Monday, September 19, 2016

a eulogy for mom

How can I describe the significance of my mother in a few words?  Why would I even try?  Death seems too strong for words.  The measure of her life can’t be summed up with words.  This moment, this sorrow, this aching loss is too much for words.  Words fail me when it seems I need them the most.

But then again, before this day, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us,” joy mingled in sorrow, death and life thrown together, despair and redemption rolled up into one.  And so, I rely the words of another about the Word Incarnate, our beginning and ending, first and last words about the Alpha and the Omega:  Phil. 2:1-11.

We translated that very passage in my second-year Greek class the day my mother died.  It’s a song about Christ—the music lost to us—but the ancient rhythm of these lyrics still sing in my ear.  And, as much as my mother loved both—Christ and music—I find it more than serendipitous that my Greek students would read these words to me in the light of day after one of my darkest nights.  It’s because, in these words, I not only hear of Christ, but I see my mother, one of the main reasons I am a believer.  And, I see her in my family—my father, my brothers, our wives and our children—words becoming flesh.

My mother loved the Scriptures.  One of my fondest memories of her is when she and dad gave to me my first Bible.  I even see her face now, beaming with joy as I unwrapped the gift (I remembering being a little puzzled when I opened the box. In light of her excitement, I thought I was going to get a special toy, something to play with.  But, it wasn’t.  It was a Bible for children, the one with a picture on the cover of Jesus surrounded by children, a zipper around the edges to bind up the book, and a cross dangling from the zipper).  Holding it my hand, looking at her then back at the book, I realized it was special—nothing to toy with—but I had no idea why.

We were waiting for mom to die.  That’s a horrible situation, when the experts say the end is near and you’re wondering if they’re right.  Dad and I were in her hospital room, keeping vigil.  At first, we both tried to get a little rest.  But, long after midnight, dad said, “Here.  You take this chair; it’s more comfortable.  I’m going to read.”  So, he dragged his chair into a dim light, sat next to mom’s bed, and began to read the Scriptures.  I dozed off, every ten minutes checking on mom—her shallow breathing getting worse—then glancing over at dad still reading the Bible.  I’ll never forget that image.  My dad finding comfort during the dark night in the light of God’s Word . . . and I think of mom. Her love of the Scriptures, her husband by her side reading the Bible until she died, and the gift she once gave to her nine-year-old son.

Paul the apostle encouraged the Philippians to empathize with people, to consider the needs of others above their own, having what he called “the mind of Christ.”  That was true of mom, a virtue I also see clearly in my brother, Denny.  I was in the fifth grade, attending school in Compton, California, when a boy made a fool of himself and everyone laughed.  He had dropped his lunch tray in the cafeteria, mashed potatoes and gravy spilled all over the linoleum floor, and as he struggled to get up, he kept falling down in the mess.  I’ve always been a sucker for slapstick comedy; and his attempts at gathering his plate, silverware, and bottle-thick-lenses-in-black-horned-rim glasses now covered in gravy reminded me of a bit from the Three Stooges.  But, in this case, there was only one stooge, and his comic routine was hilarious.  Others took in the sight, and soon a huge crowd gathered around the boy to enjoy the spectacle—dinner and a show.  The harder he tried to stand, the more he wallowed in the mess.  Then, all of the sudden, he realized we were all laughing at him.  I’ll never forget the look of horror on his buck-toothed, gravy-stained face when he realized he was the undesirable center of attention.  All of the sudden, I wasn’t laughing anymore.  My stomach turned inside of me—an aching in my heart—but I didn’t understand why.  When I got home from school, mom noticed my melancholy mood and asked the question every mother greets her children with, “Did you have a nice day at school?”  When I told her what happened, puzzling over why I felt so bad, she offered one of many lessons about the importance of empathy.  She would often say, “How would you feel if that happened to you?”—a question that I still ask myself nearly everyday because of my mom.

Denny and Paula have recently given up their home and moved to a difficult neighborhood, to live among people who face huge challenges in their lives:  low income, poor health, broken families, addiction, crises every day.  It takes great courage to have the “mind of Christ,” to not “merely look out for your own personal interests,” as Paul wrote, “but also the interests of others.”  It’s called, “empathy”—a virtue my mom tried to teach me at least once a week, a Christ-like character I see in my brother and sister-in-law.

My mom was a generous woman, especially when it came to celebrating Christmas.  She loved giving Christmas gifts—dozens of presents spilling out all over the living room.  We knew she didn’t receive much for Christmas when she was a child.  So, she went overboard with us.  When the grandchildren came along, it only got worse—often we’d have to rent a trailer to tow the stash home.  I should have seen it coming.  For our first Christmas as husband and wife—among many presents—mom gave to Sheri and me a special box (I’d seen that look in her eye before and so I halfway expected a Bible).  Instead, it was baby doll.  When I looked up in confusion, she said, “Get the hint?”  She couldn’t wait for grandchildren.  When Andrew and Josh came along a few years later (only a month apart), she was in heaven—so excited when we came home for the holidays.  Then Emma and Grace came into the world, and she was overjoyed.  Having raised three boys, mom always wanted a girl—it was especially evident when Chris was a toddler.  She refused to cut his hair, his long locks falling to his shoulders.  People often mistook Chris for a little girl, oohing and awing over his beautiful hair.  Mom would eventually correct them, but then add, “he’s pretty enough to be a girl, isn’t he?”  I worried sometimes that when I came home from school, we might find Chris in a dress.  She loved her grandsons; her affection for Zach and Bryce was just as strong.  But, oh how she loved her granddaughters, Emma, Grace, and Callie.  The night Emma was born, I called mom and said, “She’s here.  Emma was born just a few hours ago.”  To which mom replied incredulously, “Are you sure it’s a girl?”  I couldn’t help but laugh.  “Yeah, mom.  Emma is a girl.”  “Oh boy, I can’t wait to buy those frilly, little dresses.”  Sure enough, under the Christmas tree, wrapped with her signature bows, were frilly, little dresses—for Emma, Grace, and Callie.  Mom loved watching them model their new outfits, and giggled with delight when her grandsons played with their latest super-hero action figure.

I see the same generous spirit in my brother, Chris.  He loves giving nice things to the people he loves—just like mom.  Just the other day, Chris decided dad’s old refrigerator had to go.  Of course, my dad is a “get by” kind of guy.  But, Chris wouldn’t hear of it.  When dad objected, “I don’t need a refrigerator.”  Chris interrupted, “How old is that one, dad?  Thirty years, forty years?  I’m not going to argue with you about it.  We’re going right now.  I’m getting you a new fridge.”  That’s my brother; he’s a very generous guy—something he learned from his mother.

I’ve learned many things from my mom.  Her love of music, her love of Christ, her love of the Church, how she reveled in family get-togethers, cherished a delicious meal, loved to read, and, most of all, how she cared for us.  The same qualities I see in my sweet wife, my children, my family.  It’s the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.  The Word Incarnate I need to see when words fail me.

For the love of Christ, until the resurrection, all we have are words, the Spirit of God, and each other.  And, because of Christ, that is more than enough.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Joy and Sorrow mingled together

Music is a great gift from God. I marvel over its power to help me in ways that go beyond the spoken word.

I recently attended the funeral of a righteous man who lived a good, long life. Before words were spoken or sung, we heard a song played by two musicians:  one on piano, the other tenor sax.  They are colleagues of mine who are tremendously sensitive and talented musicians.  The song was "Brethren we have met to worship"--a fitting invocation for the occasion.

The pianist began with soft notes, minor chords, light dissonance, somber tones:  grief explored.  Then the tenor sax jumped in, at first finding a tune that sounded more like sorrow than joy.  But then, it happened: piano and sax joining in one accord, marching majestically through the song with resonant notes of hope and confidence.  Nearing the end, the tenor sax waned. the piano softened her sound, and the song ended with an upward progression, once again slightly dissonant, the last note lingering unresolved . . .  calling brothers and sisters to worship God in sorrow and joy.

That song, especially the arrangement and the care with which it was presented, healed my heart--a man who was trying to celebrate a wonderful life with the ugly pallor of death staring us all in the face.

Thank God for music.  He heals me in ways I don't understand, especially as I think about the man who died in Christ, a servant we tried to memorialize, the one who knew more than most that music is God's gift to us all.

It's no wonder the end comes with a trumpet.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Bible and American Politics

Have you noticed how certain people refuse to be reasonable when it comes to recognizing the short-comings of their political party?  There's no talking to them.  You bring up a problem with their party (or candidate) that, given their religious convictions, should lead to a frank discussion.  But, rather than admit the problem, they dig in their heels, set their jaw, and defend their politics without even giving a sideways glance to their religious convictions.  It's as if political faith trumps religious faith.  Their political loyalties take full reign of their mental and emotional faculties.  Whether democrat or republican, the fight for what is "right" is binary.  Either you're for us or against us--no in between--which reminds me of the way religious people defend the Bible.

Recently, I was listening to a well-known atheist who was making fun of the "wacky parts" of the Bible.  He had an equally well-known Christian apologist who was there to defend the Scriptures.  And, even though I appreciated the nuanced answer he gave in defense of the Bible as God's word, their so-called "conversation" reminded me of the arguments over politics.  With both sides convinced of their position (and both sides making salient points regarding the weaknesses of the other), there was no "give and take."  Rather than admit weaknesses in their position, a sense of infallibility kicked in pretty hard as both men defended what they believe, their faith.

The longer I live, the more I'm realizing my need to embrace weakness, not only mine but the weakness of others.  But, in a world where only strength is celebrated and weakness is marginalized--a bystander in the battle for "truth"--I think I'll be dismissed as a traitor to the cause (politically and religiously).  But, that's okay with me.  I've sworn allegiance to a king and his kingdom that is built on weak people like me.  And, I learn about that kingdom in a Bible that has "wacky" parts that defy common sense.  The difference, I guess, is that I'm willing to admit it, puzzle over it, be confused by it, even complain to God about it (read the Psalms!).  But I've got a feeling that, whether in politics or religion, most people will despise such weakness.

Which reminds me of the cross of Jesus Christ.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Losing Hope

I'm in a funk.  It's beginning to dawn on me that the very thing I've committed my life to--the object of my study--doesn't matter these days.

Now, before you correct my misplaced devotion (after all, we're supposed to be committed to Christ and his kingdom), I am fully aware that there is a difference between the Word of God and the word of God.  And, yes, I've committed my entire life to the former, the One who captured my heart, the Man who lived better than any person has ever lived, the very Son of God who reveals perfectly our heavenly Father, the hope of our salvation, the once-and-for-all sacrifice for our sins, the embodiment of our resurrection.  But, as the preacher in the book of Hebrews said so eloquently, Jesus is the Last Word of God found first and foremost in the very word of God--the Scriptures.  He warns his listeners over and over again:  We'd better listen to the word to hear the Word, because, if we don't, there's going to be big trouble.

Within the cacaphony of trivia that dominates our everyday attention, you'd think a more substantive, powerful, shake-your-soul-to-your-feet, gravitas-kind of word would feel like a drink of cold water in the middle of the desert.  (Is it just me, or are things getting worse?  My daily morning habit is to read a few .coms of news, check out a blog or two--even a so-called "Christian" blog that tells me the state of our faith "Today."  A few years ago, that would take about 30 minutes to an hour.  These days, I don't find much to read.  For example, this morning I clicked on nothing!  Nothing!  Nothing!  Perhaps I'm becoming that old curmudgeon that I used to despise in my youth.  But, I wonder to myself, "Does anyone read this nonsense?  Really?  Is this what should occupy our minds today?")  I read for a living.  I speak for a living.  I write for a living.  But, the very centerpiece of that devotion, the thing I treasure, what should occupy our attention in profound ways, is so marginalized today that I can't even get my students to pay attention to it in class.  The Bible doesn't matter.  And, the great irony is, they're taking a biblical studies class.  They don't read it before class.  They don't even have it open while I lecture on it.  They don't wrestle with what it says.  Rather, the majority of them sit and listen and take a few notes, hoping to pass the class.  Of course, I have a few students who care.  But that number is shrinking every year.

Sharing my disappointment recently, one of my colleagues assessed the situation like this:  these students of ours love the Bible.  They just don't care what's in it.

Same thing happens in church.  I'll invite my listeners to take their bibles and turn to . . . .  But there's no movement, little effort.  A few open the Scriptures (hard or e-copies) and try to follow along.  But, for the most part, the Bible is one of the most ignored things on Sunday mornings.  Trying to keep them engaged, I'll ask, "And what did Jesus say here?" or "And what was Paul's response in verse 24?"  Nothing.  Silence.  A few might fumble around trying to find the answer, as if surprised by the pop quiz.  But most stare back at me with that, "Are you finished yet?" look I've come to recognize so well:  in the classroom as well as in the church.

I'm afraid I'm becoming so discouraged that I might throw a fit in righteous indignation.  But that's such an ugly scene.  Doesn't do any good.  Besides, I don't want to be that guy.  I even prayed that this morning, "Lord.  Please help.  I don't want to be that guy."

But, I'm afraid I am becoming that guy, the old prof who reminisces about the good, old days--when people not only loved the Bible but also craved to know what's in it.

Honestly, I'm afraid the Scriptures don't matter anymore, and I wonder what the preacher of Hebrews would say.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Time to look away

Hearing about the death of one of my favorite actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, made me groan.  I don't know why, but it felt like the death of a friend.  That is the allure of film.  We see stories with which we resonate, admire characters with whom we identify, and then deposit in our hearts fond feelings for the actors who bring these fictions to life.  I've written before that our obsession with Hollywood should give pause to us all:  we venerate people who are good fakers.  What does that say about us?  We love to watch great pretenders.  Professional liars (is that too strong of a term for actors?) are our heroes.  Indeed, great actors know how to embody the role, wear the psyche of a complex character--which some think leads to the demise of the overly empathetic actor.

This is why it bothers me so much that the press and the adoring public are eaten up with wanting the gory details of Mr. Hoffman's death.  It makes me angry.  I didn't need to hear that he had a needle in his arm when he died.  I didn't need to hear about all the bags of heroin in his apartment.  I didn't need to hear about his last hours on this earth--where he ate, how much money he drew from the ATM, whom he talked to on the phone.  All I could think about were his children, how they won't have their daddy around any more, how they'll have to hear all of their lives about how great an actor their daddy was and how tragic it was that he died a drug addict.  What a horrible burden to carry, especially for a child.

We watch.  We wait for more bits of juicy gossip.  We wring our hands over the tragedy.  We try to find some good in the "national conversation" about heroin addiction.  But, where's the dignity of remembering a man who was more than an actor and a drug addict?  He was a father for goodness sake.  He was someone's son.  Like every one of us, he too was made in the image of God.

Job said, "I have made a covenant with my eyes."  That's the best way to describe my desire these days.  I'm tired of watching the drama, the horror, the circus, the car wreck, the grief at someone else's expense.  For God's sake and mine . . .

It's time to look away and refuse to consume what the clamoring masses crave.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Good Endings

Our lives are filled with celebrations marking the beginning of things:  marriage, births, commencements, house warmings, inaugurations.  And, we have several ways of tracking life in the meantime:  birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, job promotions.  But, we really don't seem to have a handle on how to make sense of endings:  divorce, death, bankruptcy, retirement, chronic disease.  It's like we spend much energy at the beginning--party!--trying to keep the party going as it slowly fizzles--who wants cake and ice cream?--all the while knowing the end is coming.  To use a travel metaphor, we get worked up preparing for the trip, try to enjoy the journey, but have no idea when we've arrived.  It's almost as if we've heard the mantra so long--it's not the destination that matters but the journey--endings feel like failure.

Now, of course, I'm not suggesting that we cut against the grain of disappointing loss by offering some contrived celebration:  "yippee, I'm divorced;" or "ding, dong the witch is dead!"  That's why the recent trend of "designer funerals" appears so foolish.  A guy's coffin is made to look like the car of his favorite NASCAR driver, or a football fan's wake is attended by faux-cheerleaders of the NFL team he spent every Sunday rooting for.  I see what they're doing. They're trying to celebrate the end.  But it just comes off as campy and downright disrespectful.  Repeating the line, "Harry would have loved this!", doesn't make it any better.  Such arrogant words can only be spoken by the living, and they work like a hammer driving the last nail in the coffin.

Those of us who attend Christian funerals don't fare much better.  We try hard to say something nice, something important, hoping to sum up the life of a man in thirty minutes.  But, I always leave these funerals feeling like something's undone, like we forgot something, as if there was so much more to do, so much more to say.  Indeed, death always feels like a bad ending to a good story.

Then I think of Good Friday.  How the disciples walking away from the crowd that day must have felt the same way.  How the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus seems to capture much of what I'm feeling as I walk away from the funeral, needing to mark the end of things with a celebration.

Then we gather for food around a table.  We talk.  We eat.  We even laugh at the funny stories of our shared life.  But that makes me long ever more for the day when we will celebrate the good ending.

I wish we knew how to celebrate the end of things.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Dear Reader

I've received several letters from readers of my books.  Few things excite me more than when a reader has read carefully my work and then offered a response.  For an author, it doesn't get much better.  Here's my response to a letter received last week:

Thanks so much for the kind, hand-written note regarding Spirituality according to Paul.  Please forgive my letter in print form; my handwriting is atrociously illegible, especially when compared to your beautiful cursive script.  I blame my poor penmanship on fast-talking professors during my studies at the university and seminary.  But, to be fair, my writing was in pretty bad shape before I started college.


Thanks for picking up a copy and reading the book.  I hope what I wrote is both fair to St. Paul and helpful to the Church.  There’s so much to say about our apostle, and so many excellent minds have devoted much study to unpacking his ideas.  No one, of course, will ever be able to say they’ve offered the last word on Paul.  To say that we shall study his letters until the end of the world is not a statement of resignation but a sincere and promising hope.  There’s still much work to be done.


Thanks also for including notes from your talk about homosexuality and the Bible.  To be sure, this is a complex and sensitive subject.  As a culture, we’ve certainly witnessed a revolution in the way we think and talk about homosexuality.  And, there’s no way a little letter will capture the way I read the Bible, and especially Paul, on this matter.  But, I will say this:  for the most part, I agree with your statement, “There can be no question Paul condemns homosexual acts, but he does not condemn homosexuality as such.”  But, allow me to parse your words a little in light of my reading of the Bible.


Homosexuality as a sexual orientation is a modern construct.  In New Testament times, they only knew of homoeroticism.  No one in Paul’s day would claim a psychological identity “gay” or “straight.”  So, to say that Paul condemns homosexuality in our terms is anachronistic (as your notes seem to point out).  That’s why I like to use (along with other NT scholars) the more descriptive term, homoeroticism.  Paul does condemn homoerotic acts, both man to man and woman to woman.  This is to be expected because as a first-century Jew who’s very concerned about holiness—especially as it applies to the behavior of his converts—Paul wants to present the obedience of the Gentiles to Christ as the ultimate proof of his apostleship.


Now, to claim that Paul would therefore affirm homosexual (a modern construct) relationships or unions (whether civil or religious) is purely speculative.  I think the burden of proof falls on anyone who would argue that Paul would support gay marriage.  Just because a more accurate reading of Paul’s arguments—based on the culture of his time—helps us see the difference between homoeroticism and homosexuality, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Paul would support gay marriage.  The most that could be said is that he would oppose it because he believed homoerotic acts did not glorify God (and gay couples certainly have every opportunity to engage in homoerotic behavior).  And, the least that could be said is that we don’t know whether Paul would support gay marriage.  One would have to weigh the arguments—plotting a trajectory from Paul’s letters to our context—to see whether we’re being fair to Paul (and especially) the full revelation of God’s Word.


Of course, some don’t feel obliged to read Paul carefully; claiming to be “red-letter” Christians they base their support of gay relationships on the silence of Jesus.  But, I’m afraid such an argument from silence is pretty shaky ground.  Besides, Jesus does have much to say about human sexuality and practice that needs to be more carefully considered, for example his teaching about lust, the abuse of divorce, and the importance of “eunuchs” for the sake of the kingdom.  I don’t hear many people fretting over what Jesus meant about becoming a eunuch.  Why not?  Sometimes it feels like the “marquis” issues of our day dominate our reading of the Bible.  Our selective reading of the Scriptures has more to do with what we’re trying to prove.  I would like to turn the hermeneutic around.  Perhaps a more careful reading of the Bible should inform the issues we choose to discuss?  Is that na├»ve?  Maybe so.


I hope my little note helps explain what I wrote in the conclusion of the book, where I speculate on what St. Paul would say to us today.  It was offered as a “thought experiment” and not a definitive word.  But, you certainly read my comments correctly.  I don’t believe Paul would come down hard one way or the other on the politics of gay marriage.  I do, however, believe that Paul would continue to condemn homoerotic behavior and would have much to teach us about sacrificing ourselves for one another—even Christians who are attracted to the same sex.


Thanks again for your kind remarks about the book.

Blessings to you, my brother.