The Suit Maker

For Bayo, my friend

bayo

“Just you wait,” my pastor told me. “Pretty soon, he’ll make you one, too.”

In addition to being an expert couturier of incredible skill, the person in question was a faithful deacon and usher in the church, not to mention the director of a nearby community outreach ministry. And just as predicted, only two weeks later, this man walked up to me with a smile on his face and, in his thick Nigerian accent, said, “I would like to make you a suit.” As always, he was impeccably dressed that morning, wearing one of his own handmade suits – a light gray set accented with a beautiful scarf of magenta and scarlet. “Would that be all right with you?”

“Oh,” I said, surprised only by how soon my pastor’s prediction had come true. “That’s very kind.”

“First, I will need to measure you.” He had a small tape measure in his pocket. After the worship service began and everyone had been welcomed, we went to my office. In a flurry of fluid movements, he measured the lengths of my arms, legs, waist, and shoulders. Some of the assessments I had never seen a tailor take before. Some he wrote down on a little scrap of paper. Others, he seemed only to file away in his mind. When he was finished, he said, “I will have it for you next week.”

“Really?” I asked, a bit incredulous. “Next week?”

“Oh yes,” he replied with a smile.

It was an odd thing to anticipate the unveiling of that suit. It wasn’t just that he had not asked my preference regarding style or color, leaving me no idea what it would look like. I also couldn’t help but wonder what kind of use I would get out of it. Only a week earlier, an older gentleman in the church had shown up at the office, interrupting me amidst a day full of meetings only to inform me that he was disappointed with the way I dressed on Sundays. He described my appearance as discourteous, unbecoming of a minister. I did my best to hold back my anger, but I felt terribly insulted and disrespected. That man’s comments remained with me throughout that week and into the next. It made me self-conscious on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights when I interacted with other church members. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was all some people were thinking about when they looked at me, when they sat in my Bible studies, when they bowed their heads as I led them in prayer.

It wasn’t like I was wearing blue jeans and sneakers around the church. I wore nice pants, though they weren’t always of the more formal, pleated variety. I wore button-up, collared shirts, though not always with a tie. I tucked my shirt in; my hair was combed somewhat. I’d been a bit overweight lately, but all things considered I couldn’t look that disheveled, could I?

As I weighed the argument about my physical appearance, and considered what level of importance, if any, modern fashion should have in the worshipping life of a church, I began to wonder if the suit maker felt the same about me. Had he offered to make me a suit because he also disapproved of the way I dressed? Had I disappointed him as well?

It wasn’t that I didn’t own other suits, or that I see no value in them. I did, and I do. What bothered me was the prospect of formality, propriety and tradition becoming wedges between me and the congregants of the church. Was genuine relationship contingent on approval of someone’s physical appearance? Would giving in to wearing a suit and tie every week be a perpetuation of shallow relationships? What of the sobering statement from 1 Samuel 16, in which the Lord reminds Samuel that He “does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (v. 7)?

As such, I was anxious to receive this undeserved, unsolicited gift. However, I was also anxious about how to properly honor the man willing to make it for me.

The next Sunday, he brought it to me on a hanger, and once again we went to my office where I tried it on. It was beautiful – a dark, navy blue two-piece suit with light blue pinstripes. I was astonished at how luxurious it looked and felt, and that it needed no alterations. His measurements had been perfect in every respect. I was at a loss for how to thank him, simply saying again and again, “Thank you so much. This is so nice. Thank you so much…” He only nodded humbly and told me it had been his pleasure, backing away as if he knew I had more important matters to attend to that morning.

I was scheduled to preach in the morning services the Sunday after that, and over the course of that week I found my thoughts were shifting. I was no longer uneasy about my perceived appearance, but rather moved by the rare and unique feeling of being the recipient of an unmerited blessing. I thought about the suit, about the beauty of it. I thought about how its superior, hand-crafted quality far exceeded even what the older gentleman who had criticized my appearance probably had in mind when he wished for a better-dressed version of me.

On that Sunday, my suit maker said, “That suit looks wonderful on you!” It was a few minutes before the early worship service began, and we stood by ourselves near one of the hallway coffee pots. “And that tie is perfect!”

“You think so?” I said, looking down sheepishly at the sky blue, paisley tie I had chosen that morning.

“Oh yes,” he said.

“I feel so fancy,” I said with a nervous laugh.

I could see that he was grinning with pure enjoyment of the moment. Reaching out, he touched the lapel of the coat, his old fingers tracing the tiny stitches he had done himself. Memory in the sense of touch. “But, you know something?” he said. “It is not the suit that makes a man look good. It is the way he wears it. And you… you wear that suit well.”

Again, a fluttering of inadequate thank-you’s. Then I said, “I was planning to mention you briefly in my sermon today. Would that be all right with you?”

He gave a humble nod.

And so, that morning I stood before the congregation and spoke about using everything God has given us to impact others – from our manner of speaking, to the specific life interests that bring us joy, to the unique skills with which we have each been blessed. I told them how I had acquired the fine suit I was wearing that morning, and who had been its maker. “I don’t think he made me this suit because he thought I dressed poorly,” I told the congregation. “No, he made me this suit because he makes suits – very nice suits. He’s good at it, and he wanted to bless me in the best way he knew how. God created him to bless this world through specific gifts, and one of those is making beautiful suits. It’s one way that he shows the steadfast love and kindness God wants to pour into the whole world.”

I looked to the back of the sanctuary where my couturier stood in his own lovely suit. “Thank you,” I said to him, “for being obedient with your gifts, and for blessing my life in a most undeserved way.”

He only nodded that humble nod, the remnants of that excited grin still on his face. He lift a weathered hand as a way to communicate he was more than honored.

___

This Thursday, I will wear the suit again. So will many who were similarly blessed when they, too, received their own handmade suits from the selfless man who was at his happiest when he was uniquely blessing others. We will wear what we each affectionally refer to as our “Bayo suit” to the memorial service that will celebrate his extraordinary life.

Bayo Otiti was an extraordinary man. Born and raised in Nigeria, he found great success as a couturier and clothier in America, eventually outfitting people far more famous and successful than a lowly church minister. However, his passion extended well beyond suit-making. A former Muslim whose wife prayed for him to respond to the call of Christ, Bayo not only became a committed follower of Jesus, but established a vibrant ministry in the towns of Clarkston and Chamblee in metro Atlanta, where he worked closely with at-risk children and immigrants, spearheading community outreach programs and building deep relationships with everyone with whom he came into contact. His life was far more exquisite than the beautiful suits he made. And, believe me, that’s saying something.

I knew him only a short time – not even a year – but I did learn one thing from Bayo I will remember always: Just like a fine suit, what a person’s life looks like on the outside does not matter near as much as how that person lives it.

If you would like to know more about Bayo and his ministry, click HERE.

Style Points: The Gospel According to NCAA Football

Yes, you read that title correctly. I’m about to uncover biblical truth within college football. Hold on to your hats (or big foam fingers)…

If its a Florida State finger, enjoy it for a couple more days.

If it’s a Florida State finger, enjoy it for one more month.

We find ourselves approaching a turning point in college football. This is the first year of a college football playoff system for Division I football, in which a twelve-member committee, composed of current and former university athletic directors, former coaches, administrators, a professional athlete, a reporter, and a former Secretary of State, wields the power to choose four Division I college football teams they believe to be the creme de la creme de la conferences to play for a national championship. Their preliminary selections over the past month have stirred much controversy, as some teams feel their successes and talents have been unfairly ignored by the committee members who seem to reward the almost identical successes and talents of other teams by ranking them in the top four spots.

The committee’s chairperson, Jeff Long, has been pressed to defend the selections by highlighting certain factors the committee believes to be the most impressive qualities of a team. In press conferences, he has gone on about two things in particular: game control and style points. Simply put, game control refers to a team’s ability to maintain a comfortable lead throughout the game, preferably by at least fourteen to twenty-one points. And the second is related to the first. Style points refers to when a team is able (and willing) to run up the score so their win will seem like total domination, because apparently the College Football Playoff selection committee is taking their cues from Sensei Kreese.

Mercy is for the weak.

Mercy is for the weak.

And so, that’s what’s being talked about now by game commentators, radio hosts, reporters, and, of course, fiercely loyal fans. It is no longer good enough for the team you root for to win. They must win big, and that big win must never be in doubt. Otherwise, they cannot be considered one of the best teams. It used to be impressive for a team to win the majority of its games, and perhaps even claim their conference championship. But all of a sudden there is a new dimension necessary for those teams angling to be considered the best. Not only must they score more points than the team of talented athletes lining up in front of them week after week. They have to score enough points to effectively gain the praise of twelve specific people.

Don’t look now, folks, but this playoff selection committee has ruined college football as we know it.

That is not hyperbole, and it is not sarcasm. I’m completely serious. I truly believe that the sport so many of us have loved all our lives has taken a turn for the terminal. Not because the committee is corrupt, or their system is illogical, but because they’ve surgically removed nail-biting excitement and edge-of-your-seat tension from games that we used to hope would play out exactly that way. Those were the kinds of games we enjoyed watching the most! The back-and-forth battles in which game control shifted as dramatically as a playground seesaw. The down-to-the-wire finishes in which one set of players triumphantly rushed the field while the other set lowered their heads under the combined weight of exhaustion and defeat.

I sure hope a photographer isn't taking a picture of our misery.

I sure hope a photographer isn’t taking a picture of our misery.

If I had to choose the most entertaining bowl game I’ve watched in my lifetime up until now, I would easily choose Boise State versus Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, but it wouldn’t be because Boise State won and I was rooting for them. It would be because that game was extraordinary: a David-and-Goliath match-up that, unlike the biblical story, went back-and-forth with each team claiming and then losing the lead on incredible, gutsy plays… and that was in the fourth quarter alone! Boise State finally won in overtime, 43-42, on a perfectly executed Statue of Liberty play for a two-point conversion (which means rather than easily kicking an extra point, they took the risk of either winning or losing the game on one trick play).

Those games, at least in regard to significance, are quickly going the way of the buffalo.

Not that Buffalo.

Not that Buffalo.

Oh, sure, we might still see something like it in a bowl game, when there is nothing to be gained from impressing the committee after the regular season is over. But consider the fact that endings like the one I described, as extraordinary as they are, have now been deemed unimpressive, especially when compared to a team that blows out its competition 43-0. Wins that come with great difficulty may be respected, but they are no longer proof of a team’s strength. This is what the College Football Playoff selection committee has already imparted to us, and I don’t like how easily I’ve conformed to their views.

For instance, last Saturday, I watched my favorite team, the Baylor Bears, white-knuckle a 48-46 win against one of their rivals, Texas Tech, who played with such desperate passion the team reminded me of a certain Fiesta Bowl champion from 2007. Baylor never trailed in the game, but ended up having to make two clutch defensive stops to prevent the Red Raiders from pulling off the upset. It was the kind of game I used to love watching, especially if the team I was rooting for ended up on top as Baylor ultimately did. However, for the last quarter and a half, as Tech mounted an improbable comeback, I was aware of a deep-seated anxiety rising within me. Not only had I become angry at my team, but that frustration lingered long after time expired. Baylor was currently ranked #7 by the playoff committee, three spots shy of that privileged top four, and I knew grinding out a two-point win over an inferior team was not going to rouse even one shred of admiration from the newly appointed supreme court of college football. So, despite a wild game that ended with a Baylor victory, I was left feeling disappointed and nervous for how their performance would affect their ranking.

And that was when I knew that college football, as I knew it, was over.

When all you care about is style points, you’ve lost sight of what the game is really about. If a genuine show of vigor from the opposing team is now only evidence of your own team’s mediocrity (rather than natural competitiveness between two forces that transcend statistics and rankings and the opinions of thirteen people in a boardroom), you have been led astray by a sports heresy. This is Neopelagianism on the gridiron.

Modeling next season's new uniform styles.

Modeling next season’s new uniform styles.

And this is where God comes in.

If the travesty currently befalling college football has taught me anything, it is that game control and style points have no place within the Christian faith. While Jesus called us in the Sermon on the Mount to “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48), he left out any condition that said being perfect was the only way to get God’s attention or something you have to do in order to garner acceptance and praise.

For years, I tried to live my life as if game control and style points were what mattered most. I tried to live in such a way that my good behavior, faithful prayer life, regular church attendance, and increasing understanding of the Bible would get God to notice me and, in turn, bless me. I read ridiculous books like The Prayer of Jabez that essentially told me I had to pray for certain things a certain way if I wanted to get the good blessings God had to give. Much like the playoff selection committee, I felt what mattered more than anything (particularly those incremental improvements and small victories) was my “full body of work.” Had I done enough to impress God? Enough to warrant his favor and earn his endorsement?

And when the losses came (as they inevitably do), I was my own worst critic, a diehard fan who boos and jeers his own team. Those away games when I fell short of obedience, and those shocking defeats when the opposition exposed my weaknesses – they cultivated nothing but shame and self-loathing, a reminder that I would never be good enough. I would never be the kind of man I wanted to be.

In reality, it doesn't matter how hard you play. A loss is a loss.

In reality, it doesn’t matter how hard you play. A loss is a loss.

Sadly, there are a lot of Christians today who are still slaves to style points. They may call God full of grace and love, but, by the way they live their lives, they reflect a belief that he is as capricious and fastidious as a thirteen-member playoff selection committee. For them, grace, mercy and compassion have become nothing more than hollow, ineffectual terms relegated to Sunday School classes and hymn books. They have no place in the “real world.”

But the God I believe in – the God of the Christian faith – is full of those things. He looks upon us with kindness, forgiveness and generosity.

We don’t always live in control of our lives. In fact, most of the time we feel like life is a down-to-the-wire nail-biter, where anything can happen. Style points are a mythical luxury we are incapable of claiming. Praise be to God that grinding out a win is considered as virtuous as blowing out the other team. Even greater praise be to Him for sending his son to be the victor for us – to put the game out of reach and rack up more style points than we will ever need.

Dibs on the Doubloons

My father-in-law brought a metal detector to the beach.

I can see him out there, stepping carefully along the shore. The instrument is poised in front of him, and he sweeps it in a conscientious arc just above the sand. He is bent forward slightly, mindful of every tick and warble of the device. He is hopeful in his search, as anyone is who brings a metal detector to the beach. I am reminded of an article I read recently about famous lost treasures from history that have yet to be found. I do not think he is expecting to uncover a chest of gold coins, but perhaps there is something worth uncovering – something more valuable than bottle caps and earring backs.

There is a storm on the ocean. Behind him, I can see white caps scattered all the way to the horizon. The air has cooled and is thick with the smell of rain. The trees sway. The wind flutters my father-in-law’s T-shirt. Still, he goes about the painstaking business of the search as if oblivious to what is approaching.

It is the way with treasure-seekers, I suspect. Whether it’s Indiana Jones crisscrossing the globe in search of the Well of Souls, or just a guy rummaging through an estate sale bookshelf in hopes of finding a forgotten first edition, treasure-seekers are about the business of recovering what has been lost. The search is more important than the circumstances. What lies beneath the sand may indeed prove greater than all the wind and rain a storm can throw your way. These are the things I think as I watch my father-in-law persist in his detecting against a backdrop of atmospheric turmoil.

The search goes on, even when Shia Labeouf wants to tag along.

The search goes on, even when Shia Labeouf wants to tag along.

And one other thought occurs to me as well.

I wonder about our faith, about this thing we call Christianity. I wonder how much has been lost from it over the years, and what elements we should seek to rediscover. What traditions and practices have disappeared, to our misfortune? What sound teachings have we cast aside in favor of convenient sayings and comforting folklore? What ambiguities, to which we once humbly submitted ourselves, have we coldly insisted on defining? I do not presume that we control the system by any means; I simply wonder how our free will and our particular cultural developments have caused us to lose track of certain aspects from which believers once benefitted. Such misplacement must have taken place here and there over so rich and lengthy a history.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were placed in jars and set aside, only to remain hidden for two millennia. But their discovery impacted the fields of archaeology, history, religion and linguistics in innumerable ways, altering assumptions we had accepted for decades and centuries.

In contrast, what this lady did was just plain rotten.

In contrast, what this lady did was just plain rotten.

Are Christians today so arrogant as to assume the grasp we have on our faith now is of greater strength than any other time? Do we honestly believe we know more about God now than those from past eras? We have been born into a culture that is all too impressed with the newest and thinnest and fastest and shiniest products on the market. Sometimes I fear our churches will forever be drawn to the innovative over the ancestral. That we will perpetually select new methodologies in place of ancient disciplines? Must we always chase after now while abandoning then?

Indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:3-5)

It is a rare thing to find anything of value under the sand. But it does happen. Instead of just the earring back, you find the diamond front that goes with it. Maybe not gold doubloons, but sometimes there’s a 2004 Wisconsin quarter with an extra leaf, or, for the exceedingly lucky, a double-died 1969 penny.

You never know what you might find hidden under the sand – those unanticipated disappearances that have only increased in value since the time they were first lost to the world. Such rediscoveries, if we would commit ourselves to look for them, can rejuvenate our faith in extraordinary ways. Even when the storms of the present age gather against us, we are made stronger, and our connection with the saints of past ages is renewed. The cloud of witnesses rejoices, the angels celebrate around the throne, and the great God who made them all smiles in radiant joy.

Jesus himself described the kind of party that takes place when even seemingly insignificant items are found again. In the age of faster download speeds and mile-long waiting lines at the Apple Store, Christians must be warned to not so easily omit the past. If we truly believe in a God who is intimately active from generation to generation – a God who restores, who values monuments and remembrances – then the ways in which we commune with him and worship him and study about him matters. We must preserve a link to those who have gone before even as we anticipate what is still to come.

"Name one other thing that would be a better use of my time right now."

“Name one other thing that would be a better use of my time right now.”

I see my father-in-law walking up the path. His shirt is speckled by the rain, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He has not found anything today, but I know his search hasn’t ended. There are limitless treasures waiting to be uncovered for those hopeful enough to look.

Are We Up for This?

I wonder if most believers are really interested in the salvation Jesus offers people.

Let me clarify that statement. In my last post, I wrote about the alleged difficulty of defining the term “spiritual formation.” My argument was that the difficulty only comes when we lose sight of what those two words really mean. When you look at their roots, it’s not difficult to see what we’re describing when we’re saying someone is being spiritually formed. The Spirit is at work in that person, forming him or her into something different. Something new.

But for those who think that sounds perfectly agreeable, Jim Smith, executive director of The Apprentice Institute, reminds us, “Formation involves every single aspect of our lives: our thoughts, our emotions, our bodies, our experiences, our relationships, our resources, our time management, our loved ones, our health, our sexuality, etc. … There is no area of our lives that is not a part of our formation process. It is not, as I used to think, a separation of sacred and secular, of spiritual and physical, but a holistic, unified endeavor.”

I’m not sure many of us are up for that kind of formation.

But that’s the kind of conversion Jesus wants to bring to us. It is a far-reaching formation – a wholesale wholeness.

feature6

By and large, though, people have stopped seeing Christianity this way, as a comprehensive transformation of body, mind and soul. Instead, we’ve portrayed a faith that is concerned only with moral behavior, or “traditional” values, or what comes after death. Christians have ceased seeing the all-inclusiveness of God’s transformative power.

I’m a Spiritual Person

I’m a fan of modernity. As a former teacher of American literature, I didn’t think the curriculum became fun until we hit the 20th century. However, with the modernization of the West came the tendency to relegate “spirituality” to one facet of what we began to think of as a multifaceted existence. Those who wanted to maintain belief in the supernatural – in that Something beyond ourselves – nonetheless compartmentalized that perspective in such a way that “the things of the Spirit” gradually began to lose influence over the other aspects of our lives. As modernism permeated the culture, our identities began to look like a region full of autonomous city-states. The social/relational sphere of our lives won its independence from all the others, as did the vocational/financial sphere, the familial sphere, the emotional sphere, the physical sphere, and so on. Sure, there has always been interaction between all of these various parts of our identity, but people are quick to guard the self-sovereignty of each one.

Pictured: Our identities.

Pictured: Our identities.

A perfect example of this is the all-too-common referral to being “a spiritual person” (many professing Christians included). Rarely are these people referring to a tangible, active presence – or Spirit – at work in their lives. Rather, what they are describing is a more self-seeking posture that feeds off of feelings we can’t easily name but still enjoy. Modern spirituality has become an amorphous pursuit – a hobby easily tailored according to each person’s preferences. Because of this, it is not uncommon to encounter a person who claims to be very “spiritual” but whose other spheres of life seem mostly unaffected by that spirituality.

This was not the kind of spiritual formation Jesus was referring to when, in Gethsemane, he promised the disciples that the Holy Spirit was coming.

All the Fullness of God

Likewise, there’s a moment in the middle of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when he expresses what his prayers are for them, a church he so dearly loves. Having challenged them to recognize that the mysteries of God have finally been revealed in Jesus, and that this revelation changes everything, he writes the following:

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:16-19).

If Facebook were around in the first century, Paul would have been that annoying friend who always posts longwinded prayers in his status updates.

If Facebook were around in the first century, Paul would have been that annoying friend who always posts longwinded prayers in his status updates.

Paul was referring to a transformation that affected every aspect of a person’s existence. So was Jesus, when he said he came that we “may have life, and have it in abundance” (John 10:10).

Thus, the salvation offered by Jesus is not found in laying down only one sphere of my identity, but when I relinquish them all. Jesus is not the Lord of only the spiritual parts of my life. He is the Master of it all – my social interactions, my job and finances, my family, my emotions, my physical health, and so on. Jesus understood that just as we are not created in part but in whole, our recreation must happen the same way. Salvation is all or nothing.

Amen, Yoda. Amen.

Amen, Yoda. Amen.

Sure, there will be times when our rationalism causes us to doubt even a good and beautiful God, and we feel a need to hold something back. But this is why Paul’s prayer included a plea “to know this love that surpasses knowledge” – that our doubts would not lead to self-reliance, and our minds would be transformed alongside everything else. That by surrendering, we would learn surrender.

Simple, Not Easy

Like I said, I’m not sure we’re interested in that kind of salvation.

The Gospel is simple, but that doesn’t make it easy. We understand that by our own efforts we cannot save ourselves. Our healing and wholeness requires an act of God, and that act was Jesus. Believing this is simple enough. But responding to it is not so easy.

The problem for those who stop at mere belief is that salvation requires belief and response. What kind of response? Oh, just the relinquishing of every element of control you enjoy over your existence. Just the surrender of every sphere of your life into the hands of Another.

Amen, Neo. Amen.

Amen, Neo. Amen.

Simple? Yes.

Easy? Definitely not.

Maybe this is why so many of the most powerful stories of transformation we hear – the ones that stick in our minds long after we’ve listened to their telling – are the ones in which people surrendered their lives to Jesus after their lives became a complete wreck. They were at the end of their rope, the candle was flickering, the water was almost over their heads, there was nothing left to live for … and that’s when Jesus changed everything.

Perhaps too many of us still feel like we have something worth living for – a sphere of life we’ve arranged too much to our liking. Even if its not perfect, we’d rather keep things as they are than risk what might change if it were devoted to God.

I wonder why that is.

I’ve heard a lot of ministers complain that people are just too lazy to really seek after formation. But what if laziness isn’t our core problem?  What if our problem is bad theology? I mean, do we or do we not believe that God is good? That he is generous and trustworthy? That he desires the best for us, and that he has promised to daily care for us?

Because, if we really believe those things, what on earth has prevented us from responding?