Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Can I Get a Witness?

"I hate silence when it is a time for speaking." -Kassia

If there were any doubt that women were preachers before the twentieth century, this should put it to rest once and for all.  The ninth-century nun, Kassia, was probably the most famous in a line of women preachers who put their sermons into musical poems of sorts and sang them. (I, for one, am relieved that we Presbyterians haven’t borrowed this particular strain from the Syrian homiletical tradition!)

Tradition holds that Kassia used her voice so much that it landed her in hot water (or helped her elude some close calls, depending on how you look at it): as one of a handful of candidates for royal marriage to Emperor Theophilus in 830, she reportedly passed up the opportunity (whether knowingly or unknowingly remains unclear) by speaking out on behalf of women. Then she went on to found a monastery in Constantinople in 843 and become its first abbess. (You go girl.)

Kassia’s hymnic sermon, “To the Harlot,” is both personal, in its moving identification with the woman who anoints Jesus with expensive perfume before Jesus’ death, and universal, in its invitation to share in this woman’s worshipful repentance. The sermon eventually made its way into the Triodion, the Byzantine church service book for Lent:

Lord, the woman who fell headlong into a multitude of sins still recognized your Godhead, and joined the ranks of the Myrrh-bearing women.
Dropping tears she carries myrrh for you before you were laid in the tomb; crying out: Alas! what dark night envelops me; what gloomy, moonless, madness of abandonment is the lust for sin I have.
But take this offering of my spring of tears, you who guide the waters of the seas through the paths of clouds.
Stoop down to me, for the great grief my heart bears; you who made the very skies bow down, before the face of your ineffable self-emptying.
How I shall kiss your immaculate feet! and once again I shall dry them with the hair of my head; those feet whose steps Eve once heard, at dusk in paradise, and then hid herself in fear.
Who can ever sound the depths of my sinfulness or the profundities of your judgments, O My Savior, the Deliverer of our souls?
Do not pass by this your handmaid, you who have such boundless mercy.

For more on Kassia, see John McGuckin, Standing in God’s Holy Fire: The Byzantine Tradition (New York:  Orbis Books, 2001)

Stay tuned for next weird Jesus saying tomorrow:  “Foxes have their dens and the birds in the sky have their nests.  But the son of man has nowhere he can lay his head.”

Kingdom of Heaven Acrobatics: Weird Jesus Sayings Continued…

“Don’t suppose that I came to destroy the law and the prophets.  I didn’t come to destroy them; I came to fulfill them!  I’m telling you the truth: until heaven and earth disappear, not one stroke, not one dot, is going to disappear from the law, until it’s all come true.  So anyone who relaxes a single one of these commandments, even the little ones, and teaches that to people, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.  But anyone who does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  Yes, let me tell you: unless your covenant behavior is far superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get in to the kingdom of heaven.”  Matthew 5:17-20 (Translation compliments of N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone)

If there were any evidence that could possibly draw into question the claim that God cannot contradict God’s Self, then this would be it.  On the one hand Jesus seems to be saying that strict adherence to the commandments in word and deed will make a person “great” in the kingdom of heaven; on the other, Jesus holds up a bar that not even the Pharisees in their rigorous application of the law can reach as criteria for entrance into God’s kingdom.

Which can leave us asking, “which is it, Jesus?”  Weird indeed.

Unless what Jesus is doing here is introducing a totally new paradigm.  A “revolution” as N.T. Wright puts it, in our whole mode of living and being in the world.  An existence to which the commandments point, as trail markers of sorts on the way to a full revelation of God’s justice, but one which also requires a complete reversal of old habits of thinking and living.

Because we like the Pharisees, I suspect, can easily slip into patterns of relating to God that ultimately point back to us and our own efforts to measure up.  To play by the rules.  To live within a certain rubric of conventional goodness.  So that if we’re not stealing or committing adultery, we can convince ourselves that we’ve got it together.  That “we’ve arrived.”  Or, in a similar stroke, if we are stealing or committing adultery, we can persuade ourselves that there is now no hope for us in the kingdom of heaven.

But notice that Jesus does not set up a paradigm by which one’s entrance into the kingdom of heaven depends on how well one keeps God’s laws.  Sure, those of us who have been exceedingly “good” may find that we are “greater” in the kingdom, just as those of us who have been a bit more “naughty” may find that we are “less” there. But the ultimate paradigm shift is in the notion of how we find ourselves in the kingdom in the first place. Because what Jesus seems to be saying here is that we find ourselves in the kingdom not by making our goodness or lack thereof the focus, but rather by joining the revolution that Jesus has now begun in his life, death and resurrection.  A revolution that begins with God’s remaking of our own hearts and ends when the heavens and earth pass away, and when God, with just a little help from us, has finished restoring the whole world to the way it was meant to be from the very beginning.

So there’s a sense in which Jesus is taking all that the Pharisees have come to understand about their world and reinterpreting it for them: he is validating their experience of God’s love and care in the prophets and the commandments, but also setting it out under the light and asking them to take another look at it, this time with a bigger, God-breathed perspective.

And the beauty and adventure of a relationship with Jesus are that we, too, have the opportunity to let God hold up the things that we, like the Pharisees, enshrine as necessary for entrance into God’s kingdom, that place where God’s justice and mercy kiss each other and where our hearts beat with God’s love.  We have the chance to let God shine God’s light on these same things so that they appear as if for a first time to us.  So that we, in the process, are “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” as the apostle Paul describes (Romans 12:2).  In that moment, we can choose to exclaim with wonder and gratitude.  Or, we can keep on lighting incense at the old shrines.

 

 

 

 

A Thanksgiving for Emmy

We were sitting across from one another in the monastery dining hall, eating our lunch in silence per the rule.  We hadn’t met yet.

“Would you like to come to my party?,” she blurted out.  Loudly.

Heads turned.

“I’ll think about it,” I whispered back, a bit embarrassed.

Two days earlier we had been sitting in a room full of other strangers also there to retreat.  I was there to begin writing a book, but upon suggestion chose to sit in on one of the weekend sessions.  A funny thing, really, because it was one of a series of workshops on the topic of “Boundaries.”

There we were, each of us familiar only with the sound of our own voices which we had been instructed not to use too often while there.  We were here to escape the noise of the world outside the walls of this place.  To open our ears to what God might be saying to us in the stillness.

“I take lithium for bipolar disorder,” she turned around to say to the couple behind her, strangers like the rest of us.  She said it loudly enough for all of us to hear.  “The last time I was here I had lithium poisoning,” she exclaimed with almost mischievous glee, like someone who having been afflicted with something for so long can actually see the humor in it.

Some of us exchanged nervous glances.  Others laughed awkwardly.  I was thinking, “It’s a good thing she’s here– at a retreat on boundaries.”

Earlier, during the question and answer time, she had issued another exclamation: “Have you noticed how the windows of the church are blue, but it looks yellow inside?”

It is amazing how community can form even in silence, though, when the silence is worshipful and orients around God in our midst.  At first, I was afraid of her, maybe of how her experience with bipolar illness touched the circle of my own struggles at times with depression- but by the end of my weekend at the monastery, I was grateful for her.  Grateful for her transparency in the same way that I was grateful for the boundaries that separated us.  That cordoned her off as a unique child of God, with an experience that witnessed to the pain and glory of Christ in our brokenness.

In a few minutes she had told me her life story.  How at the age of 19, while in film school at New York University, she had had her first “manic” episode: she chased a truck barefoot through the streets of Manhattan and ended up in bed with one too many men.  How after that there were the drugs- she had tried all kinds.  She had even given herself away to some loser guy for a bit of cocaine.  Which had landed her in a halfway house, where she had a nervous breakdown.  She had been clean for nine months but then relapsed.  Because of the same loser boyfriend.  For years she had fought the diagnosis of “bipolar disorder.”  But now, at the age of 36, she had written an autobiography about how through these experiences she had “overcome.”  And now she was writing a second book.  On pigeon tongue. (Apparently her second degree was in linguistics.)  Hmm, I thought, wondering how much of this was grounded in any reality.

But I listened.  And as I listened, her eyes latched on to me with an almost furious intensity: they were the eyes of someone struggling to find some sort of authentic connection from a place far away.  I wanted to help her even as I wanted to turn away.

On the last day we were in the church for noon prayers with the monks.  She strode un-self-consciously over to Father Michael.  “Look at my new tattoo!,” she exclaimed with childlike enthusiasm, baring the right side of her arm with pride to the priest.  He patted her shoulder.  “Emmy (a pseudonym), you are a very courageous girl,” he said, gently.

Some of us couldn’t help but smile.  And be grateful.  Grateful for this person made in God’s image.  Grateful for her courage and her joy in the midst of a life that had dealt her cards that we would have all liked to give back for her sake.

For Emmy and for all those like her who this Thanksgiving struggle with mental illness or any kind of affliction, I give thanks- and ask God to bless them.

 

 

 

 

Food for Thought: Would You Agree?

"Jesus doesn't hang in corporate board rooms, he hangs in McPherson."

 

Stylito Heels: Weird Jesus Sayings Continued

"If a Stylite falls in the wilderness and nobody is there to hear him, do they make a sound?" -Simon

“Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”  Matthew 7:13,14

It is both funny and endearing, comical and touching to reflect on all of the ways we human beings strive to encounter God.  In my (the Christian) tradition, there is plenty of fodder for laughter and inspiration.  If you haven’t read John McGuckin’s book, Standing in God’s Holy Fire, I would commend it to you as a great little introduction to the Eastern church’s holy men and women who throughout history sought to embody and articulate what it means to “enter through the narrow gate.”

Which is a bit like training for the spiritual Olympics.  These early monastics were the best in their sport.  They had honed certain spiritual practices- some of them a bit odd to say the least- to a tee.  Take, for instance, the fourth-century Syrian ascetic, Simon Stylites.  He was the most well-known of a group of Christian monastics called “Stylites,” who practiced the spiritual discipline of stasis, which was essentially prayer over long hours in a motionless posture.  Simon had a knack for sitting on top of high pillars when he prayed.  For hours, even days.  In the desert.  I have to imagine a sore bum, aching back and bad case of sunburn went along with the exercise- as well as a quick end to any vertigo issues.

When Jesus instructs us to enter by the narrow door, I suspect he doesn’t necessarily mean that we all need to find high pillars or their modern-day equivalents to sit around on.  Elsewhere, Jesus advises that when we wish to pray, we should go into our rooms, close the door and pray to our Father in secret (Matthew 6:6).  But I can appreciate the genuine sentiment here of Simon Stylites and all of the mystics who have preceded and followed him in their unbridled desire to commune with God.  Because a mystic need not be a monastic.  A mystic is anyone who seeks an encounter with God’s presence in the ordinary stuff of life- for whom the common, daily material of our world can become “sacraments” of sorts.  Mediums of God’s grace.

Mystics can be all of us, really.  To the degree that our eyes and ears are open for God to meet us as God chooses.  In the sacred profaneness and profane sacredness of our lives.

So that when Jesus issues this reminder, it is really a description of and a warning about a reality.  The reality that to do this kind of seeking- to be available to what God would say to us 24/7, to “pray ceaselessly,” as the apostle Paul instructs in 1 Thessalonians, to listen and obey not just in “church” or in our “holy” places but everywhere- is really, really hard.  It’s the narrow way.  When we forget to be intentional about our relationship with Jesus, or pretend we don’t need to be, or when we allow ourselves to be carried along by life’s currents without actively looking for and clinging to the One who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” then we can easily self-destruct.  We can lose the Way, miss the Truth and rob ourselves of the Life.

For as much as I am inclined to laugh when I read accounts of saints like Simon, I am also inclined to feel a bit nostalgic.  Because I suspect that the church today needs a few more “holy fools.”  Folks who will go to any length, no matter how embarrassing or foolish it might look, to do something radical for God in their worship and service.  Folks who, mindful that Jesus can meet them at any hour, at any moment even, are like the “wise virgins” who ready their lamps, all the while waiting with great expectation for their Bridegroom to come and consummate their love (Matthew 25).

This kind of vigilance, this quality of choosing to live as “set apart” for God, is rare today.  We inculcate it when we ask God to unplug our ears to hear God’s voice in those around us, in our circumstances and our world. Or when we open ourselves to God’s call to us, in our workplace, relationships and various walks of life.  Often, to do this requires a regular practice of learning to be still before God.  Of doing nothing but being silent in God’s presence.  Of learning to listen.

I’m only a beginner in these things.  And thus far I haven’t received any divine summons to walk in Simon’s shoes.  If you see me levitating on Stone Mountain or perched on the top of the Bank of America in fervent prayer, then it will be a surprise to all of us.  But a girlfriend of mine has been encouraging me to wear heels.  At 6’0″, I have tended to avoid any platform that might earn me the epithet of “the fifty foot woman.”  (I haven’t seen the movie, but apparently there is one.)

12 inches closer to God.

But “stylito heels” are a different story.  When I put these on- (and while I am thinking metaphorically here, I might be persuaded to wear real ones as the uncomfortable spiritual discipline of a postmodern “holy fool”)- I am straining upwards to give God a smooch. This way God doesn’t have to come down quite so far to kiss me and enter in.

 

 

 

Body Dysmorphic Disorder

“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; though all its parts are many, they form one body.  So it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body- whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free- and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”  1 Corinthians 12:12,13

“Body dysmorphic disorder.”  Have you heard of it? Apparently it’s when a person becomes so concerned about his or her body image and convinced that he or she has a defect of some sort that they spend crazy amounts of time in the mirror and find it hard to function.  So, for example- and we women are probably more susceptible to this, thanks to the messages the media sends us, but men are not immune either- an average-sized woman with an average-sized waist will look in the mirror and think she’s huge.  That is body dysmorphia.  It’s a bit like looking in a funny mirror and thinking what you see is reality.

Sometimes I wonder if the church has body dysmorphia, too.  Sure, we at least pay lip service to the notion that we, the church, are “the body of Christ”- “one body” with “many parts” as the apostle Paul describes (1 Corinthians 12:12)- but then we spend far too much time looking in the mirror complaining about our nose.  Or our breasts.  Or our love handles.

We spend far too much time looking in the mirror when we could be looking at Him who is “the Head,” as Paul describes.  We could be looking at Jesus.  Instead, these so-called “blemishes” become easy excuses for not staying focused on Jesus and what Jesus wants for us.  They become the obstacles we put up to Jesus’ invitation to join Him in the real world where the real action is.

If you’ve ever been around Christians who stare at their navels rather than gaze at the world around them, then you know what I’m talking about.  If you’ve ever sat in a group of other “body parts” and found that the conversation revolves around the problems with just one body part and how things would all be different in the church if that body part were not there or underwent major plastic surgery, then you know what I mean.  If you’ve ever been the body part that all the rest of us would like to cover up as “private” when it’s as obvious as a birthmark on the forehead, then you have an appreciation for what I’m trying to say.

Because wherever there is a church, there is a body and a “mirror” of sorts.  The stories we tell ourselves about who we are.  The people in our congregation we look to to define us and those we would prefer not to.  The ways we see ourselves that clarify who we are and how we live.

But what if, instead of obsessing about ourselves in the mirror, and doing all we could to change certain body parts because they’re annoying or ugly or embarassing, what if we looked in the mirror and saw the face and head of Jesus?  How would things change?  Would we still be inclined to complain and belly ache about our church and its defects?  Or, would we start to talk differently about all of the unique characteristics that make us who we are?  The scar on our knee from a childhood bike-riding accident.  Or, the way our shoulder clicks every so often when we move it.  Or, the lazy eye that shows up sometimes in pictures.  And what if we learned to claim these things as good and lovely because they belong to a body with Jesus at the head?  What if we chose to do this, even if it felt uncomfortable or against our nature?  What if we prayed to be able to do this?  What would change?  How would our life together look?

When I was a kid I had to wear braces because I had a crooked smile.  My mother took me to an orthodontist for an evaluation: after asking me several times to bite down, smile and say “ah,” all the while quizzically looking at my jaw in relation to my face, he turned to my mother and explained that while, at the whopping cost of $5,000 they could fix my crooked teeth, they would not be able to fix the assymetry of my face.  At that, my mother, who is one of the most soft-spoken, patient and slow-to-anger people I know, exclaimed that my face was “just right,” that there was nothing wrong with it, and that we would not be needing their services.

When Jesus is “the Head,” there is a sense in which we don’t need to worry too much about whether we’re “just right” or not.  We can rest in the assurance that we are.  That because Jesus loves us and has called us to Himself, and has gathered all of our broken parts together to be in Him, we are okay.  We are accepted.  In fact, we are more than okay and accepted.  We are lovely and loveable.  In the same way that a mother can exclaim at the perfection of her child.  And this assurance in itself should be enough to help us start acting more like we really are- not what we think we are- in the world around us.  More beautiful.  More loving.  With parts that, with all their eccentricities, come together to make up Jesus and function like it, too.

 

 

The Octopus and the Quarter

"It is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than for a Giant Pacific Octopus to enter a hole the size of a quarter."

“How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!…It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  Mark 10:23, 24

The rich, young man’s story is one many of us have heard many times before: an otherwise very good man (he has kept God’s commandments at least) comes to Jesus and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The answer causes him to walk away sad, because he cannot do the one thing Jesus says he lacks.  “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me,” is Jesus’ reply.

In her book, Marking Time:  Preaching Biblical Stories in Present Tense, Barbara Lundblad makes the case that as familiar as this story is, we have a hard time seeing ourselves in it- precisely because Jesus’ words hit so close to home.  We tend instead to avoid the “elephant in the room”- that Jesus is talking about the problem of money, lots of it.  We do this by going down various exegetical rabbit holes, like “this man was a fawning flatterer who wanted to add eternal life to his holdings,” or “this man’s theology was faulty.”  Or, “this man got his wealth through dishonest means,” or “the real issue is faith, not money.”

But at the end of the day, we have to face the fact, Lundblad writes, that this text really is about money.  About the fact that when we have lots of money, we find it hard to enter the kingdom of God, so that our poverty in an encounter with God’s grace- and in turn our capacity to receive God’s offer of abundant, unending life- can only extend so far.  So that we can at best stand at the periphery of God’s kingdom and gaze on God’s riches with sadness, only to walk away.

Nowadays it is easy to see others in the face of this rich, young man.  He is the non-descript Wall Street trader bringing in big bonuses, with little appreciation for the struggles of people like us on Main Street.  He is the venture capitalist who will stop at nothing for a big deal, even if it means sacrificing the livelihoods of hundreds of workers struggling to get by at minimum wage.  He belongs to the richest, one-percent of Americans, as a billionaire who has amassed a great fortune, while we are in the other 99 percent.

So it is harder to see our own selves in the face of this rich, young man.  But there we are, too.  Because as Americans we live and breathe in a culture that prizes wealth above all else- so much so that “money is becoming a kind of narcotic for us,” as Walter Brueggemann puts it.  Again, Brueggemann, quoted by Lundblad, writes:  “Consumerism is not simply a marketing strategy.  It has become a demonic spiritual force among us…”

The “American dream?”  It’s really a dream about money.  More of it.  Plenty of it.  Enough to live “comfortably” at least.  And, to the degree that it drives our politics and defines how we understand democratic participation and our identity as Americans, this promise is, I suspect, quintissentially “American.”

When Lundblad wrote her book, the year was 2007.  It was before the worst of the recession had hit.  Before the housing bubble bust and the huge Wall Street bail-out that left many of us wondering where our tax dollars had gone, staring into the face of a monstrous national deficit.  Unchecked greed and the pursuit of excess were arguably at an all-time high.  But Lundblad didn’t know then what we know now:  that if in 1999 average CEO compensation is 419 times that of the average line worker, according to Graef Crystal, in his book, In Search of Excess, that disparity is only more exaggerated today; that the wealthiest one percent of Americans saw their income rise 275% between 1979 and 2007, while those in the bottom fifth lagged behind with only a 20 percent increase; that according to a report released this week by Senator Tom Coburn’s office, millionaires in this country have been receiving billions in taxpayer-funded support every year for “everything from child care to bad debts to boats and vacation homes” (The Huffington Post).

If we are Americans, we belong to this system.  We are part of it.  We may not be among the richest of Americans, but we have done our part to contribute to it.  To perpetuate the notion that wealth means more.  More say.  More power.  More life.  More virtue even.  We have told ourselves that “the good life” equals being rich.

Meanwhile, the Majority World lives on less than two dollars a day.  Clean, drinking water is in short supply.  One solid meal a day can at times be hard to come by.  These are living standards that would make just about all of us Americans- even the homeless women I met last night at the local shelter- “rich.”

The other day I took the kids to the Georgia Acquarium.  We were all mesmerized by the Giant Pacific octopus.  Did you know that octopi have three hearts and their blood is blue?  Crazy.  And they can live just about anywhere, from tide pools to depths of 2,500 feet.

The thing that I still am marveling at, though, is this: even at a maximum weight of six hundred pounds, one of these octopi can wriggle its way through a hole that is only the size of a quarter.  It may take a long while.  It may take a few tries.  But somehow one of these suckers can cram itself through an opening that small and come out just as alive and wiggly on the other side!

A bit like a camel through “the eye of a needle.”  Even if the “eye of the needle” was really a gate.  (Another exegetical rabbit hole.)  Because what Jesus is saying here is that when we’re rich we have a whole lot more stuff to dispense with in order to experience the riches of God’s kingdom.  Riches measured not in terms of dollars but in love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, and self-control.  Wealth counted not by the rise or fall of a stock index, but in denominations of free, abundant life.  Possessions not in the form of a big house and cushy retirement package, but in the assurance of one’s part in God’s mission to redeem all creation.

And insofar as we have enriched ourselves without thinking about how our wealth belongs to God’s mission, we are poor.  Poor because we, like the rich, young man recognize our inability to let go of the very thing that keeps us on the periphery of God’s kingdom.  That enslaves us in the mindset that we “are” only on the basis of what we “have.”

Can there be any good news here?  The disciples weren’t so sure, but I think there is.  I think it is when the rich, young man walks away as many of us do in all manner of ways, and Jesus still “looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21).  Because the same Love that points us in the direction of where the good life really is is also the Love that watches when we walk away from the very thing we need to do in order to enter the kingdom of God.  Love like this makes all things possible (Mark 10:27).

 

 

 

Is Jesus Big?: Weird Jesus Sayings Continued

article_America’s Children and the Environment_getty.jpg“…unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3,4

“…anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  Mark 10:15, Luke 18:17

Bedtime these days consists of a pretty extensive routine: bath, books, then lullabies with back rubs.  At the end of it, I turn on the hall light just outside my children’s room to remind them that Jesus is with them and to ward off the monsters.

Often, though, within minutes of my leaving the room, my four-year-old will slink out of bed, blinking and bleary-eyed, to say he’s scared.

When he did this the other night, I told him what I always tell him:  “When you’re scared, just let the light remind you that Jesus is with you and watching over you;” this followed by a little prodding back to bed.

This strategy has usually worked.  Not this night, though.

This night, when I say “Jesus is with you,” my son isn’t so easily persuaded.  “No, he’s not,” comes the response.

“What do you mean?,” I ask.

“I don’t see him,” he says.

“Good point,” I am thinking to myself.  “So what if ‘those who believe without seeing are blessed’ (John 20:29)?  Most of the time, seeing is still believing.  Didn’t Jesus say, afterall, that He brings ‘recovery of sight for the blind’ (Luke 4:18)?  Can’t we ask Jesus for eyes of faith?  Can’t we ask him to help us see him?”

So now I am kneeling next to my son on the bathroom floor.  “Do you want to see Jesus?,” I ask.  I am remembering similar invitations issued to me as a child.  First at the age of four by missionary parents in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: I remember lying on my bed looking up at the geckos on the ceiling, wondering why I didn’t feel any different after inviting Jesus into my heart.  I had followed directions to a tee, but nothing had happened.  Nothing dramatic, that is.  And I had wondered how it was that Jesus fit into my heart.  Into such a small space like that.  Wasn’t it claustrophobic?

Then there were the many more impassioned pleas that followed over the years.  Emotion-laden appeals to accept Jesus Christ as personal Savior.  In Vacation Bible School.  At camp.  In the weekly Awana Club where I memorized and recited Bible verses in exchange for ribbons.  At the campfire.  Over the lulling sound of the guitar in worship.  In the hush of teenaged heads bowed and eyes closed (at least partially), when by way of raising our hands we said “yes” to Jesus (or didn’t raise our hands for fear one of the other kids was peeking like we were).

And now my son wants to see Jesus.  “Yes,” he says, when I ask him.

But how does one describe to a four-year-old what it means “to see” with the eyes of faith, I wonder.  And now I am searching for the right words but bumping up against the limits of language.  Maybe a bit like the many people who sought to introduce me to Jesus years ago.  Parents.  Youth group leaders.  Sunday school teachers.  Maybe their experience also got lost in translation.

“You can invite Jesus into your life,” I say. And then, “It’s going to take time, but more and more as you grow you’ll begin to see Jesus.”  And as I say this, I am almost praying it for him- that he would see Jesus more and more.

“Sometimes you won’t see Jesus but other times you will,” I go on.  “Like Lucy in ‘Prince Caspian.’”  We had seen the movie a few weeks earlier.  In it, Lucy, the youngest of the four children returning to Narnia for another adventure as “sons and daughters of Eve” and “kings and queens of Narnia,” is the first of the four to see Aslan; she alone catches fleeting glimpses which sustain her belief in the lion’s care, while her siblings remain in the dark and in disbelief for much of the movie.

“Remember how sometimes Lucy sees Aslan and other times she doesn’t?,” I ask.

“Uh huh.”  Now my son is nodding his head.  A light has turned on.  He is smiling with recognition.

“It’s like that with Jesus.  Sometimes we see Him and other times we don’t.  But just because we don’t see Him doesn’t mean He’s not there. He is still there even when we can’t see Him.”

Now my son is smiling.  The crinkles on his forehead have disappeared.  He is heading back to bed.

“Mommy, is Jesus big?”

Pause.  I am guessing that Jesus was probably no more than 5’6″ if that.  (Most men in first-century Palestine would have been of average stature, right?)

“Yes,” I answer.  “Jesus is very big.”

“Bigger than Daddy?,” my son is asking as he climbs the bunk bed ladder, then pulls the comforter up to his chin.

“Definitely bigger than Daddy!,” I exclaim, as I tuck him in one last time turning to go.

Maybe Jesus’ “bigness” is what I had missed in all of those “come to Jesus” moments.  In my Kuala Lumpur bedroom staring at the geckos.  In Awana Club and at church camp.  Jesus had to be small to fit into my heart.  And he had to fit just the way I was told he would fit- as if by some magic formula I could ask Jesus into my heart and he would appear, taking residence in my heart and never leaving.

But this Jesus wasn’t the big Jesus I as a child intuitively hoped for.  He wasn’t a powerful, majestic beast with a breathtaking roar, untameable and free.  He was too small for all that.  “Inviting Jesus into your heart” often could just as well have been like saying the right, magic word to a genie in a bottle, and then voila, or poof- there this little Jesus was, a bit like the handle that you mechanically twist to make a jack-in-the-box jump.  Always manipulable.  Never unpredictable.

And isn’t it interesting that with time, as we become more “grown-up,” the Jesus we believe in can tend to shrink?  So that he becomes more like garnish on our plate rather than the real food?  So that the One whom the apostle Paul describes as “before all things” and in Whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17) is little more than cheap, chintzy decoration on already full plates?

Yet Jesus is saying here that we need to become like children to enter the kingdom of God.  Which could just as well be another way of saying that we need to remember that Jesus is big and that Jesus is everywhere- even as He is seated at the right hand of God.  This Jesus is the One who contains all of the pain and glory of the world. This Jesus is the very “heart of the world” as the Swiss theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, describes in his lyrical tribute to Christ.

Which means that we don’t have to carry Jesus with us: we don’t have to tuck him away near our left ventricle or hide Him under an aortic valve- as if the onus were on us to coax Jesus to stay around in our soul’s living room, as if Jesus’ presence ultimately depended on our words and actions.

And we don’t have to bring Jesus to people, either, as Rob Bell writes in Velvet Elvis.  Why?  Because Jesus is already there!  He is there whether or not we see Him.  All we really need to do is ask Jesus to give us eyes to see Him and then look for Him.

It’s a bit like my two-year-old daughter when she reads her favorite book, Curious George.  On every page, there is always George, the mischievous monkey, into this and into that.  George at the train station.  George at the farm.  George at the toy store.  And when we read together, all my daughter does is point and exclaim, “George!”  On literally every page she points and exclaims, “George!”

And that’s really all we need to do, too.  When we see Jesus, we point.  We point and we exclaim, “Jesus!”  Like a child over her story book or in a make-believe place called “Narnia.”  And chances are that the more we find ourselves doing this simplest of things, the more we’re pointing and exclaiming in wonder at all of the places Jesus shows up on the pages of our story, the more we’ll know that we’re in God’s kingdom.  We’ll know we’re in that place where God is reconciling all created things in heaven and on earth to Himself (Colossians 1:20).

 

 

 

 

“Cry, Cry Africa.”

“Cry, cry Africa, only cry for southern Sudan.”  (The refrain of a song sung by the children of Amazing Grace Orphanage, in southern Sudan.)

We had been warned that some times the Sudanese government sent Antonov bombers across the border into the skies over Adjumani refugee camp, in northern Uganda.  It was a place I had the good fortune of leaving- unlike my new-found friends for whom this drill of “run for cover” had become a way of life.  Their new normal.

We didn’t really think it would happen- at least while we four Americans, standing out like sore thumbs in a sea of emory-colored south Sudanese, were there.

Then one morning we heard the drone-like sound overhead and saw the giant wasp roll in. We didn’t check to see its stinger.  We did the only thing we knew to do: we ran for cover, our bodies hitting the ground of our little, mud huts (tukuls), then lying very still as we waited for the monster to pass us by.

The next day one of the refugees took us to her tukul about a half-mile away from the compound where we were staying.  (A compound, by the way, where widows who have lost their husbands in five decades of Sudan’s civil war now care for some of the 1.7 million children left orphaned by the genocide there.)  The woman showed us the big, crater-like hole in the ground maybe fifty feet from her home.  In this case, the crater had been the result of another Antonov bombing expedition- all part of the north Sudanese government’s ongoing campaign of terror against its own civilians.

That was ten years ago.  When I read the news yesterday that Sudanese military aircraft had again crossed an international border to drop bombs on refugees, this time in the newly established South Sudan, those memories came flooding back.  It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I haven’t had the chance to return to my friends in Adjumani, northern Uganda.  Life has gotten in the way, young children being the biggest development these days.  But I think often of these dear ones and the tenaciousness of their faith, hope and love in an otherwise hellish place. Their names and faces come to mind when headlines about the Lord’s Resistance Army (the other specter of terror in that part of the world), or news like the above, catch my eye.

One day I hope to be with them again.  To introduce them to my husband and my children.  In African terms, and as Christians, we are extended family, after all.

“Mama Susan,” as she is affectionately called, has run Amazing Grace Orphanage now for nearly fifteen years.  Her “thorn in the side” is that she is almost totally deaf:  even with the help of an aid, she can barely hear.  But ever since she met the first child she would care for- a baby girl whom Susan found abandoned in one of the camp’s garbage dumps, so hungry she was eating human feces for breakfast- Susan has opened her heart and arms to take in and care for more and more children.

Now the orphanage provides a redemptive oasis to nearly thirty children. Every night they gather under the stars for bedtime prayers and to sing songs of praise.  When they pray, they simply lift up their needs, most of them very tangible, in the form of medicine for Josephine who struggles with the after effects of polio, or for money to pay the tuition fees for Maurice.  Somehow God always seems to provide.  They pray for friends across the seas like me and the small team of seminary students I took with me ten years ago. We have all stayed in touch with Mama Susan and her helpers over the years, doing the little we can to help, be it in the form of an annual financial gift, or advocacy in our churches and with our representatives in government.

These days the biggest need and opportunity are primary and secondary education for tomorrow’s leaders of this fledgling country.  Mama Susan recently sent me a proposal for a new nursery school in Adjumani.  With news like yesterday’s, which suggests that South Sudan’s new independence has done little to bring a sure-fire end to a very old war, it is no wonder that Susan and our friends at Amazing Grace remain cautiously hopeful that one day they will return to their country. For now, they prefer the familiar (life as refugees) to the unknown (uncertain times in their own country), dreaming of a day when they can live peacefully in a homeland where the mangoes are plentiful.  All the while, they cry for help through the bars of a song, somehow in the miracle and mystery of faith knowing that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13).  What would happen if we cried with them?

If you have ideas about how to help Susan and the enterprising widows and orphans of Amazing Grace Orphanage, in Adjumani, Uganda raise more money to train the next generation of teachers, doctors, ministers and educated citizens of South Sudan, please leave your thoughts here or drop me a note at kristinarobbdover@gmail.com.

 

“The Little Ones”: Weird Jesus Sayings Continued

Jerry Sandusky is charged with sexually molesting 8 boys. (Photo credit: Associated Press)

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to trip up…it would be better for them to have a huge millstone hung around their neck and be drowned out in the deep sea.” Matthew 18:6

Jesus could just as well be speaking here about former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and the many powerful people who colluded with him to keep four decades of child sexual abuse secret- all under the guise of Sandusky’s charity, The Second Mile (a foster home to protect the most vulnerable of children, those without parents).  I get sick just thinking about the evil perpetrated here- first, by a middle-aged predator with a fetish for anal and oral sex who preyed on young boys, and then by an institution that deemed its reputation as a champion in college football more sacred than the lives of these little ones.

Even sadder and more disturbing is that we have seen this all before.  Catholic priests sexually molesting the children in their care.  The highest echelons of church leadership sweeping the abuse under the rug.

The lesson? That it is almost a law of the universe that power corrupts.  That wherever power is present, whether in the church or in college football, we need to be suspicious.  We need to be asking who “the least of these” are.  The church’s witness to Jesus Christ is credible only insofar as the church stands in solidarity with the powerless.  Christians need to be on the side of “the little ones.”

Because at heart the revelations about Sandusky and his co-collaborators are a deeply tragic story about how power, when it corrupts, always chooses “the least of these” for victims.  The “least of these” in the form of nameless little boys such as “Victim 1, 2, or 10.”  They at one time must have believed Sandusky was their savior, a ticket out of an already dysfunctional childhood- only to see their hopes demolished.

As a mother, I know that as irritating and exasperating as children can often be, these little persons also come wired to believe in the goodness of God and the world around them.  They come with built-in reserves of faith, be it in Santa Claus or Jesus Christ.  “God consciousness” is how the nineteenth-century, German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher termed it.

Try wearing one of these as a necklace, Sandusky and friends.

You have to do something pretty terrible to destroy that God-consciousness and to make one of these “little ones” stumble.  So terrible, Jesus says, that it would be better if a great big millstone- a huge, heavy stone used to grind wheat- were tied around your neck and you were drowned in the depths of the deepest part of the ocean. The consolation here is that if the violations of Sandusky and his pals against the least of these fill us with disgust, they are an even greater abomination to God.

When back in 1998 State College police were investigating Sandusky’s shower escapades with Victim 6, Sandusky was quoted as saying this to the victim’s mother:  “I wish I could get forgiveness.”  The molestations continued.  Sandusky wanted forgiveness insofar as it wouldn’t require him to stop showering with little boys.

It is hard to say whether God’s judgment in the form of a millstone around the neck precludes forgiveness.  There are few things, I suspect, that are totally unforgivable in the light of eternity.  For the time being, I’m satisfied to know that in God’s scheme Sandusky and company will be spending their waking hours with phytoplankton on the ocean floor.

What I’m more concerned about now is what happens to “the least of these” in this story. Where will they be five or ten years from now?  Will they find restoration and healing?  Or, will the great millstone drag them down, too, so that the tentacles of an evil system strangle these precious, young lives in their grip? Will they become perpetrators some day like Sandusky?

In your infinite goodness, have mercy, O Lord.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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