Thinking Three-Deep & Finding Jesus

I listened this week to good friend and authentic Christ-follower, Jorge Acevedo, speak about discipleship. It started me thinking, “What does discipleship look like?” Gosh, we know it when we see it, don’t we? There’s fruit like love, peace, joy, wisdom, a rich devotional life, high morality, generosity, and a gentle spirit. There’s more to it, of course, but the question ringing in my ears is more personal, “Am I a follower of Jesus ­– sold out, all in, the real deal?”

What I want to know and need to know is whether or not my being and doing are pleasing to God. Forget self satisfaction.  That lasts nanoseconds in the long-term pursuit of joy. Am I pleasing God? That’s the important question of discipleship that should be the thought behind the thought behind the thought behind the thought in my mind! Where does your mind go when you think three-deep?

I want my thoughts to go to Jesus, guiding everything I do and think. As United Methodists we believe that this life in Christ is a work of grace from start to finish. In this process God woos us through prevenient grace, saves us by justifying grace, and redeems our innermost thoughts and outward actions through sanctifying grace. It is not full salvation to single out common or prevenient grace as if it, in and of itself, guarantees universal salvation. Full salvation doesn’t even come, as some would propose, when Jesus justifies us and makes us right with God. That is imputed righteousness. No, full salvation is imparted righteousness as we become more and more like Jesus.

I have been reading about Oscar Romero, a reluctant hero of Liberation Theology and a witness for full salvation. When he was made archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 he was frowned upon by those who had been bucking the government’s co-opting of the church. He was apolitical at best. The government thought he was “safe,” an adjective that can’t describe a real disciple of the Lion of Judah.

Romero wasn’t interested in social holiness and regime change. His passion since his ordination was personal holiness. Romero wrote in his diary as a young priest, “In recent days the Lord has inspired in me a great desire for holiness…. I have been thinking of how far a soul can ascend if it lets itself be possessed entirely by God.”

On the personal holiness scale, Romero was great. However, Jesus’ call for his followers is greater than just on a personal level. Individual piety has to produce tangible fruit! Things changed for Oscar Romero when he saw how right-wing murder squads cannibalized El Salvador’s own people. He spoke out. He took a stand. He quit being safe. He aligned himself with the priests who were ministering to the poor, and he paid a price for his shift from being a follower of the status quo to being a follower of Jesus.

On March 24, 1980 Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated. As he celebrated Jesus’ sacrament using the words, “This is my body given for you… this is my blood shed for you,” a single bullet turned Romero’s own body and blood into communion elements. His body and blood became the body and blood of Jesus. That’s consummate discipleship, the dangerous merger of personal piety and social holiness.

This begs me to ask if I’m willing to do the same thing and take up the cross daily, deny myself, and follow Jesus. I want my life to be like Jesus and Oscar Romero. I want to fulfill the words of Rev. Wesley D. Taylor, United Methodist clergyperson in Tigard, Oregon, “In my discipleship I will be–like David, lifting up mine eyes unto the hills from whence comes my help; like Paul, forgetting those things which are behind and pressing on forward; like Abraham, trusting completely in our God; like Sarah, laughing for joy at God’s great promise; like Enoch, walking in daily fellowship with our Creator; like Moses, choosing life over death; like Jehoshaphat, preparing my heart to seek God; like Mary, loving God so much she birthed our Lord and Savior; like Daniel, able to commune with God all the time; like Job, patient under all circumstances; like Ruth, loyal above all to family; like Caleb and Joshua, refusing to be discouraged even in the face of greater numbers; like Joseph, able to turn away from all evil advances; like Gideon, advancing even though friends be few; like Aaron and Hur, constantly upholding the hands of our spiritual leaders; like Isaiah, consecrated to always do God’s work; like John, leaning upon the example of the Master Teacher; like Andrew, ever striving to lead my family to a closer walk with Christ; like Priscilla, a pioneer for growing churches; like Stephen, manifesting a forgiving spirit toward all people; like the angels, proclaiming the message of peace and good will to all. In my discipleship, I will be such!”

It’s easy to say and hard to do – thinking three-deep and finding Jesus; looking at communion and seeing not just Christ’s body but my own. I want a life that will never ever be the same, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Paterno’s Blind Side

I don’t quite know what to think of the scandal at Penn State and the demise of Coach Paterno’s coaching career. He is 84 years of age and is the winningest coach in football history. One mistake or chain of mistakes did him in. A person can do all the good in the world but a false step, a poor decision, a blind eye and it all ends. In part I sympathize with “JoePa” but a greater concern is for the victims of a pedophile. Joe Paterno had to go. All the good memories in the world cannot erase the negligence that perpetuated the horrible things done under his nose.

Theologically I recall Jesus’ reinstatement of Peter after his denial of Christ. I can ponder Jesus’ words of assurance to the thief beside him on the cross who wanted to be remembered in Paradise. Both situations had grace offered, but not without consequences. Peter was told how he would die and the thief was crucified for his crimes. In Bonhoeffer’s words, “There is no cheap grace.”

It makes me all the more dedicated to live a holy life, and I have a long way to go! I have to be diligent in the means of grace; praying, serving, devotional life, Scripture study, and doing whatever it takes to be a friend of God. I have to be a friend to everyone else to be a friend of God.

As I think of Paterno’s situation I am reminded of investing in the lives of the least of these on a consistent basis. Jesus ever sought the best for the least, the lost, the lowest, and the last. On top of a self-helping goal of improving myself I cannot abrogate helping others. The message of the Penn State scandal is to make sure you look out for the vulnerable. Paterno’s personal faith is evident. His investment in his football program is fantastic. His failure came from disregard for those he thought weren’t somehow worth it. A disconnect? Mine, too, sometimes. If my life’s story is to read well then I better be remembered for doing the right things.

Thank God I had a mother and father who excelled in this. Thinking of my Dad, I used to thoroughly enjoy going to auctions with him. My middle brother was usually there, too. Both went to the same auction school in Indiana and were partners. Although livestock auctions were the family’s main emphasis, we also did land and estate auctions.

One of those auctions sticks out in my mind as I think about my life story. I can’t remember the exact estate or town, but I know that it was in Georgia somewhere below Augusta. One of the tasks delegated to me was to go through the dilapidated out-buildings and find anything of value. If anything seemingly worthwhile was found, I told my brother or father and the item went into the sale. The old house was definitely antebellum. The barns and sheds around it were ready to fall in upon themselves. There was old stuff everywhere.

I had frightful visions of snakes and giant rats ready to pounce as I went scavenging through the buildings. There were old chifforobes, combinations of wardrobes and chests of drawers. In this case they were like the family’s safety deposit boxes. I was pretty scared as I began to open them up and pore over their contents. They were like time capsules. There were plenty of pieces of antiquated clothing turning brown or to dust with age.

Then I found the mother lode, the treasure, the things that made me forget about the rats and snakes. There were old pocketbooks. Some were made out of what appeared to be chain-mail. Others looked like real carpet-bags. They might very well have been because one of them had Confederate money in it. There were also a few coins. I plundered the bags with the anticipation of an Indiana Jones. I hurriedly told my brother and Dad what I had discovered.

I spent the rest of the day exploring each building. By the end of the day I felt like I had been privy to the family’s history. I noticed the trunks with the travel decals pasted on the sides indicating where these folks had vacationed. I found hat boxes filled with letters from distant loved ones. One had a son’s letters from overseas during World War II. There were receipt books and ledgers from what must have been an old country store located on the premises. The prices of things were astoundingly low. There were ration books from war years when essential items were doled out. I can remember their green money-like feel.

The official business of life was intermingled with the unofficial business of life. It was as if I was had been allowed entry onto hallowed ground. Everything I saw and touched spoke volumes about life, but also about death. Estate sales usually occur when there’s been a death. They suggest a sense of finality, a realization that life on earth ends, and you can’t take anything with you. In many ways that day in those barns and buildings I came of age. The lesson learned: A seven-by-four feet chifforobe can speak volumes about what we valued, but it’s only a whisper compared to the legacy of our lives themselves.

In our he/she-who-dies-with-the-most-toys-wins world, perhaps we should dare to leave our most treasured possessions in other people. Everything else deteriorates or gets sold. Heaven is the ultimate chifforobe, the very best safety deposit box. Let’s prove our faith by making memories in people. Joe Paterno will not be remembered for his tenacity at Penn State but in letting down a bunch of young victims. I pray for better. Our values will be revealed, exposed, celebrated, or berated. In the words of Rev. R.G. Lee, “There’s going to be a payday someday.” God help us all.

Coming Clean

The great novelist Flannery O’Connor, known for surprise endings and plot twists that can turn a reader upside down, wrote these matter-of-fact words, “You shall know and do the truth . . . and the truth will make you odd.” We may feel odd in today’s world when we live truthfully. Ethics as defined by the dictionary is “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.” I’m glad the definition started with the word, “discipline.” Doing the right thing, believing the truth and living truthfully, takes extraordinary discipline.

For example, 20,000 middle-and high-schoolers were surveyed by the Josephson Institute of Ethics–a non-profit organization in Marina del Rey, California, devoted to character education. Ninety-two percent of the teenagers admitted having lied to their parents in the previous year, and 73 percent characterized themselves as “serial liars,” meaning they told lies weekly. Despite these admissions, 91 percent of all respondents said they were “satisfied with my own ethics and character.” That’s a scary thing–when we knowingly misrepresent the truth and we are “satisfied with my own ethics and character.” Living truthfully may make you odd in today’s world.

Lenten season dares us to “fess up” to our shortcomings and that takes truth telling. Most of us would rather talk about what’s wrong with everybody else but ourselves. We have the Cleopatra Syndrome, so called because she was the Queen of DENIAL. Jesus came to expose the denying lies of those who felt smug in their self-righteousness and to bring relief to those who felt imprisoned by their unrighteousness. He told it like it was about both groups. He wanted both groups to come clean, tell the truth and experience the freedom that can only come from having no secrets from God.

With the woman at the well Jesus dodged her non-answers and went straight to the jugular about her many marriages and live-in lover. It was her honesty that finally opened her eyes to both Jesus and her own salvation. But she had to tell the truth to get there! Honesty is the best policy, especially honesty with God! He already knows what we’re thinking anyway, so why don’t we turn those ugly worrisome thoughts into prayers?

Only God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. Only God has the power to do all things, be all places, and know all things. Let’s give God his due. If God already knows everything about us, plus loves us, then aren’t we neglecting the best opportunity for real help when the going gets rough? Next time you find yourself in a predicament and are already planning your exit strategy with not-so-truthful ease, turn to God instead. Jesus is more than ready and able to help you. All He asks is for us to be honest. Sounds like a good Lenten discipline to me.