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Free to Love

Thoughts from the Porch

“When men and women get their hands on religion, one of the first things they often do is turn it into an instrument for controlling others, either putting of keeping them ‘in their place’. The history of such religious manipulation and coercion is long and tedious. It is little wonder that people who have only known religion on such terms experience release or escape from it as freedom. The problem is that the freedom turns out to be short-lived.” (Eugene Patterson, The Message – Introduction to the book of Galatians)

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I often tell audiences when I’m speaking that I’m “recovering Church of Christ”. People that live here in the “Buckle of the Bible Belt” usually know exactly what I mean – a fundamentalist evangelical Christian upbringing (If you’re unsure what that means, think of Southern Baptists on steroids).One was held to certain, often impossible, moral standards and judged harshly when one strayed from the established norms of church law. It was no wonder that when I moved away from home at the ripe old age of eighteen, it wasn’t long before I found release from the constraints of my upbringing. I reveled in my newly acquired freedom.

Sadly, freedom slowly turned into a self-made prison: walls of addictions, guilt, and shame (another story for another time). In desperation I turned to the God of my youth and cried for release. Ironically, the God of my youth hadn’t changed. Only my perception of Him had. Grace, something I had only heard about in abstract theological discussions, became real.

My wife and I share a common love for the Lord even though we have denominational differences. We have the common community of recovery. While not everyone in recovery finds their Higher Power to be the God of our home, many of our friends share our Christian faith. It’s become a “church”, or community in many ways.

Her beliefs and doctrines are important to her while mine have taken a different direction. Thankfully, her denomination didn’t inflict the spiritual, of more accurately, religious abuse that fundamentalist Christianity did. It still works for her. For that I’m extremely grateful.

Over the last couple of years, she’s wanted me to explore her denominational beliefs and hopefully provide answers to some of my questions. We’ve invited a couple of young men from her church into our home each month. We’ve shared good conversation and I appreciate their energy and commitment to spread the good news Jesus brings. However, they have been unable to answer some questions I feel essential to discipleship.

Perhaps it’s their age. “Elder” typically means one of “greater age”. Their name tags may say elder, but their age says different. It doesn’t make them wrong. Their experience hasn’t led them to an answer. Besides, some of the best wisdom has come from young folks. Out of the mouth of babes, you know…

They’ve asked older members of their church to talk to me, but even they have been unable to answer my questions. What they see as divine revelation doesn’t jive with my experience. Mind you, I’m not trying to be difficult.

I appreciate the values we share – a love of God and a love for others. I don’t understand why it’s necessary to inflict a set of rules and doctrines to make one part of the “in” crowd. Before anyone thinks I’m being critical and judgmental of another denomination please know I am overjoyed by their work for the marginalized. They support family and a relationship with God. It’s just different methodologies.

That’s not what I see in Jesus. Following Jesus has led me into a life of freedom I only dreamt of. He has truly given me an abundant life. My newfound freedom comes with the responsibilities associated with “loving God with all my heart, mind, and soul and loving my neighbor as myself”. Maybe that’s why self-control is one of the fruits of the spirit…

The question they find so difficult to answer is this: Why would anyone who has found complete freedom in Christ submit to the heavy yoke of rules and regulations? Laws, doctrines, and a formula for self-proclaimed piety aren’t what make me right with God. Grace is what makes me right with God. In fact, the Apostle Paul called such people promoting the law as “contemptible” (Galatians 6.13).

Paul puts the question far more eloquently than I ever could:

“How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off top please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you? Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God… Does the God who lavishly provides you with His own presence, His own Holy Spirit, working things in your lives you could never (Emphasis mine) do for yourselves, does He do these things because of your strenuous moral striving or because you trust Him to do them in you?” (Galatians 3.2-3,5 The Message translation)

I wouldn’t trade the freedom I’ve found in Christ for anything. I also know that freedom brings a huge responsibility. I never want to settle for what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ”cheap” grace – to “continue in sin so that grace may abound” (Romans 6.1 RSV). My responsibility is to love God and love others. Jesus said if I do that everything else will take care of itself. Simple, but difficult at times. Some people are simply hard to love. Do it any way…

When I live God’s way, Paul says this incredible thing happens.

“He brings gifts into our lives, much the way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like:

  • affection for others
  • exuberance about life
  • serenity
  • a willingness to stick with things
  • a sense of compassion in the heart
  • a conviction that holiness permeates things and people
  • we find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life
  • able to marshal and direct our energies wisely”

(adapted from Galatians 5. 19-21 The Message

It’s no wonder that Paul says to go on and “live creatively’ and “never tire of doing good”. I’m a simple guy. I can’t think of a simpler way to live. If my missionary friends can answer this question, then maybe I’ll give it some consideration.

Until then “live creatively”, my friends…

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"As long as we operate inside any scarcity model, there will never be enough God or grace to go around. Jesus came to undo our notions of scarcity and tip us over into a worldview of absolute abundance. The Gospel reveals a divine world of infinity, a worldview of enough and more than enough. The Christian word for this undeserved abundance is “grace.” It is a major mental and heart conversion to move from a scarcity model to an abundance model and to live with an attitude of gratitude."

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent: 2019), 184-185

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A New Economy…

Thoughts From the Porch: A gorgeous Fall day greeted me this morning as I stepped out on the porch. Every day is gorgeous in my mind, but this morning was especially bright and inviting. My “porch time” has included an email series I’ve been receiving from the Center for Action and Contemplation. I’ve always appreciated Father Richard Rohr and I hope you will appreciate today’s meditation as well.

Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation

From the Center for Action and Contemplation

Week Forty-eight

Economy: Old and New

The Gospel Economy
Sunday, November 24, 2019

Jesus said to the host who had invited him, “When you hold a lunch or dinner . . . invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; and blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.” —Luke 14:12-14

I’d like to begin this week’s meditations by contrasting two economies or worldviews. The first economy is capitalism, which is based on quid pro quo, reward and punishment thinking, and a retributive notion of justice. This much service or this much product requires this much payment or this much reward. It soon becomes the entire (and I do mean entire!) frame for all of life, our fundamental relationships (even marriage and children), basic self-image (“I deserve; you owe me; or I will be good and generous if it helps me, too”), and a faulty foundation for our relationship with God.

We’ve got to admit, this system of exchange seems reasonable to almost everybody today. And if we’re honest, it makes sense to us, too. It just seems fair. The only trouble is, Jesus doesn’t believe it at all, and he’s supposed to be our spiritual teacher. This might just be at the heart of what we mean by real conversion to the Gospel worldview, although few seem to have recognized this.

Let’s contrast this “meritocracy,” punishment/reward economy—basic capitalism which we in the United States all drink in with our mother’s milk—with what Jesus presents, which I’m going to call a gift economy. [1] In a gift economy, there is no equivalence between what we give and how much we get. Now I know we’re all squirming. We don’t like it, because we feel we’ve worked hard to get to our wonderful middle-class positions or wherever we are. We feel we have rights.

I admit that this position satisfies the logical mind. At the same time, if we call ourselves Christians, we have to deal with the actual Gospel. Now the only way we can do the great turnaround and understand this is if we’ve lived through at least one experience of being given to without earning. It’s called forgiveness, unconditional love, and mercy. If we’ve never experienced unearned, undeserved love, we will stay in the capitalist worldview where 2 + 2 = 4. I put in my 2, I get my 2 back. But we still remain very unsure, if not angry, about any free health care (physical, mental, or spiritual) or even free education, even though these benefits can be seen as natural human rights that support and sustain peoples’ humanity. All too often, we only want people like us to get free health care and education and bail outs.

Brothers and sisters, you and I don’t “deserve” anything, anything. It’s all a gift. But until we begin to live in the kingdom of God instead of the kingdoms of this world, we think, as most Christians do, exactly like the world. We like the world of seemingly logical equations. Basically, to understand the Gospel in its purity and in its transformative power, we have to stop counting, measuring, and weighing. We have to stop saying “I deserve and deciding who does not deserve. None of us “deserve”! Can we do that? It’s pretty hard . . . unless we’ve experienced infinite mercy and realize that it’s all a gift.

Gateway to Presence:
If you want to go deeper with today’s meditation, take note of what word or phrase stands out to you. Come back to that word or phrase throughout the day, being present to its impact and invitation.

[1] “A gift economy, gift culture, or gift exchange is a mode of exchange where valuables are not traded or sold, but rather given without an explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards. This contrasts with a barter economy or a market economy, where goods and services are primarily exchanged for value received. Social norms and customs govern gift exchange.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gift_economy)

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Capitalist Economy and Gift Economy,” Homily (September 1, 2019), https://cac.org/podcasts/capitalist-economy-and-gift-economy/.

Image credit: Le Denier de la Veuve (The Widow’s Mite) (detail), James Tissot, between 1886 and 1894, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

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Faith is Action

“Jesus wasn’t executed because he went around healing people; he was crucified as the worst kind of criminal because his Gospel message was viewed as dangerous by the ruling class. In fact, the entire Gospel of Luke is one long lesson in speaking truth to power—to the corrupt elite in Jerusalem. If we Christians claim to have anything to do with Jesus, then we must inherently be engaged with the political issues of our time.” – Peter Armstrong

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Brain Worms

Thoughts From the Porch:

Do you ever get brain worms? You know, those pesky little musical ditties that play over and over in your head. No matter what you’re doing the song or musical rift won’t go away. In fact, the more you try to think of something else the more persistent the song becomes. Sometimes they’re simply the last song you hear on the radio and other times it comes out of nowhere. Sometimes they come from the most unlikely sources.

Let me explain…

After an early freeze it’s been a string of beautiful Fall days here in North Texas. The sun was bright, trees have turned to true Fall colors, and the birds celebrate the morning in song. The coffee was fuller in flavor and I relished in the November morning in shorts and a t-shirt. Truly a blessed morning…

I was reading about Jesus’ first recorded miracle at a marriage feast in Cana: turning the water into wine. About halfway through I started humming a Kevin Fowler song, “The Lord Loves a Drinking Man”. Honestly, it isn’t the most spiritual thing to pop up during my prayer and meditation time. Click on the link and you’ll see what I mean.

Jesus turned the water to wine and “any man who can do that is a good friend of mine”. Yep…

Changing Water into Wine

John’s retelling of the miracle at Cana offers a brief glimpse into his kingdom. He says time and time again the kingdom of God is like a wedding feast and the Jews in Palestine knew how to throw a wedding feast. Family and friends came together from all over the region. The finest food was prepared, and the best wine was brought out first. The party was going to go on for a while so serve the best wine first and “after the guests have had their fill bring in the cheap stuff.” John 2.10 (The Message).

It was a big deal. Scholars say their wedding parties lasted for days. I got a taste of this when I was a groomsman in an Irish Catholic wedding. The reception was in the Coors Brewery Workers Union Hall if that offers you a clue. They prefer Irish whiskey to wine and that’s probably a story for another time, but I digress…

I’d like to think that God’s kingdom is a big celebration. The idea of sitting around singing angelic hymns for eternity sounds a bit boring. God’s kingdom is one of love, joy, and a heck-u-va party. I can’t think of anything better to celebrate.

Wine into Water

Ironically, for people like me Jesus seemed to have worked His miracle in reverse. He changed the wine into water. For me this is the most amazing miracle of all. Trapped in a swirling whirlpool of cheap wine (among other things) and total self-obsession, He lifted me to a life I never dreamed possible. He invited me into the feast (an analogy He uses often). I know longer settle for scraps of life. I have a seat at Abba’s table: and what a party it is.

I can only imagine that if this party is so good now, then how much more so will the big feast be?

I’m unbelievably thrilled and amazed at just how much He loved this drinking (among other things!) man. I’m happy His miracles aren’t contingent on my false piety and spiritual correctness; that His love is unconditional. He always works the right miracle whether it’s wine into water, or water into wine. Whatever you’re drinking, come on in and join the feast…

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“Many in the United States claim we are a Christian nation, but if we are to call ourselves such, we must sustain a sincere connection between our Gospel values and the political choices we make. We cannot declare we are one body and then neglect to give that body the care it needs, including food, water, and shelter.” – Joan Chittister

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Teachable Moments

I enjoyed the sunrise a tad more than usual today. The birdsongs were louder and more melodic today. Perhaps it’s in anticipation of another delightful autumn day in Cowtown knowing that by the time this is posted it will be a a couple of days of record-breaking arctic chill…

Most of you know that my wife, Margaret, broke her leg in one of the worst spots possible. The good news is surgery wasn’t required. It was a clean break and will heal without pins, plates, and various orthopedic hardware. The bad news is that Margaret can’t put any (as in none, zero, zilch) weight on her left leg for the next eight weeks or so.

That means that her already limited mobility is now reduced to sitting, standing, and pivoting on one foot to make it from the bed to the wheelchair. From there she can go to a living room chair and sit. She watches TV and works on one of her many artistic endeavors involving crotchet hooks and tatting needles. She’s presently working on a baby blanket for our grandson. She says she now has time to get it finished well before the projected due date in February.

It’s beyond difficult for Margaret to get around. We moved the kid’s bed into the living room since she can’t get in and out of our bed. A few inches in height make a huge difference these days. The kid’s sleeping in our room as a result. Our world, our more accurately, our routine, has been turned on its head.

I hate to admit just how much I’ve become a creature of habit. I catch myself falling into patterns reminding me of my father. Not that it’s a bad thing. My Dad was a loving, caring man so I intend no disrespect. It’s simply one more reminder I’m growing older. It’s just a part of life but I’m not quite ready to take on senior airs.

My routine has been completely broken and I’m a bit scattered as of late. The demands have increased as well. Margaret, the house upkeep, and the farm swallow each waking moment. Quite frankly, I get worn out by the end of the day. I’m far from clear-headed in the morning which significantly alters my “porch time” and writing time.

I become irritated and get “put out” with everyone at times. Then I feel guilty for feeling the way I do. It’s not a great place to be. I feel in conflict with my feelings and my values. I do what I do out of love right? Why do I feel this way?

The answer came as I prepared another cup of coffee for my wife.

Margaret and I knew each other for almost nine years before we ever dated. The night before our friend Stan’s memorial in 2012, we met several friends from out of town and all went out to dinner (IHOP may not be known for great food but it holds a special place in my heart). Afterward, Margaret and I went out front to smoke and ended up out there talking for four hours. That led to our first date a week later (and marriage three months after that!).

During our conversation, Margaret said she often felt like no one wanted to date a woman who they would have to push her in a wheelchair if they went downtown for coffee or dinner. I told her that I didn’t understand why anyone would feel that way. “It would be an honor and a privilege to push your wheelchair”, was my immediate response and I meant it.

I tell you this because it occurred to me this morning what an honor and a privilege it is to “push my wife’s wheelchair”, to serve the one I love. You see, I’d allowed all the flurry of activity to distract me from the truly important thing in my life – the honor to have Margaret as my wife.

An Honor and a Privilege

My friend Jim once asked me if I knew what honor was. I responded with a flat, somewhat emotionless, dictionary definition. He said that’s not it and then drew in a short quick breath; the kind you have when you’re suddenly startled or awed by something. He smiled and said, “that’s honor”.

I was confused. “What’s honor?”

He drew another short, quick breath and again said, “that’s honor”.

Jim had a way of using metaphors in a way that often irritated me. “What in the world do you mean?” and I imitated the breath he’d taken.

He said that honor was like that breath. Honor was seeing your wife come into a crowded room and seeing her takes your breath away. Honor was about keeping that breathtaking moment in your memory. I began to see the dictionary definition in a whole new light.

Used as a noun, honor means “high respect; great esteem”. It also is “adherence to what is right”. Thus, honor is an attitude whereby I hold my Margaret in “high respect” and “great esteem”. It’s about my perception of my wife.

Honor, as a noun, is my intention. Unfortunately, we are never judged on our intentions, only our actions. To honor someone is to “regard with great respect” and to “fulfill (an obligation) or keep (an agreement).

Revelation…

As I was going to get Margaret another cup of coffee this morning it dawned on me – the occasional frustrations, and yes, even selfishness I felt on occasion was simply an opportunity to learn to love, cherish, and honor my wife better. Suddenly, serving didn’t feel like a chore, an obligation. I remembered March 2nd, 2013 when I said those vows to love, honor, and cherish the woman I married.

The words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians came to life:

Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives, exactly as Christ did for the church – a love marked by giving, not getting. Christ’s love makes the church whole. His words evoke her beauty. Everything he does and says is designed to bring out the best in her, dressing her in dazzling white silk, radiant with holiness. And that is how husbands ought to love their wives. They’re really doing themselves a favor – since they’re already ‘one’ in marriage.” (Ephesians 5:25-28 – The Message)

I’ve yet to meet anyone who lives this out perfectly, but I have been privy to long, loving marriages that are an example of what to emulate so,

Margaret, if you’re reading this, know that today I will honor you in every way possible. It is my privilege to be your husband (and I still think you got the short end of the stick…). I cherish every moment with you, and I’m honored you allow me to be of service. I would gladly push you in a wheelchair or walk beside you and hold you up. And by the way, you still take my breath away every time you enter the room…

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