Saturday, April 19, 2008

Living Responsibly

I have to admit that the most complex problems I have faced in my life were mostly created by my own hands. On a few occasions that wasn't true... like the time I took a job in a newly-merged United Methodist Conference that was, unbeknownst to me, imploding. There's nothing quite like uprooting your pregnant wife from a job and community she loved (as well as all our family) for a job that within a month is targeted to be cut by the very people who just hired you. I had no idea I was walking into that kind of chaos. I just knew that the job was about $20,000 raise over my last one, and that the work I was hired to do was right up my alley. All the politics raging at the time in the IGRAC were unknown to me. That's why they pimp-slapped upside my head, and eight months after that move, I moved again.

But it was during that short, turbulent time working as the "Associate Director for Youth and Young Adult Ministry of the Academy of Servant Leadership of the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference" (I dare someone to find a longer job title than that one) a lot about the best, and worst, I had to offer. I won't bore you with the details of politics gone awry that came out of two sets of leadership from two former conferences jostling with one another for control. I didn't create the problems of that organization (which eventually was "re-structured", and then eliminated all-together), but as the in-fighting, head games, and constant strife landed at my door, I can't say that I behaved all that honorably at all times.

The bottom for me came after five months of utter chaos when, in a moment of frustration, I chewed out the Assistant to the Bishop, only because the Bishop wasn't available to take my phone call. Peon pastors, and even lower peon Associate Directors with long titles and no power, don't chew out Bishops or their assistants. They certainly don't don't tell people in authority over them to (um.... how do I say this?) to extricate a body part located above the shoulders from a particular orifice in their own body..... twice.

It didn't matter if the situation was screwed up. I let the dynamics dictate my response, which was inappropriate enough to threaten my career. Thank goodness for an understanding Bishop, or right now I'd be selling Life Insurance or used cars.

I forgot the lesson of the servant of the master, as Jesus told it in Luke 12. In the parable, Jesus says that a master goes off leaving his manager in charge of his affairs and his house while he's gone. Also, the master doesn't give a time table as to when he's going to be back. So the head servant is left with the task of keeping the house in good order until the time came that not only the master returns. Jesus tells us that the manager who does his job every day until the day the Master returns will be blessed. The master will come home, see all is well, and praise the manager for a job well-done. But, in turn, if when the master leaves, the manager treats the staff poorly, throws parties for all his buddies, and is passed out drunk when the master returns.... the manager is toast. Jesus goes on to make his point by stating that if the manager did his best, and it simply wasn't good enough, he'd receive a correction so that future performance would improve, as opposed to if he ignored the demands of his job altogether. Do the latter, and you not only get fired, you bring on a world of hurt.

For years this text has mostly been interpreted as a warning from Jesus to his followers to be at the ready for his inevitable return. I remember that on Grandma Bucher's wall in her living room werethe words, "You must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when you least expect it", and it was in relation to her belief around the Second Coming of Christ. The popular Christian belief has been that Jesus would come back unexpectedly, and if you hadn't confessed your faith in him, he wouldn't take you out, or "rapture" you out, of his world into Heaven before a series of horrible things happened on the face of the earth that the "unrighteous" would have to live through.

But Jesus, I think, is really talking about something else. In our text this morning, he says that he is trying to define what it means to be "dependable" or full of "common sense" as we stand in the presence of God each and every day. In the New Living translation, the words used are "faithful and sensible servant". Jesus is trying to help us understand what it means to live life sensibly and dependably as it relates to will of the Lord. The two are connected.

Whether you believe the Lord is in your presence, or not, act like he's in charge, doing what he wants in a way that would make him proud.

Or, to put it another way, to use your head for something other than a hat rack.

As we talk about trying to understand the will of God, we cannot discount the need for each of us to live a life where we use our ability to reason in order to make good choices each and every day. To not give into the chaos of the world we live in, or to the temptation to take a short-cut that will cost us our integrity, or to sucker-punch somebody else who has upset or wronged us, or to simply asses that things have gotten so complicated that there's neither right nor wrong anymore. Sure, life is complex, and filled with difficult questions, but while it might not seem like our cutting a corner will make any difference in the big scheme of things, it will make a difference in us... and what's bigger in the big scheme of things than an individual choosing to make up their own rules as they go along than what that does to the individual, or those around them?

Not much.

There's a guy here in Lima who, one day, on his own, sick of a group of drug dealers who stood across the street from his house,

sick of hearing gunshots outside his window,

sick of not being able to let his children go outside to play for fear of getting shot or stabbed as innocents in the middle of a drug-deal-gone-bad,

sick of working two jobs at 80 hours a week to provide for a family now living in fear of their own neighbors,

sick of the toll addiction had taken on his own family,

sick of being sick,

one day made a sign and stood outside his house across the street from the drug dealers that read "Drugs Mean Death". You probably read about him in the paper.

The first day he did it, the dealers from across the street and their buddies in the neighborhood, threatened to hurt or kill both him and his family. They were threatened by a guy with a little yellow sign so much, that they promised to take his life if he didn't shut up, and go back inside.

But the man, Jesse Lowe, refused to go back inside. He stood there, listening to the horns honking and other voices telling him how much they appreciated what he was doing, committed to his cause. Yesterday, as the community prepared for another one of Jesse's public demonstrations, which as he has continued to picket has grown to include people of like mind from all over the community, he told the reporter who has been covering the story as to why, despite threats to his life, he was continuing his quest to let everyone know that "Drugs Mean Death". He said...

"When you look at a tombstone, you see two dates. You've got the year you were born and the year you passed away. In the middle you have a dash," Lowe said. "What will your dash say? What will you have stood for? Will it be a life of substance? Because I've hear pastors give eulogies with nothing to say. They didn't do nothing in that dash."

To many in Jesse's situation, in a neighborhood where the sale and use of illegal drugs is tolerated mostly out of fear, it might seem like God isn't present. Isn't around. Too busy to do anything, or (worse yet) taking His punishment out on people because they've chose to ignore him and what He wants. I'm sure there have been plenty of sermons to that effect preached in a plenty of pulpits.

But Jesse is simply living out the life of the good, faithful, sensible manager. He's made a decision to try to motivate people to do the right thing. To take down license plate numbers of suspected drug dealers and buyers. To report illegal activity in their own neighborhoods. To, instead of saying "I don't know" when the police are acting questions, work with authorities to bring those who rain injustice on others to justice.

And lo and behold, preachers, politicians, housewives, teachers, principles, carpenters, masons, newspaper reporters, and many, many others, have shown up to take on Jesse's cause. You might even say God showed up, or maybe more accurately, someone listened to a Lord who tells us that the greatest love a man can show is that which leads him to give his life up for his friends.

One person uses his God-given ability to make choices, and he decides to do so for all the right reasons, and starts something he never intended.... others doing the same thing. Others seeking to make something of the "dash" between their birth and death dates by acting reasonably, sensibly, and dependably.

Such is the power of God's gift of reason. It can change neighborhoods and communities. It can change hearts. It can change households. It can extricate us from the bad choices, from the sin which entangles us. Sin we born into. Sin we committed ourselves. Sin that is all around us.

For whatever reason He chose, God has decided that we should be given freedom of the will - the freedom to make our own choices - and that somehow through our own willingness to do what He thinks is best, be partners with the Lord in the work He is committed to in this world.

But here's the thing... we're prone to blow it. It's the way we're wired. It's called "original sin". As humans we've been sinning for so long that's it's become part of the very essence of who we are. I mean, anyone who thinks that we're born good has never been a parent. We're not born. We're born selfish. We cry, and scream, and flail madly because we figure its the only way we're going to stay alive. We don't count on others to provide for us. We make a stink. It's as if from the very beginning we know how cold and hard this world can be, and we never fully trust that our needs will be taken care of. Some folks out there reading this might get angry at me as they read these past few lines, but it's true.... we're born focused on numero uno, and it takes a life of correction and discipline to start thinking differently. We want what we want, and we're never sure someone is going to provide it for us.

Jesus in the scripture points out three common ways we blow it. The irresponsible manager, first of all, mistreats others, and not just any "others", but those who he is responsible to lead.

My two year old, Eli, is a champion tantrum thrower. He throws himself on the ground, screams his head off, kicks and screams... anything to get his own way. I hope he outgrows that stuff, but I've been around long enough to know that always doesn't happen. I've seen people, in and out of the church, scream, yell, guilt, lie, cheat, and bully others into getting what they want. Maybe in the end they felt like the ends justified the means or that everyone else was just too stupid or slow to understand what was best for them... I don't know. All I do know is that after they stopped screaming, my esteem for them lessened about two or three percent. And if they act that way too many times, in too many venues, whether they know it or not, they are less respected than they are feared or even disliked. People might explain away their behavior with "that's just ______ being blank", but really, is that how you want to be known? The guy you'll bully somebody to get what he wants or the woman who's always playing games or creating drama to manipulate others? When we allow our emotions, particularly anger or fear, to dictate our behavior we're acting as if the Master, at best, will let this slide, and at worst, will let us do what we want.

The bar is set a bit higher than that in Jesus' world.

Second, reason goes out the door when we use what we've been loaned by God to solely serve our own ends.

In the words of Jesus, it was the manager throwing a party in the master's crib, on the master's dime. God didn't give you gifts, talents, and abilities to simply make sure you ended with that pool table you always wanted. Call what I'm giving your right now a guilt trip if you want, but surely the investment God has made in us should pay off a little higher than some money in a collection plate, $20 a month to the United Way, and three boxes of Girl Scout cookies. I'm not talking about giving more money away to non-profit groups that make a community more livable. I'm talking about the end product of your resources. What are you investing yourself into? What is the net result that you wish to see of your labor?

Too many people, too late in their lives, begin to realize that the footprint they've left behind isn't anything more than one made of carbon. Those who wake up find out that all they have time for is to try to apologize or undo the brokenness they've left behind. One of the most heart-wrenching, and memorable sermons I ever heard in this church was one Joseph, our former senior pastor, gave about forgiveness. The sermon's main illustration came out of the story Joseph told of his father - who abandoned his family when Joe was a little boy - came back years later, his body ravaged by cancer, to make amends with his son, now married with two children of his own. What was powerful about the sermon to me wasn't the fact that the father had finally realized the legacy he'd left, but the pain that was still palpable in the heart and soul of the son. The father, who took the son's innocence and trust, was now demanding his forgiveness. That's the best he could do with the time he had left.

Why wait so long in life to figure out that what you do and who you are can add up so much more than just a small inheritance? To get past yourself, or in other cases, to finally step out of the shadow of pain and abuse that have kept you in darkness and into the freedom of true life, is the only thing you can do to finally be available for the Lord's service. I heard it said once that Satan doesn't work nearly as hard as people would have us think he does. Quite frankly, we don't need to the devil to make us do anything. We're quite capable of messing up everything ourselves, particularly when we can't see past our nose despite our face.

All you see is in a mirror is what's behind you. When are you gonna put the compact down, and see what might lay ahead?

Finally, while our ability to make the right choices about how to live our life can be obscured by both our willingness to push others around or objectify others to get what we want and our unwillingness to invest our lives into anything other than ourselves, the third way Jesus said the manager's reason grew cloudy was through self-abuse.

Jesus termed us as the manager being drunk when the master came home. The house was a mess. His friends and their hangers-on laying amongst the empties scattered all over the floor. The rest of the staff cowering in their quarters, afraid of their boss, and now, his boss.

I'm kind of ashamed to admit this, but last Sunday evening as I stood in Port Columbus, waiting on the plane to take me to Dallas, I realized I had failed to bring something to read on the plane. Now, the planes you fly on to Dallas from Columbus, or at least the ones I flew on, didn't have flat screens or TV's you could whittle time away upon watching bad movies or re-runs of some random reality show. These planes were really small. There wasn't room for legs, let alone flat screens. And I can't sleep on a plane (something I found out after watching 8 movies, one right after the other, on a 16 hour flight through the night to Seoul, South Korea), so I needed something to read. So I'm looking over the magazines and newspapers and assorted books of all kinds, and it was then that I saw it. The book I had to read, even though I was a little ashamed to admit it. It wasn't a theological piece (although they were available) or the latest ten steps to becoming a better motivator/leader (there were plenty of those too).

Nope, I plunked my money down on "Losing It and Gaining My Life Back (One Pound At A Time)" by none other than Valerie Bertinelli.

If you want to get funny looks, be a huge guy toting a "chick book" around airports. I kid my friends who drink coffee drinks with chocolate, milk, and whipped cream on top as being foo foo men, who drink foo foo coffee. Well, this was as foo-foo a book as they come. Every other page was about the author crying or agonizing about her dress size. That's pure 100% grade A "foo foo".

If you don't know who Valarie is it's cause you don't watch the "Teary Eyed Movies About Women for Women" Channel or you aren't a fan of the band Van Halen. I can't say I've seen any of her movies (really... as hard as I try, not even one), but the band's music is part of the soundtrack of my misspent youth, and I wondered how in the world she and Eddie Van Halen (the band's lead guitarist and creative force) stayed married for twenty years. I mean Eddie's been to rehab a lot of times and is kind of notorious for being kind of unpredictable... how on earth did that marriage last as long as it did?

Well, I don't want to spoil the book for you anything, but it pretty much lasted thanks to two separate careers that demanded a lot of travel, some cheating, and plenty of denial. Not exactly a fairy tale. In the one case the husband numbed himself with alcohol and drugs, and in the other the wife numbed herself with food (hence the title of the book and all the Jenny Craig commercials). After about 100 pages I just wanted to scream "Jiminy Crickets, put down the jalepeno poppers and take control of your life", but then I realized something.... I'm, uh, a tad overweight.

Or really, if I go by all the charts, morbidly obese. And then I remembered another of Jesus sayings that had something to do with the person who could cast the first stone.

Whether its food, or drugs, or alcohol, or an affair (live or digital), or shopping, or hording some thing, or taking our pain out on ourselves in some other twisted form, most of us abuse ourselves in one form or another. Whether we call it a coping mechanism or having a good time, in either case, we're just using what we can to numb ourselves to the stress or pain or anger or angst or the spoils of success we feel every day. The body is pretty resilient, but the scary thing is that we don't really know its limit.

And even more scary, we have no idea what kind of influence abuse of this kind has on our spirit. That's the part of living in this world that scares me the most. The greatest pain inflicted on ourselves, and others, comes out of wounds we receive spiritually. Why do you think that given everything he could talk about going on this world, that over and over and over again Pope Benedict keeps going back to apologizing the scandal of priests abusing children? When there is no respect or honor for that which is holy and sacred, the worst things happen.

I'm learning, slowly but surely, that Jesus does truly want to bear our burdens with us, but really we don't understand how to let him do this, and it warps our decision making ability. It makes no difference if its a high school girl who starts cutting herself or a businessman who'll work just one more hour to make just one more sale no matter what the cost is at home, every single day. Numbing ourselves with whatever substance or activity we choose is an act of self-abuse that insults our own ability to handle what life brings us, and rebuts the Savior's efforts to unload of this burden so that we can apply ourselves to thinking about something else.

Something worth thinking about.

The gift of reason helps us see in the midst of all the complexity, the simplicity of where the Master desires to lead us. Sometimes that journey is a joyous one, and other times the journey will cost us much... and some cases, even our own life. But our reasoning will never be clear unless we let God be God, and let the sacrifice of Jesus Christ be sufficient to satisfy our sense of loss or pain. Such is the wisdom of Bishop Oscar Romero, who seconds before he died at the hands of a repressive regime as began to offer communion at the alter that day uttered these words:

"May this Body immolated and this Blood sacrificed for Mankind nourish us also, that we may give our body and our blood over to suffering and pain, like Christ -- not for Self, but to give harvests of peace and justice to others."

The grace of Jesus received should be the beginning of reason. Let it be so.

Let it be so.

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