Monday, June 23, 2014

Abiding in Christ and Mission Trip Highs

If you grew up in a church youth group, then you probably went on a summer mission trip. You'd travel by bus with forty of your friends to some remote destination that you had never heard of, and somehow you got up at the crack of dawn every day to do the kind of work that you would never think of doing back home. And yes, all of our parents would say quietly to themselves, "So my child will travel half way across the country to put a roof on some stranger's house, but you have to pull his teeth to get him to clean his own room?" I know, I know...double standards.

And if you went on these short trips, then you know all about the Mission Trip High (MTH). You came home with grand visions to live your life sold out for Jesus, changing the world before you graduated high school. You promised to read your Bible every day. You vowed to fast once a week. You swore to be the greatest prayer warrior in your church. You were going to be the perfect Christian!

But within days of coming home, the MTH was gone. You were sleeping in till noon. You were loading up on junk food. Your Bible was still packed away in your suitcase. And you figured that since you went on a youth group mission trip, you could excuse yourself from church for the rest of the summer.

As we grew up, we came to call those MTHs a mere emotional experience. We believed that we allowed our feelings to get the best of us; that's why we made the same ridiculous promises after every single mission trip. Let's be honest - those promises were a bit far fetched for anybody.

I would like to argue, though, that something other than out of control teenaged emotions were fueling those MTHs. In fact, I will say that for those of us who spent a week or two of our high school summers serving on mission trips, we were fulfilling Christ's words to His disciples in John 15.

Final Instructions.

On the night Jesus was betrayed, Jesus gave these final words to His closest friends.
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. (John 15:5-8 ESV)
How do we interpret those words, "Abide in me....I in you?" For years, I was taught that the answer was found in the spiritual disciplines: read your Bible, pray daily, fast regularly, etc. And indeed, these are important activities for any follower of Jesus. But Jesus does not exhort his Disciples to a life of prayer and meditation. Not here, anyway.

Jesus' emphasis is on direct action. Let's look further.
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:9-11 ESV)
Now wait a minute. Did Jesus say what I think he said? Did he actually say that we will earn Jesus' love by following His commands?

No. He said that we would abide in His love. In other words, we would live in accordance with His love if we follow His commandments. Or we would become more aware of His love if we follow His commandments. That is the model Christ sets for us; He kept His Father's commandments and so rested in His Father's love.

And what is Jesus' commandment? He couldn't be more clear.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:12-14 ESV)
The love of Jesus bore good fruit in the physical world. The love of Jesus wasn't only about storing treasures in heaven; Jesus loved in order to showcase the Kingdom of God is in our midst right now. 

John 15 is sandwiched between two profound acts of service. In John 13, Jesus washes His disciples feet, a humiliating duty reserved for the lowest of servants. In John 18 and following, Jesus is arrested, tried, and crucified. Jesus puts flesh on His own words - "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends."

For three years, the twelve disciples were first-hand witnesses to the kind of love that Jesus honors. Jesus healed the sick, he embraced the crippled, he protected the lowly, he advocated for the poor. Not only that, but Jesus loved the enemy of the nation of Israel by healing a Roman Centurion's son. Jesus loved the enemy of the weak by dining with the Pharisees. Jesus loved the enemy of the Law by sojourning for a while in unclean Samaria. 

Jesus loved His twelve disciples even as they misunderstood his teachings, as they asked banal questions, even as His own disciples questioned Jesus' agenda. For all of their mistakes, Jesus called these twelve men his friends, and that should be a great comfort to us as we struggle to live and love well. (Although, it should be noted that Jesus had sent Judas away from the table by this point in the narrative). 

And what of our teenaged MTHs? Think about it. If you went on those kind of trips, you made sacrifices. If you had a summer job, then you sacrificed a week's worth of income, no matter how small it was. If you had summer athletic training, you gave up a week of strength conditioning to serve. If you hated hard labor and early mornings, you sacrificed your right to sleeping in and comfort. If you harbored prejudices against the poor or people of color, than you sacrificed your biases in order to serve another human. If you didn't care much for your colleagues in your youth ministry, then you sacrificed your pride (or fear) and forced yourself to serve with new friends. Jesus honors all of these sacrifices, and in making such sacrifices, you opened yourself up to understand God's love in new ways

What's the takeaway? Christian, if you are longing to know Jesus' love for you, then here is your answer - love your neighbor as Jesus would love them. That is no "social justice gospel;" those are the very words of our Lord and Savior. While much good can be said for a life of prayer and meditation - and indeed, Jesus expects us to fast and pray - none of those disciplines will make any sense until you put on some work boots and serve. 

I am reminded of words from a local pastor that I heard nearly a decade ago. "An over-exposure to Truth with no response will lead to a hard heart." 

Why did the MTH disappear? You stopped following Jesus command to love one another, so you ceased to abide in Jesus love. If you grew up believing that reading and memorizing God's word was the key to joy in God's Kingdom, then maybe you were confused when sustained joy never came with an increased head knowledge of His Word. That's because Jesus doesn't ask us to live life tucked away in an ivory steeple. Jesus calls us to love one another by practicing the wisdom of the Scriptures in the real world. To love one another is a command so simple that twelve rapscallions, enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit, were able to build God's church on this earth.

So go forth, serve, and get your Mission Trip High, and then work that high day by day by loving your neighbor as Christ commands us to. And may you find your rest by abiding in the Vine who supplies you with all that you need.

Until next time,

Friday, February 7, 2014

Lessons from the Bike: The Tough Guy Crashes

Any of my friends will tell you - I love to bike. I have a Carpe named Balrog Trouble Cornwheel - or Trouble, for short - so named because he's menacing like the evil Fire-Demon of Moria, he's constantly getting me into some kind of mess, and, well, Cornwheel just sounds like the bicycle version of my last name.

Even at rest, he looks mean
Trouble and I go for some decently long rides. It's not unusual for me to take him on a 20, 30 mile ride on a nice day. During the summer months, we'll average about 80-100 miles a week. We commute. We exercise. We flip off drivers who cut us off. We're made for each other...even when Trouble is getting me into trouble.

Like last Friday, when Trouble and I got into a nasty accident on a major Memphis road.

Madison Avenue is a road that runs from Midtown Memphis all the way to the University of Memphis Law School's downtown campus. I love biking on Madison because not many motorists use the road, and it also offers bike lanes, which gives me a decent sense of security.

But Madison Avenue has a nasty little trick. It has trolley tracks built into the road, and if you're not careful, those tracks will take you down.  As my good friend Clark, owner of Victory Bike Studios, will tell you, "I always tout that the trolley tracks are what keep orthopedic surgeons in business. You can't ride parallel to them, or you are gambling."

There's a point on Madison where the trolley tracks cross from the middle of the road to the sidewalk; for a cyclist, this crossing is the most dangerous part of the journey to downtown Memphis. If you hit the crossing at any angle other than 90 degrees to the tracks, you will crash.

And for a dozen trips down Madison, I have won Clark's gamble, safely coasting over those metal devils.

But last Friday brought the unlucky craps shot. I came in at the wrong angle, and my tires got lodged into the grooves of the tracks, and I spilled face first onto the pavement.

And I immediately got back on my feet.

I immediately put the chain back on the gear.

I immediately got back on the road.

I immediately biked to my intended destination.

And I didn't bother to see the damage until I got to my intended destination.

Not damage to Trouble, mind you; the bike got away without a scratch. (Like I said: Trouble).

Rather, the damage to my body - to my left knee. My jeans were ripped and covered in a small amount of blood. My knee was scraped bad - not bad enough to need stitches, but it hurt. And my knee was dirty, covered in soot and gravel from my spill on Madison.

My riding gloves - it was cold - were also ripped. That could've been the flesh of my palms.

But you know what? I'm a Tough Guy. I don't have time to mope, and I'm not about to call a friend for a ride home. So I chain my bike up outside the coffee shop I intended to visit to meet with my intended friend for my intended cup of coffee, and over said cups of coffee we casually joked about my fall, my ripped up jeans, my bloodied knee.

Well, I joked. My friend Tyler laughed only because I laughed - in reality, Tyler wanted to give Trouble and me a ride home in his truck.

But no. I'm a Tough Guy who is going to spend all day on his bike, scraped up body be damned. So Tyler and I finish coffee, and we hug goodbye, and I mount my bike ("Dang, my knee hurts"), and I head east on Madison to meet another friend for lunch, and I go over the same trolley tracks, and I spill again. Not as hard as the first fall, but even then, it was like adding salt to an fresh and biting wound.

(Yes, Reader, I was wearing a helmet).

And I immediately get on my feet, and I immediately fix the chain, and I immediately hit the road to have my lunch with my friend Andy, because Tough Guys bike to lunch with a banged up body.

When I meet up with Andy, he's looking at my ripped up jeans, my bloodied knee, my scraped gloves with that look - you know, the one that says, "Jimmy, you're an idiot. You know that, right?" Andy offers Trouble and me a ride home in his truck, but I politely decline. I'm a Tough Guy; I'll take care of myself.

I bike to Rhodes to do some work ("Dang, my knee really hurts"), and I have to tell my colleagues what happened to my bloodied knee and ripped up jeans. Eh, let's be honest, I'm smirking with every detail I tell them, because pain is cool, and I'm a Tough Guy.

By now, all my adrenaline has worn off, so I am exhausted. I bike my sorry self home ("[Expletive], this frackin knee really hurts") and I pass out as soon as I walk into my bedroom.

When I wake up about an hour or so later, I start thinking:

Why didn't I stop?
Why wouldn't I accept anybody's help?
What joy do I have in telling people I crashed on Madison?

I could have been seriously hurt.
I could have broken my wrists.
I could have been hit by a car while I was down on the ground.
I could have gotten killed.

I suffer from Tough Guy Syndrome - a sequence of lies and half-truths about masculinity. I believe this lie that says pain for the sake of pain is noble and good. I believe this lie that says only weak people accept help from friends. I believe this lie that says you must always be the noble hero at every moment; you must always push every envelope.

I'm a Tough Guy on my bike. Where else am I a Tough Guy?

I'm a Tough Guy in my friendships. I don't like to ask for help, nor do I like to receive help. My roommates are always asking if they can help me make dinner, but I always shut them down. "Nah, I got it."

I'm a Tough Guy in my work. It's midnight as I write. I've put together lectures, class plans, and e-mails at an even later hour. Why? Because I must push through the fatigue; only the weak need rest.

I'm a Tough Guy in my faith. Anyone who knows my story - which is many of you - knows that I have endured some horrifically rough episodes, most notably during my time in North Carolina. I've never really allowed anybody to help me carry those burdens. Sure, I've shared my story many times, but I don't know if I have ever allowed many people to help me confront the pains, fears, and anxieties I carry in my heart.

Because I'm a Tough Guy. There's no time to stay on the ground. I gotta get back on the bike and get moving to my next destination - and I'll gladly wear my bloodied wounds openly on my heart and body.

But it takes a humble man, a strong man, a healthy man to say,
I need to stop and rest.
I need to heal these wounds.
I need someone else to carry me right now.
Or I'm going to hurt myself - and others - more deeply than I am already hurt.

There are more than a few guys in my life who are willing to carry me home. A Tough Guy will always decline, but a strong man will humble himself enough to gratefully accept the help.

"Bear one another's burdens," writes the Apostle Paul, "and so fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2)

Trouble may not be able to teach me how to accept help, but he has revealed a wound that cuts deeper than a scraped knee. Self-awareness is the first step towards wholeness and restoration.

A few good friends and a gracious Father in Heaven is teaching me now how to ask for and receive help. That's a hard lesson to learn, but even in the last few weeks, I have benefitted greatly from it. But that's a lesson to share for another day.

Until next time,