Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The High Life

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:2)

When an athlete is experiencing a particularly good streak, she is often said to have “elevated her game.” Or sometimes we would say he has “taken it to the next level.”

Of course, the athlete in question is still on the same plane, feet on the same field as the rest of us, but we use the metaphor of elevation to describe something better. Higher is, generally speaking, better – at least when it comes to metaphors.

So it is with the verse from Colossians above, and the idea of God being “up there” somewhere above us. Of course we don’t really believe that God is “up” but we use the metaphor of “up” to describe and address God. How many of us have gazed upward at some point in order to lament, “Why me, Lord?”

God is all around, within and among, above and below and in between. “There Is No Place Where God Is Not,” reads the first line of a Charles Haddon Spurgeon poem. God is everywhere, not just “above” us. When this scripture calls us to look above in order to find Christ, I think it is using the real direction as a metaphor for “better.” Simply put, when we follow Jesus we are supposed to live better lives than when we do not.

And what does this “high life” look like? Paul paints a picture with words later in the chapter: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and above all, LOVE! Love is the force that runs throughout the elevated life in Christ, that “binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

Elevate your game. Elevate your life. Seek that which is above, where Christ is.
This Sunday, we’re going to talk about Elevation.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"What's a Emeny?"

One preschool chapel, I was telling the story of the Good Samaritan. When I got to the part about the Samaritan seeing the guy in the ditch, I explained that Samaritans were enemies of people from Jerusalem. One adorable little girl raised her hand with a question. “What’s a emeny?” she asked, just as sweet as you could ever be.

How beautiful is it to not know what the definition of “enemy” is? I mean, she didn’t even know how to pronounce the word, since she had never used it in her entire life! I didn’t know whether or not I should define it for her, like I was crushing a new rose bud just beginning to open. As nearly as I can remember it, I went with something like, “They weren’t really friends” or “They didn’t know each other,” something along those lines.

What if the guy who asked Jesus “And who is my neighbor?” in Luke 10 had asked instead “Who is my enemy?” After all, one of the things he asks his followers to do is “love your enemies.” What about a follow-up parable, Jesus? “And who is my enemy?” What kind of parable would he have told?

People have a propensity toward love, I believe. I see it in kids. They are so, so much more ready to love than us grown-ups are. For example, foster kids come to our home having been horribly neglected or abused by their parents, and yet by some unfathomable mystery, the kids still seem to love them. Kids love their parents, no matter how crappy the parents may be. Kinda sucks sometimes, but there it is.

As we age, something seems to kind of grind the love right out of us. Over time, we are systematically and carefully taught who, exactly, our enemies are. The result is a slew of artificial enemies, people who aren’t really our enemies but we think they are because we have been taught as much. I wish Jesus had said to us, “Love the people you think are your enemies because you have been taught as much, but they’re really not they’re actually your neighbors so saying ‘love your enemies’ is in point of fact just the same as saying ‘love your neighbor’.” But Jesus wasn’t that wordy.

Of course, what I am NOT saying is that we should be naïvely trusting of every single person we meet. That could be dangerous. Teaching kids about “enemies” can be a safety thing. But I also notice a confusing double standard parents routinely teach kids. We warn kids about “stranger danger” but at the same time insist that they “be polite” when someone talks to them. That’s got to be a bit bewildering, don’t you think? When equal parts “Don’t talk to strangers” and “Can you say hi?” come out of our mouths, we are sending mixed messages, at best.

The truth is, a stranger is not automatically an enemy, and an acquaintance (even a family member), is not automatically a friend. 80% of child maltreatment perpetrators are parents, another 6.5% are other relatives, another 4.4% are unmarried partners of parents, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. For many kids, when your parents warn you not to talk to strangers, it’s because they don’t want to get arrested.

We have fostered kids who never should have had the experiences in their lives that they had, kids whose eyes look a lot older than the rest of them. Their propensity to love is out of whack because of the tendency toward violence that their lives have been, BUT it is STILL THERE. Sometimes the mixture of love and hurt is just too much, and it overflows in terrible, heart breaking ways.

They know exactly what an enemy is, and you had better believe they love them.

Mandela, Invictus, and Loving Enemies

Sunday was Nelson Mandela’s ninety-second birthday. Even a cursory reading of his biography amazes and astounds. Imagine being imprisoned for 27 years, then upon being released finding it within yourself to forgive the people who held you prisoner.

In Matthew 5:44, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Mandela, experiencing adversity and persecution for his whole life, somehow found it within himself to show love and respect to people who otherwise might be his enemies. The movie Invictus explores one way he did that, and convinced so many others to do so, as well.

“Love your enemies.” It is surely one of the most difficult things Christians are supposed to do, isn’t it? We would much rather love the ones who love us in return. And of course, it’s not that Jesus doesn’t want us to do that, but rather that loving people who love you is kind of a no-brainer, anyway. As he puts it (with a bit of a wry grin, I imagine), “Even tax collectors do THAT!”

To truly be doing what Jesus wants us to do, we have to love “enemies,” a very strong word indeed. It means “hated” or “odious” or “hateful.” One who is “hostile” and “opposing another.” Not just annoying or grumpy or bitter people (although to be sure, we are supposed to love them too!), but people who are openly hateful. Whoa!

It is staggering enough to think of such an idea personally, but then consider inspiring others to think the same way, as Nelson Mandela did, and we are left shaking our heads. But if we are to take the Great Commission seriously, to “make disciples” of all, that is exactly what we are supposed to be doing – not only loving others as Jesus loves, but inspiring others to do likewise.

Well, let’s get to work!

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Author of Life

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.

- William Shakespeare, “As You Like It”

Sometimes it is tempting to think of life as a drama that is being played out around us. We slip into a kind of existential “role play” in order to get by from one scene to the next. There is an assumed script for life and our job is just to speak our lines, make our entrances, hit our marks, and exit the stage at the appropriate time.

On the other hand, there are times that life seems random, even chaotic. We wonder why things happen, we question our own choices, we seem to be tossed to and fro, blown about by trickery and craftiness and deceitful scheming.

There are people who believe that God has every single moment of every single life planned in every single detail. There are people who believe that everything is random, guided by people’s choices and nature’s whims.

In the movie “Stranger Than Fiction,” one man becomes a case study in free will. Harold Crick’s life is being narrated, and he knows it. Is the narrator describing what Harold is already doing? Or does the narrator control Harold’s actions with her words? Is he free, or not?

What does it mean to call Jesus the “Author of Life?” (Acts 3:15, NRSV)

These are the questions, and so much more, we will be asking this week, in our ongoing series, “Campbell at the Movies.”

I hope that you will choose to come and worship God on Sunday morning!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

"UP" - It's About Love!

This week, Campbell UMC is watching “UP” together and our worship service is drawing from themes out of the remarkable movie. When I asked my daughter what she thought “Up” was about, she said without hesitation, “It’s about love!” And you know, she’s a pretty smart girl.

How many impulses can be attributed to the underlying human inclination to be in relationship with another person? To be known, to be affirmed, and to be thus connected to another human being is our life’s core purpose. The fulfillment of this purpose is experienced as being loved.

The flipside, by the way, is to know, to affirm, and connect to another person. The inclination toward relationship is mutual, and when the energy flows outward, we understand what it means to love. To love and to be loved, it seems to me, motivate just about everything we do.

These impulses flash in both positive and negative ways, though they arise from the same source. Consider Carl Fredricksen, the old man in “Up” whose wife Ellie dies after a lifetime of wonderful happy years together. They dream of adventure, imagine traveling to exotic locales and eventually building their home at the top of the near-mythical “Paradise Falls.”

Carl’s impulse to act at the beginning of the movie is a desperate longing for Ellie and a deep regret that their imagined adventures never happened, and it leads him to obsessively preserve their house and all of their possessions – even their mailbox. When the mailbox is knocked over by a construction worker, Carl’s frantic desperation (grief) causes him to physically attack the worker as he attempts to repair it.

This violence is completely out of character for Carl, who has been seen up to this point as a quiet, solid, and dependable man. But the impulse for his action is his powerful love for Ellie, a longing that has for so many years been easily fulfilled that he cannot redirect it after her death. It makes him do something he would never ordinarily have done, and he even seems surprised by it.

Russell is a boy who is trying to get his “Assisting the Elderly” badge for Wilderness Explorer Scouts, and so knocks on Carl’s door to ask him if he needs any help with anything. Russell is looking forward to the ceremony in which the badges are awarded, when “all the dads come” to be with their sons. We quickly learn, however, that Russell’s dad is out of the picture, and the longing that Russell feels is for the paternal relationship that he so deeply desires but does not have.

Russell longs for affirmation. Carl longs for adventure. And so, in their meeting and the development of their relationship, Russell becomes Carl’s adventure as Carl becomes Russell’s affirmation. Each knows the other and is known, each affirms and is affirmed, they connect deeply with each other and their relationship is a beautiful picture of love.

Jesus saved his last few words with his disciples for, “Love one another.” Paul says that the entire law is contained in the phrase, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 1st John 4 reveals that God’s very identity is somehow comprised of love. There is no more significant idea for children of God than love; everything else starts there – grace, peace, justice, forgiveness – without love none of these even make sense.

Love is supposed to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things. Or so Paul would have us understand. But what in the world does that mean?

Maybe it means, in part, that there is a “no-matter-whatness” quality of love. To bear, to endure all things – I get this. But to believe all things? …to hope all things?

All things? Really?

Maybe it means there is an attitude of openness in love. Not naïveté (believe anything you hear), but faithfulness. Knowing that, in a loving relationship, whatever happens is going to be okay. So you’re open to it, not afraid, ready for it.

In all things, I will have faith. In all things, I will have hope. Because of the love, you see. Because I am known and it’s okay, because I am being affirmed, because I am connected to another person in a positive, uplifting relationship. And at the same time I risk knowing another, affirming another, and connecting to another to uplift them and build them up, too.

That may be why love is the greatest of these.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Reflections After Church Camp: *Smile*

Amazing things happen at church camp.

I remember a meeting once in which a colleague said, “All I ever hear about church camp is sort of emotional, sentimental reactions to it. But what actual good is it doing? What does the church get out of it? Why is it worth putting so many resources into?” I think I understand where he is coming from, and I honestly do not believe he was trying to make my stomach turn over and my jaw drop open with shock, even though that was my reaction.

He’s coming from a place where bigger, slicker programs with well-known presenters giving workshops in air-conditioned meeting rooms are more important, more effective, or more meaningful than spending a week in a hot, dirty, tick-ridden forest slathering sunscreen on top of bug spray. I get it. I’ve even been there.

But I’ll tell you, if you have experiences like my family and I had this week, you just don’t even think to ask questions like that. You don’t need to, because you know.

You know as you watch fifty-plus people from 10 families grow closer to God and one another as they stroll through a series of spiritual stations set up in the woods.

You know as you listen to a second grader singing softly to herself, “God is amazing!” as she colors a picture of a joyful moment.

You know as you catch the energy of a dining hall filled with more than sixty 3rd and 4th graders who are learning that God loves them no matter what, and having a great time doing it.

You know as you see the love of grandparents who desire to share their faith with their grandchildren so deeply, wanting the kids to grow and learn and feel God’s grace like they have.

I knew this week as I watched my wife Erin lead the singing for worship and saw the unmitigated joy on her face as she did so, knowing others were sensing that joy, too.

I knew as I embraced people whom I had not even met three days prior, feeling the connection of the Holy Spirit among and around and within us, strangers who had become friends.

These experiences and a thousand-thousand others, this week, all summer long, and all year-round, no way to account for each of them, no tally sheet that could ever possibly convey what they all mean, all of them happening because the United Methodist Church in Missouri believes that amazing things happen at church camp.

Sentimental? Emotional? Yes! No doubt about it.

“Worth” it? Absolutely! Every penny.

It was a great week at church camp – I experienced growth personally, Erin and I grew as a couple, we grew as a family, and as a larger community of faith. If what the Missouri Annual Conference is supposed to be doing is “leading congregations to lead people to actively follow Jesus Christ,” then supporting church camp is one of the most powerful and effective ways to do that. People come home from church camp with energy, focus, momentum, renewal, and they bring life and joy into their congregations in powerful ways, in addition to energizing their own active discipleship.

It sometimes feels like church camp is in the ongoing position of having to stick up for itself, and I can’t figure out exactly why that is. Here in Missouri, our United Methodist campgrounds are Camp Galilee, Camp Jo-Ota, Blue Mountain Center, and Wilderness Retreat & Development Center. At each of these four wonderful places, hundreds and hundreds of lives are changed, relationships deepened, spirits lifted, disciples formed, and commitments to Christ strengthened every year.

Church camp is truly an amazing time, where transformation is happening on a regular basis, and the church of Jesus Christ is strengthened in deep and abiding ways. I thank God for church camp, and for the people who make it happen. And I wish everyone would go so they might have the kind of experience we have every single time we’re there!