February 1, 2011

You see, the thing about Philippians that I love—and that I also hate—is the way Paul is so willing to share. He’s willing to share in the same way that a little kid is willing to share his juice-box and his stuffy nose and sore throat. He’s willing to share just like the boss at work gets angry with the husband, who comes home and yells at his wife, who reprimands her son, who pulls the pony tail of his sister, who kicks the cat who eats the goldfish who makes the cat have gas and the whole cycle starts over again.

But, of course, Paul generates this pattern of chain of behavior with regard to the grace of God and to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul shares. Paul shares grace and Paul shares gospel, but ways that Paul defines these terms may catch us off-guard. He claims, for example, that the grace of God may involve some time in the pokey—in prison, in jail, in the big house, in the slammer. And Paul also will add that the grace of God may spill over into the way that we handle words and stories and raw experiences about Jesus. That is, there will be times when those words and stories don’t connect, and when those experiences, in translation, fall flat. And, in fact, that’s how we know that we’re sharing:
“for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”

In the film, O Brother Where Art Thou, Ulysses Everett McGill remains skeptical about the intervention of God in the life of his fellow convict, Delmar. He says that Delmar and Pete are “dumber than a bag of hammers” for getting baptized by the preacher in the creek. “People are looking for answers,” McGill continues, as the three of them drive down the road. And just then and there, at the intersection, is a solitary black man, holding a fiddle.
The escaped convicts pick up the hitchhiker, who says that he has sold his soul to the devil. “Well, ain’t that a coincidence,” replies McGill. And, with Pete and Delmar still soaking wet from their baptism, he delivers this really funny line. He says, “I guess that makes me the only one that’s unaffiliated.”

Unaffiliated. And, you see, I’m telling you about this scene in the film because it’s tempting, isn’t it? It’s tempting to assume the part of the innocent bystander or to take on the persona of the cynical spectator. In this region of the country, for example, there are demographically more people who check the box marked None, when it comes to religious preference, and I’m okay with that. If by “religious preference” you mean Presbyterian or Lutheran or Methodist or Baptist, I think it’s acceptable to say None of the Above. But, you see, what’s impossible and dangerously inconsistent is for any person who has received grace to then turn around and refuse to share grace. The grace of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ must be shared—and shared in dizzying array of circumstances.

There’s a story about a depressed mother who came to church with her kids only to leave in a huff after a few minutes of the service. One of the ushers, who also worked as a nurse, flagged her down and asked what was wrong. The woman then just unloaded with a string of epithets and curse words until the usher returned to the worship service, weeping. The usher then heard this amazing song being sung by the choir and she went to work that night at the hospital.

Then, a few hours later, there was a severe car accident and who should show up but the depressed mother on a gurney. She looked over at one of her children, bleeding, and then up into the compassionate face of the woman she had hurled hate at earlier in the day, and this is what the prone patient heard: “It’s okay. Hold my hand. We’re going to pray.”
“How I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best…”

You see, it’s not always clear when and where and under what circumstances we will be called to share the grace of God. But God has mysterious ways, I think, of cycling things back around.

I don’t know whether I’ve told you this before, but Dr. Poulakis did me a favor. Dr. Poulakis happened to the speech professor in college who taught that we really don’t have anything to say to one another. Think about the irony of that lesson, coming from a speech professor. We really don’t have anything to say to one another. Chit-chat. BS. Propaganda. Yes. Weather reports. Yes. Sports commentary. Yes. But, when it comes down to really, really, really saying something that substantive about why we’re here and where we’re going—my teacher says, we’ve really got nothing to offer. So, this was his big favor to me. As I sat there, that with droopy eyelids, he stood within a foot of my face and said, “What do you think?” And I thought. I had never really given it any thought before. But then I thought and I feel. And gradually I realized I believe in grace. And if I believed in grace it needed to be shared.