Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Taking Both Sides in the Middle East

(This op-ed appears in The Charlotte Observer, Aug. 6, 2014)

     Is it possible to be friends with those who are enemies with one another? Can you support both sides in an intense conflict? Don’t you have to choose sides?

This seemingly theoretical inquiry has become real for me, and I suspect for many of us, over the past few weeks. I found myself downtown on a Sunday afternoon recently, showing up, as I very much wanted to, at a rally in support of Israel. I learned there was another group in Freedom Park, braving the blazing sun just like the pro-Israel group, but in support of the Palestinians and advocating for peace. I would have liked to join their group too.

I’m no expert on military policy, or security measures, or the best way to fight back if you are oppressed, or attacked. I harbor a few private, amateur opinions like everyone else. But as a theologian, and as someone who dreams of finding a way to love people on both sides, I can only grieve, and never cheer, when rockets are launched and then tanks roll in response – and innocent civilians and even gutsy soldiers die. It must grieve God’s heart, it must be appalling to all people with a shred of compassion in their hearts, when weapons clash and life is lost.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Whose fault is this? Blame is the bugaboo of hardened hearts. Ask the little children of divorcing parents, Whose fault is it? The children are not much interested in such a question. They love mom and dad. They want peace in the family.

We want peace in the Middle East, and in all the world’s distressed, agonizing places. Not that Hamas or Netanyahu or anybody else in power will listen, but we still must think and talk out loud about the way to peace, and hope more people join in, and work for peace, demand peace, refuse to settle for anything less than peace.

Too much blame to assign

Peace cannot begin until we stop placing blame – and this is the hardest part of all, not because the blame belongs over there, or over here, but because there is just so much blame all over the place. We live in a broken world. We are fallen people. The enemy is us, the enemy is them, the enemy is all of us, the enemy is a world out of sync with its Creator and one another.

Peace requires us to stop picking sides. Peace begins when we join both sides. Peace goes off-sides, and listens, and understands. Israel and Gaza, like husbands and wives and kids on playgrounds, have their deeply felt reasons, fears and wounds. There has been immense injustice.

Peace can’t happen without forgiveness, and we aren’t skilled at forgiving. Forgiveness is having the right to blame or even inflict punishment, but instead choosing compassion, and frankly, peace.

That day in downtown Charlotte I tried to think about Reconciliation. How do Israelis and Gazans reconcile, especially after so much abominable and evil bloodshed? This is humanly impossible – like so much that bedevils us, be it addiction or rancor or our culture run amok with greed. We need some power beyond ourselves, namely the God whose good name gets trampled in the mud on the world stage. God is invoked on this or the other side, but I wonder if this is what Moses had in mind when he told Jews, Christians, Muslims, and whomever else not to take the Lord’s name in vain. The true God is the God of all people.

Or if we cannot invoke the power of God, I wonder if we can invoke the shattered, shriveled hearts of mothers who have lost sons, husbands, fathers, friends, daughters and sisters. Ask them the way to peace. Some would raise a fist demanding more war. But most would plead for an end to the fighting.

And then we might turn to the wisest among us, not the political ideologues, but the aged who have thought deeply, and have befriended those on both sides. Get at why everyone is so angry. How did we get into such a mess? The humble sage knows there is no perfect solution. Only the naïve hunt for neat fixes. We live with the mess, we right what wrongs we can – and then we live on, and refuse to continue to kill. This “we” is elusive, but our bargain with the universe is that we will finally choose life over death, for ourselves but also for others.

I love the people of Israel. I love the people of Gaza. I love Jews and Muslims here in Charlotte, friends who have enriched my life, and deepened my faith in God and in the future of a very broken humanity. Maybe, just maybe, peace can begin in my heart, in our friendships and families here, and become some kind of contagion that leaps around the world, and maybe in a few years we’ll have that peace declared impossible by the cynics, but believed in passionately by those who dare to dream. I see dreamers who are broken but still hopeful on both sides, and so I can and will support both sides – and so then there are no longer sides. I believe it is so in God’s heart.

Monday, May 26, 2014

My Plea to Us United Methodists to Stay Together

     When I read the statement from eighty of my brothers and sisters in United Methodist Ministry declaring their belief that it is best if we surrender trying to stick together and figure out how to have an “amicable breakup,” I was not surprised.  And yet seeing it in print grieved me deeply.  I’ve invested much of my time, energy and passion into this church I love in general, and in particular on the issue that divides us.

     I could make my case against the looming divorce, or even the way we talk about our differences.  On both ‘sides’ (and the very concept of ‘sides’ in the Body of Christ grieves our Lord) we have those who strive to be holy and live out the Scriptures as best they know how; and on both ‘sides’ we have a lot of rancor, people who mirror the secular culture’s wars and platitudes more than they point to anything genuinely Christian or Methodist.

     I could ask for a reasonable explanation of the idea that, because you break the covenant, I withdraw? I could ask all of us, myself included, about our selective adherence to the Discipline, not to mention the literal commandments in Scripture. 

     I could reiterate my gloomy prediction that the split will not be win-win, but lose-lose.  Each congregation would be asked (I suppose), Will we be Progressive? or Traditionalist? Let’s say the vote in my parish is 2,137 for one, 1,792 for the other, with hundreds more abstaining.  What happens to the 1,792?  Don’t we in this way guarantee the most rapid shrinkage of membership imaginable, far more catastrophic than our current steady leakage?

     I could ask why, since we disagree on a great many things, this is the line in the sand? ...and we’d keep debating for a few more minutes, or decades.

     So, here’s my deepest, gut reason for resisting a breakup.  I do not wish to be in ministry, or to be a United Methodist, without any of the many wonderful friends I have made over many years.  I have longtime friends among the 80 proposing the breakup, and I have longtime friends among those who’d prefer to split but from the opposite side of the aisle.  I have grown to love progressives and traditionalists.  I’ve been loved by them, and I’ve been inspired by them.  I admire the faithful on both sides, and find strength, challenge, and hope in our differences.

     In my family, we have pretty ferocious disagreements about a great many things:  politics, religion, whether to cheer for UNC or Duke, personal habits.  We are covenanted as a family – but there is a lot of noncompliance, from my children, my wife, my cousins, my parents, and even from me.  But we love.  We don’t divorce.  We are a family.

     Thomas Merton, when asked about his views on whether those who believe differently are saved or not, answered, “I will have more joy in heaven and in God if you are also there to share it with me.”  At a personal level, I’m a little selfish.  I want the most joy, and I need all of us in the family for that joy.  I will never, ever look back and say “Whew, thank God we had that amicable split-up, and I don't have to deal with those wrong people any longer.”  I’ll lose too many who are beloved to me, and to God.

     God wants us to be holy.  God wants us to embody the Scriptures.  And holiness in those Scriptures tells me we keep our promises, and love.  I want to be right on every issue.  But love and personal commitments trump in over being right more than we're willing to admit.  I wonder if that's the holiness test before us today.  Let’s find the way to stay together – because I love so many of you, and need the joy.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What I Learned During Lent

Fragility, Tenderness and Hope

   As much as during any season of my life, I reflected this Lent on the fact that there are deaths, and then there are deaths.  All deaths are sad – but some we can reconcile in our minds as being timely, or even a good death.  If your grandmother dies at 97 after a couple of grisly years battling Alzheimer’s, you grieve, you miss her dearly, yes; but the death is understandable, acceptable, good in a way.

   Then there are the truly awful deaths, too young, too sudden, too knee-buckling.  In our congregation, in the span of 3 weeks, we had 5 numbingly awful deaths.  Out of the blue, no one saw it coming deaths of beloved friends aged 67, 33, 12, 52 – and then a child barely 2 years old.  This is the sort of loss that Santayana had in mind when he wrote, “With you a part of me hath passed away… And I am grown much older in a day.”

   We all weep, and shiver a little, a hug our loved ones – for we cannot dodge the truth we know but dare not stare in the face:  that we are all of us fragile, vulnerable, mortal.  I don’t want to sound like the manipulative, tedious preachers we’ve heard, warning us that we’d best get right with God now, for you just never know…  But really, you never know, about those we love, and about ourselves.  Our doctors are very clever – but we are fragile, and life here is rather rudely impermanent.

   The lessons of Lent – and Easter?  We love, we are tender with each other, and with ourselves.  We ask about what really matters from  the vantage point of What if it ended tomorrow?  We don’t procrastinate on anything much that matters, and we really do get engaged with God. 

   Lent begins with the marking of ashes – a sign of our mortality, the brutal truth carved onto our foreheads that we might make it to 33 or 67 but we won’t make it to 1000 – that is, not without Jesus who endured the first Lent ever and dared to die at 33 on behalf of all who die too young, or in ripe old age.  God told us the ultimate truth about him, and about ourselves, by raising him from the grave:  God is never done with us.  We belong to God, God treasures every one of us, and won’t let us slip from the mighty divine hands that made the universe and will bring all of us to God’s good end.

   So be tender.  Love God.  Be grateful for the utter basics.  Believe.

Can-Do! and Only God Can-Do

   My nonfiction reading during Lent included a terrific book by Bill Bryson – One Summer: America, 1927, a spellbinding narrative of Americans doing the impossible in just three months.  Charles Lindbergh flew N.Y. to Paris, unprecedented, alone, by dead reckoning, and in threatening weather; Henry Ford developed the Model A; Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs (when most entire teams hit fewer); and Mabel Willebrandt put Al Capone in jail.

  All of us, even if not quite so spectacular as Lindbergh, Ford, or Ruth, are amazing, gifted, rippling with unrealized potential.  God wants us to have a can-do, adventurous attitude.  But no matter how strong the can-do spirit might be, there really are time you simply can’t.  There are debilitating circumstances, diseases, hopeless scenarios, debilitating woes.  The best intentions collide with impossibly difficulties.  Nobody can effectively manage 100% of life.

   Martin Luther scoffed at his fellow theologians who urged people to “Do what is in you,” to do make goodness happen.  But there really are times you can’t.  The only 100% reliable truths about our lives are Sin (we fail God and others), and death, even if there is much excellence in life.

   It is wrong to think God is there when we can’t handle things ourselves.  A guy I know wrote a book with an awful title:  Do Your Best & Trust God for the Rest.  God isn’t our assistant to help us with what we can’t handle on our own.  God is in all of it.  If there is human brilliance, accomplishment, excellence – then God did that!  And we are all broken, all vulnerable and moral, and God is there too. 

   It is amazing what we can do.  And it is even more humbling what we cannot do.  God is Lord of all; God is the hidden author of all good, and the redeemer of all that goes awry.

Destructive Patterns

   I didn’t give up anything big or daunting this Lent.  I did give up TV (no big loss there) and a few private things only God knows about.

   I did engage deeply, every day, first thing (even before coffee!) a little book, a 40-Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, a marvelous, wise saint from 14th century England.  The devotional book provided a reading from Julian for each day, and then some intriguing, inviting but not threatening questions about life.  I learned a lot, and was sad when I finished reading day 40.

  We speak of Jesus being risen, and alive now.  Julian had direct, personal, unforgettable visions of Jesus speaking to her.  If we doubt this, perhaps we are not inclined to believe Jesus was actually raised from the tomb! 

   Julian, who lived most of her life alone in a single room, doing little besides praying, had an intense fixation on the love of Christ – which is why Easter happened in the first place.  This love of Christ probes deeply, even into the “shadowy, shameful aspects of our hearts” – and yet still loves, even though Christ sees what we think of as the worst in ourselves.  And this divine love “frees us from destructive patterns and addictions.” 

   What are the destructive patterns of your thinking? or behavior?  To what are you addicted?  I read a book years ago about God’s power and the breaking of addictions – and the author, Gerald May, provided a surprisingly long list of what we get addicted to:  not just alcohol or drugs but also shopping, attention, exercise, TV, anxiety, computers, gossip, the stock market, nail biting, work, hoarding, golf… His list seemed endless, and a bit scary, yet revealing.  What are your addictions?

   A “destructive pattern” might not be an “addiction” per se, but it’s a habit that might keep us from God.  One pattern many of us slip into is impatience.  A TV show can bore me in two minutes and I’m out of there.  When I preach I know it had better hook people early.  Make it good, make it quick! is our pattern.

   The 40-Day Journey with Julian of Norwich started out okay week 1, then I got a bit bored with weeks 2, 3 and even 4.  But I’d promised God I’d do all 40… and was richly rewarded.  The best, most life-transformative stuff in the book was in the very last 10 days!  The best wonder in Jesus’ life story was in his last few days too.  I wonder if we can hang in there – and see that God’s best, if it’s in a devotional book, or in life itself, is coming if we stick with it.  After all, Jesus hung with his Lent for the full 40 – and stuck with his love for us to the Cross itself.

Heart Custody

   In her 14th century Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich asked an intriguing question:  “Who has custody of your heart?”  The kneejerk reaction might be “I do, of course!”  But you don’t, I don’t, none of us do.  Your heart, that part of you that feels, fears, loves, frets, believes, and dreams:  it’s in you, it is you – but it always beats for something outside your self.

   Who has custody of your heart?  We think of a mom and a dad arguing over custody of a young child.  Who is battling for your heart?  A romantic interest?  A career?  Dark, foreboding anxiety?  Something addictive?  Friends, or whatever people out there prevent you from feeling lonely?  Cultural rancor? or acquisitiveness?  Negative messages that have resounded in your head for who knows how long?

   What would it be like for God to have custody of your heart?  Julian can’t stop talking about the depth of Jesus’ love for each one of us; and she persuades me that “all that is in opposition to this reality of being loved by Jesus – all these impulses are false.”  What impulses in you are in some way opposed to the reality of being loved by Jesus?  In your imagination, can you stick a label on each one that declares it to be “False”?

   If we see our wretchedness, our mistakes, our lostness, “Jesus does not want us to remain there, or to be much occupied in self-accusation, nor does he want us to be full of misery.”  He does want us “to attend quickly to him, for he waits for us, lonely until we come.”  Why is this?  “We are his joy”

   If God’s love is the custodian of your heart, if you are God’s joy, this doesn’t mean everything will go smoothly.  But how you respond to whatever circumstance that plops itself down in your life will be different, maybe calmer, less frenzied, more contented and hopeful.  The risen Jesus told Julian, “You will not be overcome.”  He did not say “You will not be troubled.”  But Jesus did say “You will not be overcome” – because he’s got your heart.


 the Biblical Writers

   Bible writers!  Thomas Merton, in his wonderful journal called The Sign of Jonas, began thinking one day that, if he struggled to get anything out of Scripture, he might actually ask the Bible writers themselves for help – assuming they are in heaven, and living eternally…

   He mused, “I have a great, though sometimes confused, affection for the writers of the Bible.  I feel closer to them than to almost any other writers I know of.  Isaiah, Moses, David, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all part of my life.  They are always about me.  They look over my shoulder, earnest men… I feel they are very concerned about me, and that they want me to understand what God had them write down – and that they have always surrounded me with solicitous prayers, and that they will always love me and protect me.”

   Wow.  Bible study feels like a solo activity:  I open the book and try to make sense of it or find something helpful.  It can be hard, we’re buffaloed at times, distracted or maybe even bored.  Maybe I’m in a group, like Disciple – and I at least have friends helping me to reflect and dig deep.

   But Merton expands the circle sumptuously!  Maybe I am alone, I am hoping to read something from God, a word of hope, or just to know more about God and understand what the heck is going on in my life from God’s viewpoint.  What if I could think of Isaiah, Matthew, Paul and John hovering above me, rooting for me, praying for me and loving me?

   Easter is about the resurrection, about the dead having a wonderful communion with God – so we might well expect the ancient writers to enjoy each other but also be somehow palpably available to us, maybe even eager to see someone reading their material they labored over and treasured so much.

   I’m a writer – and believe me, I think about this stuff long after it’s gone, and I hope and pray you get something from it, and I stand ready to help, to answer a question or two.  How much more then would God’s inspired authors feel even more strongly about you and their marvelous library of publications we call the bible?  Could Merton be right – that you have some invisible but real help?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Reflections for each day of Holy Week

Palm Sunday

Sunday morning: for Jews, the day after the Sabbath. After a day of quiet rest in their homes, people thronged the streets of Jerusalem, joining the usual rush, but with an added edge. From the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, was riding into Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry; the people quaked in fear. He'd come to intimidate, and to keep that sort of peace that is nothing but trembling fear.

But then rumors spread: another great man is riding in from the east, not on a war stallion or in a chariot, but on a humble donkey. Jesus, descending the Mt. of Olives into the Kidron Valley, then through the gates of the Holy City. Excitement mixed with confusion: Jesus had won quite a reputation - so would he be the one to lead the rabble in rebellion against the Romans?

Jesus, as was often the case, disappointed, even before the cries of "Hosanna!" settled down. No sword was hidden under his tunic, and if anybody flashed a weapon he sternly but lovingly said "Put your sword away." He seemed more likely to be killed than to kill. He came into Jerusalem, not avoiding those who feared him or misunderstood him. He engaged, he demanded a decision - and across the centuries, he still confronts all of us with God's humble compassion, ready to bear all injustice in order to redeem it, prepared to be ridiculed to rescue our ridiculous lives, relentless in his mission of saving grace.

So now we can grasp the pathos of that children's hymn: "Tell me the stories of Jesus... Into the city I'd follow... waving a branch of the palm tree high in my hand." We follow, yes - and much courage will be required. Jesus knew he was in for a rough week - and across the years he invites us to follow, trembling a bit and yet confident in him, bracing for what may come, trusting that the dawning of the next Sunday, the Easter resurrection Sunday, cannot be thwarted.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, thank you for entering Jerusalem and our lives, thank you for your courage, your determination, your mission, for showing us the divine heart. Help me to follow - but I'll need you to give me some courage, and strength, and mostly love to be close to you, to do whatever you ask, to be a humble, fearless servant in Your kingdom."

Holy Monday

Monday morning. Jesus walked two miles from Bethany into Jerusalem, a daunting, steep, rocky road. Even rockier was the reception he got from the religious leaders: he waltzed right into the temple, and in a rage that startled onlookers, drove the moneychangers out of the temple.

Was he issuing a dramatic memo against Church fundraisers? Hardly. He was acting out, symbolically, God's judgment on the temple. The well-heeled priests, Annas and Caiaphas, had sold out to the Romans. Herod had expanded the temple into one of the wonders of the world - but he pledged his allegiance to Rome by placing a large golden eagle, symbol of Roman power, over its gate. The people were no better: a superficial religiosity masqueraded as the real thing. Within a generation of Jesus’ Holy Monday, that seemingly indestructible temple was nothing but rubble.

Jesus was not the first to denounce the showy façade of a faked religiosity among God's people. Through the centuries, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, and John the Baptist had spoken God's words of warning to people whose spiritual lives were nothing more than going through the motions, assuming God would bless and protect them even though their lives did not exhibit the deep commitment God desired. God's prophets who spoke this way were not honored, but mocked, arrested, imprisoned, and even executed. Jesus was courting disaster.

On that Monday of the first Holy Week, Jesus shut down operations in the temple and forecast its destruction. No wonder the authorities wanted to kill Jesus! In a way, Jesus would himself become a kind of substitute temple. The temple was the place, the focal point of humanity's access to God. Jesus, like the temple itself, was destroyed, killed - and his death, and then his resurrection on Easter Sunday, became our access to God.

Prayer: “Lord, I see that you were not just angry but also hurt that they had turned the sacred, simple, holy place into a market – the way we in our society make everything into a market, all about money and getting. You judged all that and tried to clean it up – along with our vapid religiosity that vainly imagines a few quick prayers will get you to do our bidding and then you will leave us be. I am as weary as you were with a thin, self-indulgent faith. Clean up my soul, and your church.”

Holy Tuesday

Jesus was relentless, fearless, clearly on a mission from God, ready to lose anything to attain everything.  After the drama of Palm Sunday and the ruckus of Jesus' Monday morning rampage through the temple, Jesus probably should have stayed home in Bethany, or fled during the night to safety in the north where he'd come from. 

But instead, Jesus walked right back into the temple to face shocked, mortified, angry clergy and laity, and began talking - at length.  He didn’t win any friends by foretelling a day when not one stone of the temple would be left upon another.  The crowd had to laugh:  Herod’s masons had built a seemingly indestructible temple, with flawlessly cut, massive blocks, the largest measuring 44 feet long, 10 feet high, 16 feet wide, weighing 570 tons. His words seemed ridiculous – but still caused offense.

He was only getting started that Tuesday.  Matthew shares 212 verses of Jesus talking (chapters 22-25), including some of his most famous teachings.  And don't his words carry a much heavier freight since we know he was in the final couple of days before his death?  That Tuesday, he exposed the faked religiosity of the pious Pharisees, he wept over the Holy City which had lost its way, he warned the disciples of the perils of living into the Truth. Jesus clarified that our salvation depends on whether we feed the hungry and welcome the unwanted.  Devious men tried to trick Jesus with a question about a woman with several husbands: to whom would she be married in heaven?  For Jesus, the glory of hope is too large, too wonderful to be shrunk to earthly proportions, or limited by the way we do business down here. 

We can picture him moving about within the temple precincts, stopping under a portico, then strolling down the large stone staircase, standing for a while near the gate, probing, questioning, listening and yet ruminating at length.  Take some time on this Holy Tuesday to read Jesus' words from his Holy Tuesday: Matthew 21:23-25:40. 

Prayer: “Lord, we are so grateful that on your final Tuesday you had so much to say.  We need to hear and heed your thinking – although your Tuesday words are hard.  We might prefer easy platitudes or simplistic spiritual niceties – but in truth we are eager to hear and embrace your deeper, riskier, more satisfying truth.  I will make time to read your words, and to ponder them, even when they expose the triviality of my faith, and my lackluster half-attempts at following you.”

Holy Wednesday

Wednesday of Jesus’ last week.  Frankly, we have no idea what happened that day, besides the usual sunrise, meals, maybe chores, rest, casual conversation.  It’s often that way, isn’t it? – the day before the most important day in your life, the dark day that proved to be an unexpected plot twist in your journey, you weren’t doing anything in particular.

Somehow I like the idea that, during a week of intense activity for Jesus, we have a blank day, on which nothing earth-shaking took place.  Did Jesus simply chill with his friends in Bethany?  Did he teach someplace, or heal someone, but nobody wrote it down?  Did he visit two or three people privately?  Surely a public person like Jesus had private relationships, perhaps with someone like Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea - or maybe he took a long walk with Peter, Mary or John.  Could it be he simply withdrew from people and activity and prayed?  Quite often the Gospels tell us "Jesus withdrew to a lonely place to pray" (Luke 5:16, Matthew 14:23); if this was his habit, his sustenance, his greatest delight, wouldn't he have done so during Holy Week?

I also like the idea that Jesus is bigger than what we know.  John's Gospel ends by saying "There are many other things which Jesus did."  We hope so, and we even experience this ourselves, for the fruit of Holy week is a crucified and risen Savior, who is active today, not only continuing his ancient work, but doing new things.

Prayer: “Lord, sometimes I associate you only with the weighty days.  I forget you know the normal, seemingly dull days too.  I assume that on Wednesday you were on intimate terms with God.  I pray that this could become my own habit of mind and heart.  Be near me, Lord Jesus, at work, driving, cleaning, reading, conversing, eating, waking and sleeping, even on a Wednesday, mid-week.”

Maundy Thursday

“Maundy” is derived from the same ancient root as our word "mandate."  Jesus issued a mandate: "Do this in remembrance of me."  Today, we do.

So many of Jesus' meals were memorable!  Pious people complained that he "ate with sinners" (Luke 15:2).  As a dinner guest, he let a questionable woman wash his feet (Luke 7:36), and another anoint him with oil (Mark 14:1). He suggested that when you have a dinner party, don't invite those who can invite you back, but urge the poor, blind, maimed and lame to eat with you (Luke 14:14).

His most memorable meal though was his last.  For the Jews, it was Passover, the most sacred of days when they celebrated God’s powerful deliverance of Israel from Egypt; the menu of lamb, unleavened bread, and drinking wine symbolized their dramatic salvation.

Jesus must have struck the disciples as oddly somber on such a festive night.  He washed their feet, then spoke gloomily about his imminent suffering.  As he broke a piece of bread, he saw in it a palpable symbol of what would happen to his own body soon; staring into the cup of red wine, he caught a glimpse of his own blood being shed.  We still use the words Jesus spoke on that Thursday when we celebrate the Lord's Supper now.

After an awkward, poignant conversation with his friends, Jesus walked out of the walled city of Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives to pray in the garden called Gethsemane.  Kneeling in anguish, Jesus prayed "Not my will, but Your will be done."  But no slight hint of fatalism was in his heart; Jesus’ mood wasn’t resignation:  he actively and courageously sought and embraced God's will, which isn't some dark luck, but is when we with trusting faith go where God leads us, no matter the cost.

Jesus mercifully bore Judas’s betrayal, then was arrested.  During the night, charges were trumped up, witnesses were compelled to lie.  The proceedings were highly irregular...  Who was responsible for Jesus' death?  The Jews?  The Romans?  You and me?  The Jews handed him over to the Romans, the Romans handed him back to the Jews, the disciples handed him over.  No one wanted to be responsible, and so they (and we!) are all guilty.

Ultimately, God was responsible for this riveting, revolutionary enactment of divine love and holy determination to be one with us, and to save us.  Through that dark Thursday night in detention, Jesus was abused, mistreated, his destiny sealed.  Holy Thursday waited all night for the chilly dawn of the day with the paradoxical name: Good Friday.

Good Friday

What time is it?  All day, this Good Friday, keep an eye on the clock.  Earlier this morning, at 6am, Jesus faced a mock trial, was treated cruelly, yet took it all peacefully.  By 9am, Jesus’ wrists and ankles were gashed and shattered by iron nails, the cross slammed into the ground; the snide snickering of onlookers began.  At noon the sky grew eerily dark; then at 3pm Jesus breathed his last.

We ponder that old hymn, “What wondrous love is this?” Julian of Norwich offered this moving thought:  “The love which made him suffer surpasses all his sufferings, as much as heaven is above the earth.”  Today we read and reflect on the profound words of the prophet Isaiah:  He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Surely he has borne our grief, and carried our sorrows. He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, with his stripes we are healed. He was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth, like a lamb led to the slaughter; they made his grave with the wicked, although he had done no violence (Isaiah 53).

Without the holy, divine love, without God’s eternal plan to use this day to bridge the chasm between heaven and earth, without God’s merciful determination to share in our sufferings and redeem us, this Friday would be relegated to the history books, perhaps with a sad title like Dark Friday, or Tragic Friday.  But we dare to call it “Good Friday.”

In the throes of death, Jesus cried out, "My God, why have you forsaken me?"  Doesn't this leave us space to cry out in the darkness when we seem forsaken by God?  God did not remain safely aloof in heaven, but God entered into human suffering at its darkest.  Just as Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross, so God envelops us in a love that even death could not defeat.
Be still, and quiet, as much as you can this day.  Ponder the suffering, and love embodied in the Cross.

Holy Saturday

We can ponder Hans Holbein’s painting of Jesus lying in the tomb.  But can we fathom the sorrow, the guilt, doubts, disappointment and fear those who knew and loved Jesus felt between his burial on Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday?

God could have raised him immediately.  But God waited.  And we wait.  We have all found ourselves in the throes of some numb day, our own Holy Saturday.  We’ve endured Good Friday, the losses – but there’s no new life yet.

“Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31). “I wait for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning” (Psalm 130:5). Saturday was, for them, the Sabbath, a day of rest.  Jesus rested in the tomb; God rested in heaven.  And so, with the disciples, and Jesus’ mother, we wait wait this day, and every day, trusting the God we cannot see, resting in the hope that Easter really is coming.

Easter Sunday

On the third day, Sunday, women came to the tomb, but Jesus was not there, and then he appeared to people over the next few weeks.  Easter, constantly doubted, forever yearned for, the vortex of our faith.

Easter, as happily familiar as flowers in Spring or birthday parties growing up – and that very familiarity tricks us into missing the utterly unexpected shock of resurrection.  Dead people stayed dead – until Jesus was raised.  Nothing automatic here, no silly sentiments about the memory of someone living on.  Nature itself was happily subverted; the dreaded enemy, death itself, toppled.

But Easter isn’t primarily about us.  God raised Jesus – and ours is to praise you and extol the wonder of Jesus.  How great thou art.  God is incomparably wonderful, powerful, and tender.  Yes, benefits come to us because of Jesus’ resurrection – elusive glories like forgiveness and hope.  But on Easter, we want to stop, and simply be awestruck at the grandeur of grace that is the heart of God – and like the first witnesses to Easter, we ask the risen Lord what tasks we might fulfill in the wake of it all.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday - an Invitation to Lent

Ashes on the forehead represent mortality, grief, and loss - and thus a new way of thinking and living, and hope.

     Our culture has a way of handling grief and loss. We pile on kind expressions of sympathy - and then we move on, and hope to grieving one moves on also. Lingering grief - or worse, an ongoing sense of loss - is unbearable. We want our sympathy to "work," to make the other person feel better. We want to feel better when we suffer loss, and soon.

     The Bible, oddly, seems to seek out grief, stirs it up, invites it, even expects it. The vast majority of the Bible's prayers are laments, expressions of sorrow, rage, grief. We are even invited not merely to mourn our own losses and those close to us, but the pains of strangers in other places, and even to let our hearts be broken by whatever breaks the heart of God. It's as if the spiritual entails some daily sorrow.
    Fascinating thing about tears: they cleanse us inside, something bottled up is released; in the Bible, tears are an open channel into the heart of God. Perhaps it is only as we grieve that we open ourselves to true joy. Suffering reduces us to who we really are, the fake, surfacey stuff molts away, and we sympathize with others; our minds change. Suffering is inevitable - and God is there.
    In a letter to Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton wrote that life with God "isn't a matter of getting a bulldog grip on faith and not letting the devil pry us loose from it. No, it is a matter of letting go rather than keeping hold. I am coming to think that God loves and helps best those who are so beat and have so much nothing when they come to die that it is almost as if they had persevered in nothing but had gradually lost everything, piece by piece, until there was nothing left but God... It is a question of his hanging on to us, by the hair of the head, that is from on top and beyond, where we cannot see or reach. What man can see the top of his own head?" 

    Prayer from the Daily Office: "Lord, I have spent much of my life running from pain and losses, medicating my pain and quickly moving on to the next project. I ask for grace to embrace all of life - the joys and the sorrows, the births and the deaths, the old and the new."

     Our Ash Wednesday services are at 11am and 7pm.
     Sunday's sermon, An Invitation to Lent (on the Transfiguration, Matthew 17), is on YouTube.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Dementia, God, & Christian Faith

Dementia, Alzheimer’s, senility:  these words cause us to shudder with grief, or fear.  Polls indicate that we fear dementia more than we fear cancer.  All of us have loved someone whose mind became something unrecognizable, muddled, confused, forgetful.  I had a friend who died after suffering Alzheimer’s for a decade; his wife said it was as if he died not once but twice.

     I’ve been trying to think about dementia and God, dementia and faith, dementia and the church – and I’ve gotten a lot of help from a Scottish theologian named John Swinton.
The premise of his book, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, is that in Christianity, well-being is not gauged by the presence or absence of illness or distress; well-being is defined by the presence of God, and God is not distant from the one with dementia, or from those who love someone with dementia.  How do we understand this sense of God’s presence? and then how to live faithfully with dementia?  What might those of us who aren’t dealing with dementia directly learn about our lives because of the way we think about those with dementia?

     In America, we define being human by what we think, how we talk, what we can do, how productive and interactive we might be.  What happens when we aren’t productive? or become passive recipients of the care of others?  This question applies not only to dementia but also to aging, or people with disabilities.  W.H. Vanstone write a marvelous little book called The Stature of Waiting, in which he explains how in the first half of each Gospel, Jesus is in command, boldly striding into new territories, conquering demons; he is a doer, in control of everything, even the wind and the sea.

     But then the mood changes abruptly.  Jesus becomes reflective, less proactive, darkly hinting at his fate.  He is “handed over” by Judas, to the authorities, and he does not fight back; he says nothing.  He is no longer active, but passive.  His glory dawns not when he acts, but when he is acted upon.  Vanstone says this is hopeful for us, for our lives often traverse that same ground:  we grow old or sick and are increasingly forced to be dependent on others.  We fear our identity is lost if we are not active and productive.  But Jesus shows us that who we are, who he was, is found not in our activity but in what we suffer, in what we receive.

     Persons with dementia might continue to be productive, if we let them; I know a woman with no short-term memory who vacuums her house several times a day, and is content.  But even when we cannot be productive, we are no less valuable, to God and to Jesus’ followers.  We all need to learn dependence upon God – and it may be our best object lesson is in someone for whom we are caring.  Dependence is not humiliation, but grace.  My worth is not measured by my usefulness.  Because of the Gospel, nothing can happen to make you less of a person. 

     What about memory?  Life is often valued by what we remember, or what we think others remember about us.  But we never remember everything, or remember what we remember accurately.  Most of what I have read or learned, or what has happened to me, I have forgotten.  If I forget, am I any less valuable?  I do not remember my parents rocking me, feeding me, or nursing me; but they did, and I am the beneficiary.  My children do not recall me doing these things – but those moments were no less wonderful for not being remembered.

     John Goldingay, an Old Testament scholar, once invited his students to his home for pancakes.  He told them his wife suffered severe multiple sclerosis, and so she wouldn’t recognize or respond to them:  “She probably won’t remember you afterwards, but in that moment she will appreciate you.”  Is a visit, a tender word, or an embrace futile because the person won’t remember?  I have visited people with dementia, and have felt in the moment much love – and have even been ministered to myself because of the other person’s ability to love and nurture, even if my name and identity are an enigma.
     Here is God’s truth for all of us:  you may be uncertain about who you are, and you may be confused by the people around you, but God knows you.  Who are you?  You are God’s.  You will not be forgotten.  What did God tell us?  “Can a mother forget her baby?  But even if she forgets, I will never forget you” (Isaiah 49:15).  The thief on the cross asked Jesus, “Remember me” (Luke 23:42) – and God remembers us, always.  God remembers everything you have forgotten, and clearly.  No memory is lost in God; everything that is elusive at this moment will finally be redeemed.

     Can someone with dementia have a spiritual life?  I’ve seen forgetful, withdrawn people be quite prayerful; faith sometimes achieves a lovely simplicity in such instances.  I have seen extremely confused, forgetful people smile warmly and tearfully and even join in singing when some old hymn is played.  Perhaps the dementia sufferer cannot pray or read, but the rest of us can for them, and with them.  Four men brought a lame man to Jesus, who healed him not because of his faith but because of theirs (Mark 2:5); all of us are carried on the tide of the faith and prayers of others. 

     Lauren Winner (in her book, Still) tells a wonderful story of an elderly couple coming for Communion.  They both took a communion wafer from the priest.  The woman dipped hers and ate; then the man dipped his, handed it to her, and she ate it for him.  Lauren later learned he was afflicted by a wasting disease making it impossible for him to eat.  They were truly in that moment one flesh.  Can we be one flesh with persons with dementia?

     Swinton says we are wise always to give the person the benefit of the doubt, to treat the person as fully human.  We speak of love.  We say “I am glad you are here; I love you.”  We all have decay, we all suffer limitations.  The difficult symptoms of dementia (belligerence, anxiety, withdrawal) are perfectly understandable reactions to confusing situations, strange living quarters, strangers poking and treating you. 

     To be with someone with any disability requires patience.  What really is required is a new sense of time.  Time isn’t about being productive, or packing a lot in.  In patient waiting, those who sit with someone with dementia sometimes see small glimpses of beauty. 

 Jean Vanier (in Living Gently in a Violent World) tells about a hugely successful businessman he knew whose wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  He said he just couldn’t put her in an institution, so he scaled back his responsibilities (and income), and stayed with her, fed and bathed her.  He said “I have become more human” – and he was there one night when for some reason the fog lifted.  Suddenly she was lucid; she looked and said “Darling, thank you for all you are doing for me” – and then, just as quickly, slipped back into the fog.  He wept and wept – both sorrow and joy. 

   All Christians are called to a radical hospitality, a welcome of the stranger – not just to welcome strangers, but doing what we can to be sure they stop feeling like strangers.  And studies show that if caregivers believe the person is still there, and still have value, the person does better.  Relationships impact the brain over time; people with dementia, if left alone or only pitied, decline more rapidly.  Those with dementia suffer an intense loneliness.  It’s not as if our presence cures them – but all our lives we long to be treated as a child of God, the God who never forgets us, who knows us thoroughly and still loves totally, forever.