Christian Living

East Coast Interpolations (When the Bible isn’t quite enough)

east coast interpolations.pngOne of the first things one learns when entering into academic study of the Biblical texts is that the Bible we have now is a bit of a patchwork tapestry, beautiful on the whole but a little messy when you get up close. One contributor to this messiness is the well-meaning interpolator. Interpolations are the words, sentences, or even paragraphs inserted into the text by an editor or scribe who thought it would clarify the text. Or maybe the interpolation made the text fit their theology. Or maybe the interpolation made the text fit the context of the editor or scribe. Or maybe there was a really great story that St. John surely intended to include but probably forgot. Regardless, the Bible is filled with interpolations. Today, I was thinking, if I were to add some interpolations to match my context, what would I add? And then I slipped on some ice. And I knew. So these are my additions to the text to fit my context of wintry Fairfield County, CT.

Psalm 91:11-12
For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
    so that you will not dash your foot against a stone
nor will you slip upon black ice.

Matthew 5:7 1/2
“Blessed are you when you slip coming out of the gym and fall on your butt, for you will receive pity from the pretty girl barely able to stifle her laughter.”

Joshua 1:8
 This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful except when a blizzard swoops in and you have to cancel your date that was already rescheduled.

Romans 1:16
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek and very very last to the driver of the car going up the steep icy hill at 2 miles per hour.

Deuteronomy 8:3
God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone or the ramen noodles, beans, and bacon which was the only thing in your apartment during the blizzard, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

 

Bridges, Building, and Moments of Faith

bridge jumpingThe bridge isn’t that high. But outside of the parked car, standing on the edge looking down at the moving water, it seems a lot higher than it did from the road. Gauging height is always impossible when you’re looking down — right? — and when there are six high school students waiting for you to take that first jump. The water is plenty deep below. Kids were making this jump just yesterday. Even if you break your leg, you probably won’t drown. At least there are no sharks.

*****

People like to talk about a “leap of faith.” Whether it’s Søren Kierkegaard writing in the 19th century about the Akedah or Indiana Jones trying to find the Holy Grail in The Last Crusade, the metaphor of a leap from rational knowledge to belief is appealing. But as powerful as the image is, I am not sure a leap is a sufficient metaphor to describe the Christian faith.

*****

A dark vehicle pulled over on the bridge, a window rolled down, and a loud man’s voice called out, “Be careful – there’s something down there biting people.” In the moment that followed, our eyes met and I tried to gauge whether this was playful teasing or an honest warning. The stern injunction dissolved into a chuckle and wide grin, indicating the former. The woman sitting in the passenger seat called out, “Don’t listen to him! He’s just pulling your leg,” sensing my practically palpable apprehension. I nodded gratefully to her. A tall man with a twinkle in his eye emerged from the black truck and walked over to the edge of the bridge and peered down. Oh it’s plenty deep. His Minnesota vowels mixed with the cadence from his Native American accent in a methodical and comforting way. Kids were doing backflips off here yesterday. You’re safe. Jump on three. One…Two…

*****

Take the plunge. Make a leap of faith. Dive in. (Stephen Curtis Chapman, anyone?) But research on faith practice indicates that religious devotion isn’t defined by singular experiences. People like to point to big events (like copying a stolen library book) as powerful, swaying, and influential moments in life. And there’s tremendous cultural and narrative appeal to that kind of story. But life is made up of a stream of little decisions, and the overall shape of one’s life is the sum of those little moments, habits, and seemingly small practices (like reading a sacred text, meditation, or prayer). Faith is much more exciting and dynamic when compared to a leap. It loses some of its luster when coupled with words like “discipline,” “drudgery,” and “thoughtfulness.”

*****

Three. The river rushes up towards me. A shred of memory from high school physics flashes the rate 9.81 m/s2. As my mind gropes for the rest of the formula, everything is shut out by the shock and wonder of water surrounding my being. My feet find the bottom of the river, and I push up with a flutter kick, propelling myself to the surface. Emerging with a sputter and a couple coughs ridding the lungs of a fraction of the river-water I’ve swallowed, I call up to the rest of the waiting cohort, “The water’s fine!”

*****

Faith is a multidimensional part of life. And just one metaphor is insufficient to capture the Christian faith. Certainly, a leap captures one part of faith, but the metaphor I love for faith is construction. When building something that lasts, careful planning, meticulous design, and quality materials must be sought after. I spent the last week of July on a mission trip with 8 incredible youth and adults in Cass Lake, Minnesota (read about what we did here). As we nailed the shingles down on the roof of the White Earth tribe member, every few rows of shingles we measured both ends and the middle to ensure we were on track. And often, that’s what the Christian life is like – working hard, feeling the soreness of a bent back, and periodic assessment. Sometimes it feels like taking a plunge or making a leap. And mission trips are a reminder of the exhilaration, the joy, and the rush that comes from that leap of faith. But when we get home, we’re reminded that faith is a day-by-day activity, an activity that requires work, diligence, perseverance, and discipline.

Mad Max is the Most Theologically Important Exodus Narrative in Film

[Spoiler Alert – this review contains spoilers and depends on prior viewing of the film]

Mad Max is being appraised as a smorgasbord of brilliant special effects, stunning visuals, and second wave feminism, but these lauds I will leave in the capable hands of the critics. I want to talk about the theological implications of this film’s narrative, for Mad Max may well be the most important Exodus narrative in film thus far.

We’ve seen this story before – a group of enslaved people are abused and mistreated by an overlord, a warlord, emperor, or some other tyrant. The unlikely-but-strong savior figure emerges and leads the oppressed out of bondage into the Promised Land. This is the story of the Israelite exodus out of Egypt. In Mad Max, we find what at first looks like a repetition of this age-old plotline. In a post-apocalyptic world, the film’s eponymous protagonist, Mad Max (Tom Hardy), is a half-crazed man who ends up aiding Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) escape from the tyranny of the Citadel. The Exodus imagery is too abundant to be coincidental. The movie takes place in a desert wasteland, and though the escapees never refer to a “Promised Land,” they refer to a “green place” – an oasis and refuge from the tyranny of oppression and from the barrenness of the scorched earth. In a subtler hue, one of the defecting soldiers reveals that he is afflicted by boil-like lumps on his skin and lives under the threat of death by night fever. In another scene, we see a locust crawl across his skin. While not outright references to the ten plagues, these three taken together make it impossible to claim this is not an allusion to the plagues of the Egyptians. While stopped to do maintenance on their escape vehicle, one of the women cries out to the distant tyrant to forgive her and urges the others to return to their enslaved life. This incident echoes the Israelite’s constant complaint against God and Moses that they were better off in Egypt than wandering through the wilderness. When the “chariots” of the tyrant are in heavy pursuit of the escapees, they flee into a sand storm, where a wall of sand rising up on their left obliterates one of the pursuing vehicles. While this passage echoes the Scriptural description of the Israelite journey through the Red Sea, safety is not yet achieved and the pursuing army is not yet obliterated.

With these allusions and the basic plot structure of the movie, I was expecting a retelling of the Exodus story, only set in a post-apocalyptic world with stunning special effects. What I didn’t expect was that the explosions and the visual imagery is accompanied by a theology that acknowledges the shortcomings of Exodus appropriation and supplements it with a rich apocalyptic theology.

The Exodus narrative has been a powerful inspiration to many cultures in a variety of settings. In the U.S. the Exodus story was taken up both by white settlers seeing America as a Promised Land free from old European structures and impositions, and also by black slaves identifying with the not-yet freed Israelites in bondage to the Egyptians. This latter interpretation has been lifted up by liberation theologians to describe God as particularly concerned for the oppressed, a liberator, and one who delivers the poor from the powers, structures, and tyrants keeping them down. The problem this interpretation runs into is the unfortunate fact that the next episode in the saga of the Israelite journey to the Promised Land is the extermination and genocide of the people already living in Canaan. The genocide of the Canaanites prevents the narrative theology to move forward, for while affirming the unique particular love of God for the Israelites, streams in the Bible also acknowledge the love of God for all people. Some have thus wondered if the Exodus story is a dead end in liberation theology as it leads to a conquest narrative that displaces and exterminates the Canaanites, leaving no place in God’s kingdom for them.

Mad Max acknowledges the shortcoming of the Exodus narrative and pushes through towards a new ending to the traditional story. After escaping the territory of the tyrants, the escapees realize that their Promised Land has been destroyed and is not the place of refuge they had imagined. They prepare to cross a salt wasteland on motorcycles with enough supplies for 160 days (40×4) and no idea what lies ahead of them. Thus far we have seen a relatively faithful retelling of the Exodus narrative: there is a tyrant who enslaves his people, the people escape the pursuing armies, and the people prepare to wander through wilderness in search of a new promised land. And this is where the narratives diverge, for the escapees turn back. The fugitives (aided by a dramatic and terse Tom Hardy) realize that the only way to find life is by returning, overthrowing the tyrant and redeeming their home.

And this is the interpretation of the Gospel that takes into account the full account of the Scriptures. I was sitting in Central Park the other day speaking with a friend about one of her sermons on Isaiah (43). At the center of this chiasmic passage is the assertion that God loves Israel and they are precious in God’s sight. However, also in this passage is a statement about how God will hand over Egypt and other nations to suffering in order to ransom Israel. Clearly, Egyptians would hear this passage very differently from Jews (or anyone hearing this passage who was not from Egypt, Ethiopia, or Seba). And that is the fundamental problem with the Exodus narrative – some people groups are excluded and cast out from the kingdom of God. But in this same book in Isaiah (19), we know there is a bigger story. We know that the God will bring all nations to God’s self, including Egypt.

This is the gospel. All things will be made new. All people will be brought before God. The Greek term apokatastasis is used to indicate this renewal of all things as all of creation is redeemed. Mad Max acknowledges that the world is broken, some powers need to be challenged and even removed. But even the oppressors are not without a need for redemption. When they arrive back at the place of captivity, the Citadel, it is the young boys being bred for war that lower the drawbridge and raise them back up into the city. The oppressing people, without their tyrannical leader, are offered redemption. The narrative of the film does not downplay the importance of the role of the oppressed, the differently abled, or those struggling through psychological trauma. But in the end, it is not just these who are saved, but they lead the whole of the people, oppressed and oppressors, into redemption.

In this retelling of the Exodus narrative, the particularity of the oppressed is highlighted, but in the end, the change in structure and power affects all people. And this is the way forward in using the Exodus narrative theologically – the story does not end with deliverance from oppression and bondage. The story continues until all people, including the oppressors, are included in the kingdom of God.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

“I wonder, what difference does this make in your life, Michael?” This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot as I am now thoroughly underway in my last year at Princeton Theological Seminary. It weighed especially heavily on me on Sunday as I left church, where my Sunday School class was challenged to think about how the Psalms and the Bible in general were incorporated into their lives. Could I, in good conscience, tell all these young adults to read the Bible, to pray, and to memorize Scripture? What difference does all of this make? Does this even make a difference in my own life? I could not shake this question on the hour-long drive to Philly, where I was meeting someone for brunch. Then, as often happens, the coffee, breakfast burrito, extra potatoes on the side – and sitting across the table from a really attractive person – made me forget this crisis of existence, faith, and religion. (And for those keeping track, it was Not drunk brunch. Alcohol did not aid this time in forgetting my troubles.)

As I was driving home, I remembered that I had to get prizes for a game at youth group that night. The need to purchase the chocolate prizes, combined with my gas light turning on (for those of you on the revised common lectionary, yes, this was last Sunday when we read the gospel passage about the ten bridesmaids, five of whom ran out of oil), prompted me to swerve out of the exit lane from I-95 to 206, settling for the long way home. Mostly because I didn’t want to have to make any left turns and minimize clover leafs.

While my GPS freaked out and kept babbling, “Recalculating…Recalculating…Recalculating,” I cruised down Route 1 toward Trader Joe’s. On the side of the road, there was a car pulled over with the hazards blinking, and about 20 yards down the road, there was a woman walking with a gas can. And then I drove right past her and parked at Trader Joe’s.

I got out of my car and looked across the highway at the gas station on the other side of Route 1, across six lanes of traffic and a median concrete barrier. Apparently, the woman with the gas can also saw the gas station, because she stood on the opposite side of the highway looking for a break in the traffic. And at this point I found myself walking towards her. Since it was a highway, there was no break in the traffic. And so the woman’s efforts to run across the highway were thwarted, and I was right behind her before she heard me yelling, “Excuse me, Miss, do you need a ride?” It was kind of hard to be heard above the roar of car after passing car.

After we went to the gas station, (I gave in and made four clover leaf turns by going to the gas station before Trader Joe’s, but who’s counting?); and after her profuse thanks; and after her tearful story of how she had just come from Philly saying goodbye to her children before leaving to spend the holidays away from them for the first time; and after she swore I was sent by god; and after I dropped her back off at her car; I went back to Trader Joe’s for my chocolate.

And I wonder. I wonder if, contrary to the gospel reading, maybe those with oil will lend their oil to those without. I wonder if the woman had been white if someone would have stopped for her. I wonder if someone would stop for my mom if she ran out of gas. I wonder how many cars passed her as she walked along the highway with that empty gas can. I wonder if there is a god above who sent me to her. And still, I continue to wonder: What difference does this make in your life, Michael?

Preaching to a Foodie Generation

pastaWhat Foodies Taught Me About Sunday School
(No this is not about the Eucharist)

“The goal of weekly Sunday sermons is not to provide your congregation with every spiritual resource they need for the rest of their lives– it’s to sustain them til the next week. Just like every meal need not be a festal cornucopia, so too, the goal of each sermon is to sustain the parishioner til the next meal.”

These words from one professor were about weekly Sunday sermons, but I have found them to be profoundly applicable to the process of preparing weekly Sunday school lessons as well. A large chunk of my summer has consisted of designing and writing middle and high school Sunday school curriculum for my church, and I’ve found application for this thought to my summer task. The professor intended to communicate a release from stress and to take pressure off the weekly sermon. The sermon is not the fullness of God incarnate in 15 minutes worth of words. The sermon is not three years worth of seminary study compressed like one of those prank spring snakes in a can. The sermon is not Charlton Heston (or soon to be Christian Bale) delivering the verbatim word of God from Mt Sinai saying, “Thus saith the Lord…” The sermon is none of those things. In the same way, Sunday school is not intended to be a complete and exhaustive transference of Biblical knowledge in one fifty minute lesson.

I understand that. But I think there is additional insight to be gleaned from this metaphor. Thinking of the sermon or Sunday school lesson as a meal is a comparison that sheds light on ways to reach my millennial generation. My generation, dubbed by many as the millennial generation, is a foodie generation. By that, I mean that people approach food as an experience and something more than just something to be consumed out of convenience or hunger. Food is seen (and tasted) as so much more than mere sustenance. Each meal is an opportunity to try something new, to expand one’s palate, and to experience food in a spectacular way. So what does this have to do with church?

I think that the metaphor that my professor used holds true. A Sunday school lesson isn’t meant to be a feast or a banquet overflowing with protein, carbs, and sugars. But at the same time, this generation of sermon hearers is expecting something that will expand their palates, deepen their appreciation for food, and give them an experience of something new, enriching, adventurous, or exciting. So how can a preacher or teacher deliver an acceptable weekly sermon to a generation of foodies who constantly crave something complex, deep, and delicious?

First, we must reexamine our menus. By menu, I mean the overarching architecture and content of the weekly lessons. When I first started teaching middle school Sunday School, the first thing I wanted to do was to make it all about fun. As you can guess, that didn’t work very well. Structure and content are necessary for a successful classroom experience for teacher and students. During a curriculum retreat at my church this past spring with Sunday school teachers and our education committee, we envisioned a curriculum for our youth that was two pronged. Sunday mornings we would be covering stories from the Bible, hitting most books over a three-year cycle. Sunday mornings would be spent examining our identity as an Episcopalian, part of the Anglican tradition, and a member of the broader Christian community. We worked as a group to put together an outline for the books and stories we’d tackle over the next three years. We wanted to create a curriculum with meaningful and engaging content. We would have fun along the way, and we would build up self-esteem along the way, but the primary focus was on knowledge and application of the Bible to our students’ lives. As Gary Vaynerchuk says in his book on social media advertising, Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook, no matter how good the presentation of information is, content is king.

 

Second, we must reexamine our ingredients. Chefs who create meals to meet the standards of the foodie palate know they can pick only the best ingredients. Once we figured out the “menu” or overarching architecture of our Sunday school curriculum, it was time to pick the ingredients, the basic building blocks that would fill each lesson. In this stage of curriculum writing, my priest and I worked together to pick out stories from the Bible that would best synecdochally represent the book or genre on our menu. Part of the goal was to teach stories that are referenced repeatedly in literature, movies, and other forms of (high and low) culture. Additionally, we wanted stories that opened the door to discussions of the hard questions in Scripture, that raised hermeneutical questions, and that provided a relevant spiritual resource for our students’ lives. This was difficult to say the least. With every decision to include a certain story or passage, our null curriculum grew ever bigger. (The null curriculum is what is left out of a curriculum. That which is not said.) But unless you’re Dagwood, you can’t fit everything on a sandwich. And so we trimmed down our curriculum to manageable chunks, finding stories that represented the book (or group of books) in our menu and also emphasized Biblical themes that are important in our Episcopal tradition.

Third, we had to think about our pairings. Every foodie worth his or her salt knows that a single dish can be a great thing on its own, but a pairing can bring out flavor profiles and complexity that is simply magical. For us, pairing was a necessity. In education classes, we talk about the “zone of proximal development,” or ZDP for short. This is the set of information that students can connect to previous knowledge, allowing them to retain and make meaningful sense of the material. In order to activate the previous knowledge, we turned to examples from popular culture, literature, and other resources. For example, for a lesson on the crucifixion, atonement, and justification, I turned to Les Mis, Beauty and the Beast, and Schindler’s List for clips to help explain the manifold dimensions of the world-changing event on Calvary.

Fourth and last, we must reexamine our presentation. Growing up, I always thought presentation was overrated. And perhaps that prejudice is still dominant, as I put that last on my list. But it is important. In a sermon or Sunday school lesson, the presentation is not a static, fancy toothpicked garnish in a tiny bite of meat-I’ve-never-heard-of. The presentation is delivered by a living, breathing person. This is key. The teacher plays a powerful role in the entire leaning process. Even with the best curriculum, the best ingredients, and the fanciest recipes, if the chef is sub par, the entire meal will be a disaster. The content must be presented in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, palatable, and in digestible chunks (chunks actually is a term we use in education classes). The teacher is in control of all of this.

Of course there is more to be said about all of this. Technology in the classroom, homework, research, and reaching students of all abilities are topics I’ve considered in writing this curriculum, but there I’ve already breached my 1000 word limit for these posts, so we’ll call it quits for now. So the next time you’re preparing a sermon or Sunday school lesson, I hope that you find great ingredients and don’t forget to consult your cultural sommelier.

My Recent Breakup

As some of you know, I experienced a break up at the start of this summer. Or to use the terms we decided on, we’re “taking a break.”  Most of you didn’t know that I was in a serious relationship.  Not that I wasn’t public about it, or that I tried to keep it any kind of secret.

But for the last two weeks, I’ve been on a break from alcohol.  I know, those of you whom I haven’t told are probably gasping in disbelief.  Y’all thought it was true love, everlasting, til the end of time.

But, for now, I have cut things off with beer, whiskey, wine, gin, vodka, tequila, and rum.

I won’t go into details on why we decided to take a break, out of respect for the privacy of alcohol.  But for now, we’re on a break, and I’m embarking on “sober summer.”  What I do want to talk about is Christian freedom, cultural morality, and self-discipline.

This past school year, I tried to pull a Johnny Cash and walk the line.  I should have learned from the Joaquin Phoenix movie in 2005 that never works out.  But I was probably distracted by how cute Reese Witherspoon is.  (Coincidentally, here is my June, helping me get sober.)

In a recent blog post, Richard Beck, writes about post-evangelical Christians and alcohol.  He notes two ways that Christians who were raised in a more conservative evangelical environment are prone to treat alcohol.  The first is that drinking alcohol becomes a big, emotional and reactionary F-you to the past, a sign of some unresolved pain and anger at one’s past.  The second is that it becomes a sign of superiority.  “When you drink you signal that you are more enlightened than those conservative Christians with bad atonement theology.”

I can relate to both of these, and I think my heavy drinking stems in part from both of these.  But there is another dimension of my relationship with alcohol that is perhaps unique to me.  I’m good at drinking.  I can drink five drinks in a night and wake up with little to no hangover.  I live within walking distance of the bar, and so I’ve never been behind the wheel after excess alcohol.  I day drink and still manage to do fine academically.  In fact, in what was perhaps the darkest semester with depression and alcohol, I managed to get all A’s.  A feat I haven’t accomplished since high school.  In fact, most people who don’t know me well, would probably have no idea the amount of alcohol I consumed.  (Or maybe everyone does, and I just am woefully underequipped at gauging others’ perception of me.)  But the point is that I drank because I could.  I hate psychoanalysis, so I’m not going to psychoanalyze myself and try to find some deep-rooted insecurity or superiority complex to explain it, I’m just telling you what I know for sure.

I could walk that line.  Sure, I slipped a few times into some not-classy behavior.  (Some of those stories will come up in my reflections on a year and a half of online dating.)  But for the most part, I could walk the line and survive, even thrive.

So, Michael, if you are so good at drinking, why break up?

That’s a great question.  Part of it is physical health.  (In the past two weeks I’ve lost 10 pounds!)  The other part of it is that complex emotional-psychological thing that I’ll call spiritual health.  Fasts and breaks are good things.  In fact, in unsubstantiated and shallow exegesis, I would argue that Paul says that occasional breaks from sex within marriage can be a good thing.

So for now, alcohol and I are on a break.  For those of you who are wondering, we’re still friends.  We can be in the same room without tension or awkwardness.  We’re just not going to bed together like we used to.  Maybe one day we’ll get back together. Maybe it was just timing.  We’ll see.  But I’m doing great.  I miss alcohol, but not enough to tempt me to get back together right now.

Dear alcohol, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re doing okay.  I only want the best for you.

YOLO…unless you’re Lazarus

Sermon Delivered at Trinity Episcopal Princeton 4.6.2014
Text: John 11:1-45, Ezekiel 37:1-14

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

We’re in the fifth week of Lent! Almost there. We’ve almost made it.  But we’re not there yet.

The gospel reading is an incredible literary work.  (And a long passage.)  This unit comes as a summative capstone to the first half of the book of John, called the Book of Signs.  In the first half of his gospel, John describes seven signs revealing the divine and messianic nature of the character of Christ.  Here in this final sign, we have Jesus pronouncing that he is the resurrection — that all who live and believe in him will never die.  Then he proves this claim has a bearing in the here and now, this physical world by raising Lazarus from the dead.  In this story, Jesus also shows his humanity, in verse 35, we are told, “Jesus began to weep.”  Jesus is not some empty shell of a human that does not feel emotion.  He indeed is able to suffer grief, and he grieves for the death of his friend.

But as great as this story is in its literary beauty, its symbolism, and narrative impact, the story leaves a lot of questions when considered in light of our modern situation.  That’s great that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  Fantastic.  But, like Martha, I am quick to say, I know that this means that at the end, the eschaton, when Jesus returns, then all will rise again in Christ.  I want to categorize it as the same kind of prophetic vision that Ezekiel has of the dry bones.  This isn’t something that’s going to happen now, but it will happen at the end of time.  Or it’s just an allegory for receiving spiritual life.  So what bearing does this story have in our lives today?  Is it just to inspire us to hope in the future resurrection?  To give us hope in an afterlife?

Why did Jesus choose to heal Lazarus?  Why did Jesus choose not to raise others?  Sure Jesus loved Lazarus, but doesn’t Jesus love other people, too?  What about my friend Alex who drowned in the summer before my sophomore year of college?  He loved Jesus, and I’m sure that Jesus loved him.  What about those on the Malaysia Flight 370?  Some of you may know that last April I was blocks from the finish line at the Boston marathon, watching my dad cross only four minutes before the bombs exploded.  My dad was fine, but what about Martin William Richard, the eight year old boy, who almost one year ago died in the Boston marathon bombing?

Where was Jesus then?  I, like Martha, want to accuse God, saying, I know that if you, Jesus, had been here, these would not have died.  But they did die.  And Jesus has not raised them from the dead.  So where is this resurrection and life.  Do we only get to experience the hope in a future resurrection at the end of time?

Where is God now?  And I’m going to be honest.  I don’t know.  I don’t have all the answers.  But I do have some ideas.

A few years ago, my family went with several other family friends to go skiing in Colorado.  And while we were there, one of my good friends, John, was tubing down a mountain, lost control, and hit his head on a tree.  One of the dads who was there was a police officer and a trained EMT, and when he checked for signs of vitals, he found none.  The ambulance came with the paramedics, took John away, and the rest of us sat and prayed.  Later, we got a call from John’s parents at the hospital that John had strong vitals and was even awake.  He had suffered memory loss and a severe concussion, but he was alive.  I don’t know what qualifies as a miracle.  I can’t definitively say that I know that God was supernaturally at work here.  But what I can say is this: I thought my friend was dead, and now he lives.

There are lots of stories like that in my life.  Not very many are quite as dramatic.  But all the same, like the man born blind in last week’s scripture, where I once saw darkness and death, I now see light and life.  Sometimes you have to look hard.  Sometimes the light is dim.  But I think it’s there.

And that’s the message for us from today’s Scripture.  Is God going to raise everyone we love from the dead?  Not immediately.  But sometimes God does act in this world.  God has not abandoned us.  Throughout life, if we have eyes to see, we can see the glimpses of these Lazarus moments where God acts in surprising ways, revealing the presence of God’s kingdom here in our world.  And sometimes there are seasons in our life where those moments are hard to see.  Or it seems like those moments aren’t there to see at all.

And though it may seem like God doesn’t care, though it may seem like God is not present, this story tells us that Jesus does indeed care.  Jesus weeps over the death of his friend.  He enters into mourning with Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus.  Jesus’ heart breaks over the deaths of the ones he loves.  And Jesus’ heart breaks over the loss, destruction, and death at work in this present darkness.

Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  Sometimes the life we find in Christ is physical, psychological, or spiritual life, healing and strength in our personal lives.  But sometimes, for whatever reason, we don’t see God’s healing presence immediately at work in certain situations in our lives.  I don’t have the answer to that.  I can’t tell you that there’s some meaning in your suffering.  I can’t tell you there’s meaning in death.  I will not tell you that your loss is for the glory of God.  I don’t know why it seems Jesus absents himself and lets death overtake the ones we love.  I can’t tell you why we have to wait for the final resurrection for perfection and paradise.

But what I can tell you is this: Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  There will be a day when all suffering will end.  There will be a day when life will reign into eternity and light will completely overtake darkness.  But that day is not here.  And while we wait, we do not have a distant God who does not understand our suffering, but we have a God who mourns with us the deaths of our loved ones. We have a God who weeps over the deaths of friends.

And it is to this God, who weeps with us in our suffering, that we pray for light and life.  I am not satisfied with the darkness in this world.  And neither is God.  Therefore let us pray for God’s kingdom to increase here in our world, and work together as bearers of light and life, trusting in the resurrection and life of Christ our Savior.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.

 

 

Say Something

Say Something – A Great Big World

“Say Something”

Say something, I’m giving up on you,
I’ll be the one if you want me to
Anywhere I would have followed you
Say something, I’m giving up on you.

These lyrics by Ian Axel of Great Big World, sung by Christina Aguilera, have invaded the radio.  Youtube is flooded with covers of this song.  And as I discovered this past Sunday, all the students in my middle school Sunday school class know all the words.

This song reverberates within my soul in a personal way, for it expresses the doubts that I feel about God.  Does God speak?  Does God actually interact in human history?  How can we know what is or what is not God’s action?  Where are the miracles and signs of the apostles?  “Say something, I’m giving up on you.”  God, just say something.  Speak in a way that I know it’s you.  I would have followed you to the ends of the earth, and I still will, I just need to hear you say something.  Say anything.

Where does God speak in this world?  How does God speak in this world?  Does God even say anything at all?

March 15th and 16th was the Jewish feast of Purim.  This feast celebrates the dramatic story of Esther, the Jewish woman who became queen and saved her entire people.  The Jewish people are in exile, in captivity, oppressed by foreign nations.  Their temple is destroyed, they have lost their king, and they have lost their freedom.  I can’t help but imagine, some of them were singing their own fifth century B.C.E. version of “Say Something.”

The book of Esther is unique, for nowhere in its ten chapters does the name of God appear.  But does that mean that God is absent from the story?  No.  Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, tells the queen, “Who knows? Maybe all of these things have happened for such a time as this.”  Maybe God was behind Esther becoming queen.  Maybe God was behind the preservation of the Jewish people.  Maybe.

One of the traditions of Purim is to wear masks and costumes.  This symbolizes the fact that often the work of God is masked or hidden.  From our place in history, from our place epistemologically, from our place as finite creatures, we cannot peel back the mask, point and identify unequivocally what is the work of God.  But that does not mean that God is not at work.  That does not mean that God does not speak.  Who know?  Perhaps God has brought about the circumstances in my life for just such a time as this.

 

The Color of Love

The Color of Love

(Why I probably won’t kill myself)

12.20.13

“In life, just as on the artist’s palette, there is but a single color that gives meaning to life and art – the color of love.”

– Marc Chagall

I just walked through the exhibit, “Chagall: Love, Ware, and Exile,” at the Jewish museum in the upper east side of New York City.  Words cannot express the feelings evoked and the thoughts inspired in gazing at the beautifully textured canvases adorning the walls of the exhibit.  The palette of my soul was imbued with new hues, new colors and perspectives on reality.

We are all on a search for meaning.  We all want to know the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” As one poet friend of mine wrote,

“They want to believe they were meant

fOr something

Intended to fulfill some destiny.”

There is a lot out there in the world, and it is far from easy to make sense of it all.  I have been honest in my struggle to find meaning amidst it all.  I don’t know if there is any universal meaning in life.  I don’t know if there is any universal meaning in death.  I tend to think that we as humans create meaning.  I don’t mean that we make up purposes for ourselves, but that our perspective and outlook on life creates the meaning we overlay on the events of our life.

Surrounded by death, enveloped in darkness, and constantly reminded that all is not right in this world, we are left to make sense of it all.  Making sense of the seemingly random mosaic of the events in this life is far from a simple task.  Some people choose to believe in karma: you get from life what you put in.  But I find that a less than satisfactory framework to life.  What about the innocents who die young?  It doesn’t make sense with the karma.  What about the evil men and women who live long and comfortable lives?

Things are a lot more random than belief in karma allows.  Unless you believe perhaps that you are paying penance for sins of a former life through reincarnation.  Which makes a bit of sense if you believe you get a second go at life. Which I don’t.  If I can’t remember the me of a previous life, it is not me. As I learned from Star Trek, the memories make the man.  And I should not be responsible for a previous iteration or incarnation’s mistakes if I cannot remember them.  That hardly seems fair.  And if things get difficult or hard, why not leave this world and let next iteration of me try again?  If I won’t be able to remember this life, why not jump to the next one?

The third option is to say that life is meaningless.  The events in life are random.  There are no God/gods/supernatural forces controlling floods, hurricanes, and school shootings.  That is just life.  We are animals.  Why must we find meaning?  Why not just live, breath, eat, and enjoy the life we have?  This is what I’m inclined to believe.  But the problem with this outlook is that there is no reason not to opt out.  There is no answer to the question, why not give up, stop breathing, and end the struggle?  If there is no more to life than randomness and meaninglessness, why bother continue on when things get difficult?  When we encounter obstacles, struggles, and difficulties, there is no reason not to throw in the towel.

The option I have chosen to pursue is the option that Marc Chagall proclaims, “In life, just as on the artist’s palette, there is but a single color that gives meaning to life and art – the color of love.”

The reason to hang on to life, the reason to stick it through is that there is potential in this world for love.  Every day is a slate of possibility, possibility to heal, possibility to encourage, and possibility to make a tiny difference in this world.

I live for that possibility, that possibility to love and to be loved.

Love bears meaning.  Love creates meaning.  Love, perhaps, is the meaning.
****

(Or perhaps the meaning is a white cow playing a violin.)

Judas, John the Baptist, and Obi-Wan Kenobi

obiwanchosenone

Judas, John the Baptist, and Obi-Wan Kenobi

A Theological Holiday Special

 

“You were the chosen one! It was said that you would destroy the Sith, not join them. You were to bring balance to the force, not leave it in darkness,” a distraught Obi-Wan Kenobi yells at his former pupil Anakin Skywalker, now mostly limbless on the ground.

This moment from the Episode III of the Star Wars series is pretty rough.  Probably because of Hayden Christensen’s acting.  Nevertheless, it is probably the most quoted line of Revenge of the Sith.

Recent retellings of the gospel story recast our view of Judas Iscariot, the Great Traitor, one of the three in the inverted trinity in Dante’s innermost circle of hell.

According to some interpretations, Judas wanted a politically revolutionary Jesus to free the land from Roman oppression.  Thus Judas’s “betrayal” was a way to force Jesus’ hand as the leader of a Jewish nation.  It is this Judas I see in Obi-Wan yelling at limbless Anakin.  “You were supposed to be the chosen one!”  Disappointment, dissatisfaction, and despair fill his voice as he looks at his defeated friend.  Judas, along with all the other apostles looks to the defeated Jesus on the cross.  Wasn’t he the chosen one?  The anointed one?  What happened to that Jesus?  You were supposed to bring justice to the world, not leave it in darkness!

Where is the anointed one who proclaimed himself to be the Messiah to the imprisoned John the Baptist?  This past week’s reading was from the gospel of Matthew.  John the Baptist was asking, “Are you the chosen one?”  To which Jesus, in his usual way of avoiding straight answers, replied, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus’ answer was in his actions.  The proclamation of his status of the anointed did not need words, for his actions, healing the blind, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, making the lame to walk, and proclaiming good news to the poor, told the truth about who Jesus was.

But now Judas is at the cross, screaming, “You were supposed to be the chosen one!”  You were supposed to be the one to deliver us from oppression.  You were supposed to usher in a time of peace and salvation from our enemies.

And I’m right next to Judas.  At the foot of the cross, I scream, “You were supposed to be the chosen one!  You were supposed to heal the wounds of the world.  Not leave it in darkness.”

Like John the Baptist, I ask Jesus, “Are you the chosen one?”  And I hear Jesus’ response.  But I have to ask.  Are the blind receiving their sight?  Are the lame walking?  Are the dead being raised?  Are the lepers being cleansed?  What good news is being proclaimed to the poor?  If this is the proof to the impossible claim that Jesus is indeed the son of the only God, what does this mean in a dark, death-ridden, and limping world?  What happened to the greater things that we were supposed to do in this world?

Like Judas, I see the crucified Jesus.

But unlike Judas, I wait for the resurrection.  I wait for the return.

Judas gave up before seeing the risen Christ.

But I refuse to give up.

Advent is a season that reminds us of the time between Jesus’ death and his resurrection.

We are familiar with the pain, the suffering, and the darkness of this world.  We are all too familiar with the crucified Jesus.


But there’s more to the story.

 

At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Christ, but we also celebrate the risen Christ who will come again.  Christmas is a time of wonder, magic, and uncommon generosity.  Every year, we hear stories of some extraordinary kindness.  My favorite Christmas movie is not Home Alone or It’s a Wonderful Life.  It’s Joyeaux Noel, a lesser-known movie about the cease-fires that took place across the front lines on Christmas Eve during World War I.  Amidst the darkness of one of the worst wars the world had seen, these soldiers found in Christmas a time to reclaim their humanity.  A time to claim something Beyond humanity, the declarations of nations, and the violence of politics.  Amidst the darkness, Christmas is a day of light.  One of my favorite videos on the internet (judge me all you want…this video is magical though slightly vulgar) is of this youtube blogger going around giving away envelopes of cash to strangers on the street.  In a more organized effort of generosity, my church participated in the Angel Tree project, where we gathered presents for children whose parents can’t afford them.  (Which raised the question to a 10-year old parishioner: Why are we buying these children presents? Doesn’t Santa deliver presents to them?)  There are sparks of light in this world.  They may not be many, but they do exist.

Christmas reminds us of this.

And so we wade through Advent, at the foot of the cross with John the Baptist, Judas, and Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Let us answer the question for those who ask, “Are you the one we are waiting for? Or do we wait for another?”  Not by proclaiming Christ in word alone but also in deed.  Let us work to heal the blind, heal the lame, comfort the leper and the outcast, and share our riches with the poor.

It’s Christmas time.  A season that reminds us that even Darth Vader can be redeemed.