Monday, April 27, 2015

Are We Better When We're Serving?

Last weekend we had the privilege of caring for two foster children ages one and two. 
It wasn’t our first time doing foster care, but it was our first in quite a while. 
Before we committed to an overnight placement, Kurt and I wanted to make sure the whole family was in. “If we are going to do this,” I said, “Then we are going to serve these little ones as a family.” 
Everyone agreed, but we didn’t give much thought to the implications of prioritizing others. (No, we’re not having friends over. No, you can’t turn on the TV while they’re napping.)
When the little ones arrived we were giggly over their tiny words, chunky hands, and quick smiles. I encouraged the boys to be calm and not over eager with all manner of baby toys which they’d dredged up from the depths of the toy box. And with a little coaxing, they warmed up to us fairly well. 

Over the next 24 hours I saw my boys reading books to them, letting the toddler direct the page turning. Together they facilitated the mass collection of pinecones. Inside the house, one of them cut up bananas on the high chair tray. And though I can still hardly believe it, they cooked lunch on Saturday while I was outside strolling a fussy one. What was on the menu, you ask? Well, we had no macaroni noodles, so it was spaghetti and cheese…with oranges on the side. It was a hit. Kraft ought to be taking notes.
The regular sibling bickering was replaced by kind questions: Do you want an orange? Can I peel it for you? Do you like bananas? Can I pass out more goldfish? Which book do you want? Did you find a pinecone?
Even my parental barking was muzzled and I calmly asked, Can you help with her shoes? Will you carry him while I switch the laundry? Will you fill a sippy cup?
And it was all so blissful that I thought, “Wow. We are better when we’re serving.” 
And then the little ones went back home. 
We woke Sunday morning and the bickering and barking erupted with volcano-like force. It was like a painful episode of Supernanny, only Nanny Jo Frost must have missed her connecting flight from England, and we had to slog though it on our own. 
And I found out we aren’t all better.
I’ve been trying to make some profound biblical application, but I’ve only been able to list four things I know for certain:

·  We are all insufferably bent toward selfishness. Apparently we can only “deny ourselves” for so long. In this case, about 12 waking hours.
·  Serving in this capacity changes us temporarily and externally: We temporarily practiced how Christ wants us to live—preferring others, speaking kindly, and giving generously. According to Malcolm Gladwell it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master anything. On the bright side, we’re down to 9,988! To put it bluntly, we need more practice so the changes become more than temporary and sporadic.
·  Serving others has changed us permanently and internally: Our boys know there are children living in constant transition and “warming up” mode because decisions have been made for them that have ongoing consequence. And I could write a book about ways God has changed my heart through foster care. Suffice it to say I sometimes wonder if service to “the least of these” (as Jesus referred to the needy in Matthew 25:40) is more about changing my heart than changing their circumstances. Thankfully, God’s mercy and grace can accomplish both.
·  There are alternating seasons for intense service and rest. This is not to say I retreat to my hovel of self-indulgence. But certainly there are good reasons to rest between intense seasons of service. Jesus did. He slept on a boat ride, retreated to a mountain to pray, and allowed angels to minister to Him. Who are we to think we need less?

So I guess I’m not sure if we’re really better when we’re serving. But I know this for sure, Christ can change us when we do.

Friday, April 3, 2015

An Easter Ballad

I can trace my love of imaginative, biblical narrative round and round the grooves of an LP 33 speed record album.

Maybe you don’t remember, but a record album (pronounced rek-erd al-buh-m) was invented and in popular use shortly after the invention of the wheel and hieroglyphics.

In the late 70s my parents bought an advanced piece of music technology. A stereo.

This miracle of musical machinery was ensconced behind glass doors to reiterate the fact that all the blinking knobs and dancing decibel lights were off limits to three wide-eyed children. 

Photo Credit: Daniele Nicolucci
Half the fun of the stereo was the delicate show on the turn table. The shiny vinyl balanced on the spindle, spun, wobbled, and finally dropped onto the record player.

But perhaps the most impressive feature was the set of speakers. They were protected by a distinctively smelling squishy foam, and at four feet high they were taller than me.

My sister and I would lay on the floor in front of those gigantic speakers with one ear pressed into the foam and wait for our favorite Easter song on our favorite record album.

As the crackling needle whispered, we prepared to be transported by the voice of Don Francisco to a first century scene. And there, in our mind's eye, we saw the grieving apostle Peter.

Perhaps you think that’s a bit strange.

Your favorite song was about the grieving apostle? Not exactly. It’s just that we knew it didn't end there. The crescendo of the finale was coming, but it always started with a sorrowful Peter.

After contributing to the horrors of the crucifixion, Peter was terrified of arrest and crippled with shame. And so he begins his story. Take a listen:

All year long, Don Francisco, my sister, and I would belt it out together: "He’s Alive!!! He's alive, and I'm forgiven!"

Interestingly, this song was the longest-running chart single in the history of Christian radio.

What makes it so good? Why was it our favorite? Why do I always cry?

I think the answer, at least in part, lies in the lyric, "Everything I'd promised Him just added to my shame." 

What had Peter promised?

When Jesus warned His 12 friends that they would all bail on Him, they each, including Peter, said, "Surely you don't mean me?"

Then, as if to shore up his devotion, Peter pumped his fist into the air declaring, "Lord, even if all fall away on account of you, I will not! Even if I have to die with you I will never disown you!" 

And I'm sure Peter meant it. He wasn't lying to Jesus. Amidst the solemnity of the Passover meal he was earnest. He was ready for heroics!

But he wasn't ready for the humiliation of grace. He was not yet willing to let Jesus die for him.

I think this is why I love the story of Peter and perhaps why so many have loved Don Francisco's ballad. It is a portrait of God's grace given even to those who've tried to "do it right" and heroically.

I have promised Jesus big and small acts of faith in earnest: Lenten sacrifice, Christmas generosity, and everyday devotion. But everything I've promised points to the fact that I can't even keep my own promises.

I fudge on the sacrifice. I'm cautious in generosity. I fall short of goals I was certain I could accomplish. How much more have I fallen short of a Christ-like generosity and sacrifice?

When we recognize our ineptitude to perfectly carry out our tiny acts of goodness, then we are finally able to receive what Christ offers: His death instead of yours. His perfect life credited to you. In the words of Martin Luther, "The Great Exchange" where Jesus is the hero.  

To "celebrate" Christ's death on Good Friday may seem cryptic or harsh.  But we know what Peter didn't. Saturday is the grand crescendo and Sunday morning is the celebratory finale.

Happy Easter, Friends.

He's still alive, and we can be forgiven.

Can’t get enough of Don Francisco? Me either. Here is another favorite story-in-song:

A more recent Easter song:

I dusted off some vinyl and rediscovered these favorites:

What's your favorite Easter song? I'll add it to my play list!