Dispatch from the frontlines…

Below are the words of a veteran working on the frontlines of the battle for what Christians call the “Pax Christi” (peace of Christ) as opposed to the “Pax Romana” (peace of Rome, now a broad stand-in term for peace enforced with the blade of a sword or barrel of a gun).  Christians care less about short-term peace enforced by intimidation and violence, and care much more about long-term peace marked by self-giving love, humility, and deep listening to our enemies.

I celebrate the life of veteran Peggy Gish on this day alongside classic Christian hero St. Martin of Tours. The excerpt below is from Peggy’s incredible book Walking Through Fire: Iraqis’ Struggle for Justice and Reconciliation.

“Before working in Iraq I had talked about, and thought I really knew, what trusting God meant.  But facing the very real possibility of death or torture myself stripped away simplistic beliefs.  I had to rediscover what gives me hope and strength in life and death situations. In the midst of dangerous situations I felt my weakness and lack of control, and didn’t know what else to do but cry out for help. Somehow I’ve been given strength beyond my own and the ability to walk forward in spite of my fear.”
Security was an issue that wove through our thoughts and decisions, but we knew that problems of security were even greater for Iraqis.  We had the choice to leave and get respite from it in more stable places.  There were guns everywhere, and usually high-powered, automatic ones.  At the door of any office or business, there was usually an armed guard.  Our neighbor offered us the use of his Kalashnikov.  We refused it and explained that we would not use violence to protect ourselves.  “I hate this gun,” he said. “But how else can I protect my family?”  Guns had become a normal part of life here, but they didn’t seem to make people safer.

When we met American soldiers at their bases or while walking around the city, we often stopped and talked.  “What are you doing here, walking around the streets of Baghdad?” many asked, amazed.  “You don’t have a gun, or armed guards!  Don’t you know how dangerous it is?  “We’re safer than you are, carrying your guns,” I answered. “And without weapons, we can go places you can’t go, and meet people you can’t, because we’re not seen as threatening to them.”

To others concerned about our safety, I said more. “If we carry guns out of suspicion that someone might hurt us, we instead become more suspicious to them and are more likely to be a target of violence.”  We knew that without guns we would be forced to use other strengths we have, such as our creative thinking, our ability to talk to someone threatening us, transform a tense confrontation, or prevent others or ourselves from being hurt or killed.  And in most threatening situations, having weapons would not make us less vulnerable.

Most internationals living in Iraq surrounded themselves with blast walls, checkpoints, and razor wire.  By doing this, however, they put themselves in a kind of prison and cut themselves off from ordinary Iraqis. “How can you live in the Red Zone?” some asked members of our team with a sense of dread. We, however, felt it was a gift to live among and get to know the Iraqi people more personally and understand what they were thinking.

There was never any question that it was dangerous, but CPT differed from other organizations concerning the amount of risk we were willing to accept to do our work.  We joined the team, willing to take the same risks as soldiers, to work for peace.  We knew it was possible for any of us to be a victim of violence, but, for us, the importance of working alongside Iraqis for justice and peace outweighed the dangers…

We wanted to act out of a “non-mushy” love that compelled us to work in situations where people were under threat.  Most people wouldn’t think twice about giving their lives for a family member or risking their lives to pull a child out of a burning house or a river.  Could we see all persons as part of our family and their lives as equally precious?  Our organization has used the slogan “getting in the way” to refer to Jesus’s way of nonviolent suffering love, as well as standing in the way of those who would cause harm.  When we were willing to put our lives on the line to witness for truth, justice, and peace, God could empower us, work through us, and transform threatening situations.

Observing Jesus: The Role of Hiddenness in Discipleship

Sermon March 2    Matthew 6:1-18

This sermon was the final in a series in our church focused on the Sermon on the Mount.  Just below, I have posted the audio of the sermon if you would prefer to listen rather than read.

Click on this sentence to listen to the audio.

There is a simple adage that has been around awhile now that reads, “God created humans in God’s image, and then humans returned the favor.”  Said differently, human beings have come up with all kinds of religious teachings and concepts about God that we most like, and then we project those teachings and concepts into the heavens and call them “God.”  We might think Jesus is an exception to this rule, since we have the central teachings and actions of him written right before us every time we open the gospels, but it’s always interesting to listen to our society and how we invoke Jesus’ name in relationship to our political, religious, and social agendas.

Just to refresh my perspective on this subject, I simply googled the search term “Jesus” to see what popped up first.  

The first link was the Wikipedia entry on Jesus, which is refreshingly helpful as a guide for initial questions.  The section most relevant to what I just said is that Muslims, Manichaeans, Gnostics, Bahai’s, Mormons, and some Jews have found prominent places for Jesus in their religions. The Mormon theological perspective on Jesus is maybe most interesting in that they claim that Jesus visited the Americas after his resurrection, that God and Jesus were separate physical people, and that the Garden of Eden was and will be in Missouri.  Now, if you talk to Angela Pancella on that point, or Pastor Stoxen during baseball season, they might agree, but that is an interesting statement nonetheless.

 The second link was a New York Times article about Christians seeking to follow the counsel of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere to seek reconciliation by multiple avenues before going to a secular court.  This is a helpful thing to think about.

The third link was an article about the new movie “Son of God,” which looks interesting, even though Tony Jones hates it, but Tony Jones basically hates anything related to conservative evangelicals.

The fourth link, and another link down the page, were stories about the village in Japan where some Japanese believe Jesus moved after he snookered the Romans, escaped from crucifixion,  made a Marco Polo-like  trans-Asian journey, settled in Japan, had a wife and kids, and died at the ripe old age of 106. 

The fifth link was the “Jesus Christ” Twitter account with such helpful tweets as “Heaven will be temporarily shut down.  Please feel free to do whatever you want until further notice. YOLO” on October 15th, and “I’ll celebrate when my Dad apologizes for what he did to me,” on June 16th.  So, yeah, there’s that.

Then, further down the page, Paul Oestreicher wrote an article in the Guardian in 2012 entitled “Was Jesus gay? Probably.”  Now, you could spend the rest of your life surveying Google searches of Jesus, but that’s just a little glimpse of how our society thinks about Jesus.  Now, some of the more strange and ridiculous notions of Jesus aside, I think we could agree that even amongst the Christian community in America, Jesus comes off looking pretty monochromatic, pretty flat, not extremely interesting.

Many conservative evangelicals I speak with, no matter how hard they try to sound excited,  come off, frankly, bored of Jesus.  Their story of Jesus, that he lived a perfect and sinless life because we cannot, that he died on the cross for our sins instead of God’s wrath consuming us, and that if we accept him as our Lord and Savior, we will be forgiven and saved, has elements of the story, sure.  But does that understanding of Jesus come close to the full meaning of Jesus?  I find that story wanting.  And many of them have heard that one sentence summation of Jesus nearly every Sunday and Wednesday at the end of a sermon for decades on end.

More liberal Christians I speak with, no matter how hard they try to sound excited, come off, frankly, bored of Jesus.  Their story of Jesus, that he was radically gracious, that he welcomed the outsider and was harsh toward the judgmental and religious, that he offers us forgiveness and redeems our understanding of God from an angry, bipolar Father into the embrace of compassion and welcome, has elements of the story, sure.  But I also find that story wanting.  And many of those types are former conservatives who now, out of boredom or curiosity, have rejected the other story and now live in reaction to it, or, frankly, find this version of Jesus more culturally acceptable, more palatable to the American social values of tolerance, freedom, and religion as a hobby.

Now, clearly, there are more pictures of Jesus than these two.  Many charismatics trumpet “signs and wonders Jesus,” all about claiming authority, seizing our destiny as inheritors of God’s blessing.  Anarchists trumpet the Jesus who showed up Pilate and mocked the powerful.  Instead of accepting one narrative, however, is it possible that Jesus is all of these things?

Was Jesus perfect and sinless, die on the cross for our sins instead of God’s wrath consuming us, does he forgive us, was he radically gracious, did he welcome the outsider, was he harsh toward the judgmental and religious, was he judgmental and religious himself, did he offer forgiveness, did he redeem a view of God that was too bipolar and angry? Did he teach and reveal signs and wonders and authority, did he strip the powerful of their power even as they schemed to take his life?  Yes, yes, yes, yes!!!!! And yes!

The more I study Jesus, the more I find that he was all of these things, and represented them without becoming the mushy moderate that people so often become.  I think the gateway for all of us into a more full, more dynamic, more meaningful picture of Jesus is to learn more about the story behind Jesus, the social story that he entered into, at the perfect moment.  What I am talking about is the social context of Jesus. 

Jesus was a Jew, a citizen of Israel.  The Jewish people lived under military occupation from the Romans, made even more harsh by the fact that the more radical and violent elements of Jewish society kept rabble-rousing and enraging the Roman authorities.  They lived in a repressive police state.  They were taxed into the ground by the Romans, and many of their Jewish political leaders and tax collectors made the situation worse by intensifying the rates and skimming off the top for themselves.  So the average small farmer in this agrarian society was typically deeply in debt, and many lost their properties that had been in their families for generations, and became drifters and beggars; dishonored and ashamed of their failure.  If we think of the worst of the Great Depression in America, when drifters would beg farmers in the area I grew up if they could split some wood for a meal to stave off starvation, then we’re beginning to catch a glimpse of Jewish social reality.

What made this repressive, brutal situation even worse was the Jewish self-understanding that they were the blessed people of God, God’s special people whom he redeemed out of everyone else.  They understood that blessing to mean material wealth and political power, and over and over in their religious writings after their initial corruption and exile, this concept of the “Day of the Lord” arose.  The “Day of the Lord” was the longed-for day when God would set everything right again, would eject the profane occupiers out, would restore the financial and political fortunes of Israel, and a King like David would rule on the throne, as Israel became the envy of the nations, because God had blessed them.

The fact that Israel saw themselves in this way and the reality that this vision was frustrated and unfulfilled for hundreds of years meant that this vision turned in itself, became ugly and corrupted.  Many carried a low view of themselves, just trying to get by and feed their families.  Revolutionary agitators periodically arose, believing that if they started the violent revolution, that God would join their side.  They were crushed again and again, with the brief exception of the Maccabees in a time of relative Roman weakness.  The Zealots, the revolutionary agitators, were scheming just as much in Jesus’ day.  “Why isn’t God saving us?” was a despair-filled question for them. “Is there something fundamentally wrong with us?” they asked.  

Out of this question and desperation, a group of religious reformers arose, believing that the problem was a lack of religious seriousness.  “God isn’t redeeming us because we don’t care enough, and if we care, then God will come,” said the Pharisees.  And it’s hard to fault them, if we take their social context seriously.  God did, and does, care about religious seriousness.  Their vision involved reforming the morally degenerate and proclaiming the good news of God’s law and the lived value of it.  Unfortunately, they formed simplistic versions of faithfulness, where sickness and disease were signs of God’s curse.  And they focused on outward acts of faithfulness so deeply that in some ways their mission became a form of social theater; with faithfulness enacted in front of the people each day.  When tithing to God, as many people as possible need to see, so that they will reform and do the same.  When keeping purity laws, marginalize the unclean as publicly as possible so society will reform and do the same.  And in their defense, isn’t that how social revolutionaries  have operated through time, using political theater?  Gandhi rejected the British salt tax, so he marched with the Indian people to the Ocean to illegally harvest the salt themselves.  Political theater.  Black and white college students rejected lunch-counter segregation in Greensboro, North Carolina, so they sat down together at the counter, knowing full-well of the reaction that would create.   Political theater.  Learning these aspects of the Pharisees redeemed them from the rather flat story I had often heard that they were too religious and self-righteous.

So the Jewish people were desperate, and in this desperation, there were competing agendas of how to encourage the day of the Lord.  So this is the context that Jesus entered, and makes the way Jesus skillfully built a mass movement in this context infinitely interesting.  Jesus specifically chose one zealot and maybe more as a part of his inner circle.  So was he a Zealot?  Jesus chose a tax collector as part of his inner circle.  Clearly a curious choice, and definitely a political statement.   Jesus chose mostly blue-collar people as part of his inner circle.  Also curious, though we quickly find they were as political ambitious for power as Caesar himself.

Jesus’ movement began in full force in a synagogue in his hometown where he invoked Isaiah and the oppressed being set free.  Who does he think is, but if he isn’t insane, that’s a good place to start, because they’re all oppressed, and the “year of the Lord’s favor” is Isaiah’s version of the “Day of the Lord.”

In this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins to stake out the boundaries of what his message and movement will look like, and the different groups are there, looking to check off their boxes of whether he really is the Messiah or not, because they know who the Messiah will be.  Beatitudes? Confusing, but referencing the poor in spirit, those who mourn?   We are those things, so the average Jew checks that box.  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart?  The Pharisees want to check, but there’s that troubling bit about meekness.  There’s no room for meekness in the need for purity.  Salt and light? The Pharisees’ eyes are lighting up, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law,” obvious, but eyes lighting up even more, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Boom, throw-down.  (band music) He’s one of us!

Murder, adultery, divorce, oaths; his teachings on these all situate him as a theological conservative.  Many of the socially marginalized may have been tempted to see him as a social enemy of theirs in this section. Passive resistance of an evil-doer, love of enemies?  Zealot purists are now convinced he is not one of them.  And that’s a bad community to have opposed to you, since they’re the ones that will knife you in the middle of a crowd.  

And now, in the section of teaching we encounter today, Jesus focuses on the hiddenness of faithfulness.  Here, he is staking out a position of deep contrast from the Pharisees, where giving to the needy, praying, and fasting should not be political theater or public teachable moments, but rather something much different.  The teaching would have been troubling to the Pharisees, so used to their public theater that made obvious to the people of Israel the things they needed to do, but Jesus also embeds this “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites.”  That line is like a papercut on the lip for the Pharisees, a jolting difference.  For the average Jew who had questions about the incessant publicity of the Pharisees, this is interesting.

At this point, I want to leave the consideration of the social context of Jesus and draw us into consideration of our response.  In just the early stages of Jesus’ ministry, it is easy to see why we so often pick one thing Jesus cared about and make it the whole story for us.  Jesus is frustratingly complex, and a joltingly uncomfortable kind of teacher. 

 Jesus, should we focus on outward acts of faithfulness? 

Yes.  

Should we focus on inward acts of faithfulness? 

Yes.  

Well, which one is it, Lord, the inward or the outward? 

Yes. 

Which one is more important, man, I need some simplicity here! 

Well, how would you sum up the last ten minutes of my teaching? 

Hmmmmm.  Sometimes our faith needs to be expressed outwardly, and sometimes inwardly, with both being important, and neither canceling out the other?  But how do we know when one is better than the other?

What else have you heard me teach?

Hmmmm……oooohhhhhhh.  I see you sneak away early in the morning or late at night, and sometimes in the middle of a crowd, I see your attention focus inwardly.  You’re listening, aren’t you?

Bingo.

Today, the term we use for this activity is “practicing the presence of God.”  The name we most often associate with this activity is Brother Lawrence, and attention to his practice is very fruitful for contemplation and action.  I would like to check in this morning, however, with the practice of one of my heroes, Frank Laubach, who is often mentioned in the same breath as Brother Lawrence when it comes to “practicing the presence of God.”  Frank had a wonderful sense of curiosity with the realm of prayer and listening to the Spirit.  He played what he called the “game of minutes,” where he desired to spend one second out of every waking minute in conscious attention to God.  He also engaged in what we could call “experiments in hiddenness” with prayer.

But before I mention a couple practices of Frank, I want to invite each of you into a simple reflection right now. You have been provided with a piece of paper and a pen this morning. I simply want you to think about a typical day for you.  What happens between you opening your eyes in the morning and closing your eyes at night?  What is a typical day?  I’m aware that there is no “typical” day, say, for a parent of a child, but there is still a rhythm of the usual day even for parents.  Write down the events of a typical day for you.

Now, Frank Laubach would do what we just did.  He would consider his day, and aggressively look for opportunities for hidden prayer.  If in a car or bus or walking, he considered how to transform his commute into an opportunity to listen to God and pray for others.  If in a doctor’s office or business, he considered how to transform the waiting into an opportunity to listen to God and pray for others.  If preparing food, he considered how to redeem the time by listening to God and praying for others.  When lying in bed just before sleep, he considered how to listen to God and pray for others.  In his outward public life, Frank was a hero of literacy and poverty alleviation, and in his inward life, Frank became a hero of experiments in hiddenness.

Frank celebrated the opportunity to pray, and often highlighted that he didn’t see discernible results of prayer right away.  But he shares some crazy cool stories along the way in his experiments.  My favorite is one from a church in Bombay (now Mumbai) India…

When I think of Jesus’ admonition “when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others… but when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen,” I think of Frank Laubach, and I can imagine Jesus saying, “when you travel, quietly bless the person in the car next to you, when you walk, quietly bless the person in front of you, when you parent, quietly bless your child, when in a meeting, quietly bless each person who speaks…and while you’re at it, quietly bless the person who never speaks.”  For me, it could be, “when walking around your classroom, quietly bless each student you pass.”  As we consider the events of a typical day for us, what are places we observe are opportunities for hidden blessing?

There is great value in hiddenness, and in an age where nearly every thought a person has somehow finds its way onto Facebook, these quiet experiments in hiddenness hold the opportunity of helping us regain a sense of what needs to be public and what needs to be hidden in our path of discipleship. May we, like Jesus, cultivate a deep listening to the voice of our Father.

 

 

Resurrection

iphigenia

We
are coddled.

She
watched her husband and several children
hacked to death with a machete.

She grieves.
Her remaining children are fatherless
missing limbs
also by machete
a living “lesson” from the perpetrators to never forget
that this could happen again.

Yet instead of nurturing vengeance
instead of nurturing bitterness
she looks the murderers and maimers in the eye
and says,
I forgive you.
You have shattered my life, but you will not shatter my spirit.”

She is able to say this, and believe this,
because she received a gift from the church.
The gift of truth and reconciliation.
A process that brings deep awareness of hurt and injustice,
yet extends the transformative power of forgiveness.
A real power that takes the tattered pieces of a fractured reality,
and makes hope rise again.

Yet here in America,
we are coddled.

We have conversations about hypothetical scenarios
of robbers who come to steal possessions, and maybe life.
We have constitutional amendments that justify our beliefs
about what we would do to those perpetrators.

We don’t believe in forgiveness.
We don’t believe in hope rising from the ashes of death.
We don’t believe in resurrection.

We do not receive the gift from the church
of truth and reconciliation.

We baptize our hatred,
we baptize our justifications
we marginalize the teachings of Jesus,
we call our beliefs and justifications
Christian.

Yet,
try as we might,
marginalize as we do,
stories like hers never go away.

They bubble up from seemingly hidden places,
searing stories of a Christianity
that is not defanged, declawed, spiritualized into oblivion;
unlike ours, her Christianity looks a lot like Jesus.

Giving
Loving
Judging
Forgiving
Weeping
Transforming.

We are coddled, lost.

We can be Christian again.

It is not hopeless.

God resurrected Jesus.

God can resurrect us.

Rare opportunities, and the reminder that we are not in control

RCL screenshot

Anyone that knows me well knows that I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the lectionary.  If you’re not familiar with the lectionary, it’s a set of Scriptural readings (daily, and Sunday) that run on a three year cycle before repeating.  As you could imagine, the central idea is that the major themes of the Scriptures are covered; so Christians who follow the lectionary will have a higher Scriptural literacy and stronger foundation for faith.

That’s the idea, and I LOVE that idea.  In practice, the things come out pretty mixed.  In important times of the Christian year (Lent, Advent, Pentecost, etc), the lectionary focuses us on the season pretty well. In general, it covers some important Scriptural territory.  However, the lectionary has a couple frustrating, even angering holes.

One intermediate problem is that the Sunday lectionary readings tend to hop all over the place during Ordinary Time, leaving churches and pastors that follow them to try to draw some kind of continuity from week to week.  As a result, worship on the lectionary tends to be whatever the church constructs.

One horrific problem is that the lectionary readings often omit the sharper edges of the Scriptures in favor of passages with vocabulary we can bend to fit what we want to say or do.  I’m very aware that “horrific” is a strong word.  I used it on purpose.  Systematically excluding parts of the Scriptures you don’t want to hear or have to explain is a living example of the prophetic critique that Jeremiah brings twice against the people of Israel, “Prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit.  They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.  ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:13-14, 8:10-11)

Now, you may have several responses to my introduction here.

1. You may be skeptical about the accuracy of what I’m saying about the lectionary.  If you’re a part of a church that follows the lectionary, I would encourage you to take a three or four-month segment and read the passages.  Pay particular attention to what the lectionary leaves out.  Specifically, look for passages like “10-12a.”  You will often find that “12b” isn’t quite as comforting.  In addition, look for passages like 10-12a, 13-15, 19-21a.”  I’ve seen this multiple times in the last few years.  Take a wild guess at what is often repeatedly excluded in the skipped-over sections.

Maybe they’re just setting it up for a simple message to be taken away from the reading, Nathan?” you might say in response.  Yes, maybe.  Sometimes simplicity is helpful, and complexity muddies the water too much.  I get that.  But again and again?  One begins to see a troubling pattern that leads to troubling conclusions.

2.  You may think it’s entirely appropriate to skip certain sections of the Scriptures, because they’re not relevant anymore, or even may be destructive to read and follow.  I’m sympathetic to some of that belief, and deeply aware of the darker implications of that kind of commitment.

I’m sympathetic to that belief, because the Scriptures are a set of living, evolving, progressing writings that emerge from a living, evolving community.  I very much take a narrative approach to the Scriptures that proclaims that God is meeting God’s creation where they’re at, connecting with them, and taking them a step further.  Sometimes those steps are smaller, like the call of Moses to speak up, and sometimes those steps are bigger, like the advent of Jesus; which was such a big step that Israel killed him off as quickly as they could.  Because of this narrative approach, if we happened to read, “Happy is the one who seizes (Babylon’s) infants and dashes them against the rocks,” (Psalm 137: 9) or “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable.  They are to be put to death,” (Leviticus 20:13), I would refuse to say our typical response,

“Reader:  This is the word of the Lord.
Congregation:  Thanks be to God.”

I would refuse to say this not because I confidently believe we know better than our ancestors, but because both of those sentiments (vengeance against enemies, and the death penalty for homosexuality) are contradicted explicitly by Jesus and therefore no longer the truth we turn our life upside-down to follow.  I don’t know exactly what the proper response to a reading of those Scriptures would be.  Maybe,

“Reader:  The story of the people of God.
Congregation:  Damn, that’s different than Jesus,”

or

“Reader:  God’s word to Israel then.
Congregation:  Thanks be to God for the way of Jesus now.”

or whatever else would better fit.

Now, the darker implications of our belief that certain parts of the Scriptures are no longer relevant or helpful is that we presume to believe we know better than our ancestors what faithfulness is and how to live.  In other words, we don’t really care deeply about the narrative progression of the Scriptures unless they reinforce what we already believe about ourselves and the world.  When the Scriptures present a situation that offends us or present a hard boundary on our behavior, we go out of our way to minimize, spiritualize or otherwise metaphorize (is that even a word?), or ignore the passage.  Conservatives and liberals both do this in our society.  Conservative American christians often minimize or relativize Jesus (as crazy as that sounds), while Liberal American christians often minimize or relativize the Old Testament and/or Paul and/or the Scriptures period (to give several quick examples).  In our church family here in Norwood, I often sense the greatest tension in the room when we read passages that challenge a more liberal perspective on the world.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

All of the above is a prequel of sorts for a simple observation I made last Sunday.  The lectionary’s outline highlights certain themes because it has to pick something, and the lectionary very rarely includes “sharp” words that challenge and offend.  Yet for some reason, the shapers of the RCL, in tune with the Lenten season, chose to include last Sunday some very strong Scriptures that were BEGGING, JUST BEGGING, PLEADING, to be central in the time of worship.   Our church family is focusing in the Lenten season on the appropriate themes of Repentance, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation.  We read from:

Isaiah 55:1-9 (theme: Listen to the Lord and obey, and you will live!)

Psalm 63:1-8 (theme, devotionally: “My soul thirsts for God!”)

1 Corinthians 10:1-13 (theme: Warning, continue to choose disobedience and idolatry, and God has every right to end you)

Luke 13:1-9 (theme, from Jesus’s lips, “Repent, or perish!”  Perish.  Spiritually: unsatisfied, unfruitful.  Physically: Wasting away, death.  Again, God has every right to end you if you aren’t serving the purpose you were created for).

What important passages to be reminded of!
How appropriate for the themes of Repentance, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation!
How timely and needed for a congregation that tends toward liberal perspectives!
What a gift from a lectionary prone to avoidance of passages like these!

We read the passages near the beginning of our worship gathering.  Tension developed in the room as the passages were read aloud one after the other.  I looked around and could see faces responding in certain ways, some seeming to cringe in embarrassment at what they believed to be the provincial backwardness of the passages, some seeming to cringe at the starkness of “Repent or perish!” because there isn’t a whole lot of wiggle room or room for mystery or complexity, others offended with some masking it better than others, some wondering how to respond faithfully to such stark words, others grudgingly hearing the passage as a surprising and hard teaching, and others seeming to come alive in response to the words!   A spectrum of responses.

In other words, a ripe opportunity to be reminded in practical, meaningful ways that we are not the authority.  A ripe opportunity to listen to the testament of our ancestors in thinking they could construct their own ways of defining good and evil.  A ripe opportunity to consider how the grace and compassion of God lives alongside the wrath and judgment of God; with both being vital parts that make up God’s love.  Ripe, ripe, ripe, RIPE, RIPE!

The simple reading of the Scriptures gave us the opportunity to begin this importance reflection on God’s authority, that in fact, our belief that we are free to construct our own understanding of truth and life is a central component of the chains that enslave us as God’s creation.  It is a twisted, wicked lie passing as truth that constrains, sickens, and ultimately destroys us.  And yet God compassionately, graciously, patiently waits for extended periods of time for us to abandon this false pretense. God forgives a thousand, a million times over as we offend and rebel against him.  And eventually, because God cares more about his kingdom breaking out in this world, a kingdom of people under his authority bringing healing and reconciliation to that which is twisted almost beyond recognition, God is willing to end us, to destroy those who would militate against his purposes.

We don’t want to hear this, whether liberal or conservative.  We would rather plug our ears, sing comforting songs, read books that reinforce our beliefs, continue constructing our own world, and only read Scriptural passages that feed our perspectives.  And thus we remain ignorant, but willfully so.  And God will not stand for willful ignorance. God will eventually act, and do it because of His great love for this creation that with agonizing groans begs for the sons and daughters of God to be revealed.

Lent is Lent for a reason.  It is a season we still set aside to focus on our need for repentance, our desire to rule our own lives, our sense of justification for rejecting and excluding others from our love.  I needed to sit and reflect with my brothers and sisters on the FACT that God is the authority, that we are NOT, and that that fact is GOOD, GREAT news.

I know we will have more opportunities during Lent to dwell deeply in our sinfulness and rebellion, to dwell deeply in God’s long-suffering patience, compassion, and just judgment.  I sincerely hope we take those opportunities, because after Lent, the lectionary will return to its old ways, release us to resume building our own world and religion the way we please.

I lament.
I hope.
I thank you, God, that you are awakening me to see the chains wrapped about my arms, legs,
the fog slowly clearing from a mind clouded and confused by my sin.
Thank you that your Way is good and right.
Thank you that we have a role to play,
that you have invited us to collaborate with you,
under your authority
for the healing of your world.

More than a spiritual teacher

“Throughout his short public career Jesus spoke and acted as if he was in charge

Jesus did things people didn’t think you were allowed to do, and he explained them by saying he had the right to do them.  He wasn’t, after all, merely a teacher, though of course he was that too- in fact, one of the greatest teachers the world has ever known.  He spoke and acted as more than a teacher. 

He behaved as if he had the right, and even the duty, to take over, to sort things out, to make his country and perhaps even the wider world a different place.  He behaved suspiciously  like someone trying to start a political party or a revolutionary movement.  He called together a tight and symbolically charged group of associates (in his world, the number twelve meant only one thing: the new Israel, the new people of God).  And it wasn’t very long before his closest followers told him that they thought he really was in charge, or ought to be.  He was the king they’d all been waiting for.

If we look for a parallel in today’s world, we won’t find it so much in the rise of a new “religious” teacher or leader as in the emergence of a charismatic, dynamic politician whose friends are encouraging him to run for president– and who gives every appearance of having what it takes to sort everything out when he gets there.”

From N.T. Wright in Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters

Imagination in prayer for Bethany and Hannah…

I wanted to update everyone involved in the work of prayer for Bethany and Hannah in a way that may bring you focus.

Frank Laubach in his “game of prayer” he played with God often used his imagination to lift others before God.  On his days off, he would simply ride a city bus or tram around town.  He would often sit in the back of the bus so he could see all the persons ahead of him.  And he would engage in the work of prayer.  He would focus on each person, sometimes choosing to pour as much love as he knew how into that person through prayer.  Other times, Frank would imagine Jesus walking down the aisle of the bus, stopping by the person Frank was praying for to place a hand on their shoulder to encourage them and bless them.  Many times, Frank saw no discernable change in the persons he prayed for.  But many other times, Frank would see the persons jump as if touched, or look around to explain the feeling they had.  Some would turn around and engage him in conversation about spiritual matters seemingly off the cuff.  Others would smile or relax tensed shoulders.

The long and short of this is that Frank practiced this habit of continuous day-long prayer enough that he saw substantial confirmation of the worthiness of his effort.  God blessed his commitment to bless others.

Bethany and I had one such blessing today.  I share this because of how encouraging it was for us, in order that others may be encouraged to use their imagination to pray along with us as we pray for Hannah’s life.

I was away from Bethany for a couple hours today with my mother and father getting some shopping done.  After we finished up at Whole Foods, I chose to walk across a larger parking lot to Yagoot to get some frozen yogurt to bring back for Bethany.  You know, encouraging digestive health and all. 🙂  As I walked across the parking lot, I remembered Frank Laubach and his practice of prayer, and chose to follow his lead.  I imagined our hospital room and the chair beside Bethany’s bed.  I then imagined Jesus sitting in that chair and placing a hand on Bethany’s shoulder; a strong, healing hand.  I held that image in my head for awhile as I entered Yagoot, then re-focused on it after exiting and continuing to walk across the parking lot toward my parents.  I have struggled with guilt when being away from Bethany even for short periods of time, and this gave me something proactive I could do when away.  I found peace in praying for Bethany in this way.

I returned to the hospital room with partially melted frozen yogurt in my hand for my bride.  She was in bed with red eyes and had clearly been crying.  She has appreciated times she could be alone to listen, to take a deep breath, and to pray.  Bethany told me that while I was gone, she was trying to pray, struggling through her emotions.  In the midst of her struggle, she felt a strong impression to get off the bed and on her knees.  She felt she needed to obey this impulse, and did.  While there, she simply prayed over and over, “Please, please” with many tears.  And while on her knees, she felt a strong sense that God was deeply present in the room, centrally in the very chair I was imagining Jesus to be as I prayed several miles away.  She felt assurance from God that she was not left alone, and rose from her knees to come back into bed.

This was confirmation for us of God’s provision for us, and presence with us in the midst of our crisis.  I share that with you to encourage you as it has encouraged us.  I also share that with you because I took a picture of that very bedside chair in our room and I would like to invite you to join us in using your imagination to pray for Bethany and Hannah.  If you could, imagine Jesus entering the room, and settling down to sit in that chair beside Bethany, with a comforting, strong, healing hand on her back.  Hold that image and settle your focus there and imagine God’s love and healing flowing into Bethany.  Anchor yourself in that place and join Jesus in loving Bethany and Hannah for as long as you can hold your focus.  Return to this imaginative prayer when you feel like you don’t have words to pray, or if it becomes the most natural way for you to pray for Bethany and Hannah.

This practice is not a magic lesson or escape from reality.  Frank Laubach did not see God as a genie (in a bottle).  No, that God is too small.  Frank Laubach saw God as far bigger than he could imagine  yet deeply intimate in his caring.  Frank saw using his imagination in prayer as a way to join God in loving others with all of his heart.  And Frank saw results.  The picture is pasted below.

I invite you to join us in this holy, worthy use of imagination in prayer.

 

Jesus, thank you for your deep love for Bethany and Hannah.  Would you come by their bedside and speak words of healing, of hope, and of assurance?  Would you fight for Hannah’s life with your strong hand?  Would you ward off brokenness and unhealth by focusing your healing on Bethany’s womb?  Heal the amniotic sac and fill it, Lord, so that your daughter Hannah may grow strong.

Nurturing compassion as an intimate part of prayer

This post emerges from the precarious situation we are in.  Bethany is almost 19 weeks pregnant.  Her water broke nearly a week ago, and day by day we have prayed, cried, held one another, and prayed even more; we have pled with God for the life of our daughter Hannah.

As I’ve read about (all focused on one chapter in one book, Celebration of Discipline) and practiced prayer this week in a deeper and more intense way than I ever have in my life, I have been absolutely struck by the below quote from Richard Foster.  It has stuck with me through thick and thin; prayer for Bethany and Hannah when beside them and prayer for them when apart; prayer in the more steady moments, and prayer in the crushing crisis moments.

“We do not pray for people as “things,” but as “persons” whom we love.  If we have God-given compassion and concern for others, our faith will grow and strengthen as we pray.  In fact, if we genuinely love people, we desire for them far more than it is within our power to give, and that will cause us to pray.”

More than anything else (especially when I’ve had long stretches of sitting beside Bethany and Hannah), I’ve quieted my heart and nurtured the compassion that comes from seeing them as “persons whom I love.”  Without saying anything for awhile, I focus on that compassion, allowing it to grow and grow until my heart feels like it’s going to explode with love for them.  And from that place, I begin to pray in a more specific, “God, have mercy on us!” kind of way.

I have stayed and drilled down deep with the words of Richard Foster because he exemplifies the very best of theology; the kind of thinking that is in intimate relationship with practice.  He does not write about prayer from an ivory tower, or an academic institution somewhere where it’s his job to write and think about prayer (as important as that can be).  He is a deep practitioner of prayer.  He chooses to engage in the bold kind of prayer we are called to in the Scriptures, and he wrestles with prayer from that place.  He is committed to ” learn to pray so that my experience conform(s) to the words of Jesus rather than try to make his words conform to my impoverished experience.”

What is Foster’s method to pray? “We should never make prayer too complicated,” he says. “We are prone to do so once we understand that prayer is something we must learn…but Jesus taught us to come like children to a father.  Openness, honesty, and trust mark the communication of children with their father.  The reason God answers prayer is because his children ask.”

I have been working with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength to pray in this way.  Nurturing compassion in silence until my heart bursts with care for my wife and daughter, then moving to pray with strong desire and conviction that God deserves to hear from my very heart with boldness, not pious words of “if it be your will” that we use as protection to keep us from the dangerous edge of prayer.

I have come to believe in a deeper way this week what I’ve been moving toward for a while now.  God not only welcomes the direct communication that comes from us; he has created the world in such a way that certain things in creation will not be done if we don’t participate in the work of prayer.  That certain things are not done is not because God is not sovereign; somehow unable to correct a creation in chaos and rebellion.  No, certain things are not done because God limits his own absolute authority out of a desire for his creation to step up to the plate and be counted in the work of prayer.  We are called “co-laborers with God” (1 Corinthians 3:9) because we have an essential role to play.

This is not magic; there are no incantations that make God subject to our desires.  No.  But our Creator so expects our participation that he waits, he tarries, for us to care enough about the world that we work to make prayer as habitual as breathing.  As Foster said above, “if we genuinely love people, we desire for them far more than it is within our power to give, and that will cause us to pray.”  Prayer is born out of a love for God and for people, and is made powerful by the growth of that love.

I have said to others in this crisis, “God is not on trial  in this situation.”  This is true in one sense.  The existence of a God out there somewhere does not hinge on whether our baby girl Hannah survives.  I have met that God in Jesus and will never turn back again.  I have never encountered any way of life so beautiful, so worthy of all of my life, so purposeful.  But that statement “God is not on trial” is not true in another sense.  God has revealed himself to be good, to hear us and to see us, to identify with us in our anguish and move in response to our cries.  If this is how God has been revealed, then I expect that God will hear us in this crisis, will see us in this crisis, will identify with us in this crisis; and will act, will not hang back waiting when his creation rises up and screams “MERCY God!  MERCY!  HEAL and ACT!”

If our daughter dies, this will not destroy my faith, but it will inflict a wound on my heart, it will tempt me to take a step toward the belief that all things are inevitable and prayer is only psychological adjustment to accept the inevitability of life and/of God’s will.  There are a million steps back to that place, but I can only be honest and know God hears how much this matters to me.

And I know God’s response would be, “Nathan, learn from what you are feeling in this crisis.  Take your commitment to bold, humble prayer, and practice it until it becomes as natural as breathing.  Take what you have learned about the essential role of a powerful love for people empowering prayer and love people deeper; battle against a belief system that crushes or dehumanizes people; never let it rule you.”

So I will practice this bold, humble prayer.  Life has brought wounds on my heart and will continue to.  God will not be my magic puppet as I would like him to, and this will hurt.  And yet God has made his human creation to co-labor with him in prayer; limiting his own authority as he awaits their faithful response.

And so we pray, “Lord, save Hannah!  Hear our cry, and move in power!”