Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Plenty Good Room

In Latin American countries, and particularly in Mexico, a series of special worship services prepare Christians for Christmas. The services are called Las Posadas, and they recall the Holy Family’s search for shelter in Bethlehem. For eight nights, at the homes of members who have agreed to host the service, and then again on Christmas Eve, at the church, a small band of worshipers come to the closed front door and says:

“Who will give lodging to these pilgrims
who are weary of traveling the roads?
We have come exhausted from Nazareth.
I am a carpenter, by the name of Joseph.
In the name of the heavens, I beg you for lodging,
my beloved wife can no longer travel.”

Inside the doors are other worshipers who respond:

“Although you tell us you are weary,
we do not give lodging to strangers.
We don’t care what your name is; let us sleep.
We are telling you that we will not let you enter.”

Then follows a sort of call and response where Scriptures are read and heard, reminding the worshipers that opening doors is a hallmark of our faith—whether to family and friends, or even to strangers and enemies. We open our doors in honor of the One against whom many doors were closed. At the end of Las Posadas, when the homes and church have been opened at last, there are prayers and carols and then, of course, refreshments.

Would to God that it worked in everyday life the way it does in that service: that with only a few words back and forth, a few reminders of what we believe and preach, all the doors could open—that we could find more room in the Inn of our homes and hearts, our churches and lives. Would to God that our work of hospitality proceeded so sweetly: that after a little prayer and preparation we could sing, have cookies and all would be as it should be. Sadly, Gospel-work is most often messier than that, has been from the start.

“The Word became flesh,” John says (which means there was pain and blood and tears), “and dwelt among us,” and where Christ’s Holy Flesh first dwelt was in the unlit darkness of a Bethlehem cave, the limb-numbing cold of a Bethlehem night, there among smelly animals and all the smelly things stabled animals do. It was not a pristine moment, though the Hallmark cards would like it to be, and there would be few pristine moments to come. At the end, too, there was pain and blood and tears, which is to say that if the Word taking on Mary’s flesh was an untidy business, the Gospel taking on our flesh is also an untidy business—but thanks be to God not an unprecedented one. Perhaps next year we will do Las Posadas, but with such experience as to make the call and response a kind of testimony, and the cookies taste really sweet.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Majesty and Mess

On Sunday morning, just after shaking hands and kissing cheeks in the narthex following the service, I walked back down the center aisle of the sanctuary toward the pulpit to gather my things. As I did, I passed one group of three, standing in a circle and talking about this or that, and another group of four, likewise engaged. There were singletons, too, and couplets, lingering, retrieving their stuff, smiling, the most of them. Casually, I glanced down into the pews and saw that on the cushions here and there were bulletins, hymnals, attendance slips and a candy-wrapper or two. Someone had left an umbrella.

I looked up again and saw in the sanctuary all the colors and signs of the Advent season: greens and reds, blues and violets. There was the beautiful tree and the more beautiful chrismons; there was the Advent wreath, hanging from the ceiling; there was a slight aroma of oil—and suddenly in my mind the vivid recollection of a young family of three (about to be four!) reading ancient scriptures of God’s promises and, then, kindling a new flame of our abiding hopes and expectations—God’s Word enfleshed before our very eyes.

I had mentioned in my sermon that as a season Advent is, as it were, two-eyed. There are mixed messages here: hope and fear, praise and lament, testimony and confession. God does his best work in a barn, where amidst fodder and ordure the sweet Savior is born.

Our church itself proclaims the mystery of the season! Look up, and you will see how beautifully decorated our church is season by season. Look down, and you will see plenty of evidence as to how thoroughly used our church is week by week. Our facility offers us (and the community) both beauty and utility, both majesty and mess, both loveliness and life. That, my friends, is precisely as it should be.

I am so very thankful that our church gives evidence of traffic, of use, of busyness and activity. I am just as thankful that our church is lovely, worshipful, and awe-inspiring. All that to say, I hope we never feel the need to choose, either in this building or the next, for one characteristic over against the other, for a building both beautiful and used is blessing to all who enter it.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

On the Sacraments

“A Service of Word and Table”: look at the first few pages of the United Methodist Hymnal and you will see that “Word and Table” is the basic “shape” of our worship. We see this shape most clearly on first Sundays when in a single morning we both hear a sermon and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Still, that two-fold designation describes more than our liturgy; indeed, it is the very “rhythm” of our life together as Christians. That to say, we gather ourselves around the Word of God in preaching and teaching, there to learn of our duty in the world; and we come to the Table (and Font) to receive the grace God dispenses there to strengthen us in doing that duty.

In some other traditions, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are considered gestures of the faithful toward God. That is, one is baptized and receives the bread and juice as voluntary acts of obedience and remembrance. When new believers profess their faith, they signify their new commitment to God through baptism; the baptized gather together on occasion to remember the sacrifice of Jesus and eat the memorial Meal. In our United Methodist tradition, however (and indeed in most major branches of the Church), Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are deemed Sacraments: gestures of God toward us. The water of Baptism conveys God’s commitment to us, to make us holy. In the Meal, God gives us spiritual food, strength to do our holy work in the world.

In the Bible, “holy” means set apart. Nothing more and, by grace, nothing less. “Holy” does not mean faultless or perfect. No, to be holy is to be commissioned, marked, designated. God’s grace in Baptism sets apart to be Christ’s ambassadors in a pagan and idolatrous world. We receive the Body and Blood of Jesus to strengthen us for selfless service in a self-seeking and manipulative society. In each Sacrament we take what God gives us so that we might give ourselves to others. In sum, the Sacraments are channels of God’s grace to us to make us channels of God’s grace to the world.

Stanley Hauerwas, an ethicist at Duke, suggests that the Church does its most distinctive and “radical” work when it does those things which, really, are the most “normal” and routine things we do: when we preach Christ crucified (a stumbling block to those who imagine life only in terms of acquisition and success); and when we dispense and receive the Sacraments (eat Holy Food and take Holy Baths) and thereby accept that we are set apart and strengthened, come what may, to be ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.

False Alternatives

I am perplexed by the fact that we United Methodists seem unable to “hold the bridge” between the various diads of our tradition. In both cathedral and campmeeting our faithfulness was once characterized by rationality and piety, the Sacraments and preaching, liturgy and revival (by heart-religion and works, too). John Wesley himself both preached and incarnated these multiple dimensions of the catholic, orthodox, and reformed faith to which he was heir. Somehow, though, his spiritual descendants have, in a word, bisected that comprehensive message. These days we seem to strive to be rational or pious, sacramental or evangelical, revivalistic or liturgical (even lay-led or sacerdotal).
In sum, I fear that on the one hand we are more Anglican than Wesleyan, and on the other more “baptist” than Methodist. That is not to say there is anything inherently wrong with either Anglicans or Baptists; only that our tradition is distinctive. Moreover, there seems to exist on the part of some of our preachers (and members and teachers, too) a willingness to embrace and advance a particular aspect of our catholic heritage at the expense of the other(s), and in a way which Mr. Wesley himself would have been unwilling to do.
That to say, when in the crossfire of competing allegiances congregations have felt forced to “market” themselves to consumerist seekers, in many cases they have done so by means of a partitive representation of our tradition. The net result is the emergence of incomplete images, false alternatives, of what it means to be United Methodist.
Still there must be a way to reclaim the synthesis advocated by the early Methodist movement and in doing-so reinvigorate our congregations and denomination, and at the same time also lead unchurched seekers to the abundant life of faith in Jesus Christ in its communal fullness. Qualified observers tell us that postmoderns eagerly seek historic spiritual traditions while at the same time rejecting merely denominational paradigms. It would seem to me that an authentic Wesleyan model of corporate life and ministry might be just the kind of balanced diet this starving generation needs. That is, our historic emphasis on both faith and works, prayer and study, Sacrament and sermon, the form of religion and its power—as well as our emphasis on the worth of laity and clergy—might prove most fulfilling.
Relatedly, there is emerging in our day a new model of ministry, cooperative and complementary, which honors both the priesthood (or ministry) of all Christians as well as the particular representative ministries of Word, Sacrament and Order. This model is called “equipping ministries” and its goal is to help the laity discover and put to powerful use their Spirit-giftedness. At base this new paradigm is merely the reclaiming of the New Testament pattern of pneumatic rather than institutional credentialing and suggests the kind of “interactive” ministry which would be attractive to postmodern sensibilities. “Equipping ministries is an exciting form of evangelism and discipling which both reclaims the Wesleyan synthesis and at the same time rejects, or at least corrects, the popular and false alternatives.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

This is John Wesley's Bible, and me holding it. It seems that the task is ever before us, to receive what we have been given and pass it on.

Keys of the Kingdom

In the twelfth chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, he writes: “Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought,” and that is solid spiritual advice for all of us, of course, but if I had been the Apostle’s secretary I might have worked this into the final draft: “but do not think of yourselves less highly than you ought, either.”

Either attitude grieves the Holy Spirit, I think, and both perspectives are rife within the Church. Pride is the more obvious sin, but self-deprecation is if anything more consequential because it is an insult to the Holy Spirit, the Giver of gifts. Each of us and all of us—that to say, as individuals and as a congregation—have been graced with spiritual gifts. These gifts are the tools which enable us to obey the Great Commandment. Remember how Jesus says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself?” The gifts of the spirit—faith, preaching, teaching, service, encouragement, generosity, caring, hospitality (see Romans 12:6ff)—empower us to be obey Jesus’ command.

Recently, I have begun to muse on these “gifts of the Spirit” (Paul offers another list of them in I Corinthians 12:4ff, and describes the evidence of their presence among us in Galatians 5:22ff) by means of another New Testament metaphor: “the keys of the Kingdom.” What can unlock the door to the church’s future? What can seal-away the powers of darkness? What are the keys to faithfulness and growth, life and health? The gifts of the spirit: preaching, teaching, serving, encouragement, generosity, caring, hospitality. These are the keys given to us to open the door to our church’s future.

Our common confession, our congregational profession of faith, our corporate praise (with the disciples at Caesarea Philippi we all say of Jesus and sing, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”)—that is the ring which holds the keys, and the keys are every lock’s undoing. We go to the ring, we find the right key, we unlock the door.

“Think with sober judgment,” Paul says again in Romans 12. At least part of that thinking is to remember that together we are commissioned, and individually we are each one of us cut in a unique way—think of each church member as a key on the ring—to fit a particular circumstance or ministry, whether to unlock the whole pantries of grace or to entomb the powers of hatred and death.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

I Come to the Garden...

I know next to nothing about gardening, which is both sad and somewhat dangerous given the beautiful roses beside the parsonage. Some of you have marveled at the four bushes and their blooms: yellow, white, red, and a lovely hybrid, more orange than peach with red tips and highlights (it looks almost good enough to eat for breakfast!)

Anyway, Jo and I have enjoyed both seeing the roses and cutting them now and then to fill a vase indoors, and truth to tell it feels to us kind of “suburban” or something to be living in a house with rose bushes. We did have a large gardenia in Marshville, right outside the kitchen window, and its fragrant flowers thrilled my late mother-in-law while she lived with us. Flowers and fragrances—two of God’s good gifts.

The other day, though, I noticed that the roses did not look quite right. They were paler than usual and there were holes in the petals. I thought at first maybe they were just getting old and tired but when I looked closer I saw these…these green creatures…down deep between the petals. Turns out there were Japanese beetles, lots of them, feasting on the roses and, soon enough, killing them. What had been lovely and delicate flowers were reduced to barren nubs on the ends of dry stems.

I have done battle with these “flora-vores” the last couple of weeks, buying the chemicals at Lowe’s and spraying the bushes—die, beetles, die!—and the roses themselves are doing their best to keep growing in spite of the attacks, but sometimes the battle seems futile. The green enemy is plentiful and sneaky, undetectable apart from daily vigilance and doing well what it does naturally—feasting on beauty, killing God’s good gifts. And it is a parable, really, what is going on beside the parsonage.

Sin, gossip, blame, mercilessness—there are these and many other creatures ever at work in the garden of God’s church. Only daily vigilance—and by that I mean real prayer and genuine forgiveness, praise and thanksgiving—can keep them from destroying God’s good and beautiful gifts.

Friday, July 15, 2005

an unintentional message

I have just begun serving a new church--First United Methodist, in Stanley, NC--and just down the road from our present facility on Main Street is property we own, 93 acres of it and, we hope, the expanse for a long-dreamed of expansion. We still do most of our work on Main Street, but we make use of the "property," too--there is a youth soccer league, an annual rodeo, a walking track--and most every month (though we are thinking about cutting back to once a quarter) there is a "singing." Now, in some places, a church-sponsored singing is kind of like a hymn-fest or revival, with lots of call and response and audience participation. When we say "singin'" we mean a concert and so we gather out there at the property with our lawn chairs to listen to gospel groups who give us their best work and sell their CD's. We have a concession stand, too, and the smell of grilled hot dogs and hamburgers seeds the southern gospel breeze coming from the stage. Pretty much fun.

There is a sign out there on the property which announces upcoming events, and this last month someone got to playing with it. The sign was supposed to read, "1st United Methodist Church," only the letters got pushed and pulled a little and how it came to read was: "1 Stunited Methodist church," which to my eye as I drove past looked for all the world like, "1 stunted methodist church."

I laughed out loud, but please, God, save us from being a stunted methodist church!

Monday, May 02, 2005

so much easier

T. S. Eliot once said something to the effect that as a species, we humans cannot bear too much reality. Perhaps that explains our fascination with sports, movies and all things diverting: those things allow us to take our minds off other things. After all, it is hard to be grieved over the hungry when we are on the treadmill trying to flatten our own stomachs. It is tough to give over-much thought to the homeless when we are engrossed in March Madness and fiddling with the reception on the plasma-screen TV. Who will hear that the bell tolls for us when we suppose the only battles being fought are far away?
And who really wants to be a peacemaker? Probably not those with stock in CNN or Fox. War is big business and prime-time entertainment: if we but objectify, politicize and trivialize the most horrible aspects of life, we only prove Eliot’s point. We turn our griefs into bad jokes, our tragedies into B-movies, our foibles and fetishes into sitcoms and talk shows—St. Paul must have had afternoon TV in mind when he said that we glory in our shame. Or, if you are like Simon on Idol, you glory in another’s shame.
All that to say that, as Americans we do not deal with reality as much as we gloss it, buff it, package it and sell it. A night in front of the Zenith is nothing more than a stroll through the carnival’s midway as hucksters—we call them announcers—invite us to this amazing sideshow or that: Come see the freaks and the crazies! Come watch a man eat unhatched gooney-bird eggs and a woman get in a coffin with a thousand live snakes! Watch folk face their deepest fears, even if their fears are staged and hyped and hokum.
Reality TV is anything but, but there are others with their hands in this cookie jar.
In fact, Eliot’s insight interprets a large segment of our economy. Think for a second: How many businesses (and late-night infomercials!) hope to lure you and your money with a promise of protection from the “realities” of life? Insurance? Cosmetics? Health care? How many industries offer an “escape” from those same realities? Sports? Entertainment? Travel and resorts? Even TV religion, sad to say—prosperity preachers.
We avoid reality the best we can, most of us, and if that explains why some folk love TV religion, it also explains why others avoid the real thing. Faith is a matter of life and death and the deepest realities of human experience. And it is just so much easier to wonder what movies are opening, where we will eat, or who won last night’s game.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

popes and hopes

Like most everyone else, I suppose, I was pretty taken by the pomp and formality of last week’s ceremonies in Vatican City. We do not often see the pageantry of a papal funeral. Last time, in 1978, I was in seminary. Pope John Paul (as he was called then) had succeeded Pope Paul VI in August. He sat in St. Peter’s chair for all of thirty-three days before he up and died. John Paul was not an old man by any means, and I remember there being lots of rumors that he was poisoned or otherwise murdered, perhaps for fear he was too “liberal” on such matters as contraception in developing countries, or too honest in the face of alleged institutional corruption at the Vatican Bank. (See, The Godfather, III)

For my part, I was just sad. He seemed a genuine and genuinely funny man, always smiling and self-deprecating, too. Upon his election, he is said to have blessed the College of Cardinals with these words, “May God forgive you what you have done on my behalf.” A day or two before his death he told a small boy, a young pilgrim, that when he was little he had always had trouble with math. You gotta love that in a pope.

Within about a month we saw two papal funerals—one Paul VI and one for John Paul—but that was long years ago. John Paul II, elected in the “year of three popes,” was the only pope many of the world’s Catholics, or lots of others, had ever known.

They laid John Paul II in all his finery, for all the world to see. He had on the gold miter, the red outer robes, the white inner robes. He had on red socks and stiff shoes, He lay a bit crooked, his head cocked slightly to the side (arthritis and Parkinsons had made a lasting impression on him). Still, he was recognizable. No doubt who that was.

As I watched the unending lines of people pass him by, as I watched dignitaries kneel near his body, I thought to myself that it is an easy thing to recognize a dead pope. The evidence is obvious—the clothes, the hat, the Swiss Guard. Dead popes are easy to spot, and even for non-Catholics. Even for strangers.

Harder to identify is the living Christ, who is so much among his poor, suffering children that he is not always recognized—even by those who claim him. “Lord, when did we see you?” “You saw me in the hungry, the helpless, the suffering,” Jesus says.

One might only wish we and the world were as eager to find and follow the living Christ as we obviously are to gaze at the dead Vicar. God rest his soul; and God stir ours.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

In the Breaking of Bread

It is Easter afternoon, and two of Jesus’ disciples were on their way to Emmaus, a little village just outside Jerusalem. Why? No one knows for sure. Was it home for one of them or both? Or was it just a place, some other place than the place they had been these last few days.

It is Easter afternoon and Jesus himself draws near the two who are on their way to Emmaus, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. Why? No one knows for sure. Maybe the light was too bright. Maybe when your expectations are too much behind you cannot see ahead, or the side. When grief is too intense, maybe you don’t look up.

It is Easter afternoon and they do not recognize him, but for the next little while he walks with them and he talks with them and he interprets to them all the things in the the scriptures about himself. And then they get to the village and it appears he will leave them, will go on his way past Emmaus. Why? No one knows for sure. Maybe because now that Jesus is raised, resurrected, he is no longer bound to time or place or even previous relationships. He is free to go and do and form new friendships.

But then, when he about to go, they beg him to stay. They say, “The day is spent, the night is coming, please stay with us.” And so he does. Why? No one knows for sure, but maybe Jesus does not want his friends and followers to face the night alone.

When he was at the Table with them, Jesus took the bread, as he had taken it that Last night, and he broke the bread, and suddenly they remembered. They recognized. They rejoiced. And then he was gone again. Why? No one knows for sure, but this much is certain: Jesus is always on the move. Disciples have to follow him.

When Jesus leaves, so do they. They head back to Jerusalem to find the other disciples and tell them that Jesus had appeared to them in the breaking of bread. Being at the Table with Jesus began to bring them all together again.

The crucifixion was centrifugal for those whose loved Jesus. The force of his death dispersed them, drove them away from each other. But the Table was and remains centripetal for those who love and follow Jesus. The meal brings us together, keeps bringing us back together.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Poor Lazarus

Has anyone asked Lazarus whether he wants to be raised from the dead? I think that if I'm Lazarus, I'm pretty annoyed that Jesus calls me back from the grave. And not only because, now, I have to die again (and maybe violently this time since the Pharisees are so aggravated at Jesus and how people are believing in him that they plan to kill the both of us to put a stop to it).

To put it in my terms: back from the grave my knees hurt again. I am deaf as a post and I forget things I used to know. Who wants to come back to a world where a man shoots a judge and is proud of it, where another man shoots the family of a judge, where yet another man doesn't like the sermon and so he kills the preacher, the preacher's son, five others and then himself, where a good Lutheran layman turns out maybe to have been a notorious and brutal serial killer? There are suicide bombers, wars and rumors of wars, and four days into eternity I am already beginning to enjoy the heavenly choirs and the feeling, finally, of peace. If I am Lazarus I want to stay where I am--no more pain, no more tears, no more whiney, reactive sisters, no more politicians or generals or TV preachers. Let me stay dead.

But Jesus, my friend, has called me back. And so I go. I obey him because I love him. And if this is where he wants me, back in the middle of the mess, then heaven can wait a while longer and I will follow his voice and go where he wants me to go and do what he wants me to do even though it sure ain't heaven.

In John’s account of the gospel, the story of Lazarus serves as the ironic hinge to the whole narrative. That is, Jesus gives life to Lazarus and by doing so insures his own death. The story here is a matter of death and life—that is what happens to Lazarus—but also a matter of life and death—that is what will soon happen to Jesus.

But it also seems to me to be a parable of sorts, too. That for now anyway Jesus will not let his friends, those who love him and are loved by him, remain too long in the throes of eternity before calling them back to the real world. They may have a mountaintop experience, as on the Mount of Transfiguration, or they may see a glimpse of heaven, as Lazarus did; they may want to build booths and stay there, one way or the other, but Jesus keeps calling them back to where he is, to where there is sadness and anger and disappointment and prayer.

He keeps calling us back to where there is death that we might bear witness to life, and he keeps calling us in our lives to be unafraid of death or life. He calls to us to come forth, which is to say, to go forth, into the world where we know how people feel, and we know what they need, and we like Jesus are agitated and groan sometimes at all we see, but Jesus our friend keeps calling us back. Right back into the world to be with him. And if this is where he wants us, for now, then heaven can wait a little while longer and until then we will go and do, and go and do, just because he calls us.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Mr. Appleton and the Sacraments

Mr. Appleton was our phys-ed teacher in grammar school, lo, these many years ago. He was our first coach, only we didn’t call him coach—what we called him, actually, was “Crabby Appleton,” after the cartoon character some of you remember. And neither did we call what we did under his daily supervision “phys ed.” Some of us called that hour “Recess.” “Play period” is what I called it for the longest time. And maybe that was what made him crabby, that we referred to his class as “play period,” him a grown man and all with a college degree and everything.

Anyway, what I remember most about Mr. Appleton is this magnifying glass he carried around in his pocket, not very big; and not very often but some days he would take it out and invite an unwitting student over to watch it work. “Hold out your hand,” he’d say, and he’d take gentle hold, turn it palm-down. Then he would postition the glass between the child’s hand and...the sun... and at first a dime-sized spot of light would appear, but gradually Mr. Appleton would focus the spot. He’d move the glass up or down, and the spot would get smaller and brighter and smaller and brighter, until...OUCH! the child would squeal, and run away.

You probably couldn’t get by with that kind of thing these days, but that was a different era. And he wasn’t trying to hurt anyone, not really--I don’t think he was--but he taught us something. Or began to teach me something, anyway, that there are lenses which can catch the light which shines on us all the time, albeit diffused and easy to take for granted—certain kinds of lenses can gather the light and focus it into something narrower and more powerful—and more dangerous, really, depending on where you point the beam. On a dry day, I guess Mr. Appleton could have started a grass fire if he had wanted to. It was all of it sunlight, but through his magnifying glass it became a laser almost.

And thank you, Mr. Appleton, for giving me a picture of the Sacraments, because that’s exactly what these gestures are: God’s life-giving presence and love are all around us all the time, but these baths and meals are the ways in which that love gets focused and just as lasers can split rocks, the Sacraments can bust-up our hard heads, can light-up the darkness in our souls like a beacon, can set our hearts or the world on fire.

And it is wondrous to behold... Or dangerous, depending on your view.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

A Homily: "A New Definition of Ministry"

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Jesus) said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” (The lawyer) answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And (Jesus) said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But the lawyer, forgetting for a moment the test and sounding as if he really wanted to know, said, “But what if I do not love my self? How then shall I love my neighbor?”

That is not, of course, how the scripture reads in its final form. Luke reports instead that the lawyer asked the lawyerly question, “But who is my neighbor?” and Jesus then proceeded to tell the parable we call the Good Samaritan. But I have long thought and often said that there were other questions the lawyer might have asked in his conversation with Jesus.

How, for example, do I love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, strength and mind? How might I even begin to love God in that totally self-giving way when I am so well practiced, day by day, at withholding the most of me in most situations? I hold back my affections and attentions, hold back my compassion and concern, keep the lid of my heart closed tight against my friends and family and God. I measure my words, and so what would it look like to give God unmeasured praise? I tithe my money but give God less than a tithe of the rest of me; what would it look like to give God even a tenth of my hopes and dreams, even a tenth of my fears and worries? How do I give God even a tenth of my thanks?

I do not admit to anyone when I am wrong, and sometimes, least of all to myself; what would it look like to made full confession to God and neighbor, really to love God and neighbor, our near neighbors and our far neighbors, our friends and our enemies—for me to love my enemy, for me to love my friends, for me to love the Lord my God with all my heart and soul and strength and mind… what would that look like? How could I do that? How could I even begin to do that? And if I started today, how long would it take until I had given him all of it? I kind of wish the lawyer had asked some of those questions…

Or this other question. What if I don’t love myself? You tell me to love my neighbor as myself, but what if I don’t love myself? What if I hate myself, or hate my life? What if I am so empty of anything that seems of worth—I mean, I may have much of the world’s goods, but so little of lasting goodness, so little of anything that matters. What I am full of is guilt and regret and shame, envy and greed and lust, and I hate that about me! Why am I like that?

What if I am bitter, years of grief and sorrow and disappointment?

What if the reason I judge so quickly the sins of others is because I see in them precisely what I despise in myself? What if my self-righteousness is really a form of self-loathing. My noble pretensions hiding something else again…

I go to the gym sometimes, and I work out and do the weights—am I doing that because I honor and treasure my body, and am trying to take care of it, or am I doing it because I despise the way I look in a looks-conscious era and am trying to meet another standard, that I can never meet because I am old and arthritic and gravity takes its toll, and I hate it that my youth is gone and my energy too, and I am so envious of the young ‘uns who looks so young and good and thin. Except they are immodest, too, half-dressed and "pull up your pants and put on a shirt!" I would say…

I have heard that depression is anger toward another person or situation turned inward. Perhaps, then, judgmentalism, prejudice, is self-loathing turned outward. I might not be afraid of someone taking my job if I had real confidence that I was doing so good a job it could not be taken away.

How do I love my neighbor when I do not love myself? And yes, yes, this is a twenty-first-century psychological reading of an ancient text, but the question is no less real for all of that. And I sometimes wonder if a lot of what ails us, in our relationship with others, is not really in others at all, but in ourselves. We direct against another person, another situation, the fear and self-loathing that are ours; never realizing that the fear and self-loathing are themselves sinful, contrary to the Gospel. Perfect love casts out fear, I John says, but day by day we would rather live with fear than live to become loving. We go on hating ourselves, and sometimes we are unaware—it goes unconfessed—when Jesus’ life and death prove how precious we are to God. He dies not only because we are sinful and self-directed and we will put out the light so that we can continue in darkness; he also dies because we are so precious to him that there is no pain he will not endure, no cross he will not bear, no price he will not pay to see us safe and saved at last.

How do I love my neighbor if I do not love myself? Well, in point of fact, the question is moot… John tells us that at the Last Supper Jesus gave us new instructions. A mandate, in fact, from which we derive the term Maundy, as in Thursday. On Maundy Thursday evening Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. As I have loved you, so you ought also to love one another.”

We have to be Jesus to each other, in other words, and it does not matter how we feel about ourselves, only how we know Jesus to feel about us, and our friends and our enemies. Jesus loved us enough to die for us; should we not love one another enough at least enough to forgive one another? Jesus side was opened by Roman steel; should we not at least open our shut-up hearts to other in compassion? Jesus arms were stretched out on the cross; should we not at least love each other enough to embrace our neighbors? Jesus hands were nailed to hard wood; should we not at least unclench our fists?

We must be Jesus to each other… so we can be Christ for the world. Those words come from Robert Benson in his, "The Body Broken: Answering God's Call to Love One Another." He is talking about the ways we Christians and even entire denominations must get along among ourselves--love and forgive and celebrate one another--if we are to have a credible witness that the poor, fragmented world is to imagine that we have what they need. Just so. And what a wonderful new definition of ministry and mission: be Jesus to one another, be Christ for the world.

And really, the best answer to the lawyer's question. What must we do to have eternal life? Just this: Be Jesus to one another, be Christ for the world.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Blessed are Those Who Mourn

Every cloud has a silver lining… I have heard that, as you have, too, since we were kids. I guess our parents and grandparents and others were telling us that there is no situation so bad that you cannot find some good in it.
I realized it experientially before I could express it rationally, but the reverse is also true. There is no lining so silver but what you can find a cloud. No moment or situation or circumstance or thing so good that you cannot find the bad in it. And you do not even have to look all that hard. Oh, boy! Another birthday! Oh, boy, another birthday, another irretrievable chunk of a passing finite existence, gone.
You get a new dog, and the kids are overjoyed to see it and love it and play with it, you smile with their laughing, laughing, laughing, till poignance pulls the corners of your mouth down: you know there will come a day, sooner or later, when the whole family will weep because the dog died or ran away. A friend comes to visit, and as glad as you are to see them you know that very soon they will leave again and the emptiness they filled with their coming will seem all the emptier after they are gone. In fact, even when they are still with you feel the emptiness creep in already… You have a really good year in business, and immediately the fear begins to whislper in your ear that next year will not be so good. Yes, we are flush now but what if the market tanks or layoffs come or our best client takes her business elsewhere?
Henri Nouwen, the late priest and writer, puts it this way… “There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our life. It seems that there is no such thing as a clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfacation, there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness.”
He continues: “Joy and sadness are as close to each other as the splendid colored leaves of a New England fall to the soberness of the barren trees. When you touch the hand of a returning friend, you already know that he will have to leave you again. When you are moved by the quiet vastness of a sun-covered ocean, you miss the friend who cannot see the same. Joy and sadness are born at the same time, both arising from such deep places in your heart that you cannot find words to capture your complex emotions.”
Lent is a time, I think, to look at all of that complexity—the life and the death, the certainty of death and the promise of resurrection—in hopes of God’s using both our joy and sadness to give us the simple grace of peace. But we have to give him both—our hopes and our fears—to receive the one. We have to give him the weak places to find there his strength. Blessed are those who mourn, in other words, for they shall be comforted with an unexpected comfort.
Many, however, will not admit their fears or their hopes. They do not acknowledge the clouds, or the silver. They do not admit to being afraid of the dark, or of longing for the light. They cannot confess their weakness, or show others their wounded places, and so they are never healed. Sadly, the wound is stronger than it might be, the weakness more debilitating, the dark more terrifying because we imagine we have to face it alone.
But Nouwen says, “this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death”—and we might add to the list even this meal of Holy Communion, when the life-giving food is shared with us in view of Jesus’ death, in reverent memory of his sacrifice, his suffering, which promises us mercy—this awareness and experience of life and death, of joy and sadness, of confession and forgiveness, or witheredness and healing… these Lenten moments, says Nouwen, “can point us beyond the limits of our existence. It can do so by making us look forward in expectation to the day when our hearts will be filled with perfect joy a joy that no one will take away from us.”
Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus. Amen.


To prayerfully go where I have never gone before... I begin this pilgrimage with dis-ease, hoping that I will meet others engaged in prayer and sure that I have nothing "original" to offer save a place carved from the ether where we might share thoughts and challenges relating to the spiritual life. When I use the latter term, I mean not the kind of amorphous spirituality that many value as long as it is divorced from the church. Rather, I anchor in the liturgy, the Psalms, the historic prayers of the church, there to find the "old time religion" which is almost old enough! Let's talk!