Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Breathing Space to Grieve

The Breathing Space to Grieve--May 22, 2019

"When [Paul] had finished speaking, he knelt down with them all and prayed. There was much weeping among them all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see him again. Then they brought him to the ship." [Acts 20:36-38]

As a word of pastoral counsel and a personal favor to me, let me make a hugely important request of you.  Please do not short-circuit someone else's grief or hurt.

Christians are Easter people, people of hope and of new life, to be sure, but it is not ours to rush someone else through their grief or pain because it makes us uncomfortable to see them not "fixed" yet.

We are people who believe, not only in our own resurrection from the dead, but that we will be reunited with those who have gone before--and yet, we still ache in the present moment when we have to say goodbye.

We are people who trust that God is both good and just and will right the wrongs of history--both the world's and ours--but still it hurts to live through the days when it seems that rottenness wins the day.

We are people who look to a day when, as Jesus says, "everything that is hidden will be revealed," and as Paul says, "we shall know even as we are fully known," but it does not mean there is no struggle now, in this time when some truths remain hidden, some lies have gone unexposed, and some deceivers have not yet received their comeuppance.

So, because we are not yet there at that day when our hopes are realized and our longings are fulfilled, please, dear friends, let us not decide for ourselves that we need to rush other people through to a smile and a feeling of serenity because we are uncomfortable being around the wounds that are not done healing yet.

This is one of the lessons I take from this lesser-known scene from the book of Acts.  This episode comes near the end of the book, as Paul the apostle prepares to journey to Jerusalem on a trip to bring relief and aid to the people living through a food shortage there.  But Paul knows that there are folks waiting for him there who are looking to arrest him and get him put on trial--which will likely mean death when the sentence is rendered for being a holy troublemaker who spreads the news of a different King other than Caesar.  So as Paul loads up his suitcase and stands at the docks saying his goodbyes to the leaders of the church in Ephesus where he had been living and serving, everybody knows this is their last goodbye, this side of glory.  So of course, there are tears.

This was a difficult moment all around.  Paul had stayed in Ephesus longer than in anywhere else in his pastoral career to date, and that meant these were the longest lasting, deepest relationships he had built since coming to faith in Christ.  And even though nobody quite knew how or when he would end up in handcuffs, the metal bars of a prison cell cast a long shadow backward onto this moment, and everyone knew that this was their last time to see one another, likely before a long and difficult time in Paul's life.  

Now, what is telling to me in this painful moment is that Paul, despite his role as pastor and leader, doesn't stop his sobbing friends from grieving with a well-meant inspirational cliché.  There is no point in his farewell message where Paul trots out the "Footprints" poem to make everyone remember that they're being carried, nor does Paul tell them that "God won't give them more than they can handle," either.  Paul doesn't tell them to stop and look at the bright side, or tell these folks not to be sad... or hurt... or angry.  

And honestly, all of those are perfectly understandable responses to this situation. They could have been angry at God for letting Paul be taken away on this voyage knowing that danger was at hand, or hurt that Paul hadn't told them before this moment that he wasn't coming back again.  They could have been sad for what was in store for Paul, or sad that they were losing a friend (and wouldn't even be able to check up on him through Facebook!).  They could have been heavy-hearted knowing that Paul had carried the burden of knowing he was headed for trouble as a secret in his heart and mind all this time, or they could be upset that he hadn't told them what he knew was in store.  Maybe they were all of the above at the same time, and maybe so was Paul.

But what is striking to me is that Paul doesn't short-circuit that grief and lament by shoehorning in a message about resurrection and Easter hope at this moment.  It's not that it isn't true.  It's not that Paul doesn't believe they'll see one another again in glory--honestly, Paul probably believed Jesus was coming back any day and they all might see each other in the resurrection life very soon.  It's not that Paul didn't want to help his friends in Ephesus heal, either.  It's just that he knew, right then and right there, that they weren't ready for a "Chin-up!" kind of message.  They needed to hurt and to be sad for a while, and he needed to let them.  As much as Paul may have wanted to be able to speak a magic word or wave a wand to fix it all, this was a time when they just needed to be able to lament... even while they also believed in the Big Picture sense that they would be reunited in glory and that all would be well. 

This is a difficult dance for us to do, too--it's rather like a high-wire act for us.  We are people who, like Paul, have a hope in resurrection, in redemption, and in restoration.  We believe that God will at the last right everything that is wrong, mend everything that is broken, and renew everything in this whole creation that is aching for wholeness.  And yet we are also people who feel the pain of this life, of this present moment, in whatever heartaches and sorrows there are.  Sometimes in the name of looking religious, we think we have to hide the tears and make others do the same.  Sometimes in the name of appearing devout, we think we have to interject an optimistic message or put a positive "spin" on things when others simply need to complain, or grieve, or name their wounds.  And this scene from Acts offers us a wiser, ultimately more compassionate approach: sometimes we need to let the pain be the pain, and simply share it with those who hurt, rather than appointing ourselves God's press secretaries to do damage control to God's reputation.  We are Easter people, yes, but that also means we are called to have the patience to accompany people who are living through Holy Saturday.  Indeed, it our hope for Sunday that allows us to stay in Saturday's pain and heartache for as long as others need us to be there with them.

So today, when you run into people who are struggling--whether at a turn of events in their lives, an estrangement with another person in their lives, or even with anger at God--maybe we can learn from the apostle Paul here, and hold our tongue before we rush someone else to have a happy face simply because sitting with the pain makes us uncomfortable.  Honoring someone else's pain, and giving them the breathing space to feel it, to acknowledge it, and to say it out loud, is not a denial of our Easter hope.  It simply means we believe in Easter hope so firmly that we believe Christ can bear the full brunt of someone else's lament and heartache, rather than making them skip over the hard work of grieving.

We do not grieve as though we have no hope, the apostle says elsewhere; that is true, but we do still grieve.

And if we believe that Jesus is not just going to be alive in the future, but actually alive and risen and present among us now, then we can wait with others who hurt today, like Job's friends sitting in silence on the ash heap, trusting that Jesus is there in the hurt as well, right now, too.

Please, friends, let's not short circuit someone else's grief because it makes us uncomfortable--but let's allow the presence of Jesus to give us the strength to go through the pain with them.  That's what it will look like to be Easter people on a day like today.

Lord Jesus, before we rush to say shallow sentimentalities because we don't know what else to say, give us the wisdom and love to know when simply to be silent and let others pour out their hearts, and to trust that you are there in tears as much as in the time for wiping them away.

Dandelion People

Dandelion People--May 21, 2019

"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]

This may be a controversial proposal, but I would like to nominate the dandelion--the lowly so-called weed persecuted by many a persnickety groundskeeper--as the flower to rightly represent the resurrection, rather than the white trumpet lilies we are used to seeing in church on Easter Sunday.

I make that suggestion, not merely as a stunt or a joke, but because a dandelion gets it.  A dandelion knows death and resurrection.  Lilies look cool, and their smell is unmistakable; I will grant you that.  But a dandelion shows you that the real power of life is most evident in being broken open, smacked down, blown apart by the wind, and given up to death, and not just in smelling up your sanctuary.  Lilies hint at Easter by the sheer blunt force of tradition--dandelions practice resurrection with their very bodies.

And in a very real sense, that is the question for us: Christians are fond of saying we are Easter people, but all too often that just means we like to talk about triumph and victory through the pastel-colored light of a stained-glass window, rather than to live the way of death and resurrection in our daily lives.  We like to shout to the world, "It's Easter Sunday! How come you haven't all come to church today?" rather than going out into the world and giving ourselves away like dandelion seeds, so that life can be seen in the ways we lay ourselves down. And when the world can see it in us, nobody needs to shout.  When our actions, our choices, our vulnerability, and our self-giving reveal Christ's life for others to see, we don't need to advertise.  When we trumpet and toot our own horns like lilies, we are just making a lot of noise; but when we are dandelions in the world, Christ can be seen in us from the way we live out our belief in the God who raises the dead.

What does it look like to be dandelion people?  I can think of two in the news lately--their names were Riley and Kendrick, and each of them laid down their lives to stop domestic terrorists in recent mass shootings by putting themselves in the path of the shooters.  That is the kind of life that witnesses to the life of Christ within them by being willing to bear death in their bodies.  

Or it is the single mom who works three jobs to make enough money to give her kids a good life--spending her years and energy for them so that they will have enough to eat and a roof over their heads.  It's the dad who risks everything traveling to a new country on foot, a son and a daughter trailing behind as quickly as they can with their few belongings in a couple of plastic shopping bags and a backpack, who is willing to lose everything to try and get his kids to safety in a land away from violence and chaos.  It's the EMS crew who goes out on call after call when they are already bone-weary and dog-tired, but know that there are people whose lives depend on their willingness to show up on the scene of an accident. It's the adult who knows what it was like to be disowned by parents and family as a teenager for being different, who now risks their reputation and career to help other troubled teens to know they are not alone.  Such lives show a willingness to give themselves away like dandelion seeds--and as they do, they are witnesses to the living Christ who is present there and, as Paul says, "made visible in our mortal flesh."

To be painfully honest, the world does not need more people who will just shout, "It's Easter--you should get to church!" but rather, the world needs the witness of people who will show the world resurrection as they give themselves away in confident hope that the living Christ is alive within them and will renew them even when they are spent.  Dandelions don't have to blare like trumpets to get your attention; they show resurrection in their bodies, and in the ways they give themselves away for the sake of new life.  That's our calling today.  Today, tomorrow, and the third day, too.

How will you and I give ourselves away and let the living Christ be visible within us as we do?  How will we be dandelion people who show resurrection in our lives--especially in a church culture that so often expects only the obvious trumpeting of lilies?

Lord Jesus, let your risen life be seen within us and among us--make us to be your dandelion people.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Gift of Nothing

The Gift of Nothing--May 20, 2019

"I pray that, according to the riches of God's glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you being rooted and grounded in love." [Ephesians 3:16-17]

Maybe the thing we need most in the end... isn't a "thing" at all.  Maybe it's not a "what," but a "who."  So maybe what we are longing for most in life is nothing--literally, no-thing, but rather the living presence of Christ.  It just takes a while sometimes for our deepest selves to realize that.

There comes a point where you stop only asking for just stuff in your prayer life. There comes a point where you see the one thing really needful is for Christ himself to be with you.  And maybe that is the point at which we are getting closer to what we call "wisdom" or "maturity" in the life of faith.

That’s not to say that it’s wrong or sinful to pray for specific things—for the money to help make ends meet when someone has lost a job, for a cure for the malignancy the doctors have pronounced incurable, or for the prodigal son or daughter to come home safe and in one piece tonight. No, it’s fine to be as specific as you need to be when you pray. Honesty, always honesty.

But you know what it is like to grow out of wanting toys at Christmas—maybe in our prayer lives and in our spiritual growth it’s not so different. When kids are little, they are unchangeably concrete in their thinking—as they need to be. They see their needs in concrete terms—more apples or peanut butter sandwiches, please; tie my shoelaces; etc. Christmas presents are the same: what do you want? Toys. A bat. A ball. A pink tutu with sparkles in the fabric. Their hopes are for specific, concrete, tangible things.

Watch. Listen. In time the wishes for specific objects transforms. There comes a time when they would rather have gift cards and cash (not much nobler than just wanting a specific toy, but it is a sign they are thinking at a different level). And then, there comes a point where people really don’t want any specific thing—you want to be around the people who matter most to you. That will do it. And when that happens, you don’t feel like you are settling, just because there isn’t any brightly colored plastic in a box for you anymore at Christmas. You really find yourself feeling more and more satisfied than you ever have, even though you aren’t so concerned with getting this or that thing anymore.

There's a book by the cartoonist who used to draw the comic "Mutts," whose title is literally, "The Gift of Nothing," that makes the same point.  The one dog wants to get his friend, a cat, the perfect gift, after realizing that the right thing for someone who has everything is... nothing.  And of course, in the end, the gift of "nothing" doesn't mean the dog doesn't care about his friend--just the opposite, in fact.  That's because the gift of nothing turns out to be the gift of enough empty time and space that they can share a moment together, simply as friends, appreciating that they are with one another.  Sometimes the greatest gift indeed, is nothing--which allows the presence of someone.

I suspect you have lived through enough Christmases and birthdays to see that progression happen—seeing new little faces who are absorbed in the objects from their wish lists, and older ones who are moving beyond specific items to want to have their assets “liquid” in gift-card form, and then a wiser generation who just sits back and smiles to see people whom they love, and to know they cared enough to be there.

Something similar happens in our walk with God, too, in this life. There are those early phases in our faith when we are not only concrete in our prayers, but downright selfish. We pray a snow day from school, for our team to win the game, for a green light for my car, for a raise at work for myself, and so on. And at some point, we move beyond that (hopefully), as we become wiser in the faith, and our prayers become more open to God’s direction as to how they are answered. Instead of, “God, let me ace this test so I can get into the school I want to,” maybe the prayer becomes, “God, how about you show me where you would lead me next in life?” Instead of, “God, give me an extra $10,000.00 in income so I can have the life I’ve always wanted,” it becomes perhaps, “God, provide for my needs and my kids’ needs, and show me what is worth having and what I can let go of in this life.” Those prayers are not less insistent or less sincere because they have stopped sounding like ransom demands; no, just the opposite. They are somehow more invested, more passionate, and more heartfelt, even when they look like they are less specific.

Well, there is yet further to go. There comes a point, it seems—Paul appears to be praying from this place in today’s verses—where you see that you most really need…Christ--the living, risen, Christ himself, alive and in that empty place within us. Not for his power to do miracles for us when we wish them. Not for favors. Not for the promise of mansions in the sky along a gold-paved boulevard. But just him. It’s that often-quoted line of Saint Augustine, "God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you." You can have all the wins for your team you want, all the snow days or raises you can count, and still not be fulfilled. You can have a bustling social life, a million Facebook “friends” (talk about hijacking a word!), and your dream job, and still have an emptiness. Even if you’ve got the cookie-cutter family with the white picket fence and the dog, even if you got the miracle cure you had been wishing for, even if you are able to send your kids off to college and breathe a sigh of relief that you have gotten them that far… that’s not what we are most deeply in need of.

What we need… is Christ. With us. In us. Not just the historical record of what Jesus did a long time ago; not just the stories or teachings of this 1st century rabbi to inspire and challenge us; not just the idea of future bliss floating on a cloud with heavenly treasures in our accounts, but the living Christ himself. Taking root in us, like a seedling sprouting from good soil. What we need is not brightly colored plastic—not in toy form, and not in gift-card form—but the One who loves us purely and deeply and fiercely all the way to a cross, and then out the other side to be with us. What we need is not “stuff”, and not even just “people” in the general abstract sense, but the one particular specific Person—Jesus himself—who makes it possible for us to bear whatever else comes our way, raise or not, win or loss, miracle cure or not.

If everybody prays to win the lottery, and if a lesser-but-well-meaning “god” gave everyone the winning numbers, everyone would have to settle for two-dollar winnings, and no one would really be satisfied. You can only divide a jackpot into so many pieces.

Ah, but Christ—he is immediately available to all of us, all at the same time, completely and fully. He is what our hearts have been most deeply yearning for all along. So perhaps in our prayer lives, there will come that point for us, maybe even sooner rather than later now, where we ask for Christ to remove the obstacles we have set up in our lives, on our calendars, in our smart-phones, in our budgets, in our social circles, or at our jobs, that keep us from him. Perhaps now we can see that what we have needed all along is this One who promises to love us fiercely and faithfully.

I want to be like those wise people at Christmas or birthdays who are no longer tethered to the wants for “stuff” and who have found that the One who is Love is what they most deeply needed… and that he is the one who most freely gives himself away to us.

Lord Jesus, come to us more fully. Remove all the "things" we accumulate in our lives which turn out to be the roadblocks we put up to keep you from nearness. Let us see you as you come into our midst.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Hope for Stinky Faces

Hope for Stinky Faces--May 16, 2019

"Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, 'For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus." [Romans 8:33-39]

One of my favorite theological treatises is a children's book entitled, "I Love You, Stinky Face."

The premise is a child being put to bed by his mom, and when she says to him, "I love you, my wonderful child," the son asks whether there are any situations that could arise which would negate that love.  "What if I were a big, scary ape?" he asks, wondering if she would stop loving him then, only to be told that if that happened, she would comb all the tangles out of his fur, make him a banana flavored birthday cake, and say, "I love you, my big scary ape."

The son imagines all sorts of alternate scenarios: what if he were a giant skunk whose name was, "Stinky Face" (hence the title)?  What if he were an alligator?  What if he were a dinosaur, a swamp creature, or an alien?  And to each reply, the mother answers, no matter what could happen in this life, she would always love him. He would always be her son.  Those other changes could not undo the claim of love.

The story ends with the child satisfied that there is nothing he could do or be that would undo her claim of love, and he says, finally, "I love you, Mama," to which she offers the same reply as always: "And I love you, my wonderful child."

In so many words, that's what God says to us, forever and always.  Paul the Apostle thinks up as many possible scenarios as he can to ask whether any of them could trump the power of God's love for us in Christ, and his conclusion is that not one of them--and not even all of them put together!--can separate us from God's love in Christ.  As tedious as those verses might sound to our ears, reading through it like a laundry list, it's really Paul's way of making sure there are no exceptions, no fine print, no unconsidered possibilities, and no unlikely alternatives, where God's love does not hold.  And the point, after all that rattling off of angels, rulers, powers, height, depth, and so on, is just like the conclusion of "I Love You, Stinky Face": there is nothing that can undo God's claim of love on us.  Nothing from outside can get in between us, and nothing from inside me will change God's mind about me. In Christ, God only and always ever calls me, "wonderful child."

Now, that by itself is a thought to let sink in for a bit, because to be truthful, there have been lots of time that religious folks have inserted their own exceptions without God's permission.  There have been voices who insisted that if you were divorced and remarried, God's love did not claim you any longer, or that people with AIDS were receiving God's wrath and were ineligible for God's love.  There have been times that religious folk said if you committed suicide, that could prevent God's love from applying to you anymore (because, they said, you couldn't go to a priest to get proper forgiveness afterward), or if your parents weren't married, or if you weren't married but had a kid, or that if there wasn't a record on paper of a sufficient amount of water being sprinkled on your head by a religious professional and you died in infancy, you were also doomed to be cut off from God's love.  As clear as Paul makes it here that "nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus," for the last two millennia, we Respectable Religious folk have been looking for ways to shoehorn in some limits, exceptions, or conditions to that exhaustively unconditional promise.  We have tried to suggest that we can be separated from God's love in Christ based on what we've done, who we love, what we think, what our bodies are like, or where we've come from.  And frankly, that has to exasperate the apostle, because he has listed everything he could think of to insist that nothing can separate us from God's love in Christ--even if we were all giant skunks named Stinky Face.

And to go one step further, Paul has tried to make it clear that God's love cannot sputter out because of even death itself.  Not our death, and not Christ's--because he is risen from the dead now and can never die again.  Jesus' love won't give out because of what we do, and it won't give out because of his own limitations or lifespan--because he is risen forever and is beyond the grip of death.

That makes the Gospel's promise even more powerful than a mother's.  Because, to be blunt about it, the bedtime conversation between a parent and child only lasts so long.  At some point, kids don't think they need to hear the unconditional promise again (my daughter, at six, sometimes can see it coming and will just say, unsurprisedly, "You love me," and she's just in kindergarten!).  And at some point time or distance separate parents and children.  At some point tables turn and children take care of their parents, or as memory becomes foggy, grown children become the ones who tell their moms and dads, "I love you no matter what," and then at some point, death even interrupts that scene, too.  The people who promise us from childhood on up that they will love us forever are not immune to death, and so even that promise of a parent, the closest thing most of us ever get to an unconditional promise of love from another person, has an asterisk and the condition added, "...as long as I am alive."

And that, dear ones, is what makes the resurrection of Jesus good news for us.  It means that God's love for us in Christ has no expiration date--not based on our death, and not based on Christ's.  Because Christ is risen, he will never succumb to death again, and that means God will never stop saying, "I love you my wonderful child," of us.  And even though we will have to deal with death ourselves, Christ's resurrection assures us that he does not let go of us even when we breath our last.  We shut our eyes in this life hearing him say, "I love you, my wonderful child," and we wake to him saying it all over again in the resurrection life.  Nothing can get in between.

Go ahead, imagine the most extreme possible scenario--becoming dinosaurs, skunks, aliens, monsters, or all of them put together--no matter what, God's love for us in Christ will not give up or give out.

Now, live this day confidently, because you are beloved.

Lord God, let us dare to trust the power of your resurrection and the strength of your love.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

On Not Settling

On Not Settling--May 16, 2019

[Paul said:] "...As to his raising him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, ‘I will give you the holy promises made to David.’ Therefore he has also said in another psalm, ‘You will not let your Holy One experience corruption.’ For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, died, was laid beside his ancestors, and experienced corruption; but he whom God raised up experienced no corruption...." [Acts 13:34-37]

Don't settle.

Don't settle for less than a hope in real resurrection of our whole selves.

Don't settle for a smaller promise than life breaking out into a whole new creation.

Don't settle for a faith that says God cannot hold onto you and me beyond the grip of death.

And don't settle for a God (god?) who doesn't love us as embodied beings, whose bodies, however fragile, are also of precious worth to God on their own terms, and not simply as vehicles for souls.

That, in so many words, is what Paul is trying to get across in this passage from Acts where he compares the risen Jesus to the legendary great king of Israel's collective memory, the faithful (mostly), devoted (mostly) David. Paul is telling us not to settle for anything less than a God who raises the dead and can bring about a whole new creation.

Paul's argument is this: the Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) talk about a promised "Holy One" who would be vindicated in the face of death--who would "not experience corruption" (we're not talking about criminal kinds of corruption, like bribery and extortion, but the way that death brings decay to things). He quotes one of the psalms to make that point. Paul continues by saying that David (the one who was remembered as the voice speaking in the psalm) couldn't have just been talking about himself--because he ended up just as dead as the rest of us will. No offense to David, but his bones were buried the same way the peasants and beggars of his day were buried. So, Paul, concludes, there must have been some bigger hope, some deeper promise, some future fulfillment to which David was pointing. And Jesus, Paul insists, is that hope, that promise, and that fulfillment. What good old king David dreamed about, God actually did in Jesus--a resurrection from the dead, such that decay and "corruption" would not get the last word--indeed, they wouldn't even get a word in edge-wise. If we had only pinned our hopes on David himself, we would have been settling for far less than God's big promise--real resurrection of our real selves.

What is interesting here is that Paul won't let his hearers be satisfied with anything less than real resurrection. The Scriptures are all empty talk unless at some point in history God actually raises the dead--brings physical, flesh-and-blood bodies with real selves in them back to real, flesh-and-blood life. Any lesser hope is too small. Anything less than the restoration of this life and this world of touch and taste and sound and smell is settling for too little. And Paul does not want his hearers to settle for less than what God is promising, which is indeed the resurrection of the dead.

We should be clear here just what that means for Paul, and what it is that is being promised, as well as what we are not to settle for. Paul describes resurrection as something that happens with bodies--that is, with the full selves of mind and heart and spirit and sinews. In the Hebrew mindset (which Paul comes from and to which Paul is speaking here), people do not merely have bodies--we are bodies. We are spirit-and-body unities, not souls that are caged in cumbersome physical shells. For Paul, God has made us to be spiritual and physical beings, and both dimensions are part of God's good creation. Being human, in other words, is just as much about the soles of our feet as it is about the souls we cannot see. God is not done restoring us until the whole self is put back together--not just floating heads or ghostly apparitions floating on clouds, but whole persons of body and spirit together. That--and nothing less--is resurrection. In other words, as Paul talks about it, the goal of resurrection is not to leave behind the physical--the goal is for these physical-and-spiritual selves that are to be preserved and restored even after death has done its worst.

So when Paul talks about David's words in the psalms, you'll note that he doesn't talk about their fulfillment by saying, "But even after he died, David's spirit floated up to heaven." This bit about "not experiencing corruption" is not a promise to take David's (or our) soul(s) into heaven so much as it is a promise to raise us--body and soul and everything--from the dead at some point. Or, more to the point, it is a promise that God's Holy One--Jesus--would be raised from the dead, and therefore, all of us who belong to him are given the same promise. Paul would have us believe that just going to heaven as disembodied floating spirits is not enough to hope for--that may be in store for us as part of how God handles death, but it is not the last word. The last word is God's resurrection word that restores us in our fullness--fully human selves. So often we settle for so much less than God would give to us. We think that God is merely in the business of giving tickets to heaven where individual souls float around and play their harps, when Paul would have us hear that God has undertaken a much larger project: the restoration of all creation, and the resurrection of the dead, not merely the collection of our souls into a corral in the sky like helium balloons herded together against the ceiling in the corner of a room.

Where does this meet us today? Well, for one, it changes our picture of what God has to offer the world today. If we can work up the nerve to share our faith with someone else, it means that there is so much more to be given away--we are people who announce not just that the souls of the saved float up to heaven, but that God's vision is for resurrection and restoration of all things. We are people who announce that God is not just opening up a think-tank in the sky for disembodied heads, but a whole new creation--a creation brought to you by the same God who thought up--and made in the first place--the juice of a peach running down your chin, the smell of the rain, the sight of purple clover spreading out across a field, and the sound of mourning doves cooing in a tree. Our hope is not for a life stripped of such beauty and blessedness in a cloud-city called heaven, but of a whole new creation that includes "a new heaven and a new earth."

This bigger hope to which Paul calls us also means that we are dared to express our faith in concern and compassion for the whole selves of people. If God's promise is about resurrection of whole selves--bodies, spirits, souls, and sinews--then the way we witness to that hope is in care for the whole selves of others. We will not be people who just preach at people hoping to "win souls" while letting them go hungry, nor will we be people who just hand out canned food on the street corner and think we have brought the fullness of God's good news to the world. We will be people who announce the big hope of resurrection by caring for bodies and souls as whole selves, because Paul here has dared us to believe that God's promise to restore is just that big.

Please, today, don't settle for anything less.

Lord Jesus, keep our vision big enough to see your care for our whole selves--body, spirit, mind, and heart... and to love the whole selves of others, too.

Where to Look

Where to Look--May 15, 2019

"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 minds 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]

So... what kind of stuff is "above"?

If we are being advised not to focus on what is "earthly," but rather to focus on what is "above," because, as Colossians puts it, that's "where Christ is," we should probably get clear on which things go in which pile... because it's not really what we might think at first.

To get the obvious ones out of the way, it's not merely a matter of altitude.  We are not being told to avoid thinking about soil, or grass, or cars and trucks in favor of clouds, rainbows, and hot air balloons.  That should go without saying, but to be honest, sometimes religious folks have added confusion there by depicting heaven as a bunch of people sitting on clouds.  
And compounding that, an awful lot of the last 2,000 years of Christian history has involved people saying, "Don't make too much of a fuss about the terrible things that happen in this world and in this life, and don't try to make things any better, because one day we'll all just be enjoying the afterlife in the sweet by and by."  That led to a pattern of telling slaves, for example, just to accept their lot as slaves in the American south, despite the fact that they'd been ripped from their families and treated as property, and all the while the master-approved (white) preachers would tell them just to accept being enslaved and instead to think about having a nice time in heaven one day.  It led loud religious voices in Germany in the 1930s to persuade the people in their pews just to look the other way as yellow stars were starting to appear on people's clothing... and then as those people started to disappear.  And in so many cases, the official response from the church was, "We aren't supposed to get involved in these earthly situations--we're doing what the Bible says and only thinking about 'the things that are above'." That was a rather convenient way of reading the Bible, since it let Christians off the hook for speaking up on behalf of others who were endangered or pushed to the margins.

Maybe we need to actually listen to what Colossians has to say, though, rather than assuming for ourselves that we know what counts as "the things that are above" versus the "what is earthly."  Because the writer hasn't left us to guess--he's given us a whole list. We just don't often take the time to keep reading.  If we keep going in Colossians 3, even though many English Bibles make it the start of a new paragraph, we see that the writer keeps on describing what "earthly" things and mindsets he has in mind (this is also a time to note that the verse numbers, chapters, paragraphs, and punctuations are not original to the New Testament text, but have all been added by later scholars, translators, and students of the Bible trying to get at the intent of the originals, which would have all been written in all capital letters with no breaks for sentences, paragraphs, or verses).

And in the following sentence, the writer says, "Put to death, therefore, whatever is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)." And then about a sentence later, he rattles off "anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language" along with lying as things we are supposed to leave behind like a set of old dirty clothes, so that we can put on the new life in Christ.

Well, if that's the situation, then all this business about "what is above, where Christ is" and "what is earthly" doesn't teach us to ignore the present life or the present world--not at all! Just the opposite, rather--Colossians is very much interested in what we do and how we engage people in this life.  The idea seems to be that there are two ways of living in the world--one that is focused on getting as much for yourself as you can, even if you have to resort to lying, deception, malice, and manipulation to get it, and the other that is modeled on Christ's way of life, which seeks the good of all with kindness and generosity.  The "earthly" mindset treats everybody else as objects simply here for our gratification (so really this business about fornication and impurity are like greed in a sense--they are both about treating others as objects and amassing as much for ourselves as possible).  And the Christ-like mindset (what Colossians calls "the things above") is centered on the good of all, just like Christ was willing to lay down his own self-interest and valued others enough to treat them with honesty, integrity, compassion, and love. The "earthly" mindset says that the ends justify the means, so you can be as crooked, deceptive, and manipulative as you have to be in order to get people to do what you want or give you what you want.  And the Christ-like mindset says, NO--because other people matter as much as I matter, I don't have permission to deceive, trick, lie, cover up, scheme, swindle, or trick other people, and I don't have permission to just use them for my own purposes.  The creed of the "earthly" mindset is "Me-and-My-Group First!", and the motto of the alternative is, "Love like Christ: everybody, everywhere."

Nowhere does this voice from Scripture say we should just ignore the rottenness around us in this present life and instead distract ourselves with thoughts of floating of puffy clouds after death.  Rather, it's about how we live this life now, in light of Christ's resurrection.  And maybe that's the key here.  If Jesus is still dead and in his grave, well, there's no particular reason to give his voice any more weight or authority than any other dead teacher from the dustbin of history.  But if Jesus is alive and risen, then maybe (definitely!) he really knows what he is talking about, and the point of life is not merely to acquire and accumulate more stuff, more pleasure, or more conquests before our final breath!  If Jesus is alive, then maybe he really can be trusted to tell us that the "Me-and-My-Group-First!" attitude is a distortion of what we were made for.

So today, instead of hearing "set your mind on things above" and thinking it lets us off the hook from the hard work of living with integrity in a world of greed and avarice, or gives us permission to ignore when terrible things are being done around us so we can just think about clouds and rainbows, let's actually listen to the voice of Scripture.  And the message there is clear: the choice is whether we will wallow in the kind of self-interest that says "Me-and-My-Group First!" or dare to practice the kind of Christ-like mindset that says, "I will be good to all, because that is how the risen Christ has shown love to me already."  Colossians says that we have already died to that first way of life--we just have a habit of limping along like zombies in that old way of thinking.  What if we dared to believe that it is true--we don't have to keep going back to the old rottenness.  What if we trusted that Christ has raised us from the dead-end of treating other people as objects, and instead let him teach us how to live fully in love for all?

Lord Jesus, since you have raised us with you, teach us how to put away the old way of life, and to walk like you do, in love for all.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Whole Selves

Whole Selves--May 14, 2019

"Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, to whom be glory forever and ever.  Amen" [Hebrews 13:20-21]

It's funny, the difference between what we think we need and what God thinks we need, isn't it?

We tend to assume we know our own needs best, and sometimes that is true.  But every time I offer an after-school snack to my kids who insist they are "starving," and they balk when I offer grapes or apples but think that a handful of Skittles candies will fill their growling bellies, I am reminded that we humans are great at fooling ourselves.  A lot of the time we have our own lists of what we think we need (or we have just baptized our "wish lists" and re-christened our "wants" as "needs"), and then we are surprised when God seems to have a different set of priorities than we have.

This is one of those moments where the Scriptures surprise me like that.  These are a sort of final benediction in the book we call "Hebrews" (the books of the Bible originally no titles, of course), and these words are offered by the anonymous author as a blessing, a prayer asking for God's provision and power on the people who to whom the book was written.  And just in case we forgot how powerful this God is, the writer is sure to add in that this is the same God "who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus."  In other words, we aren't talking about some cut-rate third-class deity who can only do parlor tricks, but this is the very same God who really and truly raised Jesus from the dead.  This is not some distant and aloof "Force" a la Star Wars, which doesn't get involved in human affairs, and this is not some kind of god that refuses to upset the "natural order" of life flowing into death, since after all, this is the God who raised Jesus from the grave.  So just by that reminder, just by naming God as "You know, the same God who brought you Easter!" we are assured that God is powerful, and involved, and cares about human affairs.  Surely this God not only has the power to give us what we need most, but also has a policy of helping human beings rather than leaving us to fend for ourselves.  (The God of the Scriptures, in other words, does not follow the "Prime Directive" of Star Trek lore, which prevents the Federation from getting involved in the affairs of other planets.)

Ok, so we're ready for it--whatever good things that this Good and Powerful God is ready to lavish on us, we're ready for the writer of Hebrews to start calling on God to give us the things at the top of our wish lists... right?  After all, he's going to the trouble of calling on this God to bless us, so surely that's going to mean a prayer for good health, success in business, soaring stock markets, and attractive honor roll children... right?

Huh.  None of that makes the cut.  None of that seems to be at the top of the list for what the writer of Hebrews things we most need.  He goes to all the rhetorical trouble of invoking the God who raises the dead... and instead of saying, "May that same God who is all charged up with resurrection power, now unleash that power on your career so you'll get that promotion!" or "May the God who rolled away the stone now roll away all your student debt!", the prayer is that we would be "complete."  That we would be "whole." The prayer is that we would be the kind of people who can do and live God's will... which may or may not have anything to do with the new car you have been eyeing, the weather during your upcoming vacation, or your political party getting more control in the next election cycle.  The writer of Hebrews sees that what we need most is to be whole people.

And you know what, maybe this voice of Scripture knows us better than we know ourselves.  We live such divided lives, compartmentalized into Work Me, Family Me, Hobby Me, Political-Affiliation Me, and often only if there's any leftover crumbs, Church Me.  Maybe you can add some more fault lines that break you up into eve more pieces, too.  But my goodness, we are fractured and dis-integrated, not just from one other in these divisive days, but within our own selves.  And I don't know how that doesn't end up just feeling like it's killing us, slowly (or quickly) sapping the very life out of us.

So what the writer of Hebrews prays for--what he calls on the power of the God of resurrection for--is not for more money, more influence, more prestige, or more social networking opportunities for us--but that we would be... complete.  Whole.  Put-back-together.  The old word for it is "shalom"--not just peace in the sense of an absence of fighting, but the presence of wholeness.  That's what we are most aching for.  And maybe that is what we most need on this day, too.

So today, let's dare to let the voice of the Scriptures pray for us--asking God, not for the candy we thought we were hungry for, but for the real and nourishing food our deepest selves most need.  Let's allow the God of resurrection to meet our real longing, and to help put us back together as whole people, complete selves, raised up from the broken shards we have been living with.

O God who raises the dead, from our disheveled fragments, make us whole--make us complete, so that that we can live in your good way.