Life, Death, and Living – Beach Meditation 9

The epistle reading for this Sunday contradicts the character in Kenny Chesney’s song.

Philippians 1:21-30

21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26 so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.

27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28 and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29 For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— 30 since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

On the one hand, we have dying and being with Jesus in heaven. By faith Paul gets the wonder of that future. He says, “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better”. Paul was persecuted and imprisoned for his faith. His life on earth was hard.

There is a strain of Christianity rooted in this tradition. Slaves in the nineteenth century expressed this musically with spirituals like “All My Trials” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (which I sing at the end of the meditation video).

Our reading from the epistles, also lays out the benefits of continuing to live here on earth. Paul says that life on earth is “more necessary for you” and that he “will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith”.

What a contrast this is with that song we’ve all heard Kenny Chesney sing, “Everybody wanna go to heaven, but nobody wanna go now”. The song goes on to extol the earthly joys of women, whiskey, and partying all night. One of the lines says, “Say I’m coming but there ain’t no hurry,
I’m having fun down here.”

So, what’s the difference between Paul’s perspective and Kenny’s? Paul is focused outwardly on other people. He wants to stay here and help the people into whose lives he’s been called. He doesn’t want to go to heaven because he has a mansion over the hilltop. He wants to go to be with Jesus. For Paul it is all about the people he loves.

For the character in Kenny’s song, it is all about himself and the fun he is having. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That doesn’t mean that the women and men who answer Christ’s call physically die, although in some parts of the world that is what happens to those who place their faith in Jesus. When Jesus tells us to pick up our crosses and follow him, what does it mean? Jesus gave his life on the cross, not for himself, but for others. To follow him, means we no longer focus on our love for only ourselves but that we love others as we love ourselves.

In dying to self, it might seem that our world gets smaller, but in truth it means our world gets bigger because we move from being absorbed with only ourselves to being absorbed with loving Jesus and all those fellow humans who, like us, are created in God’s image. For our season here, we are blessed by being a blessing to our associates, friends, family, and faith community. And when our time on earth is done, we have a family reunion in heaven, the chief reunion of which will be with Jesus.

When you hear Paul’s words lined up against Kenny’s lyrics, you may be thinking, “I’m more like Kenny.” Try to remember that the story of the gospel is the story of God’s grace for us right where we are in our growth. If we trust Jesus and try to walk with him one step at a time, we grow more and more likely to begin to see both life and death through his eyes and with his heart for others. We both rest in his grace, knowing he loves us as who we are now, and grow in grace, because walking with him changes us.

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Fool Me Once, Forgive 77 Times

 Fool Me Once, Forgive Seventy-Seven Times

Matthew 18

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

“To err is human; to forgive, divine” ~ Alexander Pope

My father-in-law rose through the ranks from mason to managing the construction of skyscrapers and at least one concert hall. Late in life, as he lay in his hospital bed, he was troubled by something. Was it an issue with finances or family? Was it the state of world politics? No, it was that he could see a brick wing of the hospital and some of the courses of bricks were out of level.

After years of laying a level to check that a job was done right, he had trained his eye to a point that impressed his co-workers. One of them told of a time that he stopped while driving past and called a foreman over. “The finial up there on top of that column isn’t level,” Roy said, pointing. “We checked it.” “Check it again.” So, they checked it again and found that Roy was right.

It is hard to imagine being so attuned to level and plumb that every architectural element that was out of kilter was offensive to you.

In one way, being an idealist is similar to being a master mason. Idealism can be a blessing. Our vision of what ought to be is strong. We have ideals to guide us in our personal lives.

But when things are out of kilter in our real-world experiences, we are keenly aware of it and disappointed. Our romance doesn’t play out like the Hallmark movies we love. Our families are not like the Waltons. We ourselves don’t live up to our early vision of the person we would become.

One place where this idealism causes real problems is the church. Long before Instagram had people posting pictures of a fake but “ideal” life, people were “putting on a good face” to go to church. They wanted “to be a good witness” so they went to church and pretended like everything in their life was level and plumb. For generations now, the church has become a place to feign perfection because we think it is good PR for the gospel message of the church.

That the church is composed of saintly, holy, totally together people who always support one another and build one another up, is of course a lie. The church isn’t now nor has it ever been made up of people like that. But because we have been projecting that ideal as a reality, we have actually created a PR disaster. Most of the world thinks of us as hypocrites. Anyone who knows a church goer, including myself. Knows we are far from person we aspire to be and know that our church is far from achieving the community it pretends to be.

Jesus is rare in his ability to hold an ideal while simultaneously seeing the reality of humans as individuals and in community. Earlier in this chapter, he talks about how he leaves the 99 to bring back the 1 who goes astray. He talks about the principles of how Christians go about restoring someone who sins. In this Sunday’s gospel reading Peter blurts out the question most of us would be too timid to ask in Sunday school, let alone directly to Jesus.

“Yeah, yeah, I get it. If they sin against God, we try to restore them to God and the church, BUT . . .”

“Lord, if another member of the church sins AGAINST ME, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Seven times is a lot. Remember, Gomer Pyle’s grandmother used to say, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” When someone burns us, even once, it can be hard to forgive. Each time after that, the bond that holds us in relationship becomes weaker. Peter’s number of seven times is actually a huge number when you look at the pain of being sinned against seven times.

How many times has someone hurt you? Sometimes unintentionally, sometime intentionally. That hurt is real. It is undeniable. Peter, are you crazy? You think we should go through that seven times?

Hold on a hot minute. That was just Peter’s guess. Let’s see what Jesus says.

“Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

To make it worse, an equally valid translation would be “seventy times seven”. Jesus is using hyperbole. His point is that there is no limit to how many times we should forgive.

A realist knows that people are going to sin against one another. That’s one reason why the Bible spills so much ink addressing sin and forgiveness. A realist knows that people are going to sin against one another in their private lives, in their business dealings, and in their church.

As a realist Jesus addresses our sinfulness. As an idealist, he says we can’t set limits to how many times we forgive those who sin against us. If we have a limit, we will not have relationships.

Now some look at this and conclude that Christians must become door mats, the meek who are constantly walked on by the unscrupulous. So, it is important that we unpack the difference between forgiveness and restoration or capitulation.

In last week’s passage, Matthew 18:15-20, we saw that the sinner had to listen when told about their wrong-doing. This isn’t the kind of listening that simply involves one’s brain decoding the vibrations of one’s eardrums. This is the kind of listening that involves empathy for the other person and recognition that one’s words and/or actions were wrong. The plumb line and level applied to the behavior have revealed that the behavior doesn’t line up with God’s standards.

Until a person empathizes with the hurt they have caused in someone else, sees their behavior as wrong in the eyes of God, and chooses a corrective course of action, they cannot be restored. For their part, unless the wronged brothers and sisters of the church family, forgive the sinner the fellowship is not restored.

To forgive includes stopping our resentment and anger toward someone who has wronged us. The parable in Matthew 18:23-35, makes clear that forgiveness includes canceling the “debt” of the wrongdoer. It is giving up the “You owe me for that!” mindset.

We’ve been told to “forgive and forget”. That is a well-intentioned attempt to tell us to let it go. We should let go of our resentment, our anger, our ill will toward someone who wrongs us. But I’m with Grandma Pyle. We should not forget. Until someone really hears how what they’ve done is wrong, they are quite likely to continue their pattern of sinning against us (and most likely others).

We have the right, if not the duty, to protect ourselves and others from repeated injury. But we don’t need to carry the baggage of anger, resentment, or hate as we draw boundaries. Hanging on to that negative energy only hurts us.

For us to live in community with family, friends, or the church requires a special skillset. We need the courage to address wrongdoing in our community. We need the ability to forgive wrongdoing. We need the ability to restore fellowship to someone who hears reproof and corrects course. We need to recognize our own wrongdoing and be willing to change our behavior. We need the ability to draw protective boundaries so that we don’t continue to be hurt while preparing our hearts for the return to fellowship when those who sinned against us turn from their patterns of sin.

Let’s be real with one another, we humans are always hurting one another. No, it’s not just you experiencing that. If we can’t talk, empathize, change, forgive, and restore relationships, we simply will not have relationships. We have done the gospel message a disservice by putting a good face on our churches which are actually full of messy relationships.

Yes, the church has answers. The answers aren’t platitudes or “fake it till you make it”. The answers are challenging tools for real (messy) people in real (messy) relationships. I love idealistic visions that depict the kind of world we wish we lived in. I’m a huge fan of Hallmark movies and schmaltzy music. But for answers to real world problems, I need the church to be real. I don’t want or need easy answers. I want answers that work. I believe if we, the church, get real, we’ll be far more appealing to this world filled with other messy people in their messy relationships.

Thank you for sharing this time with me. May God bless you.

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Beach Walk Meditation 1 – God and Gender

I had just finished surfing and started thinking about God and gender as I was sitting in my chair and hydrating. I decided to take a walk down the beach and share my thoughts. In the past, I couldn’t do this with my iPhone because I walk with a limp. Then the video was so wobbly I couldn’t watch it. But with the GoPro Hero 7 hypersmooth setting the world stands steady. Of course my head still bobs up and down! Anyway, I’m interested to know what you think about the direction of my own thoughts about God and gender. I encourage you to comment on my YouTube channel and remind you to be kind to one another.

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Won’t You Be a Neighbor?

I am a racist. It is something I hate in myself. The only reason I’m not condemned to hell for it is because Jesus took that judgment on himself in my place. Every day, when by God’s grace, I grow closer to God, I become more like Jesus and less like a racist. Some call this growth or evolution. Theologians call it sanctification.

It is important that I state this because I am not intending to be messing with the sawdust in your eye while ignoring the timber in my own. (“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”~Matthew 7:3)

Of course we didn’t invent racism or prejudice. In fact, when Jesus wanted to make a point about the most fundamental principles of being a Christian, he did so using the racism of his earthly days.

In Matthew 22:34-40, Jesus is asked which commandment is the greatest. As it turned out, there were two sides to the greatest commandment. The first was to love God and the second was to love your neighbor as yourself

So in Luke 10, when an “expert in the (Old Testament) law” said that the great commandment was the key to eternal life, Jesus said he was right! But then “he wanted to justify himself” so the expert in the law asked who his neighbor was. Jesus’ answer has been making the church squirm uncomfortably ever since.

The expert in the law was a Jew, in fact, a big shot among the Jews. Jews despised the Samaritans to their north dating to events in distant history. So, when Jesus uses a Samaritan as the hero of the story, the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan, do not doubt that he was launching a direct attack on the racism of his time.

A man was robbed, beaten, and left for dead by the side of the road. There were people who could hear his cries for help as he was taking his last breaths. (Am I being too subtle here?)

When a Jewish priest came along he crossed to the other side. When a Levite came along, he also crossed to the other side. The Samaritan, who addressed his physical need and financial desperation, was the example of a neighbor that Jesus used.

I had a preacher friend forward to me words purported to be those of the pro-golfer, Bubba Watson (according to a fact check, he didn’t say this). This is the beginning of what he said, “I’m so confused right now. I see signs all over saying black lives matter. I’m just trying to figure out which black lives matter. It can’t be the unborn black babies. They are destroyed without a second thought . . . “ and so on.

What would motivate someone to look for ways to muffle, if not silence, the sound of our black neighbors calling for help? I’m not talking about Bubba, I’m talking about those who share these words falsely attributed to Bubba.

It is obvious that all lives matter. So, when someone responds to “black lives matter” with the “what abouts”. What are we trying to do?

After my motorcycle accident, I remember being wheeled on a gurney into the hospital and hearing doctors debating whether they would need to amputate my leg and what the status of my injuries were. No one in the hospital jumped up and yelled, “But what about my leg!?”. Why? Because the medical professionals focused on the leg that needed triage.

The world is full of injustice, tragedy, and suffering. None of us are exempted and no one is arguing otherwise. But remember the powerful, respected expert in the law? “He wanted to justify himself.” He did not want to have to help the broken, poor, injured person from whom history said he should distance himself. He was looking for an excuse to cross over to the other side of the road.

“Black Lives Matter” is the cry of people in need. They suffer disproportionately from the pandemic. Their opportunities for education and employment have been relatively limited for many generations. They are more likely to be unemployed, stopped by police, incarcerated, and killed by police. Our nation’s history, and the western church’s history, is sullied by our attempts to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to our neighbor.

So, when someone responds to “black lives matter” with the “what abouts”. What are we trying to do? Are we looking for a reason to hate? For a reason to cross over to the comfortable and quiet side of the road? Or are we open to following Jesus?

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” ~ Luke 10:36-37

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Kayaking From Bill Smith Park

Now that our house is built we can go back to doing the things that make island life worthwhile. Admittedly, the beach is the number one attraction for us. But we also enjoy quietly paddling around the neighborhood waterways.

In 2016, the town of Oak Island added a kayak launch to largest park, Bill Smith Park on Fish Factory Road. The waterway there is known both as Upper Dutchman’s Creek and Wildlife Creek. (I don’t know this for a fact, but I assume that before the Intracoastal Waterway cut through here Upper Dutchman’s Creek used to connect directly to Dutchman’s Creek. The park is a small way above the Wildlife Ramp which may be the thinking behind the alternate name.)

It is touted as being handicap accessible. The ramp is far steeper than allowed by the ADA – especially at low tide, but there is a nice overlook for a handicapped person to watch boaters on the water so maybe that is what they mean.

Fortunately, there is no footage of our major fail of the day. Bringing the kayak back up the ramp on a dolly the kick stand, though “up”, got caught on the ramp about two thirds of the way up requiring us to carry both the kayak and the dolly the rest of the way. It was a very hot day and I about fainted from the effort.

Overall, I’d give the facility good marks for use near high tide and below average for low tide. In the future, I plan to just go to the wildlife ramp when the tide is low and I want to paddle on that creek.

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