A Drama of Redemption

Tiger Woods

There was a time in my life (a long time ago!) when I played at least 9 holes of golf every day.  While married and raising kids, I did a lot less of it.  Yet, some of my best “visits” with parishioners were on the golf course.  In 2005, that all changed when I was in a car accident.  My back has never been the same.  I’ve never been able to twist and torque my body to swing a golf club.  It’s possible that I could try and reinvent my swing.  However, it hasn’t been a priority for me with all of life’s responsibilities.

So, I have mostly taken to the occasional weekend watching golf on TV.  I enjoy both the competition and skill of the professionals, and the stunning beauty of the courses they play.  This weekend was the Masters, which is probably the greatest and the best of the four major golf tournaments played each year.  Yesterday was an amazing final day of the tournament.  Tiger Woods, who hadn’t won a major tournament in over ten years, and had not won the Masters since 2005, came out of the pack to win.

I found myself unusually glued to the TV watching him.  As the holes progressed, I became more and more vested into Tiger’s performance.  By the time the final three holes were played, I was hanging on every stroke.  And when he putted on the 18th green, I went nuts.  Seeing him hug his kids and everyone congratulating him brought a well of tears to my eyes.  So, I am now asking, why did I have such an emotional reaction?

Because I know the story of Tiger Woods.  He was a golf prodigy at a young age.  He won his first of his five Masters tournaments at age 21.  It looked as though he was going to completely shatter every golf record in the books.  Then, his life began to unravel.  He was arrested for drunken driving; multiple affairs were discovered as many women came forward; divorce from his wife; years of competitive golf ravaged his body with several knee and back surgeries.  Tiger didn’t even play one round of golf in a nearly two-year stretch.  Indeed, it appeared he was done with golf.

Yesterday’s victory was more than winning a golf tournament.  Tiger’s victory was an incredible comeback story.  That, however, was not really what brought me to tears.  It was what I observed from him as he walked and played the course yesterday.  This was clearly a different Tiger Woods.  The younger Tiger approached golf with a must-win attitude.  I heard him, quite often, swear at himself before the censors could catch it on televised tournaments.  He moved about with a steeled compulsion as if he must win; must be better; must be on top; must be the best.  It resulted in more victories; more prestige; more money; more women; more everything.  It was an almost demoniacal obsession to play flawless and victorious golf.  Even when he was the golf’s world number one, Tiger set about reinventing his swing in the attempt to be an even better golfer.

Then, Tiger experienced a hard fall from grace; which was inevitable when the compulsive and neurotic self is in the driver’s seat.  However, yesterday I saw a much more relaxed Tiger.  He was incredibly composed and extremely patient in how he approached his round of golf.  He had a very different look in his eye.  Yes, he wanted to win. Yet, he didn’t seem to be obsessed; as if just being on the course and in the mix of competition again was enough for him.  Tiger’s creativity around the course seemed spontaneous and free, as opposed to his earlier years where his imagination could only seem to picture conquering the golf course.

This was a story of redemption played-out in front of us all while we watched the Masters.  So, when Tiger Woods won, without the neurotic need to do so, the tears came.  Truth be told, I relate to the neurotic self.  I resonate with the younger years of driving to be the best preacher in the world and the compulsion to read, study, and learn everything I could to be on the very top of my game as a minister of the gospel.  I never experienced a fall to the degree of Tiger, yet I know the feeling of being toppled through years of ministry wear and tear; of wondering if my body and soul would be able to do pastoral work again.

I am curious as to how Tiger Woods changed.  I suspect through all his inner crap and outer conflict that he eventually discovered the real Tiger underneath all the compulsion and drive.  Yesterday was his greatest triumph, in more ways than winning a golf tournament.  He was unusually calm.  He had determination, yet it did not seem to dominate his actions.  I saw a person enjoying the experience.  In the post-victory interviews, Tiger indeed acknowledged his profound gratitude for the ability to play and to play at a high level.

USP PGA: MASTERS TOURNAMENT - FINAL ROUND S GLF USA GA

I don’t know if Tiger will win again.  I don’t know how much golf he has in him.  At 43-years-old with his body ramshackled together through so many surgical interventions, it is quite possible that retirement is near.  Yet, whatever happens, I feel privileged to have watched not only a phenomenal golfer; I have observed a real transformation of a person.

I suppose I see a lot of myself in Tiger Woods.  There are, certainly, many ways we are dissimilar.  There are also ways we are similar.  I relate to being on a journey of self-transformation.  I can look back in hindsight and see myself driven to perform, as if some other person were at the wheel of my life; obsessed with being a successful and competent pastor (whatever the heck that really looks like); and, living with a compulsion for more knowledge, more insight, more skill.  Conversely, I now find myself moving about the hospitals I serve with a bit of what I saw in Tiger yesterday – a patient and calm demeanor of being present to patients, and, with greater challenge, present to my own emotions and self.

So, today, and every day, I hope to be present.  I don’t want to force myself to do ministry in that old compulsive sort of way, as if sheer willpower and dogged determination could bring about accomplishment of goals.  No, I want to feel the freedom of spontaneous compassion and allow the Spirit to send me to patient rooms; to be relaxed and fully attentive to the person in front of me without thinking about lunch, the next visit, or anything else.  I want to go home and be fully present to my wife, even to the ridiculous pester pup dog in front of me.  I want to be present to my girls and my grandsons without them seeing that look on my face that tells them I’m still at work, or off somewhere deep in my brain conniving ideas and forming thoughts for some future project or deadline.  I want to be present to the God who is ever-present with me; who is always and fully attentive to the entire scope of my life – who joins me on the two-steps-backward-three-steps-forward herky-jerky personal walk – always exhibiting grace, patience, and demonstrating a calming presence with me.

I saw a glimpse of the divine in Tiger yesterday, which is perhaps why so many people later in the day commented that they responded with tears welling-up in their eyes, too.  For we together saw connection, not compulsion; and, relationship, not self-retribution.  Maybe that’s why I see so many patient tears.  Maybe they see with me some of that divine presence.  If so, I thank God for it.

Holy Week

There is a reason that a redemption story compels us and brings us to tears.  We have a Redeemer who has displayed for us the ultimate drama of redemption.  In this Christian Holy Week, believers in Jesus across the world remember that the King of all creation, the One to whom all things hold together, was humiliated, berated, tortured, and killed.  He was laid in a tomb.  His followers were beside themselves with grief, loneliness, and wondering what was going on and what was going to happen.  Yet, death did not have the last word.  Love conquered the grave.  Suffering led to glory.  The care of the One led to the care of the many.

As we journey together through this Holy Week, may we pay attention to the story of Jesus.  May we be present in how our own individual stories fit into God’s grand narrative in the world.  May we know the grace of redemption and of the Redeemer who makes it possible.

Ephesians 1:7-14 – God Is Good

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Ephesians 1:8, Contemporary English Version of the Bible

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.  In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 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; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.” (Common English Bible)

Believe it or not, verses 3-14 of Ephesians chapter one, 12 verses in all, are one single sentence in the Greek language the Apostle Paul originally wrote this in.  Thankfully, and understandably, English translators have created multiple sentences for us so that we can better make sense of the text.  It’s almost as if Paul was so excited to talk with the Ephesian church about who they are in Jesus Christ and what they possess in him that he blurted out with enthusiasm and wrote with fervor without stopping to take a breath.

Paul heaps word after significant word on top of each other in a flurry of provided spiritual blessings the believer in Christ enjoys.  Redemption, forgiveness, insight, protection, inheritance, and salvation are just some of the blessings given.  If that wasn’t enough, God has graciously given us his Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the one who comes alongside and helps us to live into the blessings we possess because of the person and work of Christ.

redemption

It’s as if we came to Christmas day expecting a package of underwear and found instead a bunch of big boxes with some of the most lavish and expensive gifts we’ve ever seen!  This says much more about the giver than it says about us.  It was according to God’s good pleasure in Christ that believers in Jesus have such privileges.  Like the parent who sits back and watches the unpackaging of presents happen with great joy, so God delights and is pleased with what he has given to us.

First and foremost, in the entirety of Holy Scripture, all the stories and narratives, teachings and writings, are about God.  He is both the subject and object of each book of the Bible.  Every good thing we have in this life is because of God’s grace.  Each positive experience is a direct result of God’s steadfast love toward his people.  All good gifts come from a good God who is pleased to give them.

Not a one of us purchased our own gifts and stuck them under the tree.  God bought them all with the precious blood of Jesus and sent the Spirit to deliver them to us.

Take some time today in a quiet place and reflect on just one of these words in the text.  Think about redemption or forgiveness, salvation or grace, or any of the words which grab you.  Say it over and over, quietly and loudly, thoughtfully and with flavor.  Consider what God did to bring you that gift.  Contemplate the way(s) in which you have received the gift.  Plan one way in which you might share your gift with another person.  Then, give glory and praise to God for his grace to you.

May your meditation lead to a deeper appreciation of what God has done for you; and may that revelation result in praise, honor, and glory to the One who accomplished so much on your behalf.

Gracious God, you have revealed and made known the way of deliverance from the power of darkness and brought me into your marvelous light.  Help me to better understand all the ways you have acted on my behalf so that my life might reflect your grace and steadfast love to the world; through Jesus Christ, my Savior, in the enablement of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Romans 3:21-31 – 8 Words That Can Change Your Life

cross of christ

“But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because… he himself is righteous and he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” (NRSV)

500 years is a long time.  It was that long ago when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Church door.  It sparked the flame of Reformation, a legacy we still live with today.  Protestant Christians have a rich spiritual heritage in acknowledging and affirming the veracity of Holy Scripture and its central message of Christ’s good news of salvation.

8 words changed Martin Luther’s life, changed the course of history and Christianity, and can change our lives, too.

1. Law

The role of the law is not to save nor to sanctify, but to reveal the true state of our hearts.  The law can only condemn; it cannot save you.  Obedience is important yet cannot be done by sheer willpower.  Deliverance does not come by turning over a new leaf; that approach only gets you caught in cycle of regret, promising not to do it again, and returning to it.  Law makes us feel the great weight of our darkness.  We need to feel and know what that darkness really is….

2. Sin

Sin means missing the mark, falling short.  We must agree with God about what sin really is, without sugar-coating it.  We tend to think of sin as some terrible action like assault or murder, yet sin is primarily thought of in Scripture as not giving God his due – of de-godding God and replacing him with something else.  You and I need to be realistic about the bad news of sin before we can ever receive the good news of forgiveness.  You can’t be forgiven unless you can admit that you have done, or not done, something that warrants needing to be forgiven.  Moving forward in hope can only happen when we possess…

3. Righteousness

Righteousness means right relationships; unrighteousness means broken relationships.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for right relationships.  Like illegal aliens who cannot make themselves citizens, God grants us spiritual amnesty because we can’t make ourselves legal or righteous.  Through righteousness God has made it possible for us to live in harmony.  Holding onto bad relationships is like a dog returning to its vomit; there is no need for it because God has given us…

4. Justification

This term is a picture of the court of law.  It communicates for us that righteousness comes because God justified us, that is, he did for us what the law could not do – he sent his Son to be a substitute for us.  You can’t justify yourself by obeying the law or simply by being sorry.  Without the next word, we will wallow in our guilt because we need this for our justification to really live….

5. Faith

Faith is a gift given by God.  We do not generate faith within ourselves because sin estranges us from God.  We need God to act.  God’s righteousness can only become operative through faith.  You must hold out your hands and receive a gift to possess it.  You must come to the end of yourself to exercise faith.  You need to see that your sin is bad enough to have made your life unmanageable and that you have dug yourself in a hole too deep to get out of yourself.  If you think you can handle it, you are going back to the law, living in denial and not by faith.  We also need…

6. Grace

Faith must have an object, and that object is the cross of Christ.  It’s grace which gives faith and saves us.  Our denial is so great about our sin that we can’t reach out to God unless God acts.  Even while we were sinners, Christ died for us.  Opening the gift given to us, we find that we are given…

7. Redemption

Redemption is a word referring to a slave market.  We are slaves to sin.  We need someone to purchase our freedom.  The blood of Christ paid for my sin.  He bought me through his death.  Jesus has taken care of the sin issue through…

8. Propitiation

“Sacrifice of atonement” is the meaning of propitiation.  It is the satisfaction of God’s wrath against sin.  Because God loves, God has wrath; he is not okay with sin running amok in this world.  We are forgiven through the blood of Christ.  We are free to live into the gracious joyous life of God in Christ.  Yet, not all of us do so.  For example:

If the institution that gave me my car loan came along and forgave or satisfied the debt I have on my car, it would be weird if I kept making loan payments.  But that is what many people keep doing with their lives because they don’t really believe they are forgiven and loved by God.  We think God is constantly upset or, at least, agitated with us since we screw-up so often.  So, we live by law hoping that God will applaud our sincerity and our effort, wishing that everything will be okay.  But everything won’t be okay with that approach because God wants our faith, not our promises to be better.  His question to us is:

Do you trust me?  Do you trust me to deliver you from your sin?  Do you trust me to work out the situation that you’ve made a mess of on your own?  Do you trust me to provide for you everything you need? 

Live into your spiritual heritage. Don’t return to the law. Bask in the gracious gift of your freedom in Christ.  Live and enjoy Jesus because you have been made righteous, justified, and redeemed through the precious blood of Jesus Christ.

Job 19:23-27 – Christ’s Journey is My Journey

“I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.” (New Revised Standard Version)
“I know that my redeemer is alive
and afterward he’ll rise upon the dust.” (Common English Bible)
 
            I’m going to let you in on the reasons why I observe the Church Calendar each year with it’s observance of the major Christian seasons.  First, it is a way for me to know Jesus better.  The Year is thoroughly centered around the person and work of Christ.  Much like the seasons of Spring and Fall, I look forward to entering a new season and discovering the beauty of my Lord in a fresh way.
            Second, observing the Christian Year reorients my use of time.  Rather than think of time in secular terms or as my time, I submit to time that is dictated by attention to Jesus.  Finally, moving through the Year is a journey with Jesus – his journey is my journey.
            All of Christ’s life was an act of redemption for us.  His redemptive events of incarnation, holy life and teaching, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification demonstrate that he is my Redeemer.  What’s more, I enjoy a union with Jesus, an intimate connection which is so close that his journey is my journey.  Christ identified with me in his life on this earth.  He took on the death which should have been mine.  He rose from death, ascended to heaven, and was glorified as King of all.
            I know that my Redeemer lives because I have walked with him.  I, too, just like my Savior, will someday rise from death, ascend with him, and reign with him forever.  He has made it all possible, and that is why I enter the Christian Year time and time again with expectancy, faith, and hope.
            When the sign of the cross is made on the forehead with ash on Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent) this is more than a reminder of my mortality.  It is full of meaning and imbibed with hope.  Yes, I am dust and I will return to dust.  But that dust will rise again and live with Jesus forever.

 

Merciful Lord and Savior, you lived the life on this earth which I could not in my weakness and shortcoming.  Through the gift of faith, I have an inheritance and a hope that someday I will be with you forever.  Thank you for your abundant grace and the constant reminders throughout the Year that you are with me – your journey is my journey.  Amen.