Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

The Parasite Conundrum and Other News

Is this a good or bad parasite? I can’t tell!

It’s that time again: we’re getting up to speed on the “mish mash,” and then highlighting some of the future treats in store for us.

First, my apologies to those of you who caught two critical mistakes in yesterday’s post, one of which remains to be corrected: the Rwandan genocide was actually in 1994 and resulted in the deaths of more than 800,000 persons; and, the link that I tried to share to the video isn’t working, so we’re waiting on another version via Youtube or elsewhere to share with you- it really is an interesting story, so I hope you’ll come back to view it, and I’ll let you know when it’s really up and running.


Next, in response to the post, “The Problem of Athlete’s Foot,” fellow saint and sinner Saskia de Vries had this to say:

“I think it’s actually a fungus, not a bacteria. But either way, I think this is one of the more interesting science/theology conundrums. What do we make of parasites? Did God create parasites? Some parasites are super cool. Some are super deadly and terrifying. And some make you wonder if you’re actually an autonomous being at all. I highly recommend reading Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex.”

(I’ve invited Saskia only half-jokingly to be our resident science and theology columnist/expert.)


Finally, someone who did not share his or her name, wrote the following, in response to “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved;” I’ve decided to publish these remarks even though I had no intention of sparking this response with my original reflections, and find the remarks themselves problematic; still, we are, after all, people who come to this “well” from many places ideologically:

First quoting me, the responder writes: “‘Most of us have come to view conservative and liberal as just code words for a host of implicit political beliefs that have functioned as add-ons to the Gospel– jaded remnants of religiously framed culture wars. If we’re leaving church in droves or finding church irrelevant, it is because these labels have failed us.'”


The responder goes on: “What’s irrelevant and what’s failed us is the false gospel of ‘if you believe in this dead man you will be saved and no you don’t have to change anything about your sick disgusting behavior’…Now if instead of that false gospel, a living Christ who demands repentance were preached…and people were taught they have the ability to repent rather than ‘born that way’ original sin homosexual-moffia propaganda, then Christianity would be worth saving. As it stands, let it fall, let the world be paganized once again, and let God come down and die on a cross a second time and see if he can keep his religion together this time and prevent a Paul, Augustine, and Luther from destroying it.”


I would add here since it now seems relevant in light of this person’s remark, that a couple of you readers have asked me to weigh in on the homosexuality debate.  I’ve not done so here, or yet, because 1) a number of my very good friends are gay in committed relationships and some of the best people I know; 2) I’m not sure that Scripture is actually consistently clear with respect to this issue one way or another, and has little to say about, for example, gay marriage in our time; 3) find the whole debate wearisomely old and at times even a distraction from God’s mission.  There you have it.  My views in a nutshell.  I would also add that, like most views of mine, I don’t see them as having to be set in stone.  I’m a work in process.  So are my opinions.  Hopefully this reality belongs to being a saint and sinner.


As for what to look forward to in the future here at FSS: I hope you’ll check back for my review of an advance copy of Rachel Held-Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood, as well as Michael Frost’s Road to Missional.  We continue with our very irregular series of “Jesus Epithets” (usually inspired my occasional sermons as an itinerant preacher).  And, starting in two weeks, I’ll be assisting Emory University’s Tom Long in teaching div school students how to preach (in Homiletics 101 of sorts), so you’ll probably hear occasional insights from this process as well.  (This may also mean, in addition to some vamped-up work on my book and a few more clients in my job as a corporate chaplain, that my posts will be a little less regular- but I’ll try my best to keep meeting you here at the intersection between life and God as often as possible.)

So, until we meet again…which may be tomorrow, God speed!



From War to Peace: A Powerful, True Story of Reconciliation

The east African nation of Burundi has witnessed a long, bloody, and tragic history of civil war.  The same ugly tribalism and brutality between Hutus and Tutsis that have swept neighboring Rwanda- (resulting in 1994 in a genocide of more than 800,000 people, mainly Tutsis)- have been part and parcel of Burundi’s story. The country is also among the five poorest countries in the world.

Yet there is also another story to be found here, one that begins with how God not long ago began to work for reconciliation- first in the life of one man and his wife, and then, with ripples, for a whole nation.  Now this same man is the president of Burundi, and the nation’s motto is “prayer and work.”  It is a remarkable story, actually, one that both inspires and provokes me this morning.  I guess you could say I’m “intrigued” in addition to being moved.  You can hear the whole story in this ten-minute video.  I’m curious to hear your thoughts.


A Spiritual Inventory for iPhone Users

Thanks to this little rectangular contraption, my life will never be the same again.

This week with the start of another school year and a few more things added to our family’s schedule, I’ve found myself even more glued to my iPhone- so glued, in fact, that just the other day I found myself exclaiming to my husband, “my whole life is in here!”  (He had to correct me.)  I guess you could say that lately I’ve been worshiping at the altar of my iPhone.


Which has me doing a spiritual inventory of sorts around my iPhone usage.  If you, like me, find yourself regularly engaging in three or more of the following behaviors, you may have a problem, and your relationship with God and your neighbors may be suffering:

1. You begin to worry, sweat marbles and cuss under your breath when you’ve misplaced your iPhone.

2.  When you’re glancing at your iPhone, your jaw drops, your breath stabilizes and you become transfixed, tuning out the world around you like a yogi in meditation.

3. You would rather spend more time perusing on Facebook what your new, virtual friend in Bangalore had for dinner than being alone with God in prayer.

4. You’re convinced that the majority of your virtual friends really are your friends.  Not!


5. You obsessively glance at your phone in meetings, Bible studies and especially in Sunday morning worship when the preacher is being a bore.

6. You find it difficult to avoid picking up your phone when you’re driving (even if it is illegal).  Other drivers have cast dirty looks your way or yelled things like, “You know that’s illegal,” or, “Get off your phone!,” when you’re looking at your phone rather than at the stoplight in front of you.

7.  Your phone alerts wake up you or your spouse in the middle of the night.

8. You’ve convinced yourself that responding to an e-mail or text message by the end of the day, rather than within an hour, is a slow turnaround time.


9. You take your iPhone with you literally everywhere you go.

10. Your iPhone makes you feel important on a more consistent basis than the fact that God loves you.

11.   You can’t stop thinking about what to tweet or post or blog about- even when you’re having sex.

12. You’re convinced that Steve Jobs, not Jesus, is the greatest man who ever lived.

Have I missed anything here?  Got any more behaviors to add to this list?  Send them along!


The Quality Difference: “Habit” Versus “Act”

“Quality is not an act but a habit.” So reads the banner which hangs in the warehouse of a trucking company where I serve as a corporate chaplain.  The mantra, I’m discovering, holds equally true whether we’re talking about marriage or parenting or writing.

Woody Allen put it another a way when he said “95% of success is just showing up.”

Which is why I loved stumbling upon this post by another aspiring writer, who made her own discovery about what distinguishes great writers like Ray Bradbury from the rest of us.  “Showing up to write,” she seems to conclude, is more important than the talent with which one is born.

I can’t help but think the same might be said of following Jesus.  It’s not a one-time act.  It’s a habit, 95% of which is as simple as just “showing up,” even when you’re not feeling like it.



The Problem of Athlete’s Foot

One look at this case of Athlete’s foot is enough to convince anyone with half a brain to wear their Tivas in the locker room. Gross!

Yesterday’s pool excursion with my son, Cameron, may have been a big divine hint that I need to do more preparation for Sunday’s small group discussion on the nature of evil.  My son, afterall, unlike me or my esteemed cohorts, is not a self-described cynic, skeptic or religious misfit.  He is just a mostly typical five-year-old boy, who simply prefers running barefoot over the dubious looking, cement floors of the women’s locker room at our local public pool; this as opposed to the alternative of laboriously strapping on his Tivas: whereas by now Cameron knows how to put on most shoes, his Tivas remain a bit of an enigma, his right Tiva still often appearing on his left foot, and vice versa.  This process seems to demand too big of a withdrawal from my son’s reserves of humility, patience, care and openness to correction- reserves, which, for a little boy who likes to go, go, go constantly and has an ego that, I’m hoping, a few years of growing up will massage into manageability, are frankly not great in size.  (To give you an idea of what I mean by “ego,” a few days ago, Cam strolled into the bathroom and said, “Am I the most handsome boy in the world?,” at which point I exclaimed, “No, you are most definitely not the most handsome boy in the world!  But I think you’re very handsome.”)


All of this to say that an effort to persuade my son to wear his Tivas in the locker room resulted in the following conversation:

Mom: Cam, it’s important to wear your sandals here, because if you go barefoot, you might get something called “Athlete’s foot.”  Do you know what that is?

Cam: Yes, I remember Bopa (Albuquerque granddad) said something about it.

Mom: I’ve had it before, and it’s really itchy and sometimes painful and (a mother’s attempt to issue compliance by appealing to the gross factor now) once it got so bad that the skin on the bottom of my foot began to peel off and I had to go to a doctor who had to cut off the rest of the skin. (Sorry.  Honest-to-God truth from a life-long swimmer.) It really hurt.


Cam (looking solemnly pensive now): But how do you get Athlete’s foot?

Mom: You get Athlete’s foot by walking on floors at places like this where a lot of people have been walking and the floors can become unclean and get germs on them.

Cam (frustrated): I know, but how do you get Athlete’s foot?

Mom: Do you mean, how do you get Athlete’s foot scientifically speaking?

Cam: Uh huh.

Mom (thinking she wished she had paid more attention in high school biology): Well, there are certain live bacteria, tiny, tiny creatures you can’t see, that like to hang out in places like this and eat the skin off the bottom of your foot.

Long pause before the bomb of a question drops.


Cam: Did God make Athlete’s foot?

Mom (realizing that if my son’s question had been on my ordination exams six years ago, I may not have passed): Hmm.  Well, I guess God made the live bacteria, so yes, I guess God made Athlete’s foot.

Cam (thoroughly aghast): What?!!

Long pause.  I’m realizing that if what I just said hasn’t held theological muster with my five-year-old, I better get my ducks in a row for Sunday.

Mom: Well, actually, Cam, it’d be more correct to say that when God made the bacteria, God made them eat other things, so they didn’t have to eat peoples’ feet and cause Athlete’s foot.  (I’m trying to imagine a family of live bacteria happily snacking away on their form of “ethical” food.  Just what such food would be, I have absolutely no idea, but I’m pretty convinced that it would not include the sweaty underside of my feet.)  But then when human beings began to do bad things and sin, that changed, and all creation began to seem different after that.  That’s when the bacteria began to eat people’s feet and cause Athlete’s foot.  (In the passage from John 11 that I preached from a couple weeks ago, Jesus grows “angry” when his friend Lazarus dies; so if God gets mad about death, why can’t God be at least a little annoyed by Athlete’s foot?  Further, Augustine described evil as the “absence of the good.”  By that definition, Athlete’s foot most certainly qualifies as “evil.”)  Does that make more sense, Cam?


Cam (looking satisfied now): Yes.

Phew.  Tough one.

Got some wise, theological reflections to share on the nature and problem of evil as it manifests itself in sickness and natural disaster?  Send your helpful distillations along before Sunday and I’ll be delighted to hear from you.  Send them along after Sunday, and I’ll be mildly grateful for your response.


“Did God Help Gabrielle Douglas Win?”

Gabrielle Douglas gestures to the crowd after winning the women’s all-around. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles)

Did God help Gabrielle Douglas win?  That was the question posed by Salon writer Mary Elizabeth Williams in a recent piece penned for the magazine and forwarded by fellow saint and sinner Irene Lin.  It’s an interesting question, one that Williams poses with a bit of heartburn:  the “clearly authentic image of a hardworking girl with strong values makes her a natural icon to her fellow Christians,” Williams concludes, “just as it makes the somewhat less faithful [presumably like Williams] uncomfortable.”


And to be sure, the sixteen-year-old U.S. gymnast Douglas, who is the first African American (not to mention American) to win team and all-around gold in the Olympics, is reportedly unbashful about attributing her wins to the God she knows and worships in Jesus.  After her win last Thursday, Douglas was quoted as saying, “I give all the glory to God. It’s kind of a win-win situation. The glory goes up to him and the blessings fall down on me.”

There is something deeply moving here.  A young, graceful athlete giving her Maker the credit brings to mind associations with another Olympic great.  Eric Liddell, whose life inspired the film, “Chariots of Fire,” was one of my heroes.  Whenever I heard the soundtrack to the movie, I, as a competitive, all-year-round swimmer growing up in southern California, would be stirred to endure more sore muscles and early morning practices.  If God was on Eric’s side, God might also be on mine.


And here is where I think an answer to Williams’ query can only be at best speculative.  Did God help Douglas win?  Maybe.  Quite possibly even.  But this would also mean that God let other competitors, some of whom worship the same God in Jesus, lose.

And at first glance this is deeply discomfiting.  Scripture only amplifies the discomfort.  The God of the Old Testament, the God who the New Testament Jesus represents, is often invoked by God’s chosen people, Israel, in far uglier “competitions,” like near-genocidal battles between warring peoples.  The whole “God-helped-me-win” refrain is a pretty common one in Scripture, often invoked by Israel after they have just violently trampled and mercilessly slaughtered their enemies.  (Is anyone else getting heartburn here?)


But with the victories, there have also been the defeats.  Just this morning, I was reading from Isaiah 39, where the prophet Isaiah warns King Hezekiah that Hezekiah’s descendants will be defeated and taken into captivity by Babylon- and sure enough, this is exactly what happens.  Winning is not the only so-called “blessing” God’s people receive.  So are captivity, humiliation, pogroms and most horrifically the Shoah, years later.

The thing that intrigues me most after reading Williams’ article is this: Williams admits to discomfort over a divinely orchestrated victory for Douglas, but I can’t help but wonder if Williams is actually more disturbed by something else- namely, that Douglas is “so, so, so into Jesus.”


And if this is the case, Williams is only giving voice to most of us.  Most of us, I suspect, are comfortable with a “God of the gaps.”  Whenever some national tragedy occurs, like the recent shootings in Aurora and Milwaukee, we are quick to go to our divine “emergency contact” with questions about why such terrible things could happen and with prayers for healing and deliverance.  The soul searching and the prayer vigils are a manifestation of this turning to the God of the gaps.

And, this God of the gaps to whom we turn is the politically correct God.  Even the most hardened atheists, I suspect, in crises that hit close to home, is programmed to pray these prayers of desperation.  But when God, especially a personal God in Jesus, is publicly invoked in other times, not in the crises but rather in the celebrations and in the main of life, we naturally become uncomfortable.  If a God like this is Douglas’ helper in the main of life, that means God might also be our helper- and most of us don’t usually want or feel like we need a helper.


There is another issue here that can cause discomfort, one that is difficult to disentangle from the possibility that there is a personal God invested in the main of life, not just the gaps.  It has to do with how we talk about Jesus in the public sphere.  I, too, become a bit uncomfortable when various athletes and celebrities prattle rather loudly on about their “Lord and Savior Jesus.”  It is enough to become a bit nauseating actually.  Giving Jesus the credit publicly is one thing; but I’m inclined to think that tooting the Jesus horn every time there is a sound bite opportunity, regardless of one’s authenticity, is not a very effective form of witness in the context in which we live.  Building authentic, long-term relationships is better.


Did God help Gabrielle Douglas win?  If an answer to this question will inevitably be speculative, what I’m more sure of is that God is on everyone’s side, both the winners’ and the losers’, and that God’s ways and God’s “blessings” are often inscrutable in real time.  Often it is only in hindsight, looking back, that we really can see the blessings to be had- even, and sometimes more so, in losing.

I’ll be curious to hear what Douglas says about the God she worships the next time she loses.




A Riot in the Cathedral

Seven members of the Russian punk band, Pussy Riot. You go, girls!

Have you been following the story of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot and their so-called “punk prayer protest” against Russian President Vladimir Putin? The band, whose highest-profile members are three young women now facing a three-year prison sentence, has vowed to continue its protests against the Putin regime despite harassment from the Kremlin and church authorities.


The story fascinates me on several levels.  First, the group itself is just bizarre.  They wear brightly colored balaclavas, short skirts, mismatched tights, use nicknames and invoke plenty of shocking profanity to cause most any babushka (grandmother) great distress.  Then, there are the strangeness and shock value of their form of protest.  In February, they protested Putin’s re-election by showing up at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour of the Russian Orthodox Church and performing a politically provocative song and dance.  Having myself visited this hallowed, tourists’ pilgrimage site and marveled at the beautiful intricacy of the architecture and the prescribed holiness of the building’s interior, I can only begin to appreciate the glaring shock of the scene in such a revered place.  In their song, the women asked “Theotokos,” or the “Mother of God” (the Virgin Mary) to “chase Putin away,” and accused the Russian Patriarch and head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill I of Moscow, of believing in Putin rather than in God.


Wow.  The question is, is this courageous protest or sheer “hooliganism,” as some have called it?  Maybe the line is somewhere in between, but I’m inclined to think there is more of courageous protest here than of the latter.

The interior of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, in Moscow, Russia.


Because at heart there is something in this story that invokes another narrative some of us have read before, about a young boy, David, and his sling and stone, and a great, big Philistine giant: three young women, still “adolescents” by modern-day standards, facing up to a powerful, middle-aged dictator who runs his country with an increasingly tighter iron fist; three punk rocker girls whose only “weapon” are their music and their voices and a video camera, facing up to a church hierarchy that throughout Russia’s history has almost consistently colluded with corrupt governments: from the Stalinist regime to earlier tsars before Stalin, the Russian Orthodox Church has been as “religious” about being on the side of governing power as it has been about its icons.


Now these punk women have earned the epithet of “anti-religious” from the church hierarchy- and I can’t help but applaud them for it!  If it is “anti-religious” to protest a church that throws its weight so squarely on the side of the Caesars of this world, rather than rendering to such Caesars only what is their due, not more, then I hope Pussy Riot wears their new epithet with pride.

To be sure, the women’s protest in some cases has been laced with profanity.  Whether or not such R-rated material is necessary to issue a real wake-up call against the injustices of an autocrat, I don’t know.  But,  another question is this:  is it possible that this sort of punk rocker performance actually constitutes “prayer” (hooded singers in mismatched tights, singing and dancing around a cathedral, asking for divine intervention to remove Putin)?  If prayer can be a form of social action, can it not also be social protest?  If so, what might this look like? Is a “riot in the cathedral” one incarnation?

What do you think?  Leave your thoughts below.



The Spirituality of Vacation

One of many spectacular vacation views from the coastal Route 1, just south of Mendocino, California.

It’s good to be home! I’ve missed you all, and I’m glad to be back at this intersection between life and God for anyone converted, unconverted or under conversion.

Ten serene days of vacation have inspired some reflections this morning on the difference that leaving one’s work, routine and home (for me, these are all muddled together) makes in changing perspective.



After a break, those little things that describe home, that when added together in the thickness of life can drive me to sighs, or complaints or escapes in day dreams, attain an endearing sweetness.  They haven’t changed; they are still there.  The mounds of unfolded laundry on our living room sofa, left hurriedly en route to the airport, tokens of my daily routine as a wife and mother.  (“Yea, though I walk through the valley of underwear and socks, I will fear no evil.”)  The lone tennis shoe lying on our front lawn- discarded remains of my daughter’s pre-school experiment in growing parsley, tragically cut short by our puppy Roosevelt’s implacable teething interests.  Our “cozy” (in other words, cramped) kitchen, its drawers and cupboards stuffed to overflowing, often prompting expressions of annoyance varying in furor whenever we host a dinner party.


Everything is just as it was, just the way we left it; only now it seems different.  A renewed fondness for the idiosyncracies and imperfections that make home “home” imbues the everything with a new meaning.  The burden is lifted just a bit and in its place there is a lightness.  Somehow this act of intentional distancing- of “vacating”- has only deepened my appreciation for the messy, barely manageable life that has come to be at our particular address on our particular street in our particular city.

I realize that not everyone can have this luxury of experience.  To actually vacation, and then to vacation long enough for it to make a difference, are not things everyone can do- but I wish they could.  Because there is something deeply edifying for the soul in being reminded that when we step away from our work and simply rest and play, the world does not stop.  The traffic lights still work.  The sun still rises and sets.  The grass still grows and the birds keep chirping and the earth continues its rotation.


And this, I think, is the meaning and importance of the Sabbath; (if we can’t vacation, we can at least take a Sabbath break each week.) We are not so indispensable after all- or at least this is not why we exist.  We are, more fundamentally, simply loved apart from what we do or don’t do.  So maybe at heart vacationing is really a cultivation of humility, which is something that probably does not come naturally for most of us.






Mark Twain’s Midrash on the Creation Story

“Ooh, it’s cold!  If only I had a few leaves to wear.” – Twain’s illustration, my midrash.

Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve has been a fun and easy read here at a friend’s ranch in Calistoga, California, where I’m enjoying a few more days of vacation.  Twain wrote it in his later years, and it is a wonderful bit of midrash on the biblical story of creation and the Fall, as well as men and women and our enduring inability to understand one another.  You might call it a cleverer version of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.


Strikingly, Twain seems to sympathize more with Eve than with Adam.  If Adam is a bit of a slow learner and a dolt when it comes to his newfound companion, preferring to sit around and smoke cigars on the Sabbath, Eve is a precocious explorer, waxing philosophical between occasional fits of emotion.  In short, Eve is much more interesting.  Whereas Twain attributes Adam’s eating of the apple to hunger and stupidity, Twain seems to imply that an insatiable curiosity, desire to please Adam and love of the beautiful are the source of Eve’s undoing.

Here is Eve after marveling at the moon:  “…I already being to realize that the core and centre of my nature is love of the beautiful, and that it would not be safe to trust me with a moon that belonged to another person and that person didn’t know I had it.  I could give up a moon that I found in the daytime, because I should be afraid some one was looking; but if I found it in the dark, I am sure I should find some kind of an excuse for not saying anything about it.”  Then later this:  “At first I couldn’t make out what I was made for, but now I think it was to search out the secrets of this wonderful world and be happy and thank the Giver of it all for devising it.”

If the lesson here is that even our noblest, most lovely, human impulses can be the very things that undo us, it is also this (as underlined in both Adam and Eve’s observations): that living in companionship outside the garden after the Fall is better than living alone inside the garden (the pre-Fall paradise).



The Resurrection and The Life: A Sermon

“Resurrection? You got to be kidding me!”
Martha from the Isabella Breviary, 1497

This past Sunday I had the joy and privilege of joining in worship with the people of Old First Presbyterian in downtown San Francisco.  The following sermon belongs to our ongoing series, Jesus Epithets:  All the Names Jesus Gets Called in Scripture, and takes as its inspiration John 11:17-27 and Isaiah 65:17-25.


When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’” – John 11:17-27


Lazarus has already been dead now for four days. His sisters, Mary and Martha, have been going through all the customary motions of grief. The burial on the day of death. The long procession to the tomb. An even longer procession of empty-sounding words- all those well-meaning expressions of sympathy that can ring a bit hollow in the immediate clutches of great loss:

I’m so sorry for your loss.
 Let us know if there’s anything we can do.
 He’s no longer in pain.
 He knew the Lord, so he’s in a better place now.

Imagine with me for a moment that you’re Martha. Can you picture the scene? Tearful hugs and empty Kleenex boxes. Flowers and more flowers on the kitchen table. Hordes of family you haven’t seen in ages, including crazy, old Aunt Ethel. The last time you saw her she was stockpiling her purse with a second, embarrassingly large portion of meatloaf and corn muffins in the buffet line at Golden Corral. (Note to self: avoid cafeteria restaurants…)


But, oh no!, that reminds you- because when you’re Martha you’re always thinking of what needs to be done- there is still the reception for the memorial service to worry about and the caterer to call and the menu to review. Mini pigs in a blanket? Probably not. Artichoke and goat cheese crudité or tomato bruschetta? Maybe…

But, I don’t know. Do I have a choice?, you wonder?  What else is on offer?

What about a world in which loved ones don’t get sick and die? What about a world in which God actually lives up to God’s side of the bargain? What about a world in which a dear friend like Jesus who is supposed to be the Messiah, the very Son of God, shows up when it matters- when something could still have been done, when healing and recovery weren’t so out-of-this-world impossible?


Martha would rather have ordered that instead. In fact she’s already tried. Four days ago when Lazarus was in a bad way but still alive, Martha had dialed the 1-800-HELP number for God; she had pressed “send” in her g-mail account; she was sure God had gotten the message.

But God hadn’t come. God hadn’t even replied to say God had other, bigger, more pressing things to attend to, like putting out wars or rescuing the oppressed. The promise of a new heaven and a new earth in which weeping is no longer, in which the labor of our hands is not in vain, in which bad things don’t happen to good people? All this was supposed to be on the menu, or so Martha had thought, because God loved her, because she and God had been extra chummy, because God in Jesus was doing a new thing for this broken world full of broken people.


But now Martha is choosing finger foods instead for the memorial service reception; and if truth be told, Martha would still take a second chance for Lazarus over artichoke and goat cheese crudité any day.

“If only God had shown up in time,” she’s saying, like everybody else who knew and loved Lazarus.

Because when Jesus finally does show up on the scene, when he comes to Martha and says, “Your brother will rise again,” Jesus’ arrival seems too little, too late. And, maybe we can forgive Martha for dismissing Jesus’ words to her as yet another empty expression of sympathy, much in the same category as “your brother’s in a better place now.” Because Martha, like most Jews in her time, is accustomed to believing in some distant future resurrection. She knows by heart all the religious code language. If she were here today, she’d be used to reciting the Apostles’ Creed each week. “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord…I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”


The resurrection of the body and life everlasting. It is in there after all. We mouth the words every week. And Martha knows the drill. She knows all the religiously clad niceties and to nod in agreement at them. She knows not to question polite expressions that “all will be well” someday even when inside she’s going to pieces. Martha can appreciate the utility of placating others with their own assurance that “this too shall pass,” even if there seems no immediate end in sight to the pain and the tears.

If the resurrection of the dead is some far-off reality that Martha can’t really see or touch or imagine, if it does little to comfort her now, Martha will at least lip sync her faith like most everyone else. She’ll at least stand in the receiving line for Communion. She’ll at least pretend that she really buys all the code language.


I suspect that those of us who have spent any period of time in the traditionally more churched and church-going South can identify with Martha. Some of you may be familiar with the joke about the difference between a Northern fairytale and a Southern fairytale? A Northern fairytale begins, “Once upon a time.” A Southern fairytale? “Y’all ain’t gonna believe this shit!”

But if expressive melodrama is the stuff of Southern fairytale, I venture to guess that most of us in the church, regardless of where we come from, are a little more tight-lipped and refined when it comes to airing our deepest, real-life doubts and griefs. At least in “holy” places like this one.

Resurrection of the dead? When you’ve settled into your grief for a while, when you’ve learned to accept life’s disappointments with a kind of sad but pragmatic resignation, when you’ve come to see that so much of life is learning over time to let go in the face of loss of one sort or another, “resurrection” can sound a bit concocted or artificial. Maybe even like just another retail gimmick.


The other day I happened by the Macy’s Estee Lauder cosmetics counter. The sales lady, in addition to insisting that I sit for a full make-over, was all the while singing the praises of the latest in Estee Lauder skin products. Estee Lauder’s nightly repair serum had done wonders for her skin and would for mine. Those under-eye wrinkles? Those stress lines? Those sun spots? They didn’t have to be the final story. With Estee Lauder’s nightly repair serum, I would be resurrected to a more youthful looking version of myself. (And if you have to know, she convinced me.) “Resurrection” was standing right in front of me in the shape of a very expensive, fancy-looking, one-ounce bottle, and I believed it.

But when “resurrection” is standing right in front of you in the form of a person, a person who says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” a person who has healed all sorts of strangers but then failed to show up for his own friends- you and your brother, Lazarus- you might not be such a sucker. You might not be eagerly grabbing for your wallet to learn that the price is simply believing.


Because we, like Martha, can catch on pretty quickly that life manages to go on in the face of death. Often mind-numbingly so. Often without rhyme or reason. If it’s not the loss of a dear friend or family member, there are all those “mini” deaths to contend with. The child we once thought had a bright future struck down by a life-threatening addiction. The relationship we once believed to be a storybook romance now in pieces. The mass lay-off at work in the job we thought we were to retire in. The untimely diagnosis of cancer. We all have our often hidden griefs to bear- those things that over time we have learned to hold quietly to ourselves. It’s hard to imagine resurrection in these places where we find ourselves saying with Martha, “if only, God.”


But many of us also know the end of this story. If Martha has reason to doubt that Jesus signifies new life in the immediate moment, the kind of spiritual rebirth that defies even death itself and will one day be embodied in a new, perfected, physical body for ourselves and for all creation, then in just a little while Martha will be obliged to change her mind. First she’ll watch Jesus become so greatly troubled- “angered” the original Greek implies- by a world in which people have to die. Then she’ll watch as Jesus in the presence of many onlookers commands Lazarus to come out of his tomb. And then the most mind-blowing, earth-shattering thing of all will happen: she’ll watch as Lazarus obeys Jesus and does in fact stumble out, as if waking from a long sleep and rubbing his eyes while accustoming himself to the light, his burial garments still clinging to his skin like a dummy come back to life.


And then and there Martha will see that there really is reason to believe that in Jesus are fulfilled all the promises of old of the prophet Isaiah. Promises of a new heaven and a new earth. Promises of a dwelling place in which weeping and suffering and death are no more, where all is put right with our broken world.

And then Martha won’t have to mouth her belief in just some theory about some distant resurrection of the dead, because then and there her theory will come to life. Like those old, dry bones the prophet Ezekiel speaks of: all those lessons she learned in Sunday school will become a living, breathing, flesh-and-bone reality.

Because when Jesus says He is the Resurrection and the Life, He is saying that God’s very nature is one of second chances. That God is as dependable as the dawning of each new day when it comes to offering us newness of life in each and every moment. And, these little spiritual rebirths are but a foretaste of a day when in God’s perfect timing the dead shall rise, when all of our paths shall be made straight, and when God’s seal of grace and truth and unending life will finally and decisively set itself upon our wayward hearts, like a lover with a long-awaited beloved.


Belief in this context is little more than surrendering. Surrendering to God’s economy of grace. Accepting that, as the poet T.S. Eliot puts it, “in my end is my beginning.”

Belief here means letting go of one’s expectations for how God should work, because resurrection never happens apart from God’s timing and on God’s own terms. And God’s timing and God’s terms, as Martha will soon discover, don’t abide by our “I-must-have-it-now” culture of instant gratification.

Frank Partnoy, a professor of law and finance at the University of San Diego School of Law, has written a book titled, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, in which Partnoy makes the case that learning how to manage delay, or what some of us would call “procrastination,” is one of the most important lessons in life. People who can learn to wait for good things will be happier and more fulfilled, and will make better decisions, Partnoy believes.


I suspect many of us have wondered like Martha why God procrastinates so much when it comes to our own agendas. But I’m guessing this is also because God is simply a whole lot better than we are at managing delay. Maybe we, like Martha, must discover why God’s delayed ways are so far superior to our own hasty ones.

Because if resurrection is central to the very character of God, it is also entirely an act of God to which we can only surrender at any given moment.

A friend of mine who worked twelve years as a correction officer in a juvenile rehabilitation center in Kansas City, Missouri was sharing some of her stories with me the other day. I asked her what it was that kept her going in what would seem like a depressing job in one of our nation’s most depressed regions. (Kansas City apparently boasts one of the highest rates of black-on-black, inner-city violence in this country).


By way of example my friend shared her story of one boy who by the age of fourteen had spent years on the street as a hardened gang member. One day this boy, who according to my friend was not a small boy, became belligerent. My friend, seeking to restrain the boy, had grabbed him in an iron-tight bear hold. In those few, tense moments, as she stood there holding a kid who had seen far more of his fair share of death and violence in his young life, who by common parlance in my friend’s line of work was a useless “throwaway” to his parents and a ward of the state…in those moments as she held this kid who had probably not been hugged in a very long time, my friend’s heart opened and her grip on the boy relaxed. There they stood, locked in a great, big bear hug, my friend and this rough and tough kid who began to sob like a scared, little baby who just wanted for once to be held and told everything would be alright.


Resurrection. Resurrection for Martha. Resurrection for a no-nonsense correction officer and a hardened, under-age criminal. Resurrection for you and for me, too, whatever your circumstances. On God’s terms. At God’s time.

What that resurrection will look like from one person to another will vary as wildly as our circumstances this morning. Imagine with me today just one of the many possible scenarios.

Maybe you’re alone, and the old siren call is stronger than it has been in a long while. It’s telling you that you’ll never amount to anything, that you’re doomed to past mistakes and bad habits that have told you who you are for so long, that a drink or two will solve all that. The first of two remaining beers in the fridge goes down so quickly and so smoothly. And then the second. The siren call is now sounding stronger, so you’re grabbing your keys to head to the liquor store, but then the doorbell rings. You wonder momentarily whether to answer it, but then you do, and a friendly man greets you with a smile and a firm handshake. He has some materials about a charity for handicapped children.


“Could you make a donation?,” he’s asking. “Even $20 will do.”

And so you do. You write a check and you thank him for coming, and then you shut the door, and you say to yourself, “I don’t need a drink after all.”

Something in this exchange with another human being, in the simple act of showing love and in the gratitude of the recipient, awakens you once more to the serendipitous possibilities for new life that God in Jesus is holding out to you. At any given moment. New life that tastes and satisfies so much better than that can of beer in the fridge. New life that descends on your head like flames of fire, burning away all your residual griefs and what if’s and wooden pronouncements about a distant, happily ever-after, fairytale ending; summoning you instead into the presence and promise of a new heaven and a new earth in which each new day- each new moment even- can be an encounter with the One who is Himself the Resurrection and the Life.

Benediction: And now as you leave this place, may you go as a people who believe in resurrection and live like it, because of the One who gave Himself for us so that we might have life and have it abundantly. Amen.

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