by Daniel Harrell
I got caught up in World Cup fever during our recent trip to Colombia with the Confirmation Class. South Americans do love their football. Sadly the entire continent is now out of the contest. We were on a bus during the Colombia-Japan match and I’m pretty sure our driver was watching it on his phone when he sideswiped that other bus which pulled out in front of us. Getting out to check what was only a yellow card’s worth of damages, all was well when it turned out the other driver had the game on his phone too. We were out on a lovely island off the coast of Cartagena during the match with Poland two weeks ago. Our scheduled departure was delayed until that game was over. Viva Colombia!
Passion for football provides positive pathways for the gospel. In Medellín, a seminary Old Testament professor runs a soccer ministry for young Colombians historically enticed to expend their lives on narcotics running. This work of the gospel through soccer provides an opportunity to play football instead, and more than 30,000 young people over the years have chosen that route. Generous donations allowed for the purchase of land and construction of a stadium complex, which along with coaches, dedicated volunteers and mentors, has nurtured strong faith, able bodies and young people committed to the cause of righteousness, true children of God.
We spent the afternoon at this stadium and had some time to kick around some soccer ourselves. I’d played a little bit way back in the day, but 40 years can take a toll on your skills, especially when going up against athletic 15-year-olds. I felt like the apostle Paul in Romans 7 when he wrote, “the thing which I desire to do, I cannot carry out.” Granted, Paul’s frustrations with the flesh had nothing to do with aging or physical infirmity, but there are analogies to the spiritual infirmities Paul lamented. The more he tried to do right, the more he crashed against his own limitations and resistance. “I do not understand my own actions,” he moaned, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Paul blamed the power of sin on his insides—a power that derives it energy from the goodness it perverts. Christianity has long taught how our hearts curve in on our selves, prove shadowed and uncertain and murky as to motive. Our best intentions are tinged by self-interest, our good works self-serving. Human sin is the deadly cause and effect of so much evil, pernicious as to purpose and averse to reason. “I am a miserable man,” Paul bewailed by chapter’s end, “who will rescue me from this body of death?”
The answer arrives in Romans 8. Among the many sermon requests I received last month was one from Romans 8—especially its assurance at the end of how nothing can separate us from the love of God. But to go straight to the end would be like watching a soccer highlight on YouTube and seeing the goal without viewing the whole game. You’re thinking, Noooooo! Soccer is so boring! Nothing ever happens! He’s not going to make us sit through the whole chapter of Romans 8 just to get to the good part is he?
Actually Romans 8 scores early. Verse 1: “There is now no condemnation for those are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” Paul loads up the match with rhetorical opponents on each side: the law of the Spirit versus the law of sin and death. By law Paul generally means the Old Testament Law or Torah. On the one side is the Law as intended when it came down the mountain with Moses. On the other side is the Law as perverted once humans got their hands on it. Note that the contest is not between law and grace. Grace is not a New Testament concept; it’s been around from the beginning. But nothing is more frustrating than freedom without calling and purpose. The law’s purpose is direction on how to live a grace-filled life. Freedom in Christ has never been about doing whatever you want, but about finally getting to participate in God’s purposes, what Paul labels later in Romans as the good, acceptable and perfect.
What happened (and always happens), was that the rules for the game became the game itself. In World Cup soccer, immensely gifted athletes spend a ridiculous amount of time acting instead of playing—bending the rules instead of the ball, dramatically flopping all over the field at the slightest touch, trying to force penalty cards to be called and feigning innocence and injury to avoid being carded themselves.
Among the critiques of Christians is our obsession with the fouls of others while at the same time feigning our own righteousness. It’s among the reasons church decline has accelerated. According to most national surveys, Americans as a whole presume ourselves to be basically good people on our own, above average for the most part, even exceptional. 71% of us somehow still believe in hell, though nobody thinks they’ll actually go there, just that others should, especially if they’re in the other political party. Paul (as the former Pharisee Saul) was certain he was exceptional. He’d compiled an impeccable resume for everyone to see: devout to the extreme, a pillar of his religious community and keeper of the rules, his successes the object of envy, praise the Lord.
But then the Lord knocked him off his high horse and Paul saw all he’d accomplished for what it was. Writing to the Philippians, he regarded his treasured reputation as all rubbish—a load of crap compared “to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord for whose sake I have suffered the loss of all things.” Jesus condemned Paul’s presumed goodness as a Pharisee. The law was not the problem. It was the way Paul diluted the law and deluded himself in order to serve his own ego.
Here in Romans, Paul writes that “the law of the Spirit of life” frees us from “the law of sin and of death.” Left to itself, the law can only expose our spiritual deficiency and failures at righteousness—we’re never good enough at faking our goodness. But infused with the Spirit—breathed in and full of life—the law becomes the spiritual disciplines of grace. Freedom with purpose and light as air, Christ in us and exhaling through us with what Paul calls the mindset of the Spirit: forgiving our enemies, enduring hardship, honoring our commitments, caring for the poor, walking humbly, holding to a Sabbath rhythm, cultivating beauty, loving the Lord and our neighbor.
Speaking of neighbor, have you seen the new Mister Rogers movie? It’s generated a lot of buzz and a lot of tears. Who knew? Many of us either grew up watching or watched our children watch his simple yet delightful program on PBS, sweaters and sneakers. Fred Rogers died back in 2003, but apparently we need his radical kindness now more than ever. As columnist David Brooks wrote this week, “Moral elevation gains strength when it is scarce.”
You probably knew Mister Rogers was also Reverend Rogers, a seminary-trained minister. I guess this meant he was televangelist too, though without all the drama, one who never asked for money and actually practiced what he preached. Among the most celebrated stories is his encounter with a 14-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. Rogers asked the boy to pray for him. The boy was blown away. He’d been the object of prayers so many times, but nobody had ever asked him to pray for them. Complemented for cleverly boosting the boy’s self-esteem, Fred Rogers replied, “Oh, heavens no! I didn’t ask him to pray for me [for his sake.] I asked for me. I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God.” This is true gospel: deep faith is childlike, the sick are closer to God than the healthy; the poor are richer than the rich and the marginalized nearest to the kingdom, the last are first and only the dead get raised.
Indeed, to die is the one way we will all be like Jesus without ever trying. Paul calls it good news and goes on to say we’ve been crucified already; that as far as God goes we’re as good as dead now. And dead is good because it means we get raised, something Paul also insists has already happened because of “the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead” dwelling in you and giving life to your mortal bodies through the Holy Spirit. Paul takes a somewhat complicated route to get to his conclusion; there’s a lot to unpack. But his main point is all about death for the sake of new life: “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body” a phrase that refers to all those resume virtues and external achievements we thought mattered so much but which nobody ever mentions at funerals. To live solely for external achievement is “to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity.” You grade yourself on a forgiving curve until gradually, a gap opens between your actual self and the person you could have been.
Paul says you gotta crucify and bury that body, over and over and over again. This is why we hang huge crosses on the walls of our churches, to remind ourselves over and over again in big letters. Jesus died for us so we can die too. Ask people to tell their stories, and the stories they’ll always tell, the events that shaped their souls most intensely and meaningfully are always the hard tales of the times they suffered. Suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were. Hardship presses us past the sensibility of individual well-being and utility and dials into that paradoxical, resurrection power that defies common sense. Crosses change us. This is fresh air and true gospel. With Christ in you, Paul writes, though your body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is your life because of righteousness. The picture is one of holy resuscitation, fresh air and deep breath and true life.
Sara and Jeff ably preached of late all about deep breath and life, in and out. Something especially on our hearts as we watch this dramatic Thai soccer team rescue which is all about air. Breathing in and out is an image that emerged from our ReForming work as a church. We breathe in grace, but dare not abuse it. We can try, but it never works. Jeff preached how he’d threaten to hold his breath as a kid to defy his mother, and she’d just say go for it.
My psychology dissertation at Boston College years ago was all about breathing, about oxygen as an agent for calming the nervous system when faced with anxiety and fear. I wrote a couple hundred pages on the importance of taking deep breaths.
You may remember my story of a pastor friend, a Mister Rogers of a man who exuded such love and grace to every person he met that you swore Jesus had already come back to earth. The cancer he later contracted spread rapidly through his body such that his last months were miserably confined to hospice care. I say miserably because of the way his faithful disposition darkened into obsessive fear and anxiety about dying.
Among his many longtime companions was a mutual friend and beloved mentor of mine, an MIT trained engineer named Dave, who would visit our pastor friend daily but always left agitated. “I don’t get it,” Dave would gripe. “All his life he preaches the assurance of his salvation and of his hope in Jesus, and now that it’s time to exercise a little assurance and hope, all he can tell me is how afraid he is to die. If your faith does you no good in your final days, what good is it?” Finally frustrated beyond sympathy, my mentor told our dying friend to stop stressing and just take a deep breath. He’d do this all the time. Try it. Take a deep breath. Hold it. Now let it out. My mentor Dave would then said with his trademark mystical grin, “Let’s imagine that breath was your whole life. Would that have been so bad?”
At first, I presumed Dave was reminding our friend of the truth of Psalm 39, how “surely every person’s life is but a breath.” But I suspect his invitation to breathe carried a double meaning. Like oxygen that calms our nervous system, a deep breath of the Spirit is fullness of life and peace. Paul says here how that’s really all there is to it. That’s not so bad. A beautiful day in the neighborhood.
When it came Dave’s time to go, sooner than any of us anticipated, it was because of cancer too. Also confined to hospice care, he was fine with it. I’d go by to visit and he asked me to anoint his head with oil, since that’s what the Bible says you do in the valley of the shadow of death. As a Congregationalist minister, I didn’t mess around much with oil and had no idea where to get it. Dave told me to go to the store and buy some, stupid. So I showed up with some Wesson oil and nervously dumped too much on his head and it ran down his face and greased up his hospital gown. I went to wipe it off, but he stopped me and leaned back his head and let it roll. Man, I miss that guy. He’d tell his visitors to tell him a joke because he meant to laugh his way to glory. If you were ever showed up with weepy condolences, he’d lecture you for being faithless and suggest that maybe you had some un-confessed sin in your life. During his last hours, his friends encircled him and sang hymns and rejoiced over the hope we shared, and we felt genuine gladness for him, and even a little envy. I hope that will be me. Freedom with purpose. Changed by the cross. Dialed in to that paradoxical, resurrection power that defies common sense. Fresh air and true gospel.
Resurrection gives death a definite upside. And it takes away a lot of fear. Once you’re not scared of dying, there’s not a whole lot left to be afraid of. “All who inhale the Spirit of God are children of God,” Paul writes, “you did not breathe in a spirit who enslaves you to fear, but you breathed in a spirit of adoption by whom we can cry with childlike faith, Abba, Father.” Or if you prefer, “Abba! Momma Mia!” (Get it? That’s my joke for Dave.) The Holy Spirit joins to our spirit and confirms we are God’s children and rightful heirs right alongside Jesus. So take a deep breath. Take up your cross. Laugh all the way to glory.