Monday, July 13, 2020

A Higher Bar--July 14, 2020

A Higher Bar--July 14, 2020

"[Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?'" [Mark 8:34-37]

There were a lot of voices when I was a kid who held up the vision of having it all.  There still are a lot of those voices all around us in the world, all prodding us to dream of having more, acquiring more, buying newer, piling it all up, and then leaving the piles behind to your kids as a measure of your success and greatness (and the unspoken directive to those kids that their success would depend on making the piles bigger still to be handed on indefinitely).

All those piles they were offering us made for too small a vision.

It is simply not enough to want more forever, and it is not even enough to get it all.

Jesus has said all along that those voices have been lying to us and making empty promises.  The life that really is life, it turns out, is centered on giving yourself away.  And learning to deal with the disconnect between the loud voices always pushing us to get and get and get on the one hand, and the minority report of the homeless rabbi Jesus on the other, well, that's been the task of disciples for the last two millennia.  We have to decide whose voice we will listen to, and whose we will turn down the volume on.  We have to decide which vision to follow, and which to leave behind.  We have to decide if a life spent acquiring and piling up really will satisfy the empty places in our souls... or if we will live out our days with open hands.  But we will have to choose between those options, because they point in opposite directions.

I grew up in a time when Gordon Gekko's famous monologue from the movie Wall Street was taken by some to be the gospel truth. (If you don't know that famous movie speech, go and watch it on a screen of your choosing--it takes about four minutes, and you can find it all over the internet.  Go ahead, I'll wait.  All right?)  "Greed is good," Michael Douglas' tycoon character says in a speech to stockholders. "Greed, in all its forms, for money, for love, for knowledge, for power will save us."  Now, at the time in a movie like that, a big speech like that was supposed to be shocking.  Gekko's character isn't the hero of the movie, of course, but in a way, he was presented as a voice of refreshing clarity.  Here was someone who "told it like it is."  Here was a character who wasn't beholden to the old ways of doing business, didn't have allegiances to establishment types, and wasn't hung up on old assumptions about morality, either.  He was a character who, in his own words, saw greed as a clarifying force that made everything else less important. All that mattered was getting more, controlling more, and having more, and the only relevant measure of a life is how successfully you acquired it--not what you had to do to get it, whether your work was noble or not, and not even what you were going to use your "more" for.  He was a character who said out loud the parts that everyone else thought were supposed to stay quiet.  And that was what made him such an interesting character in a movie: his motivations had a certain terrible logic to them, in that once you granted his premise that getting more was all that mattered, his cutthroat, unapologetically self-centered, amoral quest for his skewed kind of "greatness" made perfect sense.

Whether you've seen the movie or not (or even just watched the speech), the vital question becomes, "Is he right?"  That greed-is-good mentality is either the right way to spend your lifetime, or it's not.  So, now that it's out there, what will we do with those words and that mindset?  Because even if we are smart enough to recognize that the slicked-back reptilian demeanor of the tycoon character from the movie isn't supposed to be heroic, it is terribly easy still to accept his mindset, if it dresses up in more folksy attire.  In fact, it is terrifying to me just how easily even Respectable Religious Folks will adopt that whole worldview, without qualification, and even let it be dressed up with a cross in the background and a Bible in hand, to boot.

For a lot of us, we have heard the "Greed is good" speech, no longer as the scandal it was supposed to be in the movies, but made to look respectable, for a very long time... and it is simply too much.  We have seen the Christian life become conflated with the quest for more; we have heard too many voices talk about how to become "great" with very little concern for being "good" as human beings.  We have heard one too many talking heads tell us that Jesus' job is just to help us achieve more, earn more, make more, and possess more... and that our biggest prayer concern should be a booming economy and record-breaking stock market.  For an awful lot of my life, at least, Respectable Religious folk didn't reject the Gospel according to Gekko that preached "greed is good"--we just baptized it.

And maybe today is the day simply to say it loud and clear: that was never enough.  Having more, accumulating more, and then teaching your kids to forever want more, was never enough for the life that really is life.  That way of life leaves us dead inside.  It stifles the beauty and joy for which we are made, and it leaves us screaming out for rescue and resurrection.  And we need a higher bar, a better vision, and a more beautiful purpose than just getting more (while we teach our children that getting and having more is the meaning of their lives, too).

So today is a day to listen to Jesus (really, any day is good for that).  And to hear him tell it, Jesus has been clear on this for twenty centuries already: the life that really is life doesn't come from acquiring, or chasing, or getting, or possessing. The life that he has come to give us looks instead, at first blush, like giving yourself away. And so we find in the selfless surrender we call love, we are more truly ourselves and more truly in tune with God's way of being than we ever were when we "had it all."

Today we're going to have to decide whose version of reality we will give ourselves to, because as Jesus also says with unrelenting clarity, "You cannot serve God and wealth."  Maybe with that laser-like focus we can learn to see through the ways we've tried to make the "Greed is good, seek your own interests and call it greatness" mentality look good and holy, and instead turn from them to follow after Jesus.  

If nothing else, maybe today is the day we can start setting the bar higher than just trying to have it all... because that was never going to be enough.

Lord Jesus, turn us from the empty promises and dressed-up avarice we have been chasing after, and turn us to follow in your way of self-giving love.

The Grace of Erosion--July 13, 2020

The Grace of Erosion--July 13, 2020

"You visit the earth and water it,
   you greatly enrich it;
 the river of God is full of water;
   you provide the people with grain,
   for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
   settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
   and blessing its growth."  [Psalm 65:9-10]

The same rain that make the wheat, corn, and hay grow tall in the fields also erodes the exposed ridges of the earth as well.  Curious, isn't it?  The same water powers both the raising up of green plants (which in turn allow other living creatures to thrive as well, as sources of our oxygen and nutrition), and the wearing down of the land at the same time.

I used to think that these were opposites, the nourishing role and the eroding force of the rain.  I used to think that the poet here in the psalm is just giving us a sort of "on the one hand, here's a good thing that rain does... and on the other hand, here's a bad thing that rain does," kind of statement.  Almost like saying, "Well, we have to take the good with the bad, so let's focus on how God's gift of rain helps fill our fields and barns and bellies, not how it wears down the ridges of the earth."  But maybe both are good gifts in the end.

Maybe erosion is a gift of grace as well--I just hadn't thought of it that way.

Notice the way the poet puts it: God "softens" the ground with showers, which "blesses its growth."  I had never really thought about it that way, but that softening of the earth is indeed a gift.  You've seen what happens to ground that gets too parched--it cracks and breaks with fissures, and the earth itself seems to become brittle. Get a heavy rain onto terrain that is too dry to take it in, and it just channels the water into a flood rather than absorbing it to nourish life. Like the old Jon Foreman lyric puts it, "The thirstiest grounds can't take the rain."  In other words, even if the proud earth doesn't like it, the ground needs to be worn down and softened by the rain. The rain's erosion prevents little ruts from becoming big gullies.  The slow and gradual watering of the ground smooths out jagged edges into rolling hills. That is as much a gift as the crops that grow because of the rain, too.

And maybe it is true for each of us as well.   Maybe each of us is like a bare patch of earth in which God is planting something.  And while we may like the things God does to feed, strengthen, and nurture us, I'll bet we don't like the ways God wears down our rough edges and smooths out our jagged edges.  But we need it.  All of us.

I need more than just God's provision of food and water and shelter for my daily needs; I need God to wear down the places that are sharp and brittle.  I need God to erode away where there are steep drop-offs in this heart of mine.  And I need God to smooth out the places in me that are still rough and difficult.  Honestly, I don't just need that for my own sake, but for the sake of everyone else who has to live in a world that has me in it.  When God wears down the brittle places, the hostile places, the self-centered places, and the bitter, grudge-holding places, that makes me into the sort of person others can bear to be around.  

And that makes me realize that we are really good in our prayer lives at asking God for stuff on our wish-lists. We are not so good at inviting God to wear away our jagged edges--largely, I think, because we don't want to admit we have them.  We have a way of assuming in our prayer lives that what we need will always look like "more"--more money, more status, more success, more social life, more vacation, more perks at work, and so on.  But maybe sometimes what I am really in need of is to become "less."  Maybe what I need is for God to wear away the places that are sharp with smug self-centeredness or arrogant self-absorption.  Maybe what I need is for God to erode the shortness of temper in me that doesn't want to take the time to listen to someone else I disagree with, because it seems so much easier to turn them into a stereotype.  Maybe when I need is for God to keep sending the rain, not just to fill me up, but to smooth out the roughness in me. And maybe at the end of that shower, I will have had some of my old self worn down... and yet will feel more fully myself than I was before.

So today, perhaps my prayer needs to be to invite God's creative touch to shape me in new ways I've been afraid to ask for before.  Maybe, like a craftsman sanding down a project in the wood shop, God makes me more fully what I am meant to be, not by adding more and more and more "stuff" into my life, but in fact by wearing down what is jagged in me, so that I can be more fully alive, and more fully a reflection of Christ.

Thank God for the rain--not only for how it makes the corn grow, but for how it softens the earth and smooths the ground as well.  Thank God for the grace of erosion.

Lord God, give us what we need... and wear away in us all that is hindering us from being a reflection of your presence in the wilderness.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Wishers and Blessers--July 10, 2020

Wishers and Blessers--July 10, 2020

"May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this." [1 Thessalonians 5:23-24]

We Christians are not mere wishers. We are blessers. The difference is crucial--it is the difference between magical thinking and a confident trust in a mighty Lord. It is the difference between flowery words with no force and the potent invocation of a powerful God. 

And yet, at first blush, these two, wishing and blessing, might look very much the same. In fact, they might both use the very same words--the question is what we think our words are doing. When Paul, now beginning to wrap up his letter to the Thessalonian Christians, says "May the God of peace himself sanctify you..." what does he think he is doing? What power does he think his words have--and where does that power, if there is any, come from? Well, if Paul is wishing, there are two possible answers. When you wish for something, either your words have a lot of power in and of themselves, and by your sheer wishing willpower, you can make things happen as you want them to. This is sort of the Disney picture of "wishing up on a star," where, as the song says, "anything your heart desires will come to you." The power is in the strength of your wanting it--whatever it is--and your wish can make things happen by the latent force of your wishing. It's rather like Green Lantern in the comic books, who can use the power in his ring to create anything that his willpower and imagination can come up with. 

We end up sometimes inadvertently thinking the same must be how it works with God--that our religious wishing simply taps on God as a power source for us to get whatever we ask for. If Paul were wishing when he says, "May the God of peace himself sanctify you," he would be thinking that because he wished it, God must do it. God, in this way of thinking, is something like a cosmic genie, who will do great and mighty and wonderful things, but only according to the wishes of the wishers. And following that train of thought all the way out of the station, it means that God will only do things when summoned to do them--so that it's really our words and our saying them that make good things happen. This is one way of thinking of wishing. 

Hopefully, it is clear that this is not what we Christians believe, nor is it what Paul believes he is doing. In this picture, God is reduced to our butler--a very powerful butler, but a butler nonetheless. And really, it makes God a means to an end, and even almost just an abstract, impersonal force rather than a Person to whom and with whom we can relate. That seems pretty sad--if we imagine that God is just a force you can channel and put to work for you like harnessing electricity or magnetism in an elementary school science lesson. 

But there is a second sense in which we use the word wish--a sense that is even sadder, if you can imagine it, even more pathetic. Sometimes we use the word "wish" and mean practically nothing. We wish for something that we know is impossible, or a lost cause, or just to express a wistful hope. "I wish my estranged long lost love would come back..." we say, or, "I wish it would not rain so much--I had driving in this kind of weather!" or, "I wish I had a million dollars." These are words we say without thought or restraint because we know they have no power. And sometimes, if we are not careful, it sounds like this is what we believe about our words and God. Sometimes we through around such weak, timid words and attach God's name to them that it seems like we think we do not believe our God is capable of doing much of anything. We pray for things fearfully, hedging our bets by making our prayers impossible to sift through for a point--or we make our prayers sound like self-talk and coaching. "Help me to learn for myself that hard work will pay off, God..." or "Dear God, let me deal with my issues," we might pray--either lobbing vague requests so that we do not ever have to face the difficult question of asking whether God has actually answered our prayers, or masking advice to ourselves as prayers to God. Sometimes we pray as though we do not think anything will...or even could...come from our asking. And so we might be tempted to hear Paul's words that way, too. We might hear "May God sanctify you" as just empty pious-sounding words that sound religious but carry no force. We might think Paul is wishing for something either so vague that he wouldn't know if his wish were granted, or perhaps that Paul isn't really asking God for anything, so much as masking a bit of advice or moral teaching in the language of wishing. And that, too, is pretty sad. 

But like I say, Christians are not wishers--they are blessers. That is to say, when we are being faithful we do not do either kind of wishing. We do not think that our words, like magic, will make things happen the way a spell or a command of a genie would in the fairy tales. We do not wish, thinking that the power of our prayers is in how badly we want something or in our proper phrasing. But on the other hand, neither do we believe that our prayers are empty, flowery speech. We do not wish with empty words, just because it sounds nice to wish something pleasant for someone. We Christians believe that our prayer is more than simply wishing someone else a nice day or a merry Christmas. 

In other words, we believe in the power of blessing. And the act of blessing is not about the energy of our willpower or the emptiness of polite pleasantries. To bless is to call upon God, who will be the One to act or not. To bless is not to use our own power, as though our words were magical in and of themselves, but to invoke a powerful God to do what we ask and call on God to do. To speak blessing is to call on the God who is the Source of all life to bring others more fully to life—which means becoming more fully what we were meant to be. This is really what Paul is doing here in these verses--he is blessing his beloved congregation, not wishing things for them. He is calling on God, and Paul is under no illusion that what he asks requires no less than the living God to actually do. "The one who calls you is faithful," Paul says, "and he will do this." Paul is convinced that the words of benediction he speaks have power--but that power is not their own. The blessing has power only insofar as the God on whom he calls has the power and will to do what Paul has invoked. Paul believes his words mean something, and even that his words will do something, will accomplish something. But they accomplish something the way that dialing 911 accomplishes a rescue--it calls upon the ones who really do have the power to save, to rescue, to deliver. 

This is what we believe is happening in every act of blessing: we are calling on none other than God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We believe that our words have meaning and power, but not on their own. We are doing more than wishing people a nice day when we say, "The Lord bless you and keep you," and yet we also realize that those words are not a magic spell that by themselves will guarantee you sunny skies and good parking spots until it wears off. We are not wishers, after all. We are blessers--people who are convinced that our praying has power because the God to whom we pray has power. Today, let us us give up both the arrogant, prideful kind of wishing, and the apathetic pleasantries kind of wishing. And instead, let us be people who bless... and who recognize that we are blessed. 

Go, bless someone else today. In fact, go speak and embody blessing to everyone who crosses your path today. 

Lord God, bless us, your people, for our work: give to us those internal things we need to be faithful--courage, discernment, love, and wisdom--and give to us those external things that will let us thrive and do your will. Bless us, O Lord, for we do not merely wish it--we ask it in the blessed name of Jesus.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Our Several Hills of Beans--July 9, 2020

“Our Several Hills of Beans”--July 9, 2020

"What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end." [Ecclesiastes 3:9-11]

You know the scene, I’m sure. Humphrey Bogart looks at Ingrid Bergman in the fog on the airfield, just before he puts her on the plane to continue in the Resistance with her husband, and he says to her, “I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.” And with that, and a very famous, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” the last scene in Casablanca unfolds. 

It might be one of the greatest moments captured on celluloid, but it’s also a pretty accurate description of the human condition. The work we do, the things we fuss over, the problems that so worry us today, they are in the grand scheme of things, a hill of beans. Maybe not even that much. 

On an ordinary day for us, we have such tiny concerns—has the milk in the fridge expired? What if I have to cross paths with that unpleasant person at work today? Will I have a date to the wedding later this summer? Oh, I hope I don’t get stuck in traffic today. Meanwhile, the news reminds us that we are living through a pandemic that is upending our usual order of life in just about every way… and of course, there are the sounds of helicopters over our skies reminding us that today someone is being Life-Flighted somewhere and that real crises are happening for someone today, while their loved ones watch and wait. And at the very same time, in other parts of the world, too many people went hungry yesterday and do not know where tonight’s dinner will come from… or more likely, they know it will not come from anywhere. Kind of humbling, ain’t it, to see our piddling little day to day concerns alongside the catastrophes and crises that other people are facing while we are debating which brand of smart-phone to buy or whether we feel our social calendars are full enough lately. All of a sudden, against the shadow of the real mountains of trouble that others will have to climb today, our list of pet peeves is revealed to be… less than even a hill of beans. 

And not to beat a dead horse here, but if we dare to zoom out a bit farther, our whole planet full of worries is really just a tiny blue speck against the inky blackness of our solar system, and our sun turns out to be a tiny yellow speck against the galactic pinwheel of the spinning arms of the Milky Way, which itself is in a vast swath of a universe we can barely begin to fathom. All of a sudden even “a hill of beans” sounds like we are giving ourselves too much credit. 

Ecclesiastes sees this about us. And he reminds us that part of the unique and bittersweet role of humans in that universe is that we, of all creatures, can recognize our smallness. We have to live with it. Other critters on planet Earth are just as small or smaller, but they are so wrapped up in digging tunnels or pollinating flowers or building the hive or chasing gazelles or not getting eaten by the lion that they just don’t recognize that they and their troubles don’t amount to that famous hill of beans. There is a certain blissful ignorance about that—I’ll bet that ants think, to the extent that they are even aware of it, that all their work supporting the colony is really vital, crucial stuff. They do not realize that the anthill they all live in doesn’t even amount to a hill of beans—or that it is easily squished with a wind-tossed tree branch or lumbering animal’s footfall. They are spared that humbling experience. 

Humans, the Teacher Ecclesiastes says, however, have the gift (although it is an odd and sometimes painful gift) of being able to look up from our work and see the mountains in the distance. We have the capacity to recognize the bigness of things, and our comparative smallness. God has placed “ha ‘olam” in our hearts. The NRSV here translates it as “a sense of past and future” that has been put into our minds. But in fact, the Hebrew is much richer and more wonderfully ambiguous. The Hebrew “ha ‘olam” is sometimes translated “the world” or “eternity” or “the universe.” It is about space, and time, and the extremes of both, all at the same time. (Funny to think that it took brilliant physicists like Einstein all the way to the 20th century to come up with the mathematics to tell us that time and space are really interrelated as part of one big continuum, one piece of fabric, when ancient Hebrew was saying the same thing three thousand years ago.) 

Anyway, that is in the human heart, Ecclesiastes says. God has put “ha ‘olam”—eternity!—into our hearts. In a sense, that is a heavy load for us to bear, because it means we have the capacity, and the burden, of being able to see Humphrey Bogart’s point—that in the grand scheme, our problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. And this crazy world is like the asterisk on a footnote in the vastness of all the volumes you could say about our solar system or galaxy or universe. Human beings have the burden—when we are not lying to ourselves and making ourselves the center of the universe or thinking that the third-quarter profits really are worth making a fuss over—of seeing in stark humility how small we are. And that is not often an easy thing to recognize. 

But at the very same time, come on—eternity! In our hearts! We have a sense of the big-ness of God within us! We have a sense hard-wired into us that there is more than building the ant-hill, that there is more than just moving around small green pieces of paper in the quest for happiness, that there is more than the shallow drive to get a bigger house, a shinier car, and a white picket fence to keep out the neighbors. We have the God-given ability not to be satisfied with just getting food in our bellies, but to keep reaching for relationship with the Eternal One. “We are all in the gutter,” said Oscar Wilde, “but some of us are looking up at the stars.” That impulse to see the immense and intricate beauty of the bigness of the world in which we have been placed—that has been placed in our hearts. That is “ha ‘olam”—eternity, the fullness of the universe, everything in space and time—and God has set our hearts to seek after it like a compass needle seeks north. 

Well, if that’s true, then no wonder we aren’t satisfied in life with just making money and dying with the most toys. Of course those are empty pursuits compared to the deep hunger we have for the divine—for the One who really is eternal. We won’t ever be satisfied with less. 

You can call that bad news if you really thought that buying a new car or taking a new job was really going to make you feel like you’ve “got it all.” Or you can call that Good News, for two reasons: For one, it explains why you can still feel empty even with all new shiny possessions, but full when you have that morsel of bread placed in your hand at the Table alongside sisters and brothers in Christ. And second, we hunger for God, for eternity, amid all the other piddling and petty things to fuss about in life, because God has made us to be able to find him and be filled with him. A compass needle points to the north because it was made to find north—and we are made with a God-shaped vacuum within us, an “infinite abyss,” as Pascal called it, because we were made to be in relationship with the Eternal One. No wonder all the beans in the world won’t do the trick. 

Lord God, give to us the humility of vision to see our smallness, and give to us the deep hunger to keep seeking to be filled with you in all your infinite fullness.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Small Steps--July 8, 2020

Small Steps--July 8, 2020

"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.  Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own." [Philippians 3:10-12]

I am great at giving up.  A world-class half-baker.  A prodigy at fine beginnings that sputter out when I get distracted... or discouraged... or bored... or tired. But the life of faith is, without a doubt, a long haul.  And that means I have to learn and re-learn--and also to commit and then re-commit--to keeping at the journey.  

Small steps. Over and over.  Left. Right. Repeat.

Sometimes only one at a time, and sometimes taking a step or two backward as well along the way.  Sometimes with only enough light for the next foothold. But we keep on keeping on--or as the apostle puts it, "pressing on toward the goal."

I know that's not as dramatic as we might want to imagine faith being.  I know we have all heard dramatic conversion stories like, "I used to be on drugs and broke, but then I gave my life to Jesus, and now it has all turned around!" or like Paul's own journey from being a persecutor of the church to being its most ardent missionary.  But even those stories, as dramatic as they can seem, are only part of the story of a lifelong walk that sometimes is pretty slow going.  And in those times, we keep walking after Jesus, even if it feels like we aren't getting very far along the way, because we trust where he is leading us.  But it does mean being willing to keep "pressing on" at times when we might want to give up, go in a different direction, or change the channel.  It means, as Eugene Peterson once famously put it, riffing on a phrase of Nietzsche's, "a long obedience in the same direction."

I think that's the part that can be so difficult for us.  We struggle with attention spans, and we are easy to distract.  At least I know I am.  But I don't think I'm alone on this.  We get excited about whatever the latest shocking thing in the headlines is, or whatever outrageous thing was said yesterday, and we find it holds our attention for a little while... until the next thing comes along.  We can give a day's worth of focus to a news story, or a week's worth of energy toward a problem if it is pressing... but we have a hard time sustaining our commitment to actually fixing or repairing things.  And so we end up with a culture that doesn't solve problems so much as it gets bored with them, and moves on to something new without actually resolving whatever was upsetting us before.  And when that happens, we end up turning our ears and minds to whatever loud voice can keep shouting the most outrageous things to keep our attention.  That's a marvelously effective way to distract people or rile them up, but it's a terrible strategy for actually resolving things or solving a problem.

And in the life of faith, that same need for constant novelty and fresh distraction is terrible for deepening our walk with Christ and strengthening our faith and love.  If we approach our faith like we are audience members who only do things to be entertained, or who only commit when there's an immediate pay-off, we will miss out on something vital to a living relationship with Jesus.  If I decide that it's not worth it to keep in the discipline of praying... or that it's not "interesting" enough to keep participating in worship... or that it's "too hard" to sustain the ways I serve my neighbors, I'm stunting the growth of my faith.  

Instead, Paul would have us keep going, even when it is difficult, even when it can feel routine, even when there's not something outrageous or spectacular going to experience, and even if we feel bored sometimes.  After all, sometimes loving your neighbor takes the form of something dramatic and daring, like saving someone from a burning building... but a lot of time, loving your neighbor takes the form of something mundane and ordinary, like washing the dishes, bringing over a meal, or wearing a face mask at the grocery store.  Following Jesus means walking with him not just for the exciting parts, but for the moments that feel downright dull.  I'm sure washing feet got boring after the third set of dusty toes, too.

When we put our walk of discipleship lower in importance that the flashy, attention-getting things that seem more "fun" to do on a Sunday morning, or that require less discipline than daily prayer, or require less wok than showing compassion to people you don't like, something happens to our faith... something bad.  It's like the slow, often unnoticeable, maybe even unintentional death of a friendship that happens as you just fall further and further out of touch.  On the flip-side, when we keep putting our lives of discipleship at the center of our lives, then even the boring things become places of unexpected joy and beauty--much like how when you spend time with someone who is important to you, even trivial things like grocery shopping or washing dishes can draw you closer.

I think that's part of the invitation Paul would give us. It's not that if we don't stay close enough to Jesus in this life, we'll miss the train to heaven and lose his love.  No, we know the destination, and our "goal" is sure.  We know we're headed for resurrection life in Christ, and we know Christ has made us his own already--but we'll miss out on a lot along the way if we keep letting ourselves get distracted by lesser things (and lesser loves).  And Paul would rather we have the fullest experience of life in Christ even now, not just after death.

I think Jesus wants that for us, too.

Today, what are the places we can each keep at the walk of discipleship, even if it is difficult... or sometimes routine... or sometimes thankless?  And how can even the mundane moments become places for us to be pulled closer to Christ today?

Lord Jesus, keep us on your way, and keep us pressing along with you, since we know you promise to bring us home to you in the end.

Monday, July 6, 2020

These Deadly Bodies--July 7, 2020

These Deadly Bodies--July 7, 2020

"For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.  So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" [Romans 7:19-25a]

One of the most formative sentences of theology in my life is a one-sentence punch-line from the comic strip Pogo.  You have likely seen it before--Walt Kelly's comic strips ran from the late 1940s through the 1970s--and you may well have heard these words from my mouth (or keyboard) before. And the punch line goes simply like this: "We have met the enemy... and he is us."

Let me say that again. We have met the enemy--and he is us.

The line is, of course, a riff on Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's famous declaration after the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812, "We have met the enemy, and he is ours."  Perry's sentence certainly has gravitas to it, but Pogo's tells an important truth about us.  The problem isn't simply "out there"--you know, with other people (people not like me, of course).  No, the problem is in me as well as outside of myself.  So if I am going to go on a moral crusade to rid the world of unrighteousness (and good luck with that), then I need to start with me.  I need to recognize the ways I am part of the problem... the ways I am my own worst enemy... the ways I am complicit and entangled in all sorts of evil things, whether I had been aware of it before or not.

Christians have been talking this way for two millennia--or at least, we were talking that way at the start of our movement.  In the New Testament writings, and then running in a strand of theologians and preachers over the centuries, this is what our talk of "sin" was really all about.  Instead of treating "sin" as simply a synonym for the individual and isolated bad actions I choose, the New Testament see it (rightly, I believe) as something more insidious--as something we are both participants in and held captive by.  

Sin isn't just the one-time act of stealing the last cookie from the cookie jar--it's the gluttonous hunger that wants to keep eating more than I need... and the mean-spirited impulse to take a cookie from my brother or sister... and the self-centered mindset that assumes my whims for cookies matter more than someone else's needs.  That means it's in attitudes and assumptions, not just actions.  It also means that if I grew up having the last cookie taken away from me by my older siblings, and then I learn that same habit of stealing cookies from my younger siblings, that sin has a way of passing itself down across generations like a virus--copying itself over and over again as new people duplicate the crooked actions, ideas, and habits in new situations and people.  It infects us, and we infect others with it.  Sin affects us from the outside, and then our sin affects others beyond us as well.  It's not just one bad action, or one bad actor--it's all of us, and it's everywhere.  All of that is to say that sin is systemic as well as individual, and it has its tendrils into all of us.

I know that's not very happy news to consider, but we can't get to the good news until we face the bad news.  And the bad news is that what's "wrong" with the world isn't just locatable "out there," as much as we want to find someone else to make into the villain.  I can't just say, "Well the problem with our society (or our state, or our country, or our planet) is THOSE PEOPLE..." while waving a finger at whatever people we want to turn into scapegoats.  I'm part of the problem.  I'm a part of the brokenness.  I have met the enemy--and it's me.

That doesn't mean I should go beating myself up, or hating myself, or belittling myself all the time. But it does mean that I bear responsibility for looking at the ways I am entangled in (and sometimes invested in) the rottenness of the world.  And it means that when I see those ways I am both caught in and complicit with the sinfulness of the world, I have to name them as part of my sin, and then once it is named, it can be faced, repented of, forgiven, and turned from.  As Maya Angelou's words put it so well, "You do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, you do better."

So, for example, I may not directly be forcing some child to labor in a windowless factory somewhere and half-starve while they sew garments for 15 hours a day, but if my attitude on life is that I am entitled to cheap novelty t-shirts and should be able to buy them whenever I want, I have to acknowledge that I'm part of a system that does harm to neighbors half a world away--a system that keeps running, in part, because of my entitled sense of greed that wants things on whims and doesn't care about the cost to other people.

Or maybe I'm not a white-hood wearing, cross-burning Klan-member (I'm not), and I've never called someone a racist name (I haven't), but when I'm quiet in the presence of others who make racist comments (oooh, I've been there), or when I've benefited because of the color of my skin without questioning why that is (ouch), or when I've assumed that the things I've gotten in my life were MY achievements but that other people whose skin color is different must have had their successes HANDED to them because they couldn't have achieve them on their own without favoritism (yikes, that hits close to home), well, what do you know--I realize that I am entangled in the particular sin of racism.  (Side note: this is part of why it is EXTREMELY unhelpful to say things like, "We don't have a skin problem--we have a sin problem," as it is can be tempting to say, because that makes it sound like racism isn't a form of sin.  That's like saying, "We don't have a cancer problem--we have a death problem." Well, yes, death is a bigger issues, but cancer deaths are a subset of the bigger issue of death in general, and yet, we should still be spending time and resources on curing cancer.) 

Maybe I've never cheated anybody in business, used shady accounting, mistreated my employees, or cut corners on safety for workers... but if the money in my investment portfolio makes me money for retirement from companies whose profits come in part from that kind of crookedness, I have to admit it: I'm entangled in that system of sin, too.  And at that point, I can either stick my head in the sand and ignore it... or decide that my money and profits are more important than doing the right thing... or I can change where my money is invested.  But the honest thing is to change what I do with my money, even if my small action and my small pile of dollars doesn't make a change in the business practices of the companies I had invested in.  

If all of this seems kind of overwhelming, well, that's how Paul felt.  In those words from Romans 7 Paul sketches out how it feels to want to do right... and then to discover how many ways each of us is complicit in sin that is both bigger than our individual choices and yet also directly connected to those choices.  And it's maddening, isn't it?  We want to do good in the world.  We want to be just and kind and compassionate and loving and decent.  The trouble is, well, there are some ways we are already waist-deep in rottenness and have had voices around us tell us it's OK... and there are some ways we simply can't recognize that we are complicity in sinful systems until someone else helps us to see it.  And there are also times when we are fully aware that we are entangled in systems of sin... but they benefit us, and we don't want to lose the benefits.  We don't want to lose our positions of comfort.  We don't want to lose the proud feeling that comes with the illusion of thinking I'm better than someone else.  We don't want to lose access to the cheap novelty t-shirts.

When Paul thinks about all the ways he is entangled in systemic sin like that, he breaks down and just shouts to the sky, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?"  It's the question-form of Pogo's punchline, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."  And that's just it: the problem isn't just "out there" in "those people." It's in me, too, and specifically in the ways I am complicit in a lot of rotten things. A lot of my comfortable way of life depends on keeping a lot of terrible things happening to other people.  If I want to pretend ignorance of that, I can, I guess... but if I want to be honest, I'll find myself like Paul crying out to be free from this deadly body of mine and these deadly systems of ours that we feel stuck inside of.  And I'll have to face that a lot of what keeps this physical body of mine comfortable, from the cookies in the cookie jar to the booming pension investments to the cheap t-shirts, is built on things that bring harm to lots of other bodies that God calls beloved.

So what we need to be freed from is not simply one or two bad habits, but a whole system of crookedness in which we are all entangled. What we need is not simply for God to zap a select "few bad actors" with a flick of a divine finger, but for healing in each of our souls ... and eyes... and pocketbooks... and appetites... and our bent-in-on-self hearts.  The enemy isn't just out there in the faces of people I don't like or don't look like or don't agree with.  The problem is festering, too, in the face I see in the mirror, and in these deadly bodies of ours.

All of that has to be in the background for us to be able to hear Paul's climactic word of praise, "Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ!"  Jesus has made possible, not just a few helpful self-help strategies, but rescue and transformation of all the systems we are tied up in.  Jesus doesn't just give me a Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free card for my personal use, but is freeing all of us from the systems that have us all bound.  Jesus didn't come just to give me a pass on stealing the last cookie from the jar--he came to make me into a new creation that doesn't keep wanting to hoard cookies.  All the ways I'm entangled in systems of sin are ways that I am a little bit dead inside, and Jesus has come to bring me, and all creation to life again.  That's why there's hope--for me, for Paul, for you, for all of us in these deadly bodies of ours.

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ indeed.

Lord Jesus, you have freed us... and yet we keep selling ourselves into sinful servitude and getting tangled up there.  Keep freeing us, so that all creation may be made new.  Keep raising us to life, so that all your beloved will experience your resurrection grace.

Disarmed by God--July 6, 2020

Disarmed by God--July 6, 2020

"Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
 Lo, your king comes to you;
    triumphant and victorious is he,
 humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
 He will cut of the chariot from Ephraim
    and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle blow shall be cut off,
    and he shall command peace to the nations;
 his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
    and from the River to the ends of the earth." [Zechariah 9:9-10]

Here's a Monday morning confession from a preacher.  

As I heard these words being read yesterday in worship, I heard something in them I had never noticed before... and it has been rattling around in my brain ever since.  It's funny how often something like this happens, because these are words I have surely heard lots of times in my life.  The first part of this passage is usually read in connection with the story of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem--the day that we church-folk have come to call Palm Sunday--when Jesus launched a sort of protest march that paraded into the city of Jerusalem in a certain parody of the Empire's annual show of force marching soldiers in full battle dress into the city to flex some Roman muscle and stifle unrest.  So I've heard the imagery of a king who humbly rides in on a donkey instead of an ominous war-horse now nearly forty times in my life.  

I've heard these words from the second-last book in our Old Testament, spoken by a pretty obscure minor prophet plenty of times before... but never noticed the move God makes to bring peace: God disarms us.

Wait... what?

Yeah, there it is: right there in the text.  This promised king, this one who rides a donkey humbly instead of projecting "greatness" by riding a white horse or a chariot, this one that Christians have for two thousand years identified as Jesus of Nazareth himself... he disarms, not his enemies, but his own people!  Look how the prophet says it: this king "will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the war-horse from Jerusalem," and along with those weapons, bows and arrows and whatever other arsenals they've got.  But notice whose weapons these are that the prophet says God is abolishing--they are his own people's!  The weapons of Israel and Judah (here identified by other place-names, Ephraim and Jerusalem) are the ones that the prophet says are "cut off."  Zechariah envisions peace for all peoples, from sea to shining sea, and so God insists that they won't need their weapons any longer. God disarms the very people of God, rather than leaving them a back-up plan "just in case."

This is radical!  This is upside-down!  This is scandalous!  And it certainly runs counter to the thinking we are immersed in all around us.  The conventional wisdom says, "Try to be nice to everyone... but you'd better be ready with your war-horse if someone else starts a fight."  The conventional wisdom says the way to guarantee peace is to have a bigger stick to threaten your potential enemies with, so they'll be too afraid to go to war with you (this was basically why the Romans had their little military dress-up parade marching into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, by the way--it was to intimidate any troublemaking Zealots or freedom-fighters by showing off the size of their armies).  The conventional wisdom says, "You have to keep your hand on the trigger to make sure you'll be left standing if trouble breaks out."  That was absolutely the thinking in the air in the late days of the Cold War as I grew up--where we all were taught that nobody wanted nuclear war, but that the way to prevent nuclear war was to have an ever-increasing arsenal of nuclear weapons to make sure everybody else was too afraid to use them.  It was the idea that you kept the peace by threatening everyone with "mutual assured destruction."  So much of our view of the world is soaked in the assumption that you have to be ready to destroy somebody else to make sure that you-and-you-group can come out on top.  And so much of what we assume is just "the way things are" depends on having my bow, my chariot, and my war-horse ready to kill my enemies if I feel threatened.  We have just been taught to accept that this is how the world has to be.

And yet, here--in words I have been reading and hearing all my life--there is this outrageous and upside down picture that turns all that reasonable-sounding conventional wisdom on its head.  God's way is to create peace, and then, not just to disarm "the bad guys" but also to disarm the ones who imagine themselves as "good guys," too.  It's not just Israel's enemies who have their sticks and swords and spears taken from them--it's Israel itself, too!  It's not just the opposing armies outside of Jerusalem that has their bows snapped over the divine knee--it's the weaponry of the capital city itself, too.  God's way here is not to leave "our side" ready with back-up weapons in case this whole peace thing doesn't work out. No, God's way, promised long before Jesus was ever laid in a manger, is to rule from a position that looks like weakness (donkey, rather than war-horse), and to disarm not only "those people" out there, but also "us right here."

I know it is tempting to say something like, "Well, that's all well and good for when Christ comes again, but now we have to live in the real world, where we lock our doors and have to deal with real evil all around us."  And I don't mean to suggest living naively with the thought that we can all just get along when there is certainly so much evil and wickedness in the world.  But I do think it is pretty significant that it took me four decades to even notice that these words were here... when I'm already so familiar with other parts of this passage.  I do think it's more than curious that I can recite the bit about the king on the donkey, but never realized that when the donkey-riding ruler comes, his way of bringing peace isn't just to smash the enemies while reloading his people's ammunition, but rather to cut off the weapons from everybody all around.  And I think I never saw that before, because like all of us, I have been steeped in a culture that assumed you have to keep your advantage over your enemy and you have to be ready to destroy somebody else in order to preserve your own interests.  And now I am drawn up short, because, well, because God envisions another way.  God creates a kind of life that isn't depended on threatening somebody else with death.

So much of the tension I think we are all feeling these days is that we have accepted the idea that we have to have someone to hate... someone to cast as the villain... someone who must be the "bad guy," and when we can't find one, we invent one.  And once we've accepted that there has to be a villain, we very quickly will justify anything to get rid of "them" and to assert "our" domination of them.  But maybe that assumption just isn't true.  Maybe there has been an alternative all along.  Maybe the thing we're hoping for is not a world where I keep the peace by pointing a weapon at somebody else, but where we all decide we will honor the image of God in one another enough that we don't have to threaten each other.  And maybe in the course of my day, I don't have to see every interaction as an "us versus them, good-versus-evil" competition. Maybe instead, I can see that, like Solzhenitsyn wrote, the line between good and evil runs through each human heart, and that there is rottenness in me that I need to address, as well as goodness in "the enemy" that I cannot honestly ignore.

And then maybe I can change the attitude I engage others with, even people I have a really hard time getting along with.  Maybe I no longer have to look for some advantage to defeat them, but I can risk the vulnerability of letting down my defenses toward them, and offering suffering love rather than harsh attacks.  Maybe I can risk learning something from the people I am sure are wrong... and maybe I can offer what I have to say in ways that aren't just trying to score points, or make them dig their heels in and get defensive.

Maybe the greatest gift of all we can be given in this life is to have God disarm us.

Maybe it's worth trying facing the world today with open hands and finding out.

Lord God, bring your kind of peace to us, even when it overturns our expectations and assumptions.