Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Courage to Tell the Truth

The Courage to Tell The Truth--April 26, 2018

[Paul said:] “...Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities." [Acts 26:8-11]
It takes more courage than most of us have--certainly more than I suspect I have--to tell an uncomfortable truth about one's actions.  It takes a lot to say, "I was not 'just following orders;' I chose this, and I did this... and I was wrong."  For all the ways that Paul's personality can grate on some people (many a biblical scholar has noted that he sometimes is a bit of a drama queen, so to speak), maybe the thing that is hardest to bear about Paul is that he is so very utterly and vulnerably truthful where we have gotten comfortable wearing masks and presenting false selves to each other and to the world... and to the mirror.
I mean, my goodness, we are surrounded by cases all around us of people to whom we are supposed to be able to look up and see good examples of character and courage... and instead are let down to see people throwing subordinates under the bus to avoid the appearance of being wrong or looking weak.  Or we see instances of buck-passing, name-calling, and excuse-making rather than someone simply having the guts to say, "This was my fault and my responsibility.  I will make it right."  Or all sorts of weaselly tricks not to have to face up to the consequences of our choices.  If that's all we ever saw, we might just think it was ok for us to do the same.  But Paul forces us to see that it is possible--in fact, it is the power of the God who in fact "raises the dead" that makes it possible--for us to tell the truth about ourselves, knowing that God is able to raise up to a new kind of life even from our worst moments and failures.
This is Paul's gift to us--and the burden he hands us--the heavy grace of seeing that being Easter people means being truthful people.  The resurrection of Christ, and the presence of the living Jesus, keep us from running away from the truth about ourselves, even when it is unpleasant.
Paul just lays it out there for the world to see--he had been responsible, not just for the brute work of arresting or imprisoning followers of Jesus, but for casting votes to sentence them to death.  Paul was the one standing in the corner nodding in approval when the mob started picking up stones around Stephen, and holding coats to let them really wind up their pitches.  Paul was the one who had actively sought to kill these people.  And now he admits it openly--openly--not just in a Shakespearean soliloquy to himself, but in public and right in front of a potentially hostile audience who could have him punished.  Paul is so very comfortable with himself--or maybe a better way to say it is, he is so completely secure in Jesus--that he can tell the truth about himself even when it is unflinchingly ugly.
And really, it is the fact that Jesus is alive--having met Paul on the road and brought him face to face with his actions as well as with a new beginning--that gave Paul the ability to tell the unpleasant, unflattering truth about himself.  The resurrection of Jesus doesn't simply show us a confirmation number for our room reservations in the afterlife; it gives us the courage to face the truth  we don't want to deal with yet, and to see it with eyes wide open.
That's a thought for us to spend some time with ourselves--that being truth-tellers may well make others around us uncomfortable.  And we need to be clear about what Paul's example has to say to this, because you'll notice that what Paul is truthful about here is himself.  It's not just that if we tell people the uncomfortable truth about them that they will get mad at us--it's when we tell the uncomfortable truth about ourselves
That's important, because--especially for us "religious people"--it can be very tempting to use "the truth" as an excuse to beat people up; we can delude ourselves into thinking that because the truth will make us unpopular, then anything that others disagree with us about is an attack on "the truth."  You don't like my political views?  Well, it must really be because, as Jack Nicholson says, that YOU can't handle the truth.  Your branch of the Christian tradition doesn't talk in the same jargon as mine?  Well, clearly you haven't seen the light.  My status as a Christian is no longer privileged?  It must be part of an attack on truth.  And very, very easily, we make ourselves out to be martyrs, or make others out to be cartoonish caricatures, Snidely Whiplash bad guy figures.  You can justify a lot of things when you are convinced that you have "the truth" and then use it as a weapon.
But that really takes Paul's example here and turns it upside down.  The issue here is not that he offends people by telling them things they do not want to hear about them--he doesn't get into trouble for telling people what he sees as wrong or sinful about them.  He is making people uncomfortable by being so deeply honest about himself.  He doesn't turn his gun sights on his captors or anyone around him, but rather gets himself in his scope.  And this is a vital, essential point here: just being a rude, offensive blowhard to other people does not make one a "truth-teller," especially if the rude offensive things one has to say are designed to deflect attention away from the uncomfortable truths about our own failures and weaknesses.  Blaming other people as a smokescreen isn't "telling it like it is"--it is being a horse's rear-end.  What Paul does is not to launch a tirade against others here to blame THEM and avoid attention on his own issues--but rather, the resurrection has given him the courage to turn everyone's attention on his own failings... and the good news of being beloved in spite of them, not by hiding them.
Paul does here what none of us is very good at: he peels back the layers of his own self-deception, and the masks and errors and sins he had gotten himself tangled up in.  And that kind of truth-telling--the kind that is able to say both "I am a sinner" and "I am beloved" in the same breath--makes the rest of us uncomfortable, because we want to be spared that kind of a close and honest look at ourselves.  If Paul is going out there, taking a long hard look at his past regrets and sins, then we too just might be called to face our pasts honestly as well.  If Paul is free--and yet still compelled also--to tell the truth about himself without passing the buck, then we will be forced to see what shams and impostors we are, hiding behind a million difference self-made masks.  We will be forced to see our heroes and elected officials backpedaling and admitting to things we didn't want to believe.  We will be forced to see the ways we cover up our sinful selves and put on more presentable faces to the world.  And we will know that the jig is up, and our futile attempts to present ourselves as perfect peaches are all for naught.  In other words, the more we read Paul's own story, the more we will be compelled to see the truth about ourselves--the ways we have turned away from Jesus, the ways we have failed to live in light of his promises, and even the ways we have chickened out from telling the truth.  That will be uncomfortable for us to face, but perhaps it is exactly where we need to start.
On the other hand, perhaps we can see in this story the proof that God loves nothing but forgiven sinners and know that Paul lived through his truth-telling ordeal.  God gives us hope through him that we, too, can face the truth about ourselves--and about the God who loves us as deeply as he sees into us: which is to say, completely.
The God who raises the dead is also the God who gives us the courage to face the truth about the ways we have all been deadbeats, dead wrong, and Dead Sea fruit ourselves... and how we have been called beloved anyway.  May God give us such courage today.
O Christ, you who are Life and Way as well as Truth, allow us to tell the truth about ourselves so that we can soak in your Truth for the world--the same kind of Truth that wounds as it makes well, the same kind of Truth that disarms us even as it embraces us.  And let us allow you to put the scalpel to our own selves rather than insisting it is ours to fix others first.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Knowing... and Knowing About

Knowing... and Knowing About--April 25, 2018

"I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead." [Philippians 3:10-11]
There is a difference between knowing a person and knowing about a person. 
I might know several biographical facts about George Washington.  We could even sift out the mythic bits about chopping down cherry trees or not being able to tell a lie.  But even if I commit all the available facts about George Washington to memory, I still will not know the man himself.  The difference between knowing the actual person and just knowing facts about them is the difference between seeing the tracks in the dirt and spotting the actual tiger herself right in front of you with your own eyes.
Or, you could say, it is much the same difference between singing a song and just owning the printed sheet music, or between tasting fresh summer cherries and being able to identify one in a photograph or give its Latin name for scientific classification.  The printed page of black lines and dots and the photograph of the red fruit are all well and good, but they were never meant to be the end of the line.  Music is meant to be played, sung, and heard.  Cherries are just begging to be tasted.  Well, humans are more than collections of random facts, too.  The facts of our personal stories, our likes and dislikes, our backgrounds and hopes, these are a part of who we are—but they are meant to be known in relationship, not merely memorized for a test.
It is true whether you are talking about your children, your parents, or your best friend. And it is true if we are talking about Christ.  To be a Christian is not merely to know facts about Jesus—it is to know Jesus himself.  Not fully, not completely, maybe, but truly.  Knowing Jesus may well involve learning things about him along the way. And like a relationship with any other person, we keep learning new things about Jesus because life keeps giving us more experience to learn about. But a friend is not a subject to be “mastered.” And simply memorizing a statement of Jesus-related trivia is not the ultimate goal.  Knowing Jesus himself—opening our lives up to his, and vice versa—is. 
Note that when Paul talks about all of this, he has the same desire:  “I want to know Christ,” he says—not “I want to know about Christ.”  If Paul would have been satisfied with knowing facts about Jesus, he just could have sat good old Simon Peter down for a talk and gotten biographical data from his brother James.  If it were just a matter of head knowledge on the topic of Jesus, Paul would have been happy enough with just reading a handful of third-person accounts in the Gospels. 
But he isn’t.  When Paul says he wants to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection,” he isn’t saying that he just needs to brush up on the facts of the Easter story.  He is talking about an experiential knowledge—Paul is saying he wants to experience the same kind of power that holds on beyond the grip of death, the way Christ himself came through.  Paul is saying he wants to continue in relationship with Jesus more and more fully so that he actually shares life with Christ himself. 
Sometimes we treat Jesus like a subject to be mastered, akin to geometry or grammar or American history, rather than a person with whom we relate.  And that messes up our whole picture.  The goal of study an academic subject is to become an expert in it. If you are a particle physicist, your job is to discover tinier and tinier pieces of the universe so that you can explain and diagram and chart how the whole thing works—in other words, so you can predict and dissect and even control it.  But when it comes to knowing people (not just knowing about people), the “goal”, if we can even talk that way, is the relationship itself. It is about opening our lives to one another and going through common experiences. (And that is why, to be truthful, the list of people you or I truly know is surely a lot shorter than the list of people we know about.) That cannot be reduced to a list of facts.
In other words, if you ask, “What is the point of knowing biographical information about George Washington?” the answer has to be something like, “To be an expert in history,” or “To be able to understand how he shaped world events,” or “So I can be a civics teacher.”  But if you ask, “What is the point of knowing… your best friend?” well, now things change.  There isn’t a “point,” not exactly—at least not something separable from the relationship itself.  The point of knowing him or her is to know that person.  Knowing about a person may be a stepping stone to get you somewhere else.  Actually knowing a person is its own goal, because the relationship itself has worth.
I wonder how it would change us if we really treated Jesus the same way—not as a subject to be mastered or a frog to be dissected as a means to an end, but as a person with whom we relate and interact now.  I wonder how it might humble us and embolden us at the same time to give up on trying to master Jesus, and instead simply to know him, more and more fully, just because he is worth knowing.  What if we spent today intentionally inviting conversation with Jesus (you know, actually treating him as though he is alive!), rather than thinking we learned all we needed to know about Jesus back in Sunday School or catechism classes or in last week’s sermon?  What would you do with your day, your free moments, your running inner thought life today, to deepen that relationship?  Maybe it’s worth a try today.  The relationship itself has worth.
Jesus, help us to know you more fully today, and to open our lives to yours.  And let that be enough.

Monday, April 23, 2018

A Wider Assurance

A Wider Assurance--April 24, 2018

[Paul said to the crowd in Athens:] "...While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” [Acts 17:30-31]

The Christian faith hangs on the resurrection, but maybe not only in the ways we are used to.  As Paul tells it, the resurrection of Jesus is the "assurance" that grounds our faith's story.  In other words, Paul would say to us, the reason there is a Christian faith at all is that Jesus is alive again.  Without Jesus being raised from the dead, we might as well all go home or pick from one of the other choices in the buffet of religions out there.

Okay, so far, so good.  Jesus' resurrection is the lynchpin of our faith, the keystone that holds everything else in place--that sounds pretty much like standard Christian theology.  But just what is it that Jesus' resurrection assures us of?  Paul talks about the resurrection as though it is a guarantee of something wider and bigger, but what is that "something"?  We might expect it to be something like this:  "Jesus was raised from the dead, and therefore I know that I will go to heaven when I die."  That is quite often how we use the resurrection.  And that's not incorrect; elsewhere the New Testament does make that kind of move--that Jesus' resurrection is a confirmation that we, too, will be raised to new and unending life beyond the grip of death.  But what's interesting to me is that this is not the move Paul makes here.  He sees the resurrection of Jesus as an assurance of something more, something bigger than just a "me-and-Jesus" thing or a "I-get-to-go-to-heaven-when-I-die" thing.  Paul talks about the resurrection as the assurance that God will put the world right again.  The world is to be governed in righteousness, which is Greek is the same word as justice; and in fact, it will be governed by the same one who was raised from the dead.  It will be governed by the risen and living Jesus, who teaches us what righteousness--that is, justice--really looks like. 

And Jesus gives us some surprising pictures in his life and ministry and teachings of what "righteousness"/"justice" is:  it looks like laborers who get paid all the same amount ("what is right," according to the parable in Matthew 20); it look like a blessing on the poor in spirit, the grieving, the meek, and the peacemakers; it looks like food for the hungry, clothing for the naked, and compassion and visitation for the sick and imprisoned (in the parable about "the least of these" in Matthew 25, note that the ones who do these things are judged to be "righteous"); and Jesus even says that it looks more like the tax collectors and prostitutes who turned their allegiance to Jesus when they heard him rather than the professional holy people of the day.  Jesus, in other words, gives us a picture of "righteousness" throughout his life, and this seems to be a vision of the way he will govern and judge the world at that appointed day.  And Paul says to us, you know it's true because Jesus is alive again.  This is all part of what the resurrection means. It is not just a stamp on my ticket to heaven for those lucky or smart enough to get in while the getting was good.  The resurrection confirms that Jesus' understanding of what it means to be "righteous" or to do "justice" is in fact God's understanding of righteousness and justice.  The resurrection is a sign that Rome's rule is not permanent, and that the powers of the day will not last, no matter how much they bluster. The resurrection confirms Jesus' agenda as well as his authority.

That is a much bigger picture than we might be used to. We are used to pulling out the resurrection of Jesus and dusting it off once a year on Easter Sunday, or at All Saints' Day, or at a funeral.  We are used to saying that the resurrection of Jesus is my personal proof that there is life after death.  And while it means at least that much, Paul calls us to see so much more that is a part of God's vision.  God's raising of Jesus is also our assurance that God will not let the world remain broken.  The resurrection is our keystone for a whole new way of life that no longer has to live as though death is the biggest thing in town.  The resurrection is the key for us no longer letting scarcity and fear dictate my life--so I no longer need to hoard for myself at the expense of my neighbor, and so I no longer need to seek to kill my enemy (before he kills me!) out of crippling fear.  If the power of death really has been broken, then we do not have to live as though it is still the cock of the walk here and now, either.  The resurrection of Jesus grounds not only our hope of heaven, but our way on earth, too, as God's strange people. 

I wonder how that would change the ways we invite people to know about Jesus.  We might not try and sell our religion to people as a ticket to heaven as much as we might speak his call to a new allegiance and a new movement in life.  We might not just say, "Believe in Jesus now, and you'll get all kinds of neat bonuses after death," but instead, "Be a part of Jesus' community now, and you'll get a taste of what his rule over all creation will be like when he rules the world in his own merciful kind of justice." or "Being a disciple of Jesus lets us recognize that he has the authority to mean it when he tells us our sins are forgiven."  The resurrection is our assurance as Christians--but it turns out to assure a much bigger web of things than we might have first recognized.  Christ is risen--he is risen indeed.

Risen and Living Lord, just when we think we have you figured out and understand what your life means for us, you open up our vision to see more than we had bargained for.  Your life and your way, though, are always more than we had bargained for, since they are such precious and free gifts.  So open up our vision again, as wide as you dare to, and then open our mouths to share the Good News of your reign with all today.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

On Being Jesus' Friend

On Being Jesus' Friend--April 23, 2018

[Jesus said to his disciples:] "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father." [John 15:12-15]

It is a precious gift in this life--and one worth never taking for granted, mind you--to be let into someone else's life. 

Once we have grown out of trading baseball cards or homemade braided friendship bracelets with our friends in this life, really all we have to share with those who matter to us are our lives--the things going on in our days, the wishful thinking and half-baked dreams, the fears that keep us up in the night, and the sorrows that weigh on our hearts.  All we really have to share, once we are past the transactional stage of childhood, is ourselves.  And that is a precious, precious thing.

How much more precious, then--how wonderfully gracious--is it to hear that Jesus offers this very gift to his followers... to us included!  

I think that often, this whole conversation between Jesus and his disciples gets rushed through or swept over when we rehearse the storied drama of Holy Week.  These words from John 15 come on the night Jesus is betrayed--they fall between the moments when Jesus washes his disciples' feet (Judas included) and the betrayal in the garden.  And honestly, we tend to rush through that night even in our rehearsed liturgical reenactments.  But think about it--there on the night of his betrayal, with surely a million other things going through Jesus' mind and swirling around outside, with Jesus' heart about to break from loneliness and the specter of looming disappointment when all his closest followers will abandon him in the dark, in the midst of all that, Jesus invites this students of his to know that they are his... friends.

And what makes for the critical difference now, as Jesus says it, is that he lets his disciples in to all that is going on for him--in his head, in his heart, in the plans in front of him.  "I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made know to you everything..." he says.  This is a beautiful, overwhelming moment.  He lets them in.  The life that Jesus gives us is not somewhere off at a distance, removed from him.  It is right in the thick of what Jesus himself is going through.  

Think for a moment about the celebrity you sent fan-mail to when you were a teenager, or the teacher or professor you respected the most in school.  You might well have told them how much you liked their movies, loved their books, listened to their music, or learned from their lessons... but you never really expect them to let you in on their own lives, not with any depth.  That's not the nature of that kind of relationship--the celebrity-fan relationship, or the teacher-student relationship is lopsided that way.  It flows basically in one direction.  And sometimes for the big crowds who followed around with Jesus, it may have felt the same way, there, too--Jesus would teach from a distance, and they would shout their "Hosanna" back from a distance, or beg to touch the fringe of his cloak.  But you just didn't expect friendship--something that flowed in both directions--with this man of God.  Rabbis take on students, not friends.  Messiahs command subordinates, not companions.  And yet, here is Jesus, letting go of all of that distance and just bringing his disciples in to share his own life with them.

That's what it is to be a friend, after all, and so that is what it is to name Jesus as your friend, too.  Jesus lets us in.  

My goodness, that sounds too good to be true even just to type the words!  And yet, that is exactly what happens here in this scene.  Jesus opens himself up to let his disciples--who are now named his "friends"--know what is going on for him, what he is troubled about yet in that night, what is waiting beyond it, and what more there is to come.  In the course of that upper room conversation, Jesus shares himself with the twelve, because ultimately that is all Jesus has to give.  He gives his life to them. 

Sometimes when we Christians talk about Jesus giving us "life," we hear that only in terms of quantity--we talk about "eternal life" in terms of "living forever after you die and go to heaven," as though Jesus were just doling out free recharging for our soul-batteries.  But here in these verses from John's Gospel, we get the important reminder that this isn't just about adding minutes or years or eons to our lifespan, or even our afterlife-span.  The amazing and holy thing is that Jesus opens up his own life to share it with ours.  We don't often think of Jesus being an actual person, with an actual personality, very often, do we?  We assume, perhaps that the Son of God is too holy to have a favorite food, or to have a sense of humor.  Maybe since we are assuming that Jesus is perfect, he must also be uniformly bland, too, a blank slate of a person with no distinguishing traits or thoughts, worries or loves or sorrows.  But that totally misses what it is to confess that Jesus is really one of us, doesn't it?  If the Gospels are clear about anything, it is that Jesus--for whatever other true things we may say about him--is one of us, a human life, capable of human relationships, and even, yes, of human friendships.  And what it is to call someone your friend in this life is to let them in--at least, so says Jesus himself.

Consider this, then, for the day ahead: the living Jesus, alive and risen from the dead, invites us to share his life with him.  That is, not simply that he will make people live forever after death, but that he lets us in, inviting us to know what he cares about, to share in his sorrows and joys, and to be "in" on the work he is up to, even here and now.  We are not simply a historical society, learning facts about a deceased figure whom we can never truly know.  And we are not simply a fan club, fawning at a distance over a celebrity too removed from ordinary life to be able to relate to us.  We have been called "friends" of this Jesus, and he shares, even now, his life with us.  

Today, look for ways that you and I can share Jesus' own life in the day that unfolds in front of us.  He has invited us to do so--he has, after all, called us his friends.

Lord Jesus, you who graciously call us not mere servants but friends, give us a sense of awe at the gift you have given us in inviting us to share your life with you, and let us make the most of sharing this day with you.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Moving On

Moving On--April 20, 2018

"But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh." [2 Corinthians 4:7-11]

We keep moving on.

That, I have come to believe, may well be the church's greatest living witness as generations come and go.  We keep moving on.  There is nothing superhuman about us. We are neither bulletproof nor immortal.  We are vulnerable, woundable, and capable of being wearied to the point of exhaustion. We choose deliberately (at least in our faithful moments) to open our hearts up for being broken, to weep with those who weep, to share the sufferings and hardships of others, and to pick the grubby, unseen jobs of serving. But we--the community who, as Paul puts it so beautifully, both carries around the death of Jesus and shows forth the life of Jesus in our bodies--we keep moving on.

It is the presence of the living Jesus, among us, within us, which makes that possible.  Nothing more and nothing less.

Otherwise, to be completely honest about it, we would have given up or given out with this whole business long, long ago.  I know I would have.

Quite literally--look there at Paul's list from the first century, just a few short decades after the stone was rolled away from the tomb, of what his daily life was like.  Look at the words he uses: "afflicted," "perplexed," "persecuted," "struck down."  All for naming the name of Jesus, bringing the love of Jesus, and daring to walk in the way of Jesus, wherever they went.  It was a way of life that angered the powerful, because it threatened their grip on the positions at the top of the pyramid.  It was a message that upset the Respectable Religious crowd, because it had a scandalous welcome for outcasts, sinners, and mess-ups.  It was a community that shook the comfortable, because it pulled people out of their apathy and indifference toward the sufferings of others.  And that meant that in every town, every region, and around just about every corner, there was something that knocked those followers of Jesus down to their knees.

In this age and time, where an awful lot of the Respectable Religious Crowd I know all expect it to be easy and prestigious to be a Christian, we might well have wanted to give up if we had been in Paul's shoes.  My goodness, you see all around you these days signs of what people worry is the "end" of Christianity.  Church doors closing.  Denominations fracturing.  Attendance declining.  Christians fighting with each other with an incivility as bitter and hateful as between Republicans and Democrats on cable news and social media.  There is a lot of idolatrous looking back to some remembered (however questionable the accuracy of the memory) past glory days when things were "great," and there is the equally idolatrous temptation to try and recapture that past "greatness" all over again.  Honestly, that's what any human institution does--it zeroes in on some past (generally imaginary) moment and wishes it could freeze time around that.  That's why we are living through a retread of once-popular '90s sitcoms and game-show reboots.  It's why we in the town where I live sigh when we read about the latest store in the mall to plan to close, and wistfully remember what "used to be" here.  It's why social clubs, educational institutions, political parties, and fraternal societies all ebb and flow, rise and fall, come and go... along with every government and empire in the dustbin of history, too.  

With every other organization, party, or institution we have ever seen in our lives, at some point sheer tiredness and entropy wear it out.  Even religions can run out of steam--there are no more worshippers of Zeus or Diana or Caesar Augustus.  Those institutions, too, took one too many hits, and eventually collapsed under their own weight and crumpled with their own inertia.

And yet, says Paul, here we are, we followers of Jesus.  We keep moving on.  Not because we have more innate energy or more caffeine than anybody else.  Not because Christians are smarter, stronger, or even nicer than other folks (sad but true on that last count).  Not because our faith gives us the key to perfect marriages or honor-roll kids or spares us the headaches of paying our bills and striving to keep our sanity in an insane time.  It's not anything to do with our innate talent or cleverness.  The power, as Paul is quick to point out, doesn't come from us.  We keep moving on, as we have for two thousand years in different settings, different languages, different towns, and different arrangements, because Jesus is alive in us and keeps us moving on.

But we keep moving on like a boxer does--taking the punches and absorbing the blows, not running away when it gets tough.  We keep moving on, despite the chaos and the noise in the world around us, and despite our own divisions and nastiness within, because Jesus grants us the power and the vision to keep on going... when it would be so much easier for us just to fold up our tents and go home.  We keep moving on, even though two thousand years' worth of history has revealed plenty of times we have gotten it wrong, betrayed our own message, watered down the gospel into bland niceness or tepid moralism, failed to live on the promises of Jesus, or sold out to the powers of the day.  We keep moving on, not because we've gotten it right all the time for twenty centuries and counting, but because the living Jesus who is among us and within us won't give up on us, not even when we get it terribly, terribly wrong.  Because the grace of the living Jesus keeps starting over with us, we keep moving on.

I am reminded, when I read these words of Paul's from his letter to the Christians in Corinth, of the lyrics from a song out of Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, appropriately titled, "Move On."  The song goes:

"Stop worrying where you're going--move on
 If you can know where you're going you've gone
 You keep moving on.

"I chose, and my world was shaken, so what?
 The choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not
 You keep moving on."

Sondheim certainly didn't intend to write that about the lumbering institution we call Church, but I don't think they're too far off the mark, at least from Paul's experience.  We keep moving on--sometimes stumbling from our own mistakes, and sometimes getting pummeled because we are faithfully standing with those who are getting rocks thrown at them already, and sometimes because the way of Jesus just unsettles things.  We keep getting knocked around, and we keep falling to our knees.  We see our structures change, our denominations grow and shrink and split and merge.  We see the culture around us change, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse, sometimes both at the same time.  We see the temptation within ourselves to idolize the past because it was at least familiar.  And we see the presence of the living Jesus keep taking us by the hand and pulling us forward into God's future.  

But we keep moving on.  Not because we are sure of where the journey will take us.  Not because we are so strong or so wise on our own.  But simply because we carry around with us the life of Jesus, who puts a fire in our bones and wind in our sails.

Today... no matter what heartaches may be making you and me feel like giving up... no matter what weights may be making us feel like we cannot carry the load any longer... no matter what fears we have about the darkness of uncharted territory we are stepping into... the living Jesus, who is among and within us, is going with us so that we can keep moving on.

Lord Jesus, move us where you will. Train our feet to go where you go.  Give our tired hearts hope.  Let it be seen that the power comes from you and is not our own.  With you, we go.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Wounds and Claws and All

Wounds and Claws and All--April 19, 2018

"So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory." [Colossians 3:1-4]

My mother had a saying I recall from my formative years.  She would say about genuine love, "Love doesn't see less--it sees more.  And because it sees more, it is willing to see less."

I always took that to be a sort of corrective to the slogan that "Love is blind."  And maybe what we really mean is that infatuation is blind--because it is certainly possible to be infatuated with someone and therefore to be totally and willfully ignorant of the glaring flaws, or rude streaks, or deep issues, someone else is dealing with.  The junior high school girl who is just smitten with the boy who has asked her to the winter dance can only see his exquisitely gel-fixed hair, or the fact that he's one of the popular kids; she doesn't notice that he is always bragging, rarely thoughtful, and doesn't listen well to her at all.  The guy eyeing the cherry-red sports car on display at the dealership can only think about how beautiful it is, how powerful its engine is, and how luxurious the leather seats are compared to his lackluster used sedan, and he becomes consumed with the desire to have it--but simply ignores the fact that it costs far more than he can reasonably budget on car payments, gets terrible mileage, and doesn't have room in the back for his kids' car seats.  The young doe-eyed couple staring longingly into each others eyes as they get engaged, each sees only the admirable, nice qualities in the other, but pretends that the irresponsibility, the short temper, the drinking habit, the penchant for lying, and whatever else just aren't there.  We do that, we human beings--we get infatuated with someone or something, and then we deliberately choose to ignore warning signs, red flags, and glaring problems.  And worst of all, our culture has a way of smiling over it all and just saying with a shrug, "Hey, what are you gonna go? Love is blind."

My mother's saying was like a set of corrective lenses for all that soft-focus schmaltz and willful ignorance.  The point, I believe, is that genuine love is able to see deeper--to see both the unpleasant things in a person, the flaws, the troubles, the weaknesses, the wounds and the claws alike--and to love the other anyway, which amounts to saying, "I am well aware of these areas in the other person, but am willing to love them nevertheless."  In that sense, as my mother would say, "Love is willing to see less--that is, to overlook the rough edges while still acknowledging that they are there--because it sees more."  So instead of the junior high girl at the winter dance only focusing on the fact that her date is one of the popular boys while ignoring that he is unbearably self-absorbed (that's the blindness of infatuation), it's more like the eighth-grade girl who goes to the dance with the kind-hearted, thoughtful boy despite the fact that she's six inches taller than he is and that his face is breaking out in acne.  She is not unaware of the pimples or height difference--she just is able to see deeper, and because of that she doesn't let the outward appearance matter.   That's what it means to see more out of love... and therefore to be willing to see less.  And that is wildly different from the willful ignorance of infatuation.

It's with that in mind that we need to hear these words from Colossians about "setting our minds on things that are above, not things that are on earth," because otherwise we are ripe for colossal misunderstanding.  See, I suspect that our brains have been trained to hear this talk of "setting your mind on things that are above" as an excuse not to care about what happens to others in this life, or permission for apathy toward the needs of others in the world.  I suspect this because for a lot of Christian history, that's exactly how those texts were used.  "Don't ruffle any feathers over the injustices around you--after all, what really matters is that one day we'll all be 'up above' there in heaven, so just pipe down about the way someone else is getting stepped on."  Or, "Just accept your lot in life, and hope that one day things will be better after you die--you know, 'up above.'"  That was the heart of the bastardized version of the Christian gospel that Southern slave-owners wanted to instill in their slaves:  "Yes, things are tough now, but just keep quiet and focus on 'the things that are above'... now, back to work."  And it was the heart of the distorted religion of the self-described "moderate" white preachers and pastors during the Civil Rights era, the ones who said to Dr. King, "Look... Christianity isn't really about doing anything now with the injustices, hatreds, and ills of the world--it's all about what will happen one day 'up above,' and you and your movement need to just wait longer."  Our own history as Christians is tangled up with this misreading of Scripture, because honestly, it feels a whole lot more comfortable to just tell someone else, "Wait, and just think about heaven," rather than finding the courage to face the police dogs... or change the system that kept people enslaved... or call out wrongs and our complicity in them in our own day.  It is really, really tempting to justify apathy with this verse from Colossians and say, "We're focusing on things that are above... you know, about how nice it will be in heaven one day... so we are ignoring the suffering or hatred around us (and within us) because we don't want to deal with it."  That's not genuine love talking--that's infatuation.  

And more to the point, it's not what Colossians is talking about.  

The early church didn't willfully ignore the sufferings or troubles of the world around them, and they didn't just say, "Let's pretend everything's fine and the room isn't on fire."  And they most certainly didn't say, "I'm so focused on the things that are 'above' that I can't be troubled to care about the needs of my neighbor here on earth."  No, not when Jesus taught his followers to pray, "Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth--the way it is already done in heaven."  See, that's just it: Jesus teaches his followers to focus on what is "above" in a sense, but not in a way that gives us permission not to care for the people around us while we just hunker down in isolation until the afterlife.  In the pattern of prayer that Jesus offers, we are called to look at how God's reign and will are already perfectly done "in heaven" (however you want to talk about picturing that), and then to ask for God to bring the same love, provision, justice, peace, and abundance here... as in, right where we are, "on earth, as it is in heaven."  Being focused "on the things that are above," then, doesn't mean that we ignore what is happening around us right now, but rather that we keep God's vision of a beloved community--where everybody gets to eat, and nobody has to live in fear--so much in front of our eyes that we cannot help but work for that kind of beloved community "on earth as it is in heaven."  And because we see deeper into God's vision of a beloved community for all, we are able to love the world, and the people in it, as it is right now--neither ignoring its brokenness nor pretending everything is fine.  It is, as my mother would say it, "seeing more," and therefore not getting hung up on the glaring troubles, aches, hurts of the world in which we live.

It's in that same sense that we have to hear Colossians' claim that we already "have died, and your lives are hidden with Christ in God."  The apostle is obviously not saying that we are ghosts, zombies, or not really "here" living this live in this present moment.  But rather it's again a "seeing more" kind of thing. Despite the fact that the world still thinks it has power over us, or can make us afraid or intimidated, Colossians reminds us--as Paul would say to the Romans as well--that we were already baptized into Christ's death, and that the worst the powers of the day can do to us has already been overcome in Jesus' resurrection.  We don't have to be ruled by fear anymore because our lives are in Christ.  So we can go ahead and give ourselves away in this life, here and now, for the sake of others' needs, because we are no longer stuck in self-preservation mode.  We are able to see more--to see that our lives are already held in Christ where not even death itself can get to them--and because of that, we can "see less," that is, no longer to be ruled by fear of the scary things out there in the world.  That's how genuine love--for, as Wittgenstein says, "It is love that believes the resurrection"--teaches us to see.  We see "more"--the reality of Christ's resurrection and our lives bound up with him--and therefore do not have to be ruled by what we see here around us--the fear, the hatred, the violence, and the brokenness of the world.  And because we see "more" of how God envisions the beloved community, we can love the world as it is right now, full of greedy and mean stinkers like us as it is, but to love it as it is enough to care about the needs and hurts in it, and to work to let God's Reign be seen among us until things are "on earth as they are in heaven."

Today, then, see more.  See "the things that are above"--see the way God's will is already done in heaven and that our lives are already hidden with the risen Christ--so that you can I can see the world around us as it really is, wounds and claws and all, and still more, to see what God has in mind to do to create the beloved community here "on earth as it is in heaven." Let us see the way love does.

Lord God, your will be done here, around me and within me, as it is already in your realm.  And let us see the way you love the world so that we can love it as it is, unafraid and with eyes wide open.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

More Than the Same Old Song

More Than The Same Old Song--April 18, 2018
"But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal. They said, 'This man is persuading people to worship God in ways that are contrary to the law.' Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to the Jews, 'If it were a matter of crime or serious villainy, I would be justified in accepting the complaint of you Jews; but since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves; I do not wish to be a judge of these matters.' And he dismissed them from the tribunal. Then all of them seized Sosthenes, the official of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of these things." [Acts 18:12-17]
The powers of the day--past or present--are really all basically one-trick ponies.
The empire really has a limited repertoire, a small "arsenal," if you will, to use to response to perceived threats.  That seems a strange claim to make, when we think of Roman ingenuity and the many different weapons Rome had at its disposal for stamping down uprisings.  It had its tightly formed ranks of infantry, with their impressive shields that let them move armored formations.  It had a navy; it had catapults; it had cavalry; it had a whole host of other perfectly brilliant weapons and tactics for killing its enemies.  But that's just it--all of Rome's vast array of tools was essentially limited to one song--using violence to beat an enemy into submission.  The only other tool the empire seems to wield here is apathy--the sheer force of indifference and forcing subdued peoples to do their own dirty work.  War and indifference--these are the two songs the empire really knows how to play.  It can play them in nearly any key, but that's the whole repertoire--and it doesn't seem that the empire is keen on taking any requests.
You see it here in these verses from Acts the same way we know it from the story of Jesus and Pilate in the gospels.  The Roman bureaucrat, in this case the proconsul Gallio, is presented with a charge against Paul for stirring up trouble (as the disciples of Jesus seem always to do).  And Gallio seems to think that his only two possible responses are to violently punish Paul--to beat him, to crucify or behead him, or at least to do something to make an example out of him and attempt to keep the peace; or to ignore the situation and make the crowds administer their own mob justice.  He has only those two tools in his tool belt--violence or indifference.  They are, to be sure, both formidable weapons, although Christians have learned in two thousand years that it is really the latter, apathy, which is the biggest threat.  And even then, we are most susceptible to apathy when it is welcomed into our community like the Trojan horse--in other words, when it is offered to us to use and have, rather than when others are indifferent or apathetic toward us.  If Rome--or any other empire, for that matter--really wants to put down the Christian movement, it needs only present us with the gift of apathy, and let us do ourselves in.
This, however, seems to be a bit too creative for the empire--as we said, and as the story here seems to demonstrate, the empire really only knows two songs: using violence and dismissing others in ignorance.  So whether it would have been Rome having Paul beaten, or whether--as the story actually goes--the crowds are free to beat a leader of the synagogue who had come to faith in Jesus (Sosthenes), the worst that any of these opponents can do is to rough up the Christian community.  But they cannot stifle it.  This is the Christian community's secret weapon against the oh-so-limited arsenal of every empire that comes against it with brute force: The worst that anyone can ever do to us is to kill us, but we are resurrection people.  The wise and courageous Christian writer Tertullian said that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." He understood, too, that a straightforward, brute-force kind of attack against the followers of a Risen Messiah is always a foolish enterprise--the empire can ignore us, kill us, or leave us to the mob to attack us, but none of those ultimately prove effective against a community that has been charged with the Good News that death's power has been broken.  The empire can send its proconsuls to act like they are in charge of our destiny, but we are given the calling to be a community unafraid of saying that the emperor himself is wearing no clothes.
The really crafty adversaries out there are the ones who know that we Christians will do ourselves in if we take up the empire's two favorite weapons.  When we begin to use the threat of violence against others in the name of our faith, or when we give into the lure of apathy, then the Enemy really has us.  Today, as followers of Jesus in a time when it is easy to be indifferent and just as easy to lash out against the "other" with violence, we are called to let go of those two favorite tools of the empire, and instead to dare the proconsuls and the crowds alike to go at us with them.  And when their tactics do not work against us--our suffering love will expose their weakness, the same way a crucified and beaten rabbi exposed the impotence of mob justice and Roman cowardice with the power of resurrection.
Today, you and I will face all kinds of challenges and threats and problems--it is life.  But because we are resurrection people, we are called not to use manipulation or apathy to get our way--but rather the living and suffering love that Jesus gives to us.  How can that kind of love fuel our actions today?
Lord Christ, we really would walk in your ways, at least on our good and faithful days.  But there are all kinds of temptations out there--including the temptation to use the tools and tactics that the world uses to bring success.  Give us the vision to empty our hands and follow in your ways.  Give us the courage to face down the hostility around us and to meet it with love.  Give us the compassion, too, that lets us suffer in love the way you have suffered in love with us and for us.