Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Tragedy of Abortion

If only it really were this simple.

My husband warned me not to bring this issue up, because it’s one of those topics that makes people squirm and in some cases scream at each other.  But, I was often one of those kids growing up who would see a “Danger” sign and think, “Hmmm…looks like something to explore.” Maybe some things don’t change.

I’ve been following with interest the sometimes loud debate over health care reform as it relates to women’s reproductive rights.  Some of you, like my husband, will wish I had never brought this issue up because of the direction it inevitably takes.  Please don’t throw a flour pie in my face (and I submit that the comparison to Kim Kardashian extends no further.) There are people whom I love and respect deeply who strongly disagree with me on this issue.  I want them to know- and you, my reader, and fellow saint and sinner- that I can appreciate how painful and complex the moral and ethical ambiguities at play here can be, and that no simple “pro-life” or “pro-choice” check next to our name will ultimately solve them.  Still, simply to ignore the issue because it’s “prickly”- the other day my friend who works for a women’s reproductive health organization referred to it as “A.B.,” as if to make it more palatable to say in public- is, I think, a moral failure on the part of those of us who describe ourselves as people who worship a God who gives and takes away life.

By now, you may have guessed what I’m about to talk about.  Yes…it’s “abortion.”  The ending of a woman’s pregnancy, and the ending of a growing life within a woman’s body- a life that in essence, from even its earliest beginnings, is a developing human being (no matter whether we call it a “foetus” or a “baby”).

Here are some experiences, impressions and thoughts that lately have been coalescing:

I’m sitting in a move theater watching “Juno.” The movie tells the story of a teenager who finds herself pregnant.  At one point in the movie, when Juno is considering whether to abort, a couple of women a few rows back from me begin to yell at the screen, “Abort it!”

The other day a friend tells me about a close friend who is still haunted by her decision to get an abortion years ago.

I’m pregnant and in the throes of morning sickness with my son when an insensitive colleague chalks up my grumpiness to the “growth” (think cyst, wart, etc)  inside me.  I’m non-plussed.

I’m at CVS waiting for a prescription. That’s when I see her step tentatively up to the counter.  She’s taking out her wallet. “Plan B” is in her hands. “I’m proud of her,” I’m thinking to myself. “Because while we all can make mistakes, she’s taking the precautions now.”

I’m eight weeks pregnant with my second child, and begin to bleed.  In fact, I’ll keep bleeding off and on throughout my first trimester.  I go to the ER.  They do an ultrasound. Samantha, who will grow into an active, inquisitive little girl, has a very discernible heart beat…at eight weeks.

My friend (the same one who uses the “A.B.” lingo) is celebrating that my very conservative state of Georgia is one of the few in the Union to allow women to obtain abortions in their second trimester.  

Now rewind to about thirty six years ago.  

A young, pregnant woman is told by her doctor that she has a cyst the size of a grape fruit in her uterus. Both her baby and her own health are at risk, according to the doctor.  Her best option? To abort.

The young woman, at 24, goes home and prays.  She asks God to show her what to do.  She needs help.  She needs direction.  She later says God gives her a great sense of peace in that moment that everything is going to be okay, that she should have the baby.

So she goes to a second doctor.  The doctor tells her the same thing. One, ugly word: “abort.”

The young woman finally goes to an older missionary doctor who assures her that he has operated on women in her condition before.  Six months into her pregnancy, the woman undergoes surgery to remove the cyst.  The doctor opens her up and exclaims, “You have a healthy, little girl!”

I am born a few months later with no abnormalities other than a particularly cone-shaped head. 8lbs, 6oz, 22 inches long.  

I kept growing.  Now I’m 6 feet.

These days when the rhetoric on both sides of the aisle is shrill, from Republicans and Democrats alike, I as a Christian and a  feminist feel shipwrecked by both parties.  I find it hard to understand why so many Republicans, those most vociferously against abortion as the greatest of evils, refuse to allow women access to contraception that will help them prevent abortion. In my book, Republicans should be the first to be stocking pharmacies with prescriptions for “Plan B.”  They should be the first to be supporting women’s access to birth control, if they really mean what they say- that abortion is a terrible thing.

Republicans have also been consistent at speaking out on this issue of sanctity of life, but then poor at coming alongside women who bravely make the choice to have their babies in difficult circumstances. The right to life can tend to displace quality of life. And, let’s face it: Republicans these days have been poor at supporting women in general (Rush Limbaugh’s comments, Rick Santorum’s implicit prescriptions for women, which it seems would have us all barefoot and pregnant with little else to contribute,  and Gingrich and Kain’s philandering and disrespect, are cases in point)

On the other hand, I hear Democrats railing loudly in support of “women’s reproductive rights” with an almost callous willingness to lump abortion into the broader category of contraception, so that the separate yet dependent life a woman is carrying is rendered as nothing more than an inconvenient “growth” or appendage of sorts (because he or she can’t speak and doesn’t yet look exactly like you and me).  Then, just the other day, Democrats were renewing the “Violence Against Women Act,” yet strangely are largely silent about the hidden violence against women that takes place in doctor’s clinics across this nation.

The legislator who recently wrote to a constituent insisting that women should have to watch an abortion procedure may have been regrettably rash and insensitive, but I can appreciate some of the sentiment behind the remarks.  Because abortion is a revolting form of violence against a woman’s body and the life inside her.

It seems to me that we, the church, need to be doing everything we can to understand abortion for what it is-  tragedy for all persons involved, demanding a deeply compassionate and creative response to the failure of our society to honor, support and empower women’s flourishing at every level (not to mention, of course, the God-breathed, growing life inside of them).

What circumstances contribute to a woman thinking that the life inside her is disposable, and that she is making the best decision for her child and her body to abort?  Any number of things, to be sure.  Rape and incest?  The pain and inconvenience of a child with severe disabilities or mental retardation?  Economic distress? No access to birth control? Single parent households with little support? A man or woman in a white coat worried about a potential lawsuit? Lack of education about the life inside her? A disregard for the sanctity of life? Any or a combination of these things, I suspect.  And the women who have been in these places, and their families, know best the painfulness and moral complexities of a decision about whether to abort.

But it seems to me that the church has not just an opportunity but a responsibility to come alongside women and speak out against this violence against their bodies and in support of life wherever and however it develops- to honor a commitment to both the sanctity and quality of life from conception on.  And it seems that where we can be working to invest in systems of support that do these things for women and children, we should be, so that abortion really does stand a chance of becoming a mode of last resort.

If the Incarnation teaches me anything, it is that God cares a whole lot about women’s bodies.  God, after all,  inhabited one.  The great miracle, mystery and “inconvenience” of pregnancy and birth were things that God chose to acknowledge and affirm when Jesus was conceived and born into this world.  How might we both acknowledge and affirm them, too?

The below video is an amazing description of a baby’s development starting at eight weeks. In posting it, I also want to issue the disclaimer that I don’t necessarily support the agenda of the organization that produced the video: YouTube Preview Image

 

 

 

 

Good Friday Humor: Bad Taste, or a Witness to the Resurrection?

Pontius Pilate, with Biggus Dickus to his right, presides before the crowds just before releasing Brian.

I’ve been asked to preach at a Good Friday service that lifts up the voices of the various women in the events surrounding Jesus’ death. I got the call yesterday asking if I would preach- apparently the woman originally slated to do it backed out.

Now I think I know why.  That’s because I’m to find a 12-15 minute sermon in the voice of Pontius Pilate’s wife, who holds a one verse part in Matthew 27.  I’m guessing the other woman slated to do this passage saw her assignment and fled.  My flight response just isn’t as honed as it could be.

Hence this question. On the darkest, most solemn day of the Christian calendar, is it irreverent to use humor? Because, seriously, thus far I’ve only been able to imagine Pontius Pilate’s wife as a bored transplant from Rome who thought when she married Pontius that she’d have a life in the limelight at the center of luxury and power, but instead found herself in the dry, dusty, remote Roman province of Palestine with only a middle manager for a husband. When she sends a note to her husband presiding at Jesus’ trial, she has probably been doing her nails, watching morning talk shows like “The View,” and speculating on when the next caravan of luxury goods  will roll into town.  That disturbing dream she has alerting her to Jesus’ innocence?  She probably has been dozing on the couch having turned the channel a few too many times to the local news station.

So she sends the following instruction to her husband, just before Pontius- who I keep envisioning has a lisp, thanks to Monty Python- hands Jesus over to be flogged: “Don’t have anything to do with that man (Jesus),” she writes; “because in a dream last night, I suffered much on account of him” (Matthew 27:19).

It’s a line I’m going to have to run with, since it’s her only line. “Is it really possible not to have anything to do with Jesus?,” becomes my question reading Matthew’s account of Christ’s Passion.  That’s probably the direction in which I’ll take this sermon.

Still, I’m left with the fact that on a day that I’m supposed to be really serious, I’m having trouble keeping a straight face, much like the centurion guards who have to look solemn and dignified when listening to their boss prate on and on with a lisp about Biggus Dickus and his wife Incontinentia Buttocks.  If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, here it is for a few laughs: YouTube Preview Image

So…what do you think? Is it bad taste to use humor in a Good Friday service, or can our humor be a way of witnessing to the resurrection on the darkest day of the year? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

Bruce Springsteen as Preacher and Prophet

Bruce Springsteen unleashes some righteous anger at the "robber barons" and"greedy thieves" of Wall Street in his latest album, Wrecking Ball.

Last week Bruce Springsteen kicked off his Wrecking Ball tour at the Phillips Arena here in Atlanta.  The pictures brought back memories of the first (and only) time I heard Springsteen live in concert at the Arena only a couple years earlier.  That night he became as much a preacher as a musician.  He was gathering up the crowds in an exhilarating, rhythmic vision of how music can help to redeem the world.  Together it seemed that preacher and congregation really could have brought the house down just with the sound of their voices.

That night I didn’t just acquire another idol to worship- yes, Bruce, if you’re reading this, you after Jesus really are “The Boss” and I think you’re hot.  I also walked away asking what the church could learn from this rock and roll legend.

Wrecking Ball is Bruce’s 17th studio album, and in the trademark of Springsteen, its songs describe the distance between American reality and the American dream.  Here is a clip of Springsteen performing “Death to My Hometown” in Atlanta: YouTube Preview Image

Biblical prophecy works similarly.  Prophets hold up a vision of God’s dream for us and then tell the truth about the distance between how we’re living and how God would have us live.  They do this sort of thing over and over again.

Maybe the most fundamental lesson of Springsteen is that this kind of truth telling needs to be happening over and over again, even when it can sound annoying after a while.  And when it’s told, it needs to be told with an enticing, full-sensory invitation to be part of God’s unfolding dream and the real conviction that together we can enflesh the dream.

Making music together is a start.

Prayer and Redemption as Body Language

How might the church actually embody redemption? Marcia Mount Shoop takes us there.

Yesterday I prayed silently and loudly…with my hand.

Yes, you read that correctly.  No typo here.  I prayed with my hand.

First, it seemed weird, maybe even a bit hokey.  I felt self-conscious.   I, like so many of us “frozen chosen” Presbyterians, am accustomed to prayer as a disembodied, intellectual exercise.  When we’re asked to acknowledge the reality and gift of our bodies and then engage them in worship, we tend to become self-conscious.  Liturgical dance or our discomfort with foot washing ceremonies are good examples of this “dis-ease,” as theologian Marcia Mount Shoop, author of Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ, describes our discomfort.

But something happened when I began to pray with my hand. Most fundamentally, I realized that it really can be done.  That the body can be as much a channel for the Spirit’s “helping us in our weakness to pray” as our minds can.  That the competing dualism of mind, soul and spirit versus body that we Presbyterians tend to honor at least unconsciously in how we worship- despite a prevalence of emerging scientific data that supports a more unified understanding of our physicality- is really a fallacy.

As my hand began to move, caress the air, and cradle in my arms two-and-a-half-year-old Madeline, who lies in a hospital bed waiting for a bone marrow match to help her fight a rare disease, my body began to mimic the tender motions first of this little girl’s mother, and then, as I would imagine them, of a God who’s “got the whole world in God’s hands.”  This God would, I anticipated with my hand,  cradle Madeline in His arms.  This God would caress her with His healing touch.  He would press His command, “Be healed,” into the palm of her hand.

So there we were, a handful of women in Wendy Farley’s women’s theology seminar, all praying with our hands, thanks to Marcia having paid us a visit to talk about her book.

If the picture still sounds hokey, maybe that’s because we’re all at least a bit uncomfortable living in our own skin and being attentive to what our bodies, as flash points of our emotions, sensations, and experiences, not just our minds, tell us about who we are.  But, Marcia’s book is a deft reclamation of the importance of the body as the unifying site of both thought and emotion, the conscious and the unconscious, sensations and, as she puts it, “feeling.”  This feeling, not to be confused with emotion, under girds all of these various physical experiences; similar, although not identical to Friedrich Schleiermacher’s “God consciousness,” it is the thing that distinguishes human beings as made in God’s image, even as it also connects us with all other living things in our universe, to the degree that it makes us “response-able,” as those who act and are acted upon as selves always in flux.

Marcia looks through three lenses of her own deeply personal experience, rape, pregnancy and motherhood, in order to make some modestly universal claims about the three-fold nature of reality- tragedy, relationality and ambiguity.  These she invites the church to respond to with three dispositions of redemption: compassion in response to tragedy; interdependence, to relationality; and adventure to ambiguity.  Worship and our life together as a church can become fertile ground for embodying these dispositions through our habits and practices and learning to dance the way the prophet Ezekiel envisions.

My Sudanese friends, whenever they worshipped in the refugee camp, liked to jump up and down in a somewhat idiosyncratic, hunched-over position..  I asked them why they danced this way.  They said, “we are riding on Jesus’ back.”

Can we mainline Protestants dance, too? If so, what would it look like for our dry bones to come alive and groove to the beat of God’s compassion, interdependence and adventure?

 

 

 

How Hungry Are You? Jesus Epithets Continued

If Jesus is the Bread of Life, what kind of bread do you think he'd be? Homemade, gluten-free, with no corn syrup?

The following is a sermon that I will preach to the good people of Clairmont Presbyterian Church on the fifth Sunday of Lent (tomorrow).  It’s also a continuation of our series, “Jesus Epithets,” with a view to exploring what it means that Jesus is the “Bread of Life.”  Will you pray for me tomorrow as I give this Word? 

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” - John 6:35-51

When was the last time you were hungry? Really hungry-ravenous, I mean, like you could almost eat anything in sight?

When I’m really, really hungry, it doesn’t seem to matter what I stuff myself with. Filling my stomach becomes more important than whether the food is actually good for me.

Every once in a while I take my kids to Krispy Kreme donuts. Going to Krispy Kreme is always a full-sensory experience, because while we breathe in the sweet, inviting smells we also get to watch the donuts being made, how they go down those conveyor belts, take a dip in lard and then shower off in warm glaze.

We love watching those donuts materialize, and we love eating them even more. The first, second, even third donut can go down so easily. Usually by the time we’ve waited for our donuts, we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re ready to down a truckload of them.

Funny thing is that no matter how yummy those donuts taste, a few hours later I am regretting that I even touched one. When I’m there, deep in the sugar dumps, I can pretty much kiss off exercising that day, or doing anything that would require physical activity on my part. Even thinking deep thoughts becomes harder than it usually is. In these instances, the expression, “you are what you eat,” comes true: I feel like a donut. Because if a donut had a personality, I’m convinced it would be listless, tired and lazy.

Still, while I intellectually may know that some sweet dough with a hole in the middle dipped in grease and sugar isn’t ultimately the best way to satiate my hunger or refuel my body, I need more to convince me than a cerebral argument. I need first to know what it means to hunger for and be fed with real food. Food that isn’t just sweet, empty calories that leave me feeling tired and listless, but food that gives me real sustenance. Food that satisfies.

There’s a saying that we preachers sometimes trumpet, and it goes something like this: “Preach to yourself and let others overhear.”

To be honest, I procrastinated a whole lot on this sermon. I didn’t want you to overhear what I was going to tell myself. Because if truth be told, I hunger for other things, too. Donuts are not the only thing on my conveyer belt. I hunger for things that sometimes threaten to undo me.

One of the things I most hunger for these days is a way to escape the messiness of life. Believe it or not, we ministers- many of us- don’t have perfect lives. We make mistakes. We fail to be who God intended us to be. We’re certainly not always “spiritual” (whatever that means, anyway). The apostle Paul’s instruction to “pray unceasingly”? If I’m able to work 20 minutes of prayer time into my morning, I celebrate! We ministers often find that the things we set out to do, things, for example, like being a good wife or mother, we are pretty mediocre at really.

And in that space in which I find myself really hungry- hungry for help, hungry for an encouraging word, hungry for the strength to persist with life’s challenges in less-than-ideal circumstances- that is when I am often least likely to fill my stomach with the good stuff, the stuff that will really feed me and give me life. Instead I am more likely to go stuff myself with the worst things for me. Like self-destructive narratives and behaviors that would tell me I’ll never amount to anything, or that I’m too broken to be helped, or that I have nothing to give the world because I’m too much of a mess myself.

But here Jesus is saying that He’s the Real Stuff. He’s the Bread of Life. That when I feel hungry, I can feed on Him and be satisfied, so satisfied that after a time I’ll hunger less and less for other things. Because I’ll recognize that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the answer to my deep hunger.

Someone the other day was observing that we, in the church, have managed to so “overspiritualize the Lord’s Supper that we’ve turned what was supposed to be an actual meal into a pantomime of a meal.” He went on to say that the “church is hungry because of it.”

The church is hungry. Not just those people out there in the world. We, the church, you and I, are hungry. Some of us are starving to death. Because somehow we have reduced what was supposed to be an extravagant feast, or at least a long, leisurely dinner hosted by God Himself, into a few, short bites. God’s abundant provision for us becomes little more than a tiny nibble of Wonder bread, or a tasteless wafer, followed by a thimble-sized cup of grape juice. We make the scandalous generosity of Jesus’ invitation to feed on God Himself- or, as the original Greek puts it, to actually munch or gnaw on Jesus at our leisure and with enjoyment- into nothing more than a polite ritual.

And when we do this we deny our hunger. And we deny the Good News that God Himself is both the Source of our hunger and the One who can fill us.

And this is exactly what the crowd is doing in today’s passage. They’re hungry alright. They’ve been looking for Jesus because they’ve seen the miracles He can do. They’ve seen Jesus take a boy’s lunch box meal of five loaves and two fishes and turn it into a feast for five thousand people, with loads left over. They’ve seen Jesus take scarcity and make it into abundance; they’ve seen Jesus take emptiness and make it into wholeness; they’ve seen Jesus satisfy their physical hunger right before their eyes.

But when the very food that will feed them forever, the “Bread of Life,” is right under their nose, they’re still hungering for the Krispy-Kreme quick fix. They’re wanting a Messiah who will simply rescue them from the pain and muddle of their lives as a people in captivity. They’re longing for some speedy getaway to the tune their ancestors took many Passovers ago on that night when Moses led them out of slavery in Egypt and I’m guessing they’ve forgotten that whole “forty-years- in-the-wilderness” part.

Chances are you and I aren’t wistfully remembering dramatic signs and wonders in our lives, like plagues of locusts and the parting of the Red Sea, but I suspect most of us have our wish lists for God- those things we’re convinced would make us whole or happy in a flash. We would like to think that if God just did “X”- heal us from depression or fix our marriage or give us a partner or eliminate our financial woes- just fill in the blank- then we would be whole. We, like the crowds, can often go to God impressed with God’s signs, Jesus rising from the dead being maybe the most obvious. We can go to God asking for a full-blown make-over of our lives or at least a change of scenery. We think whatever it is we’re asking for will be an answer to our hunger and a solution to the gnawing emptiness.

And Jesus is saying, “Don’t you see? You’ve been eating the wrong things, things that won’t ultimately fill you up. And you don’t have to do that anymore, because you can feed on me. I’m your answer, and I’ve been here all along. I am your miracle. I am what’s best for you. I am the real food that doesn’t just fill your tummies but makes you into real people. Real mensch, so to speak, with real life that just keeps on going.”

Maybe the question then is do we really believe Jesus? Do we really believe Him when He tells us He is actually the Bread of Life? Because if we really believed Him, we would acknowledge how hungry we are and we would ask Him to feed us. Right here and right now.

Some of us have gotten so used to filling our stomachs with other things that tonight we don’t even realize we’re hungry anymore. Tonight we may look at this feast we’re about to partake and see it as just going through the religious motions because that’s what we do. We may not even believe that Jesus is really here in the words the preacher is spouting or in the meal before us.And if that’s how you’re feeling this evening, we’re glad you’re here. Our passage today would insist that God Himself led you here- regardless of how hungry you thought you were when you sat down in these pews.

But there is something you can do even when you’re not feeling hungry. You can tell God that you’d like to hunger for the Good Stuff, the Bread of Life stuff, and then ask God to give you that hunger. You can ask God to help you want it.

Those of us who have struggled with addiction of any kind know that the process of handing one’s life over to God happens one day at a time. Sometimes we have to pray even for the will to do so. When we’ve hungered for the wrong things for a while- the things that won’t ultimately give us life- it can feel at first like each day is an exercise in asking for daily bread.

And maybe that daily surrender is just where Jesus wants us to be. In fact, I’m sure of it. Because Jesus was well acquainted with the reality that our stomachs can’t go for very long without needing to be filled. Which is why He uses this metaphor of bread, and why, when He teaches us to pray, He tells us we should ask God for our daily bread.

This is the season of Lent in the church calendar. It’s the time when we remember how Jesus freely chose to give his life up for the world and overturn death itself. Not simply to wow us with a sign, but to draw us to God’s very Self. Not simply to zap us into flawless people with perfect lives, but to form us into the people we were meant to be. Real, whole people who know they’re hungry for real food and remember who it is who gives them life. Who remember their Lifegiver when they’re feeling dead inside.

When I was a hospice chaplain, I had the privilege of sitting at the bedside of a man in his twilight years. When I met this man, his mind was so wracked by dementia that it often seemed like he lived in a faraway land; his moments of lucidity were few and far between.

This man had once been a leader in the civil rights movement. He had devoted a big part of his life to helping African Americans like himself attain the same freedoms whites had come to take for granted, so one day I decided to do what I usually only do in the shower. I decided to sing. And I sang a song that would have been familiar to him. Its verses had been sung on protest marches and in sit-ins, through clouds of tear gas and under rows of police batons. It went something like this:

We shall overcome, we shall overcome, We shall overcome someday; Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, We shall overcome someday.

Something happened when I began to sing that song. A lone tear dribbled down this man’s cheek, and then he began to sing, too. He began to sing those lines with me, and when he sang, he sang with heart and conviction, like the meaning had become real again, only this time maybe even deeper from within the prison of his dementia.

There are a bunch of verses to the song, but I only really knew the first verse, so there we were in a nursing home belting out “We shall overcome,” over and over again. We shall overcome, we shall overcome, We shall overcome someday…

When in a few short minutes we come to this table to eat the bread and drink the wine, we, too, are in essence singing the very same song. We’re singing “we shall overcome someday.” Because we come to this table knowing full well that we’re hungry, and that the only One who can really feed us is also the One who Himself overcame- who overcame even death- and He’s the One whose life we now share. He’s the only one who can give us what we really need to live. He’s the real stuff. The Bread of Life stuff. Real food for real people.

The question is: how hungry are you?

The Rainy Day Marriage of Creation and Redemption

Poet laureate Gary Young has said, "I'm never smater than when I'm writing a poem."

Who would have thunk that you could be baptized by a rain storm and saved every day?  That’s Anabaptist alright- but I like it!

Garrison Keillor read the following poem by Gary Young yesterday on The Writer’s Almanac, and I thought it was really beautiful- not just for its imagery, but for how it weaves the act of redemption into the very fabric of creation.

This is no small feat.  It is an age-old temptation within the discipline of Christian theology to set up competing categories and then attach a value to them- like creation versus redemption, with the implication that creation is bad and redemption is good.  Of course this is a gross simplification, but the point is that theologians across the centuries have struggled to articulate a theology that holds these two things in creative tension, without elevating one (usually redemption, in the Reformed circles I run in) at the expense of the other.

My sense is this kind of prioritizing of redemption over creation also happens in the comments our politicians and public figures make, too.  Take Rick Santorum commenting the other day that he is “praying for” controversial gay radio host Dan Savage.  If Santorum really is praying for Dan Savage, (as opposed to cynically throwing a bone to people of faith) I applaud him.  (That Santorum felt it his duty to announce this publicly may be a different story.)  Santorum went on to say that Savage “obviously had some serious issues.” The implication?  That because Santorum had been redeemed, Santorum- in contrast to Savage, who had not been redeemed, at least according to Santorum’s standards- did not have issues.  Redemption over and against creation, with the result being a belittling of creation.

All of this to say in a long-winded sort of way…I’m grateful to Gary Young for showing in the form of a poem how creation and redemption can stay married as two equally important partners in the mission of God.

In the heat of late afternoon…

by Gary Young

In the heat of late afternoon, lightning streaks from a nearly
cloudless sky to the top of the far mesa. At dusk, the whole south
end of the valley blazes as the clouds turn incandescent with
some distant strike. There is a constant congress here between
the earth and the sky. This afternoon a thunderstorm crossed the
valley. One moment the ground was dry, and the next there were
torrents running down the hillsides and arroyos. A quarter-mile off
I could see a downpour bouncing off the sage and the fine clay
soil. I could see the rain approach, and then it hit, drenching me,
and moved on. Ten minutes later I was dry. The rain comes from
heaven, and we are cleansed by it. Suddenly the meaning of baptism
is clear to me: you can begin again, and we are saved every day.

Last Words

My great uncle passed away two days ago at the age of 89.  Uncle Sandy was someone who spent a lot of his time investing in the next generation.  He had a heart for teaching younger people about the importance of character, and in his golden years, following a successful career as the president of a major aerospace manufacturer, developed a nationwide program in schools that does this very thing.

Yesterday my dad forwarded a message from Uncle Sandy.  As he lay dying from pancreatic cancer, my uncle penned some parting words for his family.  They were words he wanted us to read after he had left this world.

Death and dying have a way of distilling all of life down to the things we most value.  Kierkegaard said saints are those who have learned to focus their lives around the most important thing.  Maybe there’s a sense in which we do our best living when we keep the reality of death in front of our faces- not morbidly, but in an honest, truth-telling way.  That is when all of the distractions fall away and we’re left to focus our attention on what we most desire and value from life.

Uncle Sandy’s last words were a reminder of this:

Dear Loved Ones,

 I have come to the end of the road and the sun has set for me.  Why cry for one who has been set free?  Miss me but not with your head bowed low.  Remember the love we have shared over the years and the beautiful life the Lord has blessed me with.  This is a journey we all must take and each must go it alone without our outside loves, but with the knowledge that we are going to a better place and that they will be coming along behind us.  It’s all part of the Master’s plan, one step along the road to home.  So when you are sad and sick at heart, go to our friends and relatives and do good things.  Miss me but let me go.

 Much love,

 Sandy

Then God Said “Let It Be Messy”

Church planter and professor A.J. Swoboda has a book out, and it’s worth a read.  My review of Swoboda’s book, which aired today in the Episcopal Church’s very helpful, ecumenical publication, Sermons That Work (http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com), is reprinted in full below with the permission of The Episcopal Digital Network:

I once thought that being a Christian meant having all the answers, with all of my proverbial ducks in a row, all neat and orderly-like. Then “life” happened, and it was anything but tidy. Downright “messy” would be a better description. These days I find myself looking for God in the mess, rather than asking God to wave some magic wand and, voila, make it all disappear.

Which is precisely the point, according to Portland, Oregon-based pastor and professor A.J. Swoboda, in Messy: God Likes It That Way. A mix of the free-wheeling conversationalism of a Rob Bell and the endearing candor of an Anne Lamott, Messy is Swoboda’s first book. I hope it is not his last.

Swoboda’s refreshing honesty about the Christian life comes salted with some downright funny anecdotes and a collection of truly clever one-liners. These had me giggling and pausing to think with almost every page. How is this for a one-liner, for example? “Religion is the Botox of resurrection.” Or “being a follower of Jesus and not loving the unlikeable is on par with eating a Big Mac while watching The Biggest Loser.” Or “trust is what God resurrects when our security dies.”

In an unsystematic (messy, really), post-modern way, Swoboda succeeds in hoeing some well-trodden theological territory, from church and prayer to sex and suffering – all with the result of gently and humorously opening up some new contemplative spaces for his reader.

I, in turn, am left wishing to dwell longer in these pockets of freshly tilled earth. Swoboda’s reflections on God’s intentionally unkempt act of creation, and later, on the nature of human sin, leave me asking how the “mess” that God creates differs from the mess we human beings make, and how we are to distinguish these two – or for that matter, if we are in the first place.

Then there are the implications of Swoboda’s understanding of church and community. If you are looking for a self-help manual for how to grow your church or craft a vision statement, you will be disappointed. Swoboda instead is quick to let out the poorly kept yet nonetheless sacred secret that Christians are as much of a mess as anyone else –because they are human beings. I applaud him for it.

If we “idealize” church, Swoboda writes, we also “idolize” it. In this context of “church” as a collection of deeply flawed human beings, the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ is also incredibly hard: insofar as it must be shared and tried on for size within a community of other followers of Jesus, it requires us to assume that we will be wounded by belonging to the church. Forgiveness of those who have hurt us is our witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Swoboda stops short of teasing out the implications of this ecclesiology for how we very imperfect followers of Jesus might approach the challenge of God’s mission, (laid out, for instance, in the book of Acts, when Jesus dispatches his followers into the far corners of the earth with the command to “make disciples” of the nations). The image that comes to mind is an odd mix of Keystone Kops and “Mission Impossible.” This inquiring mind wants to know more.

It would seem, too, that the mess that God blesses and deems good is a function of being in the middle of the gospel story, in the in-betweenness of the “now and not yet” of the in-breaking kingdom of God. In other words, the mess is to a certain degree only provisionally good, because of an ending that we can be assured gives meaning and order to the preceding mess.

This has me wondering about just how much God really does in fact like messiness in the first place.


 

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