Saturday, April 30, 2016

What cracks you up?

When you think about your best feature, what is it? Your wavy hair? Your scintillating sense of humour? Your dazzling smile? Your rapier sharp wit? We all have one.  We all have something about ourselves that makes us feel special… a chocolate egg if you will…something we protect and feel pride over… my personal chocolate egg is my intelligence…my book smarts.  I did well at school (getting into my first choice uni course easily) and reasonably well at uni (studying all sorts of fun courses in English and History).  I was even so brainy that I did honours in two subjects.  Honours in English went off without a hitch, and honours in History was also looking good.  I spent months writing a thesis… reading articles, forming ideas, polishing arguments. I handed it in.  I thought it was good.  I thought I might scrape a Distinction.

But then some cracks began to form in my egg…  I found myself sitting in a meeting with my supervisor and the head of the department trying to explain why my thesis should not fail.  The mistakes were everywhere.  I thought I had been doing it right.  They couldn’t pass it.  I was devastated. Months of work down the drain.
My egg was broken.  I had failed. 

We live in a society that is terrified of failure. 
We send our kids to extra maths tutoring, music lessons, sports practices…sometimes we sacrifice holidays and bigger houses in order to send them to private schools…anything to give them a chance to succeed. 
We have an “everyone’s a winner” culture.  At the end of soccer season every kid gets a trophy.  At the end of the year, every kid gets a certificate listing their achievements or failing achievements, their best personal traits.
We work hard to look successful (whatever that means)…the big house, the flashy car, the nice clothes, the high flying job
Every year the bar for success is higher.  We have to work harder to look successful...

We work so hard to please our bosses. Our parents. Our kids. Ourselves.  We hold ourselves to high standards but we fall short all the time…we collect our chocolate eggs and hoard them… but they crack and break.  We are late to work having forgotten to bring that important presentation; crack.  We forget a family dinner that we have known about for weeks; crack.  We forget to go to that important soccer game.  The one where our kid is the one who scores two goals; crack.  We pick yet another fight with our spouse because we just can’t hold it together after such a big weekend packed with events; crack.

We can paper over these cracks though.  Apologies to colleagues.  Gifts for your disappointed parents.  Contrite letters to grandma.  A special day out for the soccer player to “make it all better”.  We think we get a pass.  We think all is forgotten.  Until the next time.  And the next.  And the next.  More apologies.  More gifts. More evidence that we are not as successful as we seem to be.  More evidence that all is not right with our “successful life”.  More cracks in our perfect chocolate egg life.
It’s not as if we have a monopoly on making mistakes in the 21st century.  In the time before Jesus, mankind wasn’t that successful at keeping their chocolate eggs from cracking and breaking either… they cheated, they lied, they stole, they slept around, they ran after other Gods… they basically did the exact opposite of what God told them to do.  In fact there was not one person who lived completely the way God wanted them to… no one could stop their chocolate eggs from cracking.  “ALL HAD SINNED AND FALLEN SHORT OF THE GLORY OF GOD”( Romans 3:23). Not some.  It’s not like some could live up to God’s high standards and others just weren’t trying hard enough.  NONE of them could live up to God’s standard. 

ALL of us fail.  All of our eggs crack.

Of course the ultimate failure in life is death. Death. The great leveller. The end of living.  The end of all things.  All people die.  We can take all the medicine we want… swallow all the health supplements… do all the exercise … eat all the right foods… have all the operations… do all the meditations … avoid all the high risk activities like sky diving without a parachute, or riding motor cycles while drunk and high in the rain at night without a helmet… all the care we take is futile. Death is inevitable for all of us sooner or later. 

When Jesus died on the cross on that first Good Friday, it looked an awful lot like failure.  The man who called himself the Son of God who was going to usher in a new way for humankind to relate to God and to be right with God.  Beaten. Bloodied. Dead. Buried. Sealed into the tomb.  Death had won.  The Son of God could not avoid death… just like us his Egg broke.

But then. 

The empty tomb was found by Jesus’s followers.  His body was missing.  They couldn’t explain it.  The Roman guards on duty could not explain it.  The body could not be found. 

He was seen by his followers alive.  Alive and Eating with them… touched by them.  Alive and teaching them.
He was no longer dead.  Death could not hold him down.  He was risen from the grave.
His death, the ultimate failure, has become the ultimate victory. 

We can paper over the failures in our own lives. But eventually we have to face these failures.  All of them.  Sometimes we get lucky.  Sometimes we get a second chance. A “do-over” if you will. 
You remember me?  Sitting there in the office at the university? Being told that my thesis had failed?  I talked to them.  I pleaded.  I cried.  I asked them if I could possibly, maybe, please pretty please with sugar on top, please rewrite and re-submit?  It would mean totally re-writing a 20,000 word thesis.  I could have just written it off as a failure, chalked it up to experience and walked away, with pride dented and intelligence forever questionable.  But I chose to ask.  I asked for a new chocolate egg to start over with.
I was very lucky.  I received a moment of Grace.  I was allowed to rewrite and resubmit my thesis.  One year, 20,000 words and lots of stress later, I handed it in secure in the knowledge that I had worked harder, written better, polished shinier than I thought was possible.  A new egg with no cracks in it yet.
The second attempt passed.  I got a second chance.  A do-over.  Success!
But does this success affect my eternal failings?  Does it make me right with God? 
NO.  I could write 10 theses and get 100% in all of them, and still not be right with God.   My eternal failings… trying to live my own way, trying to avoid death under my own steam… these are not effected by thesis do-overs.  They need a much bigger fix.  The ultimate fix.

By rising from the Dead, Jesus gave us a way to be right with God… a new and better way to engage with God.    With Jesus we don’t need a second chance. We don’t need to rewrite the thesis.  He has wiped out the need for second chances. He has taken the failed thesis and made it a 100% thesis.   He has taken our broken lives full of all our failures, and made them perfect.  Our broken lives are like broken chocolate eggs…smashed beyond repair.  And yet through Jesus our egg is no longer smashed. It is whole and perfect once more.
So when we eat our chocolate eggs this Easter, we can remember that because of Jesus, our lives can be made whole again, and we can be right with God.

Hospitality... a Christian Discipline

Women’s Breakfast All Saints West Lindfield April 30th.
When I lived at home before Luke and I got married I was one of a household of five people.  It was a busy house with 2 adults, 1 uni student and 2 teenagers.  I was allowed to have friends over but we had to vie with everyone else for hanging out space.  In a house of 5 people, 4 of whom are not Christian, it was difficult to have people over for pastoral reasons.  Such a busy home wasn’t conducive to sharing confidences and praying aloud when a vocally sceptical teen or parent could come in at any moment.
So when Luke and I got married we revelled in our ability to have people over.  We had people round for dinners, lunches, afternoon teas, Biblestudy groups. Prayer meetings, brunches, breakfasts, late night cuppas, board game nights, you name it.  We had close friends married a year longer than us, who lived nearby and used to pop in at all hours of the night for a cuppa and a chat.  We love looking after people, and sharing our lives with them.  We love sharing the love of a welcoming God with them.
Hospitality is not just a nice thing to do in and of itself.  It is the reflection to the world of aspects of God’s character.  God is a God who welcomes the stranger; who provides for all people (both believer and unbeliever); who extends Grace even unto the worst of sinners.  He is a God who “prepares a table for us” even in the midst of our enemies, who “makes our cup overflow”.  He is a God “whose house has many rooms”… enough even for me? Enough even for you? Enough even for the worst of sinners? YES.  God’s model of hospitality is one of practical Grace… he provides for us, or he provides people who can provide for us… I remember a particularly rough week early on in our marriage when we were skint.  We had $5 til Wednesday and not much food in the house… I had mentioned in passing at church that things were a bit tight that week, and our Assistant Minister’s wife essentially dragged us to their house and sent us home with lasagne that was in their freezer for the next night’s dinner.  That is practical grace.  God gave them an opportunity to show us hospitality in a time of need, with no thought of obligation or reciprocation.
Hospitality is a key component of Christian discipleship.  As Romans 12:13 says, “Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality”. A chance to model God’s love to those in our pastoral charge, or those who do not yet know Christ.  Paul explores the model of how we are to live as Christians, as living sacrifices in Romans 12.  As I said, hospitality isn’t just a nice thing we do.  It is something we do as part of the larger imperative to love others sacrificially as Jesus loved us.  It is something we are commanded to extend not only to our friends but to our enemies,( “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[e]21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.) giving without expectation of reciprocation or even of thanks, so that we may overcome evil with good.  Hospitality is a key way that we can show the love of Christ to unbelievers, allowing them to experience practical grace.

But in our busy world there are barriers to demonstrating this practical grace. There are many, but I will talk about 2.  Firstly, the sheer Busyness of life.  And secondly, Fear; fear of comparison and judgement.

Busy-ness? Life is really really busy. Whether you are a mum at home with young kids like me, or you are a mum who works outside the home (and then does all the housework at home), or if you are a career person pursuing the next promotion while trying to hold a marriage together, or even a retired (or semi retired)grandmother helping to care for the grandkids and keep the home moving, Life is busy.  There is so much to be going on with.  And when you go to church there are so many extras on top of your normal life busy-ness… rosters, Biblestudy groups, extra meetings and committees.  Even if we love showing hospitality to others in our homes (or elsewhere) it can feel too hard to carve out the time and the energy to make it happen, especially when you are dealing with other people’s schedules as well!! 
I constantly have some variation of this text discussion with my friends:
Me: we should get together for a bbq/cuppa/playdate at our place… what Saturdays are you free this month?
Them: well we can do the second and 4th Saturdays but only after midday because the kids have soccer and then we have to be home by 7 because the kids have to go to bed by 7.30.
Me: damn. I’m double booked for those afternoons but could have done the mornings. What about next month?
Them: next month we’re fully booked with weddings and birthdays. Maybe the one after that?
Me: I would but we’re on long service leave then and we will be away for ages…
Them… Ok lets book in a date for next year sometime…

I’m joking. But only barely.  You spend so much time trying to find times that work for everyone, that it is easy to say why bother? It’s easy to say what’s the point?

How can we not let busy-ness not be a barrier to hospitality?

We need to remember that hospitality is about the building up of relationships for God’s glory. Hospitality is not JUST having people over for a meal (although it is that too).  Hospitality is sharing your lives with people and showing true care and concern for their physical and spiritual wellbeing.
It is choosing to meet people at a park between two far flung suburbs rather than make people trek all the way to the other side of the city. Again.
It is being ready to add an extra person or two to your table at night rather than kicking them out at bath time.
It is just simply hanging out together while the kids play, drinking a cuppa and talking about stuff.
It is chatting to a friend at church who is having a bad week or morning and praying with them right there and then…
It’s the impromptu old style drop in.
It is caring enough about people to ask what they can/can’t eat do/don’t like when you make them a meal or have them over for one.
It can even be the question on fb messenger/text message asking how you can pray for someone that week.
Some people think outside the box… some friends in ministry were blessed when a member of their congregation bought ride tokens for their kids for the Easter show (something they would never have afforded for their 5 kids).
We used to have a church friend over for Christmas and Easter and family dinners when her kids were with their father.
Our boss’s wife would have a room of their rectory set up with kids toys and games and outside toys for when members of the congregation with kids would come over for biblestudy or a meal even though their kids were long grown.
The same boss and his wife would regularly babysit for a couple at our church who had no family (both had come out of adoptive families) and essentially adopted their kids as extra grandkids… they would go to grandparents day at their school and looked after them for a couple of nights at a time to give their parents a break.

These are just some examples of what hospitality can look like.  It’s easy to say we are too busy.  But time can be made if we make the relationship rather than entertainment the priority.

I think the more insidious reason that hospitality doesn’t happen is to do with Shame. Or The Comparison Game
I don’t know about you, but I am ridiculously competitive.  I want to be the best at everything.  Without trying.  Without practicing. Without even having to learn how. Just by osmosis. Or genetics. Or something. 
But I can tell you right now. I am not the best at “keeping house”.  My house looks “lived in” (true there are 3 kids who live there with me)… well loved… messy?
My kitchen is always a couple of dishes away from being a disaster area.
The couch cushions are often seen doing duty as fort walls.
The washing is, as always, never ending and perpetually half done.

I have come to see the state of my home as a service to stressed out people everywhere.  The people (not just mums) who are trying to keep all the balls in the air- the kids, the husband, the career, the house, the admin, the life…  It is so easy to look at other people’s homes and think that they have it all worked out… their perfect kitchen without it’s piles of papers and bowl of death and 3 meals worth of washing up… their perfect lounge rooms without the pillow fort and crumbs everywhere (even though I vacuumed this morning I swear!!)… their kids that never fight and always do as they are told… every other family has magical unicorn kids when guests are over…only mine fight and scream and end up in time out…  

And on and on it goes.  We compare ourselves.  Our houses. Our kids.  Ad nauseum ad infinitum. It is so insidious. We don’t even realise we are doing it.  But it is a huge barrier to hospitality.  I can’t have them over…what about the state of my kitchen? I can’t have them over… they always have much better food than we do…  I can’t have them over… they will get bored of our kids vying for their attention…

I have come to believe that my home is not the physical building in which I live, but the people who live there and how those people show love to others.  If the messy state of my house or my need to keep it clean is stopping me from following Christ or showing hospitality to those who God puts in my way to encourage, then I need to revise my expectations either by cleaning up a bit, or being ok with a bit more clutter.  Am I so bothered by what people will think of the state of my house that I can’t have people over until everything is perfect? Or is it so messy that it makes me stressed? 
In the end, hospitality is about relationships.  It’s about your relationship with the guest and their relationship with God (explicitly or implicitly). It is not about what you do together but how it makes them feel.  Do they feel loved? Do they feel truly cared for? Do they feel like your place (whether your house, a park or a café or even an online private chat conversation) is a safe place to be vulnerable and share the really hard parts of life? Did you share the love of God with them? Were you vulnerable with them? 
Do you remember my friends who used to come over at all hours of the night? Well it came out recently that my friend was then suffering from depression and that when she was feeling low her husband would suggest the walk to our place for a cuppa “because you are always happier there”… I never knew she was depressed… we used to go to their place too… all the time… I would hang out with her all the time when I was looking for my first teaching jobs after uni. We would go to the gym together and walk for endless kilometres round the north shore.  When they went off to College we kept making the trek to see them and they wold keep hanging out with us, praying with us and for us, and encouraging us in our Christian lives, and ultimately into ministry.  When she had her kids and we moved out to Parramatta and then to Appin, I would set aside a day a week and head in to visit her, hang out, drink to, go on their grocery shop, and bring Bede to their church playgroup.  Even on her busiest days she had time for me, and even when my life was hectic with teaching and then kids, I made time for her.  Our relationship is one of the main cornerstones of my adult life, given to us by God to encourage us in good times and bad times. 
I tell this story because I hope it is instructive in demonstrating how hospitality can be done well; our lives may have been busy, but we always had time for each other because it was the relationship that mattered; and there was never any judgement of housekeeping or kids behaviour on either side because we respected each other’s parenting and housekeeping standards (which of course have shifted over time with kids). 
It was practical grace.
Sacrificial love.
Those experiences so early in my marriage have shown me the true importance of hospitality to our relationships with God and with each other and inform how I perform hospitality now.  Serving God and loving his people.