The Good-Enough Life

“The trick, it seems, is to be able to hold both things very close—the gratitude and the misery—and then, with a semblance of faith, to let them fly.”

—Elizabeth Aquino

The tendency in our culture is to think everything as binary. Good or bad. Black or White. Up or down. Winners or losers. Which is why the concept of greatness is, de facto, the thing we are told we should strive for. From Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” to Ronald Regan’s “Make America Great Again,” the ideal is greatness. In fact, the notion of greatness as a worthy goal is not debated. What constitutes greatness may be debated, but not the worthiness of greatness itself.

But what about that which is ordinary, that which is everyday? Christianity has lived with a liturgical calendar for centuries. It outlines the days and seasons of the church year (which begins, by the way, with the First Sunday in Advent each year, and ends with the Celebration of the Reign of Christ the Sunday before Advent) with different colors and biblical themes. There is the Season of Advent/Christmas/Epiphany which lasts about 40 days, give or take. The Season of Lent/Easter/Pentecost lasts about 97 days, give or take. 

The rest of the church year is called Ordinary Time.

And since we Christians spend most of our time in ordinariness, the question might be, “What does it mean to live ordinarily?” It almost seems to fly in the face of our quest for greatness. But, what if living an ordinary life is actually healthier than striving for greatness?

Said another way, “Why not strive for the good enough life?” In my Wesleyan Christian tradition I was taught to live by three simple rules. First, Do No Harm. Second, to Do Good. Third, to Stay in Love with God. Each day I try to live by those rules. Through good times and bad, when I’m full of life and when I’m dog tired. At the end of the day it might not be considered great by some, but it is good enough. Sometimes my best is better than other times.

You see, ordinary is not really a measure of adequacy or ability, but, rather the effort to take on the difficulties of daily living, extending oneself for the benefit of others. I think that is what Jesus meant when he said the greatest commandment is to love God, Self and Others. As a parent I want to be the kind of father that exemplifies and teaches my children to be resilient, compassionate and loving despite all the evidence to the contrary, that they are able to make their way, and leave the world a better place than they found it.

Writer Avram Alpert adds this, “Being good enough is not easy. It takes a tremendous amount of work to smile purely while waiting, exhausted, in a grocery line. Or to be good enough to loved ones to both support them and allow them to experience frustration. And it remains to be seen if we as a society can establish a good-enough relation to one another, where individuals and nations do not strive for their unique greatness, but rather work together to create the conditions of decency necessary for all.” (The Good Enough Life. NY Times. February 20, 2019)

Eastern faith traditions are centered in this middle way or good-enough lifestyle. It’s goal is to achieve a balance in life. But I also believe Jesus offers the same kind of balance, a way of living in harmonic relationship with the divine, with self and with others. 

Wouldn’t it be great if we focused each day on living a good-enough life?


What’s Love Got to do with It?

Valentine’s Day. February 14th. Many of us celebrated by doing romantic dinners with significant others, buying roses, or champagne, or chocolate. Rich food, especially desserts.

All in the name of love.

Saint Valentine has come to represent the essence of love and all that love means to us. On the other hand, I’ve been at Vons while men line up with flowers or chocolate or balloons (that say “I love you!”) or maybe all three. On their way home from work. I know I’ve spent last minute time putting together something I hope would be meaningful for Sara, something that let her know I loved her. This year we planned ahead and decided we would have a nice dinner, a nice bottle of wine, and we would get each other a card. That’s it.

But, for us, that is enough for now. 

So the question I have is about love, what it means for you, and how love makes sense in your life. Because if you know anything about Saint Valentine you know that love for him meant his martyrdom. Which is why he is a Saint. Saint Valentine lived in the 3rd Century near Rome according to some accounts. He was arrested for marrying Christians (which was forbidden) primarily so they would not be forced to serve in the Roman Army. He was arrested, and when he would not stop his work (and also because he apparently tried to convert the Caesar to Christianity) he was beheaded. He was canonized late in the 5th Century. February 14 was the day he was martyred, which is why that is the date we celebrate his Sainthood. 

What kind of love motivates someone to give their lives for another? What does that have to do with romance? As the song says, “What’s love got to do with it?”

In the Greco-Roman world Saint Valentine lived in there were three words for love. In English there is only one. While context is very important in English (I can say I love ice cream, and I love my wife, and mean two different things, and most will get that.) the Greek language is more specific. The three words for love in Ancient Greek are Eros, Philios, and Agape.

Eros is, generally, thought of as romantic love. You know, the flowers, chocolate kind of love. What we mostly celebrate on Saint Valentine’s Day. And there is nothing wrong with romance. In fact, Sara and I have a mini celebration of our anniversary every 15th of the month, which is the date we got married. It’s always a special evening in some way. We also have “date night” on Fridays as often as we can. Busy lives often distance people from the intimacy they need, so it’s good to build in specific times to step back and simply spend time together without distractions.

But Eros love is not for anyone but my wife. 

Philios might be best understood as a love for one’s brothers and sisters, including those we are not directly related to. The City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, is a compound Greek word meaning just that. That kind of love is not romantic, but is a genuine concern for the welfare of those we are connected to.

And then there is Agape. Often called God’s love. Jesus used agape in his command to love one another. (John 15:12) It’s a love that is willing to lay down one’s life for another. For Christians it is the active advocacy that we have for the well-being of creation and all that live in it. It’s a love transcends all other loves, allows other loves to exist. It’s how God loves us.

Whether we like it or not.


Living the God-life

I believe in God!” I was the pastor of the Methodist Church in San Luis Obispo at the time, and heard about a restaurant that made great clam chowder over in Pismo Beach. So I went there one evening to check it out. While waiting for my table I took a seat at the lounge counter and ordered a glass of wine. The man sitting next to me struck up a conversation. You know, the usual chit chat, nothing earth shaking. And then he asked the question I was waiting for. 

“So, what do you do for a living?”

“I’m the pastor of the Methodist Church in San Luis Obispo.”

There was a pause of about ten seconds while the man stared at me. “I believe in God!” he said.

It seemed to me he said it in a way that had given me some kind of super power. Like I could call down thunder and lightning if the man didn’t believe in God. 

On another occasion I was playing golf at a local course in SLO, and was paired with a guy I had never met. We didn’t say much to each other during the round, but he swore after every shot, slammed clubs into the ground, and generally seemed really angry about the whole thing. This went on for several holes, until at the 12th tee box he asked, “So what do you do for a living?”

“I’m the pastor of the Methodist Church in San Luis Obispo.”

The man never said another word.

I’ve shared these experiences several time with friends, but I’ve never had the opportunity to follow up with the question that has been in my mind all along. 

What does it mean to say you believe in God?

We live in a country that, according to most pollsters, 80% of respondents claim belief in God. But what do these people mean by “god?” Because even a casual observation of the actions and desires of many (at least according to polls) indicate their belief in God is not the God I am familiar with. You know, the one in the Bible.

Mind you, there are at least three ways to interpret and understand the God of the Bible. The first, and obvious version is the Jewish one. After all the Old Testament is a testament to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (And by extension the God of Ishmael and Mohammad.) This is a God who seeks first and foremost economic justice for the people. God calls for the care for the poor and disenfranchised over 2000 times. God’s prophets rail against the rich and powerful when they do not regard the less fortunate as brothers and sisters. God even warns the people that they had better take care of aliens (we call them migrants), lest they forget they were once aliens themselves.

The God of the New Testament is the same God, yet raises the bar by revealing his very self. Emmanuel. God with us. Or as the Gospel of John says, The Word of God become flesh. Jesus is the model of how followers of God should live if they really believe in God. One place that sums this up is in Matthew 25, where Jesus says, “Whatever you do to these the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.”

The Apostle Paul provides insight into living the God-life in First Corinthians when he says the greatest of all things is Love. And how does he describe love? Patient. Kind. Never envious or boastful. Never arrogant or rude. Never insists on its own way. Bears, and hopes, and endures all things. This is the God I believe in. 

And you. Do you believe in God?


Remembering MLK

“The moral arc of the universe bends at the elbow of justice.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This weekend we remember one of the Saints of the church, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Above, and within my commentary, are some of his many quotes. He talked a lot about justice. Justice is talked about a lot in the Bible as well. In fact, the words righteousness and justice mean virtually the same thing.

So anytime you hear the word righteousness, you might remember that righteousness is justice. And vice versa. But, is righteousness/justice a fixed condition? Or does it have the capacity to evolve? 

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

I raise the question because there seems to be a lot of confusion about what righteousness/justice means in our culture, indeed throughout the world. Build the Wall. Lock her up. Impeach. Me too. Times up.

I would argue that even the Bible reveals an evolution in the concept of what constitutes righteousness/justice. Or perhaps a better way of saying this is the Judeo/Christian Scriptures are aware that humans have the power to bend their interpretations of them in order to support their particular applications of righteousness/justice. 

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and 

conscientious stupidity.”

Similarly we might ask whether the Declaration of Independence claim that “All men are created equal” means only men, or are women included?

With apologies to Seth Godin (one of my favorite bloggers), there was a time when righteous men, settled their differences with swordplay, or with pistols. There was a time when women bound their feet, and shamed those who didn’t. There was a time when righteous men owned slaves. 

Over time those so-called righteous behaviors have become unrighteous, these so-called just behaviors are now considered unjust. But here’s the rub. We live in a culture that, even as most people have come to recognize the human capacity to act with compassion, to embrace diversity and inclusion over singularity and exclusion, to believe we humans are capable of much more than we often realize, there are those who insist that the former ways are the correct ways despite the harm caused by those ways.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. 

Only love can do that.”

And so, on this weekend of remembrance and celebration, there are some who will show contempt and disdain. While many want to share their gift of abundance, a gift and not an entitlement, there are those who want to build higher walls to keep others out. When many welcome others, not because they look or act like them, but because there is the belief that all means all, there will be those who firmly believe they are superior, that their way is better, that they are chosen.

This is the world we live in. But hasn’t it always been like this?

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

One of my favorite jazz albums is called Land of Make Believe, by Chuck Mangione. The title track has a verse that goes like this:

“In your world there was a King

Who once said, “I have a dream,”

Now there’s a man

Who knew the secret.”

That man died, was assassinated, fifty years ago. For what he said he knew. This weekend we remember him. But what he knew is not a secret. 

Is it?


2019

Happy New Year! 2019. It truly is a time to take stock, look forward, and set goals. Some may question the importance of marking a new year, but, Biblically speaking, we are told that God has given us time in order that we might mark the days, months, seasons and years. (And then there is the comedian who proffered that God gave us time so everything wouldn’t happen at once.) In any event, I’m guessing at least some of you have made resolutions for 2019, set goals of some sort, and thought of 2019 as a new beginning. A kind of reset button for our lives.

I think that’s a good thing.

But what kind of goals should we set? What kinds of resolutions? Tara Parker-Pope, in an article in the New York Times, offered an answer to these questions. She is the founding editor of Well, The Times’s award-winning consumer health site. She won an Emmy in 2013 for the video series “Life, Interrupted” and is the author of “For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage.” @taraparkerpope In her 20 years of writing about health she has come to realize wellness can be summed up in four words. That’s it. Four words.

Move. Nourish. Refresh. Connect.

I don’t think I need to add much to these four words in order to make sense out of them. I mean, movement (some might say exercise) is acknowledged by health experts as very important for us. And it doesn’t have to be a lot. I walk two miles every day (well, most days anyway). I play golf about once a week, and when I can I walk.

Nourishment is not to be equated with anything we can get from a drive thru window. I’ve actually discovered it is less expensive and tastier if I buy fresh food and prepare it at home. I’ve also come to realize that many people don’t know how to cook! So I’m going to be offering a basic cooking class on Saturdays, beginning February 2nd. 

Refreshment really has to do with self care. Quiet time. Or time doing something you really love to do, like a hobby or activity. When was the last time you read a good book? Or saw a movie? The Bible gives us the proper ratio of work to rest. 6 to 1. Six days we work, one day we rest. But it is intended to be a Sabbath rest. A time for disconnection from all things work related, and time to simply be.

And connection does not include Facebook or Twitter. No, connection is more personal. Conversation with someone over a cup of coffee. Eating dinner together with family without distractions like TV, or Smart Phones. Hanging out with friends and loved ones. I just celebrated my 71st birthday and the best part of it was simply spending time with my wife and some friends. Good food, great conversation and lots of laughter. Connection.

So that’s it. Actually I would add a couple of other things. They are easy to do. But, they are also easy not to do.

Be grateful. Be hopeful. Be compassionate. Be forgiving.

If the only prayer you ever say is “Thank you God,” that is enough. If you can move beyond a false kind of optimism that is never satisfying, and live with the hope that, in the end, all will be well, that is life changing. If you can live compassionately, which is to say you grow in the ability to empathize with others and their plight, that is humanizing. And if you can forgive. Yourself. Those who have hurt you. You will know the way of God.

It’s called the power of love.


Christmas Stories

We hear the Christmas stories every year, but have we ever thought how those first Christians might have “heard” them? The Prophetic Promise that God would send a savior had been recounted for 700 years, and still no fulfillment. In fact, the Romans now occupied Judea as well as most of the Ancient Near East (what we call the Middle East today). The Roman Empire had come to be as a result of the military campaign led by Octavian against Mark Antony and Cleopatra. On September 2, 31 B.C., Octavian decisively defeated Antony and Cleopatra in a naval battle off the coast of Greece near a city called Actium. The victory led to the reuniting of the Roman Republic, but led to the shift from democracy to dictatorship. Why? Because Octavian was thought to be the savior of the world. His name was changed to Augustus (meaning “one to be worshipped”) and carried the titles of Savior, Son of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords.

Into that historical setting Jesus was born, told through the Gospel of Luke.  Can you see how subversive Luke’s Nativity Story was in light of the realities of living in the Roman Empire? It was literally a clash of kingdoms, God’s Kingdom against the Roman Empire.

Have you ever thought that the Christmas Story might be subversive?

And if it is subversive, what does the story subvert? Does a subversive Christmas Story speak to our world today?

The other Christmas Story, the one told by Matthew, has the same theme, but a different setting, and by reason, a different audience. The main players in the Matthean drama are Joseph, who receives messages from God through dreams, Herod, King of Judea, and the Magi, Gentile visitors from the East. The Gospel of Matthew offers Jesus as a new Moses, and if you know the story of Moses you will see the parallels.

The heart of the comparison is Moses act of liberating the Hebrew people from slavery under the oppression of Pharaoh, and Jesus freeing us all from the slavery to sin, in particular the sin of idolatry. In the one it is a physical liberation, and in the other it is a spiritual liberation.

In both it is a clash of Kingdoms, of reigns, once again.

The Magi, Gentiles, recognize the reign of God as supreme to any earthly king and come to pay homage. Herod responds in violence. Because his kingdom was being threatened by another, a Kingdom rooted in compassion, love, forgiveness. That’s the part we don’t often focus on as part of the Christmas Story, but it’s there. It is referred to as the Slaughter of the Innocents, and is found in Matthew 2:16-18. Warned in a dream, Joseph flees with Mary and their child Jesus to Egypt. They become refugees, migrants seeking safety from the violence happening in their homeland. Eventually Herod dies, and in another dream Joseph is told he can safely return to Judea. 

But they cannot go home. Not to Bethlehem, which was their home. No, they are led to the region of Galilee, and settle in a town called Nazareth. 

What would it be like to have to leave your home, and travel to a foreign land in order to find shelter, and safety? Where would you go in order to escape the earthly reigns of kingdoms and governments that thrive on violence, lies, oppression, injustice? 

Where could you go to experience the power of love and compassion that is at the heart of the Christmas Stories contained in Luke and Matthew? Where would you go?

And know that there is where God has made a home for you.


Community

As the song goes, “Tis the season to be jolly.” I must admit that this time of year is one of my favorites. It really is a time for celebration, family gatherings, socializing with friends. And yet there is troubling news coming out pretty often now, news that isn’t good. 

It seems that America is suffering from a loneliness epidemic. 

Two surveys, the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, and healthcare provider Cigna reveal that most Americans suffer from a strong sense of isolation and loneliness. The Gallup-Sharecare survey involved 160,000 adults in 2017, asking them about things like financial security, social relationships, sense of purpose, and community connectedness.

Turns out 2017 was the worst year for well being than any year since the study began 10 years ago.

Nearly half of respondents in the Cigna survey said they sometimes or always feel lonely or left out. A little more than 1 in 10 said zero people know them well. Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska outlines these concerns in his book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal. He points out that 45,000 Americans will commit suicide this year, and more than 70,000 will die from drug overdoses.

Sounds more like a bleak mid-winter than joy to the world.

One question that arises out of this somber information is how this can be when we are living in the age of instant communication? Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social applications offer plenty of opportunity to talk with each other, share what’s going on, develop relationships. Or so they say. And I know several people who use those apps for that express purpose. 

But as another song says, “Is that all there is?”

Whenever I’m faced with perplexing questions I turn to the source of my hope, which is my faith in God, revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. What does Jesus teach me that can help me make a meaningful response to the issues at hand?

The first thing that jumps out at me is that Jesus, as he began his ministry, formed a community. It seems we were created to live in community. But what does that mean, to live in community? Aren’t we doing that whether we like it or not? Isn’t Facebook a community? 

When I take the next step of looking to thoroughly understanding the role of community in Jesus’ life, I can clearly affirm one thing: Community is the embodiment of self-sacrificial living. Let me say that again.

Community is the embodiment of self-sacrificial living.

Self-sacrificial living is a way of living that puts the good of the community above the good for oneself. In my prayers I often say, “Let this be for our good, and the good of all concerned.” It is the awareness that, ironically, if I am caring for the well being of the community, that sense of well being will come back to me. In other words, if I am showing compassion for my neighbor, I will also experience compassion. If I am taking time to know someone, I, too, will be known.

It’s one thing to say I have 1000 friends on social media. It is another to say I have a friend next door. Or down the block. Someone I can sit and talk with, actually sit and talk with.

Ultimately the embodiment of self-sacrificial living is at the heart of the Christmas story. Emmanuel. God with us. God makes a home with us. God creates community with us. Interestingly, the decline in well being parallels the decline in church communities. And yet, many will be drawn to church at Christmas. 

Maybe it’s time to come home.


Thanksgiving

I don’t know if you ever thought about it too much, but every holiday we celebrate involves sharing a meal. And I mean every holiday, no matter whether it’s a religious event or civil event. And Thanksgiving is completely about the meal. 

Thanksgiving IS the meal.

Some of us prepare for days. Others go out to eat. Still others travel to be with family and friends. And it is one of my favorite holidays. Mainly because of the absence of commercialization. Most other holidays, even religious days, have been commercialized to the point we sometimes miss the significance of the day itself. Not Thanksgiving. It’s hard to over commercialize a turkey.

So here are my observations about Thanksgiving, along with the insights that make it such an important day for me.

My first observation is the care and preparation we put into the meal. I am the cook in our family so I make my menu (and don’t even try to introduce too many new dishes), create my shopping list, and hit the market a couple of days before Thanksgiving day. Then I detail out what dishes I will make at what time and what day so I’m not overwhelmed on the day itself.

And while I’m busy with that my wife is busy with the table decorations, which take planning as well. We also have a tradition of taking a scripture, many times a Psalm, and breaking it into individual verses for each of our guests to read as part of our giving thanks. 

Like a Norman Rockwell painting it all comes together and the table looks beautiful. 

Two minutes later the table is a complete mess, people passing food around, gravy spilling in the table cloth, our Thanksgiving tableaux yielding to the natural human tendency to be a little messy. That’s right. We humans can be quite messy. In all manner of ways. It’s who we are. 

Meals are messy. And please, that doesn’t even include the mess in the kitchen.

We are messy, but we are also capable of cleaning up. So I skip the stress. There will be a mess. And then we clean it up.

Something else I have come to appreciate is the fact that there always seems to be enough food. No matter who shows up unexpectedly there is always enough food. And there are leftovers.

Which brings me to the connection between Thanksgiving and my Christian faith. There are so many times Jesus spends time with people eating, sharing a meal, from a simple dinner of fish and bread to a wedding banquet. Food seems to be at the heart of God’s message of compassion, mercy and grace.

The night before Jesus dies, on the eve of his execution, he gathered his friends. To share a meal. I can imagine him, preparing for what was to come, and wondering what gift he could give his disciples that would help them remember all he had taught them, all he had revealed to them about what it meant to live in God’s kingdom. 

The gift he gave? A meal.

Not any meal. Jesus actually identified himself with the meal, with the bread and wine, calling it his very body and very lifeblood. He also told them that whenever they broke bread and shared a cup as the way of remembering him, he would be present with them. How present?

It is said that we are what we eat, which means the more we come to understand what Jesus did in that meal, what he still does in that meal, we become his body and his lifeblood. 

We become the compassionate, loving presence of Christ in the world. And I’m thankful for that gift. 

Thanksgiving blessings to you and yours.


Blessings

The Beatitudes is one of the better known passages from the New Testament. They are the beginning, or prelude, to what we call the “Sermon on the Mount.” They are in the Gospel of Matthew.

Jesus’ primary mission was to announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God, and that Jesus was the personification of what it meant to live life in God’s Kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount outlines what we can do to live the Kingdom life.  The Beatitudes are the prelude, or  summary of what it means to recognize someone living in God’s Kingdom.

The nine Beatitudes, or “blessings” are broken into three sections. Contrary to the notion that they represent characteristics of different people on their faith journey, they describe the process by which we become followers of Christ.

The first three are, Blessed are the Poor in Spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.

When we realize that we have put our faith into many different places, or things such as money, power, prestige and so forth, and we realize that we are still left wanting for something more, we come face to face with our poverty of Spirit. Recognizing our poverty of Spirit leads us to mourn, to mourn what we have lost, mourn what we have become, mourn what we have missed in life.

But we find comfort in our mourning, which leads to humility, or meekness. Now meekness is not being a doormat! It is recognizing that without God we can do nothing, and that placing our trust in other things to find meaning is ultimately lacking.

The next three are, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake for they will be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful for mercy shall be theirs. Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.

In response to this new awareness we begin to hunger and thirst for righteousness. In Scripture the words righteousness and justice mean the same thing: God’s desire for healing and reconciliation, forgiveness and restoration of wholeness for the human community.

And that leads to the practice of mercy. To be merciful is to emphasize with and advocate for the well being of all those who are in need, physically and spiritually. Acts of mercy lead to purity of heart. To be pure in heart is to place your life completely into God’s hands. It is the affirmation of the one God. There is no room for other gods in our lives.

The last three are, Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven and Blessed are you when people revile you on my account.

We are called to be peacemakers. It isn’t enough that we have peace. The  peace of Christ is something to be shared. But this takes courage because there will always be pushback from the powers of violence and hate. We will face persecution of some kind. People will revile us, and oppress us because of our faith in Jesus. After all, isn’t that what happened to Jesus? Should we expect any less? 

In our day and age we won’t necessarily experience physical violence, although some of our brothers and sisters truly do. Ours is more often the loss of friendships, public humiliation, marginalization, disrespect.

And when that happens what does Jesus say to do? Rejoice! He says to rejoice! Because we have been welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven. Here and now. Not later on when we die. Here and now. God is here and now.

And we are blessed.


Halloween and Grace

It has happened every Halloween for over a decade. I never expect it, but when it happens I am filled with joy. It feels like a gift of love and devotion. I haven’t earned it. It feels like a love I will not lose despite the fact I mostly don’t think about it until it happens. Here’s how it happens…

I’ll come home from work and there will be a box sitting next to the mailbox. Not a big box, about the size of the container of blueberries you buy at Costco. Plain brown wrapper. Addressed to “Obi-Ron” (a reminder that I once dressed up as Obi-Wan Kenobi for the kids Halloween carnival at church. I still have my Light Saber. And now a personalized license plate!).

Inside this box? Halloween cookies. Homemade, in the shape of Jack-O-Lanterns, frosted to create smiling happy faces. Chocolate cookies. Orange frosting. They taste wonderful. And that’s it.

We Christians talk a lot about the Grace of God and I’m often asked by non-Christians what that means. For me it’s like that box of Halloween cookies. They always show up on my doorstep, especially when I’m not expecting them. As I said before, I didn’t “earn” them. I apparently cannot “lose” them. They are a free gift, a gift of love.

One of the core faith claims Christianity makes is that there not only is a God who creates and sustains all things, but God does all of this out of love. In fact, our scriptures say that God IS love. Unfortunately, and all too often God’s gift of love is turned into an object of manipulation, creating a climate of judgment, fear and exclusivity.

What I mean by this is we can take the free gift of love God gives and turn it into a kind of commodity, a thing that can be meted out to those who fit the mold, follow the rules, do not stray. In a recent polling of people 18-35 years old it was discovered that the top three words this demographic group used to describe Christianity were judgmental, hypocritical and old fashioned. Those words do not describe the Christians I know. But it does describe Christians I have encountered.

Please don’t misunderstand. I know there are rules we must live by, rules—commandments really—that Jesus issued. And the number one commandment is to love. Not to judge. To love. In fact, Christianity claims God’s ultimate judgment is a judgment of love. I mean, even as the soldiers were nailing nails into Jesus’ hands he was asking God to forgive them. (Luke 24:32-34) The Apostle Paul wrote that even while we were still enemies of God, God reconciled us to him. (2 Corinthians 5:18-21)

Which brings me back to that box of Halloween cookies.

I’ll bet there are Christians who will question and even condemn the fact I have used Halloween as a means of describing God’s grace. Ok. I get that. But, really?!

They are cookies. Lovingly made and shared with no expectation of a response in kind. Wonderful, homemade cookies. Gifts from the heart.

Isn’t that what grace is all about?

But, you might wonder, is there a catch? I guess you could say there is a catch of sorts. But only if your choose to be caught. Once you become aware of this grace, this unmerited gift of love for you, a gift you didn’t ask for, a gift you will never lose…

What kind of response will you make in return?