Saturday, September 21, 2013

There Will Come a Time

The vast hall reverberated with silence.  The stunned students sat looking vacantly toward the man who stood before them, seemingly unwilling to speak.  Perhaps he could explain the events of the past few hours.  Perhaps he could give meaning where there seemed only madness.  The silence dragged on, and none dared to breathe, or look at the one bruised and beaten boy who sat among them but was obviously not with them.  He was somewhere else.  Reliving some dark moment, some unspeakable truth, carrying a weight none of them could imagine.

As if suddenly coming to himself, the headmaster began to speak, but not the hoped for words of comfort and assurance.  Instead he confirms for their already shaken souls just how ugly the world has gotten, just how their simple dreams of safety and security were shattered.  “Dark times,” he breathes as though hesitant to even speak the words he knows he must.  “Dark times lie ahead of us,” he pauses as if to gather up the gaze of each fearful face gathered before him, “and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”

Of course, that was fiction.  The final chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; Albus Dumbledore speaking to the gathered Hogwarts students after Harry’s encounter with the returned Voldemort, the evil of dark wizards.  Just typing it here makes me feel a little silly.  Wizards and magic, not something we have to deal with in the real world.  Kid’s stuff, fantasy, dismissible.  Let’s get to something of significance, something that makes a difference in how we live our lives each and every day.  We’re not surrounded by trolls and dark wizards or elves and orcs, but duties and responsibilities, joys and heartaches.  So, how shall we live?

Luke 9:23-25   Then he said to them all, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  24 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.  25 What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? 

Which book of the bible uses the word “choose” the most?  Surprisingly, it is Deuteronomy, that book we skip over in our read through because we think it is full of the rules of regulations of an ancient and nomadic culture.  And, to be frank, I haven’t spent a lot of time in Deuteronomy either.  Sure there is the heart of the law there, the second  listing of the ten words given to Moses on Mount Sinai, and the core statement of the faith called the “Shema” in Hebrew after the first word “Hear.”  “Hear o Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is One.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  To that Jesus added the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves to give us the Great Commandment.  That has its roots in Deuteronomy.

But aside from that?  Well ... Apparently there is a lot of choosing.  It is as though inherent in the design of being the people of God there is choice.  Well, duh.  Scriptures are full of choosing, and the memorable ones are more dramatic than what we find in the book of Deuteronomy.  There is Joshua – “Choose this day whom you will serve ... But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!”  Ah, there is the terrible enemy Goliath (the “He who must not be named of the nation of Israel) – “Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.”  Makes you shiver just to imagine him bellowing those words across the valley of Elah.  There is the taunt of Elijah to the priests of Baal – Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first for you are many, then call on your god.”   There is Isaiah singing the song of Emmanuel, saying “he will know how to refuse the evil and choose the good” while still a toddler, just beginning to eat solid food, our great hope.  

Then there is the man who reminds Jesus that he has a choice to make too.  “Lord, if you choose you can make me clean.”  And the response “I do choose.  Be clean!”  He chooses the twelve.  And then reminds them that he chose them they didn’t choose him, just as he is about to leave them and send them out to choose how to live their lives without him at their side as he had been for these all too few years.  Then the church chose a replacement for the one who chose wrong.  The grand sweep of choice reverberates through the whole bible.  Wrong choices and right one, and many left un-chosen as examples for us.

The church has grabbed hold of choosing, and laid it out like a diploma we can grab, like a mountain that we climb and then have conquered.  Have you chosen, we ask, in lots of different ways.  “Are you saved?”  “Are you born again?”  “Have you said yes to Jesus?”  We present it like it is a one time thing.

Luke’s version of Jesus saying presents a different though.  These verse appear in all four gospels, that makes it somewhat unique.  Adds a little extra weight to the words by the repetition.  But Luke’s remembrance is a little bit different than all the others.  He is the only one who adds the word “daily” to the call to discipleship.  “Take up their cross daily” Jesus says.  Them, us, the followers who would be.  The ones trying to make our way in this world.  The ones who face a mind-numbing array of decisions on a regular basis.  Daily, one could say.

And most of those decisions don’t seem to matter much in the greater scheme of things.  No big deal, really.  What difference does it make, we ask ourselves, here and there if we choose this and not that, if we go one way or the other.  How will these little choices lead me astray or get me off track or make a hill of beans kind of difference in the world around me or within me?

Hard to say, really.  Maybe it won’t, maybe they don’t make a difference.  Except that Jesus seems to be describing a life here, not just a choice.  Not just a one time are you in or are you out kind of checkpoint we wander through.  But something more like orienteering.  Something like finding our way through the wilderness of living.  In which case every choice, not just big ones, but every choice serves to move us closer to where we want to be.  Or away from that goal.

A step here or there, doesn’t seem like it would matter all that much.  Until Jesus begins to talk about end results.  “What would it profit to gain the whole world and lose your soul?”  Hey, Jesus, how about just a little off track?  How about mixed up, or distracted, or confused, or angry, or hurt?  Why not focus on something smaller?  Something less ... eternal.  Lose your soul.  

That’s what’s at stake, Jesus says.  In all these choices, even the ones we don’t stop to think about.  The ones that don’t seem to matter all that much.  The ones that don’t seem to hurt anyone.  And maybe they don’t matter all that much.  But what if we saw them as training for the big ones?  What if we saw daily living not as something to get through, but as a part of the bigger picture, the vision of the kingdom?  And that our joy is to be able to contribute to the kingdom by the choices we make?

And what if we decided that we were going to choose not what we wanted, but what was good for others and for all?  What if we chose to set our desires and inclinations aside long enough to hear what the crying needs for the community around us really were.  What if we chose to do not what is expedient, but what is healthy for us and all of creation even if it meant giving up what we’ve come to take for granted?  What if we chose to find ourselves by not putting ourselves first, but by not thinking about ourselves at all?  

What if we chose not what is easy, but what is right?

Maybe Dumbledore was on to something after all.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

Interrupting Jesus

It is noisy here today.  So much for the empty nest.  I've got people asking how we are doing with all the kids gone and while sometimes it does seem more empty, it isn't silent.  The biggest change I notice is that when La Donna calls for someone to set the table there’s no one but me.  Unless we could train the crazy dogs to do that.

Fat chance.  At the moment I would like to be able to train the crazy dogs to shut up.  First of all the weather is so nice, there are some neighborhood boys who have to try their hand at fishing in the pond out back.  Apparently, adolescent boys out at a pond is frown upon by the crazy dogs.  No, wait, I take that back.  It would be great if they only frowned.  No, we have to bark, loudly and incessantly, taking exception to every move they make and every shout they shout (not sure what shouting has to do with fishing, but apparently it is necessary from time to time).  Though the boys won’t take any notice, the rest of us are wearing thin.

And then today, La Donna decided that she needed to have a garage sale to get rid of some of the stuff she was sorting from her mom and dad’s house, plus a few extra things we may have picked up over the years, or stuff the kids outgrew, or lost interest in.  Good idea I thought.  Bad idea barked the crazy dogs.  Bad idea because it means she is of their sight for most of the day and that strange people keep showing up in the driveway and having the audacity to make noise.  Walking, talking, breathing, you know those offenses against the canine sense of order in the universe.

Even when things seem to calm down for a little while, some unheard, unseen, unknown offense sets them off like a alarm you didn’t realize was on snooze.  It can be startling to say the least.  Hard to focus, hard to stay on target.  What was I talking about?  Well, nothing yet, to be honest.  What was it going to be?  I can’t remember.  If only these dogs would be quiet...

Mark 5:21-43   When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea.  22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet  23 and begged him repeatedly, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live."  24 So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.  
25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.  26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.  27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,  28 for she said, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well."  29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.  30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, "Who touched my clothes?"  31 And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, 'Who touched me?'"  32 He looked all around to see who had done it.  33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.  34 He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."  
35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader's house to say, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?"  36 But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, "Do not fear, only believe."  37 He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James.  38 When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly.  39 When he had entered, he said to them, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping."  40 And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was.  41 He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha cum," which means, "Little girl, get up!"  42 And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement.  43 He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat. 

I wonder if Jesus got exasperated at the interruptions.  It seems that time and time again someone comes running up to change his course.  I know he is ready to help and to heal and to go where he is most needed, but still.  The demands of a crowd wanting something from him must have been like barking dogs getting on his last nerve.  Must have been.  But you can’t tell it by reading the gospels.  There seems to be an infinite supply of patience that he could draw on.  OK, maybe one time he seemed a bit short with someone (that’s a story for another time), but for the most part he was grace incarnate.

Well, duh.  Of course the point is, not only him, but us as well.  That’s the hard part.  To not see needs, people, opportunities as interruptions, but as grace moments.  To give and to receive. To be attentive and to be present.  To be alive and real.  Like he was.  He is.

There is more here, however than the interruption.  There is healing, there is acceptance, there is life out of death, there is hope.  There is twelve years of a downward spiral leading to rock bottom, there is twelve years of young life that seems to be vanishing like the morning mist.  There is a daughter reclaimed from shame and suffering, and there is a daughter reclaimed from death.  There is wonder and there is laughter - both before and after Jesus has come into the picture.  And there is a secret.

Ah, the secret.  Why does Jesus tell them not to tell when they aren’t going to help telling.  When you undo a funeral someone is going ask some questions.  It seems an odd thing for Jesus to do.  Surely he knew that they were going to tell.  Unless the commandment wasn’t not to tell, but who got to do the telling.  The only ones in the room were the little girl’s parents and three disciples.  Maybe he wanted to story to be hers and not theirs.  Maybe Jesus was setting the precedent for witness.  Tell your own story, not someone else’s.  And tell it with your living rather than your words, at least at first.  “Give her something to eat!”

But the reason we turned to this story at all has to do with Jairus first of all.  He is our example of a real follower, in our series based on the book by Michael Slaughter (Real Followers: A Radical Quest to Expose the Pretender Inside Each of Us).  

Jairus is a leader of the synagogue, Mark tells us.  That gives him some status, that puts a certain aura around him.  Jairus is one others go to, he is a decider, a determiner.  He has resources, he has position, he has power.  He is used, I am sure, to solving all his own problems.  Except this one.  “My little daughter,” he says, she’s twelve years old,  almost an adult.  Marriageable age, ready to move out and move on.  But at the point of death she becomes his little daughter again.  “Lay your hands on her,” he asks, bless her, ordain her, set he apart, heal her, he asks.  Save her.  The word that we translate here is sozo, sometimes translated as heal, sometimes translated as save.  As in “are you saved?”  Save her, he asked.  “So that she may be made well and live.”  Not just made well, but live also.  Bless her with the fullness of life, give her all that is in store for her, the potential, the goodness, the glory of God.  Let her shine, he asks.  No, he begs, on his knees, face down in the dust, clinging to Jesus ankles, begging.

That’s a follower.  He hadn’t been before, as far as we know.  But he is now.  Because he interrupted the interruptible Jesus, and pleaded for help.  We can’t do this alone.  We need help.  We need His help.  Lay your hands on us, bless us, bless them, bless all we encounter.  Use our hands, use our knees, use whatever it takes to save us, to make us well and alive .

Maybe even barking dogs.  


Saturday, September 7, 2013

All You Can

“Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”  Supposedly this is a quote from John Wesley.  I say supposedly because there is some dispute from historians.  He said something similar to this, though, so I guess we can take it as close enough.  

Earn all you can.  That is certainly in step with our times.  We focus on income for so many things, we define ourselves or rate ourselves based on how much we have coming in.  One of the most popular issues of Parade magazine is the “What people make” issue each year.  We measure our worth on how much we make.  So, when Mr Wesley tells us to make all that we can, he is preaching to the choir.  Singing our song.

But he steps out of line when he moves on to “save all that you can.”  It has never been a favorite pastime of ours, this saving thing.  Personal saving as percentage of income hit a high right after the financial crisis in 2007, reaching a high of 8%.  But lately it has slowly been declining, now around 3%, which is only marginally higher than just before the bubble burst and we all panicked.  Now we are feeling a little more comfortable, so we are officially back to spending more than we make, as a nation.

Which means that the whole giving thing is under threat as well.  National giving rate for 2012 was about 2%, which is a little bit below the saving rate, and is still lower than it was before the recession hit.  2% amounts to a significant amount of money, really.  But, it is all we can?  

OK, so what does this economics lesson have to do with the bible study for this week?  Well, we are looking at another passage from Luke, which automatically raises our economic antennae.  But the truth is I’m not really sure that the theme of this passage is economic.  Well, I mean, it is but it isn’t.  Sort of.  I mean, Jesus seems to avoid the issue at the beginning and then dives into it at the end.  Hmm.  Well, take a look for yourself.

Luke 12:13-21  Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me."  14 But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?"  15 And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."  16 Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  17 And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?'  18 Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  19 And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'  20 But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'  21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God." 

“Who set me to be a judge...?”  Well, um, didn't you?  Or God?  Or...someone, isn't that the plan, after all?  And then, doesn't he end his story time by passing judgement?  What does he mean by rejecting the plea that comes from someone in the crowd?

I don’t know.  Let’s skip ahead to the parable itself and see if there is anything that makes more sense.  The parable of the rich fool it is called.  And he is named that by no less than God, so I guess we can take it as a given.  But what did he do that was so foolish.  He had at least two of the three Wesley suggestions mentioned earlier.  He had a good year, the land produced abundantly.  And faced with an abundance he decides to save it.  He builds bigger barns to have a place to store it all, to keep if for that proverbial rainy day.

You can’t help but think of Joseph, way back in Genesis, who builds bigger barns to save all the grain that the land of Egypt produced abundantly.  That wasn't presented as a bad thing.  He didn't get a voice from above calling him names.  So, what is so different?

Well, you don’t have to look to hard to see the abundance of first person pronouns in Jesus parable.  The conversation the rich man has is in his head.  He even talks to himself, like some ditzy celebrity referring to himself in the third person.  “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”   Joseph’s efforts were to save a nation, the rich fool’s efforts were only for him.  No one benefited but himself.

And yet there seems to be another issue here.  It isn't that God has a thing against saving, or even against relaxing and being merry.  The challenge is a little different.  “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.”  Your life is being demanded of you?  What does that mean?  We always assumed that it meant it was his time to die.  And it was the old “you can’t take it with you” kind of approach.  And maybe that is what it is.  But then why doesn't he just say that ?  Why not just say, “you’re dead, dude!”?  

I know, bible talk.  But I tend to think that there is something in that bible talk and we ought to take a moment and listen to it.  “Your life is being demanded of you.”  Here’s an even more curious thing.  In the Greek it is not a passive verb (being demanded).  It is a third person plural.  It should read something like “This night they are demanding your life from you.”  

They?  Who is this they?  What they is in the story?  No they, just a rich fool and God.  And the stuff.  The barns full of stuff.  The stuff he can’t decide what to do with for a moment.  They stuff he is afraid he is going to lose if he doesn't do something quickly with it.  The stuff he is counting on to give himself some relaxation, some joy, some meaning for the rest of his life, however long or short it may be.  The stuff is the they that is demanding his life.  And he is listening to it.  Being drained by it.

Hence the fool designation.  He isn't a fool because he has stuff.  He’s a fool because the stuff has him.  It has become his world.  He can see no horizons, only barns and bigger barns.  And he doesn't even realize it.  “Be on guard against all kinds of greed.”  It is subtle, Jesus says, various, it captures us when we aren't expecting it.  It doesn't look like the same kind of greed we see in someone else, it is unique to us.  It feels like a case of justice to us, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  It is only fair.  Right?

Jesus tells us that we have to work some things out on our own.  We have to take our own temperature particularly when it comes to the stuff in our life.  He is asking us to make a choice.  To choose to follow him, not the stuff that we think will provide for us.  To choose to follow him, and not to turn inward against a world that might try to take our stuff.  To choose to follow him and to use the stuff to help us follow.

And how does that happen?  How does stuff help us follow better?  Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.

Ah, right.  All I can?  All.  Not just some, not just the leftover, not just what I figure I don’t need anyway.  All I can.

Are you ready to follow all you can?