Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What the Packers and Seahawks teach us about grace

For those who opted to stay up late to watch the Monday Night Green Bay Packers vs. Seattle Seahawks game, you were rewarded with perhaps the worst call since the infamous Bert Immanuel catch (#5 on the NFL's most controversial calls,which mind you, prompted a rule change; the "tuck rule" was never amended after Tom Brady's fumble that wasn't). 

If you didn't see it, Packers defensive back M.D. Jennings came down with the final pass of the game in his hands. Seahawks receiver Golden Tate had one hand on the ball but was rewarded with the game winning catch. Things got so bad that some packers considered drastic measures like kneeling down every play until the replacement refs are sent back to the high school and Pop Warner fields from whence they came. 

To make matters worse, Golden Tate blatantly shoves down another defensive player, completely taking him out of the play. That is called "offensive pass interference" in most people's "books," though admittedly is rarely called at the end of games.

So Golden Tate was rewarded with the touchdown, even though someone else secured that possession for him. Tate received something good, because of the work of someone else. He received the fruit and credit for the labor of another.

Not only that, but he clearly disqualified himself by pushing down another defender in order to try and secure possession of something that was clearly out of reach. He should have received a penalty. Instead he is rewarded and blessed.

Does this sound like something that has happened before? It should.

It's the gospel. It's grace. Getting something good when you deserve something bad. Getting something good because the real winner chose to lose and take the bad for you.

Philippians 3:9

"....and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith..."

 Colossians 2:13-14
   13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,  by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 
The Seahawks clearly were the recipients of grace in some form.

In a Jim Rome interview, one player felt particularly angered. But anger boiled up in this man not primarily because of the bad call, but because of the Seahawks disdaining the grace bestowed upon them. Instead of owing the victory to grace, several Seahawks claimed that this was simply the result of hard work, dedication, and drive.

Quarterback Russell Wilson claimed someone "made a play." Coach Pete Caroll affirmed that it was the right call. Golden Tate wouldn't fess up to his shoving the other defensive back to the ground.

That's what angered this player so much. Taking credit for something it is clearly grace.

A few thoughts:

1.) Grace does make people mad, particularly those who think they've earned something. The older brother in the Prodigal Son story was angered by grace. He didn't get anything good despite how "good" he thought he'd been. If you believe grace, preach grace, show grace, you will make people angry. If you tell them that they need grace, or still need grace, you will make people mad. We're a messed up bunch, but we don't like to hear that!

2.) On the same note ("G" for Grace), when you recognize your own need for grace, folks will find something offensive, much more attractive. It would have done much to disarm the situation if several Seahawks simply said, "Yep, we were given a gift tonight." Grace was offensive, but it would have disarmed a lot of angry people to admit they needed it. If we preach grace to "people like you, people that really need it, people like _____," then we will inevitably get an angry "You think you're better than me?" But if grace is for people like "us," well then, that goes a long way. It's good theology as well. Romans 3:23.

3.) We ought to get as upset with ourselves as the Pack did with the Seahawks when the latter denied the grace that had been shown to them. It made me sick to see how much credit Seattle took for their victory. Does it bother us as much when we forget that any spiritual victory is the work of Christ in us? It's His work in us that we celebrate. He has taken possession of salvation for us and now puts the "ball" in our hands. Only we rejoice with Him who has taken possession of what we could never hope to possess.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Bringing the gospel to your kids without being a Grace Nazi

My wife and I have been reading different parenting books. I just finished Our Covenant with Kids while Amy and a number of women at Redeemer are working their way through Give Them Grace by Elyse Fitzpatrick. The former focuses on theology and application of that covenant theology within the family and church. The latter focuses on teaching kids grace, instructing parents specifically how to craft phrases and take full advantage of gospel speaking opportunities. It doesn't deal with how grace plays itself out within the covenant structure simply because her theology isn't covenantal. Can't blame her for ignoring that part!

While not having read Give Them Grace, other than snippets and reviews, I can see Fitzpatrick does a great job of challenging parents to begin to saturate the kids with the gospel at a very young age. And of course, to think gospel-centered, is to think counter-cultural and counter-instinctual. Thus it can seem awkward at the start.
I'm thankful for parents willing to re-think parenting in light of the gospel. Because grace is more of a salmon than a tuna (swimming against the current as opposed to going with it-thanks Jerry Seinfeld), we need to intentionally recapture the gospel and apply it to parenting. And if the gospel doesn't take center-stage in our parenting, being involved in the results or lack thereof, we'll go neurotic. 

Here's how the gospel has helped me in my short time as a parent. I have a feeling I'll only cherish it and need it more and more as the kids grow.

1.) Our ultimate goal is not the behavior of the child. I pray often that my kid will be nice to his friends, not bite, hit or spit. But my main goal as a parent and as a pastor overseeing children is that the kids would know the gospel, cherish Jesus, and connect with a church when they leave the home. 

In the past several days, a few well meaning folks have told me, "I'm glad I got to spend time with your kids because it makes me feel better as a parent." Now that could be offensive if I didn't believe the gospel for them. My ultimate goal is not good behavior-though I do want that-but for them to believe the gospel: that will produce behavior consistent with the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22). And when my kids disappoint me, I have to believe the gospel for myself. My kids' behavior is not my righteousness. Their behavior, successes, or lack thereof are not the solid rock on which I stand. My kids' performance does not give/take away any meaning to my existence. Jesus and all that he did for me is my righteousness, and that is something which never ebbs or wanes. Now believing that is of course much harder than writing or communicating it to others. But that's why grace is so important in parenting. Both for you and for your kids.

2.) I try to be a good parent. I pray. I read books. But I think I stink sometimes. Now I love my kids, and because I do, I pray for protection not just from the world, but from themselves and from their parents. I'm certain God can protect them from my failures. I've seen God do it before with absentee parents, so I trust him to do it with flawed "presentee" parents. We need the gospel.

3.) The question is then how to do it. That's one thing Give Them Grace really seeks to accomplish. But that is never an easy, thoughtless, or confession-less thing to do. When the gospel becomes a part of who you are, how then do you instruct and train your kids in such a way that it becomes part of who they are? Here's what Amy and I have been doing. It may be helpful, or it may not. Still, it always helps me apply the gospel to whatever I'm doing when I see how others apply it to what they are doing. From one flawed parent to another.
  • Speak often in terms that reinforce the gospel. We don't ask Connar, "Were you a good boy or bad boy?" That seems to indicate a change in standing based upon behavior. We like to say, "Did you listen or not listen?" We tell him that only Jesus makes him good, and that God still loves Him when he does "bad sins." His position isn't based upon performance. Sins are still bad, but he knows that God still loves him just as much when he fails to listen.
  • If you speak often enough in terms that reinforce the gospel, you don't have to analyze every single thing you said or did and wonder, "Did I reinforce the gospel?" That can become draining. Did I teach grace there or only teach the law (of course I realize you have to teach law in order to get to grace)?  To borrow another Seinfeld term, you don't need to be a "grace Nazi" to yourself or others. If you can't ever encourage your child in a good behavior, there is probably something wrong. You like encouragement when you have done something well. If my kid listens at school I encourage him and celebrate it! Most of the time we say, "Jesus helped you to listen. Yay!" Or we could say, "Jesus loves you just as much regardless, but we are excited because that shows love to your teachers." But sometimes we don't, or sometimes we forget. Yet because we couch most things in the gospel we don't have to be "grace Nazi's." If I tell him, "Good job," he knows who empowers "good jobs," and that he, like his Mommy and Daddy, are in need of grace how no matter how good of a job it was. If all you do is celebrate behavior, you will teach moralism. If you saturate your kids with grace in the morning, afternoon, and evening, then what they are going to hear is grace, even if you don't say it every, single time.
  • The only way to know your kid is getting the gospel and not simply behavioralism is to ask questions and listen to them pray. We can speak about grace until it is coming out of their noses, or ours, but until we hear them speak grace back to us, we don't know what they really think. If they open up in prayer, "Jesus, only you can change my heart..." or  "I know Jesus that you've already obeyed for me so I can relax and follow you....," then that's probably a good indication that the gospel is at work.
It is only by grace that anything good comes out of us and out of our kids. Even at 4 years old, my little boy understands and prays for other people's hearts. When he recognizes that he needs the gospel as much as his friends and parents do, watch out. Good things will happen.

Please share any things you do as a parent to make the gospel part of your parenting in the comment section.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Fall "season-ette" or "mini-season" reflection

Fall just sprung upon us this Saturday. It comes every year, and aside from my neighbor's leaves falling in my yard-and then their raked leaves ending up in my yard as well- I really do like it. I like the cooling temps, the colors, and the lower power bills. And of course there are other things of which Fall should be commended; Fall, to quote The Doobie Brothers, "Is just alright with me."

But I do take issue with calling Fall a "season." I don't know that this designation is entirely accurate here in West Virginia. I did just read Paul's instruction to Timothy not to "quarrel about words" (II Tim 2:14) this morning so I won't be dogmatic about this. But consider my concern. We technically do have four "seasons" here in West Virginia. But this is somewhat misleading because we have a 4 month long winter, almost 4 month long Summer, leaving just 2 months for Spring and Fall each. Do Spring and Summer really deserve the title "season?" I would prefer to call them "season-ettes." They resemble seasons, but don't have the duration to really deserve the title of season. 2 Seasons. 2 Seasonettes or "mini-seasons." We have mini-series on TV. Why not "mini-seasons?"

With that off my chest, let me share a Fall "season-ette/mini-season" reflection:

I don't like Winter. Primarily because I don't like the power bills. That's most of it. That and not being able to wear flip flops. So when Fall is here, winter is just around the corner. I think many other folks wish Fall were afforded more prominence in the seasonal rotation as well. And sometimes that desire can actually keep us from enjoying the season. Yeah, this is nice, but it is so short.....

The same thing goes with seasons of life. Some seasons seem to last longer than others. Sometimes in life, just like in WV, "winters" last much longer than Fall. But can I appreciate those "season-ettes," those shorter respite periods that I wish would last just a little longer? Like kids behaving (hypothetical for me!), weekends, vacations, dinner's with spouse, sunsets, periods of general blessing? Can we rejoice in the proverbial "Falls" without dwelling on the harsh winters looming ahead?

In preaching through Ecclesiastes a number of years ago, I found this reminder. Enjoy the temporary blessings, despite any potential or obvious "winter" arrival. Fall is meant to be enjoyed, no matter how long the winter lasts. So bring on the Fall, short though it may be.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Positives and Negatives from Episode 1

With The Office going down the drain last year, my wife and I agreed on one show: Parenthood. In the end, I think the writers raise one major question: what does a real family look like? Not so much what one should look like-that's what the other shows like Modern Family and The New Normal attempt to do-but what might it look like? Several work together. They play together. They live together, and celebrate countless parties together. So what does it look like when a family is ALWAYS together? Scenarios arise, and questions are raised. 

Like any show, the nuclear and extended family is either denigrated and redefined (Modern Family/ The New Normal) or it is idolized (only the latter is the case). At the same time, the directors/writers/producers/actors in Parenthood also provide a positive picture and even include, at times, "biblical" instruction.

Positive "biblical" instruction: 

One couple has recently adopted a 7-8 year old lad. He is correctly accused of stealing some sort of lizard, but the new mother doesn't want to bring it up. At the end of the show, the husband exclaims that, "By not bringing it up, you are not treating him like family, but like a stranger." The implication being that family can ask tough questions that unsuitable to ask stranger in the same home. Of course the truth also applies within the body life of the local church. If we're not willing to ask tough questions, which may or may not imply guilt or the need to change, we are treating each other like strangers, not family. Loved this one.


After spending some time with another set of grandparents, a child is found praying. The parents are none too thrilled about that, as they want the right to raise their child according to their beliefs. Fair enough. But when asked to define their "doctrine," neither could offer an answer. So the search begins and ends with the matriarch and patriarch. Neither seems to offer too much help, but the bigger questions like "Where did we come from," is raised. The standard existential "whatever you decide it to be" wins out, with one "string" attached. This isn't utterly existential. What shapes the question, and thus the question is this: Whatever "truth" practiced and expressed within the family exists in order to ameliorate the family.

The sad part about this is its accuracy. Many people come back to church to give their kids religion and morals. However many professing Christians never leave this stage. What can your church do to make my kids better kids? What can Jesus do for my kids? I'm good with anything that helps my kids be better kids. If Jesus can do something for my family, I'm good with him. It ends there. No sacrificial giving or going. No bringing people in to the family unless they make it better or more comfortable. Jesus can't ask anything of me that might keep my kid from a scholarship, being more popular, more comfortable.

Of course this belief is on a continuum and shows like Parenthood help raise keep that struggle before us. If you love your family, this is always a struggle! In the end, I'm thankful to have a show raise such questions and issues. If we take every thought captive-particularly our favorite TV shows-then they can be as devotional as they are enjoyable.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Leadership Cutlery: How not to use it

The Chicago Bears offense looked great two weeks ago (of course the Bucs defense looked great two weeks ago, so a week can make a big difference!). This past Thursday, they looked terrible. But they had to and have to deal with more than a loss. Quarterback Jay Cutler got physical and berated one of his offensive lineman. 

While there are 52 other players on the roster, the QB is often the main leader, the face of the team. So the leader of the team, or at least someone in a prominent leadership position, blamed his failure to complete passes to his team's inability (he did complete a number to the other team) to protect him. It wasn't his fault, it was their fault.
I don't claim to be the best leader in the world, but I think most of us can smell bad leadership a mile away. Some of his teammates really don't like that smell. Count Cornerback D.J. Moore among them.

“I don’t think you can act like that, though. To make it seem like it’s just my fault or what not, I think it’s just wrong, though honestly,” Moore said, via Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times. “I would feel a certain way if he did me like that, to make it seem like, ‘Well, the reason I’m having a bad game is because is what you’re doing and not about me taking accountability for myself because I’m throwing these type of passes and doing these type of reads.’ It’s a tough situation.”

One thing that I've learned as a pastor, and I wish I had learned more than I already have learned (if that makes sense), is that there are certain things you just can't say or do as a pastor. There are certain things you just can't say or do as a leader. As a parent, as a teacher, as anyone holding any leadership position. Often times you just can't share how you feel. You don't have the same freedom as someone not in leadership. That is something you forfeit when you say "yes" to any leadership position.

Cutler claims passion and drive as excuses for such behavior. In fact, it seems as though incidents like these are simply fueled from these normally positive emotions.

“I care about this,’’ Cutler said of the incident with Webb, via Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times. “This isn’t just a hobby for me. If we’re not doing things the right way, I’m going to say something. If they want a quarterback that doesn’t care then they better get someone else.’’

As a leader you should be open and honest, but you cannot be open and honest about everything and to everyone. Remember Tom Hanks' line in Saving Private Ryan, "Gripes go up. I don't gripe to you?"

Let's learn from Hanks and Cutler. Tell another leader when folks let you down. Tell another leader when you feel it is primarily the fault of another. You can be open and honest about most everything with other leaders, even those leading you, but not with those you are trying to lead.

And when you eventually say or do those things which leaders just cannot say or do, remember to repent. Sometimes it will be too late to undo the damage. I've been there. But God is honored with the repentant leader.

Leaders who recognize their flaws are leaders worth following. I would guess Cutler's teammates would give him another shot if he would just repent. But I like the chances much greater when leaders regularly preach grace and then recognize their actual and present need for grace. Those are the kind of leaders I get behind. Leaders that watch their mouth, and when they forget, they watch the cross.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Why I'm appreciating Breaking Bad

Due to the recommendation of several folks, and the opportunity provided by Netflix, my wife and I have been enjoying the series Breaking Bad. While I must admit that the plot of the show initially turned me off (and I guess it should have, I mean a chemistry teacher with terminal cancer turns into a Meth dealer? ) Breaking Bad regularly attempts to deal with honest questions facing humanity. 

For instance, the main character Walt's brother-in-law just happens to be a DEA agent. When he offers Walt a Cuban cigar at his baby shower, Walt responds, "Isn't this illegal?" The DEA simply laughs it off and tells him, "The forbidden fruit sometimes tastes the sweetest." Then Walt, the chemistry teacher/meth dealer calls him on his inconsistency, "Where do we draw the line? What if marijuana is illegal this year and not next year? Seems arbitrary how we draw lines?"

And for the unbeliever who rejects any overarching standard-and I realize plenty of unbelievers live inconsistently actually believing in some standard-Walt does raise a good point. When you take God out of the picture, lines become merely whimsical suggestions.

Yet another scene in a different episode actually reveals a suppressed God-centered worldview. Remember, mankind can only suppress his/her knowledge for so long. Usually you'll see evidences of it bubbling over. Walt and his chemistry partner put together a breakdown of the chemicals comprising the human body. This scene is beautifully juxtaposed with a moral dilemma Walt faces: what to do with the drug dealer in his basement. Should he kill him or let him go, with the potential that "Crazy 8" could come back and kill his family? The actual list of pros and cons he makes just doesn't cut it. He needs something more.

So the directors switch back to the chemical reconstruction scene, where Walt confusedly asks, "What is missing? Why are we only at 99%?" His partner responds, "What is missing is the soul." Now Walt has his answer. The human is more than chemicals, but endowed with a soul, therefore it would be morally wrong to simply kill this drug dealer.

I haven't even seen the whole first season. And thanks to an article on comparing Walt to Apple's Steve Jobbs, I'm aware that Walt's character becomes darker and darker as the seasons progress. Nevertheless, despite Walt's ongoing descent into darkness, Breaking Bad has raised topics which challenge the Christian to go back to God's Word and find solid answers to the world's fluctuating morality. So far, at least in this first season, it has proved devotional and may open evangelistic doors in the future.

Caution: Breaking Bad is dark and deals with drugs, so don't watch it if you're unable or unwilling to question, to filter, to genuinely reflect, and proactively "take every thought captive" to discern what is good, true, and beautiful.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Love of money is bi-partisan

I will be glad when this election is done. Though I do love the "smear" ads on TV where a campaign pays for a supposedly neutral common man to blast the opponent, and then ends with, "I approve this message," I think I'll be ready for one man to win. But my personal favorite is the unbridled optimistic "buy in" from "party homers" reminiscent of the promises made by Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite, guaranteeing the celebration of the "holy santos" and more tater tots.

Several years ago someone asked me, "Did you see Obama's speech?" I replied that I had not. "Well you should." Yes, because every politicians pep rally speech becomes reality soon after he's elected to office. That's how it works, right?

Anyhow, sorry for the rant.

I've been reading I Timothy in the morning these days and came across the well known, but probably often misquoted passage about money found in 6:10-11: 

"But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation...For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils...."

It wouldn't hurt for both political parties, or rather for all of us, to consider how we display a "love of money."

Democrat: I don't want to work, or rather can't work (that's what doctors have said, can't you read this report?), so give me my money. You owe me.

Republicans: I worked hard for my money, so I want to give as little as possible. I built this. I'm voting for someone who will tax me as little as possible so I have more money. And this will fix the economy too.

While one side seems to be painted as the side who wants to hoard money, and the other side as the one who wants to give it away, I think both parties really do love money.

Maybe this is an overly simplistic caricature? But in the midst of mudslinging, disgust, frustration, sadness, over either sides' recent convention (and you have every right to partake in the latter three), it would do us all well to consider how we-not simply the other side-loves money just as much. Perhaps just in different ways.

Sometimes we love money because it brings security. Sometimes we love it because I can buy cool stuff like a new-or rather refurbished-Mac. I just did. Sometimes we like the power it gives. Sometimes we like the prestige and place in the community. But all of us love it for some reason. It's not just money we're after.

Yet Paul reminds Timothy, "But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content."

Ouch. Yeah, that's not me, at least not much of the time. But the good news for the Christian, or for those who will one day put their faith in Christ, that's Jesus to a tee. And his record counts as mine. Fortunately. Not only that but he came poor that we might become rich. Not rich by simply having more money and indulging in our idolatry, but rich because we are lavished with grace and promised a future richness (mansions in a New Heaven and New Earth), that I imagine will one day be even more tangible than a big house.

Jesus is why we can be more content tomorrow than today. And he is why/how we can critique another political party without ignoring the fact that the love of money will always be bi-partisan. I'll vote the Republican, and I'll challenge that the other side loves money too, probably just as much. But only Jesus can/has done/will deal with our love of money.