“I’m telling you the truth: if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. But this kind only comes out by prayer and fasting.” Matthew 17: 20,21
Jesus’ claim here is weird because it seems so preposterous. If an itty-bitty display of faith on our parts can move a mountain, why is it that so often the “Mt. Everests” in our lives have an annoying habit of standing still, despite our best efforts to believe in God’s healing? The dear friend dying from cancer whose healing we have prayed for over and over again. The broken marriage that we keep pouring our best into with the hope that God will restore it. The homeless person you pray for every day, who is still jiggling their tin can at the local CVS asking for money while high on crack.
When Jesus makes this bold statement, he is responding to his disciples’ unsuccessful attempt to heal a man’s epileptic son. Which is notable in itself because the text tells us that the disciples have already witnessed many displays of divine power in answer to their prayers: when Jesus had sent them out in pairs in the power of the Holy Spirit, they had healed the sick, raised the dead and cast out demons (10: 8)- but here the disciples find themselves in a bind. This child’s condition is a tough nut to crack even for these spiritual heavyweights. Which can leave us feeling a bit inadequate. I mean, if we were at the gym, these guys would be pushing the 200-pound barbells while we would be flexing those wimpy 5-pound dumbbells. Where does this leave us?
The answer, Jesus says, is faith the size of a grain of a mustard seed.
For a long time what has made this passage so difficult is my presumption that Jesus had to be talking literally here. That when he says “I tell you the truth” there is no note of hyperbole in his voice. That he is rattling off a fact like any other, so that he could just as well be talking about today’s weather. Which is a strange inference, really, because there are plenty of places in Scripture where Jesus is clearly using exaggeration to make a point- “it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than a camel to enter the eye of a needle” being just one example.
But if Jesus is talking literally here, can our faith really move mountains? Many Egyptian Christians think so. They record the tenth-century story of a Muslim caliph who came to the Christian patriarch, Abba Abraam, asking the very same question we are, only with an accompanying threat to make the skin crawl: if the Patriarch and his Coptic Christian flock could not make the mountain move, their God was false and they would be put to death; and they had three days to come up with an answer. All the Copts fasted and prayed for three days, at the end of which the Patriarch was led in a dream to humble, one-eyed Simon the Tanner, whom God had chosen to move the mountain. Tradition holds that Simon, the Patriarch and their Coptic Christian flock all went out to the mountain with their Muslim interlocutors and prayed, chanted and bowed some forty times; and most remarkably, every time they raised their head in prayer, the mountain moved up, and every time they lowered it, the mountain moved back down again.
This story may be true- as true as stories of manna from heaven and the parting of the Red Sea centuries earlier. But whether or not it is true, and whether or not Jesus is talking literally here, I suppose the point is not so much our faith as it is God’s greatness. Greatness in the fact that even the things that we puny human beings think are totally impossible are of little difficulty to an all-powerful God.
I’ve often heard it said that we human beings use anywhere between 2 and 10 percent of our actual brain capacity. Which always leaves me wondering how I might tap into the other 90 to 98 percent. (Any ideas?) I can’t help but wonder if Jesus is sharing a similar sentiment when it comes to our spiritual life. Maybe the disciples had become smug in thinking that God’s healing depended on their own efforts. Maybe they had begun to doubt that God really was nearer than breath itself, all the while waiting for us to reach out in faith and claim God’s promises. Maybe they had fallen back into living in that 2 percent zone in which God was safely relegated to prayers for parking spaces but couldn’t be appealed to for help with the much bigger stuff.
Yet Jesus here seems to be saying that there is so, so, so much more available to us in the way of God’s healing power. All we need to do is reach out and ask for it- sometimes with our whole being, in prayer and fasting. And in this sense, yes, our faith can move mountains.
“Make ready for the Christ, whose smile- like lightning- sets free the song of everlasting glory that now sleeps in your paper flesh- like dynamite.”-Thomas Merton
Just the other day my son played his first basketball game as the only white kid in the 6-and-under age category on his team, “The Freedom Riders,” (which plays at the Martin Luther King Natatorium a few blocks from our home in downtown Atlanta). This accomplishment was no small thing for our family: it had been preceded by several instances of our son showing up to practice only to stand crying on the sidelines, adamantly refusing to join the rest of the group and kicking and screaming with any parental efforts to cajole him to play. Apparently, our five-year-old had felt not just intimidated but downright terrified by the prospect of being the only white kid on the court.
The experience has deepened my appreciation for the tremendous courage it would have taken to be one of the first black children to show up for class at an all-white school during the early years of the civil rights era. Take six-year-old Ruby Bridges, for example, who in first grade had to be escorted to class by U.S. marshals and who watched as some white parents literally dragged their children out of class because Ruby was there.
It would have demanded that same level of courage to be one of the first Freedom Riders. When in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to obey the bus driver’s order that she give up her seat for a white passenger, this seamstress at a local department store may not have had much in the way of status or worldly power. But her courage was enough to spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott; and it was enough to inspire similar acts of bravery by the men and women who, starting in the 1960’s, began to ride various forms of public transportation as a way to challenge existing segregation laws. Last May marked the 50th anniversary, in fact, of the day when the first 13 of these activists set off on a bus headed south to confront racial discrimination. You can find photos that tell their story here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/pictureshow/2011/05/03/135963719/photos-from-life-on-the-freedom-riders-50th-anniversary
These Freedom Riders were otherwise ordinary people. I have to believe that what distinguished them was their conviction and a capacity to suffer for it. They must have believed that being fully human meant being fully free- so much so that they would not let anything stand in the way of that freedom.
I also suspect that inside each of us there is the courage of a “Freedom Rider.” We might have to dig deep to find it. We might, with the help of the Holy Spirit, have to withstand a painful chiseling away of layers of sediment in order to uncover it. But, I suspect that there is a core to each of us that resists those things that would tell us we are not free. A flicker of life that fiercely desires liberation for ourselves and others from the powers, principalities and systems in place that seek to oppress and enslave us.
The Gospel tells us that in Jesus we are set free from sin and death (Romans 8:2), and that it is for freedom’s sake that Jesus set us free (Galatians 5:1, 13). God, more than anyone- including our own self- wants us free, free from our various forms of bondage in order to be free for a life of freedom in the Spirit. Until we are free, I suspect we will just be kicking and screaming on the sidelines of where true joy and God’s justice are. Will we have the courage to step out and play? Can we ask God to give it to us?
Find some of Beliefnet’s prayers for strength here: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Prayer/2010/03/Prayers-for-Strength.aspx.
Mark Driscoll, the founding and preaching pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, apparently has a new book out titled Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship and Life Together. I was introduced to Driscoll’s book by a friend (Rachel Held-Evans) of a friend (Michael Frost) on Facebook, and while I have not read it, I now feel qualified, having read Rachel Held-Evans’ very helpful review of the book, to register my own deep discomfort with pastors who take it upon themselves to wax as experts on every matter under the sun- from what we do with our checkbooks to how we perform in bed. Held-Evans is right: in a celebrity culture that places pastors on a pedestal, “evangelicals expect too much of their pastors,” with the result being that we set our pastors up for all sorts of failure.
This gripe may be my biggest after reading about “the good, the bad, and the ugly” in Driscoll’s book. But it certainly is not the only. Why, for example, do we evangelicals so often read Scripture like a self-help manual, so that the beauty of erotic poetry in Song of Songs can become little more than a prescription for how wives (in Driscoll’s case) should pleasure their husbands? Why do we evangelicals tend to place marriage on a pedastal over singleness, with the implication being that we are not complete persons if we find ourselves without a spouse? Why, similarly, do we evangelicals (who by definition claim to have such a high view of Scripture) find it so easy to read deeply contextualized Scripture passages with a view to propping up our own agendas, so that the Driscolls (wife Grace included) might just as well “color code” all the sections in the Bible that support a very particular, traditional form of American marriage in which a wife “submits” to her husband? These are only a few of my gripes, thanks to Held-Evans’ review. I include it in full below. If it makes your blood pressure soar, don’t say I didn’t warn you:
Evangelicals expect too much of their pastors.
In addition to demanding they serve as nearly flawless leaders and teachers, many of us demand that our pastors serve as professional counselors and advisors, experts on everything from politics to science to sex to health to money to marriage to relationships.
As a result, some pastors simply crumble beneath the weight of the pressure, “faking it” for years and then burning out. Others develop a heightened sense of self-importance and arrogance, as they slap the word “biblical” in front of each of their opinions, claiming to speak on behalf of God on every given topic. Still others live complete lies, lecturing the congregation on the importance money management on Sunday while struggling to overcome secret credit card debt on Monday. Others project their insecurities and obsessions onto their followers and demand that everyone look just like them. Very few manage to remain humble, honest, and brave in the face of our unrealistic expectations.
And so I believe we all bear some responsibility for creating an environment in which controversial Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll can write a book about sex and marriage that tops the Amazon bestseller list.
Given Driscoll’s alarming preoccupation with sex and “masculinity,” and the immaturity with which he has addressed these subjects in the past, one would think Christians would approach this book the way they would approach a book about nutrition written by a pastor who struggles with obesity…(or a book about overcoming procrastination written by me!) But Pastor Mark continues to grow a devoted and impassioned following, which means thousands of couples around the world will be looking to his new book, Real Marriage, which he co-authored with his wife Grace, for advice.
It’s no secret that I’ve expressed concerns over Driscoll’s teachings and antics in the past, particularly those that encourage the bullying of men who don’t fit into Driscoll’s macho-man mold, but I tried to approach this book with an open in mind, and indeed I found some pleasant surprises in Real Marriage.
The chapter on the importance of nurturing a true friendship in marriage includes some good reminders about kindness and reciprocity. I thought Grace wrote a brave and honest chapter about sexual abuse. In places where Mark has been insensitive in the past, he seems to have softened a bit. For example, rather than insisting that a woman stay attractive for her husband lest he be tempted to cheat on her, Mark suggests that a man make his own wife his standard of beauty (and vice versa). He does a much better job of emphasizing mutuality in sexual relationships than he has in the past, (though I’ve never quite understood why so many complemementarians insist on hierarchal-based relationships in which wives submit to their husbands “in everything,” while simultaneously acknowledging the importance of mutuality when it comes to sex…but that’s a topic for another day).
Books that claim to prescribe “biblical sex” will always be selective. Much of the Bible was written at a time when women were typically sold to their husbands as teenagers, polygamy was the norm, and losing your virginity before marriage…even being raped…could get you stoned. Even in the famous “household codes” of the epistles, instructions for women to submit to their husbands are either preceded or followed by instructions for slaves to obey their masters. And so comparisons between modern marital relationships and those of an ancient near eastern culture should always be approached with caution and with attentiveness to context. (I’ve written more about this in my forthcoming book.)
Grace’s chapter on submission will make egalitarians cringe, but it would take too long to dissect all her arguments here. Let’s just say it drove me crazy to see the biblical character Vashti criticized for not submitting to her husband (by refusing to parade around naked in front of his drunken friends!?) and Esther praised for graciously submitting (by illegally requesting an audience with her husband, who she was forced to marry after he slept with hundreds of other concubines to pick his favorite?!). Grace’s conclusion that “[Esther’s] example illustrates the repeated command across all Scripture that wives respectfully submit to their husbands and removes any excuse we have for disrespecting our husbands,” fails massively to understand the context of that story.
Mark also misses the point when he praises Martin Luther and his wife Katherine because “they set in motion a model for Christian faith and maturity through marriage, sex, and children, rather than through singleness and celibacy,” a position that wholly discounts the apostle Paul’s high praise for celibacy in 1 and 2 Corinthians. I don’t know why Christians keep fighting over which is better—singleness or marriage—when it seems rather obvious, both from Scripture and from Church history, that both can glorify God.
As he has in the past, Mark essentially reduces the Song of Songs to a sex manual, instructing wives to be “visually generous” with their husbands. Believing the poem to be about Solomon himself, Mark has to admit that the impassioned exchanges between the two lovers must have occurred “before the multiple wives and concubines ruined the love and oneness they had together.”
The chapter entitled “Can we…?” which has scandalized so many people with its advice on everything from oral sex, to role playing, to sex toys really isn’t that shocking to me. It seems like common sense that couples should feel free to engage in such activities if both partners enjoy them, so long as they don’t become obsessions. The fact that Christian couples seem to need the approval of a pastor along with some strategically placed Bible verses in order to engage in these activities is a bigger concern to me. It seems that we are once again demanding more from the text and from our pastors than they can and should give.
In short, believers should be wary of overzealous attempts like these to prescribe “biblical sex,” when sex—like beauty and like God—remains shaded with mystery. Paul likens the love between a man and a woman to the mystery of Christ’s love for the Church, the writer of Proverbs to the inscrutable way of an eagle in the sky. When sexuality gets relegated to the realm of religious absolutes and strictly enforced roles, the focus tends to shift from serving one another to servicing one another. And that’s no way to love.
As others have noted, the book focuses so much on sex that it can create the impression that it’s the most important element of marriage. Also, as I’ve noticed before, Mark has the tendency to project. Because his wife was abused in the past, he believes that the majority of women were abused in the past. Because he and Grace struggled with their sexual relationship, he believes that most couples struggle with their sexual relationship. Because he likes sports and hunting, he assumes that “real men” like sports and hunting. Because his marriage is based on a hierarchal pattern of submission, he believes that “real marriage” is based on a hierarchal pattern of submission.
In addition, Pastor Mark provides us with a few of his classic face-palm-inducing quotes:
“The previous church I had attended was Catholic, with a priest who seemed to be a gay alcoholic. He was the last person on earth I wanted to be like. To a young man, a life of poverty, celibacy, living at church, and wearing a dress was more frightful than going to hell, so I stopped somewhere around junior high. But this pastor was different. He had been in the military, had earned a few advanced degrees, and was smart. He was humble. He bow hunted. He had sex with his wife.” – p. 9
“We did have mediocre sex that eventually resulted in five children and one miscarriage.” – p. 15
But by far the most disturbing part of the book is the first chapter, in which Mark and Grace go into extraordinary detail about their troubled sexual relationship. In this section, Grace is often cast as the damaged and sinful wife who withholds sex from her deserving husband, Mark the hero who is justified in leaving his wife but instead comes along to rescue her. The amount of guilt and shame that pervades this part of the book makes me so sad.
The review over at Friendly Atheist explores this section in more detail, but here’s an excerpt:
My previously free and fun girlfriend was suddenly my frigid and fearful wife. She did not undress in front of me, required the lights to be off on the rare occasions we were intimate, checked out during sex, and experienced a lot of physical discomfort because she was tense…One night, as we approached the birth of our first child, Ashley, and the launch of our church, I had a dream in which I saw some things that shook me to my core. I saw in painful detail Grace sinning sexually during a senior trip she took after high school when we had just started dating. It was so clear it was like watching a film — something I cannot really explain but the kind of revelation I sometimes receive. I awoke, threw up, and spent the rest of the night sitting on our couch, praying, hoping it was untrue, and waiting for her to wake up so I could ask her. I asked her if it was true, fearing the answer. Yes, she confessed, it was. Grace started weeping and trying to apologize for lying to me, but I honestly don’t remember the details of the conversation, as I was shell-shocked. Had I known about this sin, I would not have married her.” (p. 6, 11-12)
What’s perhaps most interesting about all of this is that Mark admits that this was how he felt about his wife and his marriage while he was confidently preaching through his first Song of Solomon series at his growing church!
“In the second year of the church we had a lot of single people getting married,” he writes, “so I decided to preach through the Song of Songs on the joys of marital intimacy and sex. The church grew quickly, lots of people got married, many women became pregnant, and my counseling load exploded. I started spending dozens of hours every week dealing with every kind of sexual issue imaginable…Although I loved our people and my wife, this only added to my bitterness. I had a church filled with young women who were asking how they could stop being sexually ravenous and wait for a Christian husband, then I’d go home to a wife whom I was not sexually enjoying.” (p. 15)
He also notes: “I grew more chauvinistic. I had never cheated on a girlfriend, but I never had a girlfriend who did not cheat on me. And now I knew that included my own wife. So I started to distrust women in general, including Grace. This affected my tone in preaching for a season, something I will always regret.” (p. 14)
While I appreciate Mark and Grace’s honesty in admitting that they don’t “have it all together,” and while I would never expect a pastor to preach only on subjects which he or she has mastered, the fact that Mark was not only making some of his most famous (and controversial ) comments about women and sex during this difficult time in his marriage, but also providing counseling to couples, says something disturbing about the degree to which he can live in dishonesty and denial…and, perhaps, the degree to which we allow (even expect!) our pastors to do so.
It will also inevitably raise questions in the reader’s mind about how much of the content of Real Marriage can be trusted. (I personally find that whole bit about Mark’s “vision” a little strange.)
By his own admission, Driscoll’s troubled sex life affected his teaching of Scripture, so it will not do for Christians to continue to insist that pastors who teach the “timeless truths of Scripture,” cannot be wrong.
Which brings me back to my original point: Just because someone is a pastor does not mean that he or she is an expert on sex…or money or relationships or marriage. Christian couples struggling in their marriage should seek professional counseling, and not rely exclusively on a single pastor (or his or her interpretation of Scripture) for help.
Meanwhile, evangelicals in particular need to do something about our celebrity-pastor culture. Mark Driscoll is simply not qualified to serve as a sex therapist—most pastors aren’t!
True maturity is marked not by how much a person knows but by the wisdom he or she shows in discerning when to speak with authority and when to hold back. And when it comes to maturity, I’m afraid that Pastor Mark still has a long way to go.
Just the other day I heard someone speculate that 2012 could be the year of Jesus’ return. At the very least, we weren’t getting any further away from the day. But, if you’re wondering whether to stop investing in your 401K plan and start building a fallout shelter, or make for the highest summit closest to you with a stock pile of bottled water and freeze-dried foods, you may want to think again. Mitch Horowitz, Huffington Post blogger and author of Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, has shared the following “top ten myths” behind the notion that 2012 could be the year in which the world as we know it ends:
The ancient Mayan people, whose empire extended across much of Central America from late-antiquity to the 1500s, maintained a complex system of calendars — which, oddly enough, ended with this year, 2012. This anomaly in Mayan timekeeping has caused many today to wonder whether the great calendar-makers foresaw an apocalypse in our era. The truth is more complex. Here are today’s top 10 myths about 2012.
1. OK, it’s past 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2012. Why didn’t anything happen?
Actually the great endpoint of the Mayan Long Count calendar is winter solstice 2012, which falls on Dec. 21 of this year. Keeping counting.
2. Is the world really going to end on winter solstice? Yikes.
Not according to most people who’ve recently written on the topic. Author John Major Jenkins has tracked some remarkable astronomical phenomena due to occur this year, in particular a “galactic alignment” of the earth, sun and a black hole at the center of the galaxy. While that may sound ominous to people who follow portentous signs, Jenkins finds nothing in Mayan literature to suggest an apocalypse. Ditto for writer Daniel Pinchbeck who, like Jenkins, envisages a shift in consciousness rather than a global meltdown. An earthly sign of what these and other writers have in mind, perhaps, is the worldwide protest/Occupy movement.
3. But the Mayan civilization DID predict the world’s end, right?
The truth is: We don’t know. Virtually no surviving Mayan carvings or documents make any reference to 2012, beyond the calendar system. Conquistadors and missionaries destroyed vast amounts of Mayan records and scholarship beginning with the Spanish conquest of the Yucatan peninsula in the early 1500s. We are left today with just remnants of Mayan thought. Hence, what these ancient mathematicians and calendar-makers actually believed would happen in 2012 remains a mystery of the antique world.
4. But other signs in the environment point to something creepy happening, don’t they?
Actually, one legitimate cause for environmental concern that is sometimes tied to 2012 is the problem of solar flares, which could disrupt electrical grids. Author Lawrence Joseph, a 2012 theorist, has written very ably on this question — though he doesn’t necessarily pinpoint the issue to the calendar year 2012 itself.
5. I should stock up on water and provisions just in case, right?
Well, Napoleon put it this way: “Every plan immediately fails upon contact with the enemy.” Hence, it’s really difficult to say whether generators, freeze-dried food or the massive jug of water that leaked in our kitchen last night (this is true) will make any difference for anyone, anywhere, on Dec. 21, 2012, or any other day. Ethical living, on a personal and global level, takes precedence any day in my book.
6. The famous early-20th century psychic Edgar Cayce foretold bad tidings for 2012, didn’t he?
No. While this rumor widely circulates on the web, and while Cayce did forecast earth-change prophecies for the late 20th century, he never uttered a word about 2012.
7. But the soothsayer Nostradamus warned us over 2012, right?
Again, no. While this is another rumor that makes the rounds online and in tabloid weeklies, the Renaissance-age seer never mentioned 2012. Of course, many analysts of Nostradamus would find that debatable. Nearly all of the middle-French quatrains produced by Nostradamus were imbued with ambiguous, shadowy images and language, which led to the profitable development of a cottage industry out of their interpretation and translation. But the best scholars in the field, which include Stephane Gerson (author of a monumental forthcoming biography of the seer) and Richard Smoley, who has recently retranslated the middle-French quatrains, find nothing in the work of Nostradamus that deals specifically with the year 2012 (or with the events 9/11 either, for that matter).
8. Didn’t a computer program called Web Bot predict a 2012 apocalypse?
The Web Bot Project is a program that scans the Internet for repeat phrases to search out cultural and business trends. Its findings are broad and widely open to interpretation — and some do use its data for prognostication. But it hasn’t pinpointed anything that plainly speaks to 2012.
9. I’ve heard the earth’s magnetic poles could shift in 2012.
This too makes the rounds online. If the magnetic poles suddenly shift our climate and environment could be thrown asunder, according to theorists. The author John White has written an authoritative book on this very question and finds little evidence for a sudden, contemporary pole shift.
10. OK, so this is all a bunch of hooey from a backwards primitive culture, right?
Again, the truth is more complex. The Maya were an extraordinary civilization, possessed of a greatly intricate and multilayered system of calendars, mathematics, astronomy, architecture, geometry and religion. They were a truly great civilization, on par with other ancient cultures, such as the Greeks and Romans. The fact that they abruptly ended their calendar on winter solstice 2012 is a historical mystery. Did they believe this year marked a great transition? An endpoint of some sort? Or were they merely taking a break in their vast system of time-keeping? We really don’t know. But anyone who is fascinated with the philosophies of the ancient world has a legitimate interest in wondering what the Maya had in mind.
Next up: some reflections on courage and Martin Luther King Day and a continuation in our “Weird Jesus Sayings.”
“You’ve been given the gift of knowing the secrets of the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus replied, “but they haven’t been given it. Anyone who already has something will be given more, and they will have plenty. But anyone who has nothing- even what they have will be taken away! That’s why I speak to them in parables, so that they may look but not see, and hear but not understand or take it in.” -Matthew 13:12 (Translation by N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone)
So we’re back to our “weird sayings of Jesus” series, and this one may top the list for me. Maybe you can identify: the claim that those who have something will be given more, and those who have little will lose even that, inflames my innate sense of justice. If you’re a parent then you know what I mean. Try putting five M&M’s in front of your two-year-old and one M&M in front of your five-year-old- and then take the one M&M away from your five-year-old and give it to your two-year-old. The ensuing protest will make you wish you had never tried the sick experiment, as will the call from Defax citing emotional abuse.
So there is something downright weird if not deeply insulting and disturbing about Jesus’ claim here- maybe precisely because it overturns our human understandings of fairness. The question is, what can Jesus possibly mean when he says this? What is he getting at?
And here again context becomes important. Just one verse later Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah, who was speaking to a people who had plugged their ears to God’s voice. Isaiah’s message, like that of all the prophets, brought the life-giving promise of redemption and restoration, but in this case, judgment was to come first. The great tree that was God’s people would have to be cut down- quite literally “stumped”- before it could grow strong, flowering branches. New life could only arise after Israel had been humbled by her waywardness and misdeeds (Isaiah 6:9-13). Budding, prosperous growth? This would have to come from the stump.
Jesus’ words here contain a warning then about the parabolic nature not only of his stories but of his life itself. If you want to know me, you have to listen carefully, Jesus seems to be saying; and if my words and actions are falling on deaf ears then chances are you have not been listening at all; chances are you have resigned yourself to be one of the sick trees in need of a good, painful trim.
Atlanta is known for its big, leafy trees. We have a couple in our backyard. This summer one of them began to lean a bit too closely over our next-door neighbor’s roof, in addition to showing signs that it was rotting from the inside-out. We knew that it was time for a painful pruning- an experience that would be as painful for the tree as it would be for our bank account.
I researched a number of local tree cutting businesses, including one that called itself “The Tree Cowboy.” After watching a bit of the ensuing operation, I could appreciate the name’s significance: you have to lasso the tree and then one of the braver “cowboys” has to climb up into the branches with a large trimmer and saw away, all the while perilously perched some fifty feet above the ground. (I was glad we were paying somebody else to do this.)
But that dear old tree with the long, overhanging, leafy branches in no time became a stump: a thorough cutting was the tree’s judgment for forsaking good neighborliness by selfishly crowding out the next-door neighbors’ sky and threatening to one day topple over onto their house. And we were assured that in the end, our tree, despite its humbler, less regal appearance, was now actually healthier- that its rotted stump might now have a chance to live again when it otherwise would have been condemned to die.
This is Jesus’ message, too. When we forget to love God and our neighbors as our selves, we may grow proud and strong for a time, but judgment awaits us. We will be cut down to real size. The very little we have will be taken away.
The good news is that God’s judgment never comes without restoration. We know this from Isaiah and the prophets. If we fast-forward just a bit to Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can see this same pattern in the life of One who chose to be cut down for us. In our place. So that we would not have to bear the full brunt of the tree-cutting operation. Jesus, you might say, became the stump so that we would not have to.
He also, in rising from the dead, became the life-giving tree, or “vine” (John 15:5). And when we dwell in Jesus, and abide in His life-giving presence by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to experience the “more” that awaits us. More strength. More life-giving goodness. More freedom to be who we were made to be.
This is the great mystery of the Gospel- that in dying we live- and the older I get, the more I suspect this same cruciform pattern shapes the reality of all of life, including the universe itself. It is what great poets, theologians and scientists alike have marveled at. Take these lines from the nineteenth century German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in his “The Holy Longing,” for example:
Tell a wise person, or else keeps silent,
Because the massman will mock it right away.
I praise what is truly alive,
what longs to be burned to death.
In the calm water of the love-nights,
where you were begotten, where you have begotten,
a strange feeling comes over you
when you see the silent candle burning.
Now you are no longer caught
in the obsession with darkness,
and a desire for higher love-making
sweeps you upward.
Distance does not make you falter,
now, arriving in magic, flying,
and finally, insane for the light,
you are the butterfly and you are gone.
And so long as you haven’t experienced
this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest
on the dark earth.
I suspect that everything in life is somewhere in this process of dying and being reborn- as are we. Our only choice is to resist or surrender to this all-encompassing reality. When we resist, the very little we have to begin with burns up with the rest of the timber. We see ourselves in the face of “only a troubled guest on the dark earth.” But when we surrender, we join ourselves to that great, cosmic work of redemption- much like the “higher love-making” to which Goethe refers- that begins and ends in Jesus Christ. And this is the “more” that Jesus promises, which is really more of life itself. In the spirit of T.S. Eliot, who said “to make an end is to make a beginning,” may this New Year be one of living into the more that God holds for us.
Read more of Beliefnet’s New Year’s quotes here: http://www.beliefnet.com/Love-Family/Holidays/New-Year/New-Year-Quotes.aspx?p=4#ixzz1iUb02bcB
I recently finished a wonderful, little book by Yale historian Carlos Eire. The book lives up to its name: it manages to cover in relative brevity the breathtaking expanse of “eternity” from its very first beginnings in antiquity to its life (or lack thereof) in the present. As the offspring of Eire’s involvement in a round table at the University of Virginia on “lived theology,” the book traces the impact of eternity as a concept on how people throughout history actually lived their lives.
And I must confess that from his very first lines, Eire captures his reader’s attention: “Why dawdle?,” he begins. “Let’s stare the monster in the eye, close up, right away: this book amounts to nothing, and so do you and I, and the whole world. Less than zero.”
What proceeds is a sobering description of the fate of our universe- from the sun’s incineration of all living things on earth some one billion years from now, to some four billion years later, the total annihilation of both the sun and planet Earth. Eire concludes, in referencing the various scientific prophecies out there, that “our universe is in for a very rough and tragic ride.” Even so, this cosmic gloom and doom belongs to a long, unfathomable stretch of road called “eternity” that human beings for centuries have been trying to make sense of.
Only more recently (relatively speaking, of course) has the subject of eternity largely made a noticeable exit from our public discourse, and Eire, a Catholic, blames this severing of ties between the here and now and the world beyond, on my stock, the Reformers. Eire’s argument here is convincing, too. Knowingly or unknowingly, when sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers did away with, for example, masses for the dead, they chipped away at this permeable boundary between earthly and heavenly existence. We have been feeling the impact both for the better and the worse ever since. One might say that our current time’s all-encompassing focus on the material reality of our earthly existence, not to mention secularism itself, is an outgrowth of these earlier efforts to “let the dead take care of the dead,” so to speak.
The book is worth a read and I commend it to you. It is an engaging, thoughtful and sympathetic treatment of the enduring human hope that there is life beyond our earthly expiration date. I could not help but put it down and feel some of the same sentiments that led the mystic St. John of the Cross (whom Eire quotes) to exclaim, “That eternal wellspring hides though well I know where it abides, in spite of the night.”
Almost ten years ago, I, at the time a seminary student preparing for ministry in the Presbyterian church, confessed my sins to a Catholic priest and received the sacrament of reconciliation: I cried tears of repentance, received absolution for my sin and was then challenged to go do one good work as “penance.” I walked away having experienced in a new and profound way the regenerative grace of what Catholics describe as the “sacrament” of confession. And I was grateful for it, even if I had been obliged to find it in another denomination. That’s because somewhere between the sixteenth century Reformer Martin Luther, who would have retained confession as a sacrament, and subsequent reforms, we Protestants (most of us at least), managed to throw the baby out with the bath water: the sacramental act of confession, as the honest, laying out of all the places where we have missed the mark and a priest’s ensuing absolution, came to a halt in our churches.
I regret to think this was probably for the worse. Sure, in the vein of John Calvin, we Presbyterians typically open our worship services with a corporate act of confession and reconciliation, as a way of remembering that our worship depends on the fact that God first loved us when we were “still enemies” in our sin. But this once-weekly, corporate act doesn’t go far enough in saturating our minds and hearts with the reality of God’s forgiveness, apart from which we (or at least I) would be hopeless. Something is lost when we fail to honor our need as human beings to confess our sin in confidence to a trusted minister or prayer partner. We deprive ourselves of a deep, mutual accountability and communion with one another in the community of faith, and I suspect we need this grounding today more than ever, in a time when the ground beneath our feet is so often shifting.
Of course there are dangers in opening ourselves up to another human being within the community of faith. In unhealthy congregations, one person’s confession can soon become the latest source of gossip- it might even be written up to our great horror in the church newsletter. But when there are healthy safeguards in place that honor confidentiality and mutuality in sharing, confession, I believe, is fundamental to our life together as those called and sustained by God’s Love.
There is something enormously freeing about being known, the clay jars that we are, and being loved just as we are. Unfortunately, many of us these days find that we must look elsewhere, outside the walls of our church communities, for this kind of unconditional love- and many of us find it there. I recently spoke with a friend, an artist, who said he experiences this sort of “unconditional love” every year at “The Burning Man” festival, and there are many like him. Sadly, too many of us have been hurt by the church, or have found that a veneer of “holier-than-thou” God talk there keeps us from opening up about our deepest wounds (those places where we fall short of God’s best for us and our neighbor).
My resolution this New Year is to be more truthful with those closest to me about my struggles- and this is a scary thing for me. But when we learn to tell the truth about who we are and where we have come from, we free ourselves from the power of our secrets. In his memoir, Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner writes, “I not only have my secrets. I am my secrets. And you are your secrets….Our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has much to do with the secret of what it is to be human.”
If you have read Dostoevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment, which is one of my favorites, then you may recall that poignant scene in which Raskolnikov, having committed murder, confesses his crime to his love interest, Sonia, and asks her what he should do. She replies, “Go at once, this very minute, stand at the crossroads, bow down, first kiss the earth which you have defiled and then bow down to all the world and say to all men aloud, ‘I am a murderer!’ Then God will send you life again.”
Most of us, saints and sinners alike, haven’t killed anyone- at least literally. But the turbulence and even violence in our own hearts can hurt those around us, manifesting itself in unhealthy ways of relating to those closest to us. (To paraphrase the writer, Solzhenitsyn, the line between good and evil goes right down the center of the human heart.) And we can let these wounds fester, keeping them to ourselves in the dark nooks and crannies of our hearts, out of shame, spiritual pride or despair over our brokenness.
But Sonia’s challenge to Raskolnikov- to tell the truth about who he is and who he has been- is not a self-destructive death wish. It is the very pathway to new life that Raskolnikov so desperately needs. It is a surrendering to God’s love- the very thing that makes the world go round despite our efforts, knowingly or unknowingly, to get in its way. When we, like Rasknolnikov, surrender, we make way for new life to break in on our darkness.
The secret, I am learning, is that we don’t do this kind of surrendering just once. We do it over and over. Often we have to do it about the very same things. And this surrendering hurts, precisely because it involves the suffering of having to change. Wendy Farley, in The Wounding and Healing of Desire, likens this process to the way in which our physical bodies heal: in the same way that a broken bone needs to be re-set, or a fever “awakens the body to the need to drive our disease,” or our healing requires “painful measures like surgery, bad-tasting medicine, or diet and exercise,” our being reconciled with God and one another requires sometimes painful but therapeutic measures, the practice of confession being one of these.
Fortunately, it is precisely in these places that God’s grace meets us. My new favorite band these days is Mumford and Sons. They sing a song called “Roll Away Your Stone,” which might just as well be talking about what we Christians call “confession”:
Darkness is a harsh term don’t you think
And yet it dominates the things I see
It seems that all my bridges have been burnt
But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart
But the welcome I receive with the restart.
Confession is just this: it’s not the long walk home but the “welcome we receive with the restart;” it’s telling our secrets so that we no longer have to live in the dark; and it’s doing this over and over again with the right, trusted people, that keeps our souls alive to God’s love.
The other day I was asked to be the back-up wedding officiant for someone who had obtained their certificate of ordination off the Internet. Another person in the conversation had chimed in that she had once officiated at a wedding, thanks to this same booming online trade in ministerial credentials- at which point, an “Ooh, I want to do that, too!” chorus chimed in from among these un-churched and at best dubiously Christian friends.
I was intrigued. As a minister in the Reformed tradition, I had bought hook, line and sinker the whole concept of a priesthood of all believers: the term, first coined in the sixteenth century by the great Reformer, Martin Luther, meant that all baptized Christians regardless of their job or vocation were divinely called and gifted and therefore accountable to proclaim the Good News of God in Jesus Christ in word and deed. A few years in ministry had turned up a different truth: that we tend in our congregations only to pay lip service to the concept, insofar as a minister still is the professional pray-er, pastoral caregiver, preacher, missionary, and even occasionally in small congregations, janitor.
But the enthusiasm of my conversation partners around the concept of an online priesthood of unbelievers elicited my curiosity. I decided to learn a bit more. A quick Google search turned up a host of resources. “Universal Ministries,” headquartered in Milford, Illinois, is a “nondenominational church” with all of the bells and whistles of a statement of faith, bishops, a school of theology, chapel, and at least one congregation. The only assertion they make with great dogmatism is everyone’s right to believe anything they want to believe and still be ordained. Which means in practice that anyone regardless of faith or lack thereof can obtain a certificate of ordination.
Another site, “Open Ministry,” specializes exclusively in free ordinations for the purpose of wedding ceremonies, while “Rose Ministries” boasts a broader selection of options for the more ambitious: “you can start your own church, officiate at weddings, or conduct any religious ceremony.” For all women in denominations that do not ordain women, Rose Ministries is also the place. They even cite Scripture, the book of Judges, as evidence that “women have the same right to be ordained as as men.” (I couldn’t agree more.)
My favorite was a free, online ordination as a “Dudeist” minister (a.k.a. the religion of “The Big Lebowski”). All you have to do is fill out a few empty fields, hit “Ordain me,” and voila- you have your official document ready for printing. Strikingly, more than 8,000 people “liked” this ordination process and nother nearly 40,000 people have joined the Dudeist community on Facebook.
The fact that business is booming for these online sites has me wondering if in all this ludicrousness there might be a lesson for us pastors and the church. I mean, why is it that those of us in ordained leadership still find it so hard to motivate our lay people with their biblical calling to minister to their world when all around us, outside our church walls, there are plenty of people who would never step into a church building but are quick to seize the opportunity to become ordained (even if only as a Dudeist minister)? Is there something to learn here for those of us who were dumb enough to spend three years in seminary and crazy enough to lead God’s people?
I think there is. Maybe the lesson is as simple as the fact that those of us who for a long time have been trying to let out the big secret that all of God’s people by virtue of baptism are called to be ministers haven’t done a good enough job selling the concept. Or living it, for that matter. Maybe we can make the concept more fun, inviting and even exciting.
Maybe we can be more generous with it, too. By this I mean that maybe we need to let go of our sacred cows that only ministers get to dress up in important robes and preach every Sunday (even if we seminary-trained ministers are convinced that we’re the best at this sort of thing and have a right to it); or, that only ministers get to perform wedding ceremonies or administer the Sacraments (even if these things give us ministers pride of place or a little extra spending money). Maybe we need to ritualize a process of discipleship that at the end culminates in a new lay minister’s official “ordination” (certificate included!) to a “priesthood of all believers.”
Maybe we need to stop thinking “in the box” and think out of it for a while. We might do this best by returning to our charter document, the Bible (as opposed to The Book of Dudes) and asking for God’s Holy Spirit to free us from the ways in which we ministers, elders and leaders in the church have allowed our insecurities and desires for control to become institutionalized across centuries of church history. Until then- or at least until we begin to rethink how we talk about and live out a “priesthood of all believers,” the secret that there really is supposed to be a whole priesthood of all believers somewhere out there will remain boring and unpalatable when compared to the alternatives. Who, after all, would want to be among an unrecognized, unofficial bunch of believers whose claims to priesthood are at best nominal, when you can become an official priest, with all of the perks included, without having to put up with God’s people or believe those old creeds? Ladies, who among us would want to keep on putting up with all of the same, old institutional sins of patriarchy that have kept us in our place for centuries, when we can be “Reverends” with one click of a mouse?
Yes, I suspect there is much to be learned from the online priesthood of all unbelievers.
My next-door neighbor, in addition to being a photographer, is a fire dancer: she gets paid to perform well-choreographed tricks with hot flames while wearing sexy outfits. Yesterday several other parents and I were at her house to celebrate her son’s third birthday when another mother stumbled upon a set of books. They weren’t just any books. They were books celebrating the human body…naked…in pictures.
Lest there be any doubt, this was not “porn”- even if it occasionally blurred the lines. These were artist’s depictions, largely from the nineteenth century, of mostly naked women (some men) in a variety of creative poses, from the more subtle, erotically suggestive to the outright, tasteless, in-your-face unloading. There were the fat, large-breasted women, sidling up to the camera with the modesty of a woman in labor. Or, the shy, pubescent, young women, hiding their faces from the voyeuristic eye of the lens as they sat, sublimely unreachable, in their laced-up Victorian lingerie. There were the more athletic ladies who could just as well have belonged to the local “naked yoga” class- (apparently there is one in my neighborhood, and it is only for men)- and the women whose Victorian “body suits” left the impression that they were nude, only without the less aesthetically convenient nipples and pubic hair.
There we were the three of us, all of us mothers, ogling and giggling at the eroticism of a bygone era like school girls at a peep show. The only difference was that I happened to be a minister. Which made the proceedings a bit more funny when we stumbled upon the picture of the woman who stood naked in front of a large cross, her expression a pained, poignant one as she bared her whole front side to strangers. (I could identify at least a bit: while I’ve never posed nude and probably never will, I can appreciate the sentiment of baring one’s own naked soul from the pulpit for a crowd of sometimes voyeuristic listeners.)
What was it about these pictures that elicited a primal curiosity in us? Their boldness, for one thing. These women, even the shyest in the lot, had not been afraid to take off their clothes for the sake of art. Maybe, too, their beauty (and sometimes obvious lack thereof), which could not be summed up in any one shape or form. It left me convinced that God loves variety. But, finally, the unavoidable fact that underneath our clothes, we all (the hermaphrodite behind the counter at the local Target photo center included) have pretty much the same functional parts. At the end of the day, we are all bare, naked “flesh.” The very same flesh that we Christians affirm God loves a whole lot because of the mystery that we call the “Incarnation” and celebrate at this time of year: God, in the person of Jesus Christ, comes in the flesh to be with us in our deepest need, in the nakedness of our poverty.
Maybe what is most remarkable is that God, in coming into the world like every one of us, a naked, little baby, has in a sense undressed for us, too. It’s hard to believe that God says yes” to our bodies in their inherent “belovedness.” It’s equally hard to believe that God says “no” to all of the ways we defile, belittle, and mistreat our bodies. Only a God who deigns to take off the garments of royalty and put on our frail flesh has a chance at persuading us otherwise. Because of Jesus, our bodies- all of them- have the capacity to house God’s very Self; they are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19).
It’s hard to wear this kind of truth lightly (pun intended). Or to dismiss it in our prudishness. “God-with-us” is much more scandalous than one of us posing for the camera in nothing but stockings. If we believe it, it obliges us to tell our stories. To not be afraid of being seen as we are, without the fig leaves we often hide behind, or the lies we can tell ourselves or others about who we are. (By way of digression but in the same spirit, I want to make a little plug for friend Amy Frykholm’s newly published book: See Me Naked compiles the real, truthfully told, often messy stories of those who have found themselves exiled in American Christianity because of their sexuality.) It doesn’t get any realer than that. Because while those nineteenth-century nudes may not be air-brushed and Photo-shopped like today’s models, they are, in the end, still posing.
You can’t miss his gallery shack. It overlooks the ocean on a stretch of coastal highway near St. Petersburg, Florida. His driftwood sculptures are perched in front: an ensemble of rotted tree branches, old fish nets, rusty pieces of metal- anything that the sea coughs up somewhere along the Floridian coast, which is where Johnny Rice has spent all his life.
I happened to be jogging by one afternoon and decided to stop in for a visit, which proved not to disappoint. Johnny, who now in his seventies still lives to sculpt, was quick to procure an old, dog-eared album for a stranger; its pages boasted yellowed newspaper clippings about a younger, more virile Johnny and his makeshift, sea-swept creations. One article featured him on “Good Morning America” about twenty years ago.
He was eager to talk to this stranger whom he intermittently described as one of the many “goddesses” he had come to know in his life, memorable women who somehow had made their way into a divine pantheon at the center of which was Jesus. Each had their own name. Apparently I was Diana, goddess of the hunt: whatever the inspiration- whether it was the Spandex running shorts and a pair of well-worn sneakers or the sweaty post-run glow- I must admit I rather liked the new nickname. When he learned I was a minister (an admission that can elicit a wide array of responses) his tan, leathery face broke into a smile and he began to tell me in animated tones about his life. It was a life that in many ways was as washed-up but strangely beautiful as the creations on his front lawn.
Johnny started out in Key West, which at one time was the playground of writer Ernest Hemingway, a former acquaintance, and other intellectuals. Then he made his way north, with various detours along the way. There was the time, for instance, when he let his friend, a cruise ship captain, smuggle him passport-free onto a boat bound for Brazil, and a long, ensuing period of, as he puts it, “becoming lost” to his friends in a maze of addictions, including alcohol, drugs and women. What saved him, he believes, was God- God through art, that is. As he exclaims, he gestures to his cramped, smoke-filled surroundings. They include a few different depictions of Jesus, from totem-pole-like head carvings to a large, yellow-bearded, Aryan face painted on canvas in bold, primary colors.
“I’m curious: what inspired you to make Jesus blonde?,” I asked.
“It’s like the color of the halos in icons, you know.”
“Huh.” (I’m chalking it up to artistic license.)
When the realities of sobriety, growing older and God’s Love had set in, Johnny had set up shop in this run-down, poor artist’s shanty. He says painting keeps his heart beating. He is in some ways the same little boy who used to sketch and collect things on the beach in Key West, only older, wiser and maybe a bit crazier. And now when he creates, he wants more than anything to “give it all away.”
I’ve been thinking more about Johnny and those mesmerizing, redemptive pieces of art cobbled together out of nothing (or at least the next closest thing). They remind me a whole lot about the way life can be. Like rotted, colorless driftwood on a beach, our many disparate, sometimes conflicting loves and desires can collect and become part of the same old scenery. Sometimes they so bewilder, confuse or even disturb us that we can prefer to leave them there- to let them blend in with our surroundings, as forgotten, untouched, inexplicable and meaningless as “nothingness” itself.
Broken dreams. Aching disappointments. Painful resentments. Wounds to our soul or psyche. The deepest, most angst-ridden existential questions that go unanswered. Lost loves that we have tried to grieve but never full recovered from. I suspect part of what it means to be human is to desire some sort of ordering to all that stuff we have collected through the years on the beaches of our souls.
A friend opined the other day that life would be so much easier and less painful if we human beings didn’t have to be plagued by desires. To some degree, she is probably right. But there is also a sense in which our desires, as the engine of our creativity, are the very thing that mirror God’s image in us and make us different from every other animal on the planet. The cooing infant in her mother’s arms, yes. But also the next crowning jewel of Apple technology. Or, the mapping of the human genome. Or, the uplifting sounds of Handel’s “Messiah.” Or, the writings of Dostoevsky. They, like the creations of a driftwood artist, can only spring to life with the first seeds of a desire that is as divinely planted as it is primal. Give me painful but spirited desire over the carefree existence of automatons any day.
Wendy Farley, in her book, The Wounding and Healing of Desire, describes desire as the “thread” that connects our gnawing emptiness, or resignation to the “nothingness,” to God’s work of redemption in us and our world. I think she is right. That longing to be re-made? That nagging sense that something is missing? That enflamed desire to make the world around us “right” or at least “better”? Maybe they are the very thing that God will use to make something beautiful out of the mystifying odds and ends of our existence. I would like to think so. I would like to think that one day God will stitch the old fishing nets, crumpled aluminum cans and dead tree branches into a boat that will sail away into the horizon of God’s Love. Or a house that will beckon us home, where, finally, we can see ourselves a bit like God sees us. Strange, beautiful creations made out of straw, “beloved” because a Lover has called us so.