Tuesday, July 19, 2005

A Lesson from Lance

If we claim we experience a shared life with him and continue to stumble around in the dark, we’re obviously lying through our teeth – we’re not living what we claim. (1 John 1:6, The Message).

I have never felt like I have much of a “testimony” to share. That’s not to say I don’t believe God has done anything in my life. It’s just that what God has done isn’t very exciting or dramatic. I have a story, a faith story, to be sure – but it isn’t very interesting.

The truly compelling stories, the kind of stories that show God intervening in a life and turning that life around – those are stories that have punch. They make people take notice. Among those stories is that of Chuck Colson. This guy was at the top of the Washington power structure, a key player in the Nixon administration, implicated in the Watergate mess, convicted and sentenced . . . and then converted. Now that’s a story.

I find myself wanting to add another name to that list, another story that forces the unbelieving world to deal with the reality and power of Jesus. The name is Lance Armstrong. Sadly, however, there’s no story.

Of course, there’s an incredible story of an athlete. An incredible story of overcoming a pervasive aggressive cancer. An incredible story of six Tour de France victories. As of this writing it appears that Lance is less than a week from making it a perfect seven. Unheard of. Unbelievable. An amazing story.

But Jesus isn’t in it.

My interest in this isn’t entirely pure. I guess there’s a little “wouldn’t it be great to have Lance on our side” kind of thinking. That’s not a concern for evangelism, seeing a person come to faith in Christ. That’s marketing. I guess I want to use Lance the same way Nike or Trek does. Thus ends my confession.

Mixed motives aside, it is truly amazing to me that God doesn’t figure more prominently into the Lance Armstrong story. Few lives have been as marked by the grace of God as this man’s life. It seems to me that every inch of his existence is smudged with God’s fingerprints; everything from his natural athletic ability, to the fact that he’s still alive, much less riding a bike – riding and winning. How does a story like that manage to omit God? It baffles me.

But Armstrong manages to do just that in his book, "It’s Not About the Bike." For example:

“I don’t know why I’m still alive. I can only guess. I have a tough constitution . . . I can’t help feeling that my survival was more a matter of blind luck” (p. 3).

At one point Armstrong sounds unnervingly defiant when he says

Quite simply I believed I had a responsibility to be a good person . . . if I did that . . . then I believed that should be enough. If there was indeed a God at the end of my days, I hoped he didn’t say, “but you were never a Christian, so you’re going the other way from heaven.” If so, I was going to reply, “You know what? You’re right. Fine.” (p. 117)

Lance is trusting in himself, trusting in his own best attempt to “live a true life” – whatever that means. The more I think about that, I don’t think I’m guilty of only envying Lance as a poster boy for the Christian faith. I feel a sense of sadness when I read his words. But sadder than Armstrong’s misplaced trust in his “true life” is the reason he seems to feel that way about faith and about Christianity in particular.

Early in the book Lance explains that he basically grew up without a father. Lance’s mother was 17 when Lance was born, and he never knew his birth father. At a young age, his mother married a man who adopted him and gave him the name Armstrong. Lance has little good to say about this man. Among the memories that left an enduring mark on Armstrong is this:

Terry Armstrong was a Christian . . . but for all of his proselytizing, Terry had a bad temper, and he used to whip me, for silly things. Kid things, like being messy. . . as a result my early impressions of organized religion was that it was for hypocrites” (p. 21).

The extent to which Armstrong’s lack of faith in God can be attributed to this one person isn’t clear. What is clear is that as a child Armstrong knew a Christian who seemed to live out of his anger, not love. In Armstrong’s mind and memory this connection was never made: he was a Christian and he loved me. Terry Armstrong's life and faith didn't connect. As a Christian, he didn’t exhibit anything compelling or attractive to Lance.

There's really nothing new here. This is what pastor John seems to be writing about to his congregation, a congregation fractured by some who claim to know Christ, to be in the light – but live life stumbling around in the darkness. Their lives negate their claim. To be in the light means to live a certain kind of life. Faith is lived. Doctrine isn’t a head thing, it’s a life thing. John is succinct in making his point. “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6).

There are plenty of lessons to be learned from Lance: lessons about hope and determination, self-discipline and self confidence – and yes, lessons about grace. But hidden behind these prominent lessons is a quiet lesson about the power of lived faith and the impact it can have on another person. One person’s refusal to acknowledge God can’t be blamed entirely (or mostly?) on another person's failure to walk with God. Still, I can’t help but wonder. What if a very young Lance Armstrong had known a Christian whose love for Jesus translated clearly into love for him? What a story we might be telling right now.

And maybe even today the narrative is open-ended. The story has yet to be concluded.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

These Are Serious Times

You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:56 ESV)

Here in Atlanta we’re dealing with the after-effects of Hurricane Dennis. In Georgia that means plenty of rain, some flooding and loss of power in some areas. It also means we’re relatively fortunate given what some areas along the gulf coast are left to deal with.

Relatively fortunate . . . most of us.

There’s been a news story in Atlanta that I can’t make sense of, can’t get my mind around. Part of my brain wants to wrestle with it to see if I can arrive at some suitable way to think about it. Another part of my brain wants to forget about it and pretend it didn’t really happen.

On Sunday night a 35 year old man in the Decatur area went to bed, probably with the sound of rain peppering his roof. Sometime early Monday morning a massive tree fell on his house, ripping into his bedroom and killing him. He has a wife and small children. They managed to escape. The newscasts keep saying that this man died instantly. I keep wondering how they know that and I keep praying it’s true. Perhaps we’re not supposed to ever get comfortable with stories like that. TV tries to help us. We get about 60 seconds of the tragedy and then we break to something else, often some clever and funny commercial that makes us smile again. It’s the randomness of it all that bothers me. The randomness means that no one has immunity.

So if that’s the case, what are we to do with that? How do we live and what does it mean to live well. These are the questions that have been stirred up this morning as I read through the text of Luke 12. The scripture hasn’t offered an explanation. It rarely does. But to listen to Jesus is to hear some things that need to be heard as we watch the movements of a hurricane and hear about a family robbed of a father and husband and see a mangled and charred bus on the streets of London.

It seems like the people among whom Jesus lived were very much like us. Over the past weekend I was constantly turning on the weather channel. The frequency of special weather bulletins on our local TV channels signaled the level of threat and fed our voracious appetite for radar images and information about trajectory and wind speed. This is the kind of thing Jesus confronts in Luke 12:54-56. Jesus observes that his audience is very perceptive and interested in weather patterns. They know that cloud from the west, coming from over the Mediterranean Sea, will be full of moisture. “There’ll be rain,” they say. Likewise, these folks know that a south wind, coming from the arid desert places, will be like an oven blast. “It’s gonna be a hot one,” they say.

Jesus makes his point with a question. “You know how to read the weather, but why can’t you interpret this present time?”

It’s “this present time” that deserves our attention, our efforts to discern accurately and respond wisely. The pressing question of Jesus’ day, and ours, is “what is God doing?” The people to whom Jesus spoke were good at reading the almanac, interpreting earth and sky, but they were missing the work of God present among them in Jesus.

In his book Serious Times, James Emery White shares this quote from Paul Helms:
“The whole of a person’s life is fundamentally serious, something for which he is responsible before God, and for which he will have to give an account . . . He is individually responsible to God for what he ‘makes’ of it.”[1]

White recounts a line from a letter written by John Adams to his friend Thomas Jefferson toward the end of their lives. “You and I have lived in serious times.”

This is what Jesus knew. This is what he wanted others to understand. This is what we need to understand as well. These are serious times. This theme is woven throughout Luke 12 – in a sense, through the whole of scripture. In the voices of prophets, Jesus, and the apostles, the call is consistent. Don’t miss what matters most. Don’t be distracted by the dramatic and thus miss the truly urgent.

We respond to the randomness of a fallen tree not by trying to avoid trees or by sitting up all night during storms. I heard a radio interview on Saturday with an American woman who lives in London. The interviewer asked, “will this terrorist attack cause you to come home?” The answer was no. It made me think, “why would coming back to the USA be a good response? What would that solve?”

Jesus said, “don’t fear those who can only kill your body and then do nothing else. Fear the one who holds your eternal destiny, who can throw you into hell” (Luke 12:4-5).

We don’t answer the urgency of these serious times by simply protecting ourselves against terrorists or hurricanes. We answer the urgency of these days with readiness. Jesus uses the image of a boss returning from a business trip to find workers productively engaged. Be ready, watchful, alert. “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night” (Luke 12:38).

These are serious times.

And serious times call for serious lives. This doesn’t mean sour and sober, guarded and tentative. It does mean looking deeper than wind and clouds, getting beneath the surface, interpreting the days in which we live, ready to be a part of what God is doing. This is what Jesus calls us to. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24).

[1] Quoted in James Emery White, Serious Times, p. 10.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Jesus Freedom

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips . . . (Luke 4:22)

Woe to you when all men speak well of you . . . (Luke 6:26)

The assigned text in my Bible reading plan nearly fell on Independence Day, but not quite. July 4 and Luke 4 were separated by a day or so, but I’ve been holding them together in my head. The link is freedom and the way we celebrate it and the way we define it.

July 4 is all about freedom: fireworks, flags, parades, food, certain songs played by military bands. It’s a blend of history and politics. It’s about patriotism and pride. We remember and celebrate the birth of our democracy. We celebrate the kind of freedom that tells us we can do anything we dream about doing. We revel in our identity as the land of opportunity.

Luke 4 is also about freedom – but freedom of a very different kind. This chapter shows us a Jesus kind of freedom. It opens with the wilderness temptations. As Luke tells it Jesus was tempted for 40 days. Mark makes it sound like 40 days of prayer and fasting with the temptations coming at the end of that period. Either way, Jesus is free. Hungry, but free not to eat. Wanting to make an impact, but free not to dazzle people. He is free to say no.

The chapter also says alot about the way people responded to Jesus – the way crowds gathered around him. His freedom is seen in his indifference to them. That’s not to say he didn’t care about people or love people. It is clear that he does – but he doesn’t need their approval or applause or admiration. The center of the chapter tells about Jesus’ inaugural sermon. He took Isaiah 61 as his text and after the reading jumped immediately to his application: today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. This didn’t go over so well. At first there had been a sense of hometown-boy-made-good. But the more Jesus talked, the less delight his neighbors felt in his first sermon. By the time Jesus wraps it up, they’re furious with him.

His freedom is an odd mix of love for people and indifference to them. His freedom shows me that I’m not as free as I’d like to be. Jesus heals many, but he never plays to the crowd. Many are amazed at his teaching. Many are offended at his teaching. It doesn’t matter. He’s free of the need to be spoken well of. He’s free of the fear of not being highly esteemed.

Jesus freedom means not living or acting in order to determine what others think or evoke a favorable response. It means not living or acting in order to avoid a negative response. Jesus freedom is found in a clear sense of identity and calling. That’s why the admiring crowd in Capernaum couldn’t hold Jesus for very long. “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43).

I’d like to be free – not just free to attend any church and to cast a vote and go to school and start a business and wave a protest sign and write my congressman. I’m grateful for those things, and too often guilty of taking them for granted. But I’d like to be free with a Jesus kind of freedom. Free to give myself heart and soul to what God is doing, what God is calling me to do. Free to do so without practicing impression management.

This is the truest meaning of religious freedom.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Worthy of Imitation: Simeon

Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts (Luke 2:27)

I can imagine that for a moment he thought about not going. Missing this one day wouldn’t really matter. The place was large and busy. No one would miss him. And besides, he was feeling how the years had settled on his bones like rust. The familiar ache associated with getting up every morning was much sharper on this day, stabbing his joints and pushing the blade a little deeper with every slow move he made. For a moment it seemed like this would be a day to stay at home and be still.

I imagine him alone in his house. His wife has been dead for years. He’s seen most of his friends leave this life, and he wonders from time to time why he hasn’t been allowed to join them, why he’s still here.

But those thoughts never linger for long. He knows why he’s here. And he knows why, once he’s been up and moving for a while, he’ll walk yet again to the temple for a time of prayer. The Holy Spirit has revealed to Simeon that he will not die until he sees the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:26). This is what Simeon lives for. This is what gets him up every morning and braces him against the pain of old age.

This is why Simeon knows he will not stay home today.

I’m not exactly sure what it means to be a “spiritual” person, but there’s considerable interest in the question today. Within the pages of scripture Simeon stands out as someone worth paying attention to. We really don’t know much about Simeon. We don’t know anything about his family. We don’t even know if he’s old. What we do know is that he has been “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” How long has he been waiting? We don’t know that either, but to me the waiting implies a lengthy period of time.

There are some obvious reasons why Simeon should inform our understanding of spirituality: Luke’s text – the only text that tells us anything about Simeon – states plainly that Simeon was righteous and devout, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. This is about a close as scripture comes to saying “he was a spiritual person.”

But what strikes me is the balance that characterizes Simeon’s life before God. He is grounded, persistent, patient – but not dry or lifeless. The balance is captured in a brief phrase from Luke 2:27. “Moved by the Spirit, he went into the Temple courts.”

Simeon’s life embodies two aspects of spirituality that are too often separated: an alertness to God's Spirit in familiar set patterns of worship. Here is a man who is deeply rooted in the practice of his faith. It is hard to imagine that going to the temple was a novelty for Simeon. This man is “righteous” which means he has regard for the law of God. He knows it well and follows it carefully. Going to the temple is simply what he does. He’s done it countless times before. His life before God is shaped by the familiar patterns of temple worship.

But there is nothing rote or mechanical about this. The often walked route to the temple is a Spirit led trip. This man embraces the familiar patterns and practices of worship with expectancy, even with yearning. His heart is fully alive to God. He isn’t going through the motions, worshiping on autopilot. Any suggestion that genuine spirituality requires something spontaneous and new won’t find support in Simeon. He is rooted in the tradition, and sensitive to the Spirit’s leading.

On the day Luke tells us about, Simeon was (again) ready and expectant. He was poised to see what others missed. In the midst of his practiced routine of prayer, he was able to notice the young couple with their baby. Again, the imagination can’t help but kick in here. How many others were bustling around the temple courts that day? How many had hurried to make the hour of prayer. How many others, like Mary and Joseph, were there in obedience to the Law?

Simeon makes his way to the couple and extends his wrinkled hands, gently cradling the infant Jesus. And then he prays. He has seen the salvation of God. In his arms he holds the weight of a nations dreams and a lifetime of waiting. This child – a light for the Gentiles and the glory of Israel. The aim of Simeon’s life has been realized. He’s ready to die, to be dismissed.

I go to church every week, and I have for most of my life. I took a couple of years off in college, but sleeping in is fun for only so long. I started going back. In my life, going to church is simply something people do. I look at Simeon and I have some hope that maybe going back to church was Spirit led. Such a thought never occurred to me at the time. As I got older I knew I wanted to be involved in helping others make their way, or way back, to God. I became a pastor.

The challenge (and the fun!) today is helping people forge a Simeon-like spirituality. By this I mean a life before God that is deeply rooted and yet spiritually alert - holding to the shared practices of believers through the ages, and yet anticipating the work of God in fresh ways in our midst today. There are too many Christians who hold doggedly to the familiar practices of worship, but do so without the slightest expectation that God is doing anything in them or around them. And there are just as many who are convinced that God is at work, but to see it will require scrubbing away the barnacles of familiarity and tradition.

So for me Simeon is a model, a kind of hero: patient, prayerful, persistent. Making his way day after day to the temple, and yet expectant and alert to God - just as we manage to get up every Sunday and pile into the van and make our way to Peachtree Church, a place where God is working, where salvation is happening in the lives of people. I want to show up every week looking for it and expecting it. It’s easy to miss, but it’s there. Simeon teaches us to see it.