Easter, Take 2

Bah!  Sometimes I am jealous of actors for the stage.  It would be interesting to have your role grow and change, evolve over time.  I think I would like it if the things I created were dynamic and ever-changing.  As a writer, I know that I can re-write things.  I know that I should feel good about them before I decide I ought to share.  But somehow, this is not quite the same.

I was thinking about all this in connection with the blog I wrote yesterday.  It was a rather stuffy and intellectual approach to Easter.  I am going to try that topic again.  But this time, what I want to do is just share my joy about the fullness of Jesus rebirth, rather than getting hung up on everything that is wrong with Christianity today.

As I said yesterday, the idea that dying is not forever is a huge thing.  But I don’t have anything new to say about that aspect of Jesus’ rebirth.  Today, I am thinking about some other things:

The way things had always been?  They don’t need to be the way things always will be.  My stupid knee-jerk responses aren’t the final word.  My emotional baggage can get unpacked and I can be free of the weight of the sucky things that have happened to me, and the sucky things I have done.

The ways that the world seems to operate are not the ways the world will always operate.  In fact, this way of being is just a hiccup, just a burp.  That voice inside that cries, “This is not the way things were meant to be!”  That has more truth to it the strong preying on the weak, then the big dog eating the little dog.

The hopes that appeared to be lost forever, cut off as they were by a flaming sword, the glory we were intended for…  we are still headed for that glory.  And just as it seems like Adam and Eve were intended to be junior partners, co-participants with God in building this new thing, we are re-enrolled in the process to.

I re-read the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurection last night.  I was strike by two things related to this last point.  The first is that all four gospels specify that it was the first day of the week when they found the empty tomb.  It would have been easy enough for a reader to do the math and figure that out.  But for some reason, it was worth while for all four authors to mention this fact.

It seems like it is meant to echo the very beginnings of the bible: on the first day, God began creating the world.  And on the first day of Jesus’ rebirth, God began re-creating the world.   It is a sign, I think, that Jesus being reborn marks a new era: we are back on the road we were intended for.

Secondly, in each of the gospels the risen Christ enlists his followers in this new re-creation.  We are meant to go out and tell the world about this new possibility that began on the cross.   I think the temptation, with our modern concerns and understanding is to jump right to the part about how we won’t die.  And certainly this  is an important thing.

But there is so much more!  One part of this is just the mere fact that we get to be co-creators, junior partners, in the whole mission of bringing about this new kingdom.

Easter

Somewhere along the way, we decided that the individual is the most important thing to focus on.

Lots can be said about why this is.  And lots can be said about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.   I am not going to repeat those things here.

Not coincidentally, contemporary Christianity is awfully focused on the individual, too.  I don’t think a Jesus-focused spirituality would neglect or ignore the individual.  Jesus certainly valued individuals uniquely.   Our mordern idolization of the individual though?  It has played a hand in some pretty significant distortions.

For me, this comes into focus around the question of Easter:  What does it mean that Jesus died and then was born again?

We spend all this energy on that question.  And we should.  The answer to that question is really what we should mean when we discuss the gospel (good news.)

The easy, modern, distorted answer goes something like this:  The fact that Jesus died and then was born again means that when I die, I will be born again.  If you have grabbed onto the right understanding, beliefs, and faith comitments, then you will get to join me.

Don’t get me wrong.   It’s an amazing thing that death is not the end of us.   But God does better.

There is nothing new in the ways we knuckleheaded people underestimate God.   Eve and Adam underestimated God in the garden of Eden.  They thought that the snake could better divine what was in their best interests than God could.

Roman-occupied Israelis, at the time of Jesus birth underestimated God, too.  Many of the people at Jesus’ time thought that the best the messiah might achieve would be a political kind-of liberation.

And today?  Today we expect God’s returning kingdom won’t accomplish much more than a Peter-Pan bus, conveying us to some distant destination, a sort-of eternal Disney Land off somewhere far away.

Over and over, we are promised something more.  Jesus death and rebirth doesn’t only signify that we get a new life after this one.  It signifies that the whole creation will be reborn; the whole order of things will be restored and redeemed.

That?  That’s a pretty cool thing.

Jesus’ Hands

I have been haunted, recently.

This haunting began when I said something to a friend.  There was a group of us, mostly followers of Christ.  This friend was expressing some pain, hurt, and sadness.  I said something that was not unique or special, really.  I asked, “How can we be God’s hands and feet and take care of you?”

And then it hit me, this haunting image: If we really want to be God’s hands and feet, our appendages?  They will need to have holes in them.

It struck me like a brain freeze, like rock from a sling to my forehead.  This unshakeable image of mangled, bloody hands and pierced feet.   It struck me, I suppose, because we so easily talk about wanting to be God’s hands and feet.  But we can live in denial of how very hard it is to be God’s hands and feet.

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Don’t get me wrong.  I believe strongly that the contemporary evangelical church is a morbid beast.  I think that Passion movie was a glorified snuff film.  In short, I think our conversations about the death of Jesus need to be kept in a context with his life and his rebirth.

However, it also won’t do to pretend that the bible doesn’t speak about Jesus blood: on the one hand, dying wasn’t the only thing that Jesus did.  But on the other… it is something vitally important that he did do.

And so this image, of Jesus’ hands and feet, they serve as a brutal and terrible  and awe-inspiring reminder of the cost of loving people, a reminder of the sorts of things we are called to do.

As for me?  Well, I can’t say that I found a way to meaningfully and directly help this friend who was hurting.  Clearly I need to work at hard at heeding that call myself.

Hurt

Ponder an image with me:  A man puts his left hand, palm down, on a work bench.  With his right hand, he picks up a battered old hammer.  And then he brings the hammer down, hard.   I am wondering if metal on flesh would make a sound, moments before the man lets out a wail.    He grits his teeth.  Looks at the hammer.  And then, he does it again.

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In some sense, that is what we are called to do.  Smash our hand.  Take on the pain.  Wait a moment.  And then?  Do it again.

This has been on my mind recently.  I have been in several diffferent conversations about people who have been hurt.  One is a person who I know to be incredibly open, and kind, and brave.  He was hurt, and he said, “I don’t know if I will be able to trust people again.”  Two of the others have been hurt by people in the church.  It was said about one of them, “She’s fine with God, but she is having some trouble with God’s people.”

That last sentiment, it has practically become a cliche.  But like many clichés, it has become a cliche because there is truth dwelling in it: the armies of people who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious are a manifestation of this idea, too.  Sometimes, it is easier to deal with God than God’s people.  It is certainly less painful.

There is something in us that runs from pain.  I suppose that this is generally a good thing.  We learn not to touch the hot stove, we learn not to test a knife by running our fingers over the edge, we learn not to antagonize the kid who is stronger than us and quite willing to beat us to a pulp.

And yet, we are called to transcend this.   We are called to open ourselves to pain.

Perhaps it is familiarity that dulls us to this.  But a thing that I don’t think gets as much notice as it should, is how leads us by example in this.

For now, I will leave aside the example of Jesus’ crucifiction.  Consider the Garden of Eden.  There are all kinds of remarkable things in this story.  But maybe the most remarkable?  The creator of the universe was willing to allow himself to be vulnerable to these flawed, broken, fallible little creations of His.

In some sense, on some level, it must have been a choice.  God might have kept himself above the goings-on in the Garden.  He cast aside his invulnerability in allowing himself to care for Adam and Eve in a way that is, perhaps, echoed by Jesus casting off his divinity to enter the created world.

There must be some limits to this.  We are not expected to submit ourselves to the abuse of an abuser.  I think the beginning of these limits lays in love: it is not loving to allow an abuser to abuse us.  But I think more needs to be worked out, more needs to be said, about how we find the limits of what we should be willing to sacrifice.  (As always, reader, if you have some thoughts, I would love for you to comment below)

Regardless of what those limits are, regardless of how we ought to find them… we are called to do a very unnatural thing.  We are called to be open to pain.  This open-ness to pain, this vulnerability, this is a deep and mystical thing about the way that God works in the world.

Perhaps this is the meaning of Christ being in us:  He dwells in the very deepest parts, waiting.  And when we take pain into ourselves, when we bring it to those places, he waits there, transforming it into something bigger, better, glorious, triumphant.

Young man, juust who do you think you are talking to?!?

If I told you only what I said, I would be giving you half the story.

Consider, for example, “You idiot!  Get out of my way.”

It doesn’t actually tell you much, to consider what I said.  If you don’t know who I said it to, you are left with a mystery.

If I say that to a cute toddler who happened to veer too near toward me as I was walking into a liquor store, you are left with the indication that I, at best, am a jerk.

On the other hand, if I mutter that quietly to myself when I am cut off, you might think I am a pretty ordinary guy.  If I shout that because I have figured out the secret to saving somebody, and precious moments are ticking by, and maybe I won’t get “there” in time, you might even call that quote heroic.

Perhaps at the top of the list of “The most obvious statements ever made” is this: context matters.

What we are saying is important.  But who we are saying it to?  That is more important.

I serve in the Children’s ministry at the fantastic Fellowship Church, New England.  The awesome directors of the ministry are having as watch a series of videos by Francis Chan.  I am… ambivalent about Francis Chan.  Sometimes he is a wee bit old-school, traditional, and black-and-white for my post modernist, emergent church sensibilities.  A thing I am keenly aware of: sometimes the people I am most ambivalent about are the people I need most to hear from.

Last Sunday, we watched this video where Chan made a bunch of great points.  But the one that I really carry with me is this:

When we pray, we ought to be really aware of just who we are praying to.

With out meaning to, with out being aware of it, I have been, for a while, just praying to pray.  People more spiritually mature and experienced than me tell me I am supposed to.  It makes me feel good, some times, to pray.  The bible tells me that I am supposed to.  And so I do.

But the thing is, Jesus is really clear about some things.  One of them is that whenever we do things just because it seems like we are supposed to, whenever we get legalistic, whenever we go through the motions… we cheat ourselves.

I cheated myself.

I have been working hard, this week, as I pray, to be aware of the context.  Context matters.  Who we are talking to?  That is as important as the words I say.  And so my heart-felt prayers, the content matters.  But also, the “person” I am addressing these prayers to?  He matters to.  At least as much.  When I pray really thinking about the fact that I am praying to the creator of the universe, the artist who crafted my soul, my biggest fan and deepest lover….  This changes everything.

“The porsche is mine.” Sayeth the Lord.

“The Clash between Jesus and the powers of the world… was never simply about God having a bit more power than humans, so that he could manage to beat them at their own game.  It isn’t that God has stronger bombs and tanks than anybody else.    It is what people expect and often want today.  (Why doesn’t God do something to stop wicked dictators killing people?)”  – N.T. Wright, Simply Good news (43)

This quote kicked me in the gut.   Like many great quotes, it made me want to write and respond.  It made me want to embrace its truth and push it away.  And so I started this blog post, and I was creating all these metaphors about war, about nations, I was thinking mostly about others.  I was kind of running from my own baggage, pulling a bait-and-switch: looking like I was enlightened, fooling myself into thinking I was contemplating the full weight of all this.  It’s so much fun to go after those splinters in other’s eyes while denying the beam in our own.

We all know those targets that it is so easy to feel superior to.  Interpretation of Revelation that get turned into books and movies that boil down to God coming in with stronger bombs and tanks.  I feel some sense of superiority because the big bombs and tanks I am waiting for are much more metaphorical.

For example, one of my favorite writers, an elder statesman of the emergent movement, has written extensively about the nature of judgement: what it would be like to suddenly carry the full weight and understanding of the hurt we have caused.  If I am going to work at the beam in my own eye, here is the hard question I need to face, head-on:

Why do I relish this thought?  What is so appealing about the idea that one of God’s children might suffer?

The question of what is actually going to happen, that is irrelevant, right now, to me.  Maybe some of the events described in the last book of the bible are going to come to pass in the literalistic straight foreward manner imagined in those book/movie series.   Maybe that terrible judgement imagined by the post-modern/emergent writer is going to happen.   Maybe both.  Maybe neither.

As is so often the case, the important thing is my heart and mind.  It’s so easy to look down my nose at somebody excited by Jesus smiting the wrong-doers with a sword coming out of his mouth.   It’s much more difficult to confess that somewhere in me there is this glee that the wrong-doers might suffer.

A mature and whole faith must embrace this: If it is Good (not just right, but capital “G” -good ) that they suffer, then God will see that they suffer.

It is telling, I think, what we do with the idea that vengeance belongs to the lord.

Just this morning I realized something: that we can go in two different directions with this idea, that vengeance belongs to the lord.  The first?   We can act like a grade school kid.  “My dad can beat up your dad.”

Well, yes.  Our dad– the maker of the universe–  could indeed beat up “your” dad, whoever that is.  But would he?  Should he?  When we hear that God says, “Vengence is mine.”  Do we project our ideas and expectations onto this?  Do we expect God to enact this vengeance?

We have an alternative.  For me, it is not easier.  But it is better.

I have an imagine in my mind.  A wealthy and wise neighbor has a beautiful sports car, a convertible, parked in his yard.  If I noticed it just sat there, I might say, “You shouldn’t just let that car sit there!  You should roll the roll the top down, cruise down main street, speed down the freeway!”

“The Porsche” sayeth my neighbor “Is mine.”

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And if I truly believe that it is his, I recognize that it doesn’t matter what I think of his decisions.  If he wants to let it sit there and rust, and never, ever drive it… this is his prerogative.   If he hires a group of biker dudes to smash it, this is none of my business.

If I  believe that this neighbor is truly wise… If I know he is smarter than me, I ought to embrace the idea that perhaps I do not understand his decision because of my own ignorance.

I could pray for God to come in with bombs and tanks.   Or I could just pray that his will be done, in his way.   That is a hard thing.

To be, or…

There are words that get translated as “I am.”  It’s how God introduces himself to Moses.  It’s echoed through out the whole of the bible.  Jesus establishes his links to God with those words.

Arguably, it’s the most important statement of God’s identity in the whole bible.  On the surface, in English, it looks like 3 little letters.  We could be picky and point out that there is a space in the midst of those three little letters.  We could be deep, and discuss all those things those 3 letters imply.  Maybe, a little later I will make an attempt at being picky and being deep.  But for the moment, I want to be pretty straight foreword.

There is more than 3 letters and a space.  There is a period at the end.   If we had a tiny little ruler, we could measure that little dot.  We would find that it is the smallest part of the whole thing.  Sometimes it is the small things that change everything.

If the idea didn’t end there, the ways God might have ended it would have looked pretty important.  God might have said, “I am the maker of the Earth.”  He could have said “I am the creator of human kind.”  He could have said “I am in control.”  or “I am the designer and builder of the entire cosmos, white dwarfs and black holes and the gravitational constant and every element in the periodic table.”

Any one of those sentences would have been true.  In one sense, all of those things were implied by God’s statements.  People smarter than me, much more gifted with language have discussed the Hebrew words that we translate as “I am.” they talk about how the words imply God’s self-existence, God’s Omni-presence, his endless past, his profound presence in the present, his undenable future eternal existence.

All these things are well and good and true.  But there is something more.

I believe God was profoundly at work in the translation of the bible into English, in the decision to translate those words, “I am.”

“am” is a funny verb.  Because what happens after it utterly transform the meani.

If I say, “I am.”  and “I am nervous.” I have said two nearly opposite things.   To say “I am busy.”  is to say something quite different than to say “I am.”   Sometimes we all have this longing to “just be.”  This is quite the opposite of doing things.

If a sentence continues after the word “am” it speaks of how incomplete we are: something needed to be done.  If defines us do-ers, and it suggests that action is where our attention ought to be.

If a sentence ends with the word “am.” it defines us as be-ers.

We are made in God’s image.  I believe that one of the things this means is that we are fundamentally be-ers, not do-ers.  Some of the strongest and most powerful imagery in all of scripture is around God’s promise of rest in Him.  Some of the most damaging theological perversions are built around formulae of things we must do in order to attain this rest.

Sometimes, this gets abused.  When Jesus brought his closest disciples to the mountain top he revieled the true nature of things.   Jesus’ followers wanted to stay there.  James writes that a faith with out action is dead.  If God’s statement, “I am.” is a model for us, then his actions must be as well.  God is not with out actions.  The presence of the universe testifies to this.

So it is with us.  Our nature and solace are in the idea that we can simply be.  But this does not mean we can not, or should not act.  I suspect that when we really grab hold of this, if we truly rested in God, we would be deeply and profoundly enpowered, as we strike out into the world.