Friday, January 18, 2019

Touching the Paint (Poem and Picture 032)--January 18, 2019

"Touching the Paint"
See Christ Here Poem and Picture 032--January 18, 2019

You can keep your brush
from discoloring,
and prevent the handle from looking bruised,
but such a pristine look
means never letting it touch the paint
or move along the canvas.
To create is to be drawn into a mess.
What a wonder it is
that God would not

stay out of the paint.


Thursday, January 17, 2019

I Will Follow You Into the Dark

"I Will Follow You Into the Dark"--January 18, 2019

“This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.” (Ephesians 3:11-12)
Here’s some good news:  God is not George Burns.  Not really.
Maybe you remember the 1977 Carl Reiner movie, Oh, God!, in which George Burns plays the Almighty as a one-liner-prone, mostly affable senior citizen, who appears to an assistant manager of a grocery store played by John Denver.  Burns is always funny—I can’t deny that.  And often his lines as “God” blend poignancy with their punch-lines; I’ll give him that, too.
But as Burns portrays him in the movie, God is really only rarely involved in anybody’s life, and only enters into human affairs on rare occasions, with a sort of vaguely-good-natured nonchalance at that (he says in the movie that his most recent miracle was the 1969 Mets, and before that, it was the Red Sea).  He says he hears everybody’s prayers but only rarely listens, since he’s only there “for the big picture—I don’t get into details!”  He only even bothers to appear to John Denver’s character to let the world know he’s “still there.”  And as far as grand plans or designs, Burns’ “God” just says, “Life is a crap shoot, like the millionth customer that crosses the bridge gets to shake hands with the governor.”
Wasn’t an awful movie, but it sounds exactly like the kind of theology you’d get from 1970s American-malaise pop culture: a generically pleasant deity who means well but just doesn’t go for all that meddling, and who never really has a plan for anything beyond the next one-liner.
I hope that it’s obvious why it’s good news that, as Paul tells it, this isn’t the real and living God.  Burns’ kind of God (or maybe I should just lay all my cards on the table and say “god”) doesn’t ever mean you any harm, but it hardly seems like he’s willing to do much of anything but shake his head and shrug about the messes we make, and he’s barely even willing to give anything but a pithy comeback to direct your life.  After all, Burns’ deity is all about your choices, and doesn’t seem to bother with bringing about something good with the brokenness of the world.  He just won’t get in the way if we decide to make the world a better place.
Great, George Burns.  Thanks for the permission for us to do everything on our own, alone, without any guarantee that you are with us through the suffering of life.  Thanks for telling us you’ll watch from…wherever it is you watch from… with something clever to say when we make a mess of things again.  Thanks for occasionally beaming down, George Burns’ “god”, whenever it suits you, and leaving us to fend for ourselves the rest of the time, because you are so laid-back.
Thanks, but no thanks.
Michael Spencer makes a great observation about the Christian faith.  He says—and this is especially appropriate in this season as we focus on the way God came among us in a human life named Jesus—that “without the incarnation, Christianity isn’t even a very good story, and most sadly, it means nothing. ‘Be nice to one another,’ is not a message that can give my life meaning, assure me of love beyond brokenness, and break open the dark doors of death with the key of hope.”
That’s just it.  The New Testament writers tell us that God is not just watching from the sidelines cracking jokes about the foibles of our fragile lives and randomly appearing when it suits him.  Paul says that God has had a design from before the beginning of creation to stand with us in Christ Jesus, as one of us.  And because God has taken that stand, not just to watch or comment on history with a wry zinger, but by entering our humanity in the fragile flesh of Jesus, we can have confidence, even “boldness,” as we come to God, because we know the lengths God has already gone to for our sakes.  God had designed all along to enter our lives and our world in the person of Christ, and God’s plan from the beginning was to use that entry in Christ to gather in all kinds of people, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, educated and uneducated—whatever other divides you can come up with.  This was God’s intention all along—to stand with us in it, and to stand with all of us.  To face what we face.  To endure the brokenness, not just to passively scold it.
There is a song which comes to mind for me.  It is, perhaps the second-saddest song I know, but also one of the most beautiful.  And today’s verses make me think of it, especially as a counterweight to the picture of God we got from George Burns in the movie.  There’s a song where Ben Gibbard sings this promise to a beloved pondering the closeness of death:  “If there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks, then I’ll follow you into the dark.”  George Burns’ version of the deity can’t—or won’t—sing that.  That picture of God will always stay at a distance and leave the real messes to us and our supposedly sacrosanct “free choice.” But the God we meet in Jesus, this God is willing to say over all of humanity “If there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks, I’ll follow you into the dark.”  That’s what the cross is.  That has been God’s plan since the foundation of the universe—to enter into everything we fragile, mortal humans face, even including death.  God was willing to go all the way into a tomb for us.  How can anything keep us from that kind of love, and from that same God?  Once you know that truth, all of a sudden, it seems much easier to believe that we can count on God’s presence and faithfulness through whatever else comes at us in life—because God was even willing to go through the valley of the shadow of death, “into the dark,” for us… and with us.
Go into this day, and go in to the year that is just opening before us now, with that confidence.  The Maker of all that is chose to face it all with you through Jesus.  You can go to this God for anything... after all, in the God who wears our skin, we have met a love that will follow us into the dark.
O God our Maker and Sharer of our lives, tell us again today so that we will trust you how far you have gone and how far you will go to share our lives with us, not just in the big picture, but in the details.  Let your love reach us where we are, even when we stare down the dark. Even today.

Summoned Down (Poem and Picture 031)--January 17, 2019

"Summoned Down"
See Christ Here Poem and Picture 031--January 17, 2019

From the top
of a metal ladder
perched precariously
above this
official sacred space
I was summoned down
by nervous step
to answer the ring
from a homeless woman
calling on the phone.
Don't believe it if
they tell you
the altar is the holy place.

Christ sleeps in a car.


Life at the Margins (Poem and Picture 030)--January 16, 2019

"Life at the Margins"
See Christ Here Poem and Picture 030--January 16, 2019

Here is life
emergent and bearing
green leaves and hope
in the space between
the creeping cold
and the insensate wall.
The ice has not killed it,
nor the barrier stopped it,
but fragile and defiant
it calls my attention
to ask:
Will you see Life
with all who live

on the margins?


Taken by the Hand

Taken by the Hand--January 17, 2019
“As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them." [Mark 1:29-31]
Pay attention to Jesus’ hands.  There is something wonderful about Jesus’ hands.  Pay close attention….
Anytime I am reading a story in the Bible, I find it worth asking, “Why was this story held onto in the first place, and why might it have been remembered in the way it was?”  Why are some details remembered and held onto like precious stones, and why are other details lost in the mists of time?  The Gospel-writers are, after all, a lot like movie-makers, choosing the angles and scene breaks as they tell the story that has been given to them.  Why does one director’s version of the Robin Hood story seem so campy and lighthearted, and another’s seem so dark? Why does one choose to start the story with Robin already a popular folk hero, and another tells an elaborate back-story for how Robin became the person he was?  If we are allowed to ask these questions about movies, it’s fair to ask them about the way the biblical writers tell the stories they are passing onto us.  After all, the gospel-writers think that the story they are telling is a matter of life and death, of history-changing good news—so it’s worth it to take a moment sometimes and to ask why the story goes the way it does, and why some details stick.
Take this short little story from Mark's Gospel for a moment. It’s not a long one at all, but at the same time, you almost wonder why Mark even bothered to tell it, given that he had no problem skipping over the first thirty years of Jesus’ life from the opening sentence to Jesus’ appearance in the story.  All sorts of interesting questions we might have—what was Jesus like as a young boy? What was his first word?  How did he come to recognize his calling as God’s Messiah?  and surely many more—go unanswered, but Mark stops his camera and parks it on this moment, for this short exchange with Jesus and Simon Peter’s mother-in-law.  Why? (Surely, it’s more than to tip us off that at least some of the disciples were married, which seems to poke some gaping holes in the idea that leaders/pastors/priests are not allowed to be married if they are going to be leaders in the community of Jesus.)
While we’re stopping to ask questions, doesn’t this scene come across as a little anti-climactic compared to other miracle stories in the Gospels?  For example, right before this scene with Peter's mother-in-law there's a powerful scene with a demon-possessed man, in which the unclean spirit speaks and is dramatically cast out by Jesus.  There was tension, there was something supernatural, and there was a clear and present danger.  Here, with Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, it’s just a fever.  By comparison, that just seems like small potatoes up against a story of demon possession.  If Mark were just telling us this story about the fever to impress us with Jesus’ amazing and miraculous powers, wouldn’t the demon-exorcism have done the trick?  This miracle barely seems miraculous, really—no lightning or thunder, no twelve baskets of leftovers. There are no "special effects" in this scene.  There’s not even the drama of seeing Jesus’ mere words bring about the miracle.  With the demon-possessed man, there’s an added wow-factor that Jesus didn’t even have to touch the possessed man to send the spirit out—he just spoke, and the demon left.  Now that leaves us feeling pretty impressed.
But this scene is different.  And it may just be that there is a method to Mark’s madness here.  Jesus touches Simon’s mother-in-law.  He “took her by the hand and lifted her up.”  Curious detail to hold onto, isn’t it, Mark?  You could have just said, “Jesus healed her, and she got up.”  But Mark mentions touch.  He shows us Jesus offering his hand and taking this woman by her hand, and helping her to her feet. Why?
Well, consider this:  obviously, Jesus doesn’t have to touch people to make them well.  The way he cast out the demon in the last story with just his words showed us that.  Jesus’ power is not like magic—it’s not about having the right technique, in other words, to get it “right.”  So if Jesus doesn’t have to touch someone with his own hand to heal them, but he chooses to anyway, like in today’s story, what does it mean?  It means Jesus chose to come that close.  It means that Jesus doesn’t worry about the most efficient way to be the Messiah—a quick spoken healing here, a speedy verbal exorcism there—he is willing to take people by the hand.  That’s what the Gospel is all about, after all—the God who comes close to us in our own human life, the God who wears our skin, the God who can take us by the hand, through the human hands of Jesus.  It didn’t have to be this way—that means Jesus chose to take Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand.  It means that Jesus is willing to come that close to heal us, too. Not just a booming voice from a distant heaven, but a God who comes and takes us by the hand.
Perhaps in this day, healing will come in little gestures, too--the holding open of a door, the hand on a shoulder, the offer of a hug, the holding of a hand.  Perhaps you and I will be able to give someone else a glimpse, too, of the God who comes close and chooses to offer a hand.
Come close to us, Lord Jesus, and let us know we are in your good hands.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

What Kind of Savior

What Kind of Savior--January 16, 2019

"A leper came to [Jesus] begging him, and kneeling he said to him, 'If you choose, you can make me clean.' Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, 'I do choose. Be made clean!' Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean." [Mark 1:40-42]

The Gospel's message is not merely that Jesus is strong, or that Jesus is powerful.  It is that this Jesus, who is, yes, both strong and indeed powerful, is...good.

Sometimes I think we forget that. Or we forget how big a deal the goodness of Jesus, the kindness of Jesus, and the compassion of Jesus, really were for the writers of the New Testament.  Honestly, in the 1st century Greco-Roman world in which our Gospels were written, stories about gods who wielded power were a dime a dozen.  There was Zeus with his capriciously lobbed lightning bolts, Apollo in charge of the sun's life-giving light, Hades with power over the realm of the dead, and Poseidon lording over the furious force of the seas.  Oh, and the Romans wanted you to believe that the Emperor was a god, too, and they pointed to Caesar's military might and wealth as evidence.  In the world of the Gospels, there were a million religions and deities known for their brute strength and shows of power.

But Mark (and the other gospel writers with him) are not content simply to tell stories about how powerful Jesus is.  Certainly, that much is clear.  Jesus heals the sick, raises the dead, calms the storm, and feeds the crowds.  Those reveal a connection to a divine power beyond what you or I can do on an ordinary Wednesday.  But they are not merely about strength, or toughness, or power.  They are about compassion.  Because that is really what makes Jesus worth writing home about.  He is not just a powerful human being--he is evidence that the God of the universe really is good.

Jesus never uses his Messianic authority to raise up and army and command troops to go kill in his name--not once, despite multiple opportunities. Jesus never uses his divine foreknowledge to impress people with his ability to predict the future.  Jesus never pulls rank on his followers to say, "I'm the boss around here, so I get the perks, and you all are here to make me look good and do my bidding--so wash my feet and get my dinner."  No, always (always!) just the opposite.  Jesus' power is real, but it is always harnessed for use in serving, healing, and offering love.  Jesus' authority is real, but he never needs to toot his own horn, brag to the world about his great intelligence, or insist he has the power to do things before he does them--instead, he is the one using his authority to forgive sins, cast out demons, raise the dead, and prevent lynch-mobs from stoning someone to death.  

That's what I love about this scene from early on in Mark's Gospel where Jesus heals a man with leprosy.  It's so obviously about much more than proving Jesus is powerful and mighty.  We could have gotten that point with just a short, "And Jesus healed a leper," and moved on.  But Mark has held onto the conversation that surrounds the miracle, as a way of showing us that the really good news is that Jesus is the sort of Savior who has compassion on us, rather than being a pompous dictator or a self-important blowhard.  Jesus isn't just able to heal a man with leprosy: he is willing to do it.  Jesus is "moved with compassion" when the sick man approaches him, and Jesus chooses to heal him by touch (even though the Gospel writers would all insist that Jesus can heal people without even being in the same place just with a word).  Jesus is not simply powerful, not simply authoritative, and not simply mighty.  He is moved by love.  That's what stands out about him against the backdrop of myths like Zeus and the rest, who only do things out of capricious whims and the insecure need to make themselves look strong.  

This is also a really important point for us in this day and this moment in our culture, because it is a reminder that our hope (and our need) is not merely for a Savior who is tough, or who "looks the part" being mighty and powerful.  It matters that Jesus is good, not simply that he looks the part of being "great."  Honestly, big names who tout their own "greatness" today are as much a dime-a-dozen commodities as the fictional deities of Zeus and Hades.  But the notion of a Messiah whose character is compassionate and good, well, that is a rare bird.

I say that because from time to time (honestly, much more frequently than should be the case) I will hear or read people make the argument that character doesn't matter in the people we look to--that all we need is someone who will act powerfully, who will be bold, who will rattle sabers and talk big to get things done, regardless of what sort of human beings they are.  I see rather frequently this train of thought that says, "It doesn't matter if they are honest or decent or compassionate, whether they are truthful or faithful or generous--all that matters is having someone in charge who is strong and intimidating, so they can "get things done."

But honestly, if that is the case, then we don't really want Jesus... because Jesus doesn't just steamroll through situations, bullying and cajoling others to get his way.  In Jesus, we don't get a Savior who sells out his integrity in order to get his way.  And we don't get a Messiah who merely "gets things done" with the ruthless efficiency of the Romans.  After all, Jesus takes the time to talk to this man with leprosy, to reach out his hand, and to restore this outcast back into life in his community--Caesar would just brush the sick man aside and get where he was going.

All of this is to say that the character of the ones we place our trust and hope in matters, not simply their power.  It is not worth giving your devotion or allegiance to anyone--human or divine (or in Jesus' case, both)--who "gets things done" on their agendas, but lacks decency, goodness, and compassion.  The first followers of Jesus understood this: they did not worship Jesus merely because he was the most powerful one they had ever heard about, but because they had met in him a genuine love that was compelling in its compassion.

Today, let's not fall for the terrible thinking that says, "It doesn't matter what someone's character is, as long as they look strong and tough enough to get things done."  Rather, let's ask the more fundamental question first, "What kinds of things are worth doing in the first place?" and then that will point us in the direction of what kind of savior we are really in need of.  The world has a million loud tough-sounding voices promising they can "get things done."  There is only one, however, whose power and authority are matched by a love that stops to talk with lepers, lifts up the lowly, puts others first, and embodies compassion for the people on the margins.  

I do not worship Jesus because he is the most powerful figure I have ever heard of--I give him my allegiance because in his skin we meet a God who is good, as well as "great."

Lord Jesus, overwhelm us with your compassion, so that we will not fall for the tired old voices bragging about their power.

Christ Wears Orange (Poem and Picture 029)--January 15, 2019

"Christ Wears Orange"
See Christ Here Poem and Picture--January 15, 2019

I drove past
the State Correctional Institution
along the same way I have taken
for more than a decade
like it was the road
from Jerusalem to Jericho
when a voice echoed:
"I was a prisoner,
and you did not visit me."
All this time
I have missed seeing

the Christ who wears orange.