Friday, April 1, 2016

Easter and the Mystery of the Missing Lord

I (probably like you) love the celebration of Easter—the brightness, the triumphant music, the happy people. But the first Easter was nothing like that. The first Easter was a mystery—The Mystery of the Missing Lord. John tells us it’s so early that it’s still dark outside. Darkness and blindness in John’s Gospel always represent confusion and unbelief. That is certainly more the tone than triumph. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb to attend to Jesus’s corpse--to make sure it decomposes with dignity--and maybe to say goodbye.

She is shocked to find the stone rolled away from the tomb. Her Lord is missing, likely taken by officials or some twisted activists so they can desecrate his body. Mary rushes and tells Peter and John, “They have taken the Lord and we don’t know where they’ve put him!” The guys run to the tomb with Mary following. Surely they’ll have some answers and ideas—they’re men, after all. But, no. They get there and examine the empty tomb, scratch their beards, and return home to hide. And they leave Mary standing there.    
The sky has lightened to a soft gray-blue. Mary begins to think of her life before Jesus. She was completely possessed, immersed in a life of sin—no love, no God. And then she met Jesus and everything changed. She found God. She found love and wholeness. She found a family, and she found herself and her purpose. But now it’s all gone—he’s gone. Utterly overwhelmed, Mary weeps. She stoops down to look into the tomb. She can see two figures dressed in bright white sitting where Jesus’s body had been. They ask Mary why she’s weeping. Now for the second time, Mary shares her mysterious and tragic news, “They’ve taken my Lord and I don’t know where they’ve put his body.” Maybe these official-looking people can help.

The sky begins to lighten more as bands of deep pink and orange stretch overhead and the first couple of birds begin to sing. Out of her teary periphery, Mary sees someone. It’s the gardener—surely he knows something. (Hint: It’s really Jesus. Let’s watch what happens.) He asks why she's crying. And as a bit of a joke, he asks whom she's looking for. Now Mary doesn’t simply lament her Lord’s missing body. Instead, she actually accuses the unrecognized Jesus: “Sir, if you’ve done something with the body that was here, please have the decency to tell me where it is and I’ll attend to it.” But Jesus simply says her name—“Mary!”—and that’s when she knows. “Teacher!” she calls, now weeping tears of joy. The first rays of the sun shoot above the hilltops and illuminate the garden. The risen Lord commissions Mary Magdalene to go and tell the others that he has been raised and will be ascending to the place of authority over heaven and earth. She runs to the others and shouts the good news, “I have seen the Lord!” The Mystery of the Missing Lord is solved. And now begins The Mystery of the Risen Lord. What happens next? What do we do now that Jesus is risen? That’s another story...billions of other stories, really.

The Mystery of the Missing Lord is solved for Mary and the disciples, but what about for us? For many of us the Lord is still missing. We think Jesus’s resurrection means Jesus is God and we go to heaven when we die. While those things are true, they have little to do with Easter. What Jesus’s resurrection means is that Jesus is Lord and heaven comes to us…now. Put another way, Jesus’s resurrection means Jesus’s way is right—that Jesus’s way of mercy, justice, peace, forgiveness, and love is God’s way for us and for the world—and that Jesus is alive to lead us and the world in that way.

That old title, “lord,” means “someone having power, authority, or influence.” Mary Magdalene and the others are excited, not only because their friend who was dead is now alive, but because their Lord is still with them to exercise his power and authority in their lives and in the world. But for far too many of us so-called Christians, the Lord is still missing. We give very little thought (much less action) to Jesus's power and authority in our day-to-day lives, in our long-term goals, or in our worldview. He might as well still be dead. What difference does it make?

But he isn’t dead. He’s alive and he’s here now, in the power of the Holy Spirit. And he says your name, just like he said Mary’s. He wants to be your Lord, to walk with you through your struggles and dreams, and to lead you in his way of mercy, justice, peace, forgiveness, and love. He has a plan for you, and right now is only the beginning. And he has a plan for the world. Only he—the world’s true Lord—has the power to overcome our brokenness and isolation, to end terrorism and racism and slavery and crippling poverty, to bring down oppressors and lift up the oppressed. 

And all of this—your wholeness and the world’s wholeness—begins only when you and I and the two billion other Christians celebrating Easter this season stand up and follow him—no matter what—in his way of mercy, justice, peace, forgiveness, and love. It begins when we can honestly say, with our words but especially with our lives, “I have seen the Lord! He’s alive! My life is his. The world is his.” Then the world will know the Lord is not missing. They’ll find him in us. They'll see him in you.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Behold the Man

I always feel a deep sense of shame when I read the Passion stories, like I’ve seen something I shouldn’t have—something obscene. The image of the bloody, beaten Jesus standing in a purple robe with a crown of thorns before the hissing crowd, sarcastically presented by Pilate, “Here is the man!”

“Drink this in,” Pilate seems to say. “Does this make you happy?” It’s what John seems to say with the whole narrative, right up to Jesus on the cross, bloody head bowed in death. “Here is the man. Look at him. Is this what you want? Because this is what we do—to each other…to God. This is where this road of sin leads. And he walked it for you and for me. Behold the man.” And then Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus take his lifeless body off the cross and wrap it and lay it in the tomb. Show’s over. Think about it for a while.

And so I think about it and I’m ashamed. Shame is rarely a good idea, almost never a good way of teaching a lesson or leading someone to truth. But in this case it seems appropriate. Anyway, it seems unavoidable. I’m sorry we did this to God’s Son. I’m sorry we do this to countless sons and daughters every day. I’m sorry that this had to be done for me. And I’m especially sorry that I continue to walk this dead-end path all too often. I’m sorry.

And I’m thankful. The shame gives way to gratitude if I let it—gratitude that I don’t have to live in shame. The cross isn’t merely our shame—it is also our salvation from shame. We didn’t only do this to God. He went through this for us. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Cor. 5:21). Behold the man.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Why God Throws a Party

In his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen makes this observation about Jesus’ parables in Luke 10, featuring the shepherd looking for his lost sheep, the woman looking for her lost coin, and the father eagerly awaiting the return of his lost son—each of whom represents God: “God rejoices. Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, nor because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising him for his goodness. No, God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found. What I am called to is to enter into that joy.”

We miss that joy, says Nouwen, because it is small, hidden, and inconspicuous. The pressure is constant, and only stronger since Nouwen wrote this in the 1990s, to only find joy in the grand, impressive, and showy. Even in matters of faith, it is easy to see God and find joy only in big, miraculous gestures of healing, conversion, worship, etc. But the understanding of joy I’ve come to at least—that joy is delight and deep contentment in the world and in ourselves because God is present in both—would say otherwise.

It is God’s presence that brings joy, not the presence of any dazzling spectacle. Sure, the spectacular might point to God’s presence. But so can the unspectacular, the quiet, the simple—sometimes even more so, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. And that’s what it comes to: attentiveness.

If joy depends on rejoicing in God’s presence—in the everyday as much as in the once-in-a-lifetime—then we must learn to recognize God’s presence. Where might God be working in a life, in the world, in creation, in an “average” day, in the deep quiet of my own soul? May we find ourselves ever more in the habit of pausing to observe and to rejoice in moments of small, hidden, quiet joy…each of which, for God, is likely cause for a party!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

On Sowers and Batting Averages

The Sower by Jean-Francois Millet, 1850
Jesus’ parable of the sower (Mk. 4:1-20) describes a .250-hitter who, nevertheless, has a strong RBI total* (to mix metaphors). He only hits good soil one out of four times—the other three seem to be a miss. But each hit yields strong results, producing abundant fruit. From the outset Jesus is describing what would typically be considered failure three out of four times. Satan, rootlessness, and worldly cares seem to win the day. That’s the half-empty (or three-fourths empty) way of looking at the glass.

On the other hand, there are at least a couple of things that make this “failure” a true success. First, the sower. The sower is faithfully doing what he should do, indiscriminately scattering seed—perhaps generously scattering seed would be more appropriate. As Wayne Gretzky said (to add another metaphor), “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” So the sower is taking shots, not knowing where he might find receptive soil, but sowing nonetheless.

And that’s the other successful aspect of Jesus’ image: the healthy soil. The seed that finds healthy soil yields fruit in abundance, including enough seed for much more sowing by other sowers. The fruitfulness becomes exponential. The harvest is greater than the sower’s meager average. He only connects one out of four times, but each hit advances others. The harvest doesn’t depend on the sower. One sows, another waters, but God makes it grow (see 1Cor. 3:5-9). Jesus seems completely confident in the slow, subtle, seemingly small advancement of God’s kingdom. And Jesus seems confident in the shared, communal work of God's kingdom. It isn’t about Paul, Apollos, or you or me.

But two things do depend on the sower. One, s/he must sow. That’s success for the sower—not how much seed finds good soil or even how much grain is produced, 30- or 60- or 100-fold. Just faithfully sowing—that’s success. And two, the sower must keep his/her own soil healthy. The word in the sower’s soul can also be robbed, withered, or choked, and end up fruitless. And one of the surest ways for this to happen is for the sower to start worrying about his/her average. To paraphrase Nike: JUST SOW IT!

*Admittedly, the value of such a player in baseball is debatable, but serves the point here.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Chosen Instrument

Jimi Hendrix, Monterey Pop Festival, 1967
Photo by Jim Marshall

Recently I was conversing with Jesus about the calling of Saul (Paul) of Tarsus. After Paul’s conversion experience on the Damascus Road, Jesus instructs an understandably cautious Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles…” (Acts 9:15). I confessed to Jesus that I’d like to be his “chosen instrument” for something (despite the fact that Jesus’ next line about Paul is, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name”!). I wondered about the nature of a calling. Are we indeed called to something specific? And, if so, can we resist and/or miss our calling? But mostly I just wanted to be Jesus' chosen instrument for something.

After sitting in silence with Jesus, his response emerged: “You are my chosen instrument to be Robert.”

So the answer is yes, we are called to something specific. And yes, we can resist and miss our calling. When we don’t become ourselves—through pretending, numbing ourselves, aimlessly wandering, ignoring God’s leading, etc.—we are missing our calling…the calling to be ourselves fully alive. You are Jesus’ chosen instrument to be you. What does that look like, you fully alive? It’s a unique and powerful calling…one that no one else on earth can answer.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Insiders and Outsiders

“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables…” –Mark 4:11

The way of the kingdom is subtle, small, and unpredictable. It grows in hidden and wild ways (Mk. 4). It is mysterious—to the extent that it often can’t be perceived or, at least, understood except by those on “the inside.” It is divinely revealed, so the “insiders’ are not some elite class or gnostic possessors of secret wisdom. The insiders are those who go with Jesus into the inner room of contemplation, those who seek the deeper ways of the kingdom. No one is restricted from coming. But only a few choose to come “inside.”

Those who go inside with Jesus, however, those who push beyond merely hearing the kingdom parables into living the kingdom parables, they are the good soil that bears fruit. They are the lamps on stands bringing illumination. They are harvesters perceiving and urgently reaping the kingdom’s fruitfulness. They are the birds of the air making their nests in the kingdom’s comforting shade.

Those “outside” are welcome to the parables. The parables are vessels of God’s grace revealing to them the good news of the kingdom. And surely many of these "outsiders" come to understand that there is something bigger, that it is something like God’s reign, and that they can be part of it. 

But that’s often the extent, the limit of the revelation. It’s enough for many…for most, perhaps. Too many, though, remain distracted rocky soil. The message never takes root. The lamp’s illumination remains hidden. The kingdom’s crops are passed by with a shrug on the way to more dazzling worldly attractions. The trying heat of the sun is simply endured. For what relief could be found in such a small, scraggly, wild shrub?

And so they stay outside…looking for bigger things.

Monday, October 19, 2015

With Jesus By the Sea

“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.”
-Matthew 13:1

There’s something about this picture that is striking. It is the Creator of the universe, the one who made the sea, sitting beside it, perhaps contemplating its beauty as he seeks a moment of silent retreat.

But also, it’s just so ordinary. I have walked out of a house (or hotel) and sat beside the sea. I have sat and pondered the power, majesty, and mystery of the universe and its Lord and Creator, illustrated in the power, majesty, and mystery of the sea. I have retreated to the seaside seeking solitude and silence.

I am in awe of how profound Jesus is, so exalted as the Creator of all—such power, majesty, and mystery embodied in this most holy one. I am in awe that he gathers crowds (usually unsolicited) and takes time to teach them the mysteries of the revelation of God and God’s kingdom, doing so in parables that they can understand and often using images drawn from his own creation.

And I am in awe that he humbled himself to become so like me, contemplating his creation, seeking solitude and silence, himself in awe of power, majesty, and mystery. And so, because he is so exalted and yet so humble, we can sit together beside the sea...even if sometimes the sea is only my soul.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A New Kind of Tree

What is it to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Lk. 3:7-9)? It isn’t just to bear fruit at all or even to bear a new kind of fruit. It is to be a new kind of tree. John the Baptizer calls out the false piety of outward religion, the superficial or even genetic identification with Abraham. This isn’t enough for God. The ax is laid at the root—the root. Trees are getting cut down and thrown into fire. God wants a new kind of tree—the kind of tree that bears repentance fruits…God fruits.

“Only God can make a tree,” wrote poet Joyce Kilmer. And only God can change the kind of tree we are. But we must throw open our branch-arms and turn our leafy faces heavenward. We must absorb the sun and rain of the Spirit graciously falling on us, descending upon us like a dove. We must uproot ourselves and cast ourselves into the baptismal waters…and into the baptismal fire.

Following John the Baptizer, Jesus becomes very concerned that we bear fruit. But this isn’t like someone standing in front of an apple tree sapling yelling, “Grow, darn you! Bear fruit!” This is Jesus graciously offering the health and abundance that are the natural result of life with God—life fully with God. This life is the shalom—the universal well-being—all humanity and all creation were made for: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). Fruits worthy of repentance are the life that results from becoming a new kind of tree, a tree deeply rooted in the nourishing ground of God and bearing the fruit of love.

So this tree we are becoming, this new kind of tree, turns out to be the oldest, ageless tree--a tree growing in the fertile Ground of our very being in God. This Ground is the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And this Trinity is the context of our new reality and worldview (see Matt. 28:18-20). So, we are a tree that emerges from the Ground of being, nourished by the waters of baptism and the body and blood of the Lord, and bearing the fruits of the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--fruits worthy of repentance.