Thursday, November 3, 2016

Super Power

Jesus at Herod's Court by Duccio, c. 1310
Even our own feeble hands
ache to seize the crown you wear…
--from “New Hymn” by James Taylor and Reynolds Price

Whatever is going on with Herod and the plot to kill the infant Jesus, it’s true that there is always a stark collision of powers between the divine and worldly. Jesus really is a threat, for not only is he the world’s true King, but his way is the way of yieldedness to the Father. And when people begin following that way, it becomes more than worldly powers can bear.

It’s paradoxical that, as long as people follow worldly powers, the worldly powers can give us something to follow. Even if one is following a competing power, at least another power can manage and manipulate the competition with marketing, propaganda, a certain brand of patriotism, and so on. But those who follow Jesus in yieldedness to the will of the Father can’t really be managed or propagandized. And that’s scary.

Sadly, though, the numbers of Christians who follow the Father over worldly powers are few. It’s hard. Herod’s palace is right up there on the hill (where I want to be). Caesar’s troops are everywhere on the streets. They all seem to be calling the shots. Even when they feign allegiance to God, we know Jesus’ way is no way to govern a super-power. The masses know and fall in line. Let us eat cake! Protect us at all costs. Poison our holy scriptures as part of your propaganda and we’ll lap it up time and again like a dog returning to its own vomit.

Jesus started life as a refugee. God told his family to run for their lives. Jesus wasn’t a Herod or a Caesar or even a magi. Jesus was a political exile who had to flee his homeland so he wouldn’t be slaughtered. That was the choice his family made. It began his whole story of one at odds with worldly powers. It eventually did cost him his life. But it all was the result of being truly free. It was the result of being a true super-power.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Believing in Magic

The magic is gone. I feel like there isn’t magic in the world anymore. Like I know all the tricks, so now I see the wires and what’s up the magician’s sleeve. It’s like in the movie Boyhood, when young Mason realizes there aren’t really elves and fairies in the world. His dad’s attempt to soften the blow by talking about how magical a blue whale is doesn’t really comfort the disillusioned boy. So it is that the “magic” of reality doesn’t often impress me either. It’s worse than just losing the magic, which I suppose happened a long time ago. I’ve lost my wonder too.

At some point I put my head down and never looked up again. I notice the beauty of things, of nature. I’m moved by people’s stories and lives. But the magic, the sense of wonder, the mystery of hidden things and the invisible power of heaven breaking into earth, the limitless possibilities of the unknown—these have drifted off like a dream that seemed so vivid yet can’t be recalled upon waking. I need a miracle.

I worked so hard to grow up, to mature in my faith. I told myself (and preached to others) that a mature disciple doesn’t need signs and wonders, that that’s what faith entails—carrying on in the absence of such things. And I’m sure there’s important truth in that. But somewhere along the way I became some form of Deist, a naturalist and materialist whose God is very near but is content to work through nature taking its course. Maybe this is all correct and I just have to accept growing up.

Or maybe to hell with that. Maybe I need to grow young. Maybe, as Chesterton said, “we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” Maybe I need to chase the magic and regain the wonder. Maybe it isn’t God who stopped being interesting—maybe it’s me (not maybe). Maybe it’s better to spend a life believing in magic that might not be real, wondering at mystery that possibly isn’t so mysterious, than to settle into the boredom of a small, figured-out existence. And maybe the magic is more real and the mystery more wonderful than I’d ever imagined. That’s the chance I’m going to take.

"All things are full of wonder. But we never think to wonder at them because we have, by habit, become dull to the consideration of them."  
-Gregory the Great, 6th c.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Promises God Keeps

“…Abraham grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:20-21).

While inspiring our faith, this passage also exposes a couple of issues at the heart of our doubts and struggles. The first is somewhat obvious: We are not convinced God is able to do what God has promised. But the second issue is subtler: We don’t know what it is God has promised. It’s hard to believe God—or anyone—keeps his promises when we don’t know what the promises are.

In Abraham’s case it was Sarah’s miraculous conception and the birth of Isaac, the “son of promise.” Abraham believed this promise of God through years of waiting and serious doubting, and despite the odds and circumstances. But much larger even than Isaac, God’s promise was the covenantal relationship. Abraham had to believe God’s promise to be God—to be his God and the God of those he loved, from generation to generation.

I don’t know how much or often God makes specific promises to us on the order of miraculous conceptions. Rarely, I suppose. He does promise in Jesus to care for us and to provide for our needs. And we see this in the natural world (why must it be considered any less miraculous?) as, every moment, babies are conceived and bread comes forth from the earth and water is transformed into the fruit of the vine. But the daily miracle of our existence in Christ is God’s promise to be “with you always.” And he seals that promise—through death, resurrection, and ascension—with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is the angle from which we are to approach all those more specific promises we hope will come to pass.

The life we are living, with its choices and hopes and disappointments and dreams-come-true, is a daily fulfillment of God’s promise to be with us, to be our God and the God of those we love, from generation to generation. This is the faith in which we are to grow strong, to give glory, and to live fully convinced that God is able to keep his most important promise—that he will always be with us and be our God. We apply that promise to the “lesser” promises we hope for. What does it mean for God to be God over this particular need, for God to be with me in that particular situation? But the promise of God to be God is enough.

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.

My Friend Thomas

I met Thomas when we ditched school together. We were 16, and my friend Scott and I had planned to skip out after homeroom and take Scott’s ...