Don’t Labor Under False Pretenses

It was years ago when I first heard of Lawrence Hummel. National news wires reported the death of this self-educated janitor who wore his lawyer’s hand-me-downs, but left over $600,000 to Bethany College in northern West Virginia, where he mopped floors for 30 years.

Hummel had amassed a million-dollar fortune from the stock market with knowledge gleaned from discussions with professors and from economics classes at the college. Even so, to the end of his life Hummel continued to live frugally.

“If you saw him and talked with him, “ said Joseph Gompers, his lawyer, “you might confuse him with a bum. But he wasn’t. He was a warm, compassionate person who cared about people.”

The story made news because Lawrence Hummel was different. According to the standards of contemporary American culture, he was even something of a misfit. He saw no need to turn his wealth into any of the normally accepted symbols of the American dream: clothes, travel, homes, or cars. Work had a higher purpose. Thoughtful Christians have always claimed the same thing—that work has a purpose beyond paychecks and interest rates.

Today as you enjoy your “Labor Day” take a few moments to realize the worth and value of your labor. Too much of America is trying to conduct business with little concern for right and wrong. Morality is supposedly a personal matter. But followers of Christ know better. Like Lawrence Hummel, we have an unusual view of work. We hold that the gospel brings responsibility, dignity, and purpose to what happens in the shop or office. Jesus, after all, was a carpenter. And God has purposes for our work that go far beyond our day-to-day tasks.

As you enjoy your “Labor Day,” determine not to labor under false pretenses. What you do and how you do it . . . matters to God and to others!

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

I was sweating acne and sporting bellbottom pants when I first heard the Rolling Stones’ song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Named the 100th greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine in its 2004 list, it was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and released in 1969 on the Let It Bleed album.

While not an actual “news nerd,” I confess a reasonable obsession with news and current events. To that end, my reading and listening of recent relevant happenings, leaves me walking around in a “you can’t always get what you want” kind of daze.

• Internationally, the ethnic and religious cleansing in northern Iraq by ISIS is being called “the Rwanda of our time” by Dan Hodges of The Telegraph.

• Nationally, the catastrophe in Ferguson, Missouri where yet another unarmed black teenager is killed by a white police officer is a cesspool of allegations and overreactions.

• Locally, I talk with another mother that has custody of a “heroin baby” and struggles constantly with a husband who refuses the tough love option of refusing to give money to his addicted kids.

• Then there is the blended family where an intelligent, but emotionally damaged 8 years old is using the guilt of her dad and the vengeance of her mother as kindling for the ongoing flash fire that may ultimately consume both families.

• And finally, there is the pastor of a small congregation who has spent almost a year gathering information for a courageous outreach into a depressed and needy community yet his sleep is interrupted by the explosive dynamic of staff relationships and congregational contentment.

All of these scenarios rock with the haunting reality of the Rolling Stones lyrical truth: “you can’t always get what you want.” And just as each situation bears closer analysis, so our song requires a closer listen.

The three topics discussed in the song address the hot button issues of the 1960s and 1970s: love, politics and drugs. (Hmmm . . . does this list look familiar to our previous observations?) Most significant is the pattern outlined in the song. First, there is optimism, then disappointment and finally, there is an acquiescent practicality that saves the day:

You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you just might find
You get what you need

Is it possible that every experience of life can in some way be redeemed or reconciled in a way that exceeds the pop psychology highlighted in Breaking Bad’s fictional character Saul Goodman or as the writer’s intended it to sound, “S’all good man?” Is our collective response to life’s difficulties simply reflected in the flippant refrain of Bob Dylan’s song “It’s All Good”:

But there’s nothin’ to worry about
’cause it’s all good
It’s all good, I say it’s all good

Life lived with an honest sense of sanity and perspective and hope demands an answer to that question. Is it possible that the dark, desperate, and deeply unsatisfying moments of life can be honorably redeemed or are we simply left to dance the dance of denial to the melody of “It’s all good, I say it’s all good?”

The longer I live and the more I listen to the heartbeat of hurt and disappointment surrounding our world, both locally and internationally, the more I am convinced our only defense against the hardened cynicism of disappointment which left untended will result in life altering bitterness is the capacity to pay attention to what matters most. We hear it as children making our first steps, “pay attention,” we reflect on it as teenagers choosing our first friends, “pay attention,” and much too often we regretfully forget it as we make our first feeble attempts at adult life, “pay attention.”

I am not sure when I first heard or accepted it, but slowly I began to understand that life lived deeply and meaningfully is not simply choosing one path and pursuing it doggedly to the end. It has much more to do with how we pay attention and discern when to change paths or directions because the situation and circumstances allow and sometimes even demand it. Life lived on the far side of disappointment and bitterness is the result of responding with grace and faith when our journeys are interrupted and left unfinished.

This becomes clear in the final line of the “you can’t always get what you want” refrain. It says, “But if you try sometimes well you just might find you get what you need.” The “trying” speaks to our need to pay attention and getting “what you need” identifies the opportunity for every part of life to be redeemed or reconciled in a way we may not want, but we ultimately need.

People of faith see this in the life of Jesus. Leonard Sweet says, “Jesus didn’t know any waiting rooms—he knew only living rooms.” His point is an important one, especially to those who live with the terror of time, always trying to get to the next place or accomplish the next thing in hopes of outrunning our sense of disappointment and bitterness.

While we spin our wheels in “waiting rooms,” Jesus insisted on moving every experience of his life into the “living room.” Every moment had meaning because Jesus knew the author and finisher of time. Every second had power because Jesus knew the creator and sustainer of time. Every day had potential because Jesus knew the maker and redeemer of time.

No, we don’t always get what we want . . . but if we pay attention and live with grace and faith, we can find our way to the “living room” where we might get exactly what we need! Thanks be to God.

Is There Such a Thing as a Sanctified Selfie?

I do not often swim in the pool of American evangelicalism, but when my study (of the scriptures) and the stories (of those in ministry) collide, well, I dip my toe. Such is the case with the ongoing stories of transgressions and apologizes offered by Seattle-based mega-church pastor, Mark Driscoll.

I will not write here about the issues and concerns surrounding Pastor Driscoll (they are easily accessible on the internet), but I would like to voice one important observation I thought relevant to this discussion.

In my recent study of Romans 7-8, I realized that the Apostle Paul’s declaration of personal contradiction (“I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead I do the very thing I hate.”) found in Romans 7:15, is what my friends at Homiletics magazine call a kind of divine “selfie.” By definition, a “selfie” is a “picture of yourself, usually taken by yourself.”

Somewhere in my journey with this familiar but frightening text, a new thought came. As I spun the definition of a selfie around in my head, I easily acknowledged the first part of the definition, “a picture of yourself.” However, it was the second part that caused a stutter in my logic, “usually taken by yourself.”

While I do not personally know Pastor Mark and have not read all the “he said, they said,” machinations that have followed this popular pastor over the last few years, I did sense that perhaps the real issue and danger for any pastor facing accusations for which they must apologize is the haunting question, “Did I apologize because I got caught or because I recognized I did something that warrants an apology?”

The first happens as the result of someone holding up a mirror to my transgression, but the second occurs when the Spirit of God sensitizes my heart and mind to that personal contradiction that Paul pleads about in Romans 7-8.

The first apology happens as the result of someone pointing to my problem, the second kind of apology happens as the result of a prompting of my heart.

The first is embarrassed by the mistake of the past; the second is empowered by the opportunity of the future.

The first brings the weight of guilt from being caught; the second brings the joy of grace from being rescued.

The first worries about reputation, the second seeks reconciliation.

The first wallows in “total depravity” (“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do”). The second is humbled by radical grace (“Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!”).

So is Pastor Mark and the rest of who desire to align our lives with Christ just poor vessels of humanity weakened by predispositions and corrupted gene pools or are we as the Psalmist said, “just a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5)? Are we dust or divinity?

I count myself among those who lean toward the divinity side of that equation and one of my theological tenets for that conclusion comes from the late Dallas Willard and his classic book, The Spirit of the Disciplines. He identifies 3 stages of personal redemption with the third stage being a real, psychological process where “we consciously direct our bodies in a manner that will ensure that it eventually will come ‘automatically’ to serve righteousness as it previously served sin automatically (p. 117).”

Willard goes on to quote powerfully from Oswald Chambers: The question of forming habits on the basis of the grace of God is a very vital one. To ignore it is to fall into the snare of the Pharisee—the grace of God is praised, Jesus Christ is praised, the Redemption is praised, but the practical everyday life evades working it out. If we refuse to practice, it is not God’s grace that fails when a crisis comes, but our own nature. When the crisis comes, we ask God to help us, but He cannot if we have not made our nature our ally. The practicing is ours, not God’s. God regenerates us and puts us in contact with all His divine resources, but He cannot make us walk according to His will.

It is one thing to take a “selfie” of our dusty side and publically own our wrinkles and imperfections. It is another to take a “selfie” of our divine side and privately own our continued distance from God’s resources for righteousness.

I wonder, is there such a thing as a “sanctified selfie”?