Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Tires and Trust

. . . then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life (1 Samuel 1:11).

How do you get people emotionally invested in tires?

You don’t do it by talking about the tires, even if the tires are very good. You don’t lead with mileage or warranties or the smooth ride that those tires provide to you as a driver or passenger. All of those things may be true, but they’re boring.

Some years ago one tire company discovered a brilliant way to connect their steel-belted ring of rubber with the human heart. They did it with a baby. They plopped a diapered little chunk of cuteness in the middle of their tire and slowly rotated the infant as he or she looked about with wonderment.

The message was quite effective. When the welfare of my little one is secured by riding on that tire, then that’s the tire I want.

I’m writing this on the day following my daughter’s fifteenth birthday. This morning she took a test and the State of Georgia issued her a permit to drive - the so-called “learner’s permit.” Maybe that’s why I’m remembering that tire commercial. I’m sensing a connection between my baby girl’s well-being and a set of tires.

I’m also aware that the tire company’s message, while effective, isn’t true. Ultimately a good set of tires can’t secure the well-being of anyone we love. Good tires are important, but they’re just tires. I’d like to think there’s something I could do or something I could buy or something I could say that would keep the people I love from any and all risk of harm. There’s not.

What I can do is pray and give those I love to God’s care. We find a model for this kind of praying in Hannah, the mother of Samuel.

For the longest time Hannah could not conceive a child. Then, as now, this was a source of great distress. Her prayers were mingled with bitter weeping. Hannah wasn’t shy about pleading with God. Storming heaven’s gates, she boldly promised that if God would grant her a son, “then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life.” (1 Samuel 1:9-11).

This might strike us as a manipulative prayer – a mix of begging and bargaining. Not so with Hannah. What is truly remarkable about her prayer is that her promise wasn’t empty. She didn’t forget it once her son was born, claiming some kind of exemption because of her distressed state of mind.

What God gave to Hannah, Hannah gave back to God.

Eugene Peterson observes that when Hannah was happy when her son was born. And she was even happier when she took him back to the temple and gave him back to God in the service of the priest Eli. We can hardly imagine giving a child back to God. For us that kind of talk is a metaphor, a nice idea. For Hannah it was real. Samuel belonged to God, not to her.

We tend to sentimentalize babies, using the emotions they stir to sell tires and plenty of other things. How do we take the ones God has entrusted to us and give them back to God? How do we do this with other aspects of life – a career, a possession, a talent, a marriage?

Life comes to us by grace, all of it a gift. How will you give it back to God today?

All that this day brings to me, O God, I will offer back to you. Every plan, every relationship, every circumstance both expected and unexpected, I give back to you. And I place those I love in your care, knowing that you are good and what you do is good. Amen.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Learning and Thinking

You shall love the Lord your God . . . with all your mind (Matthew 22:37)

There is a difference between learning and thinking.

The two are certainly related. Each has some bearing on the other to a degree. You can’t really learn without thinking. When you think you will learn. But learning and thinking are not identical, especially when it comes to the life of faith.

I can honestly say that I’ve spent my entire life learning what it means to be a Christian. My faith formation and education began in the earliest months of my life in ways that I cannot remember. But years passed and the learning continued. There’s plenty that I do remember.

I learned to use my Bible by doing ‘sword drills’ on Sunday evenings at what we called ‘training union.’ Sword drills were basically a kind of race with Bibles, a skills exercise to see who was quickest at locating a scripture reference. I found sword drills to be somewhat humiliating because I never won. But I learned to handle my Bible nonetheless.

I learned hymns by hearing them and singing them week after week. I learned the content of scripture by hearing its stories told and preached. I learned to pray by hearing other people pray. I learned to listen to sermons by sitting in church next to my mother and being bored and drawing on the bulletin. I was learning to listen even when I wasn’t listening.

At the time I was not aware of learning anything at all. Now I look at all of that as a great gift.

But while I was blessed to learn the faith I don’t recall ever really thinking about the faith until I was in college. Somewhere in that season of my life I realized that I had learned to be a Christian without thinking about being a Christian. Like many, I started thinking about my faith when I was introduced to the works of C. S. Lewis. I remain deeply thankful for the teachers from whom I learned the faith, and the teachers who helped me think about the faith.

It is very common (and quite dangerous) to learn the faith without ever thinking about the faith. Perhaps less common (but equally dangerous) is careful and critical thinking about the faith that never leads to a personal knowledge of God.

Said another way, it is possible to learn the faith by custom and tradition and repetition. There is a learning that is passed from generation to generation, an affection for God that is almost acquired like an inheritance. But when such an inheritance is obtained without the rigor of thought it can be easily lost.

This week we’ll be thinking about what it means to love God with your mind. Jesus included the mind in his citation of Deuteronomy 6:4-9. Along with heart and strength, the mind is involved in truly and rightly loving God.

Two questions will get us started today: Who in your life most helped you learn what it means to be a Christian? And who in your life has helped you think about what it means to be a Christian?

Gracious God, we want to love you with all that we are – not just our affections and not just our actions, but with our minds as well. Be our teacher in these days by your Holy Spirit, we ask in the name of your Son. Amen.