometimes be every bit as cantankerous as something else they might call “real life.”        

A brief reading of Paul’s letters to the early Church tells this story.  Why else would Paul be writing to the Romans, “let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light . . .”  As I have sometimes said to some of you, Paul did not write all of these letters because he had nothing better to do with his time.  Obviously the early Christians needed direction and encouragement.  They needed reminders of the life to which they had been called; a life that was every bit as difficult as life in something called we sometimes call the “real world.”

            I once read something recently that interested me, having served as a volunteer chaplain in a state penitentiary,

            Many studies have shown that people tend to exaggerate their own positive characteristics and abilities. For instance, studies have shown that most drivers think they’re a better-than-average driver. Psychologists call this the state of “illusory superiority.”

Recently (2014), a team of British researchers tested this common “better-than-average” tendency by surveying 85 convicts at a prison in South East England about their pro-social traits. The inmates were aged 18 to 34 and the majority had been jailed for acts of violence and robbery. The inmates completed questionnaires anonymously and in relative privacy. Here’s what the study concluded:

Compared with “an average prisoner” the [convicts] rated themselves as more moral, kinder to others, more self-controlled, more law-abiding, more compassionate, more generous, more dependable, more trustworthy, and more honest. Remarkably, they also rated themselves as higher on all these traits than “an average member of the community,” with one exception—law-abiding. The prisoners rated themselves as equivalent on this trait relative to an average community member.

Christian Jarrett, “Jailed criminals think they are kinder, more trustworthy and honest than the average member of the public,” Research Digest (2-10-14)

            What are we to do in a community when everyone is convinced that they are not only right and nice, but more right and more nice than everyone else?

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is giving instruction on what to do when someone sins against us within the community.  Jesus advises a direct approach – in private. Take the grievance to its source, with the grace of privacy.  If that does not work take others with you; perhaps fresh ears and hearts might be helpful.  If the obstinacy remains, even in the midst of church authority, that person is choosing a path that is outside the boundaries of a graceful resolution.  Let them be as the unconverted to the community, a Gentile and Tax Collector; someone in need of transformation.  It reminds me of something I once heard from a wise and seasoned teacher.

I remember sitting in a seminary class at Sewanee, and hearing one of our professors say something that caused me to sit up and pay attention.  He said, “contrary to what many of you might think, or what you might feel, or what you have been told by others . . . being a Christian is something very different than being a doormat.”

Our class conversation had to do with boundaries; boundaries in personal life, family life, and Christian life.  Our professor was pointing out that often wolf-like behavior in some will take advantage of the sheep-like behavior in others.  Open communities like churches are occasionally safe havens for personalities willing to bend or break the most basic expectations or boundaries regarding decency, kindness, patience, and understanding.  Escalations in rhetoric and a certain flavor of righteous indignation cause other more demure personalities to become timid and afraid. 

As Paul is pointing out in Romans, reveling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling, and jealousy all have an opportunity to exist in the very places where Christians are encouraged and commanded to foster their opposites.

Some personalities are energized rather than enervated by conflict and the breaking of boundaries; and if the truth were told, we all probably have such tendencies.

Rationalization, fear, conflict avoidance: these sometimes masquerade as a superficial version of “turning the other cheek,” and those willing to cross common boundaries of decency, kindness, and patience will use a naturally patient, or passive, environment to make doormats of others.  Alphas presuming upon the beta reticence of others.

Our professor was offering us both a warning, and a promise. 

The warning is that Christian communities will sometimes invite persons who will have little regard for observing common boundaries; and there is a temptation in the name of a weak Christian charity to subsequently become a doormat. 

The promise is that those who are hurt when such boundaries are crossed have some path of redress and hope; bad behavior does not have to be perpetually endured.  There is scriptural injunction, both from Jesus and Paul, as well as in the teachings of the Church, to address such situations.

This small directive from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel gives the individual believer, as well as the larger Church, a path out of the wilderness of hurt and alienation.  The question is whether or not we will accept this path when any one of us becomes hurt or wounded in the midst of our community life. 

It is the rare person that can immediately do what Jesus is advocating in Matthew’s Gospel; go directly to the one at fault and lay bare our hearts.  Such immediacy, though commendable, is often very difficult.  There is always the gift of time; and there is always the gift of time in prayer for the one, or ones, that have hurt us. 

Bringing those who have hurt us into the presence of Christ in the midst of our prayers brings calm, and sometimes brings an added clarity, so that we might see the role we may have played in creating a situation of harm and hurt. 

I do not believe that God is glorified by manufactured feelings of forgiveness, and that we may need to spend some time in our own tears, recognizing our own limitations, before we seek to simply point out the fault of another.  Nor is God glorified when we meet anger, either justified or misplaced, with our own version of righteous retribution.  As Abigail Van Buren, Dear Abby, once said, “Those who fight fire with fire usually end up with ashes.”

In my own life, when I am hurt in such a way, I will sometimes pray with a trusted Christian friend for the one who has done the hurting. 

We will also pray that my own fault or participation in creating a situation of harm, be acknowledged and offered in confession; it is a way of entering the sacred space of Christ’s promise, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst of them.”

In the past year, some of you may have noticed at times that I am changing the words of the prayer book – call the Bishop.  In the Lord’s prayer I am finding it more and more helpful to use this phrase . . . “Forgive us our trespasses as we are forgiving those who are trespassing against us.”  Bringing those words and intentions into the active voice help me to find a place to put my anger and my own fault.  It helps me find the medicine that Christ has promised when relationships are broken and I am hurt and angry.

Sometimes such prayer and reflection become preparation for an eventual reconciliation.  It is one way to seek to make whole what has been broken. 

There is an old Cherokee story that describes the nature of such prayer.  It is a proverb that I have shared many times in the past.  It still holds truth.  

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, there is a terrible battle between two wolves inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked, “Which one of them wins this battle?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one that I feed.”

Interruptions Along The Way

I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus.         —Malcolm Muggeridge, British journalist and Christian apologist

          For anything worth doing in life, there is a moment when we cease to simply practice, and we take the field of action.  There is the moment of moving from batting practice to facing a pitcher when the crowd is roaring.  There is the moment of driving golf balls 250 yards on the driving range, and them moving to the first tee on tour.  There is the moment at the piano, or organ bench, for playing scales, and then moving to the auditorium where the audience or congregation awaits.  At some point, in any endeavor worth pursuing, we move from the practice to the pursuit; we move from the drill field to the battle field, where the great idea must be translated into life itself. 

We are seeing such a moment in Matthew’s Gospel today.  It is the moment when the disciples move from meandering with Jesus through the lovely fields and shorelines of Galilee, to following Jesus as he turns his face to Jerusalem.

 It is a shift from pursuing something, as Muggeridge says, as a means of personal fulfillment or happiness, to something deeper, inviting a kind of death to ourselves, resulting ultimately in joy. 

It is time to leave the batting cage.  It is time to put away the range balls and head to the first tee.  It is time to quit rehearsal, and move to the audience.  This is not a drill.  Following Jesus will not simply remain a good idea among ideas; following Jesus will perhaps become a matter of life and death. 

What begins in the lovely climate and rambling walks in Galilee is about to turn very serious in Jerusalem, and Jesus is telling his friends that the rehearsals are over.

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

This moment always gets me on the hook.  I believe that I understand this moment because, like you, I know what it means when this kind of shift occurs.  Regardless of how or where we spend the best energies of our lives, most everyone I know can recognize when we are no longer playing at something, and we suddenly begin in earnest.  “This is for real,” we might say.

This moment with Jesus hooks me because I find that in the life of discipleship we are faced again and again with “keeping it real,” verses having our Christian faith become another hobby, another avocation, our connection to God maintained so long as it does not interrupt whatever other pursuit we have decided is truly the most important goal in our lives.

Matthew is relaying to us that ultimately we face the same choice that Jesus is facing; meandering in the lovely, albeit spiritual, climes of Galilee, or turning to face the truth that waits in Jerusalem.  There is an “about-face” command that comes from heaven for every disciple, and even the best of us, Peter included, may find it a bit difficult to hear.

Peter is no fool.  And Peter cannot fathom that Jesus is going to lead them on the glide path of a downward trajectory.  Peter fancies that the discipleship to which he has been called is something tending toward success, perhaps popularity, and the resolution of old messianic yearnings culminating in a clear and present victories.  Think of the shock that Peter must feel when his own best expectations are blocked by the very person in whom he has placed those expectations.

          “God Forbid . . . this shall never happen to you.”

I believe that Peter speaks a truth that lives within each of us.  Peter is giving the benefit of his honesty; that he is simply not ready for the call of God to lay claim to “everything” for which he has hoped and labored.  Perhaps Peter believes that he and the disciples have already done the “hard thing.”

Haven’t they sacrificed much already?  Haven’t they listened closely?  Haven’t they convinced themselves that they are well practiced at being good disciples?

          However, Jesus is showing them that there is a deeper way.

Following Jesus is not simply the best idea among ideas.  Following Jesus is not simply an avocation of reading and thinking about things “spiritual.”  Following Jesus is not a “second purpose” of our lives.  No.  Following Jesus at this very moment is to become a Christian; doing otherwise is to become something else.

Every time that I read this vignette, every time I see the friends and the teacher in this moment, every time I read Peter’s declaration and realize that it is my declaration as well, I leave feeling that I have a splinter in my mind.  Something raw.  Something that aches.  Something yearning to be drawn out and given relief.

Both Peter and Jesus cannot be right; in the end, only one of their paths will lead toward God.  Both Peter and Jesus want to “see” God, but their eyes are cast upon different visions. 

          “Get behind me Satan, you are a stumbling block to me . . .”

You are a “skandalon” in the Greek to me.  A trap.  An object of offense.  An obstacle.  A stumbling block to me.  Petras – Peter – the rock of the Church, is showing just how that rock can cause the Son of God offense and difficulty.  Peter’s expectations are set upon the wrong thing; I find myself like Peter very often, wanting to ride through a life of faith with the training wheels on, or walk the tightrope of faith, knowing that the safety net is stretched out beneath me.

It is not wrong to want to bypass sacrifice and difficulty in life; it’s simply not always possible if one is going to follow Jesus through this world.

“To human thinking the cross must ever remain a skandalon – scandal; but the Cross plays an indispensable role in God’s salvation history.” – Douglas Hare 

As we find what the Cross of Christ means for our lives, as we discover what it means for us to turn from Galilee, facing Jerusalem with Jesus, there is a falling away from ourselves, and a falling upward toward God.  And Jesus hammers down the nail of his point by pointing out that any other way of living is actually a way of losing our lives.  Yes – you can choose to try and have everything in the world, all at once, and you can lose God in the prospect.

The Cross, the turning to face Jerusalem, that God has in store for each of us will be something that is introduced, and something that we simply be given the choice to carry. 

That seems to be the ringing truth that Jesus lays before Peter and his friends at this important juncture – there is the freedom to choose our way through this world.

Allowing God to become the deepest relationship in our lives will look different for each of us.  This kind of “following” is often counterintuitive.  For some it will mean being misunderstood by friends and family.  For some it will mean losing a professional edge in order to maintain a sense of Christian identity.  For some it will mean standing by a friend or family member when all the world is turning away.  In my experience, choosing to carry the cross that God actually gives to us rarely, rarely results in applause, celebration, and the social capital that comes with virtue signaling.

The hope that is latent in this encounter between Jesus and Peter is that God’s grace far outstretches the limitations of our own expectations of ourselves.  Peter is redeemed, and Peter actually finds that he has it within him to accept redirection in life when Christ is near.  Grace always abounds.  And what Peter felt was impossible, becomes actual, as he and the disciples follow Jesus into the depths of God’s mystery and love. 

There is a story of a person that I have found moving, challenging, perhaps because his example shows me what might be possible for some of us; whose story reminds me of Peter.  I don’t share it as the singular path, “exemplar,” of what faithful discipleship might be; I only share it so that we might think about what is possible in our own lives.  I share it in the hopes that in the midst of the lives that we are living that we each, one day, may have a story to tell about the time we went from hitting range balls for Jesus, to actually going on tour for him.

In the September 2007 issue of Today’s Christian, Shirley Shaw tells the story of how the sacrifices of a successful cabinet maker named Terry Lane continue to change a drug-riddled neighborhood in Jacksonville, Florida.

My business had prospered to the point my 40-man staff needed more space to produce the quality cabinets for which Mid-Lane was well known. We found an ideal location in northwest Jacksonville and in 1985 built a 25,000 square foot state-of-the-art plant that was soon humming with activity. Life was good. But my peace and comfort were short lived.

Almost immediately, problems erupted. Every night the burglar alarm sounded, and I was summoned to the plant by police officers. Broken windows, shots fired, bullet holes in the walls, stolen equipment, vandalism—even incinerated cars in the parking lot.

One night an officer asked me, “What possessed you to build a plant this close to ‘The Rock’?”

“What do you mean, ‘The Rock’?” I asked.

“The Cleveland Arms apartments,” he responded. “More crack cocaine is sold here than anywhere in Jacksonville, so we call it ‘The Rock.'” And he proceeded to enlighten me about my new neighborhood. The 200-unit subsidized housing complex was occupied by drug dealers, prostitutes, and felons, a place considered so dangerous police were hesitant to go there…

As I sat mulling over the situation, from out of nowhere came a thought so clear it was almost audible: If you’ll love those who despitefully use you, I’ll take care of it. Stunned and shaken by God’s admonition, I wondered how I’d obey this gentle command. Then I sensed him say, “Forget about all the shooting and all the garbage. Look at the children.” …

Days went by as I prayed for my neighbors and tried to figure out how to connect with this community. I bought several basketballs, wrote “Jesus loves you” and “Mr. Lane loves you” on them, and threw them over the fence into the complex. There was no immediate reaction, but at least they didn’t throw them back.

Then one Saturday while working alone, I stepped outside for a break. I heard the noise of children playing beneath a tractor trailer parked on the property. When they saw me, one said, “There’s the man,” and they started running.

“Wait,” I called. “Would you like something cold to drink?” Four or five little kids followed me into the plant where I opened the soft drink machine and gave them a cold soda pop. They went home, and I thought no more about it. Until Monday afternoon when I heard a commotion in the lobby and the receptionist ask, “Can I help you?”

As I walked down the hallway, I heard one little kid ask, “Where’s the big man with the beard?” Turning the corner, I saw 16 kids in the lobby looking for me—well, for the man with the key to the drink machine.

That was the beginning. Suddenly, 35 children adopted me, coming to my office every afternoon after school instead of going home. There was nothing for them to go home to. Day after day, while I worked at my drafting table, I was surrounded by kids on the floor busily coloring or doing other crafts I had brought…

Thus began the journey that would change my world and that of many kids whose addicted parents left them to fend for themselves. Often hungry, unkempt, undisciplined, with no structure in their lives or motivation to attend school or church, these children would be the next lost generation. I felt compelled to do what I could. Years flew by, and the kids I mentored became a part of my life.

Terry Lane’s journey of self-denial continued. Ten years after he first reached out to the kids of “The Rock,” he sold his share of the cabinetmaking business to his partner and started Metro Inner City Sunday School.

When the kids got older, they started youth groups and teen programs. It wasn’t long before Terry asked the owner of Cleveland Arms to give him an apartment. In five-years’ time, Lane established a community center called Metro Kids Konnection where the staff feeds over 145 children physically, academically, and spiritually.

Shaw ends her article with these final thoughts from Terry:

There is so much to do, but I’m excited and grateful for the direction God chose for me. My wife and I have gone from enjoying a six-figure annual income to subsisting on $12,000 a year, but God faithfully meets every need. And the rewards are incomparable…

Nothing can replace the joy of having a little child crawl into my lap with a hug for “Pastor Terry,” or for a young man who has been rescued from a potential life of dealing drugs to look me in the eye, shake my hand with a firm grip, and say, “Thanks, P.T.”

That’s my reward for “looking at the children.”

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

I bought several basketballs, wrote “Jesus loves you” and “Mr. Lane loves you” on them, and threw them over the fence . . .

Leaving This Ground

Move over Wright brothers, here comes the Kitty Hawk Flyer

“The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who… looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space… on the infinite highway of the air,” – Wilbur Wright

Flying has always been fascinating for me.  The fact that in the early 1900’s the world suddenly became smaller, not by inches, feet, or yards; but the world became smaller by hundreds and thousands of miles, in a way that no one fifty years before could have imagined.

One of my grandfathers was a pilot, not professionally; and he used to talk about flying sometimes.  Talking about the “joy” of anything was not really his style, being one of the greatest generation.  His style was nuts and bolts and competence and safety.

“You have to pay attention . . .”

“You cannot be trying to do two things at once . . .”

“A lot of good pilots are killed because they don’t listen and become over-confident . . .”

“You really won’t know what you are doing until you log at least 500 hours . . .”

Situational awareness.  Caution.  Attention to detail.  Humility.  Not – not traits that I had in abundance at 21, 22, 23.

In the summers I was working as a river guide, paddling white water, and decided one day that I too would like to become a pilot.  I called a local flight academy in Belgrade, Montana, and explained to the instructor that I was interested, but also busy.  I was busy leading float trips on the river. 

I would like to “knock out” a pilot’s license on the week-ends, when I had the time; maybe I could “knock it out” over three or four long week-ends; make it sort of a “crash course,” no pun intended.

In my unbounded confidence, and my infinite capacity for imagination, it never occurred to me with whom I might be speaking on the other end of the phone. 

I could not know that Ray Anderson had recently retired from the Air Force as a flight instructor.  I could not know that he had flown tours in Viet Nam, reconnaissance over the Bearing Sea, trained hundreds of military pilots in the Northrop T-38 Talon supersonic trainer.  Oh . . . hearing the sound of my own voice . . . there is so much that I could not know.

And so this is sometimes how the Holy Spirit is moving – hearing only the sound of my own voice, the confidence and the gusto, I could not know that Ray had heard this tone of voice many, many, many times before.

I arrived at the airport pumped; ready to knock this thing out and get on with my flying career.  I had never really been near a small aircraft, had never sat in one.  It was a hot day, and I distinctly recall a new smell, a smell that made my stomach turn over a bit; the smell of aviation fuel in the heat. 

Sitting down in the Tomahawk next to Ray; it was cozy, the cockpit felt steamy.  And our shoulders were almost touching.  “There’s no aisle in this thing is there?”, I said.  “Really?” Ray said smiling.

As we sped up for take-off, I felt my stomach climbing up into my chest.  The runway simply seemed to swallow this tiny bug of a machine, and I simply could not believe we were going fast enough to lift off into flight.

In the air, I looked out at the mountains around Bozeman, Montana; we were simply crawling, like a tiny ant, in altitude, crawling up the elevation of the surrounding mountains.  I began to breath more quickly, a light sweat on my forehead, my stomach queasy, and out of the corner of my eye all I could see was the tiniest corner of a wing supposedly holding us up in the air.

In an uncharacteristic moment in my life, I was speechless.  As sure as I am standing and talking to you today, I could feel the bottom dropping out of that little bubble of a plane, and was waiting for us to drop out of the sky.

Some thirty years later, I can still feel it today, the physical realization, the recognition “in my bones,” that the only thing holding up from the ground rapidly retreating beneath me were a few millimeters of aluminum; I was riding through sky in Coca-Cola can.

The new sensations of flight were a deadly mixture for me.  I could hear my heavy breathing through the head-set; I tried to calm myself down with controlled breathing; I was dizzy, the cold sweat moved to my whole body.  My stomach was somewhere on the ground. 

I wanted out of that thing that very minute; the plane pitching every now and then in the high rocky mountain winds.

“You know it’s been mighty dry the past few weeks.  You on the river much these days?”

Ray was having a walk in the park during the midst of my death sitting next to him.

“We are having to pump a lot of water for my sheep out at the ranch,” he said.  “Look over there, Charlie is putting some irrigation as well on his place.”

I simply nodded my head because I could not speak.  Over and over in my mind I told myself, “I am not going to die today . . . not really . . . not today.”  For a split second I thought of what I might grab ahold of to keep from falling through that aluminum floor.  The seat belt, the seat, the steering wheel.

“ . . . son you need to let go of the wheel,” Ray said.   “Alston . . . son you need to let go of the wheel,” he said in a soft voice.  “Look to your hands . . . you need to let go of the wheel.”

Two things always come to my mind when I am terrified:  “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want .  .  .”  These were bouncing around in my head as we climbed.

“Son look at your hands,” Ray said.  And it took moment for things to register for me.  I looked at my hands, and it seemed they were made of concrete; I could not move them.  I had taken the steering column in such a death grip that I could not feel them; as though they were part of the plane itself. 

My lifeline.

“You really believe that you are holding this thing up in the air – don’t you?”

“Son, you have to let go .  . . you have to let go . . . we won’t fall . . . this thing was built to fly.”

It took a few moments.  Finally I let my fingers fall from the wheel.  Ray was encouraging, positive, empathetic; all the things that make for a good teacher.

“You can let go.  It’s all right.  Let me show you,” he said. 

I glanced to the right and saw Ray holding our Coca Cola can in the air with two fingers on the steering column of the plane.  Two fingers, pulling gently, holding steady.

Ray had a big smile on his face; big smile of kindness.  No shame.  No ridicule.  No kindness masquerading as hazing, “You see, you see how it works; it was built to fly.  It’s all right.”

Those first moments in the small plane with my oversized ego, and a kind teacher, and accepting the reality that I personally was not keeping that plane in the air, they were a spiritual lesson; a lesson that I have replayed in my life of faith and following Jesus.

Throughout his time with his disciples, it seems to me that Jesus is always trying to tell them in one way or another, “Let go . . . this thing, your life, your heart, your soul, it was built to fly.  Let go, have faith.”  Undoubtedly, none of us will walk on water, not intentionally at least.  Even Peter, the Rock of the Church, was unable to follow our Lord so completely.

What we do share with the disciples is that the ship of our lives finds itself beaten and battered by waves.  We feel that we very well might sink; living with a fear of falling.  The best laid plans, the best intentions, our best efforts, even certain that we have covered every eventuality for failure, and still something beats against us as we try to make our way. 

While we have prepared for the “flight” in our minds, it may be that our hearts have not caught up to us; it may be that our doubts crowd and suffocate us when the mishaps and uncertainties of life beat against us.  A time like the present certainly pulls back the curtain on such assumptions.

The promise that Jesus makes again and again is that we are not alone in a world contained within the boundaries of our own perceptions; He is forever in our midst.  A hand, a voice, forever in our midst; whether we see and hear Him or not in the midst of our doubts, our fear, He is present and He is patient.

If we would pause for a moment, for a moment, and let that hand reach into us and hold us in our tossing and turning; let that hand be the one thing that does not move, when all around us there is spinning.  If we would pause, for a moment, we might hear him.

“Let go . . . let go . . . stop white-knuckling everything in your life.  You cannot hold up the entire world.  Turn loose of your death grip.  Calm down.  You will not fall.”

“You were built to fly, to soar.  I am with you.  Let me show you what it means to live in this faith.”

Also in the words of another believer, Corrie Ten Boom,

“Never Be Afraid To Trust An Unknown Future To A Known God.”