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Six For Your Weekend – Plus Some News on Moving Day

If certain religious services were less about preening about one’s own virtue or pointing fingers at somebody else’s iniquity and more about tackling human needs around us, this would be a better world — and surely Jesus would applaud as well. -Nicholas Kristof

Six Reads that will inspire you, make you think and help make your weekend a bit better. 

What Religion Would Jesus Belong To, Nicholas Kristof

“This may seem an unusual column for me to write, for I’m not a particularly religious Christian. But I do see religious faith as one of the most important forces, for good and ill, and I am inspired by the efforts of the faithful who run soup kitchens and homeless shelters.”

What I Learned in the School Cafeteria, Caroline Lamar

“I’m pretty positive the kingdom of Heaven looks exactly like a school cafeteria. Fellowship over the table. Laughter. Sitting with people who don’t always look like you or talk like you or believe the same things.  But there they were all there together, gathered around a table. I cannot imagine a more beautiful view.”

A Farewell Guide to Political Journalism, Ron Fournier

“A great article on leadership with serious implications for church leaders: (Don’t lose sight of your mission, remember who you work for, Build Relationships, Integrity is Everything, Own Your Convictions) “A reporter’s job is to get as close to the truth as possible, overriding personal biases and sifting through a rising churn of spin and lies to explain what happened and why it matters. At its highest levels, journalism informsprovokes, and holds powerful people accountable (with no fear or favor).”

Stop Touting the Crazy Hours You Work, Jena McGregor

“The idea that being well-rested could be a black mark against a leader is preposterous. And even if a super early wake-up time works for some people — and they’re sensitive about sending out email before dawn — if you’re having to get up at 4 a.m. to avoid distractions in your day, there’s probably something wrong with how we’re working.”

Hillbilly Elegy: J.D. Vance on Faith in Appalachia, Kelsey Dallas 

“I lived in a pretty chaotic and hopeless world. Faith gave me the belief that there was somebody looking out for me, that there was a hopeful future on the other side of all the things I was going through.”

To Attract Young People to Your Church, You’ve Got to be Warm, Not Cool, Kara Powell, Jake Mulder and Brad Griffin

“Ironically, it is possible that your church might be working against warmth by offering myriad programs. Busyness doesn’t equal warmth.”

A Bit of News…

I’m excited to announce that on Tuesday, I’ll be moving my writing to a new place on the web.  In short, I’m looking forward to sharing my new website with you on Tuesday.

It’s been a long time coming and more work than I expected, but I believe it will be worth the effort. My hope is that it will not only be a more attractive and better space from which to write, but more importantly, that it will make it easier to share resources and create community that will help all of us with the things I care about and tend to write about – church, the hunt for grace and the search for joining what we most desperately believe with how we actually live. 

If all this sounds like something you might be interested in, you can learn more by following the link to sign up for my email list here, and I’ll send you a preview of the new space on Monday (Note: If you already subscribe to this blog by email, you don’t need to resubscribe to the website. If you follow via your wordpress account, however, you will need to resubscribe).  And if you aren’t impatient (or don’t care that much), you can watch for it on social media on Tuesday.

Thanks so much for reading and I hope you have a great weekend. 

With Gratitude, 

Daniel 

 

Forgetting Fair and Living With Grace: A Sermon on Labor, Salary and a Generous Owner

I thought about beginning this morning with a story about a game.  It was a game with two teams. One that came to play at the beginning, played hard, worked hard, and did everything they could, played almost as well as they could possibly play.

And then there was another team, a team that apparently forgot what time the game started, played terribly and then finally decided to begin playing near the end. And some how, some way, mostly because they had an adequate kicker, the second team won.  That’s grace -getting better than what you deserve.

Today’s Scripture passage, which we’ll get to in a minute, is really a passage about two ideas, two concepts, two understandings of life that shape us and matter to us, and that really get us riled up – fairness and grace.  We’ll get to grace later, we’re in church after all, but I want to begin with what’s fair.

As a child I remember one of the things I said over and over again when I didn’t like what was happening I would often say it, and I imagine many of you did too – that’s not fair!  And my dad, in his wisdom and sympathy, usually had a quick rejoinder – well guess what, life isn’t fair! This story probably explains a lot why I am the way I am.

And we know that’s true, don’t we?

Fairness isn’t just something kids talk about it.  It’s at the heart of how we think about work and family and politics and everything else – I work so I should get what I worked for – that’s only fair.  The system is rigged against those who aren’t rich and who aren’t wealthy – so how are we going to change so everybody gets a fair shot.  Most elections are fought over those two arguments. It’s about what’s fair, what’s just and how can we build a city, a community, a state and a nation based on our ideals.

And you know that Jesus talked an awful lot about fairness.  Many of his most well known stories center around the intersection between fairness and grace. It’s right there in the Prodigal Son, maybe the most famous one of all – it isn’t fair, the older son complains, that his dad throws a huge party for the younger one, you know the one who left them and spent his money on drinking and prostitutes and only came back because he was tired of cleaning hog slop. Our inherent compass of fairness is why some of us struggle with the Old Testament – how is it fair that God blesses the Israelites while cursing the Egyptians – the plague of the first born is celebrated when your an Israelite, when your an Egyptian who lost a generation of kids, well that’s a much different deal isn’t it?

So, it shouldn’t surprise as we gather, at least a few of us anyway, on Labor Day weekend, that we come to hear Jesus tell a story that seems to be about labor and management, hiring and pay, generosity and capitalism, but is really about this old argument – what’s fair and what is the place of grace.

The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus begins, is like a landowner going to Lowes to hire workers on a scorching hot day. And you know how this goes – don’t you, the landowners hires some in the morning – they are confident enough that they try to negotiate a fee. He went about lunchtime and then in the mid-afternoon and he did the same – he hired folks who were waiting for a job.  He didn’t tell them what they would pay – only that he would pay them whatever is right.  In the story he comes back around 5, too – we don’t know if he needed more workers or he knew people needed work, and so he came and he picked them up and he said – go to work. They didn’t ask the wage, they didn’t bother to negotiate, they were just thrilled to have a little work and hoping they might get a little something out of it for their day of mostly sitting and waiting.

And as we hear this story, our expectations aren’t probably much different than the ones who heard it the first time. The ones who worked the longest will get the most pay, the ones who worked least the less. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, right?  That’s what’s fair.

Imagine people working outside all day in the heat we’ve had this summer, maybe on a roof, and you can get why the workers who had been there the longest were certainly counting on this kind of pay structure.

The landowner got his manager and he told him to pay the people, but start with the ones who showed up last. He gave them a day’s wage – what generosity – work a little, get paid enough. And he did the same for the ones at 3 and the ones who got there at noon.  The ones who had been there all day were counting on a bonus -and guess what they didn’t get it. They got a day’s wage, what was right by custom and general agreement, but watching that the others got the same – they weren’t happy.  There’s a couple of stronger words that probably describe how they were feeling, but we’re in church and well you know. They weren’t happy, and they let the landowner know about it.

This wasn’t fair. This wasn’t right. This isn’t the way the world is supposed to work. You work hard, you get rewarded. You don’t work hard, you don’t. We worked all day and got nothing for it.  We should have shown up at 5 -because you know what really made them mad – listen to the line of Scripture – what’s up with that – you have made them equal with us. We didn’t work the same, didn’t put in the same amount of time, nothing about our work was equal, only thing equal was the pay.

The landowner replied: “Did you get a day’s wage, would you have taken at the beginning of the day?  You would have. You aren’t mad at the amount you got, you’re mad the others got the same as you.  Are you envious because I am generous?”

Grace, Don Ferguson reminded us a couple of weeks ago, is always controversial when its lived out.  It’s equally controversial when its given to the people we don’t think deserve it. Grace, my friends, is never nice and sweet. It always comes with an edge, always pokes us, always reminds us that it is for the people who don’t deserve it.

Most of us think of ourselves like the workers who worked all day don’t we?  We think that we get what we deserve while God’s generosity to others is too much.  That’s why we get mad sometimes. That’s why we draw lines that God doesn’t. That’s why church people can be more judgmental than anyone. That’s why instead of celebrating we become skeptical of people who come to faith late. Instead of rejoicing at hospital room conversions, like God does, we roll our eyes or make a snide remark.  There might be an envelope waiting for them, but it better not have as much as the one that’s waiting for me.

It reminds me of a quote from a book I read a long time ago, in college, when I was first coming to faith.  I wasn’t like a lot of our youth here who have come to faith in Christ at a young age – it took a little longer for me. Max Lucado, many of you have probably read some of his books, wrote a book called In the Grip of Grace. In the book, he writes about the conversion of a serial killer whose name should be familiar to those of us of a certain age – Jeffrey Dahmer – and how news of that conversion made him feel. Listen to his honesty.

“Can I tell you what troubles me most about Jeffrey Dahmer? Not his trial – no sign of remorse, no hint of regret. Not his punishment. His conversion

Months before an inmate murdered him, Jeffrey Dahmer became a Christian. Said he reprinted. Was sorry for what he did. Profoundly sorry. Said he put his trust in Christ. Was baptized. Started life over. Began reading Christian books and attending chapel. Sins washed. Souls cleansed. Past forgiven. That troubles me. It shouldn’t, but it does.”

The truth, of course, for you and me and all of us, is that grace is never bad news, it’s never something to sneer at. We’re more like the workers who showed up at 5 and received the landowner’s generosity than we are the people who showed up at 9 and earned their money.

When I take an honest look at myself, my life, my faithfulness, my relationship with Christ, it’s a lot easier for me to fathom the relief, being overwhelmed with thanksgiving, of knowing that I don’t deserve all that I’ve been given, of being able to look back at my life and see all the ways that all of it has been grace.  So many times God saved me from myself. So many times I could have easily gone another way and something, some force, some person that I didn’t even know was saying don’t go that way, go this way.  We are all, as the writer Micha Boyett puts it, being written by a generous author.

I imagine I’m not the only one who has come to know this. Thank God we don’t get what we deserve. Seriously.

Fairness isn’t what we want, in the end, is it – to be judged for what we’ve done, to be evaluated by how well we’ve loved our neighbors, to have our merit, particularly in outraged America, be based on how we loved those who are different, how we treated people who don’t see the world the same way we do.

We might work all day, but most of the day we tend to work more against the ways of God than for them, don’t we? Most of the day we work on being right a whole lot more than we do on being righteous. Most of the time our relationship with God is the last thing on our minds.  Most of the time when we come to pray at night, if we’re honest, we’ve got a whole lot more to confess than we do to offer to God.  While we see ourselves as the older brother our lives are a whole lot more like the younger one. Our work for God is more the amount of the one who showed up at 5 than the one who had been there all day.

Grace – it’s summed up in verse 12 – it makes us equal. God is so generous that God has made us equal.

God has overlooked all the ways we’ve been asleep and made us alive in Christ. God has made us equal -heirs to the promise, sons and daughters of the creator and redeemer of the universe. God has made us equal – failing to see all the marks we’ve made against ourselves, instead seeing only the beautiful one that God has redeemed.  God has made you equal, more than you deserve, more than you could ever earn. God doesn’t care what time you show up, just as long as you get there.

When you come to the end of that day, because God came and picked you up, there’s going to be an envelope – and when you tear that sucker open, whether you’ve been faithful a long time or a little, where you’ve known without a doubt or barely held on while being assailed by your doubts, whether you’ve given everything for Jesus or whether following Jesus was something you struggled to do but did the best you can, you’re going to receive something way more than what is right.  For you are going to be made equal – you are going to be given not what you’ve earned, not what you deserve, but you are going to be given an inheritance that you could never make for yourself.

So, yeah grace isn’t fair. Grace says that no matter who you are, what you’ve done, how short you’ve fallen, God never closes the door. My friends, if you know what that feels like this morning, if you’ve never grasped the Gospel before today, if you aren’t sure what church and faith and Jesus and the Gospel is about – this is it – God isn’t fair. God is generous.

And in God’s accounting, there is always room, plenty of good room, for you, for me, for us all.  You can have fair. Give me grace. Every single day. I’m taking it to the bank.

Amen.

Six For Your Long Weekend

If you really want people to be tough, make them idealistic for some cause, make them tender for some other person, make them committed to some worldview that puts today’s temporary pain in the context of a larger hope. – David Brooks

 

I hope these reads help you think, help you connect but mostly help you enjoy a restful long weekend.  It’s been a long, hot summer.  Enjoy the space an extra day can bring you.  If you catch a moment or two, click on one of these.

Making Modern Toughness, David Brooks 

Dear Burning Man, It’s Not You, It’s Me, April Dembosky

“How do you maintain a freshness and a sense of innocence and discovery for something when you’re doing it over and over and over again?”

Nine Labyrinths for Restless Souls to Wander in Their Lifetime, Carol Kuruvilla

“The narrowness of the path helps focus the mind.”

Ann Patchett on Stealing Stories, Book Tours and Staying Off Twitter

“The best of me is always going to be in the book. I gave the book everything. I’m proud of it. I can sign it or read from it or tweet about it or gift wrap it but the book itself is still the same. If you’ve got that, you’ve got me.”

The Resurrection Isn’t An Argument, It’s the Christian Word for Defiance, Giles Frazier

“I know the Church of England is supposed to be dying. And there are those who want to save it with cod management theory and evangelical up-speak. But if we as a church really believe in death and resurrection, then we don’t really need any of that secular sorcery. There has been a priest in my parish continuously since the reign of King John in the early 13th century. Politicians call it resilience. I call it resurrection.”

The Bread of Blessing or the Stone of Original Sin, Danielle Shroyer

“What if we recognized that the story scripture has been trying to tell us, page after page after page, is that the basis of our nature is not sin but God’s unwavering love for us? What if our children were told this so often and so persistently and so passionately that they were able to move through both feats and failures with an anchoring in the One who made them?”

 

More Than Work: Losing The Idol of Busy and Finding Grace in Rest

Fridays are the most difficult days of my week. Fridays are also my day off.

Sundays aren’t really days of rest for preachers – as friends in church are so kind to remind me, this is the only day I work all week.

And Saturdays, well between the Gunners, the Vols and the honey-do list that awaits, there’s not a lot of Spirit-infused rest happening then either.

And so Friday it is – the day of rest, the day of ease, the day of Sabbath, and the day of doing the mental gymnastics it takes to try to make myself avoid work.

I’ve read the books – Heschel, Dawn, Barton. I can tell you why Sabbath matters, how it is one of the most important spiritual disciplines for us busy people, what it has to say to us achievers and why those of us tempted to self-validation require its correction that the world’s existence actually doesn’t depend on us.

And yet as I roll out of bed on Friday mornings, I know it won’t be long before I begin to hear work’s siren call.

There’s always more to be done – the phone call to be made, the essay to write, the place in that sermon that could be a lot better. There’s the theology book that’s been sitting on my shelf for months, if not years, that I need to read, and actually want to read.

I’m reminded of that visit that needs to be made, the person to be seen, lonely and desperate for connection, demanding the church, and by extension me, to provide it. There’s the community leader I’ve been trying to connect with, the planning crying out to begin and all the people whose expectations I would be a lot closer to meeting if I could put in just one more day.

Good, important and faithful things they all are. But on Fridays they are distractions from what matters, and they are more than that – invitations to idolatry and opportunities to ignore what God wants to do in and through me.

One of the most important things God wants to do with us on the Sabbath is to provide the space to help us deal with all the things that are keeping us disconnected with God and one another.  Work becomes a distraction and noble things become objects to faithfulness when we allow them to take up the space in our minds, souls and lives that God wants to use to transform us.

To avoid the call of work is to avoid the things that will prevent me from noticing and dealing with the anxieties and insecurities that are keeping me from becoming the person and living the life that God wants for me. It is only by avoiding these distractions that we can come to grips with the truth that all our attempts to build towers of self-justification and achievement have come crashing down.

When we live into the rest God gives us in Sabbath we come to more fully understand our own sin and the damage it is leveling in our lives. When we take the time to sit with ourselves and with God we begin, maybe for the first time, to realize who we really are, all the ways we are missing the life we really want and where in our lives we need to invite God’s grace in so we can discover a better way.

Serious Stuff

I am always stunned in reading Exodus at the seriousness with which God takes Sabbath – both the keeping of it and especially the breaking of it. While we find Sabbath optional, God finds it non-negotiable. To make sure none of us miss the point, when God is giving Moses the rules for life in the Covenant, right in the middle of them is that those who break Sabbath are subject to death.

Why is God so serious about Sabbath?  There are plenty of things to take serious – murder, theft, adultery, lying, racism, violence – and on and on we could go. That not resting would be a crime that gets you executed seems particularly odd to those of us who live in a culture that so effectively blurs the borders between work and non-work.

I can’t say for certain why this is.  After all, I wast there. But I think one of the reasons God is so serious about Sabbath is because transformation requires rest. We can’t repent and experience change without dealing with ourselves. And we can’t deal with ourselves unless we first stop to figure out just where and why we need grace in the first place.

It’s a crazy thing, but one I am finally beginning to learn – work, even the good and holy work of church, can be an idol. And the work of spiritual change begins with rest.

 

Six For Your Weekend

Maybe redemption is the only possible story my life is telling. We are all being written together by a generous author. – Micha Boyett

These made me think, made me slow down and one even made me laugh out loud. I hope your weekend treats you well, and if you catch a few moments, enjoy one or two of these essays.

Simply Love, Amanda Tingle

Following a Forgotten Jesus, Ken Carder

The Real Nothing: Augustine, Evil and Race, Adam Ployd

The Look of Love, Anne Pierson Wiese

I Overlooked the Rural Poor – Until Trump Came Along, Tish Harrison Warren

Here On the Couch, Sarah Bessey

And a bonus for all you football fans can’t wait for it all to start again…

The Idiot Optimist’s Guide to the 2016 Season, Will Shelton

 

Beyond Rage: Learning to Pray When The World Makes You Furious 

If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention. 

It’s a cliché of course, one of those tired phrases that appear again and again when the times merit it.  But clichés keep showing up becuase they feel true. And as we approach the end of a summer that has been hot in too many ways, it feels especially true right now. 

It doesn’t require much searching to discover we’ve had plenty to be angry about. It’s been a summer of loss – some of it fueled by prejudice, some of it enabled by our unwillingness to risk our comfort by living our convictions, but all of it heartbreaking.

It’s been a summer of anger – seen in the way we yell past each other, in the way we demand that everyone has it easier than we do, but most clearly epitomized in the depressing political moment we are living through that falls so short of our ideals.  

It’s been a summer of rage – in cities and in the country, from the young and the old, revealing the disaster that visits you when we continue to treat one another as though none of us have been created, loved and redeemed by a generous God.

And for many of us, regardless of what side of the debate of the moment we find ourselves stuck in, it’s been a summer of throwing up our hands and wanting to give up. The fear is too much, the hate too entrenched, the anxiety-fueled sin surpassing our capacity to slow it down.

All of it makes us feel powerless, and even worse, hopeless – like anything we might do would be as effective as harmlessly chucking a pebble into a full-throated hurricane only growing more powerful.

Returning to Prayer School

The first place I normally turn in my devotional life is to the letters of Paul – he’s practical, he’s blunt and he is always willing to pick a fight.  In some ways he is perfect for this moment. But when I know I need help – and especially when I need help figuring out how or what to pray – I turn to the Psalms.  

In the midst of a hot and hateful summer, that’s where I’ve settled in – allowing the writers and teachers in the Psalms to have their way again. All this anger, violence, yelling and destruction has made it hard to pray. Racial and class divides that are terrorizing people I care about have made it hard to know what to ask God to do. The spirit and divisions in my own denomination have left me feeling frustrated and depressed. Overwhelmed by our inability to listen to one another, frustrated by my own complicity in it all, angry at the way things are and unsure about how to live into my own call to be an ambassador of light in a country gripped by the darkness, I’ve needed the wisdom found in these old prayers. 

And so the Psalms have been teaching me that faithful prayer doesn’t hide these emotions but instead trusts God with all of them. The prayers of the faithful are shockingly transparent – their pain from feeling abandoned, their frustrations with their leaders (both political and religious) and the anger that is festering within them as they keep waiting for God to show up. Nothing is hidden from the Almighty.

They can pray these honest prayers because they believe no emotion has the power to separate them from God’s love and compassion. Their prayers flow from their trust in God to handle it all – God can deal with their rage, can take on their anger, and is strong enough to handle any accusation that comes from their need for things to be made right.

Their honesty with God isn’t an obstacle to faithfulness but instead a pathway to it.  Indeed, the Psalmists know that when kept to ourselves the emotions have the power to destroy us, but liberation comes when we release them to God.

The Psalmists don’t share their lives simply to complain to God,  but because they believe God can and will act. The Psalms live in a world in which God is acting as the decisive force in the world that God created and for the people God loves. 

The Psalms are prayed with the conviction that God cares about the world, participates in it and is not neutral about what happens. They put their hope in the truth that God is working and will continue to work for the faithful, that God is on the side of the poor and those who are struggling, and that when God gets involves everything can change.

As Walter Brueggemann writes in Praying the Psalms, “The God of the Bible is never neutral, objective, indifferent or simply balancing things. The world is not on its own.”

In some instances these prayers are simply demands for God to start acting like it.

These prayers are teaching me to refuse the temptation to pray safe, resigned prayers that ignore the trouble we’ve seen.  No, instead I am learning again to pray honest prayers that flow from the knowledge that we pray to a God who hasn’t abandoned us. 

Prayers shape by the wisdom of these teachers are prayers of bold trust in a God who is with us, a God who takes sides, and a God who is working to close the gap between the way things are and the way they should be. 

So, how should we pray in a world that doesn’t appear to be cooling off any time soon? How do we speak to a God whose world sometimes appears to be being pulled apart at the edges? What do we share with God when the grief has rendered us speechless?

Say what we mean, mean what we say, and trust that God cares and is going to do something about it. 

“Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray. But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread you protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you.”  Psalm 5:2, 11

 

Book Review: Elaine Heath at Englewood Review of Books

I’m over at the Englewood Review of Books today, with a review of Elaine Heath’s book, God Unbound, on the wisdom of Galatians for the church in anxious times.

It’s an important book, because if there is one reality for those of us in the church and in leadership, that reality is that the church knows anxiety well.  We’re anxious about a lot of things, but mostly we’re anxious about the future – what the church is going to look like in five years, ten years, not to mention six months.

Elaine Heath is one of the most important and helpful thinkers in the UMC and her wisdom to find our footing by rooting ourselves in spiritual disciplines – like prayer, confession, honest Scripture reading and the Examen – feels not only wise but faithful to the Gospel to which we’ve been entrusted.  This is a book well worth your time.

You can find my review at ERB here.

The Church’s Word: Not Condemnation But Transformation

Some days caring about the church can be overwhelming.

These are challenging days – to bring a word of grace in a moment where it seems so foreign. Grace is always foreign, but we feel it even more this summer, with our seemingly never ending cycles of anger-fueled outrage.

Every moment ripe with conflict, every event a potential carrier for our fury, every development a ready-made excuse for our preconceived commitments and identities to spark a full-scale fire.

And yet, into all this comes the demand for a word. Not a day goes by when I don’t read or receive the ultimatum – the church has to speak, the church has to call for change, the church has to have something to say.  Whatever else it does, it has to speak about this.

The word demanded isn’t a neutral word, of course, but one of self-justification. We are asked for a word that will support one side while hammering the other one, a word that emboldens their stance while calling their enemies to account, a word that allows them to rejoice while calling their opponents to repent.

On the one hand, they’ve got a point, because the Gospel isn’t neutral. If you doubt that, go back and read your Bible. And too many times the church has stood by watching while other groups did the faithful work of justice. Even worse, too often we’ve taken the wrong side, opposing God’s side, decisions for which we are still paying and still repenting.

But on the other, the word we’ve been given isn’t one of condemnation  – “For I was not sent to condemn the world,” we remember Jesus saying.

And so, our agenda isn’t in deciding the winners and losers. Our word ins’t condemnation, but instead is transformation.

We don’t find our joy in issuing press releases or voting guides, as tempting as they might be. We find it in helping people become like Jesus. We rejoice in watching God transform people into the men and women they were created to be.

We don’t measure our success by the length of our sermons or the intensity of our outrage, but instead by the ways in which the people we meet live their lives more fully in line with the teaching, the way and the life of Jesus.

Our work is to create the conditions and become a place where people can experience and be changed by an encounter with God’s grace. And that’s why we do the things we do.

We gather to worship because we actually believe what Jesus said that when we gather he is among us. We welcome kids and adults into our fellowship through baptism because those promises tell us who we are. We say the words of the Creeds and pray like Jesus taught us because these words reminds us who created us and what we are made for.

We study the Bible because when we discover our story is actually part of this larger story, everything is different. We serve people because we know that when we serve them, we are actually serving Him.  We take the gift of bread and dip it in a cup because we have come to know that some how and some way when we do it we are meeting God, and when we come face to face with God, everything can change.

We call these things the means of grace, because these are a few of the ways that God has met us in the past and we trust will continue to do again and again and again.

And so when I get weary of the conflict and find myself ready to fire away on this day’s occasion for outrage, I’m reminded that’s not why we’re here. We aren’t here to decide who is right and who is wrong. We aren’t here to elevate ourselves as the moral authority.

Our task is a whole lot more difficult than that but so much more rewarding.

Our way is to offer the means of grace, to become a place where people can experience and connect with the grace of God and find a better path – a way to become different, to be changed by grace, to become more like the One they came seeking in the first place.

 

Modern Compassion: Or What I’m Learning from Reading Emma Straub

It’s hard to find a list of summer beach reads without Modern Lovers, the new book from Emma Straub, on it.

Her books find their way on these lists because they aren’t dense, feature family drama combined with romance, and you can read them over the course of a vacation or even a weekend if you can avoid the television and other distractions.

(If you are interested in reviews of Modern Lovers, you can find one here. You can also find my take on this book and other books for the summer here.)

But to put these books in the same categories as some others on these lists is to miss something profound and important.  That’s because Modern Lovers – as well as Straub’s last book, The Vacationers – is a story that has something to teach us.

In Straub’s stories we read about families and characters who are far from simple and miles from whole. Instead, these are stories of broken and complicated people who, like most of us, would be well served by time in a chair across from a therapist, counselor or religious professional. I can think of a couple of characters in these stories who might exhaust the wisdom of all three.

They make stupid mistakes.  They cheat on their spouses and aren’t sure if they wouldn’t do it over again if given the chance. Their past still overwhelms their present. They worry about messing up their kids. They commit to decisions that could be described as naive at best and foolish at worst. They are looking for a direction for their lives but more often than not let their lives simply happen to them. They know they need to change, but they aren’t sure if they really can or even want to.

That, of course, isn’t unique, both in writing stories and in living life. Here’s what is – Emma Straub has a gift for telling the stories of these messed up characters and dysfunctional families with kindness and compassion.

These characters might have problems and they might make things worse for themselves, but there’s an affection and a love for them from their creator that jumps off the page.

Lesser and more cynical stories are written with the voices and words of judgment and disdain. But that’s not what you find in these books – no, this is so much better.

These stories remind us that immaturity and failings are not definitive. They remind us that we are more than the sum of our bad choices and major missteps. They remind us that we are more than our worst moments, more than character flaws and more than the secrets we desperately try to keep hidden but have a suspicion won’t stay buried forever.

In short, these are stories of grace and stories of hope.

This is a word we need for the cultural moment in which we find ourselves. Our skill in analysis of the other is only surpassed by our willingness to inflict that analysis to hurt and harm. Our ability to consume the news in the ways and with the interpretations we prefer convince us that the solution to all our problems is for our enemies and those we oppose (often one and the same) to become less stupid, less mean, less morally suspect, less foolish, and less prone to mistakes. This leads to anger and exhaustion, which leads us to miss so much good stuff.

It’s also a word we need more than just when we watch and talk about the news. Those of us gripped by perfectionism know what its like to be critical – and not just of those who are different than us. Instead, we are well versed in bearing the brunt of our own searing analysis. We are no strangers to inflicting pain and heartbreak on ourselves for the less than wise decisions we have made, the mistakes we can’t let go of, the ways we will never be good enough, and for all the times we have failed to meet the impossible standards we set for ourselves.  This, of course, has plenty of consequences too.

In a world full of analysis and experts and way too many mean people, what we need more of are guides and teachers of kindness.  We need stories that show us how to see the power of the light especially when the darkness seems so strong. We need writers who can teach us how to be compassionate with one another and ourselves. We need people who bring words that remind us that failure doesn’t have to stop us from becoming beautiful people who live meaningful lives. We need men and women who can inspire us to follow a path that moves us beyond criticism and judgment and instead towards affirmation and kindness.

So, sure you can call these books beach reads.  But a better description would be to say that Emma Straub’s fiction should be required reading in a class on modern compassion.

That, of course, is a class we all should take.