Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Playground Police

Did you know that there are now apparently playground police   officers?  I got stopped by one yesterday. She was in full uniform.  The real deal: a City of Atlanta officer with badge, belt and holster to show for it.

And she summoned me like a real officer would.  Stern, formal, with a tone of authority laced with suspicion.  From across the playground she called,  curling her index finger with enough gravitas to elicit some concern that my kids  and I had done something very wrong on this inner-city playground in downtown Atlanta.

I came.

“Mam, are you this boy’s mother?,” she asked, with a hint of       suspicion and threat in her voice.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Your son has been throwing acorns.  One of those could take a child’s eye out.  He’s not allowed to throw acorns, understand?”

No matter that my son had been acting like a regular four-year-old boy.  No matter that he had not been throwing acorns at anyone or anything in particular.  No matter that all of the kids together had collected a whole pile of acorns at the top of the slide.  No matter that one of them might be a budding naturalist. A future conservationist, maybe.

No matter that just the other day my neighbors’ house was broken into and their stuff stolen.  Or, that our neighborhood has seen a spate of home invasions in the last few years.  Or, that Atlanta’s murder rate was up.

“Okay,” I said.  (The last time I gave lip to a cop hadn’t gone well.)

“Mam, is he your only child here or do you have another one?”  The tone was officious and the inflection on “only” that of a distanced professional with a very important job to do.

“She’s mine as well,” I said, pointing to my two-year-old daughter, all the while wondering if now was the time when the cop called Defax and whisked my children off to child services.

The cop nodded, as if to say, “I’ve got your number.”  She wouldn’t be calling Defax this time at least. She turned to apprehend the parent of another acorn-wielding child.

The episode has me thinking about the way we human beings find the smallest, most nit-picky matters to prattle on about when there are real criminals to catch, real emergencies to attend to and people out there who really could use our help.  And we see this everywhere.  Not just on the playground. When millions of Americans are out of work and precariously hanging on to some shred of economic hope, our political leaders spend their time on legislation to keep “In God we trust” in our national motto. When the poor, the oppressed, and the blind of our world cry out for a little Good News in the form of a hand up or a new lease on life, our churches waste precious time jabbering away about what to do about the prickly issue of homosexuality (an issue that by the way never made Jesus’ own hot-button list).

“Playground police” are everywhere, and I wonder why.  Is it because of that thing Christians through the ages have called “sin”?  Is it because of our built-in propensity to miss the mark?  Is it because our world’s problems and our inadequacies at resolving them seem at times so overwhelming that we would rather concentrate our efforts on something that while frivolous is at least manageable?  Sometimes when my “to do” list is so long that I feel overwhelmed about where to start, I do something that is not on the list: I clean.  I clean when I really don’t have to.

I wonder if the same principle applies here.  As human beings we harbor an innate desire to be in control when all around our world threatens to implode.  We like our kingdoms- even if they’re only kid-sized in the form of jungle gyms.  We like to make rules- even if the rules miss out on where the real-life, high-stakes drama is.  We like to justify ourselves- because if we didn’t, we’d have to depend on Someone else to do it for us, and that scares us.  Or, if it doesn’t scare us, it asks too much of us.

But what if when we prayed the Lord’s prayer, “thy kingdom come,” we really meant it?  What if we prayed that prayer every day, and in doing so, asked ourselves what God’s kingdom looked like in the day before us?  What if we asked God to forgive us of all the times we seek to be playground police in our marriages, families, places of work, politics and churches?  What if we asked God to reveal God’s kingdom to us, so that we could be available to the persons really in need of our help?

gullivers travels short jack black 2 6 10 kc Gullivers Travels: Movie Review Round Up

"There are no small jobs. There are only small people." Gulliver of Gulliver's Travels

I suspect that we would become bigger. Bigger people with bigger hearts.  With a bigger Gospel and therefore bigger things to attend to than acorns at the jungle gym.

 

Skeleton at the Beauty Parlor: Weird Jesus Sayings Continued

"Dear God, it must be super hard to love all the people in the world, especially my brother. I don't know how You do it."

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48

Every Halloween my neighborhood with its white picket fences and wrap-around porches magically transforms into an ethereal, other-worldly realm of flying ghosts, cackling witches and lit-up pumpkins. This year was no different.

With one exception.  This time one lawn boasted something I had never seen before: a skeleton at a beauty salon.  A frame of bones stretched out luxuriously in one of those now-antiquated chairs you used to find in 1950′s beauty parlors, its skull tucked under a helmet-hat blow dryer.

When Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” I think of that skeleton at the beauty parlor.

Because our own efforts to be more like God- to beautify our souls in a spiritual
“up do” of sorts- can often leave us feeling racked out like a bunch of dried-up bones.  Many of us have gone through all the motions of being a Christian- weekly church attendance, Bible study, tithing 10 percent, teaching Sunday school- only to find that our prayer life is empty and our hearts are numb to the things of God.  Many of us, in seeking a wellspring of living water, a place where our souls can drink and find restoration, go to church and find nothing more than a few more skeletons at the beauty salon.  All of us sitting in a line of helmet blow dryers.  Each of us hoping that maybe this time we’ll come out looking and feeling a little better.  A little more beautiful- like “you just stepped out of a salon,” as the Salon Selectives commercial used to croon.  A little more alive.  A little more like Jesus.

Such is the problem with organized religion.  Most of us go into it thinking we will find abundant life but come out dead.  We go into it hoping to find our best selves and instead emerge like the walking dead. “Can these bones live?” we find ourselves asking (Ezekiel 37:3).

The problem is that skeletons don’t have hair, skin, or nails.  They don’t have the basic requirements for a beauty salon.  They need all of the elements of a whole, unique person before they can undergo a full, spiritual makeover; and they need these elements not separately but together, by way of integration.

Which is what Jesus is alluding to here.  “Be perfect” is not a command to be spiritually flawless.  It is not to have all of one’s religious ducks in a row. Or, to use all of the right, Christian lingo and follow all the appropriate cues. We have all been around such people.  People who would like to think that their Christian complexion is without blemish, despite the nasty whitehead on their nose.  I remember sitting next to one person in a church membership class who, in a personal survey of spiritual gifts and aptitudes, concluded she had all of them by checking each of the boxes.  With my two or three checks I had felt a bit inadequate, if truth be told.

Thankfully, being perfect is also not about having all of the spiritual gifts. Being “perfect” according to Jesus is, rather, having integrity: it is being integrated in such a way that all your parts come together. So that your love of God and neighbor doesn’t change once you leave church.  So that your patience, kindness and self-control don’t turn off once you pull up the driveway and open the door to your husband and children.  As Stanley Hauerwas recently quipped, “Christians are supposed to love one another even when they are married.”

Similarly, it is one thing to put on a nice smile and really mean it for the folks in your Bible study, but what about the annoying next-door neighbor who lets their dog poop on your front yard and parks in your space? What about the person at work who is always stealing your ideas or undercutting you behind your back? What about the person who in the name of God blew up your son or daughter in a roadside bomb? Does your love of neighbor extend to your enemies as well?  Does your love have enough integrity to withstand all of the variations that “neighbor” represents?

Most of us, if we are honest, will answer “no.”  In some cases we may give a titular nod to the notion that we as Christians must love our enemies, but we have yet to internalize it.  We have yet to let Love permeate our being in such a way that our inner life accords with our outer actions.  Until then we are no more than brittle bones waiting for a make-over.

The Good News is that by God’s grace these bones can live.  In the same way that the Spirit of God moved over Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, attaching bone and ligament to flesh, the Spirit of God can move over our parched frames and give us skin, nails and hair, so that we become real “mensch.”  People with integrity.  So that when others see us they don’t just see skeletons at the beauty salon.  They see instead real, whole people with real, whole Good News about a God who loved us when we were yet still enemies (Romans 5:8).

 

 

Bare, Naked Power: Weird Jesus Sayings Continued

“Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Matthew 5:39-41

We tend to think that power requires money.  Lots of it.  Or political clout, which these days often goes hand in hand.  Or, we associate power with raw physical strength and the ability to retaliate with violence.  A big defense arsenal.  The most cutting-edge in military technology.  Or, a paddle on the behind of a misbehaving child.

But what if real power were actually very different from all these things?

The story goes that during the years of apartheid in South Africa, white Afrikaner soldiers with bulldozers came upon a squatters’ village of poor black South African women.  The soldiers told the women they had a few minutes to evacuate before the bulldozers would come in and demolish their homes.  The women had to think quickly.  Their men were away- many of them at work.  Any effort to resist with violence would be foolish.  What were they to do?  Stand by as their homes crumpled in the merciless claws of the bulldozers?

They knew about Dutch Afrikaners’ strict moral puritanism.  So they did the one thing they could think to do in the moment.  They stripped right down to their underwear- and then they took these off, too. They got buck naked, with the result being that the men turned and ran and the squatters’ village remained standing.  All thanks to a few bare, naked ladies.

Real power looks a bit like this.  Real power resists the easier, more natural impulse to take up arms and strike back at a wrongdoer.  “You heard it was said, ‘an eye for an eye,’” Jesus tells us in the preceding verse.

Real power charts a different course: “But I tell you,” Jesus says, “do not resist an evil person. But…” Which is not to say “be a pushover.”  Jesus isn’t looking for a few trusty doormats.

The harder way, one that rejects acquiescence to violence, be it in the form of giving in or taking up arms, is to insist on our humanity before one who would seek to dehumanize us.  To insist not with words but with actions, so that we essentially poke fun at or shine a light on our enemy’s oppressive tactics.  So that we ridicule the ridiculousness of those who mistreat us.

To hit someone on the cheek in Jesus’ time was to treat them as less than an equal.  Like a servant.  So to turn one’s cheek would be in essence to send a clear message: “if you want to hit me, do it like an equal.”

To take someone’s coat would have been in some cases to take someone’s only outerwear, so that all they had was their underwear in the form of the cloak.  To give the cloak as well would have been to strip down naked in front of one’s oppressor- as if to say, much like the bare, naked ladies of the squatters’ village, “Would you rob me of everything, even the clothes on my back?”

In Jesus’ day, Roman soldiers often asked civilian passersby to carry their packs.  One mile was the limit. A second mile was illegal.  To offer to go the second mile would have been to critique that society’s glorification of empire and conquest over all else.

These subversions of worldly power belong to a great big divine conspiracy to remake the world.  When Jesus could turn stones into bread or wow the crowds with his miraculous, superhero powers, He in his humanity chooses instead to depend on God for nourishment and give God alone the glory.  When Jesus could rain down lethal thunderbolts or launch divine, drone attacks on those who crucify Him, He instead allows His enemies to pin him up on a cross.  Bleeding to love us.  Like a bare, naked sign that reads: “This is what we do to God around here.”

Jesus endures this humiliation in order to let us in on a new way of being human.  A mode of existence that relies on God for new life rather than on our own cockeyed efforts.  That reinforces how loved we really are as those made “in the image of God,” and empowers us to share that message with one another and the world.  And here Jesus is not just inviting but admonishing us to take part in the great conspiracy.

But how do we practice real power in our context?  How might we incarnate it in our relationships at home and in the public sphere?  What might it look like as a way of life?

When one partner cheats on his or her partner, the aggrieved partner’s “turning of the other cheek” might mean preparing a five-course, candlelit dinner date for their spouse and his or her new love interest.  When homeowners face the prospect of foreclosing to banks whose predatory lending policies caused the problem in the first place, “giving up one’s coat” might mean handing over not just one’s house but everything in it. Including the coy fish, lava lamp and full-size replica of Elvis.  Maybe even throwing in one’s clothes. When an exploitative manager demands longer work hours from employees, “going the second mile” might mean offering to go without meals and no overtime pay, and then publicizing the offer with local media outlets.

These forms of resistance point to a whole, new way of being human and engaging the world.  One that does not simply reinforce the status quo or trade in the same corrupt currencies of money, political power and violence, but rather calls them into question, by subverting and shining a light on the injustice.  Or, by caricaturing the exploitation, thereby laughing at it- so as to deflate it of its power.

Jesus’ death on the cross?  Were it not so tragic, it could just as well be God’s laugh.  A “joke’s on you” moment in the history of the world, with Christ’s resurrection as the punch line.  In this sense, when we play our part in the divine conspiracy, we become fellow comedians taking cues from a Master of stand-up comedy.

And, I’m sure those women in the squatters’ village shared some good laughs as they pulled up their pants and buttoned up their shirts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Ways to Tame the Animal of Regret

If regret can sometimes seem like an animal on our backs, there are ways we can tame it.  Here are five practical tips for dealing with regret when it threatens to get the best of us:

1. Don’t be afraid to look squarely at your regrets and get to know them a bit. What are they about? Are they mistakes you made? Paths that you wished you had taken but never took? Grievances against God? Grudges towards others who have wronged you?  Sometimes to journal about these things helps.  Sometimes to talk about them with a trusted friend or therapist is the answer, especially in those times when your regrets concern great loss or grief- over the death of a family member or the termination of a job, for instance.  There is no shame in finding a companion who will help us get to know our regrets and the sometimes visceral emotions and impulses they elicit in us.

2. Welcome the lessons that may be there.  Ask yourself what God might be teaching you.  That interaction with your boss that made him so angry? Was there something you could have done differently?  If so, what was it?  How might you respond differently in the future?  What do you need to do in order to make the change(s)? Equally important to ask is this:  what was not yours to own? If your boss blew up at you over a seemingly small issue, you do not need to be responsible for his own problems with anger management.  How might you clarify your boundaries in future interactions so that you don’t find yourself in similar, dysfunctional situations?

3.  Sit with the feelings and sensations that come with the regret, so that you are then able to release these feelings. Repression won’t help us with our regrets. If the regret causes sadness or anger, we need to feel these things. In feeling them, and not being afraid to feel them, we are then able to release them.  We actually cause worse problems for ourselves when we try to stuff the feelings or pretend that they are not there.  I don’t know who originally said this, but a friend passed it on and I think it’s true:  “We cause more problems for ourselves and others when we try to escape our pain rather than feel it.”

Many of us have picked up the wrong message that feelings of anger or sadness are “negative,” and that we need to get rid of them in some way- so that we are inclined to judge ourselves for feeling these things.  If you can, let that judgment go.  Feelings are never “wrong” or “right.”  What we do with our feelings and how we learn from them are the important thing.

Sometimes the feelings of anger or sadness can be so strong that we feel out of control.  In times like these, it can be helpful to let ourselves feel these emotions when we are in the presence of another trusted person.

4. Practice forgiveness.  Almost all the time, our regrets contain at least one person whom we need to forgive.  Often we are that person.  Other times, we are holding someone else accountable- and often rightfully so.  Jesus says we are to forgive “not just seven times but seventy seven times” (Matthew 18:22).  Arguably, this quality of being forgiving towards oneself, others and God is the most distinctive trait of a follower of Christ.

But before we can forgive, we need to have the courage to name the wrong done to us and how we were hurt.  If we are not able to do this in a safe way with the person who wronged us, we need to find an alternative way to acknowledge the wrong and process feelings around it, so that we can gradually move towards forgiveness. In other words, don’t forgive too soon- which is why forgiveness is step four and not step one!

5. Thank God for your regret and give it back to God in praise and thanksgiving.  This is not to say that we should ask God for more things to regret.  But give thanks to God for the things God is teaching you through the particularities of your regret.  Which really is only your regret and nobody else’s.  Nobody else harbors the same, exact regrets you do.  They are yours only.  As such, they are part of a unique story.  The story of a one-of-a-kind person whom God loves and is redeeming.

When Jesus says his “yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:30),”we can know that God does not ask us to carry the life-sucking noose of regret.  We have an alternative.  We can “put on” Christ. The same One who tells us to forgive seventy seven times knows all of our regrets.  He knows all of the ways that we or others or circumstances, or all of the above, have robbed us from living into the abundant life He intended for us- and He doesn’t hold these things against us.  Ever.  We just have to claim His love for us.  We do this by choosing Him rather than our regrets as the thing that will define who we are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Space Dog: The Animal of Regret

Laika was the first animal of any kind to travel into orbit. Otherwise, she would have been just another mutt rounded up in the streets of Moscow.

The first-ever animal to orbit the Earth and to die in space was a dog named “Laika” (Russian for “Barker”).  When the Soviets launched Sputnik 2 in 1957, Laika out-performed two other dogs to earn the dubious honor of participating in this experiment on the impact of spaceflight on living creatures. Laika’s reward was a one-way ticket into space. There were no expectations that she would survive.  She didn’t.

Years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the scientists said this:  “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it.  We shouldn’t have done it.   We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.”

We all have our regrets- if we are honest, that is.  We regret that we did not party more in college, or majored in biology when home economics was our passion.  We regret that we married too early.  Or that we married the wrong person. Or that we didn’t marry the right person. Or, that we didn’t have children.  Or, that we had too many children.  Or, that we didn’t spend enough time with our children. The possibilities for lamenting lost opportunities, poor decisions, failures or wrong turns are endless.

I remember sitting with a dear friend just weeks before her death.  She told me that “all of her demons” had come back.  By that she meant all of her deepest regrets.  All of the things that she had held against herself, God or others.  Mistakes.  Wrongs.  Unfulfilled dreams and desires.

She was not alone.  A recent study found that when men and women come to the end of their lives, many often have regrets.  Typically, the study found, men are more likely to regret vocational choices, and women, relational ones.

The problem with regret is that while it may be entirely justified- we may harbor legitimate gripes about how we have lived our lives or the cards life has dealt us- remorse of this sort doesn’t help us live fully in the present.  Sure, to a certain degree regret can teach us something if we let it, whether it be that we not let others live our lives for us, or that we seize opportunities as they come.  “Carpe diem!,” as the saying goes.

But some regrets are harder to learn from.  Or more paralyzing and incapacitating.  We screw up, blow it royally and make a mess of our relationships and never fully recover.  Or, someone else screws up royally, makes a mess of our life, and we never fully recover.  Or, despite high hopes for a family, we never find the right mate. Or, we are simply unable to have children.  In these instances, regret can become a noose around our neck.  The more we indulge it, the tighter the noose becomes, sucking the life and possibilities for new life right out of us.

Regret is not just an individual malaise.  It is systemic as well.  We see it in the church. In remorse over our fractured life together or our inability to be who we were meant to be.  In all the times we failed to be a prophetic voice or proclaim the Good News.

A pedestrian walks by grafitti on a downtown street in Detroit, Michigan, in 2008. (Credit: The Huffington Post)

We see it on the national scene in the justifiably angry calls of protesters over big bail-outs and extravagant bonuses to America’s richest one percent at the expense of the other 99 percent.  Or, in our public lamentation over 9/11 to the degree that it may have been preventable.  Or, in our regret, many lost lives and billions of dollars later, that we went to war in Iraq on the basis of a false presumption. These regrets feed an attitude of national, moral and existential despair.

Parker Palmer, in his latest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy:  The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, describes this despair in American democracy and politics as a kind of “public brokenheartedness.”  I identify with Palmer, who has himself suffered several bouts of severe depression: his own, very personal experience of despair finds points of resonance with the existential angst and hunger for healing that we see these days on a national scale.  In the disenchantment of “Occupy Wall Street.”  In a mother’s grief when the body of her child flies home in solemn military ensemble.

Regret at its core is essentially broken-heartedness.  Broken-heartedness over the existential lostness of all humankind.  Despair at our inability to break free from the “nothingness” of what we had hoped to become.  Or achieve.  Or discover.  Or believe.

The great nineteenth century, Russian writer, LevTolstoy, in his Confession, much like the writer of Ecclesiastes before him, described his own experience of despair this way:  “If I had simply comprehended that life had no meaning, I might have known that calmly- I might have known that that was my fate.  But I could not be soothed by that.  If I had been like a man living in a forest from which he knew there was no way out, I might have lived; but I was like a man who had lost his way in the forest, who was overcome by terror because he had lost his way, who kept tossing about in his desire to come out on the road, knowing that every step got him only more entangled, and who could not help tossing. That was terrible. And in order to free myself from that terror, I wanted to kill myself…The terror of the darkness was too great, and I wanted as quickly as possible to free myself from it by means of a noose or bullet.  It was this feeling that more than anything drew me on toward suicide.”

When we stare into the abyss like Tolstoy did, when we behold our own deep broken-heartedness, about our lives, about the state of our world, about our limitations in fixing our individual and corporate problems, we have two choices.  We can either fall apart.  (Many of us have.)  Or, we can allow our heart “to break open,” as Palmer suggests, spilling out in embodied compassion for the world.

To do this, though, we need more than the grit of our own self-determination.  We need a Savior.  We need to trade in our own noose of regret for One whose “yoke is easy and burden light” (Matthew 11:30).  We need to ask for His help.

“One nation under God” goes the pledge of allegiance.  What if we actually believed it? How would we live?  How might we learn from our regrets, as opposed to letting them serve as an easy excuse for cynicism and disengagement from the world?

Because apart from the grace of God our lives really do dance on the edge of despair.  But in Jesus, there is hope. Even when the noose is in our hands, we can know that Jesus holds the other end of it.  He will never let us go.  Just as I believe He never let Laika go, either.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s “5 Ways to Tame the Animal of Regret.”

Politically Incorrect Jesus: Weird Sayings Continued

"This evening at 7 pm there will be a hymn singing in the park across from the Church. Bring a blanket and come prepared to sin." (Funny Church Bulletin Bloopers, Beliefnet)

“You always have the poor with you, don’t you?  But you won’t always have me.”  Matthew 26:11

It’s a good thing Jesus isn’t running for office, because if he were, he’d probably lose. Can you imagine a political leader saying something to the effect of, “The poor are just part of the furniture, but I won’t be around forever?”  Weird.

Of course the big difference here is that Jesus isn’t about to win an election.  Unless a placard on a cross, with “King of the Jews” as its inscription, qualifies. When he makes this statement, Jesus is preparing to die. Two days from now.  At Passover- a time of year that reminds the Jewish people that their God is One who frees God’s people from bondage and oppression.  In the same way that God brought Israel out from a life of back-breaking sweat and tears as slaves in Egypt to a wide, open, promised land of milk and honey.

So this scene drips with irony.  Because what the disciples and gathered dinner guests cannot appreciate, in their lofty, high-minded “fury” that a woman would waste a whole jar of expensive perfume on Jesus’ head- (“this could have been sold for a fortune, and the money could have been given to the poor!,” they exclaim)- is that “the poor” in this case are right there in front of them.  In the form of a man who will unjustly die a criminal’s shameful death.  And in this nameless woman: her extravagant display of worship can only stem from a poverty of spirit; she, perhaps better than all of the others in the room, apprehends that it is only in the saving actions of Jesus that she has a name and identity as a beloved child of God.

“I’m telling you the truth,” Jesus says.  “Wherever this gospel is announced in all the world, what she has just done will be told, and people will remember her (26:13).”

But what are we to make of “the poor will always be with you”?  What is Jesus really saying here?  That we are to ignore the poor when we worship God?  That all God cares about is that we spare no expense in our worship?  If we were to make these conclusions we would be dismissing a host of passages in Scripture that define true worship as caring for the poor and needy.  This misses the point.  Of the many things that unite Jews and Christians, caring for the poor vies for first place.

The text provides one clue as to what Jesus is really getting at.  When the disciples protest, “What’s the point of all this waste?,” and “This ‘Passion by Liz Taylor’ should have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor!,” we read that “Jesus knew what they were thinking (v. 10).”

And they could have been thinking anything.  About their own embarrassment and awkwardness over the fact that this anonymous woman was touching Jesus.  About their annoyance, like jealous older brothers, that she, the younger sister, had stolen the show and was enjoying all of the attention.  About their shame that they had brought nothing to give.  About their pride that it was this lowly woman who brought everything.

Whatever the disciples were thinking, it wasn’t really worshipful, as a free, authentic expression of gratitude and awe to God.  It wasn’t really beautiful, as an unnecessary, selfless demonstration of service.  It didn’t ring out with joy at simply being in God’s presence.  At simply being.  Like a flower.  Or, a butterfly.  Or, a baby’s smile or cry.

We, like the disciples, can find it easy to sugar coat our insecurities about the fact that we ultimately exist simply to glorify God.  We can do this best by looking at resources and the world around us, including our neighbors, as nothing more than a means to an end.  Valued only insofar as they produce something.  Made in God’s image only to the degree that they are beneficial to us.

But this mode of being couldn’t be further from reality.  Because God created us and our world and saw that it “was good.” Not because we produced anything.  Not because we were to achieve something great or selfless or noble, like feeding the hungry or earning the Nobel Peace Prize.

But because God made us and fell in love with the work of His hands.  Like an artist or sculptor making out of nothing something that is beautiful.  That is how God looks at us.  And here Jesus is saying that our gratuitous response of praise and worship is most in keeping with how we were wonderfully made- most in alignment with reality.  The flower basks in the sun.  Because that is how it was made. The butterfly flits and dances over the flower.  Because that is how the butterfly was made.  The baby smiles or cries.  Because that is how she was made.

And we?  We tell God how great God is- and that we don’t know where we would be without God.  We do it extravagantly.  Without self-consciousness.  Without asking whether our expression of worship is politically- or, for that matter,”biblically”- correct.  We worship God- and if we’re not worshiping God, we’re worshiping the things we attach divinity to.  Because that is how we were made.  We were made for God and to worship Him.

 

 

 

Reader Poll: You Vote On Our Next Series

Over the next few weeks we are finishing up our series, “Weird Sayings of Jesus.”  Which means we’ll be embarking on another series not too long from now!   What follows are some ideas, and I need your vote.  As incentive, I promise not to tattoo my behind like new manager Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) in a recent episode of “The Office.”

But a bit more seriously, what you come up with may turn into a first book.  Or at least part of one. Then you’ll be able to say that you helped a struggling writer…struggle more.

Simply post your first and second choice below and lobby your friends to vote as well.  You have a few weeks to help me make my decision.  If I don’t hear from you, then don’t say I didn’t warn you!  I’ll post the results on our last day of “Weird Jesus Sayings”:

The Gospel According to The Far Side

If you haven’t caught Far Side’s depiction of highlights from the Gospels, then you’re in for a treat.  My sermons and reflections will just be “window dressing.”

Bumper Sticker Theology

In a day and age of often vacuous, shallow and commodified spirituality, bumper stickers are often the closest we come to finding a common language for our discourse about God (“theology,” in other words).  In this series, I will unpack some of my personal favorites in the way of bumper stickers, and will entertain some of yours, with a view to finding the biblical connections while opening up our conversation about God, faith and the funny stuff in between.

On Angels’ Wings with Devils’ Horns: The Top 10 Saints and Sinners Of All Time and What They Teach Us

This series will require your input.  I’ll compile a rather long list of saints and sinners and ask you to weigh in on which ones make the short list and why.

“As Through a Looking Glass”: Our Questions for God This Side of Eternity

The Bible is as full of questions as it is of answers- questions that are as relevant today as they were in biblical times.  This series will look at the questions, with a view to poking holes in the common presumption that to be a Christian means to have all the answers. Or, to give all the answers.  The apostle Paul was one of the first to admit that “now we see [God] through a glass darkly,” but one day we will see God “face to face”- and that while now we “know only in part,” one day we will “know fully” (1 Corinthians 13:12).  So as people of faith we can and should be people who ask questions about God.  Tough questions.   This series will give us biblical permission to do so.

“Sanctification” Embodied:  How One Group of Women Is Living in Grace and What We Can Learn

“Sanctification” is a “churchy” term for growing in God’s grace so that our whole person looks more and more like Jesus Christ, who modeled a new way of being human in His life, death and resurrection.  These days the church is really good at talking about “justification”- that life-changing moment in which we discover that because of God’s love we can become “right with God.”

But I suspect that the church in large part could do a whole lot better when talking about “sanctification.”  For one thing, “sanctification” isn’t very “cool” or “hip”: there is something in us that recoils from the notion of “becoming holy” or “set apart for God.”  And sanctification requires a bit more work on our parts.  Sure, it is as chock-full of God’s grace as that first, often more dramatic moment of initial conversion, but it demands more of us.  “Sanctification” is not just a one-time experience but a whole lifestyle.

The problem is that we miss out on a whole lot of God’s grace when we emphasize “justification” at the expense of “sanctification.”  Because if “justification” is that “first kiss,” then “sanctification” is “going steady” with God.  If “justification” is dipping our toe in Living Water, then “sanctification” is getting dunked in it.

The question, then, is: what does “sanctification” look like and what does it require?  The women of Magdalene House, a residential treatment program for women coming off the streets, have found their answer.  Their “Rule of Magdalene” has embodied grace and second chances after a dead-end life of drugs, crime and prostitution.  Every week we will unpack one of the 24 “spiritual principles” that comprise the Rule by exploring what it has come to mean in the life of one of these Magdalene women.

“The Kingdom of God” Unleashed: Jesus’ Use of the Term and Its Application for Today

When God is Cruel:  Places in Scripture We Like to Avoid

Unmerited Suffering: The Book of Job for Our Times

“Church” Revisited:  The Book of Acts for Our Time

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a Saint Named Betty

Betty Henderson (1923-2011)

For all the saints, who from their labors rest, Who Thee by faith before the world confessed, Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed. Alleluia, Alleluia!…

Betty died peacefully in her sleep last week.  She was 88.  I had coffee with her husband of 58 years the other day.  The two of them have spent their lives pouring their faith into others.

In the days leading up to Betty’s death, they had added a new element to their bedtime routine. Bob would read hymns aloud.  Old hymns like “For All the Saints.”  On the night Betty rested from her labors, they had read it together.  She had laughed and peacefully drifted off to sleep.

Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might; thou Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight; thou in the darkness drear, their one true light. Alleluia, Alleluia!

When during the turbulent years of segregation and the civil rights movement, Bob was pastoring a mill town church not far from the campus of Duke University and drawing fire for inviting people of color to join and help shepherd his congregation, Betty was right there with him.  A quiet, under-stated and reliable presence.  A stalwart partner in a difficult, often agonizing struggle.

O may thy soldiers, faitfhul, true and bold, fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, and win with them the victor’s crown of gold.  Alleluia, Alleluia!

In the last five years of her life, Betty was feeble.  She was often falling.  She suffered a stroke or two if I recall correctly, and Bob, five years her junior, was her spry caretaker.  (Note to unmarried girlfriends: there is a case to be made for younger men.)  When I was pastoring at a conservative, midtown church, they would sit at the back of the sanctuary during services. Like rebels with a cause, they were always holding up a mirror to the church to ask whether the “kingdom of God” Jesus talked about- the one we read about in Scripture- was evident there.  Among us.  In that place.

O blest communion, fellowship divine!  We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.  Alleluia, Alleluia!

I saw Betty in church just two weeks before she died.  As usual she hobbled in with her walker and that same serene, gentle smile; and as usual she immediately took to asking about me.  No matter that her life these days was taken up by the hard vicissitudes of old age. But she looked as good as she always did- young at heart and joyful in spirit.  Because when other women had been staying young with Botox injections, Betty alongside her husband had been pouring her time, wisdom and radicalized faith into relationships with young people. Many of them pastors and leaders, or disaffected and eccentric church-goers, or restless lovers of Jesus.  Some of them all of the above.

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Betty was one of the brave ones.  She wasn’t afraid to listen to people instead of talk at them.  The older I get the more I understand that to do this requires greater courage and inner power than inserting one’s tongue into conversations.  But doing this makes room for our ears to hear “the distant triumph song”:  it opens up a space in which we can better hear God speak.  And what do we all need more than to hear God’s voice amid the toil and strife that so often belong to our lives?

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Alleluia!  Alleluia!

My favorite line of the Westminster Catechism, one of the Reformed confessions of my church, is this: human beings’ chief aim is “to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”  Worship and enjoyment came naturally to Betty.  They streamed out of her life, a bit like “pearl streams.”

Which is not to suggest that Betty was less a sinner than all the rest of us.  I”m sure she had her moments.  I just never saw them!

But in the end I suppose that what makes a saint is not their perfection but their posture.  It is not whether they lived their life flawlessly but whether they found their beginning and end in their Creator- a realization that brings us to our knees in humble adoration and joyful worship. Betty did just that.  She spent her life “on her knees”- in prayer and in service, singing to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

The Psalmist speaks of all creation singing out praises to God.  On this side of paradise that song has its painful interruptions.  We lose the tune or forget our parts.  Other more discordant sounds break in and eclipse the melody.  But there is something deeply reassuring about this image of all the saints, Betty there among them, singing without interruptions.  Belting out their praise to the One who knit them together and now has called them home.  To that One be all the glory, now and forever.  Amen.

 


                    

“Supply-Side Jesus”

Al Franken was more creative than I am this morning.  Besides, the “gospel” in certain politicans’ rhetoric about how to fix America’s unemployment crisis really does resemble this sometimes:
YouTube Preview Image  Like the other day when Rick Perry told the New York Times that he “doesn’t care” that his tax proposal, (which would dramatically lower taxes on the richest Americans and increase the burden for the lower and middle classes), would only increase steadily rising income inequality.  Hmm.  To echo some of Jon Stewart’s sentiments, does Perry feel the same way about the some 234 people executed, including juveniles, since he became governor of Texas eleven years ago?

Previous Posts

The Rise of the "Spiritual But Not Religious"
Here at this intersection between God and life, I'm always interested in news pertaining to those who call themselves "spiritual but not religious"—hence this article from The New York Times featuring the work of three other authors who, like me, are responding to the epithet that now describes on

posted 5:53:50pm Jul. 27, 2014 | read full post »

Are You Opposed to People Owning Guns? Via John Piper
[caption id="attachment_5235" align="alignleft" width="339"] Jim Eliot and 4 other missionaries were killed in Ecuador by Auca Indians. The missionaries had guns but chose to fire them in the air rather than at their attackers who had spears. The Aucas have since embraced Christ in great number.[/ca

posted 11:40:36am Jul. 22, 2014 | read full post »

Mental Health Break— "Sea Song" and Lisa Hannigan
This week the theme of the sea put to music especially touched me as our family grieves the loss of my granddad.  My granddad was a lifelong sailor and lover of the sea, and we will scatter some of his ashes on the sea where he used to command our family's annual regatta from Shelter Island, New Yo

posted 11:16:49am Jul. 18, 2014 | read full post »

"Admiral John": A Granddaughter's Remembrances
It feels a bit like Groundhog Day: wasn't it just a couple months ago that I was sharing a granddaughter's reflections upon the death of a grandparent?  This past Saturday, my granddad John slipped away suddenly to join his late wife Peggy of 68 years who had been his companion until two months ago

posted 11:58:22am Jul. 15, 2014 | read full post »

Hostility Re: My Post on Guns in Georgia—A Lesson
Fellow saints and sinners, it's with some sadness and more fascination that I write after seeing the onslaught of fierce and even violently ad hominem attacks in response to my post from two days ago about Georgia's new gun rights legislation.  From here on out, these sorts of responses won't be to

posted 10:36:22am Jul. 14, 2014 | read full post »


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