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!