Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

“Free Pizza, Free Eternal Life” and “God’s Quarterback”

Tim Tebow speaks at outdoor Easter service in Georgetown, Texas.

“Free Pizza, Free Eternal Life!”  That was the advertisement one of the campus groups at the university where my husband teaches put out the other day. I guess if you’re really hungry and really love cheap pizza, you’ll take the “free eternal life” as a throw-in- even if it comes with a short spiel about “The Four Spiritual Laws.”

It’s funny to think about all of the associations we can make in an effort to sell Christianity.  These days sports and Christianity are a big sell.  Take Tim Tebow’s Easter appearance the other day when 15,000 people showed up.  (Those Texans like things big, don’t they?) Or, Bubba Watson’s testimony of faith following his dramatic victory at the Masters.

I”ve got to hand it to Tebow and Bubba, too.  Their willingness to talk about their faith in the public sphere takes guts.  Let’s just say I’m a fan.

It’s the rest of us Christians and leaders in the church I’m inclined to poke fun at.  Because while, for example, Tebow and Easter may be a subtler association than free pizza and free eternal life, they still spell  “gimmick.”  They are still an example of how we in the church get stuck in applying slick  advertising approaches to evangelism. We can tend to make our Christian celebrities into “fields of dreams”: if we just “build it” (or invite the latest billboard for Christianity) “they” (the crowds that need to be evangelized and see how cool we and Jesus are) “will come.”

If you didn’t catch Colbert’s Easter routine, which features some all-in-good-fun pokes at pastor Jim Champion, who invited Tebow to speak at his megachurch, here it is.  Hats off to all my Australian friends for your work to save the “Easter bilby,” too:

http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/412155/april-09-2012/easter-under-attack—bunny-vs–bilby?xrs=share_copy

The Easter Grouch Speaks

"Always look on the bright side of life...Life's a piece of shit, when you look at it."

“We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” - 2 Corinthians 4:10

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“Christ is risen!”  My cup is running over- or so I’m told.

Meanwhile, the violence of a murderous regime in Syria spills across borders and the blood of innocent lives cries out from the ground.

“Christ is risen!”  We’re wearing pretty pastels- I even catch someone sporting seer sucker before the Kentucky Derby- and we’re  singing songs of triumph over sin and death.

“I’m just waiting for something good to happen,”a friend writes from a place of anguish and confusion about where her life is going, about her frustration over her inability to just “get it together.”

“Christ is risen!” We’re proclaiming that life negates death and healing overcomes brokenness.

But, he still has those recurring nightmares of roadside bombs and buddies blown to pieces.  She’s having trouble just “getting over it” when everyone else has moved on.  They’re the ones at the back of the church, or who never darken the doors, because “resurrection” is at best a weary trickle for them.  Because they’re still stuck somewhere between death and life.  Because their whole life, in fact, will be lived out “in the middle.”

Holy Saturday. We don’t really talk about it in the church.  We prefer to fast forward to Easter.  Just like when someone is telling us about all of the shit in their life, and we would prefer to tell them how to fix it, how God will make it all better. Just like when we feel really uncomfortable when the folks with the really obvious disabilities join us in worship and aren’t invisible.  It’s hard to stay there, in the middle, between death and life, without jumping ahead to some triumphant ending.  Yet I would venture to say that many of us in the church, despite our well-heeled finery and fresh-faced smiles on Easter, spend much of our lives here. In the middle.

I just finished Shelly Rambo’s Spirit and Trauma:  A Theology of Remaining. If you’re looking for a theology for Holy Saturday, this is a good place to start.  Rambo argues that what the church needs in these spaces is not more triumphant proclamation about how resurrection has made us all better, but a willingness to tell the truth about how we’re still “waiting for something good to happen.”  She challenges us to think more about who the church is for those who occupy this middle ground.

And there are many of us.  Those of us who have experienced trauma of any kind know that life is never the same again.  That life is a painful, muddled mix of re- enacting the trauma and finding spaces in which to breathe again and move into life even as we carry this “death” with us.

Someone I admire told me an Indian proverb yesterday about a man who dies and goes to heaven.  The man upon entering the pearly gates asks if this is the only place he can go.  He is told that he can also go to hell if he’d prefer.  He requests that he’d be allowed to visit.  There in hell he finds community with those in deep suffering and decides that solidarity with those who are suffering is “paradise” itself.  He decides to stay there rather than return to heaven.

Maybe this is a bit of what it means for a God for whom “darkness is the same as light” to descend into hell.  Maybe courageous solidarity with those who are suffering, not some magic bullet proclamation about resurrection, is the most powerful testimony the church can give to a God who is “with” us.

In Messy: God Likes It That Way, A.J. Swoboda gives voice to my own gripe with church triumphalism when he critiques an expression that often gets thrown around in circles we both have run in.  You may have heard it, too: it goes, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”  But Swoboda would say, and I couldn’t agree more, that the church’s witness would be better summed up in this: “Love the sinner, love the sinner.”  This, I suspect, is what it means to occupy Holy Saturday- what it means to be in that space where life and death, sin, sickness and healing are all tangled up with one another.

So this Easter, call me a grouch, but I’m going to keep grumbling whenever I hear that “Christ is risen”: YouTube Preview Image

Life is not a running game in “Touchback”

Happy Easter, everyone! Christ is risen, which is something I have some thoughts and even grumblings about- yes, you read that correctly- so stay tuned for another post about that.  In the meantime, the following review of “Touchback,” opening in theaters this week, is republished with permission of the Episcopal Digital Network’s online publication, “Sermons That Work.” If you haven’t visited, I invite you to check it out: http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/ I think you’ll find there a well of helpful resources for folks like you and me asking questions at the intersection between life and God:

Movies about football are usually not my cup of tea.  (I might watch the Super Bowl once a year, so long as nachos with all the works and some good company are part of the invitation.)  Neither are explicitly “Christian” flicks, which often can seem trite, contrived and a bit schmaltzy.

Touchback, which opens in theaters on April 13 and stars Brian Presley (Home of the Brave) and Melanie Lynskey (Up In the Air, Sweet Home Alabama, and CBS’ “Two and a Half Men”), with Kurt Russell as supporting actor, left me pleasantly surprised on both fronts: you don’t have to know what a “touchback” or “audible” is to find the plot engaging; and you don’t have to be a proselyte for the genre of “Christian movies” to walk away having been touched by the film’s message of redemption and second chances.

Presley plays a washed-up, high school football star, Scott Murphy, who after permanently injuring his leg in a game-winning play during a state championship game, is obliged to trade in a college scholarship at Ohio State and hopes of a future in pro football for a small-town life as a farmer and family man.  Murphy, resigned to an unhappy, claustrophobic life in his home town of Coldwater (population: 2,700), and forever haunted by regret and “what-if’s” as a result of that fateful night, becomes depressed and suicidal when bank foreclosure and an unexpected frost threaten to wipe out his livelihood.

Second chances come unexpectedly in the form of a dream that takes Murphy back to the days leading up to that night.  The overall effect is that of a serious version of Back to the Future.  If there are no cool time machines or mad scientists here, some of the same questions present themselves- about free will, or the lack thereof, about the intersection between human possibility, chaos theory and God’s “providence,” and, about the nature of redemption with respect to our past, present and future.

This theme of redemption is one that Touchback both enriches and problematizes.  The possibility for Murphy’s redemption comes when he is able to return to his past and view it through the lens of the present- when he, in essence, is offered through a dream the chance to choose with the gift of hindsight a different fate for himself.  The college scholarship, pretty blonde girlfriend, and a ticket out of “Backwater” (the slang he uses to describe his home town), all present themselves once again for the taking- and these, in contrast, to the prospect that he will end up with his future wife (Lynskey), after lying injured in a hospital bed with a shattered knee.

“Redemption” in the end is about staying- “blooming where you’re planted,” so to speak.  “Salvation” is learning to find gratitude and community in hard, painful circumstances.  And what that looks like at the end of the movie may bring you to tears.

Still, the film leaves me frustrated in places with its subtle tone of judgment about Murphy’s ambition to leave his trailer park neighborhood and the confines of “Backwater” for the larger world.  In conversations between Murphy and his future wife, coach and mother, I am left to feel little sympathy for those who would choose a way out.  Take, for instance, this dialogue between Murphy and his mother:

Mom: “Things don’t make me happy…you being happy makes me happy.”

Murphy: “I am going to be happy and things are going to be different.”

Mom: “What is so wrong with right now?  What if this is all you get, kid? What if this is it?  It seems like nothing is ever enough with you, you know!  If you can’t be satisfied with what you got, then you’re never going to be happy, no matter what you get…If there was one thing I could change, that would be it.”

In this context, ambition itself seems unredeemable, and liberation in the form of an escape a cop-out.  And, if this definition of redemption works for Murphy, it is left wanting in places where violence, oppression, and the trauma of ongoing abuse make staying and blooming downright impossible.  In such places, be it an inner-city neighborhood riddled by gang violence, or war-torn Sudan, or a situation of domestic violence, redemption not only demands a way out but depends to a certain degree on both our ability to imagine that “things are going to be different” and our determination to make it so.  Murphy chooses to stay- (you’ll have to watch the movie to find out what this really means)-but I am left wondering if there’s any room here for those who don’t have a choice, or choose differently.

 

Desperate Housewife or God’s Dreamer? Station 5

Just another morning stroll in the land of desperate housewives...Where are the dog, poopie scooper and sweat pants?

Finally, the sermon that many of you helped me write in encouraging the use of “appropriate” humor even on the darkest day of the church calendar.  Today’s Good Friday service at Mount Zion A.M.E. will be a series of  meditations on the perspectives of the women who appear throughout the Passion narrative- Pilate’s wife, Claudia, being one of them.  Enjoy!  May you walk away having laughed and having asked yourself a question that is not just for Pilate’s wife but for all of us in our God-forsaken places.

While [Pilate] was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” -Matthew 27:19

Pilate’s wife- or, Claudia, as subsequent church tradition has named her- knows about dreams that don’t come true.

Her whole life up until now, I suspect, has been one, big miscarriage of best-laid hopes.

Because if I had to guess, I would imagine that Claudia once dreamt of a whole lot more than what her life has amounted to.  She was, after all, an aristocrat, the cream of the crop in imperial Rome.  The most eligible, maybe, of bachelorettes.  Wealthy, beautiful and educated (or at least as educated as the women of her time could be).  She probably had the world at her finger tips.

Claudia’s marriage to Pilate? I suspect at one time she had hoped that tying the knot would bring her access to an exciting life in the limelight and at the epicenter of luxury and power in the world’s greatest city of Rome.

Instead, she finds herself stuck in the dry, dusty, remote colony of Judea, on the outskirts of the empire, with only a spineless middle manager for a husband, whose job is merely to keep the peace.  Life here is one long, drawn-out reminder of unfulfilled dreams, like credits in a movie that keep running forever.

And, if Claudia once dreamt of access to the emperor’s inner circle, if she once spun visions of a future life in the corridors of the imperial government, now she has resigned herself to smaller, more trivial ambitions.  Now she fills her days by doing her nails while watching morning talk shows.  By speculating on when the next caravan of luxury goods will roll into town so she can switch out the drapes.  By wondering how many ways she can wear her hair to impress the young man with the nice calves and the six pack who drives her chariot.

Boredom, triviality, and resignation have become the furniture of Claudia’s life now- so much so that she barely even notices their presence.

And the day when Jesus comes to town in handcuffs is like any other day, really, in Claudia’s small world of aspirating dreams.  It’s like any other day except that today she’s been dozing on the couch, listening to the local news, when a picture of Jesus flashes across the screen with the headlines of his arrest.  Something about some cockamamie trial and angry crowds that want him crucified for nothing in particular.  Just because.  For blood sport- and because the sky is blue and it’s a Friday.

And suddenly there and then the smallness of this woman’s inner chamber opens up onto a vast stage on which the course of human history is playing out in this backwater city of Jerusalem.  There and then she perceives- if only fleetingly- that maybe her part isn’t so small after all, because she in some way is related to this mysterious stranger named Jesus, and their fates are unavoidably linked in some great, cosmic scheme.  In that moment, she apprehends that her mid-level-bureaucrat-of-a-husband with Jello for a spine is not presiding over just another petty dispute.  He is in some way changing the course of human history.

And this reality, as it sets in, scares and even torments her.

But Claudia for so long now has been used to dreaming dreams that don’t come true.  So when she scribbles out this message to her husband, she is giving voice to her own desperate sense of powerlessness, a kind of complacency with the status quo.

“Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man,” she writes. And in that moment it’s the best she can hope for, for her and her husband- that Pontius Pilate would just wash his hands of the matter.  No high hopes for justice here.  No declarations of Jesus’ divinity or wrestling with what that might mean just yet.  No suggestions that Claudia or her husband have any power whatsoever to change a quickly deteriorating situation. Only the desperate plea that her husband have nothing to do with Jesus.

It’s a small-minded request, really.  It apprehends something true about Jesus even as it avoids the implications.  And maybe this is because Claudia has learned with the years not to ask too much of life or expect too much of herself or others.  She has become so good at accepting the triviality and pettiness of her little, self-absorbed world that she can’t even imagine what it would be like for things to change, for God to come along and make a way out of all those dead ends.

You and I have been there, too.  Maybe we’re there right now.  Because all sorts of things in this world can collude to make our dreams shrink and our lives devolve into little more than just going through the motions, forgetting who we really are and who we were made to be.

We, too, live in a world in which dreams often don’t come true. Sure, we may not be whittling away our days in a luxury villa somewhere near the Mediterranean- for many of us, that is a dream!- but we have seen our hopes slowly suffocate in other ways.  Our marriages unravel and our dreams of “happily ever after” end with divorce.  Our once-healthy bodies get sick, deteriorate and die, often at the most inconvenient of times.  Our hopes of financial security fall apart with the loss of a job, or one quick, downward swing of the stock market.

Collectively, our dreams fall apart, too.  These days I don’t really hear much talk about the so-called “American dream” – you know, that promise that with hard work and equal opportunity, every American could earn their way to economic prosperity. These days, we talk a lot more about unemployment, about home foreclosures, about a growing divide between the very rich and the rest of us.  Somewhere along the way, the American dream went missing, or at least became a whole lot less spacious and inviting.  Today the “American dream” for many people is just to keep their head above water- to have enough money to pay the bills and keep food on the table, maybe to win the lottery some day.

And in these spaces, when our dreams come undone at the seams, the best we can hope for can sometimes be clinging to what we have left, clinging to what we know- even if it is small, dreary, or trivial- because it’s what we’ve become accustomed to.  In these spaces, it becomes easy to pretend that God really has nothing to do with us, and we nothing to do with God.  We grow timid, complacent and afraid to dream big, God-breathed dreams, because our lives and our world have told us that dreams don’t come true…

This week I met a woman who on a day much like this one almost exactly four years ago saw her whole world fall apart.  That day she got the news that her husband and twin boys had died suddenly in a freak accident.  They had been returning from a fishing trip when their private plane crashed.  All the passengers on board had died instantly.  She and her remaining son in the wake of unspeakable grief were left to pick up the pieces of their lives and somehow- slowly, painstakingly- put one foot in front of the other.

I asked this woman what it was that had helped her cope in that God-forsaken place of unfathomable loss and grief.  She said that prior to the accident she hadn’t really believed God could be concretely involved with her life, but that that all had changed when her world fell apart. When her world fell apart, she was obliged to begin asking God to have everything to do with her life.  And she saw how God began to answer her prayers in very real, tangible ways.  And with time, God began to help her re-imagine her life put back together again, and along the way to give her new dreams and then enflesh those dreams.

Somehow in the midst of deep, cataclysmic tragedy, God gave this woman the ability to dream again, and to believe that her dreams had everything to do with God.  Because God in Jesus is a God of possibilities- a God who makes a way out of no way, a God who takes our dreams and shapes and transforms them and breathes new life into them.

Pilate's wife in Antonio Ciseri's painting, "Ecce Homo," or "Behold the Man" (19th century)

“Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man,” Claudia writes.  “Don’t have anything to do with Jesus,” is her appeal.

I wonder if in some subterranean place in her unconscious, Claudia knows that acknowledging the reality that she and Jesus really do have something to do with one another will rock her world.  Will overturn her comfortable status quo.  Will oblige her both to dream again and dream differently about things that have everything to do with God.

“Don’t have anything to do with Jesus” might just as well form a question then, a question from the writer of Matthew’s Gospel for us- the question being, “Is it possible not to have anything to do with Jesus?”

Matthew’s Gospel would answer “no,” that by virtue of being alive we have something to do with Jesus.  Because in what can only be irony, Pilate washes his hands of Jesus’ blood; he follows his wife’s advice, but we, the reader, know the blood is on Pilate’s hands, too, just as it is on the hands of the chief priests and the crowd.  Just as it is on the hands of a woman madly scribbling a note from a place inside her where dreams once bloomed.

On this day we’ve come to call “Good Friday,” Jesus goes to the cross to show us that our dreams don’t have to shrivel up and die.  He goes to the cross to help us remember who we once were, and who we can be again, because our lives in the end have everything to do with Him.  Because apart from Him, we’re all just desperate house wives- aspiring royalty with aspirating dreams and too much time on our hands.

Today Jesus goes to the cross to tell us we’re far more than that, and to ask us to believe in things we thought were impossible.  Things we had come to assume were just the stuff of broken dreams, nothing more. Things like forgiveness and community.  Things like healing and restoration.  Things like concrete answers to prayer.  Things like love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness and self-control. Things like new life sprouting miraculously from the ashes of tragedy- new and abundant life that never runs out.

Jesus goes to the cross to help us dream again in all of our God-forsaken places. 

 

“In the Name of Love”- Station 4

"Christ Mocked" - Hieronymous Bosch, 15th century

So they arrested Jesus, took him off, and brought him into the high priest’s house…The men who were holding Jesus began to make fun of him and knock him about.  They blindfolded him. “Prophesy!,” they told him. “Who is it that’s hitting you?”  And they said many other scandalous things to him.  

When the day broke, the official assembly of the people, the chief priests and the scribes came together, and they took him off to their council. “If you are the Messiah,” they said, “tell us.”

“If I tell you,” he said to them, “you won’t believe me.  And if I ask you a question, you won’t answer me.  But from now on the son of man will be seated at the right hand of God’s power.”

“So you’re the son of God, are you?,” they said.

“You say that I am,” he said to them.

“Why do we need any more witnesses?,” they said. “We’ve heard it ourselves, from his own mouth!”-Luke 22: 54, 63-71

The chief priests and the  scribes knew about God’s truth and justice– so much so that they saw themselves as mediators of that truth and justice for the rest of the world.

But it’s dangerous hubris to set ourselves up to be God’s mouthpiece.  We end up putting things into God’s mouth that God never actually said.  We end up twisting truth and justice into pale, diabolical versions of themselves.

Maybe it’s this kind of thing that can cause even the best of people to mislead themselves into thinking that torture in the name of justice- be it “just war” or the pursuit of truth- is not only okay but commendable.  Maybe this explains the fact that our nation of America, which still describes itself overwhelmingly as “Christian,” could condone the practice of water boarding in its interrogation methods.  When we think God is on our side, we can get away with rationalizing a whole lot of things.

The good news in all of this is that Jesus thankfully doesn’t allow Himself to be coerced.  God’s living, breathing, walking Justice- God’s “Truth”- is also very much in full ownership of Himself.  He won’t let us actually define who He is, even as He won’t force Himself on us.  He won’t let us torture Him into unconditional submission, even as He lets us breathe threats down His neck, taunt Him and eventually crucify Him.

Love Itself requires this of Jesus.  Love and Love alone- not the handcuffs we place on Jesus- is what ultimately binds Him to the cross.

In keeping with my love for 80′s music, here’s U2 live in 1984 singing “In the Name of Love.” Bono’s hair style is itself worth a peek: YouTube Preview Image

Ending Our Savior Complexes: Station 3

DESCRIPTION: Jesus picking up the ear that Peter cut off of the servant CAPTION: FIVE SECOND RULE!

When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.

 But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him. -Luke 22:49-51

Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. 11 Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” -John 18:10

Peter and the disciples have “poor impulse control,” as friend and fellow minister Megan Johnson puts it.

And maybe we do, too.  Because it’s easy to be impulsive when we’re in situations beyond our control.  We’d prefer to take matters into our own hands- and quickly.  Doing something rather than nothing can make us feel better, even if temporarily, when grief and tragedy stare back at us.

And it’s easy to convince ourselves when we’re following Jesus that justice itself demands our action.  That the world is depending on us.  That God’s redemption means activity rather than passivity on our parts.

Some of us have really big savior complexes, too.  We’ve convinced ourselves that Jesus really does need us to redeem the world.  We evangelicals are especially prone to this kind of dysfunctionality.

The funny thing is that when I meet people like this, I end up not really liking them. They’re frankly annoying- like super heroes who have traded in the cool hair dos, gimmicks and special powers for a big ego and a small sense of humor.

But when God calls us into His mission of redemption, God isn’t calling us to fight.  Nor is God calling us to flight (which Peter will do shortly when he denies Jesus three times). God is calling us not just to see and apprehend what God is doing, but then to acquiesce to it, which is a kind of dying to ourselves.

This intentional passivity on our parts demands much more strength and courage than an impulsive falling back on our own devices.  It requires that we sit still and attentively in the pain and mess of life, all the while staying close to Jesus and being available to God whenever and wherever.  When we impulsively rush in with prescriptions for what needs to happen in order for things to be right, we will often miss the most important things God is doing in our midst.

[Note: by now you may have realized that we're breaking the norm of "the seven stations" as they traditionally have been defined and numbered. These stations are my own, as observations and impressions that have struck me in reading the Passion narrative this time around.]

The Kiss of Betrayal: Station 2

Kiss of Judas, Giotto (14th century)

While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” - Luke 22:47-48

Why does Judas choose a kiss to betray Jesus when he could have simply flagged Jesus down for the crowd as the guy to arrest? Why this display of intimacy, affection and love at the very moment of betrayal?

Theologian in Residence of Foundations for Laity Renewal Mark Roberts speculates on this question.  He writes, “I wonder if Judas was saying to Jesus: ‘I’m doing this because I committed to the coming of the kingdom. I’m forcing your hand, Jesus, so that you’ll reveal your true messianic ministry and call up legions of angels to defeat the Romans.’ Or perhaps Judas’ kiss meant: ‘I once believed in you, Jesus. I loved you. But you betrayed me. You held out the promise of the coming kingdom and I bought it completely. But then you started talking about your death, just like a defeated man. And everything started to unravel, including my hopes for you. So I still love you, Jesus, but I can no longer support you because you betrayed me and our cause.’”

We can only ultimately speculate about Judas’ motivations, but ours can be easier to locate.  How many times have we publicly identified ourselves as friends of Jesus but in our actions betrayed allegiance to Him?  How many times do we seek to domesticate Jesus- turning him into the authorities, so to speak- when by all outward appearances we claim to follow Jesus (rather than the reverse)?  What keeps us from telling the truth about who we are and who God is?

Jesus quickly and clearly sees through all our false pretenses.  He knows our hearts better than even we can know them.

Jesus on the Mount of Olives: Station 1

"Jesus Christ on the Mount of Olives," by Albrecht Durer

He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Luke 22:39-46

Rob Bell, in Drops Like Stars, claims that “suffering unites.”

I disagree.  There is nothing intrinsically positive or redemptive about suffering itself.

A long-time physician with the World Health Organization who has been around the world in places of great human suffering once reflected over dinner on the nature of suffering.  He said that every time he had watched parents grieving the loss of children to starvation, or persons withering away from AIDS, he had been obliged to admit that he could never fully appreciate their uniquely personal experience of suffering.  For as much as he might find reserves of compassion and empathy with which to reach out to such persons with a kind word, he could never fully understand the full intensity or scope of their anguish.  For all intensive purposes, they were alone in their suffering.

Suffering dislocates and alienates us from God, others and ourselves.

Jesus’ suffering on the cross begins in a garden on the Mount of Olives.  The same place he always comes to pray, only this time it’s different.  When he prays, his tears become drops of blood (a scientifically validated expression of how the body can react under extreme duress).

And, only Jesus can undergo the “trial” that is to follow.  If the camera were to pan away from Jesus in his anguish and questioning, it would land on a cluster of men so weary from grief that they’ve fallen asleep.  Jesus’ most trusted followers, the ones who have broken bread with him, laughed, cried and exchanged hard words with him, are faraway from Jesus in his existential loneliness.

We are, too.

That’s because no one else claiming to be God Himself has ever before or ever after this moment taken it upon himself to die alone for the whole world.

People since the beginning of time have become martyrs for all sorts of principles.  Just the other day a Buddhist monk set himself on fire in protest of the Chinese government’s policies on Tibet.  Men and women under repressive regimes like Syria’s government go to their deaths having fought for freedom.  Especially altruistic people in Germany’s death camps in World War II gave up their lives to spare others.

But, what would it be like to anticipate that your death would be a parade of all the dark powers of the universe- a climactic showdown between good and evil, with at least a tip of the hat to the reality that evil, death, sin and suffering often at least provisionally, this side of paradise, win? What would it be like to give your body over to this cosmic drama when you knew that you didn’t ultimately have to? That you could walk away from it all and live a comfortable life?  What kind of burden would it be to know that the hope, “light” and rescue of the whole world ultimately rested on your shoulders?

Only Jesus knows.  Not out of necessity, but because He chooses to.  And the great beauty of Jesus’ suffering is that it, in contrast to ours, has the power to unite, transform, redeem and restore.  Our suffering unites, transforms, redeems and restores only insofar as it participates in Christ’s suffering.

Sadly, most of us spend too much time “sleeping.”

“Happy April Fools Day!” Love, Jesus

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?’ just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.  Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” - Mark 11:1-10

It’s fitting that this Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, is also April Fools Day. God in Jesus makes His climactic entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, and the crowds hail him as their king.

But as friend and pastor Thomas Daniel (Kairos Church) put it in today’s sermon, “the greatest things God will do in our lives and our world will confound our human expectations every time.” God in Jesus Christ is like a big divine, “gotcha” moment in human history- not to make us feel any more stupid than we already are much of the time, but to draw us into a mission of God that is far more glorious than what we could ever expect or imagine.

The crowds in this story, like a lot of us, are seeing what they want to see when they seek God. They’re remembering their long-held aspirations for a political hero who will ride into Jerusalem on a majestic, well-bred horse. (They don’t seem to notice that Jesus is making his entry on just another dumb ass from the next redneck village over.) That’s because they don’t get that God isn’t coming into their world to give them what they want, exactly- because what we want often pales in comparison to what God can and will do in our lives and our world.

In just a few days Jesus will make His way to the cross to conquer not by brute force but by the strength of God’s love. To vanquish, not, as the crowds would intuit, Israel’s colonizing enemy of Rome, but ultimately all worldly powers of evil and death. To begin restoring for Himself not just a chosen people but all creation in the fullness of time.

Here is where we begin, too: with a God who in Christ Jesus says, “The joke’s on you. Now follow me.”  And, in a world in which Jesus rose from the dead, and invites us into resurrected life, maybe one day penguins will really fly. This BBC clip was my favorite from a series of top ten April Fools Day videos:  YouTube Preview Image Happy April Fools Palm Sunday!

 

“I’d Like to Talk to You About Cheeses”

Compliments of FSS reader Andrew in response to Jim Gaffigan's stand-up routine, "I'd Like to Talk To You About Jesus."

It’s been a full week here for Fellowship of Saints and Sinners, so I wanted to take a short breather to reflect on some of the things we’ve been talking about,  and then offer a brief glimpse of what we can look forward to in the days and weeks to come.  There’s a lot to tune in for, so I hope you keep coming back.

But first, the week in review:

A number of you weighed in on the question of the appropriateness of humor and its use on  Good Friday.  The general consensus? That humor even on the darkest day of the church calendar can be utilized appropriately- so long as generating laughs is not the ultimate aim of the sermon.  One reader, Paula, invited us to consider how to address the issue of suffering and God-forsakenness on a day when the family of a friend with one month to live will show up hungry for a Word from God. This question of suffering and God-forsakenness I plan to address in a future post, and it will also form the last chapter of my forthcoming book, Grace Sticks: The Bumper Sticker Gospel for Restless Souls.  (Stay tuned!)

Many of you exhibited great self-control in not throwing flour pies at me when I indulged the prickly topic of abortion on a day when my state of Georgia passed some tighter restrictions on abortion. Some of you even left some reflections.  Margaret in Atlanta, Georgia writes: “I SO enjoyed this blog posting. And another thing I always wonder about when people are bickering on the news – Why is it that pro-birth and pro-life are often separate things? If we are going to encourage women to protect life, which I think we must, then we must also commit to participating in the life of that child…”

Elana, in Chicago, Illinois, had this to say: “While I think most people would agree that abortion is a tragedy for all concerned, I don’t think most women undergoing the procedure view the developing embryo as ‘disposable.’ Few who choose this route are cavalier in their decision, and the reasons are too complex and multifaceted to go into here. There is no conspiracy to strong-arm anyone (on the MD side); as you know, doctors who agree to perform these procedures face an increasingly hostile environment and often fear for their life. Likewise, any invasive procedure can be labeled ‘violent’…”

Olivia, in Birmingham, England, writes: “…Since when did a civilized society deny basic contraceptive rights to women (a) to enable women to be full players publicly as well as privately and (b) to reduce the tragedy of women facing unwanted pregnancies and the bad set of options they then face. Abortion is a desperate tragedy, and the warring ideas that abortion is just another contraceptive measure (on the one hand) or that contraception is akin to abortion (on the other hand) both collude to harm women.”

J. Paulette, in Charlotte, North Carolina,  and Jana, in Gainsville, Florida, have invited me to reconsider my definition of abortion.  J. Paulette, for example, questions my understanding of Plan B- she calls into question my view of the pill as a contraceptive, calling it instead “abortifacent.” (She also increased my vocabulary.) Jana quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who defines the destruction of the embryo as nothing less than “murder.”  With a respectful tip of my hat to my many, dear Catholic friends, and to Dietrich, one of my favorite (Protestant) theologians, I would say the following: first, Plan B, if taken correctly- and I recognize this is a big “if”- is to be taken 1-3 days within intercourse, which makes the possibility of the pill destroying even an embryo pretty slim (although there’s no guarantee here); but it does make it almost totally impossible for a woman to become impregnated; second, we live in a very broken, imperfect world in which people make mistakes, condoms break, men rape women, and so on, and compassion demands giving as much grace as possible to women who find themselves in such situations; third, I’m assuming that what we can all agree on is that there’s a very real difference between the tragedy of a first or second trimester abortion and the prevention of pregnancy (even if prevention involves the small risk that an embryo is destroyed in the process).  There is one other thing I would note here, and it’s the regrettable absence of men in the above conversation. (Men, have you really been rendered silent in this debate? Really?)

Finally, Megan in Benin, Africa, shared her gratitude for my sermon, “How Hungry Are You?” She writes: “This really spoke to me. Just what I needed. I don’t go to church as much as I would like here in Benin as I don’t feel it feeds me. Your post helped me fill the gap. Thank you for sharing.”

Believe it or not, it’s not the $20/month I earn from blogging with Beliefnet that keeps me writing.  It’s interactions like these.  Thank you, Megan, and thank you to all of you saints and sinners who keep coming back.

Now, a glimpse of what you can expect to see in the days and weeks to come- and you’ll notice we have an eclectic mix of “cheeses” on display:

- Stations of the Cross in Holy Week…Like Jesus’ disciples, I’ll probably fall away- in my own case, somewhere between running errands, folding clothes, making dinner and attempting to be a wife and mother- but I hope you’ll consider journeying with me next week, anyway.

- More of our ongoing “Jesus Epithets” series, in addition to my regularly random rants, jokes, and meditations at the intersection between life and God

- A really interesting interview, in 2-3 installments, with college friend and Stanford University neuroscientist Saskia de Vries…Saskia will indulge our questions about the latest discoveries in human neuroscience as they pertain to our understanding of God, sin and redemption, and other doctrines and questions from the world of Christian theology.  I’m especially excited about this conversation!  Tell your friends about it. Or, don’t.

Love you all! Thanks for reading, thinking, pouting, laughing, crying, nodding your head, sending me kind comments that keep me going, and at times wildly (but hopefully always charitably) disagreeing.  Here’s to cheeses- I mean, Jesus- this Holy Week.  Grace and peace.

 

 

 

 

 

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