Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Light in the Darkness

I don’t know Oscar Pistorius, besides what was presented to the world in all the information broadcast around the Olympic Games in London last summer.  All I know, then, is that he was the first double amputee to compete in the “regular” Olympic games against “able-bodied” athletes.  I know that he was nicknamed “the blade runner” because of the design of the prostheses that he used to run.  I know that despite winning multiple medals in the paralympic games, he did not finish in the medal in the Olympics, but that it was a monumental achievement that he competed at all, and the world watched with hope in our hearts, urging him to do well, and was encouraged by the power of the human spirit as we watched him run.

The media plays tricks on us, making us feel as though we know someone by presenting them “up close and personal,” telling their story as though they were next-door neighbors or long lost brothers or sisters, inviting us to care about them.  Not a bad technique, frankly.  It works so well that we are stunned when this person we know so well does something that seems out of character, when this person falls from the pedestal we’ve put them on. 

I don’t know Oscar Pistorius.  I don’t know what he has done, whether the emotion displayed in that South African courtroom was the ravages of guilt for an heinous act or the despair of an individual caught in an unimaginable circumstance that he was helpless to control.  I don’t know.  I don’t know whether to be angry, or to feel sorry or cynical about people in general.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that Oscar Pistorius was walking in darkness.

Duh.  I’m sorry, you’re thinking, that’s the best you can do?  In the face of this international tragedy you fall back on banalities?  You trot out cliches that sound marginally pious but don’t say anything other than the obvious.  I mean, come on.  You can do better than that, can’t you?

Well, no, I don’t think so.  Except perhaps to say something like there is darkness in the world.  And the darkness is really dark.  Therefore, it should be our strongest desire, our deepest passion to seek the light.  And not just any light.  But a light that gives life.

OK, I can hear your eyes rolling from here.  Take a look at the text for this week while I consider how to say this in a way that doesn’t sound like something you’d read on a bumper sticker.

John 8:12-19  Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life."  13 Then the Pharisees said to him, "You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid."  14 Jesus answered, "Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.  15 You judge by human standards; I judge no one.  16 Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me.  17 In your law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is valid.  18 I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf."  19 Then they said to him, "Where is your Father?" Jesus answered, "You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also."

I could have simply chosen verse 12 as the text for this second week of Lent.  That is where the “I Am” saying is found.  So, we could have read one verse and then all nodded our heads and gone home.  Yep, Jesus is the light.  Got it, thanks.

The purpose of the subsequent verses is to show us that this isn’t as easy as it first seems.  This isn’t a throw away that Jesus just tosses out one fine afternoon.  This isn’t just one more metaphor being presented to help us wrap our minds around the reality of Jesus.  Or rather it isn’t just that.  It is, instead, an offer.  It is an invitation to enter into a relationship that takes us to whole new reality, a different way of being alive in the world.

To say that there is resistance is an serious understatement.  Jesus’ hearers are stunned, shocked, offended by his words.  “Who do you think you are?”, they shout red-faced at him. “What gives you the right?”  And worst of all, “Who are you to tell us we don’t know God?  We are God experts, we are black belt in God, we have PhD’s in God! You, on the other hand are a nothing nobody from nowhere!!”

This was because Jesus pokes them with a sharp stick, trying to get their attention, and they don’t like it.  They are trying to take him to court, to follow the legal rules of witness and testimony.  He says, I’m not here for that.  “I judge no one,” isn’t an abdication of his role as the Lord of Lords, but an indication that he isn’t here for rules right now, but for relationships.  It’s not time for rules, it’s not time for courts, for trials and affidavits - if it was you’d be in even more trouble than you are right now. 

He gets a little heated, it seems to me.  Because they threw in his face the standard line from any who would oppose us, who would stand in our way, who would challenge our word and our faith: “Prove it!”  Arghh, I hate that line.  Whether I get it from my kids, or the pagan down the street, or the seeker in the pew, or the soul lost in the darkness of his own making, or of her circumstance.  Prove it.  And what makes this question so daggone frustrating is that I find it on my own lips, in my own heart from time to time.  “Prove it, Jesus.”  Prove you are who you say you are, prove it to me so that there is no shadow of doubt, no dark corner of suspicion in the worldly part of me, prove it so that I never waver in my allegiance, never stray from your path, never lose my grip on that strong hand folded around mine.  Prove it.  Please.

If you take out the verses at the beginning of Chapter 8 here in John (a story which many say is in the wrong place and messes up the order of things), and look back to the beginning of this long debate, you’ll discover that Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Festival of Tabernacles.  Like all the great festivals, this one is marked by ritual and ceremony, by tradition and celebration.  On the first night of the festival, four lamps, or large torches were brought out to the court of the women, one of the outer courts and lit up to chase away the darkness.  It was said that when these torches were lit there was no courtyard in Jerusalem that couldn’t see the light.  In the light of the these festival lamps, the leaders and the followers, the wise and the foolish, the saints and the sinners, the rich and the poor would dance.  It was the very Presence of God that brought them through the darkness of the exodus, so what else could you do but dance?  It was an expression of Joy, bubbling forth from the least and the greatest, made equal by the grace of that light. 

It was in that light that Jesus said “I Am the light of the world,” the source of true joy, the fulness of life.  You can’t prove it, you have to experience it.  You can’t prove it, you have to accept it.  If he did prove it for us, he would remove from us the opportunity to choose.  Or as Maddie shows me, He holds out his hand and gives us the grace to accept the invitation to dance.  He gives us the opportunity, the joy of saying yes.  The only proof he allows for those who still walk in darkness is the dance of those who have said yes.  We are the proof, our lives lived out in joy and hope and sometimes terrifying desperation.

I don’t know Oscar Pistorius.  But when the news broke of his alleged crime my heart sank.  What keeps coming to mind, however, was the photo of Oscar the blade runner holding the hand of a little girl in a pink dress and two tiny replicas of those prostheses.  Her look of pride and hope and confidence learned from a man who had overcome a disability just like hers spoke volumes.  It was a dance in the light for that moment.  No, of course, that moment does not excuse whatever crime he may have committed.  But then neither does that darkness take away the power of that moment of light.  Any more than our repeated failures diminish the good that we can do when we walk in the light, when we prove Jesus is the great I Am by how we live our lives, when we dance with joy in the presence of the light of the world.  

So, keep dancing, no matter what, just keep dancing.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

Got Bread?

“The Gospel of John is a veritable symphony of incomprehension.”  Bishop William Willimon, in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 309.

We are launching a Lent of incomprehension.  And I, for one, couldn’t be more excited.  I know, it seems odd.  Isn’t my job to make sense of things?  Aren’t I a communicator, and shouldn’t I be marked down if folks come out of a worship or learning experience with a look of puzzlement on their faces?  Didn’t I fail at my task in confusion reigns? 

Well, I used to think so.  Still do, if I’m honest.  I want everyone to get it.  Get it?  I want a morning’s worth of ah-ha moments.  I want insight and understanding, I want clarity and decision, I want commitment and determination.  That’s what I want.  Certainly, I do.

So, to help get us there, I chose a Lenten series on the “I Am” sayings in the Gospel of John.  The veritable symphony of incomprehension, that gospel. You know, the he didn’t get it one.  The she missed the point narrative.  The “and the crowd threw up their hands in confusion and wandered of bewildered” story of Jesus.

I know that some of these sayings are favorite verses of many.  “I am the Good Shepherd.” “I am the Gate.”  “I am the Bread of Life.”  But almost all of them come in the midst of some of the most confusing dialogue in the whole bible.  It almost sounds as though Jesus doesn’t really want people to get it.  Like he is being deliberately obscure.  Like he wants to leave us with mouths agape and fingers scratching wrinkled brows, and eyes looking in vain to see if anyone else has a clue.

John 6:26-35   Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal."  28 Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?"  29 Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent."  30 So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?  31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"  32 Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.  33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."  34 They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."  35 Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

See what I mean?  A couple of weeks ago he was offering water so that we would never be thirsty, now he is offering bread so that we would never be hungry.  No, he is bread.  Is bread.  Some argue this is a hint about communion.  He is telling the church to be that one day we will engage in a ritual that will use bread to remind us of him.  Well, sure.  But there has to be more here than a future liturgical hint.

Maybe what we are tripping over here is not the bread.  I know that seems to be the confusion.  Jesus says to the crowds who have hunted him down that they were there for the wrong reasons.  They were there to get something to eat.  They were there to fill their bellies, to see that trick with the few loaves of bread that fed five thousand.  But when Jesus points it out to them, they are surprisingly amenable to change.  “Don’t work for food that perishes,” he says, “but for the food that endures for eternal life.”  Well, duh, they say to him, that’s why we’re here.  What you’ve been handing out is different than what we can pick up at Mejier’s or even Fresh Market!  So, hand over that “special” stuff!

Wait, he said work for it.  OK, what’s the work we’ve got to do?  “Believe in the one whom God sent.”  It was Lewis Carroll’s White Queen who claimed that in her youth she could believe six impossible things before breakfast.  Is that the kind of workout that Jesus invites us to undertake?  Get those believing muscles a-workin’!

There’s the rub, it seems to me.  We don’t normally associate believing with work.  Believing is a mental exercise, an internal activity that might be difficult but not really strenuous.  Jesus is asking for an intellectual assent, right?  He’s asking us to wrap our minds around the knowledge of who he is.  He wants us to understand, and agree, to sign on the dotted line of faith.  Right?

Wrong.  I think that this is why we (and they, those first followers struggle with it too) are so confused by what Jesus has to say.  Jesus never asks for understanding.  He doesn’t come and say “figure me out!”  “I’m a puzzle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma and once you puzzle it out you’ve got it made!”  Like some holy Rubik’s cube, or those golf tee peg things at Cracker Barrel.  Figure it out and you win, faith becomes easy. 

Jesus isn’t some puzzle to solve, but a companion to walk with.  When Jesus invites us to believe in him, he isn’t talking about an intellectual exercise as much as an act of will.  He is asking us to put our lives in his hands.  To commit to living the way he lives, to dedicate our lives to the priorities that he holds, to becoming like him, loving like him.  That’s the work he invites us to enter.  The is the bread he invites us to consume. 

You are what you eat.  That’s the faith declaration that Jesus claims in this passage.  So, eat this bread, drink from this belief.  And what you will find is that which you have longed for, that which you have hungered for is already within you.

Bread is the staple of life, some argue.  It is the ubiquitous food that sustains and fills.  It represents what we need to survive.  It stands for the sign of our dependance, but also our ability to be nourished by what is provided.  Bread is an acknowledgment that we do indeed hunger but also that we know how to fill those hungers.

Got bread? 


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Sleeping in Church

Uh oh, you’re thinking, I’ve been caught.  He’s going to point fingers and name names!  No more Mister Nice Pastor.  Yeah, that’s right.  I’ve seen you nodding off out there.  Trying to pretend that you are being devout.  Or contemplative.  The finger to the pursed lips, the heavy lidded eyes as though considering some cogent argument the preacher was making, I see you.  All belied by the hypnic jerk and the furtive glances around to see if anyone noticed.  They did, by the way, but they pretend like they didn’t.  Their eyes are forward; tongues are clamped between teeth so they don’t giggle as you trying to pretend like you aren’t falling asleep.  Don’t worry, you are providing a public service by keeping them awake, given them something - anything - to focus on to distract their minds during the dull bits.  Like the sermon.

But don’t worry, I’m not going to out you.  At least this time.  I understand.  We lead such active lives that sometimes the simple act of sitting down causes our eyes to drift closed despite our best efforts.  Long distance driving can be filled with terror for many riding along with a driver fighting sleep.  I know it is hard to sit attentively when the choir sings a soft and soothing anthem, when you are invited to close your eyes in silent prayer, when the preacher drones on and on about who knows what barely comprehensible theological drivel.  I know, don’t worry.

And not only that but you’re in good company.  Falling asleep when worship is called for is a repeated biblical theme.  There’s Jacob dozing on a heavenly landing strip.  The prophets shouting at people to wake up and see what is going on around them.  Proverbs says that too much sleeping leads to poverty.  And the Psalmist even asks God to wake up and get to work rescuing us!  There’s that kid who dozed off during one of Paul’s sermons and fell out a window and died.  Thankfully, Paul got to a benediction in time to raise him up again.   In a few weeks we’ll make our journey with Jesus through some of the most significant moments of his earthly life and find guards dozing at a tomb and  his closest followers unable to keep their eyes open.

Then there’s this, the quintessential mountain top experience.  And in the midst of it, a nap attack.

Luke 9:28-36   Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.  29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.  30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.  31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.  32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.  33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"-- not knowing what he said.  34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.  35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"  36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

They fought it off.  Maybe that’s the message here.  They fought off the sleep enough to see what they were supposed to see.  Sort of.  I think they saw.  Then Peter mumbles something about booths, about dwelling places.  And even Luke is embarrassed by it.  “He didn’t know what he was saying.”  Excuse him, folks, he just woke up.  And we smirk at his lack of couth, even though we don’t have a clue what was wrong with what he said.  Yeah, ok, it’s a little goofy.  But we’ve been taught that hospitality is an important thing.  So, he was doing the best he could, maybe we should cut him a little slack.

I mean who knows what’s going on here anyway.  A fancy light show and a rumbling voice from the heavens, we should be glad he could string two words together in a sentence that is more than confused babbling.  The Jesus they thought they knew was revealed to be more than even they suspected.  You can’t expect eloquence in a moment like that.  Can you?

Well, no, of course not.  Would we have done any better?  In the face of such glory, in the presence of the only Son of God, with the Voice of God directing our attention in the background, with the history of the people of God standing in support, on the mountain of the Lord - would we have a hope of making any sense whatsoever, of signaling our presence without putting our foot in our mouth, of basking in the glory without falling on our faces in shame?

Well, last I looked out, folks seemed to be doing just fine.  A little bored, here and there, some sleepy ones, plenty of clock watchers, a few crowd gazers, and one or two that seemed to be wrapped up in the glory revealed in that moment.  One or two.  And even more who were hoping and wanting and leaning toward it, but not quite sure what they were looking for.  The disappointment - in the worship, in themselves, in something they couldn’t quite name - was palpable. 

Hang on a minute, I hear you thinking, are you trying to imply that our weekly hour in the sanctuary at our local church is even a little bit equivalent to that wondrous moment on a mountain we call the Transfiguration?  I mean that was a singular experience, so powerful that they didn’t even know how to talk about it when they came back down the mountain.  I mean, Matthew and Mark report that Jesus told them to keep it a secret, Luke says they just didn’t talk about it.  Like it was too personal.  Too powerful.  Too ... too ... indescribable to describe. 

Surely you don’t mean to imply that worship week by week is like that.  What a ludicrous idea, I mean, come on!  Who would claim such a thing?  That what we do week by week is somehow done in the presence of the glory of the Son?  I wouldn’t dream of making such a claim.  But He did.  “Wherever two or three are gathered in my Name, I am there.”

That was the embarrassment of Peter’s comment.  He wasn’t prepared to worship in that moment.  He wanted to contain it, to hold it, to preserve it.  He was asking for a doggy bag, so that he could take it home and get to it later.  The proper response to that moment was attentive presence.  Pay attention, stay awake - one of Jesus favorite commands - watch and wait.  Be present. 

Worship.  Bring your whole self.  Set aside the agendas that you are trying to sort out for the rest of the day or week.  Stop trying to compare the music to the concert you attended the night before.  Quit expecting the preacher to entertain you like the comedians at the club.  Instead, listen for a Spirit speaking the Word through the words, ride the winds of grace in the music that echoes to sounds of creation itself, enter into the prayers as if they were your words or better yet the groans and sighs that you don’t even have words for yet.  Be present at God’s table.  Wake up, there is glory all around, Christ is revealing His true self in those moments. 

Shame on me if I ever present worship as something boring, something ordinary.  Shame on you if you accept a less than dynamic experience, or come expecting nothing more than a momentary diversion on a Sunday morning.  Shame on us all if we ask Jesus to tone it down so we can get our nap in.  And praise God for meeting us in our worship, even when we forget to look. 

I’m climbing a mountain to gaze at Christ this Sunday.  Care to join me?


Saturday, February 2, 2013

Shadows and Sun

How do you pronounce Punxsutawney anyway?  Happy Groundhog’s Day!  One of those celebrations that remind us that everyone goes a little crazy in the winter.  Long term climate prognostication by large rodents in unpronounceable Pennsylvania towns, sure, why not?  Although, it makes as much sense as anything else this season.  Apparently, he didn’t see his shadow which means a quick end to winter.  OK, I can buy that.  How many times has this winter ended already?  Wasn’t it over 60 degrees just a few days ago?  So, old Phil is right winter will end soon.  And start up again ... soon.  And then end again ... soon.  Trust me on this.

But scared of shadows?  That I understand.   Well, more metaphysically than in reality.  Shadows are about absence.  Shadows are about lack, about emptiness.  And there isn’t anything scarier than that, it seems to me.  What’s that poem?  “I met a man who wasn’t there / he wasn’t there again today / Oh how I wish he’d go away!”  Absence is terrifying.  Even the crazy dogs know it.  Every now and then they’ll start barking, but when I look there isn’t anything there.  “You’re barking at nothing!” I’ll shout at them.  “We know that,” they’ll reply, “but isn’t it scary?” Well, with you making all that racket, yes, it is!  “Told ya,” they’ll smirk, in between barks.

Maybe if Phil could bark he wouldn’t have to run back into his burrow for six more weeks of winter, on those Groundhog Days when he does see his shadow.  Maybe if we knew how to fill the emptiness, we wouldn’t be so frightened.  Maybe if we knew how to resolve the loneliness, we wouldn’t feel so hollow.  Maybe if we could find a way to fill the void that is darkness, we could see our way through again.  Maybe, when we are so dry we are parched, we could find something so we wouldn’t be so thirsty anymore.

We all have our thirsty days.  Even Jesus had them.  At least if John is right about the story that he tells.  But the difference is, for Jesus, a thirsty day was an opportunity rather than a terror.  It was a chance to give out of abundance, rather than a panic to fill an emptiness.

If that makes sense.  Take a look:

John 4:5-15  So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  6 Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.  7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink."  8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)  9 The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)  10 Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water."  11 The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?  12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?"  13 Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,  14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."  15 The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."

There is more to the story, of course, as my Wednesday morning bible study was quick to point out.  But I chose to focus on this part of the narrative with the intention of making it about us rather than about her.  Her, the woman at the well.  One of the many nameless women in the bible, without whom we would be even more lost than we are.  Not that she is merely a literary device, a cipher for our needs.  She was a flesh and blood person, because that is who Jesus came to save.  Like us.  Her need is our need, her thirst is our thirst, her fears our fears.

Jesus comes, across all the barriers that we have set up to keep him out.  The scandal of this story is that Jesus would even talk to this woman, let alone want to love her.  Wait, love her?  Wasn’t this just about a drink of water on a hot and thirsty day?  No, never.  There is no “just” with Jesus.  And there need be no “just” with us.  Everything is deeper if we choose to let it be so.  Everything is layered with meaning if we seek it.  Every encounter - in the grocery store or sidewalk - is with a genuine human being with a story we may not know, indeed may never know, but can still honor if we choose.  If we choose to see them as a person with a bucket and a thirst.

Give me a drink, he asked her.  He asked her.  Jesus doesn’t come and say let me fix you.  He meets us in a shared need.  He emptied himself so that he would know our emptiness.  He succumbed to the ravages, the needs of the flesh so that he could find us in our need, in our thirsts.  Then, faced with our shock, he says I can help you with your thirst as easily as you could have helped me with mine. 

But we are skeptical.  You don’t have a bucket, we say.  You don’t have what I need.  You’ve got words and ideas, you’ve got emotions and philosophies.  Thanks, but what I really need is some water.  What I really need is what I can hold in my hand, or put in my pocket.  What I really need is recognition from people like me.  What I really need is stuff I can get with my own bucket.  So, thanks but no thanks.

And we drop our own bucket in the well and we drink.  And we drop it again and we drink again.  And drop and drink.  Drop and drink.  And still we thirst.  It isn’t enough.  It is never enough.  Is it?  We thirst.  We search.  We settle for a while, but it is never enough.

Give me this water always.  She didn’t know what he offered.  Not really.  She didn’t understand what he brought.  All she knew was that there was something here that she wanted.  Some whisper of hope.  Some relieving of long help pain.  And she leaned toward it with a hand outstretched.

Jesus never seems to need a lot of response.  A note of hope in the voice is enough.  A willingness to see him as the source of that which will quench our thirsts.  That’s all it takes, it seems.  We don’t have to understand completely.  We don’t have to write an essay on salvation theology.  We don’t have to recite a complex creed or make a well defined statement of faith.  We don’t have to perform elaborate rituals or make sacrificial offerings.  We just have to want it.

The question I heard asked some time ago that still echoes in my soul is this: Jesus says if we drink of the water he offers us, we will never be thirsty.  So, why are we still thirsty?

Why do we still run from shadows?  Why do we still live in emptiness? Is it because we don’t ask?  We think our own buckets are sufficient?  Why do we not embrace the life that he offers?  It can’t be that simple, can it?  Just ask?  Just want it and he will give it?  What’s the catch?  Maybe we should just give it a try.

Give me this water always.  Fill this emptiness.  Chase away these shadows.  Please. ...  Please?