Punctuation Matters

“Let’s eat grandma.” is a very different statement from “Let’s eat, Grandma.” The first is the start of cannibalism, the second is a brief invitation. This one sentence has been a favorite example of mine for years on why punctuation matters. The irony here is that I am absolutely horrible at grammar and have to google things regularly to make sure I’m not breaking major rules. But do you know who didn’t have to worry about punctuation? Jesus. That’s right, sentence punctuation was something that was invented several hundreds of years after Jesus was born and most of the oldest manuscripts from the Old and New Testament were even written in all capital letters. 

While this makes the part of me that hates punctuation really happy, it has also been the source of a lot of frustration for theologians. Because we are in Lent and are looking toward the cross, Jesus said to the man hanging beside him “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43 NRSV). Out of all the possible things to debate concerning this verse, my guess is most people never think about the comma. The way the translators of the NRSV placed it after the word “you” means that “Truly I tell you” is a side bit, and that the main focus is that “today you will be with me in Paradise.” This leans towards an eschatology of when we die, we immediately go to heaven, or at least to what we presume to be our final destination. However, this passage could also read “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” which would lead to “Truly I tell you today” being a qualifier of when he said it, and then “you will be with me in Paradise” as the statement that is not dependent on a timeframe. It could be that that very same day, he was in Paradise, or it could be that he won’t be in paradise until Jesus returns. One comma has a considerable impact on an entire eschatological view, or what we think about the end things. (As a note, no major translation that I can find has the comma placed after “today”.)

Another horrible English nerd joke is making fun of Paul for his long run on sentences, and even sometimes how clunky his wording can be. As someone who doesn’t actually speak or read Greek, I have no idea if it sounds much better in Greek, but I can tell you that in Greek the run on sentences are much worse. Ephesians 1:3-14 is actually one entire run on sentence in the earliest Greek manuscripts. It is literally a 270 word run on sentence that I’ll post at the end of this blog. 

But as much as punctuation matters, it can get in the way of what really matters. We can do word studies. We can spend hours in the world’s most boring debate talking about where a comma or period should go. We can talk about the history of bad translations. But at some point, academic discussions become meaningless. It doesn’t really matter if I die and immediately go to heaven or if I’m in a some sort of suspended animation. The way I’m supposed to live my life isn’t dependent on what happens after it. If we get so caught up in the details that we lose sight of the key commands of loving God and loving our neighbor, we in effect don’t see the forest for the trees. 

But there is one thing that everyone should agree on. The Oxford comma is absolutely necessary. 

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ[a] before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,[b] having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this[c] is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.”

You're Giving Up What?

Ok, it is that time of year again when in the Christian community we will all get the question one time or another “What are you giving up for Lent?”  Some people are right in your face and want you to know what they are doing and how they will be doing it.  Others are more subdued in their offering for Lent.

The idea behind giving up something for Lent is based on Luke 9:23 “Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”  So, essentially it’s about self-denial, carrying our cross and following Jesus.  It is something that’s done in a prayerful way, so that we can wholly renew ourselves in Christ. That’s an important part of the process for you as an individual, but also as a family. If your family or your children choose to participate in a Lenten fast, make sure that praying together and reading the Bible is part of the experience.

I have had friends who did not give up anything for Lent, but instead did an “ADD TOO” each day.  You can be intentional to do something of meaning each day.  Buy some one lunch one day, take a lonely senior some candy, take an afternoon off and spend it with your kids.  BE INTENTIONAL.  Or another person created bags of food for the food bank, by picking up items each day and at the end of each week take the bag to the food pantry. Or read a story in the bible each day, just make you disciplined enough to do it everyday!

We have so much to be thankful for each day. I have shared I am making this year a year of thankfulness.  Through the tough year of loss last year, regardless of the circumstances I am thankful, and this year I am intentionally being thankful.  

My wife and I have a friend who has lost both of her parents and has had breast cancer in the past 5 years.  We have only seen her down a couple of times of the 15 years we have known her family. We all handle adversity differently and God gives the ability to handle everything in our own way. She has the intentionality everyday to make it a good day and be positive regardless of the circumstances.  We have always admired her attitude and her faith in all of the circumstances.

We have the choice everyday to make this the best day ever. Make a difference, in your life or someone else’s life during these 40 days of Lent.  Maybe just maybe that will be the catalyst to jump-start your new and improved self. 

May these 40 days be the best ever!

If You Don't Like It, Stay

One of the funniest things about being on Facebook is the process people go about unfriending each other or leaving groups. There are plenty of memes about this phenomenon but my all time favorite for accuracy says “Im going to unlike this page right after I post about unliking this page and hang around to see what people say about me unliking this page”. Somewhere along the way, we taught people that if you don’t like something you should just leave. You don’t like what’s on TV, just change the channel. You don’t like the song on the radio, go to the next station. You don’t like what your church is doing, just leave.

One of these things is not like the other…  While people (hopefully) don’t change churches like they change tv channels, there is at least a trend of people leaving churches because they don’t like something. As I’m writing this, I’m streaming the General Conference that is addressing the Way Forward concerning Human Sexuality. At this particular point, they are discussing ways in which a church could disaffiliate with the UMC if they don’t agree with the outcome of this conference. In other words, they’re talking about how they can leave if they don’t like it. 

I want to propose an alternative though. Instead of leaving if you don’t like the church, stay. If you leave, we lose your voice. If you leave, you have lost the ability to fix the problem. But if you stay, you can be part of the solution. You can be the person who points out “this isn’t right”. You can be the person who shows us another way. When you choose to stay, you are saying that this issue is important enough to fight for. 

In 1 Corinthians 12 we find a wonderful passage about one body, many parts. I want to point out a couple verses specifically. 

Yes, there are many parts, but only one body. The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary.

If you think our church doesn’t need you, you’re absolutely wrong. We need you. We need your ideas, your passion, and your corrections.  We need you to help make us better. So if you don’t like what has happened in the UMC, stay. 

I Want It

I Want It or Do I Need It?

Just last week I walked into Wal-Mart and I saw a surround sound system for the TV, which was on mark down.  It was $200 a week ago and now it was on clearance for $150.00.  Ok, my mind was running.  I was thinking to myself “We really need a surround system” and this was a really good one for a decent price.  We could be watching Jurassic Park tonight and let the windows rattle.  It would not take up that much room.

Then I walked away to think about it and came back to look at the speakers again.  My goggles were off now and when I looked at the speakers, two of them stood 3 feet tall next to the TV, then there were 2 bookshelf speakers, 1 center speaker that was 16” long, and then the two rear speakers. So I would need to run the wires to the rear speakers, which meant getting in the attic and mounting the speakers on the rear wall.  At that moment, I was so glad I turned my back and thought about it before buying them.

Is this a Want or a Need?  Ok in my mind it was a Want.  Something I did not Need.  The sound has been working on the TV for quite some time and we will be just fine without it.   When I saw the sound system the second time the speakers looked massive and it would have been overwhelming in our TV room.  Again it was a want, not a Need.  Now honestly, years ago I would not have had this mindset. Thankfully, now I can step back and re-evaluate the situation.

One thing my wife and I are pretty good at is car shopping.  We have had cars break down and had to purchase a new car.  I cannot count how many times we have turned our back on the “TODAY ONLY DEAL” and walked out of the dealership.  Sometimes we do not even get out of the door before the manager comes to us and asks how can we do this deal today. Or we get home and the phone rings from the sales manager telling me they can NOW do the deal we asked for. When we look for a car it has not been a want, rather we need a car.  But in the process we do our homework to determine what is good and fair for us.  Not what is best for the dealership’s quota?

How many times have you said to yourself “I WANT THAT”, whatever “that” is?  Or even after you got the new car, TV, Phone, truck, boat  or relationship you find this is what you thought you wanted but it is not what you needed. It did not bring you the satisfaction, joy or peace you thought?

I was told years ago be careful about praying for patience because the minute you do, God will place some one in your life which really tests your patience.  This scripture rings true for all of us.

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” Colossians 3:12

When I get I-want-it-itis, I try to take a deep breath, evaluate and ask for guidance.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
 I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Psalm 32:8 

This scripture is just not for the WANTS we have, but in all situations step back and ask the Father for his guidance.  Over time you will find when you ask for God’s guidance and you align yourself with his will, you will find satisfaction, joy, and peace.

Snowy Days

Somewhere along the way, Christians decided that you are supposed to be happy. My guess is that it has something to do with our affinity for scriptures like “the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace…” and songs with lyrics like “nothing gonna steal my joy”. I’ve heard people say they knew someone was a Christian by the way they smiled. It seems like if you aren’t happy the assumption is that you are having faith issues. 

Maybe it’s because of those expectations that so many church leaders, myself included, rarely talk about the very real struggles that we face. My go-to description of what living with depression is like came out after Anthony Bourdain committed suicide last year.

“When you have depression it's like it snows every day.

Some days it's only a couple of inches. It's a pain, but you still make it to work, the grocery store. Sure, maybe you skip the gym or your friend's birthday party, but it IS still snowing and who knows how bad it might get tonight. Probably better to just head home. Your friend notices, but probably just thinks you are flaky now, or kind of a jerk.

Some days it snows a foot. You spend an hour shoveling out your driveway and are late to work. Your back and hands hurt from shoveling. You leave early because it's really coming down out there. Your boss notices.

Some days it snows four feet. You shovel all morning but your street never gets plowed. You are not making it to work, or anywhere else for that matter. You are so sore and tired you just get back in the bed. By the time you wake up, all your shoveling has filled back in with snow. Looks like your phone rang; people are wondering where you are. You don't feel like calling them back, too tired from all the shoveling. Plus they don't get this much snow at their house so they don't understand why you're still stuck at home. They just think you're lazy or weak, although they rarely come out and say it….

The thing is, when it snows all the time, you get worn all the way down. You get tired of being cold. You get tired of hurting all the time from shoveling, but if you don't shovel on the light days, it builds up to something unmanageable on the heavy days. You resent the snow, but it doesn't care, it's just a blind chemistry, an act of nature. It carries on regardless, unconcerned and unaware if it buries you or the whole world.” (full description here)

As the Church, we have to do a better job of talking about mental health issues. Too many people put on a fake smile when they walk through our doors. They pretend everything is fine and that they are too blessed to be stressed when really they are surrounded by a blizzard no one else can see. Instead of pointing out the 267 times the word joy is mentioned in the Bible, maybe we should spend more time talking about how there are more lamenting psalms than thanksgiving psalms, or how Jerusalem’s wall was rebuilt because the king noticed Nehemiah was sad. We glance over the times that grief and anguish overcame Jesus, Elijah begged to die, basically the entire book of Job, the fact that we have a “weeping prophet”, and David’s several low points. We unintentionally alienate those who struggle with mental illness by our avoidance of the subject. 

But more damaging than ignoring mental illness in the church is trying to “fix” people. Depression is not a spiritual issue but a psychological and health issue. We can’t tell someone to pray the sad away anymore than we can tell someone who just had a root canal to pray the pain away. And that’s the rub. We believe in prayer. We believe that God still heals people, but we also know that God also doesn’t heal every person that’s been prayed for. The apostle Paul asked three times for the thorn in his flesh to be taken away, and God’s answer was “My grace is sufficient”. I pray that we all find God’s grace to be sufficient, that we learn to embrace our weaknesses for Christ’s sake, and that we never point to someone else’s weakness and think ourselves better.