Saturday, April 30, 2011

Slept Since Then

What a great day we had on Easter Sunday. Lots of people, wonderful singing, kids running inside and out - it seemed as though the excitement would go on and on. It was Easter after all, a day of resurrection and of hope. All the doubts faded, all the questions seemed unimportant, the future seemed so bright ... Didn’t it? It was Easter, for heaven’s sake!

Then why did I spend so much time in the hospital this week? Aren’t we living in the after Easter glow? Why were there still diagnoses that sound so threatening? Why were there still tornadoes ripping through neighborhoods? Why don’t we have stacks of chairs waiting in the hallways to accommodate all the people on this Sunday?

Was it all just a dream? Did the light of Easter fade away with the coming of the clouds of uncertainty? Or were we just fooling ourselves for a little while one morning? Whistling in the dark, pretending to enjoy a confidence and hope that we never really felt, never really held?

All of a sudden, I am glad it is Youth Sunday this week at Aldersgate. I means I don’t have to try to deal with all this post-Easter let down. They get to. Lucky them. The confirmation class, which is bringing the message this week, selected a few verses from the 20th Chapter of John as the text for this Sunday. I decided to expand it a little bit here, just to get the flavor of this familiar story. It follows John’s wonderful depiction of the Easter morning announcement. So, the evening referred to here is Sunday night. The beginning of the let down. Or is it? Take a look:

John 20:19-29 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin1 ), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." 27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." 28 Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" 29 Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Good old Thomas. We’re sure glad he is there. Saves us having to ask these uncomfortable questions. We don’t have to carry the weight of our doubts all alone. He paved the way for us. He stood there in front of the remaining disciples, who were still glowing from their encounter with the Risen Jesus, and says “No.” He says, “I’m not buying it. I don’t get it. I can’t see what you see.” And in so doing he legitimizes all those questions that race through our own minds from time to time.

I was about to graduate from high school - many years ago - and managed to get put in a leadership position in our church youth group. And one Sunday night after playing some games we were sitting in a dark corner of that old church just talking. And one of the younger ones managed to say something like “I’m not even sure there is a God, you know?” “Yeah,” another piped up, “it is kinda out there.” And before you know it, there was general consensus that this God thing was pretty incredible, and not all that necessary for a good life, as far as they could see anyway.

Needless to say, I was stunned. Remember I was just a kid myself. What are you in high school - 6 or 7, that’s what it felt like, feels like now when I look back on it anyway. I was shaking, not sure how to deal with that, startled by that lack of certainty, lack of belief. I pretty much ran away from the moment.

Remember I was young, and somewhat sheltered from the world. I hadn’t yet had my heart broken so completely that I wondered where God was. I hadn’t stood by helplessly while someone I loved suffered through the end of their life. I hadn’t even paid enough attention to the world around me to see cruelty and inhumanity on a world-wide scale, death and devastation, suffering and isolation.

I hadn’t yet realized that Thomas’ position was the more sensible one. It is the world’s question. Unless I see, unless I touch, I won’t believe. Doesn’t that make so much more sense? Isn’t that what were are taught in our academic endeavors, verify? Aren’t we asked to substantiate our beliefs? Why do we give Thomas such a hard time, when he is the one who makes the most sense, seems the most like us?

Did you notice Thomas’ name in the bible stories? We call him “Doubting Thomas.” But that title never appears in the text anywhere. In the bible he is called Thomas the Twin. Isn’t that interesting? And we know nothing at all about his twin. Such a major character and we know nothing about this twin. It could be anybody. It could even be you.

Or me. We stand with Thomas more often than we would like to admit. We are his twin in our needing of confirmation, of something to touch and something to hold on to. A connection to what it is we believe. That’s what we need and what we want, even when we can’t articulate it. The real tragedy in this story is in verse 24: “Thomas, called the twin, was not with them when Jesus came.” He was unconnected, he was cast adrift on a sea of doubt and worry and uncertainty.

Maybe that is what Jesus was referring to with those words about seeing and believing. Maybe it isn’t simply about recognizing what we won’t have. As much as we might want to, we won’t get to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear his teaching and see his miracles like the first ones did. And some read those final verses as Jesus saying “it’s OK, never mind, just enjoy what you get.”

But maybe there is more to it than that. Maybe Jesus is helping us realize that seeing isn’t really believing after all. Maybe what he is hinting at is that being is believing. Maybe we come closer to believing when we being acting like Christ, when it is our wounds that we show to the world, when it is our hope that leads the way then it leads us to belief, deeper belief in the one we call Christ.

The glory and celebration of Easter is wonderful, and necessary to our lives of faith. But we can’t put all our eggs in that Easter basket. The world goes on, we’ve slept since then and our perennial question arises: now what?

Well, now there’s blessing. Blessing in being.


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Cross Currents

La Donna and the kids have gone off to Crumstown (yes, that really is the name of a town in Indiana) to see Grandpa and to give me space to prepare for worship on Easter Sunday. I’m grateful for the quiet time (though I’m beginning to wish they took the dogs too. Protecting the whole neighborhood is loud and frenetic work.) But I do miss them. Kinda funny how you don’t always notice who is there until they’re gone. Saturdays are days of preparation for me, and I’m not always the most social on this day. Still checking in with family does help round out the day. But now they are gone.

It is interesting to me how often we miss things that are right under our noses. The old "if it was a snake, it would have bit you" kind of thing. But I'm talking about more than just your glasses that you mislaid or your car keys that fell out of your pocket. I'm talk about life itself, right there within your grasp, but we keep missing it because we think it is somewhere else. We think you have to look harder, or it has to shine more brightly, or that it should knock our socks off every moment. And so we miss the opportunities, we miss the moments, we overlook the people who could give our life more meaning because we are looking the wrong way.

Or to tap into the title of this bible study, we're swimming with the wrong current. We get swept up into the stream that everyone else is following, thinking that it is going to bring us where we want to be. When in fact, to follow Christ is to swim against the tide, or at least cross current. It isn't that we need to turn our backs on everything this world has to offer, but we have to put those things into a different perspective. The American Dream, for example, has some dimensions to appreciate, but to chase it blindly is flow into attitudes and arenas we don't really want. So, we swim cross the current.

OK, I'm getting lost in the metaphor here. Let me try another tack (which is a nautical term meaning taking a course against the wind). This one comes from the Gospel for Easter Sunday. Let's read this wonderful story again:

Matthew 28:1-10 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you." 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

I love comparing the four stories of Easter morning that the Gospels give us. Each speaks of the discovery of the empty tomb and each speaks of the effect of this discovery on those who were there that morning. But then each of them adds some nuances that differ. Why are they different? Well, could be lots of reasons. Maybe the tellers of the story forgot some of the little details when they told the story to the writers. Or maybe the writers wanted to add in some stuff to make their point more clear, or to emphasize something or other. We don't always know why they wrote what they wrote, all we can do is try and figure out what it means.

There are some aspects of Matthew's story that are so amazing. Matthew was a Michael Bay kind of director, big explosions going off all around the action. He’s got earthquakes on Friday and now this Sunday morning shake. He’s got angels, well, an angel showing up. But not one of these nondescript, undercover angels. This one has a name tag, or a spandex suit and cape rippling in the breeze. This angel’s got strobe lights and blaring trumpets. No “is that an angel” questions from the on-lookers. He shows up, tosses away a multi-ton stone like it is a pebble he could skip across a pond and then strikes a pose on top of the rock, like he’s waiting for the reporter from Rolling Stone magazine to take his photo.

And in case you are still wondering if this is a dramatic entrance or what, Matthew has the guards - big, tough, soldier types - pass out from fear. Wow, you say, no scrimping on the special effects budget on this one! Matthew isn’t into subtlety. He doesn’t want you to miss anything.

And yet we do. They do. The women, who didn’t pass out like the big tough soldier guys did, get the message and run away with fear and great joy. I love that. Fear and great joy. That sounds human. That sounds about right for this incredible moment. Unsettling enough to be frightening. But wonderful enough to lead to hope.

Everyone seems to be missing something. And it is the shiny guy who points this out. You're in the wrong place, you've got the wrong attitude, you're swimming with the wrong current. The current they were in was the logical one, the human one. A man was crucified. A man was buried. Ergo, that man was dead. Makes perfect sense. Unless you factor in Easter. Why are you seeking the living among the dead? That was the question they asked the women who had come to the tomb. You are in the wrong place, you are making the wrong assumptions. He’s not here, he’s there. Where’s there? Home, where you live, right where you are, where you least expect him to be. You are missing what is right under your noses.

And what was under their noses was life itself. Full, abundant, empowered life. That is what Christ came to offer us. He didn't come to give us the training regime to get there, he didn't come to coerce us into becoming something better, he didn't come to drop some hints and then let us search through the clues to figure out just what we are supposed to do and to be. He came with a gift. And it is right there in front of us.

It is the gift of community. It is the gift of serving and caring. It is the gift of living in gratitude. It is the gift of hope. It is the gift of grace. We make things so hard. We want wide screen, can't miss it, knock your socks off kind of experiences to convince us that we finally have found something of significance. When what should knock our socks off is that there is some one who loves is even when we are unlovable. And that we can know of this love through a community that lives love first in everything that we do. Can't get any more powerful than that.

Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he complained about those who were always seeking signs. Show me something spectacular, Lord and then I'll believe. Come on down from that cross and then I'll believe. He is asking us to live differently, to swim cross current. To open our eyes and see what there is to see. When the smile of a loved one, when the music of the choir on Easter morning, when the smell of a flower, when the grace of a work of art, when an arm around your shoulders, when a lump in the throat, when a tear of joy traces down your cheek - when these and the thousand more signs of life are right in front of you every moment of every day become all that you need to know that He Is Risen, indeed, then we’ll know what he so desperately wants us to know.

When we move cross current, we taste life differently. We experience joy differently when we live cross current.

So, dive in. The water's fine. Happy Easter


Saturday, April 9, 2011

Cross Off

Are you a list-maker? I have occasions when I am cogent enough to make a list. Usually when my wife tells me I need to make one. She is a consummate list maker. There are lists all over the place. And often she even follows them! Just kidding, dear.

The best part about making a list is that you can often have a clear sense of direction. On the paper (or various electronic listmaking gadgets) you can see the goals ahead of you. You have an idea of what needs to be done and often the order in which they might be accomplished. A list can help keep you on task, can remind you of what you might have forgotten and can even be an incentive to getting down to the tasks at hand. They can a help to prioritizing, can set an agenda, and can even impress others with how much you intend to take on.

But there is one other function of a list the neglect of which would make all the above moot. A list you gives you the opportunity to cross stuff off. Whoo-hoo. There is a sense of completion, a sense of accomplishment when you are able to cross off an item. Tasks that sit there on the list sometimes can intimidate you, can threaten you or just plain worry you. But once you are able to cross them off, you are able to cheer over a job well done. Or a task completed anyway.

Doesn't it feel great to be able to cross off something? Even crossing off the easy jobs give you a sense that you are getting somewhere. But when you are able to cross off the hard ones, then you know a significant moment has come. Then you want to bask in the glory for a moment.

I have this tendency to want to dwell in that sense of accomplishment for a while, to reflect on that job well done mentality. I'd love to be able to just sit and think "Wasn't that wonderful?" Didn't I do a good job? Aren't I proud of myself for being able to cross this off my list?

But I can't. Usually, anyway. Because there is something else to do. Something else that waits to be accomplished, something else that sits there on the list waiting to be done. Somewhere else to go, someone else to call, another event to plan or attend. Something else to do. Like die, for instance.

OK, most of the time I don't put that on my list. But as we come here to the end of the Words from the Cross, we discover that Jesus is also in the process of completing the tasks at hand.

Again this week we have two Words, the sixth and seventh Words from the Cross. Which means we are nearly done. Listen:

John 19:30 When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, "It is finished"; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.


Luke 23:46-49 Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!" And having said this he breathed his last. 47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, and said, "Certainly this man was innocent!" 48 And all the multitudes who assembled to see the sight, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance and saw these things.

We could have just chosen verse 46 from Luke 23, like we chose only one verse from John's 19th chapter. Of all of the words, these two are the most personal for Jesus. I'm not sure that the Centurion's comment adds much to our understanding of what was going on with Jesus. It does show us one response to his death that we might emulate, but it doesn't really help us hear the theological meaning of what Jesus said. Likewise with the other responses presented there in Luke's gospel. Those who were beating their breast might have been moved by what took place, might have been troubled and convicted by what they observed, just like us. Or they might have just been going through the motions, professional mourners doing their job, not really being touched, not really being challenged by what they say. And it is possible that many of us are like those women who followed and while we want to be present, we want to be connect to this man, to this death, we also want to keep some distance while we watch. To save our own skins perhaps, to keep a little cleaner, to invest a little of ourselves but not too much.

I shouldn't condemn those women, however, at least they were there. And even at a distance they couldn't help but be affected by what they saw.

But all of that is really beside the point here. Jesus' Words would have been just as important, just as rife with possibility if he had been completely alone on that skull like hill that Friday afternoon. That is what I mean by saying that these words were the most personal of all the words.

None of the seven Words appear in all four gospels. Most of them only appear in one. My God, My God appears in two - Matthew and Mark, but the rest only in one each.

Except, an argument could be made that the sixth Word, "It is Finished" appears in all four. Certainly not as written, not in those words, so don't go running for your gospel concordance. However, if you look at Matthew and Mark you will find the notation that just before he died, just before he gave up his spirit (and that difference is vitally important - as we'll see in a moment) he cried out in a loud voice.

Some folks interpret that cry as a last gasp of pain, as a surrender or collapse. But given what else we read, I doubt that very much. In Greek the sixth Word is not a phrase or a sentence, it is one Word: "telesthai." "Telesthai" could be translated as "Finished!" Or "Done!" It is a cry of triumph, of completion, not of resignation or surrender. It is the cry of the runner finishing the marathon, it is the shout of the artist completing the work of art, it is the weary laugh of the mother who has given birth. "Finished!"

Jesus was crossing something off the list that his father gave him to do. He was beaten and bloody, he was torn and bruised, he was breathing his last ragged breaths, but he was triumphant. And he was in control.

Here is a key understanding to the whole Crucifixion event. Jesus wasn't killed, he gave up his life. Matthew, Mark and Luke all say "He breathed his last." He was the subject, not the object of that sentence. He was in control. He was the actor, not the reactor. John says it even more plainly - "He gave up his spirit." He handed over all that he was to the Father. For us.

Which brings us to the final Word. Luke's loud cry is wrapped around a different Word. "Into Your Hands" he shouts. This is the completion of the task that he was given. To return to all that he was before the incarnation. To reclaim his role in the Trinity, or to sit at the right hand of the Father. So, the seventh Word doesn't announce completion, it accomplishes it.

And shows us the way. Jesus' final Word from the cross not only shows us how to die, but it shows us how to live. In the hands of the Father.

Cross it off your list.


Saturday, April 2, 2011

Cross Up

Shorter than usual this week. As we draw closer to the end, to the last of the last words from the cross, it seems as though too many words would be inappropriate. Like someone talking on their cell phone in church. Like someone making jokes in tragic moment. Or like when someone gets on one knee and takes your hand and then tells you they never loved you at all.

Sometimes when you've come to expect one thing and are presented with the opposite it throws you for a loop. It is startling, to say the least. It could be a good thing when something ends up better than you expected. Or it could be a bad thing when something or someone lets you down. Being crossed up can leave you feeling left in the lurch, can leave you feeling abandoned.

Our Fourth Word from the Cross seems to speak of that same sense of abandonment. But perhaps something deeper is going on here. Listen up:

Matthew 27:45-49 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" 47 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "This man is calling for Elijah." 48 At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him."

Many commentators will point out that Jesus' words here are not original with the man on the cross. This is, in fact, a quote from Psalm 22. Some would argue then that it is interesting that Jesus has the presence of mind to quote a scripture in the midst of this excruciating death. Perhaps, it wasn't so excruciating after all. Perhaps he only seemed to be suffering. After all, he was God, wasn't he? So, how could God suffer?

This was the argument of the Docetists, a group who argued that the crucifixion was a ruse of a sort. It was only seeming, not reality. Of course this view did not win the day. The Docetists (from the Greek dokeo - to seem) were considered heretical by the early church. Jesus the Christ, the argument went, was fully human and fully divine. So, his death was real, his suffering was genuine. And this is why this death causes such awe.

Perhaps it was that in the midst of the agony of the cross, his mind went back to the lessons he had learned as a child. This might be an argument for teaching the memorization of scripture. The reservoir of knowledge that we can draw upon in times of crisis needs to be deep and wide, filled with all sorts of knowledge and experience. The psalms were that body of knowledge, that source of strength and wisdom. Jesus was quoting the scriptures for the sake of quoting. He was living the scriptures in that moment.

The one source of strength that Jesus relied upon every moment of his life, until this one, was the connection with God. For Jesus to bear our sin, for Jesus to walk where we walk, the final experience for him in this moment was that separation we feel from God. To die our death, he had to know how lonely, how disconnected we feel from God. He had to taste, to embrace that unknowing. And it wounded him. Maybe more than the nails, maybe more than the lash. The only way he knew to express his pain of losing that connection was to reach back to the words he knew by heart. The words that were spoken by a psalmist who was feeling the result of sin; who was wasting away from guilt and brokenness.

My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me? The darkness that begins the passage represents God's face turning away for that moment. It was from the darkness, more than the pain, that this shout of despair was heard.

There is no seeming here, there is only the surprising God who dies that we might live. Who was crossed up here? Was it the Christ who lost his grip on the Father? Or was it those of us who still expect our saviors to kill and not to die?