Thursday, March 31, 2011

And so the story goes ...

Again he said to them, "I am going away, and you will search for me, but you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come."

Then the Jews said, "Is he going to kill himself? Is that what he means by saying, 'Where I am going, you cannot come'?"

He said to them, "You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he."

They said to him, "Who are you?"

Jesus said to them, "Why do I speak to you at all? I have much to say about you and much to condemn; but the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him."

They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said, "When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him."

As he was saying these things, many believed in him. Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."

- John 8:21-32

It sounds to me like Jesus is saying, “As hard as I’ve tried, I can tell you’re just not going to get it.” He sounds desperate, resigned, and exasperated. He tells them, “You will die in your sin.” What does that mean? Is it as hopeless as it sounds?

The longer we live, the more likely we are to encounter people who seem to have no hope at all. Here’s a song that sketches just such a person: a young woman who is angry, hurt, and broken. “And so the story goes/ That’s the way she chose to live her life.” We are told, “Her salvation came too late/ And on that day she died/ And no one even cried.” The song is “Veil of Deception,” by the Filipino-American metal band Death Angel.

But the road to resurrection leads through total hopelessness. I thank Jesus for going ahead of us into the hopelessness of death and returning to show us it is actually the way to eternal life. All those who have gone before us, no matter the circumstances of their lives, are held in God’s loving embrace. They have access to infinite wisdom: the truth has set them free.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dear God, sorry to disturb you but ...

My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: "Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?" ("Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?") "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?

O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people! O that I had in the desert a traveler's lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them! For they are all adulterers, a band of traitors. They bend their tongues like bows; they have grown strong in the land for falsehood, and not for truth; for they proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know me, says the Lord.

Beware of your neighbors, and put no trust in any of your kin; for all your kin are supplanters, and every neighbor goes around like a slanderer. They all deceive their neighbors, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongues to speak lies; they commit iniquity and are too weary to repent. Oppression upon oppression, deceit upon deceit! They refuse to know me, says the Lord. – Jeremiah 8:18-9:6

In this passage I begin to lose track of whether it is Jeremiah speaking, or God. The prophet seems to have become of one soul with the divine, and that soul is grieving. Meanwhile, the people the prophet has come to have lost faith in God completely.

I keep coming back to this point: faith is much bigger than “belief about.” The people haven’t begun to disbelieve in the existence of God; such a thing was practically unheard of in those days. They have begun to believe that God cannot help them. All the while, they don’t realize that they are the ones standing in the way of receiving God’s help, simply because they insist on living corrupt, wretched lives without concern for those who are less fortunate. When one turns outward and begins to help others, faith in God can then be given room to work.

I had my first crisis as a self-absorbed teenager. I began to wonder, as I think most of us do at some point, whether God exists at all. When I was 15, I heard a song that set my doubts to music and helped me face them more clearly: “Dear God” by XTC. The song haunted me and frightened me; I felt alternately guilty and joyful listening to it. Today I regard it as a vital step in my journey of faith.

The thing is, as angry as the singer is about all the horrible things that God allows to happen in the world, he’s still singing to the God he claims not to believe in. This suggests to me a relationship, which is a lot more hopeful ... and faithful ... than apathy. His passion tells me he wants to trust God, but from what he's seen, he doesn't believe God deserves his trust.

(The lyrics printed over the top are not original to the video; I wish they weren’t there, because some of them are incorrect.)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I'm alive

Marc Chagall, Abraham and Sarah (1956)
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations")—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become "the father of many nations," according to what was said, "So numerous shall your descendants be." He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith "was reckoned to him as righteousness."

Now the words, "it was reckoned to him," were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

- Romans 4:13-25

Abraham and Sarah were “as good as dead.” Have you ever felt as good as dead? I honestly haven’t, but I’ve known people who have. Hopelessness is the enemy of faith.

Abraham and Sarah chose to deny that their impending death was a factor. They trusted God. This is the real definition of faith: not intellectual assent to a list of dogma, but simple trust that all is in God’s hands. Julian of Norwich wrote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

In the meantime, we are to be alive. Hope sustains life, and faith fills life with meaning. When we have faith—when we trust that God is with us and always will be, to the bitter end—we are freed to enjoy the life we are living. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “I came that they might have life, and life abundant.”

And not only did Abraham and Sarah live ... they produced new life.

Here’s Electric Light Orchestra with one of my favorites anthems of life, hope, and faith: “I’m Alive.”

Monday, March 28, 2011

I'm not dead and I'm not for sale

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Stand in the gate of the Lord's house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: "This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord."

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, "We are safe!"—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord.

Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel. And now, because you have done all these things, says the Lord, and when I spoke to you persistently, you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your ancestors, just what I did to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of my sight, just as I cast out all your kinsfolk, all the offspring of Ephraim.

– Jeremiah 7:1-15

Centuries later, when Jesus was overturning the tables of the money changers in the Temple, he would quote Jeremiah’s line about making God’s house “a den of robbers.” I’d never noticed this connection before! Jesus drops a lot of Scripture references that we aren’t knowledgeable enough to catch. Every time I find one, it deepens my understanding of Jesus that much more.

Jesus was passionate about the Temple. He had come there since at least his 12th birthday to pray, like all the other Jews in the vicinity of Jerusalem. But he also saw that it was being used to oppress the poor, and this was one of the things in life that made him angriest.

I’ve always loved this song by Stone Temple Pilots, “Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart.” While I’m sure the band didn’t intend it for this purpose (I guess it’s actually about a bad acid trip), I hear Jesus raging and foaming as he tears around the Temple:

I am, I am, I said, I'm not myself
I'm not dead and I'm not for sale
So keep your bankroll lottery
Just have your deathbed motorcade

I am, I am, I said, I'm not myself
I'm not dead and I'm not for sale
Hold me closer, closer, let me go
Let me be, just let me be

“I’m not dead,” shouts Jesus, standing in the place of God. “I’m not dead and I’m not for sale!” He predicts not the destruction of the Israelites, as Jeremiah had done, but the destruction of the Temple—this was new! We might imagine him continuing, “Don’t you see the path you’re on? You just keep riding your moneyed procession all the way into the grave. As for me, I’m not dead.” And in the second chorus, we hear two contradictory things Jesus asked of his disciples after his resurrection: “Touch my wounds,” and “Don’t touch me.”

We can see Jesus' entire ministry as standing in stark contrast to the Temple—since the Temple wasn’t doing its job, he himself became the Temple. Both Temples were destroyed by the Romans— Jesus around the year 30, and the building in the year 79. Nobody has ever rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem. But Jesus, the living icon of God, could not stay dead.

What would Jeremiah and Jesus say to us today? What Temples do we erect to try to control God, only to give in to human nature and do things God would never have us do? What idols stand between us and genuine relationships with “the alien, the orphan, and the widow”? What innocent blood do we shed simply by being part of an unjust system? And what will we do to make such a system irrelevant and unnecessary?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sing a song!

O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed. O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would listen to his voice!
- Psalm 95:1-7

I need to remind myself sometimes that the Sundays in Lent are not actually in Lent. They are not counted among the forty days, so any discipline I may have undertaken for Lent may be suspended on Sundays. That’s not an excuse for slacking, of course, but rather an opportunity for rest and refreshment, as Sundays should always be.

This blog has felt a little heavy lately. So on this Third Sunday in Lent, let’s remember the joy of singing. It seems sometimes that singing is a dying art in our culture. We hire professionals to sing the national anthem instead of singing it together. We look to those who burst with natural talent when we could be singing ourselves. Very few people are actually tone deaf; they’re merely untrained.

So today, sing! Sing along with one or the other of these songs about … singing. May music always be for you water in the desert, a spring of living water bubbling up as evidence of the Kingdom of God all around you. From 1976, here’s Earth, Wind & Fire.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

When popular icons failed

Declare this in the house of Jacob, proclaim it in Judah: Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but do not see, who have ears, but do not hear. Do you not fear me? says the Lord; Do you not tremble before me? I placed the sand as a boundary for the sea, a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass; though the waves toss, they cannot prevail, though they roar, they cannot pass over it.

But this people has a stubborn and rebellious heart; they have turned aside and gone away. They do not say in their hearts, "Let us fear the Lord our God, who gives the rain in its season, the autumn rain and the spring rain, and keeps for us the weeks appointed for the harvest." Your iniquities have turned these away, and your sins have deprived you of good.

For scoundrels are found among my people; they take over the goods of others. Like fowlers they set a trap; they catch human beings. Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of treachery; therefore they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.

Shall I not punish them for these things? says the Lord, and shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this? An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule as the prophets direct; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?

- Jeremiah 5:20-31

We’ve been reading through Jeremiah lately in the daily lectionary. Here he has God speaking of limits to what humans can do, and humans striving to transcend those limits wherever possible.

I just finished reading a book by Brian McLaren called Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. McLaren is one of my favorite Christian authors. Here, he outlines the major crises facing our world and comes to the conclusion that we have created a “suicide machine.” We are still doing the very kinds of things Jeremiah warned against, but the problem is that we’ve created systems to bear the blame so individuals don’t have to.

The “suicide machine” operates only because we believe in it. From a young age, we are taught lessons through a sort of invisible curriculum. One of the lessons we learn is that we are entitled to have anything we want right now, and not worry about the consequences until later.

What will we do to dismantle the suicide machine? Let’s follow the lead of Jesus, who was neither pro-Caesar nor anti-Caesar. Rather, he regarded Caesar as irrelevant to his purposes and God’s. Jesus’ disinterest in the dominant paradigm of the Roman Empire allowed him to draw the wolves of “the system” out of the shadows so they could be exposed for the killers they are.  Jesus’ resurrection went unnoticed but by a few, and from that few, seeds were planted that would begin the revolution. We are still carrying out that meek revolution that says, “Thanks, world, but I know myself better than that. I’ll follow God’s way instead.”

The Kingdom of God is breaking in among us—it’s already here, though not yet fully realized—and it just takes our participation to make it real. When we participate in the Kingdom of God, we don’t rush to exceed our limits—what McLaren calls “the overconsumption crisis.” We don’t live at the expense of others, but look for opportunities to share from our bounty instead. When the Kingdom comes—and it comes every day in places all over the world—we are saved from fear and death.

Here’s Sting with “Jeremiah Blues,” originally from his 1991 album The Soul Cages.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Most highly favoured lady!

Today is the Annunciation of Our Lord—the feast honoring the day the Angel Gabriel came to Mary and announced that Jesus was coming. What? Have we skipped out of season? What happened to Lent? Well, this happens every year, and the explanation is simple: our calendars tell us it’s exactly nine months until Christmas.

At the risk of seeming like a lazy blogger, today I simply point you back to a blog I wrote on December 22 on exactly the same topic!

(The above "Annunciation" is by Tom Bower.)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

And He takes and He takes and He takes ...

I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.
For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.

- Jeremiah 4:23-27

In one part of the world, war rages. In another, people struggle from day to day in the wake of a devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. What sufferings do we have that can possibly compare with these?

Just this: we’re alive, but we won’t be forever. All around us, people are suffering death and loss. Though the lawns are still neatly manicured and commerce goes on unimpeded, it feels like their world is coming to an end.

“The mountains are quaking, and the hills are moving to and fro, because the one I love is gone. There is no one at all, and even the birds have left me alone, because the one I love is gone. The fruitful land is a desert, because it cannot feed me the one I love. The cities are laid in ruins, because I would give them away to get back the one I love.”

The sufferings of individuals cannot really be compared to each other. It feels like God is singling us out for punishment. Yet does God punish in this way? Does God send death and loss in order to attack us? Despite the preponderance of scripture that might claim to support this view, I think not. But I do think it feels like this very, very often in our lives.

Yet, says God, “I will not make a full end.” Nothing is ever really destroyed; it just changes into a new form. And that also goes for the people we love but see no longer. But it still feels sometimes like God just takes and takes and takes.

From his album Illinois, here’s Sufjan Stevens with a story song about losing a young friend to cancer. It’s called “Casimir Pulaski Day,” a holiday that doesn’t really have much to do with the song except as a date marker. (But in case you’re curious, look here.)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

God's a-gonna trouble the water ...

After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed … (verse 4)

One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be made well?" The sick man answered him, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me." Jesus said to him, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

Now that day was a sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, "It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat." But he answered them, "The man who made me well said to me, "Take up your mat and walk.' " They asked him, "Who is the man who said to you, "Take it up and walk'?" Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, "See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you." The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, "My Father is still working, and I also am working." For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.

- John 5:1-18

Verse 4 is missing from most translations. It says, “for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.” This verse does not appear in the earliest, most reliable manuscripts, which is why we don’t see it much now. But it does help us understand what may have been happening here: the man who had been ill for 38 years claims that he doesn’t have the ability to get to the pool in time to be healed.

Jesus comes upon this man, and I’m struck by the question he asks: “Do you want to be made well?” Wow—that’s a good question. What would happen if he were actually made well? For one thing, he couldn’t lie there and complain anymore about having nobody to help him. But Jesus doesn’t help him into the pool. He circumvents the old superstition altogether and heals the man on the spot.

Of course, the religious authorities miss the point; they’re not interested in the fact that Jesus healed the man, but in the fact that the healed man is carrying a mat (working) on the Sabbath, and that Jesus was working, too. God was “troubling the water”—not the literal water of the pool, but the stagnant Pharisaical water that had turned the Sabbath into an idol.

This spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” seems at first glance to be about Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea. But it’s deeper than that—it’s a spiritual reflection on water and faith. “God’s a-gonna trouble the water …”

I’m especially interested in this particular YouTube video set to the Eva Cassidy version of "Wade in the Water." By writing this song, American slaves linked the stories of the Red Sea and Bethesda Pool on a whole new level. Healing, deliverance, freedom … all of these are intertwined. And there's a reason we often sing this song at baptisms, too!

What is being stirred up in your life? What is being healed in unexpected ways? What will have to change once that healing is complete? What freedoms might come? Do you want to be made well?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I pretend to try, even if I tried alone

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.

How long will you assail a person, will you batter your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?
Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood; they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse. (Selah)

For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. (Selah)

Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath.
Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.

Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God,
and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord. For you repay to all according to their work.
- Psalm 62

I have a lot of friends who are looking for work right now. The situation has gotten a little better, but not by much. I also had a conversation with someone recently who is too young yet to be in the workforce, but who said, “I just want to be useful.” I think we all want that.

Unemployment can so easily make us feel useless—as if the world doesn’t want us for anything. It can feel like the world is assailing us, battering us into submission. But it doesn’t have to be that way. While we do everything we can do to find a job, we can continue to do ministry.

I wish I’d thought of this the last time I was unemployed. I could have been of so much use! Instead I filed for my three jobs a week, and then I sat around the house collecting unemployment and feeling sorry for myself. If I had it do it all over again, I would have found a ministry that needed help—a food bank, a shelter, a church that was looking for extra hands. There’s a practical side, too: the more human connections we maintain, the more likely we are to find a job!

My last period of unemployment was a field ripe for harvest. God tilled my soil and planted seeds that are still sprouting today. As I prepare to move my family to seminary this summer, I am reminded again and again that it all started with (1) a total stranger saying, “You should be a priest,” and (2) being laid off from my job the very next week. It turned out God was right there in the silence, in the waiting of unemployment. Since then, I’ve learned not to rest so many of my hopes on a steady income. In seminary, there will be very little of that!

Here’s another of my favorite artists, Sufjan Stevens, with a song called “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid).”

Monday, March 21, 2011

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains ...

Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” – John 4:39-42

In the Episcopal Church, we talk a lot about community: the importance of belonging to a group of Christians, instead of treating our relationship with God as a mere solo venture. This is very important, of course. But sometimes it’s easy to get subsumed in a faith community we love, and neglect our personal experience of and relationship with God.

The woman at the well had a personal experience of God. And then she couldn’t keep it to herself. She was so forthright in her proclamations of Good News that others wanted to have the same experience. Many Christians fall into this category: we want to believe, but we are holding out for “the real deal.”

The Indigo Girls song “Closer to Fine” is about seeking to know and understand God personally, not just relying on another person’s testimony. “There’s more than one answer to these questions, pointing me in a crooked line …” Have you had a personal experience of God at work in your life? What was it? How did it change things for you?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The man who sailed around his soul

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

- John 3:1-17

Abraham and Sarah set out across the desert—and in this reading, so did Nicodemus. He stepped out in faith—albeit by night, so his friends wouldn’t know—and embarked on a journey with Jesus. Nicodemus set sail from the port of literalism into the deep waters of faith. He didn’t know where he was going, but he knew he wanted to go there, because Jesus was there.

Both Abraham and Nicodemus “took no compass, guide or chart.” They were men who sailed around their souls. Abraham became the father of all the monotheistic religions. Nicodemus went from skulking in the night to securing a tomb for Jesus’ body … and who knows what he did after that?

As Christians in the season of Lent, we are invited to do the same: to step from unreality into reality, from hiding in darkness to praying in honesty. We don’t know what we’ll find, but if Jesus is there, we know it will be good.

Here’s XTC (my all-time favorite band) with “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul.”

Saturday, March 19, 2011

He told me everything that I've done

The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?"
– John 4:1-26 (Full text here … please read it before continuing.)

This story is so rich I don’t know where to start, or what tack to take. But the word that jumps out at me first is “thirsty.”

As with the story of the Good Samaritan, it’s crucial to understand some cultural dynamics. Samaritans were another “denomination” of Jews, but the main group of Jews didn’t recognize them. Perhaps a parallel might be comparing a dominant sect of Christians to a group of Mormons today. But the comparison doesn’t go far enough, because there was real acrimony between the two groups, so much so that they wouldn’t even eat together or talk to each other. The Jews of the community Jesus grew up in believed that Jerusalem was God’s home base—that to worship God in the Temple was the “real deal.” The Samaritans believed one could worship God anywhere.

So Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at the well and has this exchange with her, this back-and-forth banter as if they were equals. Culturally, it was a major faux pas for Jesus to talk with a woman, let alone a Samaritan! It is the woman’s calling out of Jesus’ faux pas that keeps the conversation going. It’s like they recognize a spark in each other: there’s chemistry.

Jesus shifts the conversation from literal water to symbolic water, and then the woman wonders what kind of water this is. But then Jesus delves into the woman’s personal life. Perhaps she would have been offended if she hadn’t had to wonder how he could know all this in the first place.

So what kind of thirst are the two of them talking about? What kind of water might quench a thirst once and for all?

Here's a pretty straight cover of a gospel song, as done by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds in 1986: "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well."

Friday, March 18, 2011

I want to be good, but good is being simple ...

So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today.

Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen. Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.

- Deuteronomy 10:12-22

“Circumcise the foreskin of your heart?” Now that’s a really disturbing mixed metaphor! Yet I get it. Don’t just mark yourself as God’s own in an outward way. Change your heart. Let go of your stubborn refusal to become vulnerable and human and less than Godlike. Understand the role you play. Know your place.

Knowing our place isn’t very popular. To our ears, it smacks of repression. It sounds like God doesn’t want us to be the best we can be. But let’s try it another way: “You are God, and I am not.” Knowing our place means being humble. It’s doesn’t mean underachieving. It means being realistic about our realm of influence.

It means relaxing and enjoying the party, instead of constantly trying to look like the coolest kid in the room.

The prophet Ezekiel writes at one point that God will replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. You can’t circumcise a heart of stone. You can’t change it. It is unyielding. We need squishy hearts, as the Judybats put it in their 1993 song “Being Simple.” This song presents us with the entire dilemma of choosing to be vulnerable:

I want to be good/
But good is being simple/
Simple is forgetting/
And I simply can’t forget.
I want to be great/
But greatness is giving/
Giving leaves me empty/
Oh great emptiness

Do we need to forget in order to let go of our stubbornness? If so, what do we need to forget?

Does giving leave us empty? Is that a misconception of the stubborn heart? Or do we need to become emptier in order to receive God?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Oh no ... I've said too much ... I haven't said enough.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. – Psalm 46

Throughout the forty days and forty nights that I lay prostrate before the Lord when the Lord intended to destroy you, I prayed to the Lord and said, "Lord God, do not destroy the people who are your very own possession, whom you redeemed in your greatness, whom you brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. - Deuteronomy 9:23-10:5

A few years ago I knew a little boy with a brain tumor. As we learned about the problem and how dire it seemed, my prayers quickly changed from, “God, please,” to “God, don’t you dare!” Today I still know that little boy with the brain tumor. It seems to be perfectly contained and not a problem at all. I thank God and praise God constantly for this miracle.

But Japan? This is just too much. Last night I heard a story about how the tsunami wave stopped just short of one family’s house, sparing them all. Is this a miracle? How can it be, when over 10,000 people lie dead? How can it be, when the 50 workers trying to contain the nuclear reactor are very likely on a suicide mission? Is their nobility the place to put the spotlight? How much difference will it make in the end?

Some people with microphones and TV cameras are gleefully announcing that God wreaked this havoc directly. I disagree, as I think any sane person should. But sometimes God still feels complicit. In this world, anything goes … and today I question the divine wisdom in making so much space not only for our free will, but also for natural forces this overwhelming.

“Losing My Religion” by R.E.M. is a song about unrequited love. Sometimes loving God feels like that: like, “God, I give my best for you, and then this happens?” The mood will pass. Beautiful, wonderful things will happen on earth and in our lives. But as is the case in any loving relationship, sometimes a lover feels desperate.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

And I laugh at myself while the tears roll down ...

“When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.” – John 2:23-25

Stuck between the story of Jesus turning water into wine and the story of Nicodemus is this funny little sentence. I had never noticed it before, because when we hear the weekly readings in church, it gets left out. It got me wondering: What does it mean that Jesus “would not entrust himself to them”? Did he stay guarded? Or was it just that he didn’t need to prove himself?

As someone who typically wears his heart on his sleeve, I’m often painfully aware (usually only in retrospect) of the need to keep some things close to the hilt, as it were. It doesn’t do any good to tell everyone everything, or to speak everything that’s on my mind. Often people get hurt this way. One of my Lenten disciplines this year is not to speak so quickly.

Did Jesus pace himself in his acts of self-revelation? I think so. We have just heard that he didn’t perform his first miracle until he was pressed to do so. Or could it be that he was still figuring out what God wanted him to do?

Yet “he himself knew what was in everyone.” He could read everybody like an open book, whether they revealed themselves or not. Christian piety has had faith in this idea throughout the ages—not the man Jesus looking deep into people’s souls, but the person of Christ already residing there, impossible to keep any secrets from. It’s both comforting and terrifying to imagine.
I’ve always liked this song by Collective Soul, “The World I Know.” The rather overwrought video tells a story of a near suicide. But when I hear this song, I imagine Jesus, still being tempted in the desert, looking out over all the kingdoms of the world that Satan has offered to him if only Jesus will worship Satan. Jesus will, of course, rebuke Satan for this offer. But in the meantime, here’s Jesus with these lyrics in his head:

So I walk up on high/ And I step to the edge/ To see my world below
And I laugh at myself/ While the tears roll down/ ’Cause it’s the world I know/ It’s the world I know.

It’s laughable and ironically beautiful that Satan, in all his shortsightedness, would offer Jesus a world that already belongs to him, full of people in whose hearts he already resides.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

There are thieves in the temple tonight ...

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

- John 2:13-22

We also get this story during Holy Week, but in John’s Gospel, it comes right near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Maybe we need to hear it now, too, because Lent is a time of house-cleaning.

Did Jesus cleanse the temple as a measured act of protest, or in a sudden raging passion? I like both ideas. Jesus certainly was one to choose his words and actions carefully. But if there was one thing that made Jesus really, really mad, it was people using religion to mistreat and oppress others. That’s one thing that makes me really mad, too.

When confronted about his actions in the temple, Jesus does a quick-change on them. He starts talking about the temple that is more important than the glorious building: the temple of his own body. Later, Paul would write that each of our bodies is a temple. Each of us, as a sovereign human being, is more important than any building we could ever erect to God, because God can’t possibly be kept in a box. The best way to love and respect God is to love and respect each other.

Who are the robbers in my temple? How does Jesus drive them out?

Here’s Prince with “Thieves in the Temple.” I had never heard this long version before. I admit that I find most of the eight minutes a bit tiresome, but there are some gems in here. What is Prince’s message about the body as a temple? What role is he playing in the story?

Monday, March 14, 2011

That's exactly how this grace thing works

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.
– John 2:1-12
In this story, Jesus doesn’t act until he absolutely has to. He doesn’t even seem to want to, but his mother convinces him. This is recorded in John’s Gospel as Jesus’ first miracle, a miracle I like to sum up as, “Jesus makes every occasion a party.”

What strikes me most is the steward’s comment, misdirected to the bridegroom: “You have kept the good wine until now.” The wine the bridegroom’s family was responsible for has run out. They gave all they could in the effort to throw a grand party. Only then has Jesus stepped in.

When I’m faced with an overwhelming situation, I want Jesus to act NOW and rescue me from having to work so hard. But I often find that if I just dig in, all the things I worry about will fall into place. Right now I’m faced with renting out my house and moving my family to Virginia so I can go to seminary. I’ve never done anything like this before!

Our first dilemma was what to do with the cat we knew we couldn’t bring. We searched high and low for a new owner. I scoured Facebook, and I talked with veterinarians and people at animal shelters. A lot of folks chipped in to help. When it became clear to me that there was nothing more I could do, I prayed, “God, please provide a graceful end for Epitome.” And a graceful end came immediately.

I am now more confident that other seemingly overwhelming factors will fall into the same category. I need to do everything I can first. Then the good wine will start to flow.

I could have saved this song until Easter, with a title like “Roll Away Your Stone.” But I love this line in particular today:

“It seems that all my bridges have been burned/
But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works.”

From their current hit album Sigh No More, here are Mumford & Sons.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

All of this can be yours ...

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
– Matthew 4:1-11

“All of this, all of this can be yours/ Just give me what I want and no one gets hurt.”
– U2, “Vertigo”

Sometimes we think we can see it all. We climb to the heights and take it all in. Perspective. A lot of perspective. In the words of one of the members of the fictitious rock group Spinal Tap, while standing at the grave of Elvis Presley, “It’s too much f---in’ perspective.”

Whenever we think we can see the whole picture, we start to get big ideas. If only we could get this group of people to do this, and that group of people to do that, everything would work much better around here. So we gain power and authority, and we seek to carry out our ideas. Politicians do this all the time. People with lots of money do this sometimes without even realizing it.

But if we don’t approach such responsibility humbly, our overabundance of perspective will defeat us … and those we are trying to help. Jesus could have fed not only himself, but the entire world. He could have proven to everyone that he was divine. He could have made all the nations bow down to his awesome power.

But he didn’t. Instead, he went to the seashore and called out to a few fishermen—nobodies, really. I like to think he chose his disciples at random, because he trusted that God’s grace would make these people exactly the right people, over time. Rather than coming among us at a time when mass communication could have made him a superstar, Jesus showed up in a backwater district of the Roman Empire, taught radical new ideas, and healed people. That was enough to plant the seed that is still growing today. And even then, the history of Christianity is littered with unintended consequences!

No matter how much perspective we think we have, we never have the entire picture. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t dream big and accomplish big, important things in the world. But we must always remember that the things we do aren’t meant to satisfy our own need for power and control. Next time we find ourselves at a great height, looking out over the world and seeing how everything connects, let’s not fool ourselves. We have a lot of perspective, but not that much. Let’s not give in to the temptation.

Here’s U2 with “Vertigo.”

Saturday, March 12, 2011

But I'm going hungry ...

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” – Psalm 30

“Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.” – Psalm 32 

I asked the question the other day: How can one feel blessed or protected by God when it seems many others are not? I ask the question again.

My cat Epitome died yesterday. I finally got what I had really been waiting for months to hear: permission from a vet to go ahead and have her put to sleep. This particular vet told me that while Epitome’s blood work came back pretty clean, that actually confirms that the mass in her abdomen is cancer, and that no matter what, she would not live until our move to Virginia this summer. She had lost so much weight in the past few weeks, and putting her on steroids would only prolong the inevitable. So I brought her right in.

Christy took time off from work to join me; I was very grateful for that. It was much different from when my beloved childhood cat Eowyn died. I was 13 then, and the vet didn’t seem all that compassionate to me. It was one shot while Eowyn struggled, and her struggling got me so worked up that I ran crying out of the room, and then beat myself up for a long time afterward for not having had the courage to stay to the end.

This was so different. First there was a sedative, which the vet gave her in a different room so as not to disturb Christy’s and my solemnity. Epitome was still wide awake when she came back, and she tried to jump off the table. But I held her firmly and whispered gently to her. Very quickly she got sleepy and lay down. The vet left us alone with her for a few minutes. We both just stroked her fur and told her again and again how much we loved her. Her eyes never closed (a mark of this particular sedative). When the vet came back, Epitome was unconscious. He shaved a little spot and put in the needle, and within seconds, her breathing and heartbeat stopped.

We told Sarah the news when I got her home from school. We had prepared her about a week ago for the inevitability. She said, “ohhh,” in a sympathetic voice, but she very quickly lost interest in the subject and wanted to play. We did, and we ate a snack, and we read The Tenth Good Thing about Barney. This got Sarah talking and thinking again. I had already begun digging Epitome’s grave in the afternoon; Sarah gladly came out and helped me finish it.

We kept coming back to the topic, gently, throughout the evening. Over dessert we realized a few things that are suddenly very different:

1)      Christy and I will never again lie awake at night hearing our other cat Henry eat and wondering whose food he’s eating.
2)      Come to think of it, Henry will now have little or no cause to do anything naughty ever again.
3)      Christy and I will never again give Epitome our ice cream bowls to lick clean.
4)      Epitome will never again rest her chin on my wrist while I type. (This reminds me of the characteristic way Eowyn used to lie on my lap, and how much I missed that immediately.)
5)      We can now leave open boxes on the floor without fear of them being peed in. And we didn’t mention this to Sarah, but I’ve already contacted Home Depot about replacing our living room carpet.

On Facebook, in reaction to the news, our friend Cindy put it best: “The answers to our problems are not always pleasant. Now you know why you couldn't find anyone to take her; she was meant to spend the rest of her life with you.”

This was our private sorrow yesterday. Meanwhile, in Japan, sorrow is widespread and public. We were relieved to hear that my brother, his wife, and their newborn son Noah (pictured) are OK in their home in Utsunomiya. Word that a nuclear plant may melt down is of grave concern, though. And then, on the north coast, all those people swept away by the waters. Where was God in that moment? Where is God as their loved ones suffer?

Epitome went hungry at the end. Her cancer kept her from holding anything down. Now she is not hungry anymore. Hunger is a mark of Lent.

As Jesus was driven into the desert to be tempted, he went hungry. He emptied himself of everything, including food, so he could receive God as fully as possible. He refused to turn stones into bread to feed himself. I imagine this temptation also applied to the world: he refused to magically feed the hungry of the planet. Why do you suppose he did that? Why did he keep his ministry localized, teaching and healing just a few at a time?

To quote a great old song by Temple of the Dog: “I can’t feed on the powerless when my cup’s already overfilled.” Here’s “Hunger Strike.”