Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Mercy in the Rearview Mirror


My wife and I spend a decent amount of time on the road.  Our busiest time of the year tends to be in November and early December as we travel for district quizzes, tournaments in Kalamazoo, St. Louis and whenever possible Kansas City.  Throw in a trip to see my parents in Tennessee for Thanksgiving and you’ve got a lot of miles logged.  This past weekend we returned from a weeklong trip to Tennessee where we visited with my parents and officiated for the big end of the year tournament for teen bible quizzing.  I do a majority of the driving while Lori sleeps or crochets and so I’m the one having to navigate through traffic and construction zones.  Since I have a tendency to speed I usually have to change lanes as I pass slower traffic and in order to do that safely I need my rearview mirror.  I consistently use my rearview mirror well in advance of actually changing lanes because I pay attention to traffic that is catching up to me (which rarely happens) or I check to see if that cop I didn’t see early enough is going to let me continue on my way (which always happens).  My rearview mirror is a part of how I navigate my way down the road and around obstacles.

What I read in Romans reminds me of my driving experiences.  As I transition from a quiz year focused on Romans and James to a year focusing on Acts I want to close out the year with some thoughts on a popular passage in Romans.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.—Romans 12:1-2

The first eleven chapters of Romans paint a pretty clear picture of our human situation.  We are sinners, each and every one of us, and the penalty of that sin is death. Our part of the picture doesn’t look good at all but despite our ugliness it isn’t the whole picture.  The rest of the picture involves God the Father’s work in and through his Son on our behalf.  Our lives (our part of the picture) get united with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection in such a way that we ourselves experience death, burial and resurrection.  It is with this picture in mind that Paul wants us to keep ‘God’s mercy in view’.

What does it mean to keep ‘God’s mercy in view’?  It’s much like what we experience with our rearview mirror.  Our rearview mirror takes what is behind us and places it before us as a helpful guide.  When Paul writes his letters to various churches there are many times that he is reminding them of very important things.  In this passage, Paul is in essence trying to be their rearview mirror.  He wants to remind them of what God did in Christ on their behalf and that what God did was merciful.  Full of mercy.  And by keeping this past act of mercy in view, Paul is confident that it will have a direct impact on the way in which his readers will live in their present.  God’s offering of his Son and the Son’s offering of his life lead to our offering of ourselves.

What have you got in your rearview mirror?  Maybe you have some regrets, missed opportunities or burned bridges.  One thing to note about rearview mirrors is that it’s never healthy to solely look at them.  You need to be looking ahead a majority of time.  Imagine the kind of destruction that would be caused by driving a vehicle while looking only in the rearview mirror!  Nothing good would come from that.  Rearview mirrors are intended to help you as you move forward and make decisions in the here and now.  Spending an inordinate amount of time looking into the negative experiences of the past is not going to help you as you move forward. There are definitely lessons to be learned from our past but we should be careful about how we approach those sorts of things in our rearview mirror.  Paul wants the work of Christ and the mercy of God the Father in our past to be front and center in our lives today.

When it comes to our Christian walk, how can mercy in our rearview mirror help us?  When we forget that we have been recipients of mercy we forget to be merciful.  Along those same lines, when we forget that we have been forgiven we forget to forgive.  When we forget that we are loved as God’s beloved children we forget to love other’s as God’s beloved children.  What if we looked in our spiritual rearview mirror before we approached our spouse? Our children?  Our co-workers?  Our enemies? My bet is that if we consciously and consistently remembered the mercy of God when we were at our worst then we would love others with the kind of love lavished on us.  That kind of love will always stand out in this world because it goes against the way our world operates.  Who loves their enemies?  Who shows mercy to the rightfully convicted?  Who dies for the ungodly? God does. That’s who.  And you should too.                

Friday, June 20, 2014

Immigration and Circumcision: Cutting Edge Stuff!

The Statue of Liberty greets people from distant lands and on her pedestal is a poem written by Emma Lazarus.  Here is a portion of that poem:

 "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"


What an amazing invitation!  I can’t imagine what it was like for early immigrants traveling across an unforgiving ocean to see such a sight as the Statue of Liberty.  While this monument may be symbolic of different things for different people I think it can be generally agreed upon that it is, above all else, an invitation.  Maybe this open door leads to freedom compared to where you were.  Maybe it is a door of opportunity.  Maybe it is a new start.  No matter what ‘it’ is, it is only the beginning.  This is only the invitation. 

Immigration reform has once again bubbled back to the surface of political conversations and each time that it does I can’t help but think of the invitation we hear from Jesus.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”—Matthew 11:28

I don’t know what influenced Lazarus as she wrote her poem but I get the sense that it just might have been the invitation of Jesus.  She seems to get it.  She understands the kind of burdens that people carry.  She understands the hope and the freedom a new door can offer and Jesus by all means is offering a new door, a new way, to people that are weighed down by the troubles of this world. 

Not only do immigration conversations make me think of the invitation of Jesus but also the dilemma of the early church.  The invitation of Jesus was extended beyond the borders of Israel so that even Gentiles were responding to Jesus as Lord and Savior.  When the door to God’s family was opened up to outsiders this led to issues for those on the inside, the Jews.  How do you graft in the Gentiles?  How do they become citizens of God’s Kingdom?  Citizenship as a Jew was clearly defined and Gentiles didn’t fit the definition.  Some felt that in order to walk through the door they needed to become like the Jews.  Gentiles needed to give up certain practices and the guys in particular needed to be circumcised like every good law abiding Jew.  Undoubtedly there were Gentile males who did just that.  Still others wondered if there was another way into this Kingdom.

When the apostles gathered together to discuss this issue they came to an amazing decision.  Peter concludes that ‘we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.’ (Acts 15:19) And with that end in mind, they provide a few things for Gentiles to abide by and disregard other things like circumcision.  The magnitude of that decision cannot be overstated.  Circumcision was deeply rooted in their identity as Jews and they set it aside for the sake of their newly grafted brothers in Christ. 

Two groups of people would have been upset with this decision.  First, there would have been Jews who still felt that circumcision was a part of their identity and disagreed with the apostle’s conclusion.  We see those divisions reflected in numerous books of the New Testament as people like Paul went around and had to convince them that this was indeed an implication of the gospel of Christ.  Another group of people who would have been upset with this decision would have been those Gentile males who got circumcised because some Jews said they had to go under the knife.  They may have had a mixture of emotions.  They could have been upset with the fact that they went through that painful procedure for nothing.  Ultimately, they didn’t have to do it and maybe felt tricked.  They also may have felt angry at the Gentile males who avoided the knife via the apostles decision.  I imagine they would have been jealous of the Gentiles who got into God’s Kingdom without paying the same physical price that they did.   

Do you want to know who didn’t disagree with this decision?  A bunch of uncircumcised Gentiles!  The golden door into God’s Kingdom was no longer blocked by a huge boulder rolled there by ‘the circumcision group’.  This decision was overflowing with grace toward the outsiders but catch this.  IT WASN’T FAIR!  It wasn’t fair to the already circumcised Jews or the newly circumcised Gentiles but it was by all means graceful toward the Gentiles at the door.  If grace is anything it is unfair and the apostles knew that.  Jesus’ life, death and resurrection had nothing to do with fairness. 

Take the time to read Jesus’ parable about a vineyard owner.  (Matthew 20:1-16) The owner hires some people in the morning, some later in the day and others at the end of the day.  When it comes time to pay them, they all get the same wage and workers are outraged.  Everyone except the people hired last.  Overlap that with what we see in Acts.  Can you see how envious the circumcised Jews and Gentiles would have been that the uncircumcised Gentiles got the same wage?  Gain without the pain? It wasn’t fair but it was generous.  The owner responds, Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

I strongly believe that things like Jesus’ invitation to the weary and burdened or the situation in Acts can provide helpful insights into immigration reform.  However, that is not my priority here.  America is NOT God’s Kingdom and the Statue of Liberty is NOT Jesus.  My priority is the church that Christ loved (Ephesians 5:25) and whether or not we are adequately reflecting the invitation of Jesus in the way that people are grafted into God’s Kingdom.  We need people protecting the door but not in the way that too often happens.  We need people on the lookout for boulders and the people trying to push them in front of the door.  If you’ve ever sat in church and wondered why new people aren’t coming in, you may want to check out what’s been going on at the figurative front door.  Are there any figurative stumbling blocks to people coming in?  Do what Paul tells the church in Rome and ‘make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister’. 

Oh! And while you’re out there you may want offer the invitation of Jesus to a world that desperately needs it.         

Thursday, June 5, 2014

High Speed Worship

A couple of weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, my wife and I made our way to Indianapolis in order to enjoy the biggest racing event of the year.  Every year between 300,000 and 400,000 people gather together at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to enjoy the Indy 500.  Lori’s parents have been Indy car fans for a long time and their love of the sport has been passed down through Lori to me.  This was my second time attending this event but this time there was something that stood out like a sore thumb which I didn’t notice the first time.  It’s almost silly that I didn’t notice because it is something I do almost every single Sunday.  Worship.

Just think of what we experienced on race day.  People gathered together for a unified purpose at a preset location.  From the time that we arrived until the race was complete there was an order of events.  The order of events ranged from particular traditions, special announcements or tributes, to a time of prayer with special songs interspersed throughout.  The voice over the intercom gave us directions as to what was going on and let us know when to stand as any worship leader would.  The only difference between this Sunday and my regular Sundays is that all of the pomp and circumstance led up to a race instead of a pastoral message.  And we didn’t take an offering,

In Romans 1 we are reminded of our tendency as fallen human beings to worship falsely.

They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.—Romans 1:25

Considering the fact that we are worshipful in nature, I had to wonder what the target of worship was at this particular event.  While there was a prayer directed toward God I did not get the sense that God was the reason for the gathering in any meaningful way.  If we were all wanting to worship God as a community I’m sure we could have driven somewhere closer that had free parking and air conditioning.  There were a few other things that stood out more predominantly during my time there. 

With it being Memorial Day weekend there was plenty of red, white and blue in the mass crowd and the songs as a part of our gathering were all a tribute to America.  I was amazed at the number of people carrying large coolers over long distances into the venue and a majority of them were for their alcoholic beverages.  On our walk in and on our walk out there were cans and bottles all along with way and we saw more than a few walking a little tipsy and stammering as they left.  I was extremely surprised at how much ‘skin’ I saw over those few hours, and for the most part it wasn’t of the female variety.  I debated working on my tan like all of the topless men but I doubt my wife would have let me.  By the way, when did guys start wearing Daisy Dukes?  Lastly, there were many fans sporting the hats and shirts of the drivers and race teams they supported.  You could tell by the timing of the cheers who people were rooting for.  The last few laps were tense as 2 drivers in particular were fighting for the victory and the crowd, myself included, cheered for its racing icons.  All in all, it appeared to be a day to wear a little less, drink a little more, and sing songs about our country while getting to cheer for your favorite driver. 

Before you mishear me, this was an exciting and enjoyable event. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being thankful for our country, enjoying a cold drink or feeling secure in your own body.  Although, I would argue that there is something wrong with guys wearing very short jean shorts.  I would readily go again and would readily encourage anyone to go see it for themselves.  The thing that you and I have to be careful about is how we worship.  It is a short trip from worshiping the Creator to worshiping creation.  If it sounds like worship, looks like worship and feels like worship, you just might be worshiping.  And so, when I notice things like I noticed a couple weeks ago I make an intentional effort on my part to thank God for his blessings.  And I do it without the need for someone on the intercom prompting me to worship how and what he wants me to. 

When I was in high school I went to a large youth conference in Phoenix, Arizona with kids from my church and church district.  It was a transformational event for me but one part of the trip always stands out above the rest.  On our last day we traveled to see the Grand Canyon.  For someone who has lived in the flatlands of Illinois my whole life this was a sight to behold.  We even had the opportunity to fly in a small passenger plane through the canyon and take pictures.  It was amazing. After our group was finished with the plane rides we gathered together and sang the ever popular Rich Mullins song ‘Our God is an Awesome God’.  That was the most appropriate response to the beauty of creation in our midst and it was worship the way it is meant to be.  Creation pointed us toward the Creator. 

Bad things happen when our worship rests on created things because created things are supposed to orient us toward God.  When we idolize things like our country, food or drink, our bodies, or our celebrities/icons we expect things from them that they can’t live up to.  We can expect our country to have a role in this world that it was never created for. We can expect a drink to satisfy longings that go deeper than the bottle can reach. We can expect healthy bodies to guarantee a long life in a world with no guarantees.  Faulty expectations flow from faulty worship.

Today, be thankful for your country and praise God. Today, be thankful for your food and drink and praise God. Today, be thankful that you are alive for another day and use it as an opportunity to worship the only thing worthy of worship. Our Father, Creator God.      
Here is a link to the special prayer before the race. This is from 2012 but is virtually identical to the prayer we heard in 2014 and was recorded near where we sat.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Pass It On

For those that have known me 10 years or less it may be hard to imagine me being skinny but for most of my life I was rail thin.  Not only was I thin but I was also fast.  Growing up in the country I didn’t like wearing shoes.  Many times I would race to the mailbox in my bare feet and my skinny body could cut through the air with ease.  When I entered into Jr. High it was natural for me to go out for track.  I was made for it. 

At one of the home track meets during my 8th grade year my mom overheard a comment by a gentleman nearby in regard to the next race.  He told another gentleman that he couldn’t wait until next year when this kid who was getting ready to race would be in high school.  I happened to be in that particular race and won pretty easily.  When my mom realized that he was talking about me she said something to her friend and discovered that he was the high school track coach.  Obviously he had seen me run before and couldn’t wait for me to run on his team next year.  That’s a pretty proud moment for a mom.

Fast forward one year to a home track meet as a freshman in high school.  It was our home invitational meet and I was running on the Varsity 4x400 relay where everyone runs a full lap.  Once again my mom was in the stands to cheer her skinny boy on.  I was the first leg of the race and after running 250 meters I would normally go through a mental routine making sure my breathing was steady and that I was pushing myself so I could give the next runner as good of a lead as I could give him.  It was around this time that my mom heard someone else in the stands yell out, “He doesn’t have a baton!”  While going through my mental checklist I came to that very realization.  I didn’t have a baton.  For a quick second I thought that maybe I was running the individual 400 meter race but I could clearly see the other runners lined up.  My next thought was that maybe I could pick up a stick along the track and hand that off instead of a baton.  No such luck.  I saw nothing along the track and as I rounded the corner my ‘stupid freshman’ nightmare was complete.  The starter official was waving me off of the track and our relay team was eliminated.  Despite all of my hard work I had nothing to hand off.  That was a not so proud mom moment.  “I don’t know whose kid that is.”

Last night my wife got the call that her grandmother had passed on.  It was just a few years ago that her grandfather on the other side of the family passed on as well.  In both instances I can’t help but think of the relay races that I was a part of over the course of those 7 years in track and relate it to what Paul says to the church in Corinth.

“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.  By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance…..”--1 Corinthians 15:1-3

As a recipient of the gospel, Paul wants to make sure he makes the hand off to the church.  The gospel is extremely important and he doesn’t want there to be any confusion about it.  This is ‘of first importance’. 

The list of things that Allen and Ruth passed on to others before passing on is a lengthy one.  (Right now in my head I’m hearing a Fraggle Rock song called ‘Pass It On’) The physical characteristics and the character traits are easy to spot in their kids and I’m sure that many of those things will be discussed when family gets together to remember and celebrate Ruth’s life.  But above all of those things are the gospel sort of things that Allen and her passed on to their kids and grandkids.  The Kingdom qualities that I saw exhibited in their lives are the things I pray for.  Since Allen passed away, I have regularly prayed for his gentleness to manifest itself in my life.  It’s something I deeply desire and need because I’m not a gentle person.  As I spend time thinking about Ruth I will do the same thing by choosing a Kingdom quality that stood out in her life which I desire to bear fruit in mine.  I’m not sure whether ‘sassy’ counts as a Kingdom quality but that’s what stands out when I think of her.     

What will you pass on before you pass on?  My shining moment as a freshman has provided numerous life lessons over the years.  When it comes to life, you don’t want to round the corner and realize that you have nothing to pass on of first importance.  When you are at the end of your race there are only a few things that are of first importance and handing off the gospel is at the top of the list.  There were people who needed me to do my part and I let them down.  On the flipside, it is a wonderful experience to hand off that baton knowing that I gave it my all.  And not only that, but the next runner has a good head start for their part of the race. 

Thank you Allen and Ruth for providing a good head start in life for your family and friends who got to watch you run your race for God’s glory. 
Here's the Fraggle Rock song from A Muppet Family Christmas.  Watching this movie is a Christmas tradition that is being passed on.
Pass It On

Monday, April 28, 2014

Disturbed by Jesus

In my last post I shared where Jesus’ story, in particular his death and resurrection, intersected with my story.  The fact that Jesus himself experienced suffering and death connected with me as a 7th grader dealing with the death of a friend.  Things changed for me on that Good Friday and nothing will ever be the same again.  That was 22 years ago and if I could sum up those years in a single word it would be this:  Disturbed.

Not quite what you were expecting?  Maybe you were expecting something on the brighter side like freedom, hope or joy.  Who wants to be disturbed? Nobody desires to be disturbed but if I were to be completely honest there has been nothing more helpful to my life than being disturbed.  In fact, it was one of the first things I experienced as a young follower of Christ.

Prior to my 7th grade year I had been asked by a friend of my mom if I wanted to be involved in this thing called ‘Bible Quizzing’.  She was the coach and my older brother had been involved the year before (he is a year ahead of me in school) but I was not interested.  I had fallen in love with athletics and so my time was spent with basketball and track during the school year.  Prior to my 8th grade year, but after my Good Friday experience, I was asked again if I wanted to be a part of Bible Quizzing.  I again said, “No.” because I had my own plans, my own agenda.  And that’s when it happened.  I was disturbed.  I let Jesus break into my life once and now he was up to it again.  How could I desire to know Christ but simultaneously have no desire to be a part of something that would get me reading scripture and help me get to know Christ better?  My plans needed to change in order to line up with what Christ desired for me and our relationship.

Years later I was disturbed while making college plans, but not all disturbances have to do with making big decisions or even making decisions at all.  There are beliefs that I would easily hold if it were not for Christ disturbing me.  For every verse that a person wants to put on a pedestal as the foundation for a particular belief there are 3 other verses that have me questioning what they’ve built.  As a middle child I would much rather agree with the majority and avoid controversy when it comes to a variety of topics but I constantly find myself disturbed.  I find myself wondering why I am disturbed with particular views and similarly wonder why they aren’t disturbed with it at all.  I am continually praying that I might be shaped more and more into Christlikeness and there is plenty that needs to be shaped.  There is much that HAS already been shaped.  And all along the way Jesus disturbs me.      

In the Old Testament we read about people on the move.  Abraham and his family went from place to place in tents.  Moses led people around in a desert.  God’s people were rarely stationary.  Who they were and what they knew about God was continually shaped by their experiences as they went along.  God never stopped disturbing them where they were.  That’s why living in a tent makes sense.  If you build your home out of stone on a firm foundation you may be tempted to stay there.  God may have moved on but you’re stuck where you are.  You’re not free to move. 

I am not the same person as I was 22 years ago and I pray that I will not be the same person 22 years from now.  I have had to move, spiritually speaking, in a variety of ways already and I don’t suspect that will change anytime soon.  Are you open to being disturbed by Jesus?  A good way to tell is whether you are living in a tent or not.  I hope that you don’t have everything nailed down and secured because if there’s one thing I know about Jesus it’s that you can’t keep him nailed down.  He is free to move and I hope that you, your life, your beliefs, are free to move with him.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good News On Good Friday

When my wife was a little girl she had the opportunity to spend a few years in Africa as her parents were called to serve in the mission field. Over the past 10 years I have heard numerous stories (many of them more than 10 times apiece) about their time there but one of my favorites involves Lori’s grandpa. Lori’s grandparents weren’t about to let an ocean separate them from seeing their beloved grandchild grow up so they made arrangements to visit for an extended time. It was in their preparation for this journey that they discovered something funny. Lori’s grandpa had been celebrating his birthday on the wrong day for close to 60 years! Grandpa Joner was a twin and they just happened to be born on opposite sides of midnight. Unfortunately his sibling died at an early age and, somewhere along the way, the birth order of the twins got mixed up. Family members regularly comment, "What someone won’t do to have 2 birthdays!"

He’s not alone in birthday mixups. My dad was born in 1937 and is one of 13 kids. Trying to keep all of those birthdays in order was a bit of a challenge and along the way his got goofed up. While celebrating as a youngster on what he thought was his birthday his older sister came home to visit and was wondering why they were celebrating on that day. She insisted his birthday was earlier in the week and after checking the birth certificate the mistake was undeniable.

Most years I celebrate my 2nd birthday on the wrong day. My first birthday is easy to remember because it is a ‘day that will live in infamy’. (December 7th, 1978) I never get confused about that birthday. My 2nd birthday (April 17th, 1992) is always trickier for me to remember because I associate it almost exclusively with Good Friday. Most years it doesn’t fall on Good Friday but I prefer celebrating my birthday on this day because of what happened on the first Good Friday. So instead of doing a birthday post yesterday, I’m doing it today.

April 17, 1992 is simultaneously the worst and most amazing day of my life. Three days earlier a classmate and friend took his own life and he was laid to rest on Good Friday. On Tuesday we had a track meet and the last event was the 4x200 relay which we were both on. Except for that meet. He was ineligible because of one of his grades. Instead of running the 3rd leg of the relay and handing off to me on the opposite side of the track he simply sat on the bench a few feet from me while I waited for someone else to do his leg of the race. I can’t remember what we talked about as he sat and I waited for the race to start but it probably had something to do with school break that started on Wednesday. A couple of hours later he was gone.

Following the funeral three days later I sat in my room alone with all of my unanswered questions. I had plenty of questions. Why did he do this? What could have stopped him from doing this? And on and on the questions went. When it dawned on me that it was Good Friday I asked one question that did not go unanswered. I thought, "This is the worst day of my life! What possibly could be good about THIS day?" I didn’t expect an answer because quite honestly I didn’t think there was an answer. The answer was simply this, "I know how you feel." This realization/revelation did not come about because I sat around pondering the Easter stories I heard growing up. Never before had a Sunday School teacher connected Jesus’ suffering with my suffering. Until that day the Easter story revolved around the good news of his resurrection and eternal life. But on this day the good news of Good Friday was crystal clear. I was not alone. God was no stranger to suffering and loss and death because of what happened on Good Friday. In that instant God was no stranger to me.  


Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Uninvited: March Madness and the Church

Is your bracket filled out? My bracket is completed and looks nice until I have to start marking out my failed picks. My wife and I do a little bit of wagering on who can fill out the best bracket and this year was a little more exciting making our picks when the NCAA bracket was released. As I have mentioned before, my wife and I are celebrating 10 years of marriage this month and so we will be enjoying an Elite 8 game in Indianapolis as a fun way to celebrate. We are both fans of college basketball and both of our favorite teams (Duke and the University of Kentucky) happen to be in the Midwest Region which will be played in Indy. Hopefully, one or both of us get to see our teams play live for the first time!

The big first step for our teams was getting the invitation to the ‘big dance’ as it is so often called. Sports analysts often make comments about getting their dancing shoes ready or about whether Cinderella’s shoes will fit the particular team hoping to be in the tournament. Since Lori and I cheer for a couple of the top programs in the history of the game we rarely have to worry about getting an invitation. Each year there are teams on the ‘bubble’, unsure of whether they will get an invitation or not. Analysts give their list of the last 5 making it in and the last 5 who missed the dance altogether.

There are 351 Division 1 NCAA teams but only 68 get the chance to play in this tournament. There is, however, another tournament that the rejected teams have a chance to play in called the National Invitational Tournament, or just NIT. As you can probably already guess, even if you’re not a sports enthusiast, this isn’t the tournament that teams were hoping to play in at the end of the year and NIT gets a negative connotation added to it. Fans who want to let an opponent know they are a step down from ‘their beloved team’ need only chant ‘NIT, NIT, NIT’ to get in a cheap shot. Fans also have their own names for that tournament using the NIT initials. This is an excerpt from wikipedia:

Because the post-season NIT consists of teams that failed to receive a berth in the NCAA Tournament, the NIT has been nicknamed the "Not Invited Tournament", "Never Important Tournament", "Nobody's Interested Tournament", "Needs Improvement Tournament", "No Important Team", "National Insignificant Tournament," or simply "Not In Tournament". It has also been called a tournament to see who the "69th best team" in the country is (since there are now 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament)."

Not Invited. Nobody’s Interested. Needs Improvement. You get the feeling. Have you been that team? Have you been that person who is left out? It hurts to be uninvited and unchosen. There is something special happening and you don’t get to be a part. I had this happen to me recently which is why the topic of being uninvited is on my mind in the context of March Madness and Easter.

Prior to the bracket being released, analysts critique the resume¢ of teams on the bubble. They use criteria such as a teams Rating Percentage Index (RPI) so you know how tough of a schedule they had. They look at wins against ranked opponents, losses to bad opponents, non-conference schedule, and on down the line as they evaluate whether a team has earned an invitation. The apostle Paul gives us his tourney resume in Philippians 3:

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.—Philippians 3:4-6

There is no question that this guy falls into the ‘Invited’ column if you’re looking for the most qualified Israelite, and by the looks of things he’s getting a #1 seed. In Genesis we see an invitation given to Abraham and his offspring to be God’s chosen people. Paul comes from a long line of invited people and his pedigree is spotless.

But what about the rest of us? What about us Gentiles (non-Jews) with no pedigree whatsoever? What about the uninvited?

I don’t want to jump ahead past Easter. It’s easy to do and there are many, like my wife, who prefer to do just that. Skip past the solemn Good Friday service so we can celebrate resurrection morning. I get that. No one wants to remember what it was like to be uninvited prior to the invitation that comes through Jesus Christ. Two thousand years ago a huge proportion of today’s church folk would have been the ones on the outside. We would have been the uninvited. The early church started with a bunch of Jewish followers of Christ trying to figure out what to do about these previously uninvited Gentiles that were coming to faith in Christ. There were some that thought Gentiles needed to get circumcised and give up bacon so they would better fit the profile of an invited Jew. "If you want to be ‘in’ the church then you have to go through these hoops." There were others, like Paul, who opposed putting barriers in the way of unbelieving Gentiles. He even opposed Peter to his face! (Galatians 2:11-14)

Peter, the Rock, had trouble figuring out how to interact with people who had previously been uninvited and unclean and so he found himself acting one way with his invited buddies and another with his newly invited buddies. It was awkward to say the least. Circumcision conversations generally are. Despite the difficulties, the early church managed to plow on through toward unity in the power of the Spirit.

We still have a few weeks until Easter and reconnecting with church history means reconnecting with what it means to be uninvited. That’s where the story for a majority of us starts. We were not God’s people. He was not our God. And along comes Jesus proclaiming good news to the uninvited.