Friday, April 26, 2013

Pause to Feel a Breeze

I have a confession to make: I have been tired this week, maybe for the last two.  My energy has been down; my creativity has been down; my inertia has been down.  I have been sluggish in getting projects completed.  The work that I have put out the last week or so has not been my best.  In short, I am in a funk.  And, based on conversations with colleagues and students, it seems that I am not alone. 

Life has a way of wearing us down, of sapping our energy to the point that we lament how tired we are.  We eat correctly, we get the right amount of sleep, we take multivitamins, we exercise, we keep our minds active, and yet we find ourselves struggling to make it through the day.  There are a lot of reasons for why weariness comes upon us, yet that is not the problem.  The problem is how we work through the tiredness.  How do we recharge or rejuvenate?

I enjoy the film Fearless with Jet Li because it is not simply a martial arts film.  It is a story about a fighter focused on revenge who became a warrior focused on serenity.  Li plays Huo Yuanjia, the founder of the Jin Wu Sports Federation.  In one scene of the film, while he is living in a quiet farming village, Huo watches the villagers stop what they are doing and stand stoically.  A breeze passes through the village, and all of the people are refreshed by the breeze.  It takes Huo awhile to understand the significance of stopping to feel the breeze.  When he does, it realizes the spiritually cleansing and enriching experience of allowing the moment to wash over him.

Naturally, there is a connection between this moment in the film and our lives as Christians.  The connection between a breeze, the Spirit of God, and rest is seen throughout Scripture, starting with Creation and ending with Revelation.  There are several well-known passages that deal with rest and renewal.  However, the one that I want to share with you is from Hebrews 4.  There, the unknown disciple writes, “So there is a special rest still waiting for the people of God.  For all who enter into God’s rest will find rest from their labors, just as God rested after creating the world.  Let us do our best to enter that place of rest” (4:9-11a, NLT).  Scholars will note that there are both present and future connotations to the use of “rest” in this passage.  Yes, death and eternal life will be “rest” for people of faith. 

Yet, there is also the concept of finding “rest” in our day-to-day lives here.  As Frances Taylor Gench writes, “It is a present reality in our lives when, in the midst of whatever befalls us in our journey of faith, we experience the peace, assurance, and confidence that comes from knowing that our lives are secure in the purposes and promises of God.  That sense of security and well-being is also a foretaste of the eternal rest we will one day enjoy in fullness.”[1]  So, today, if you are feeling a little tired, a little sluggish, I encourage you to take a moment or two and “rest” in the presence of God.  Go outside, walk around, and wait for a breeze.  When it comes, stand still, allow the breeze to wash over you, and rest with God.    

[1]Francis Taylor Gench, Hebrews and James, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 31. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Go Means Go!

I recently heard veteran preacher Ben Merold open a sermon with a startling revelation—every preacher will be out of a job someday.  Yes, that’s correct!  Every preacher will be out of a job someday.  Now, it’s not what you might be thinking.  We leave one ministry for another.  However, Ben’s revelation had more to the Revelation than real estate.  He stated that someday we will be gathered together before God’s throne.  And what will we do before God’s throne?  Sing!  With the Word standing before us, we will have no more reason to preach.  We will only worship.  So, for those of you who lead worship, consider this time practice time for eternity.  Some of us are going to need the help in Heaven.

However, for those of us who preach, time is of the essence.  We have work to do.  Preachers and teachers prepare people for Heaven.  Regardless of how we might define it, we are in the fishing business.  When I was in college, I launched a traveling theatre troupe called “Fisher’s Men.”  Our purpose was simple—to use theatre to share the Gospel with (primarily) teenagers.  We traveled to Pittsburg following 9/11 and performed at a youth rally.  It was a modest youth rally, and we were able to bring comfort and laughs to a grieving community.  About a week later, we received an email from one of the teenagers who had been at the youth rally.  He informed us that he appreciated us coming from Arkansas and sharing our faith in Jesus.  As a result, he became a Christian the Sunday after the rally.  Jesus once said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matthew 4:19).

However, going is not simply going a long way.  Going simply means “progress” or “advancement.”  As long as the Gospel is advancing, we are fulfilling Christ’s command (Matthew 28:18-20).  Going also means going across the street or going across the hall.  We often confuse global evangelism with world travel or relief work.  Now, there is nothing wrong with either activity, especially relief work which is desperately needed in many parts of our world.  However, sharing our faith requires us to tell another about our faith.  The question is, will we share our faith with our neighbors, co-workers and classmates?  It is easier to share our faith with a total stranger.  Yet, we are called to go.  Jesus said that the church’s mission would start in a city, then move to a state, then to a country, then to the four corners of the world (Acts 1:8).  Yet, it starts locally.  Go on mission trips, yet do not neglect those who are spiritually stubbing their toes in the darkness at home.  “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matthew 4:19).     

Friday, April 19, 2013

Being a Change-Agent, 42-Style

Note: This is the final post in a 3-part series focusing on the recent film 42, which chronicles the early baseball career of Jackie Robinson.

What does it mean to be a “change agent,” one who enacts change in a system?  How does one bring about change in an organization or institution or culture?  What does it take?  To be honest, I have wrestled with this idea of being a “change agent” for a number of years.  I come from a religious tradition that abhors change, more so than most.  “We’ve never done it that way” and “We’ve never tried that” are not defensive mechanisms or organizational checkpoints; they are doctrinal dispositions that must be adhered to in order to be considered orthodox.  Yet, had a change in the religious system not been enacted, bacon would still be illegal to eat and the Christian religion would have never left Palestine.  Change is not a bad thing.  It is only bad when it is brought about for the incorrect reason.

There are plenty of good books on change and leadership dynamics already circulating.  You may want to pick up Os Hillman’s Change Agent: Engaging Your Passion to be the One Who Makes a Difference, John Ellett’s The CMO Manifesto: A 100-Day Plan for Marketing Change Agents, David Hutton’s classic The Change Agent’s Handbook: A Survival Guide for Quality Improvement Champions, or Agents of Change: Strategy and Tactics for Social Innovation by Sanderijn Cels, Jorrit De Jong and Frans Nauta.  There are also plenty of good web-based leaders, such as George Couros and the folks at Global Grassroots, who are encouraging and implementing cultural and social change.  My purposes here are simpler.

At its core, 42 is more than a baseball movie.  As I mentioned earlier this week, 42 is a sports film in that its uses sports as a metaphor for life.  42 is not just a baseball movie that chronicles the “box score” of Jackie Robinson’s life; it narrates the struggle against injustice and oppression.  In many ways, Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, at least as they were portrayed in the film, were kindred souls.  To that end, they teach us 4-5 lessons about what it takes to be a change agent:
  1. Awareness—Leaders and change agents have an awareness that something is wrong with the system.[1]  In 42, Rickey tells Robinson that he has always felt that something was wrong with the way that African Americans were treated, especially in sports.  He recounts a story from his days at Ohio Wesleyan College when he regretted not doing more to help a black teammate that had deeply impacted him.[2]  Although it would be forty years before he could finally do something about this, Rickey never forgot the awareness that was stirred within him.
  2. Tough—One of the most compelling scenes in 42 is not when Phillies manager Ben Chapman lashes Robinson with a profanity-laced verbal tirade that forces Robinson into a rage in the dugout only to be calmed by Rickey.  That scene is powerful, yet not as powerful as when Rickey stirs up Robinson earlier in the film in their famous 1945 meeting.  It pains Rickey to use such derogatory language, yet he does so because he needs Jackie to understand the gravity of the situation.  Edwin Friedman says that leadership breaks down and change stalls when we fail “to define a position.”[3]  Rickey did not spare cultural sensitivity, as we are so prone to do today.  Change would not come by being sensitive; it would only come by having “the guts not to fight back.”
  3. Humor—In my experience, humor is the trait often least developed in leadership.  Yet humor can defuse a tense situation or rally an audience behind a speaker (Proverbs 25:11 anyone?).  Sherly Sandberg writes, “Humor can be an amazing tool for delivering an honest message in a good-natured way.”[4]  When criticized by his own advisors about the legitimacy of his idea to integrate baseball, Rickey simply replies, lighting up his cigar with a smile on his face, “Robinson’s a Methodist.  I’m a Methodist.  God is a Methodist.”  Situation defused.
  4. Vision—Vision and awareness are not the same thing.  Awareness is realizing that something is amiss; vision is actually doing something to resolve the situation.  Rickey had a vision—racial integration in baseball.  However, he could not simply pick any ballplayer.  He had to pick the right ballplayer, the one who could stand the jeering and the hatred and the threats.  He had to pick the ballplayer who would respond with soaring homeruns and fantastic fielding rather than balled fists and vicious words.  “Preparation is a major part of vision,” writes Dan Southerland.  “Vision is not just a destination; it is a journey.”[5]  Leaders lead not only for the moment but also for the long haul.
  5. Empowerment—Max DePree says that leaders who bring about change “enable others to express their own gifts.”[6]  As I mentioned above, Branch Rickey needed the right ballplayer.  He needed someone with strength, skill, speed, stamina, and a smile.  Jackie Robinson had all of these things.  Rickey trusted Robinson and Robinson trusted Rickey in return.  Leaders who want to bring about change in their culture or system must empower others around them. 

Malcolm Gladwell says that change is never more than a “tipping point” away, and that it is the little things that will push change over the edge.[7]  I think he’s correct.  Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson proved it.

[1]Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA/London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994), 207-208.
[2]Chuck Landon, “Robinson Celebrated Thanks to Ohio Native,”; accessed 19 April 2013.
[3]Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, new ed. (New York: Seabury Press, 2007), 133.
[4]Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 86.
[5]Dan Southerland, Transitioning: Leading Your Church through Change (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 20.
[6]Max DePree, Leadership is an Art (New York: Dell Publishing, 1989), 78.
[7]Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (New York/Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 2000), 12. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Commitment to a Cause Brings Change

Note: This is the second in a three-part series of blogs focusing on 42, the new film from Warner Brothers that focuses on the life of Jackie Robinson.

“Give me a uniform and give me a number of my back, and I’ll give you the guts.”  It was one line that changed the Great American Pastime.  In 1945, following the end of World War II, America’s heroes returned home.  Some of those heroes typically spent their summers playing a game, a simple game of catch where occasionally someone would hit the ball with a stick.  And every one and awhile, that hit would sail so long that crowds would rise from their seats and cheer. 

When you think about it, baseball is probably one of the oddest activities humanity has ever concocted.  It is a lot like golf or polo, where men with sticks attempt to knock a little ball into a small cup.  Only in baseball, the object is a little more complex.  Baseball games can be long and grueling, like soccer or basketball except with less action.  The goal is to score more points than the other team, like football or hockey.  Only baseball is not a contact sport like football and there are (usually) fewer fights.  It was America’s version of the “gentlemen’s game,” originally started by Civil War soldiers to pass the time between skirmishes. 

Yet, as American as baseball was, there was one distinct problem—it was horribly one-sided in terms of participants.  It was a white man’s game.  It had always been a white man’s game.  Yes, black men could play.  However they could not play together.  The thought of white men and black men playing together was absurd.  That was until Branch Rickey, the legendary owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, went on a campaign to change the face of baseball.  In 1945, Rickey put out a call to a young Negro League player named Jackie Robinson, then a shortstop with the Kansas City Monarchs.  Rickey presented Robinson with a challenge—could he, as a lone baseball player, bring about a change that would not only affect the game but also a nation.  However it would not be an easy change to make.  Racism was a deeply-rooted disease in America in the 1940s.  (To be honest, it is still a deeply-rooted disease in some places and with some populations.)  He would insulted and possibly even assaulted for forcing the “color issue” on baseball and the American public.  Robinson was known for his temper.  He often reacted in order to solve racially-motivated problems.  However, Rickey knew better.  This scene in 42 is dripping with compelling emotion.  When Robinson asks if Rickey wants a ballplayer who has the guts to fight back against injustice and racial oppression, Rickey responds by saying that he wants a ballplayer who has “the guts not to fight back.”  “Give me a uniform and give me a number on my back,” Robinson said, “and I’ll give you the guts.”  Commitment to a cause brings about change.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Prayer for Boston

Almighty God, Creator and Sustainer of the universe,

            We come before You today with hurting hearts, wet eyes and shaking fists.  We come before You today in the midst of chaos and confusion.  We come to You today because we are once again reminded of the presence of Evil in our world and because it seems that You did nothing to stop it.  We come to You today because fellow humans have been injured and maimed from this act of violence and its hurts us collectively as a race of people.  We come to You today because, regardless of their color or creed, Death has claimed more victims.  We come to You today because we are left with only questions to ask without answers to provide.  We come to You today because there is no place else to go to seek solace from this pain. 

We come to You today because our hearts are hurting and eyes are wet and our fists are shaking.  We come to You today because we are confused.  We come to You today because we have been reminded that Evil is present in our world and we are looking for You to respond.  We come to You today because injury has come upon some of Your children, and that hurts us.  We come to You today because, regardless of color or creed, Death seems think it has claimed a victory.  We come to You today because only You can provide answers to our questions.  We come to You because only You offer solace from this pain.  Amen.

                        Your children on Earth

Monday, April 15, 2013

"I'll Give You the Guts": A Review of "42"

Today, April 15, is a historic day.  Yes, I know that it is Tax Day.  I completed my tax return back in February.  No, today is historic for another reason.  For on 15 April 1947, America changed.  Good got the drop on evil.  Belief took a shot at ignorance.  Faith leapt ahead of hatred.  Jackie Robinson came to bat for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  America would never be the same.  And on this issue, all I can say is thank God.

In 1947, two years following the end of World War II, minorities in America were still feeling the weight of racial oppression.  All different stripes of Americans had fought and died side by side in Europe, Africa and the South Pacific, yet they could not eat the same restaurants or drink from the same water fountains.  However that was going to change.  And the advent of this change did not come from a crowd gathered at a memorial in our nation’s capital; it came in an office in Brooklyn. 

This is the story that 42 wishes to tell.  It wishes to tell the story of how one old, cranky, white baseball man challenged one, young, black baseball player to help him change the world.  Sure Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) wanted to make money.  He knew people would pay to see a black man smack homeruns off of white pitchers and steal bases from white catchers.  Yet, deep down in his soul, Rickey was nursing a regret, a regret that he had not done more.  Thus he turns to Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Bozeman), a young ballplayer full of personality and power to help right the wrongs caused by prejudice and ignorance.

This film is too good to spoil by telling you much more about it.  Also, it is a historical biopic piece, which means there has been some polishing and tweaking.  Great care has been given to making this a great movie about a great man.  Heroes are heroes (Jackie, Branch Rickey, Pee Wee Reese, etc.) and villains are villains (Phillies manager Ben Chapman, a town sheriff in Florida, and a couple of Robinson’s teammates).  Yet if baseball ever had a saint, it was Jackie Robinson.  If you want the “box score” on Robinson’s life, I recommend the Wikipedia article, recently updated in honor of the film and the ongoing construction of the museum in Manhattan.  It is a sports film, yet it is not like Eight Men Out.  It is not simply a historical narrative of events and people and games played.  It is a sports film like We Are Marshall and Miracle are sports films.  It has a spiritual message for a broken world: When we believe in good, good will overcome evil.  And in this case, good overcomes evil by hitting a monstrous homerun!

Obviously, the racial tension is the thread that weaves the plot of this film.  I am an avid baseball fan, and I believe deeply in social justice.  My wife and I wanted to see this film, yet we questioned whether or not to take our children who are elementary-age to see it.  We have taught our children that racism is not only wrong but sinful.  Martin Luther King, Jr., is a name we hold in reverence.  (Ultimately, we took our son and left our daughter with my parents.)  Yes, there is some profanity and a little bit of drinking in this film.   The film does not spare famed manager Leo Durocher his public flaws of alcoholism and adultery.  And Harrison Ford smokes enough cigars to burn down Ebbets Field.  My concern was the constant use of racially-motivated derogatory language (you know that sad, offensive word).  Yet, the scene where Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman (Ben Tudyk) lashes Robinson with a verbal barrage that could have broken even the hardest hard-core rapper proves to be the strongest teaching moment about the evils of racism that I have viewed in a film since Glory.  I agree with Alynda Wheat’s comments: “He insults the player in language so blisteringly foul, you may question whether to take your kids.  I say take them.  The film provides plenty of teachable moments: form the painful to the triumphant, lessons too many of us have forgotten or perhaps never knew.  And if the Robinson adoration begins to feel like a bit much, it’s okay.  Some things need to be glorified.”[1]  You will leave this film with a lump in your throat, a tear in your eyes and a burning desire in your heart.  And for that I say, thank you, Jackie.              

[1]Alynda Wheat, Review of 42, People 79 (22 April 2013): 41. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Take a Moment

So, how busy are you today?  I wonder something.  I wonder what a future archaeologist would say about our society a couple of centuries from now.  There she is in her floating laboratory.  Can you see her?  She is conducting research on 21st-century daily life.  Since it is the future, information is readily available.  She is research these social media platforms called Facebook and Twitter.  She is scratching her head because there are a couple of things that puzzle her.  First of all, did people in this century speak in a coded language?  Post after post used abbreviations that only seem to make sense to the sender.  Also, what is it with the nauseating use of the # sign?  Was humanity a deeply math-oriented society?  Second, did people in this century ever catch a break?  As she scrolls through page after page of status updates, she comes to the conclusion that humanity was rest-less, that we did not need times to relax and recharge our batteries.  (If I’m correct, you should be nodding your head here J.)

In his powerful yet small book Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner writes, “Before the Gospel is a word, it is silence.  It is the silence of their own lives and of his life.  It is life with the sound turned off so that for a moment or two you can experience it not in terms of the words you make it bearable by but for the unutterable mystery that it is.”[1]  There is something profound here.  As I mentioned in my March 29 homily for Holy Saturday, there are times when all we can do is be still.  There is nothing to say in those moments.  Unfortunately, we find those moment almost torturous.  Join me in a quick experiment: Find a place where you can be alone for just a few moments.  Got it?  Now, shut off all noise.  Shut off your phone, iPad, computer, television, game system, even the lights.  Sit in total silence and darkness.  If you’re like most people, a couple of things probably happened.  First, you could only make it a few seconds before that uncomfortable feeling set in.  Second, silence was almost immediately replaced with humming in your ears because your body is adjusting to the lack of stimulation.  The point is, however, that silence is difficult.

Yet, we need silence.  As Buechner noted, the Gospel is silence before it is spoken.  Pain comes before pleasure; sin before salvation; reality before reconciliation.  Yet there is a place theologically for silence in our lives.  It is in silence that we best hear the voice of God.  Remember the words of the Psalmist, “Be still, and know that I am God!  I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10).  We need silence in order to hear directions.  We need silence in order to get our bearings.  We need silence in order to live loudly for God.  Today, I encourage you to take a moment, stop with your status updates, and be still in God’s presence.

[1]Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (New York: HarperCollins, 1977), 23. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Once Dead, Yet Making a Comeback

One of the few benefits to being me is that I look for stories and connection points everywhere.  I go see a movie, read a book, listen to a song, or view of piece of art, and the homiletic creative juices start rolling.  Some might call it sensory overload—and they may be correct—however I like to think that it is the way that I am wired.

One benefit is that it usually means I can find spiritual truths in really odd places.  Take, for instance, the film shown above.  Warm Bodies (2013) is a new spin on Romeo and Juliet mixed with a dash of the classic Evil Dead and a sprinkling the upcoming World War Z (based on the novel by the same title).  Here’s the basic plot: The “Zombie Apocalypse” has occurred.  The majority of humanity (or at least New York City) has been infected and now spends their days shuffling from place to place, muttering to each other and trying desperately to not turn into “skinnys” (zombies that are way scarier. . .and faster).  The story centers on zombie R and human Julie.  Julie is part of a colony militia that is sent out to find food and supplies.  However her squad is attacked by a zombie hoard.  Although he is part of the hoard, R rescues Julie and takes her back to his airplane home.  There he begins to undergo a transformation—he starts changing back into a human, he starts “healing.”

Now, I would hate to spoil the rest of the film.  So rent it on Netflix or Redbox and find out the end.  It was worth the price of admission and is worth the rental cost.  As I was watching it in Memphis, I could not help noticing two connections.  First, this was a lot like Romeo and Juliet (R and Julie; R’s “best friend” is named M; Julie’s best friend is Nora).  Second, the idea of R healing sounded a lot like Paul’s concept of salvation and spiritual regeneration.  In Ephesians 4:17-24, Paul writes, “Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds.  They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart.  They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.  That is not the way you learned Christ!  For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus.  You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”  In a way, before we accept Christ, we are spiritual zombies.  We are simply shuffling from place to place, looking for something to give a reason to keep on going.  When we accept Christ, we experience the renewing of our minds and souls.  We were once lost, yet now we are found.  We were once dead, yet now we are making a spiritual comeback!  

Monday, April 8, 2013

Massaging the Thorn

Have you ever been called on to fulfill a role and your immediate thought was either “Have we given up completely?” or “Was there no one else?”  Two different friends of mine have voiced such a concern when asked to fulfill administrative roles at the particular institutions where they served.  In both cases, there was an immediate need, and these individuals were selected because it was believed that they could work appropriately and effectively in the position, even if it was for only a short time. 

When confronted with such a challenge, I think we respond the way that we do for one of two reasons.  First, we think that we are not ready for such a position.  Perhaps we are new to the institution or organization.  We do not feel comfortable enough in our role in order to lead effectively.  Perhaps, we are not completely familiar with the rules and regulations that we must live under.  Perhaps an extended period of adjustment to the new role hampers our effectiveness.  Whatever it may be, we think we are just not ready to take on such a role. 

Second, we realize that we are deficient in the area of leadership or administration that we are being called to.  Perhaps we simply do not have the adequate training or experience.  Perhaps we are not credentialed enough.  (I experience this one quite a bit—both appropriately and inappropriately--as one who is currently pursuing his doctorate.)  Perhaps we are simply not skilled, and our leadership is less than stellar.  I have been tackling this concept recently in the congregation that I serve.  I am tone-deaf.  I cannot read music.  Thus, I am a natural candidate to lead singing, right?  I made it through over a decade of professional ministry without leading more than a verse or two of a hymn.  Now, I am the regular evening song leader.  Well, at least it is the evening service.

First, pray for the patience of my congregation.  Second, it has been a learning experience for me.  No, I have not miraculously learned to read music or carry a tune in a bucket.  The learning experience has come in confronting this “thorn” and experiencing God’s grace each week.  In 2 Corinthians 12:6-10, Paul writes, “But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth.  But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations.  Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.  Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’  So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”  Do I enjoy leading singing?  Not at all.  Am I willing to lead singing?  Absolutely, for in my weakness I am made strong through the grace of Christ expressed through God’s people.

Monday, April 1, 2013

New Beginnings

Last night, my family and I watched the final part of The Bible.  I was particularly struck by Con O’Neill’s portrayal of Paul, and the provided dialogue that guided his performance.  In the episode, it is Paul who confronts Stephen about his preaching and who also riles a crowd up to stone the young preacher.  Of course, this is a stylized version of Acts 6:8-8:1, where Stephen does preach before the Jewish religious leaders and where Paul is present for Stephen’s stoning.  However, all Luke records for us in terms of Paul’s participation is that he held the cloaks of those who stoned our first martyr (Acts 7:58).  Yet, it does provide the motivation for Paul’s holy war against the first Christians, which we read about in Acts 8.  As Acts 9 tells us, Paul is given orders to go as far north as Damascus to arrest Christians.  On the way, however, he has a “come to Jesus moment”—literally.  Blinded and broken, Paul is taken to Damascus where a Christian named Ananias preaches to Paul, heals him of his blindness and baptizes him.  Paul is now ready to “proclaim Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23).  However, the initial reception to Paul’s conversion is not positive.  Yet, in a fleeting moment, Paul offers his only sermon in the miniseries—the famous words of 1 Corinthians 13.  He preaches about love and forgiveness, how God has offered both to him and how Paul now wants to offer (and receive) both from others.  “Love is patient; love is kind. . .It bears all things. . .Love never ends” (13:4, 7, 8).

As I was watching this, Paul’s words from Colossians 3 popped into my head, probably because this was the most recent sermon that I had preached prior to Easter.  There Paul writes, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:2-3).  In order to do this, we must get rid of all of the bad stuff in our lives, of which Paul uses abusive and inappropriate language as an example (3:8).  As Christians, we “have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed [ourselves] with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (3:9-10).  In short, we have traded one life for another.  We have made a new beginning.  If there were ever a Christian who understood that concept, it was Paul.  He had blindly beaten, arrested and killed Christians in the name of God.  Yet, now he could see clearly the will and way of God.  God was patient with Paul.  God showed kindness to Paul.  God forgave Paul.  God used Paul to spread the Gospel across the globe.  And God can do the same for you.