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.

Just a Cow, Chewing on Peace

Sometimes, I ponder on a thing and I start to make some headway, at least in my own mind.  Other times, though, I start to think on a thing, and what I realize first is how utterly clueless I am about the topic.

I have been thinking on peace, lately.  I filled with awe at what a bewildering topic this is.

This act of writing is an attempt to bring some order to my chaotically arrayed thoughts on the topic.  I could be wrong, in what I am writing here.  God knows I have lots to learn.  I hope you’ll drop a comment and throw some ideas around, and help me to make a little more sense about this stuff.

I think the place I want to begin is with a distinction between two different modes of peace.  Those modes are Shalom, or Godly peace, and Chill, or human peace.

Before I go very far in defining those two, I am going to suggest another distinction.  This is based on where peace lives.  Call them  internal peace and external peace.

I would like to suggest that man’s peace inevitably favors one habitat for peace or the other.   Protestors spend a lot of time and energy working for an external peace.  Mindfulness types seek after an internal peace.

Often times, there is not an explicit and obvious conflict that is going on at the surface level.  Between the protestors and the mindfulness types.  There are no rumbles between the occupy-ers and the meditate-ors.  One of the reasons for this, maybe, is that there is a fine line between avoiding conflict and avoiding violence.  I suspect we spend too much time and energy running away from all manner of conflict out of a fear that we engage in violence.  I think we ought to follow the example of Ghandi, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela (at least in the second half of his life.)  and be willing to risk conflict.

I do think that for so may people, though, where you are going to focus your energy in working for peace is incredibly important.  A person who fights for peace in the outside world would be tempted to act dismissive, I think, toward some one who is working only on the internal.  Similarly, imagine a monk.  Feel free to choose his religion.   It seems that often, he might be dismissive toward somebody working at changing laws, fighting for human rights.

When I began writing this, the thing I was thinking about was that the difference between Shalom and Chill is that Shalom recognizes that peace is contagious.  Internal peace will spread to the external.  And external peace will spread to the internal.  Because, ultimately the world above is the world below; the world within us is the world outside of us.

But as I began writing that paragraph above, the one that began “often times” I had this realization.  I didn’t try to set this up.  I didn’t, in fact, even see this coming.   I found myself looking for examples of people who were unafraid of conflict though they resisted the urge to practice violence.  As you read, I came up with Ghandi, Jesus, Dr. King, Nelson Mandela.  The thing I am struck by, now, that I did not see coming is this: each of them had a profoundly spiritual bent to their practice of peace.

It seems to me then, that to practice Shalom is not only about a conviction that internal peace and external peace are opposite sides of the same coin.  Maybe more importantly, to practice Shalom is to be willing to navigate the difficult path separating conflict from violence.  It is to realize that peace with out conflict is impotence, and peace done with violence is self-defeating.

Lurking somewhere in the midst of all these thoughts is this picture I have in my heart about the Kingdom of Heaven.  I think the Kingdom of Heaven bursts out in these places where we engage in conflict with out violence, somewhere between the boundary of the internal and external.  I think I am going to be better able to articulate this if I spend some time with all these thoughts, chew them up, maybe even swallow them and regurgitate them back up.  So, I, a cow chewing his (err, her) cud, am going to end here, and leave you with that image.

Pieces…

Peace, man.  Blessed are the peace makers.  Peace, out.  All we are saying is give peace a chance.  Visualize whirled peas.  uhm, I mean, world peace.

Words from the hippies.  And Jesus.  And modern urban contemporary types.  And John Lennon.  And snarky (uhm, I mean yuppie) bumper stickers.  Obviously, the word “peace” is the common denominator for a diverse gathering of people and groups.

Peace is on my mind, right now.  Probably more importantly, it’s on my heart now.

Perhaps it is humanities biggest failure.   It exists in so many different levels.  One of the things that all these different things have in common is that we all claim to want it and yet very few of us can claim to have it.

In the modern era (let’s say about 1600ish to about 1950) we defined things, often, by focusing on what the thing was not.  So we defined physical health as the lack of physical illness.  We defined mental health as the lack of mental illness.  We defined “right” behavior as the avoidance of “bad” things. We defined peace as the lack of war.

In this post modern era, I think that one of the things we are getting right is working on definitions that are more than lists of what a thing isn’t.  Physical health is about the possession of stong physical characteristics.  Mental health is the attainment of self-actualization.  Right behavior is more than just avoiding the “should nots”– to do right, there are things we should do.  Peace is more than just the lack of war.

Perhaps it makes the same point differently to say that a society which is militarily peaceful might be unpeaceful in all sorts of other ways.  A society might not be in a military, physical war, and it’s citizens might be far from peaceful.   Or the citizens might not be at peace.

I think that’s a distinction worth dwelling on: the difference between a person being peaceful and a person being at peace.

A person who is peaceful is a person who wouldn’t use violence to achieve what they want or need.  A person who is at peace is a person who is not conflicted: a person who is comfortable with who and where they are… a person who is comfortable in her own skin.

So a person who is peaceful and yet not at peace might be a pacificist.  To the outside world, they would appear gentle.  And yet, perhaps they would feel intensely about the people who they treat peacefully.  Perhaps they hate them.  Perhaps they hate themselves for hating them.  And yet they do nothing about this hate: Peaceful, but not at peace.

On the other hand, a person might be very violent.  But they might be o.k. wit this fact.  They might be comfortable with using violence.  At peace, and yet not peaceful.

I think the hope I have for myself, and also for you, is that we might live peacefully and be at peace.  There is lots more that I think is worth being said, but I think that is a good place to stop, for now: May you live peacefully and bet at peace.

there is blindness, and then there is Blindness

Here’s the the no-duh statement of the day:
Seeing stuff is important.
Further, the failure to see stuff is also important.
Yesterday, I blogged some thoughts about the blindness of Paul and Elmyas. Today, I want to take a step back from this specific case a little bit and cast a wider net.
Physical sight carries a metaphor with it that is so basic that it seems almost silly to mention it. The act of seeing with our eyes is very much like the act of thinking. We can physically close our eyes in much the same way we can choose not to think about a thing. We can act rashly on our first visual impressions much as we can act rashly on our first, sloppy thought.
This is so basic that our language is littered with metaphors connecting the two. “I can see what you mean.” We often say, when we mean, “I understand the thought you want me to have.” Or “I saw the light” we say when we mean that we had suddenly increase in understanding.
It is therefore fitting, perhaps even ironic, when Paul and Elmyas are stricken blind. The physical blindness is an outward manifestation of the thought blindness they both had. They were not mentally “seeing” things as they are… and as a result, they lost the ability to physically see things as they are.
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Paul, of course, regains his physical sight as he chooses to better use his mental “sight.” There is no indication that Elmyas ever changed his tune… by extension, it seems a safe assumption that he never lost his physical blindness. This is speculation, but I would wager that if Paul had not undergone a change of heart, he would have never regained his physical sight.
As I was pondering all this, I was reading Max Lucado’s excellent “And the Angels Were Silent.” This is an account of Jesus’ last week. He has some interesting things to say about the two blind men that Jesus heals outside the city gates.
These two men are obviously physically blind. They cry out for his healing. Some of Jesus’ disciples try to shut them down. But Jesus praises these two men.
It’s some times hard for me to wrap my brain around Jesus’ frequent praise of people who go beyond social norms and propriety to seek his healing out. In addition to those two guys, there is the woman who grabs at his cloak on the assumption that touching his cloak will heal her bleeding and the crippled man whose friends tear through a ceiling to lower the friend in.
There is a part of me that… chafes at these stories. Because it just doesn’t seem fair that the squeaky wheels are the ones that get the oil. I want to live in this world where Jesus praises us for being restrained and following the rules and procedures.
But wanting it does not make it so. And it is quite often that my vision of fairness does not coincide with God’s.
Lucado points out that there is a sense in which the blind men were the only people who could truly see, in that case. Jesus’ disciples were blind in an important sense, when they tried to shut down the two guys looking for His love, attention, and healing.
The relevance here is that those disciples were like Paul and Elmyas. The healing of their blindness is a testifies to this, the sudden ability to physically see an echo of the fact that they were the only ones who were rightly mentally seeing.
Paul and Elmyas are one side of a coin: when they fail to mentally see correctly, they lose the ability to physically see. The two blind men at the gate? When the correctly mentally see, they gain the ability to physically see.

She blinded me with… blindness (?)

I can only imagine what it was like for him:
A reformed murderer. In his mind, he had to remember when he had used his power, prestige and influence to keep people away from Jesus. Did he see that his motivations then, as always, were these mixed bags of selfishness and altruism, purity and corruption?
Paul had been snapped out of his symbolic blindness by literal blindness. When Jesus’ spirit confronted him, he lost, for a while, the ability to see. Some time later, he finds himself utterly changed, and facing someone who had a lot in common with the man he had once been.
In Acts, Chapter 13, Paul confronts Elymas. And in this man who sought to keep the truth from Roman official Sergius Paulus, the apostle must have seen himself. After all, Paul too was politically positioned, he had opposed the gospel, even murderer those who proclaimed it.
The biblical account even hints at this past. Verse 9 identifies him as “Saul, who is also called Paul.” I searched several translations. Interestingly, none of them emphasize the idea that he used to be called Saul. In the present tense: he is both Saul and Paul. To me, this suggests that Paul, despite his transformation was not better in any sense than Elymas. By extension, none of us are better than Saul/Paul or Elymas, either. But perhaps this is a digression.
The important thing is the writing of the gospel is constructed to remind us that the man who was then-called Paul had once been called Saul. And when he had? He was a man much like Elymas.
And though we pay so much attention to all the blindnesses that Jesus had cured, it is important to remember that God sometimes causes us to be blind. He did it with Saul. And for Saul this blindness changed everything.
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The bible tells us that the Holy Spirit came upon Paul. And after this, Paul pronounces that Elymas will be blind. Probably our feeble and small little human ant brains can’t fully grasp all the things that it means, for the Holy Spirit to come upon us.
Many of us believe that the Holy Spirit came upon the people that wrote the books that would eventually be collected together and called the bible. One of the things we assert, for lots of good reasons, is that the Holy Spirit brings with it a sort-of perfection. And at the same time, leaves the writers who they are. This is why we can say, for example, that the book of Mark is simultaneously perfect and yet also thoroughly the product of the person who wrote it: the book named after Mark is at the same time divine and also wholly unique to Mark’s perspective.
Similarly, the idea that Elymas was blinded, can be seen as God’s idea and Paul’s idea: the outcome of The Holy Spirit’s interactions with Paul. There is more to be said, here. More to be said about blindness, more to be said about Paul, and more to be said about Elymus. But this is also, I think, a good place to pause, and reflect. More later.