Sunday, January 29, 2012

Earning mercy?

January 29, 2012

Dear friends,

The connecting thread of January’s blogs spins out of the story I recorded on January 8. That’s nearly a month ago, so a brief synopsis may be helpful.

The story began with my friend’s out-of-town guests who, in my opinion, presumed upon her hospitality, and, following bad behavior with worse, expected her to pay for their dinner together the evening of my friend’s birthday. I complained about their behavior, thinking with secret self-righteousness about my gift for my friend that I had already stashed in the stairway storeroom.

My friend, wise in goodness as well as good sense, simply noted that, whatever her guests’ attitude may have been, the gift of dinner was something she chose to do.

This friend has enriched my life with many gifts—meals together, shared time, laughter, trips to the mountains, trips to the car wash, a hundred useful gadgets that I would never have noticed in a shop (or guessed how practical they would be once I had them home). Shared accounting skills; shared produce from the farmers’ market, shared meals (“I made enough for us both”), shared projects, shared jokes, shared books and ideas—shared prayers and times of worship, shared quiet hours of companionship. She gives from her heart as a way of life without keeping account, neither needing nor expecting return.

In turn, I seek to invest openhandedly in our relationship. I give as I am able, but I am conscious none-the-less that I am debtor to her generosity and thoughtfulness—I receive richly what I have not earned.

You understand the significance of this: it was in the context of this relational pattern of my friend’s gifts to me that I complained about my friend’s gift of dinner to her acquaintances. Like the “good workers” in the story Jesus told in Matt. 20, I objected to her GIFT to them because, in my opinion, the people to whom my friend chose to be generous had not “relationally earned” their dinner.

Huh? We “earn” gifts?

To my great benefit, God rarely permits behavior like that to pass without a pointed conversation about it. Our conversation in this instance included on my part a sober re-reading of Matt. 20. As I read, I sensed that, like the landowner in the story, God was asking me, “And what is your problem with your friend’s gift?”

My problem was, of course, the people to whom she proposed to give the gift. I had judged these people to be relational slackers, and, significantly, slackers who had done less relationally than I had done. After all, didn’t I have a birthday gift ready and waiting? Hadn’t I planned a dinner for my friend? Like those six o’clock workers, hadn’t I done it “right”? Why should those who had not done it “right” get a gift? Certainly only those who (like me) had done it “right” should get a gift.

You can see, of course, that the issue between God and me was my desire that my friend act toward those who were the relational slackers (my judgment) in a way that demonstrated my “superiority,” my status as the one who, in contrast to their negligence, did it “right.” Consequently, I certainly was a better person than they, and my friend should act in a way that made my superiority clear to everyone. (My judgment of my friend’s acquaintances proved later to be woefully incorrect, but that’s a story for another day.)

When we think about the ways in which expectations shape our relationships with one another (and with God) there is something both amusing and sad about this moment.

How silly—it was, after all, my friend’s money, and her choice—what difference did it make to me what she did in relationship with these other people?

Sadly, what I unconsciously wanted was both humanly understandable and relationally destructive. I wanted—just for a moment—for my friend to act in a way that made these people show up as the slackers they were and me appear to be what I (at least for a moment) behaved as though I were—clearly “better” than they.

When unconsciously we expect a relationship to provide reassurance of our superiority (morally, socially, and/or spiritually), we inevitably set the relationship up for failure unless we identify and change our behaviors.

The actual conversation in which the problem occurred probably took less than two minutes. Later, however, when I realized that what I had done was destructive, I called my friend. I said, in effect, that I was very glad she was generous to people who did not deserve her gifts, specifically and especially including me. I acknowledged that I was regrettably like those six o’clock workers in Jesus’ story, and I told her I was quite sorry that I had said what I had said.

She laughed, and then said, “You’re forgiven on my part, and I am glad that we are friends.”

Grateful with you that good relationships are not about doing it perfectly.

However. . .

Since this is so, loving mercy and distributing it generously seems both wise and logical.

We never know when we in turn may need that gift.

See you next week.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Goodness a barrier to mercy?

January 22, 2012,

Dear friends,

It is easy to misunderstand the point James Sanders made about the good guys (see last week’s blog). Sanders was NOT saying that there were no good guys in the stories Jesus told. Sanders was NOT saying that Jesus wanted us always to identify with the bad guys either.

What Sanders was emphasizing was the complexity of being a good guy in the stories Jesus told. Sanders wanted us to read cautiously, paying attention to the human predisposition to make a mixed muddle of black and white in our attempt to live out the good guy role. From this angle, the story of the land owner and his hired help (Matt. 20) provokes serious thought.

The workers hired at six o’clock were truly good guys. They didn’t haggle about their wages, and didn’t attempt to manipulate a “better deal” at the owner’s expense. In the story, when the six o’clockers reported themselves as having worked hard all day in weather that made their task exhausting, the owner did not dispute their account. These were in fact the good guys—working hard, trying hard to get along with the owner and to do the fair thing. As my grandfather would have said, they gave a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.

What then went wrong? What was the core of the heated argument that these good-guy-workers had with this good-guy-boss?

In the summary of the story as Jesus told it, the problem pivoted around the desire of the good guys that their goodness be recognized as setting them apart from those slackers, the people who had come to work at five o’clock. They wanted to be paid, and to be paid in a way that tangibly established their superior work ethic, their superior productivity, and recognized, so to speak, their superior selves. They wanted to be paid fairly for their good work—certainly a just and sensible requirement. But they wanted additionally to be recognized in a tangible way as superior in worth to those who did not do as well as they had done. What was the land-owner thinking when he paid the slackers the same amount that the good guys received for a full day’s work? Was not their goodness compromised by the owner’s mercy to the undeserving, less productive workers?

It is crucial in the story to hear carefully the land owner’s response.

“Listen, people,” the land owner said (Hubbard’s paraphrase). “I did not PAY these guys wages. I GAVE them (undeserved and unmerited) a gift. You received a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, wages set this morning with your full agreement. You have not been cheated. You are indignant because I chose to gift the slackers with what they clearly had not earned. Your anger is a response to my generosity to the undeserving rather than a protest against unjust behavior toward you on my part.”

You see the problem, don’t you? These six o’clockers were good guys. But they had tangled their goodness with something else—they wanted their goodness to establish their superiority to those who did not reach the bar their goodness had set.

In listening to the stories Jesus told one of the things that often makes us uncomfortable is the way in which, as in this story, Jesus highlights our human propensity to use our goodness to protest God’s mercy.

Trusting that you are remembering that thinking about this story is a bridge to our re-thinking next week my absurd protest when my friend made it possible for some acquaintances to receive the gift of a dinner I thought they had not earned.

Thinking with you that Jesus was right—being good doesn’t insure that we use our goodness in a good way.

See you next week.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Mercy--well, it depends

Jan. 15, 2012

Dear friends,

James Sanders was a distinguished Biblical scholar and a brilliant teacher. He once suggested to a class of us that if while reading one of Jesus’ stories we found ourselves identifying with the “good guys” that we promptly start over and read the story again. He thought that, as a general rule, when we assumed “good guy” status we had likely failed to understand the point Jesus was making.

The story that Jesus told about the landowner and his workers (Matt. 20) is a good example. Initially at least, it is dangerously easy to identify with the “good guys,” those people who went to the field early (six o’clock am!), worked a twelve hour day, and were coming now (six o’clock pm)to receive their wages.

I can imagine that for the most part they came physically weary but pleased with themselves and the day. As “good guys” they had worked hard for the landowner, and anticipated that the landowner, known to be fair and just, would now pay them the denarius for which they had contracted that morning before they went to the fields. The denarius would certainly not make them rich, but it was a just—perhaps even somewhat generous—compensation for their work.

But just as they started to line up at the paymaster’s table, things began to go south, as the popular phrase has it. The first sign of trouble was the landowner’s odd choice to pay first the workers hired last. But the problem was more than the order in which those worker’s hired last (at 5:00 o’clock pm) were paid.

The fierce argument that erupted was not about WHEN the five-o’clock workers were paid, but rather about WHAT they were paid. The landowner, in plain view of the six am workers paid the five pm workers each a full denarius—the same amount to each of those who came last and worked one hour as he paid those who came first and who had worked a full twelve-hour day.

The good guys (the six o’clockers) were not pleased. They were angry, and said so. Notice, however, that in the story that the “good guys” weren’t angry about the landowner being given short-measure. They were NOT complaining, “Hey, dude, you’re not getting your money’s worth—these guys only worked an hour.” It was not the landowner’s welfare that mattered to them. The outrage of the six o’clockers pivoted around their sense of entitlement: their good work—and it was good work, no question there—their good work entitled them, they said, to MORE than those who were not as good as they. They were angry not because they had been cheated—the landowner paid them fully the amount to which they had agreed. They were angry not but because the landowner cheated them; they were angry because the landowner did not pay them in a way that clearly demonstrated their superiority over the people who had come to work at five o’clock.

What do you think Jesus point was here?

I have not forgotten that the bottom line toward which we are moving is my response to the way in which my friend “gave” what I considered an unmerited dinner to her young friends. (See last week’s blog.)

Thinking with you how difficult it is to be obedient to God’s command that we both DO justice and LOVE mercy.

DO justice?--well, maybe if I can figure it out and afford it.

But LOVE mercy? Not so much--unless I'm the one that came at five o'clock.

See you next week.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Grace or justice?

Jan. 8, 2012

Hello, friends,

You remember this idea of seeing old things in new ways that I wrote about last week? Unfortunately for bloggers, it is difficult to deny that you said something when it can be seen plain as a post sitting in last week’s blog.

It’s true. I said it: “I do not expect a radical reformation of character in which sin and shortcomings—my own or those of others--will disappear with the 2011 calendars.”

God must have read that blog sometime during this past week. At any rate He had an opinion He decided to share with me. Here is what happened.

This week my friend had a birthday, a special marker birthday. During her birthday week young friends from out of state came to celebrate the New Year with a ski holiday. Presuming from prior experience that they could assume “free” housing and board from her hospitable self, they made plans that centered on their recreation, and, so far as my friend knew, included only cursory verbal recognition of her birthday.

On the last evening of their time together with her, they planned a dinner out, with the clear expectation, so far as my friend knew, that she would pick up the check for all of them.

What?!!~!” I squawked on hearing about these alleged plans. “They expect you to take them out to dinner to celebrate your birthday?”

My friend listened patiently to my fuming for a bit. Then she smiled and said quietly, “Well, I’ll admit it’s not very thoughtful on their part, but it’s something I choose to do.”

The conversation passed on to other things, but later I recognized that at the time I had cherished a smug sense of secret self-righteousness when I thought about the birthday gift for my friend that that I had already stashed in my stairway storeroom.

Being theologically logical, some of you have already raised a question in your minds: “Why did God want to talk to you about your present for your friend? Wasn’t that a good thing?”

Yes, it was. But—

But what if we focus on looking at an old thing (the joy and responsibility of gifting a friend at a special time) and seeing this action from a new angle? That goal, as you will have already guessed, was the reason that God wanted to discuss my gift-giving with me. I am both glad that God appears to approve of my New Year's goal, and a bit startled by the promptness and directness with which He has entered into my program.

God’s first suggestion to me (and I in turn to you) was that I re-read one of Jesus’ stories, and to read it in a number of different translations. You can find this story in Matthew 20; the story centers around public responses to a man who both paid wage-earners fairly, AND gave generously to those who did not earn what they received.

In the weeks ahead I plan to think with you about the ways in which our understanding of the giving-receiving process impacts the ways in which we shape expectations and responses in relationship.

Thinking with you about the old treasure of grace (both given and received) examined in the context of our hunger for continuous fee-free receipt of those things we believe we need and want.

See you next week.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year?

Jan 1, 2012

Dear friends,

According to my computer calendar, the new year managed to get started without any assistance from me. I feel quite pleased about the restful night’s sleep I experienced while this momentous event was occurring. I am not, however, the least surprised that this old world continued to turn without my supervision.

My viewpoint about the new year is, I’m afraid, irreparably contrarian.

I do not expect a radical reformation of character in which sins and shortcomings—my own or those of others—will disappear with the 2011 calendars. But I celebrate God’s grace and love, the utterly unchanging nature of His patient parenting, and His unfailing belief that we—He and I together—will do better, though not perfectly, in the months ahead. And I celebrate friends who, I trust, will continue to take me as I am in the year ahead in the belief that in our relationships we will do better, and, while we will certainly not become perfect, that, to borrow Rob Bell’s phrase, in the end that love will win.

I do not expect that the Great Muse of Blog-writers will descend upon me so that 2012will become The Year of Splendid Understandings and Brilliant Prose. But I anticipate gratefully that my friends will continue their patient attention to my effort to see life and say relationships more clearly, and that through their gracious responses I will in turn know more truth and say what I see with gentle wisdom.

I expect that as always the lilacs will bloom this spring, and their scent hang heavy in the spring rain. I may not be here to witness their persistent bravery, but I expect that the crocus and tulips will push their way through at least one spring snow. I expect that summer will bring high wind and hail, leaving broken blooms and tattered leaves on the ground. There will be broken tree limbs, their summer wealth of leaves dead long before autumn colors could mark their going in vivid celebration. There will be harvest and wonderful vine-ripened tomatoes in the August farmer’s market. They will grace someone’s dinner table, perhaps mine.

I think that life and end of life, that laughter and tears and love and hate will go on 2012 much as they have in the years through which I have come to this place. Much in this year to come will not be new, but will come to me in a new cycle of old things. I have a new window through which to look and see and understand, and—by God’s grace—to walk with love and wide-open eyes through the world He has given me to live.

Thinking with you that what may come may indeed be old, but that we can learn to see old things in new ways. This year I intend no effort to find new and novel things. I want to see the old lilacs with clearer vision. I want to cherish the life and relationships I have with greater care. I want to love with a more generous and careful heart.

See you next week.