Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Love, Actually Pay It Forward

This is not a post about movie mashups, and it's not about Love, Actually or Pay It Forward.  But when I got to the end of the article I couldn't come up with a better title.  1000 points and titling rights for my next article for anyone who leaves a comment with a better title.

Last Tuesday was Valentine's Day.  The next morning I was in chapel with the DFUMC Preschool.  I love spending time with those kids, mostly because the laugh at me and think my drawings are funny.  I'm convinced this is because my drawings look a lot like theirs, except that mine have a hint of Bob Ross in them.

Just imagine this, only with magic marker and
drawn by a four-year-old.  Also, much like Jimmy
Chitwood in my previous post, I'm a little jealous of his hair.


But last week I didn't do drawings for them.  I began by observing that just the previous day I had seen people behaving oddly--and wondered if they had noticed the same thing.  Chocolate.  Balloons.  Flowers.  Chocolate.  Decorative boxes stuffed with cards and candy.  Chocolate.  Chocolate.  Lots of folks wearing red.  What did it all mean?  Why, I wondered aloud, would everybody be doing all these odd things?  A boy in the third row had the answer: love.

Love has a funny way of making people do strange things, and I've been thinking about that ever since chapel last week.  It's not just Valentine's Day (though there certainly is a high concentration of odd-ness that day).  For about 8 weeks this winter I've headed over to Briarlake Baptist church on Thursday and Saturday, either to take my kids to basketball practice, or to go to one of their games (well, except for the two Saturdays I was out of town...Lisa has actually been to all of them).  First, how odd that a Methodist would find his way to a Baptist church.  Second, watching a bunch of second and third graders learn how to play basketball is not exactly what I would consider quality entertainment (except when they score on the wrong goal...that is actually quite funny).  Anyway, the point is I do this with my kids because I love them.  I want them to learn to play organized sports, and to improve their fitness and coordination.  But if I'm honest, mostly I am there for them because I want them to know I love them and will always be there for them.

There's no condition on the love I have for my kids.  There's nothing they did to earn it.  There's nothing they can do to escape it.  Believe me, they have tried.  I love them because they are.  And while I may at times find this or that trait annoying (to be clear, usually it's a trait that comes from me), I love who they are.

I don't expect them to pay me back for my love.  It's like giving chocolates on Valentine's Day.  You don't expect anything in return.  You offer this gift because you love the person.  You might get a gift back, or you might not.  But it doesn't matter because that's not why you gave it in the first place.

Love, real love, can only be given.  It can't be paid back.

That's true of God's love too.  There's nothing we did to earn it.  There's nothing we can do to escape it.  Paul says nothing can separate us from the love of God.  No matter what we do or how hard we try God's patience, God will continue to love us.

There's nothing we can do to pay it back.

***

I have a number of dreams for my children.  Stability.  Happiness.  Standard stuff.  Chief among them is a hope that they find someone who loves them as much as I do who will love them after I get run over by a beer truck.  More importantly, I hope they love that someone the same way I love them--the same way God loves them.  Unconditionally and without hope or expectation of repayment.

No, God's love can't be paid back.  It can only be paid forward.  That's why I beam on the inside when I see my kids love others.  The moments when my kids pay love forward are the moments I am proudest of them even though they have nothing at all to do with me.  It's just them being who they are.

Says Jesus, that is our call: Love God, Love Neighbor (everyone), Love Self.  Pay God's love forward.  This is how people will know we are His disciples.

Monday, February 13, 2017

What I'm Really Trying to Say

A while back I read an article in the Washington Post about a poet named Sara Holbrook who couldn't answer questions about her own poems on a standardized test.  Her writing on the subject is an entertaining and thought-provoking read.  Take a moment now to read it.  I'll wait.  And honestly if you read that and don't have time to come back and finish this one, that'll be ok.  She's a much better writer than I am.

It reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in Finding Forrester, which I highly recommend if  you haven't seen it.  In the movie, 16-year-old Jamal Wallace has sought out a reclusive William Forrester for help with his writing (I'm sorry for way over-simplifying that).  At one point Forrester explains to Jamal why he only wrote one book.

"Do you know what the absolute best moment is?  When you've finished your first draft...and you read it by yourself.  Before these a**holes take something they couldn't do in a lifetime and tear it down in a single day."
"People love that book, man."
"I didn't write it for them.  And when the critics started all this bulls**t about...what it was I was really trying to say, well, I decided then...one book was enough."

Both Holbrook and Forrester are frustrated by the same reality: communication (even highly polished, artistic communication) is a two-part endeavor.  There is the person doing the writing, and there is the person doing the reading.  No matter how well-written or clear, the written word will always be reinterpreted by the reader, and that interpretation will be influenced by the life experience of the reader.  Best case.  Worst case it will be intentionally warped by the reader to make a point!  The very same words, read by two different people, can (and frequently will) be interpreted differently based on the biases of the readers.

Heck, let's be real.  It doesn't even have to be two different readers.  I interpret the same words differently depending on what kind of a mood I'm in!  Put the proverbial glass in front of me.  One day I'd tell you it's half full.  One day I'd tell you it's half empty.  Some other day I might tell you, "Give me that glass 'cause I'm thirsty."  Full disclosure: I don't usually use "'cause."  I wrote it here for dramatic effect.

Let's take one of my favorite poems: The Red Wheelbarrow, by William Carlos Williams.


so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

Let's talk about the epic opening.  SO MUCH DEPENDS.  That's heavy.  The wheelbarrow, critical to agrarian success, left haphazardly in the barnyard to rust in the rain while the white chickens, blissfully unaware of the unfortunate demise of this critical implement peck randomly at little bits of food, perhaps spilled out of it.  It's tantamount to tragedy as we understand the sequel to this poem (much less known and not actually written until this very moment): The Pathetic Farmer.


so sad a
farmer

out after the
rain

with a heavy
heart

has to kill
chickens


And then, like my friend Janice suggests, I hydrate and take a nap.  Then I come to the poem again.

All of a sudden I'm not so sure this is quite so tragic.  Rain, after all, is life-giving.  The the wheelbarrow is red, maybe even bright cherry red.  Upright.  And the bottom, just full of water, is a welcome bath for the birds circling overhead.  It leads to a very different sequel in my mind (and just as made up on the spot as the last one): Chickens in Spring


do you see
chickens

fat from their
lunch

the farmer is
whistling

he pushes his
wheelbarrow


This isn't such a big deal if we're debating the underlying themes and messages of poetry.  The stakes there are pretty low, really--I've never seen a coffee house debate over Thoreau get ugly, and I doubt any of you are seriously considering throwing a brick through my window because of my interpretations of The Red Wheelbarrow (if you are, please note my address: 1 E 161st St, Bronx, NY 10451.

Aaaaaannnndddd....this is the problem with Biblical interpretation.  You can believe the Word is inerrant if you want to, inspired or even written directly by God.  But as long as we have free will, we can interpret that any way we want to.  And friends, that really can get ugly.  Because while we may not get all up in arms at the coffee house about going out into the woods to live deliberately, whole wars have been fought on what the Bible says and what certain people think it means--or more specifically how that conflicts with what some other people think it means.

The problem is there are just so many ways to misinterpret it!  Shoot, you can twist that thing to say just about anything you want.  And a lot of people have.  You can use it to argue both sides of just about any debate.  If you want, I can point you to a FaceBook conversation I had the other day about heaven, hell, and salvation.  I stated and defended Biblically that I don't believe in hell.  Another person stated and Biblically defended that I would likely wind up there!  Who is right?  Well, I don't know.  Of course I hope I am in this case.  I also hope I can't answer with authority for a while.

In a book (or a library, as the Bible may be) filled with a lot of confusing and conflicting information, I find the words and stories of Christ to be refreshingly straightforward.  What should I do in this life, Jesus?   "Well, you love God, you love neighbor, and you love yourself."  Who is my neighbor?  "Everyone.  Especially people you don't like."  Well, crud.  I don't like it much, but there it is.

In fact, interpreting Jesus, at least as I most often see it, boils down to this: if you're using the Scripture to justify hurting folks or judging them, stop it.  You have heard it said your enemies will suffer hellfire and eternal damnation, but I tell you not so fast!

But understanding that reveals my own bias.

We get into trouble if we use the Bible to judge other folks, because we always wind up judging them by our own standards.  And even if we're really really convinced that we're right, we might be really really wrong.  Because we're human, and we "start making up bulls**t about what [God] was really trying to say."

So maybe it's safest to use the Bible to judge our own behavior and leave it at that.  Because sometimes I wonder if God would be able to answer the questions about the Bible that we come up with.