Sometimes I feel like a rumor

In one particularly memorable passage, Jesus compared the Pharisees to “unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”  Or in another place he said, “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.”  That is, the Pharisees looked alive; but in reality they were zombies.  Literally, the walking dead.

I would like to think that I am unlike the Pharisees in that regard, but if I’m being honest with myself I would have to admit that I often feel like a zombie.  In other words, I look like Andrew, but something’s … I don’t know … off.  Like the character in the movie Men In Black who’s skin the alien invaders inhabit.  Of course he looks like himself, but something’s just not quite right.  Eventually the skin starts decomposing, and the jig is up.  That’s me sometimes.  Walking, rotting flesh.

I hate those times with all of my heart.  Times when I feel like I’m a walking echo or rumor of myself.  I hate them in small part because my “job” (pastor) demands I be alive and present with people, so that it’s abundantly frustrating when I’m not.  But I hate them in large part because deep down I sense that that state of affairs is simply not the way it’s supposed to be.  I’m not supposed to be a rumor.

The more I’m with people, the more I get the sense that most of them live most of their lives as rumors, zombies, echoes.  They present themselves as alive, as the real deal, the genuine article, etc., but they are really filled with death.  And death, as the great theologians from Augustine onward have taught us, is really not a “thing” at all.  Death is a “no-thing”.  It is literally voidness, absence, nothingness.  Which means that most people are no-things walking around trying to look like some-things.  Sadly, sometimes “most people” is simply “me.”

The antidote to this, as the great mystical theologians like St. John of the Cross have taught us, is simple: we need to come home to God.  Communion with God is the fundamental and only way the walking dead come back to true life and become real, living persons who can celebrate and create and love and wonder and care.  John of the Cross and others instruct us that Communion with God, carried out in the warp and woof of daily life, leads finally to Union with God, where the soul is united with God and as a result the body (which is the frontier between our invisible souls and the visible universe) becomes alive.  We become what we were created to be: habitations of the Divine.

This morning I am remembering that.  I am remembering that Paul says that we are “temples of the Holy Spirit”; literally, we are houses for God to live in.  I am vividly aware this morning that in the absence of real communion with God, I am like a house with no one living in it.  Or even worse, a house that I live in all by myself … with no furniture or light fixtures or paintings.  A dark and terrifying prison of the “self”.  God wants more for Andrew than that.  He wants to live there too.  To make the “self” that I live in “homey”, by filling it with the furniture and decor of his own infinite Goodness and Mercy.  And he wants me to live fully in my “self” too, with Him.  Together, we’ll turn the lights on in the self called “me”.  Hopefully people will be drawn to the light.

This all begins to happen when I adore Jesus.  Here is his promise to us: “He who loves me be loved by my Father… and we will come to him and make our home in him” (John 14).  God is the greatness of the human soul.  May we come to him to commune with him early and often … and may our souls ever come to life in his presence.

Grace to you today … Sunday … Resurrection day.

Naming the way we’re visible: The Beatitudes

Well, our Sermon on the Mount series began last night at Bloom (the podcast should be up either later today or sometime tomorrow, so those of you that are interested can head over there to give it a listen), and after wrestling with the text for a week, here’s basically where I went:

The beatitudes “name” the way the Church is visible to the world.

The more I grappled with verses 1-12 of Matthew 5, the more I realized that they made no sense unless you read them through the lens of verses 13-16 (“you are the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a city set on a hill…” etc).  Jesus expects that the community of his followers will be visible to the world precisely because of their distinction from the world.  A new reality has been inaugurated by Christ (“the kingdom of the heavens”) and now, those who have been gripped by that reality are and will increasingly be transformed by it.  And they are the “fortunate” ones; the “well off” ones; the “blessed” ones.  One of the ways we phrased it last night was, “When the kingdom of the heavens arrest the human life, the beatitudes are the result.”

This helps solve the knotty problem of whether the beatitudes are NEGATIVE states of life (which are then answered and outmatched by the reality of the kingdom now present in Jesus) or POSITIVE character qualities (which come to bear in us as we follow Jesus).  Seeing them as “results” of the kingdom of heaven breaking forth in the human life; or more specifically “descriptions” of what the life of devotion to Jesus will look like, helps get us past that impasse.  It is not that Jesus is recommending that we all become “poor in spirit” (what even does that mean?) or “mourn”; rather, he would have us know that in following him, we’ll often have moments of deep poverty of spirit and sadness.  If and when that happens, we should know that we are makarios – “blessed”, for we’re among the visible community of the followers of Jesus whose lives spring out of the reality of the wonderfully new, surprising, threatening, subversive, alternative reality of the kingdom.

As an example, I cited something that happened to me while I was serving as an associate pastor in Tulsa.  A woman called the offices one day, and I answered the phone.  She was upset, and asking if we provided counseling services.  When I asked her what was wrong, she replied:

So I’m at my job and I started noticing all this stuff that was happening that was not ethical.  It really bugged me.  So I blew the whistle.  When I did, those coworkers (and bosses) who were party to what was going on started making my life miserable.  I was anxious and depressed every day.  Eventually, when the hostility grew to be to great, I realized that I couldn’t work there any longer without it destroying me.  So I left.  But now, I’m having trouble finding a job, which means I’m running out of money, and with the economy being what it is, I’m not sure what the future holds for me…  I really could use someone to talk to.

She obviously thought her situation was wretched.  And from the standpoint of “the world” it clearly was.  Yet when I talked to her, I couldn’t help but think, “I am talking to a living saint.  She is a hero of the faith.  She knew what was right, saw something wrong, and took a stand and then paid the price for it.”  So I said to her, “Listen, I know this whole thing sucks right now.  But you have to understand that God sees you and loves you and knows you situation, and you will not lose your reward.”

Perhaps that helps put it in perspective.  It’s not that this lady set out to be poor in spirit, or mourn, or be persecuted for righteousness.  Rather, her following of Jesus (this is what being “arrested by the kingdom of the heavens” looks like) SHAPED her in a such a way that she would RATHER NATURALLY be put in situations that would set her at odds with the world and hence MAKE THE REALITY OF WHICH SHE IS A PARTICIPANT visible.  Again: The beatitudes “name” the way the church is visible to the world.

More examples could be cited…  I mentioned a few last night: Martin Luther King Jr.’s absolute commitment to nonviolence in the civil rights struggle, Pope John Paul II’s extension of grace and forgiveness – even friendship! – to the man who nearly succeeded in assassinating him in 1981, the Amish community’s mercy which they showed the family of the man who invaded an Amish classroom and executed 10 girls before taking his life in 2006, etc.  In each case, it was the CONCRETE COMMITMENT TO FOLLOWING JESUS THAT CREATED THE REALITIES EACH OF THESE EXAMPLES BEAR WITNESS TO AND MADE THE PEOPLE OF GOD “VISIBLE” IN WAYS THEY WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN OTHERWISE.

And here’s where this gets really compelling (and scary).  The truth of the matter is that in the Divine economy of things, the visible community of the followers of Jesus are the only way the world will know what God is like.  (I told you, scary).  Jesus says as much when he says that the world will “see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  Just to the extent that our life is an accurate reflection of the character of God, the world will know.  There is no other way.  You, me, us…  WE ARE GOD’S LAST, BEST HOPE FOR THE WORLD.  He has put much on our existence as his people.  It is not through heavenly messengers or divinely inspired books that the world will know…  but through us.  Again, just to the extent that our lives are an accurate reflection of the character of God.

That is, the God revealed in Jesus…  Who is himself the ultimately “poor in spirit” and sorrowful and meek/gentle and hungry for righteousness and unremittingly merciful and pure in heart and peacemaking and persecuted for righteousness.  He is the living embodiment of his Father, and we are the living embodiment of Him whose character is only finally, fully revealed as he bled to death on the cross…  So Bonhoeffer writes, in a memorable passage:

“Having reached the end of the beatitudes, we naturally ask if there is any place on this earth for the community which they describe. Clearly, there is one place, and only one, and that is where the poorest, the meekest, and most sorely tried of all men is to be found–on the cross at Golgotha. The fellowship of the beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified One.” – Bonhoeffer

Or as Hauerwas puts it: “The Sermon on the Mount is not Jesus’ ethics; the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus.”  It is from Him, most fully in his cross, that we learn any of the characteristics named in the beatitudes.  And we come to realize then that participation in the life of the kingdom of the heavens will often, sometimes in small and sometimes in large ways, eventuate in a clash with the powers-that-be…  That is, we’ll “take up our cross” too.

But it’s all good.  We’re “blessed”.

Praying you know and live faithfully through the One who discloses to us the deep meaning of the Sermon in his Cross today.  May you dwell in and be shaped by your fellowship with the Crucified One.

Wrestling with the Beatitudes

Well, the long-awaited Sermon on the Mount series begins tomorrow night at Bloom, and I’m still in thick of wrestling with those beautiful and cryptic opening verses – the so-called “Beatitudes.”

1Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2and he began to teach them saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.11“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Preparing to preach is a funny thing.  Sometimes you wrestle with a passage and a sense of the driving force of the passage just jumps off the page.  How you ought to preach it is self-evident.  Other times, the passage seems impervious to your efforts to understand it.  As if it’s holding back something.  It won’t yield it’s fruit easily.  I feel this is one of those passages.  So as a way of driving my soul into the heart of this text…  I’m going to wrestle with it publicly.

At one level, so it seems, the beatitudes are simply an extension of the core message of Jesus: “the kingdom of the heavens is at hand.”  That is, the gracious reign of God is now available to human beings, whatever their situation, and as such their deepest desires and pains are matched and then out-matched by the wonder of God’s “now” kingdom.  Jesus then is declaring “blessed” (Gk: ‘makarios’, which means something like “Good for you!” in English) those who find themselves in all kinds of situations the world counts “unblessed”.  So, to the spiritually poor (those excluded by mainstream religion?), Jesus says, “Good for you!  The kingdom is at hand, and it will soon be populated with people just like you!”  To those whose lives are broken with grief, Jesus says, “Good for you!  For the kingdom is at hand, and every tear will be wiped from your eyes!”  To the pushed-around and left-behind, the bullied and abused (the meek), Jesus says, “Good for you!  The kingdom is at hand and even you now can be an inheritor of the earth.”  To the peacemakers, Jesus says, “Good for you!  The kingdom is at hand, and it will soon be shown that your efforts had an eschatological horizon… you are the sons of God!”  And so forth.

This is the interpretive decision made by Dallas Willard and others (including James Bryan Smith in the book we’re working through in our house churches, “The Good and Beautiful Life”).  The beatitudes are an extension of the core message of Jesus.  Those who are “truly well off” or “blessed” are those in such situations, NOT BECAUSE of the situations, but because the kingdom is available to them.  Honestly, I like that angle.  Yet for me it leaves something to be desired.  Here are a handful of things that I can’t make compute with that line of thinking:

1) This message, while delivered in the hearing of the crowds, is not ADDRESSED to the crowds. It is addressed to the disciples, who have recently left everything to follow Jesus and now must learn what it means to live in his company.  They are those who ALREADY have responded to Jesus’ basic message about the availability of the kingdom, and now must learn what living in that kingdom looks like.  I don’t know that Jesus is repeating himself here.

2) The beatitudes, while not setting forth a new system of merit (do this and God will love you), DO still, as far as I can tell, make certain positive commendations. In other words, the “attributes” outlined in the first half of each beatitude are not purely “undesirable” states of being.  Poverty of spirit, having nothing in our hands but God, is a good thing.  To claim nothing in this life as our own, meekness, is a good thing.  Hungering and thirsting for righteousness is a good thing.  Purity of heart is a good thing.  Peacemaking is a good thing.  Showing mercy is a good thing.  Living righteously and being vilified for it is a good thing.  Right?  That leads to #3.

3) Seems to me that there is a “Christological shape” to the beatitudes.  In other words, in the words of John Paul II, the beatitudes are “a sort of self-portrait of Christ.”  Christ is the one who empties himself (poor in spirit), who mourns over Jerusalem, who had no place to lay his head (meekness), who hungered and thirsted for the righteousness of God, who was unremittingly merciful, who did nothing for himself but everything for God and others (pure in heart), who made peace by telling the truth and reconciling enemies, and who was executed as a criminal for his actions (persecuted for righteousness), and who in so doing became in himself, precisely IN his cross, the light of the world, the salt of the earth, the city set on a hill.  And then of course he calls us to follow him in that (to use a Bonhoeffer phrase) “costly discipleship.”

Is it possible that the cross is the ground and horizon of the beatitudes?

Anyway, these are just a few of the thoughts running through my noggin.  It’s hard for me to think the beatitudes are not fundamentally related to the kind of discipleship that “turns the world upside down” and draws persecution on itself.  They are certainly not a new merit-system.  Rather, I want to say that they are both DESCRIPTION and INVITATION.  They both describe the life of one who has left all to follow Jesus (“poor in spirit” and “mourning” aren’t bad ways to begin that description) and invite them into a depth of following that will end at the cross.  The “blessed” life is the life that is utterly abandon to the person of Jesus and his calling.  “He who loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it for eternal life.”  Such a life will include a fair share of poverty and mourning and getting bullied around and thirsting for righteousness and showing mercy and cleansing the heart and making peace and suffering for righteousness sake … And at every point Jesus would say to those who undertake such costly following: “GOOD FOR YOU!  You now know a joy that those who don’t follow cannot know, and you will know it all the more when the kingdom is fulfilled!”

Moreover, I cannot help but notice a certain progression in the beatitudes, and though I haven’t run across many commentators who point it out, the more I stare at the words, the more evident it becomes.  It is as though the life of following Jesus takes us from poverty to persecution… from mourning to mercy… from meekness to peacemaking… from hungering for righteousness to purity of heart, etc.  It is almost as if we begin in the following with a sense of “nothing in my hands Jesus, except for you and your call” and end with “Good Lord, Jesus (pun intended), following you has gotten me into a world of hurt.”  And perhaps then we’re back again at poverty of spirit.  Poverty to mourning to meekness to hunger to mercy to purity to peacemaking to suffering for righteousness, and back again at poverty…  Ever learning what it means to lay it all down; ever experiencing the joy of Jesus in fresh ways; ever living as homeless pilgrims awaiting the life of the age to come.

Just a few thoughts.  God give us light tomorrow night … more and more and more light.

Miracles?

This past Sunday at Bloom, working as we are through the book of Matthew, we ran into this text:

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them. 25Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him. – Matt 4:23-35

… which brought up the interesting subject of miracles.  In all honesty I must confess that as a born and raised Pentecostal/Charismatic, I have had a somewhat up and down relationship with the miraculous.  I have seen and heard and been part of enough stories of miraculous healings and the like to know that they can and do happen; I have also seen enough goofiness and manipulation and truth-twisting to have what I consider to be a rather justified sense of skepticism.

In fact, at one point I nearly left “the whole charismatic” thing behind.  After having spent four years in the Bible belt going to a pentecostal/charismatic college, and another four years before that in a high school where the headmaster mercilessly, daily, beat the signs-and-wonders-horse with a stick, I was sick and tired.  Sick of all the distraction that it seemed the pursuit of the miraculous caused, tired of the ways in which it seemed the promulgators of the miraculous twisted and abused it.  My decision to go to seminary back in 2003 was in part motivated by a desire to extract myself from the charismatic milieu in order to try and think clearly about whether or not “that whole thing” was biblically defensible.  If an honest study of the text of Scripture demanded it, I was willing to walk away from it all.

What I discovered rather astounded me.  Not only was the miraculous “given room” in Scripture; it was positively commended.  In fact, I soon realized that “cessationist” exegesis (Cessasionism is the doctrine that the signs and wonders ceased with the closing of the canon of Scripture) was probably the worst exegesis I had ever seen.  Quite simply, it was impossible to ignore that insofar as the long-awaited prophetic “age to come” had dawned in Christ, an age which would be marked by the dramatic incursion of God to renovate his creation with his powerful transformative presence (see Isaiah 35 for example), signs and wonders should be expected.  A new chapter had turned on cosmic history, and the renewing, liberating presence of God was now loose in the world.  Should we expect any less?  I was jubilant.  I could throw away the ca-ca of modern charismatic culture but retain the basic intuition that God was ALWAYS-ALREADY NOW IN CHRIST, ready to save and deliver and redeem and heal and transform by his powerful presence.

Sadly, I also discovered that most of the people I knew in seminary had a hard time with the miraculous.  I shall never forget the day in class when one fellow student asked the class to pray for a friend of his whose brother had a brain tumor and was nearing death.  One student volunteered to field the request, and his prayer went something like this:

God, thank you that you are with us in suffering.  Help this man and his family know that you are near them as they walk through this.  Give them a sense of peace and calm and security, and teach them to persevere in this trial, so that you may be glorified.  Amen.

At that, my charismatic soul got a little annoyed.  Okay, a lot annoyed.  I remember thinking, “BUT YOU DIDN’T PRAY FOR THE TUMOR!  The tumor was the request!  That God would heal the man of the tumor!  I mean sure, comfort and peace and learning to persevere are great and all, but that’s not what was asked for.  HEALING WAS WHAT WAS ASKED FOR!  WHY CAN’T YOU PRAY FOR HEALING?!”

And then it dawned on me that that prayer was one of the boldest acts of theological hypocrisy I had ever witnessed.  I mean, if we can ask God for COMFORT and a SENSE OF HIS PRESENCE, which presumably involves an intervention of God on the level of this man and his family’s cerebral cortexes, why in the world would it be too much ALSO to ask for healing?  IN PRINCIPLE, THEY ARE THE SAME THING – interventions of God for the good of these people on the level of their physical selves.  If you have the shnuts to ask for comfort, go ahead and throw healing in there too.  You have no reason not to.  Unless of course your theological prejudice has gotten in the way.

I hope this story underscores why I think it’s a tragedy that more people don’t pray for things like physical healing.  It’s a tragedy because BOTH because it’s theologically unnecessary AND because it diminishes God.  I fully understand where it comes from though.  It comes from a desire to maintain the intuition that God can form us in positive ways through suffering.  Even more, it comes from a sense of respect – that God is not our cosmic genie-in-a-bottle; that we have to submit to him.

Still, I think it’s sad because I think it’s false.  The truth is that God aches to intervene in the human experience for our good, to meet us with his transforming mercy at every turn.  And in reality, in the Scriptural “rendering” of the character of God, we meet a deity who not only SPORADICALLY interjects himself into the cosmic drama for our good, but actually is ALWAYS AT ALL TIMES INTERJECTING HIMSELF FOR OUR GOOD.  Read, for instance, Psalm 104.  The Psalmist seems to think that all the “normal” stuff of life is in fact a gracious gift of the Creator.  It is available because AT EVERY WAKING MOMENT GOD MAKES IT SO.  And not in some deterministic sense either.  But in a dynamically-involved sense.  Which makes it, techincally, “miracle”.  G. K. Chesterton put it like this:

“A child kicks its legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough… It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again,” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again,” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike: it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Or as Wendell Berry put it:

The miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of our existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.” – Wendell Berry

The fact is that OUR LIVES ARE SUSTAINED BY THE NEVER-ENDING MIRACLE OF GOD’S GRACIOUS INVOLVEMENT.  A friend told me recently that physicists are now discovering that at the most minute level of the cosmos, sub-atomic matter demonstrates something like personality or will.  That it’s difficult to predict what subatomic matter will do, for the very simple reason that even observing the subatomic matter seems to influence what it will do.  And yet, the cosmos is orderly.  It is orderly because there is a Love that ever moves the sun and stars and makes them sing together in perfect harmony.  As the writer of Hebrews says, that Love, the Christ, “sustains all things by the word of his might.”  It’s all being held together by him.  That is miracle.

Matthew tells us that Jesus healed … “every disease and sickness among the people.”  That shouldn’t at all surprise us.  It is simply consistent with the kind of world we live in, a world that is shot through with a Love that will not let us go.

Waiting on the kingdom…

The writer of Hebrews says, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us worship God acceptably…” (12:28), making clear that the kingdom is not something that we build, bring, or “establish”.  Rather, it is given, received, and welcomed.  It is God’s gift to a hurting world; the faithful response of God to groaning of his creation.  The end of the Story (which may in fact be the beginning of an even grander Story) depicts the consummated kingdom of God, the new Jerusalem, “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:2-4).  We testify to it, plant seeds of it, engage in acts that speak of it … but ultimately, the kingdom is not our doing.  It is God’s.

The way you hear most people in church-world talk these days, it is clear that this point is not grasped.  We think that “kingdom” is our job.  Pastors talk about “bringing the kingdom of God to such-and-such place” through their efforts and the efforts of those who follow them.  Even social justice advocates talk and behave as though kingdom were a sort of moral attainment.  “Kingdom” thus becomes a cipher for our best ecclesial and social visions and hence a mandate given to us.

But Jesus never called us to “found” the kingdom.  He merely called us to announce it… and then receive it with joy.  And all of that means, I think, that we have the time and space to do things well as we patiently wait for the Holy City to come.

Several years back, the pastor I worked under in Tulsa, Ed Gungor, was invited to an ecumenical dialogue at the Vatican.  The purpose of the dialogue was to discern what the Spirit was doing around the world in order to help foster renewal in the Church globally.  While there, one of the bishops said (to Ed’s great surprise), “You know, we really think that by setting a few things in motion today, we could really begin to see some positive change 100 years from now.”

WHAT?!  100 YEARS!?  We don’t have time for that!  We need to figure out how the get things done now!  What about this fall?!

Of course, when you live in a church milieu that has no sense of history (as most of American Protestantism is devoid of) and thinks the kingdom is some kind of responsibility given to us, you’ll never have the foresight to plant seeds that may bear fruit 10, 20, 30, 50 or 100 years from now.  But if kingdom is a gift, then we have the time and space to plant … and wait.  For in God’s world, everything is gift.  Everything is grace.

Frankly, remembering this helps me immensely.  It saves me from being a frantic bundle of nervous activity, and gives me the confidence that my “work” is as much about prayer and patience as it is about toil and sweat.  Maybe the monks have it right: ora et labora – pray and work, work and pray.  We can … because God gives what we hope most for.  In the meantime, everything we need is right here, right now.  We lack nothing we need.

By now I have spoken too much … so I’ll leave you with this.  In 1980 the Bishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, was assassinated while celebrating the Mass.  Before he died, he penned these words.  May they bring joy to your heart and give you the confidence that in God’s good world, there is time and space for you to patiently wait:

A FUTURE NOT OUR OWN

It helps, now and then, to step back
And take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
It is beyond our vision

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
The magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
Which is another way of saying
That the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection…
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
Knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
And there is a sense of liberation realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
And to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
An opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results…
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Amen.  So be it.

Thankful

1 When you have entered the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, 2 take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the LORD your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name 3 and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land the LORD swore to our forefathers to give us.” 4 The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the LORD your God. 5 Then you shall declare before the LORD your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. 6 But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. 7 Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. 8 So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; 10 and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, O LORD, have given me.” Place the basket before the LORD your God and bow down before him. 11 And you and the Levites and the aliens among you shall rejoice in all the good things the LORD your God has given to you and your household.  – Deut 26:1-11

Acts of gratitude are the antidote to the ferocious tendency in the human soul to marginalize mystery and behave as though God were dead or distant.  This morning, Deuteronomy reminds me of that.  So as my own “act of gratitude”, I want to give thanks for…

My family.  Only by knowing these people could you understand how wonderful they all are.  My kids are hilarious and incredibly different, all of three of them.  Being given the gift of being their father has made me a better person than I ever would have been on my own, and has been perhaps THE great privilege of my life.  And my wife, Mandi, to whom I will celebrate being married to for 10 years this week, is at once one of the most tender and also most ferocious people I have ever met.  She is a rare combination of strength and grace, and I was lucky to run into her when I did.  She has made my life beautiful and has been the most perfect traveling companion on this really odd and always wonderful journey of life…

The community I belong to.  Bloom.  Good God.  It’s a rare treat to belong to such a joyful and uniquely passionate and gifted community.  To be able to serve them by teaching and leading in the capacity that I do fills my soul with delight week in and week out.  Even more, to be able to serve in and among a community that has an “ethos” which far transcends my own gifts and passions is an exquisite joy.  They put on art shows to raise money for orphans.  They worship God and welcome the stranger.  They push the boundaries of the conventional and yet run back to Jesus.  And they welcomed me and my family last September with open arms. We are so grateful for them.

The people we get to do life with.  Michael and Lisa Gungor, and now their newest addition, Amelie.  Michael and I have been friends our entire lives.  Our dads were friends when they were in high school.  Now our kids are going to wind up being friends.  It’s not often that families get to share life across three generations, but here, now, by some great kindness, we get to do just that.  It’s a joyful absurdity to be in Denver with these guys.  Andrew and Mandi could hardly be more different from Michael and Lisa, and yet … the relationship works, and works so well.  It is the perfect complement of personalities and passions, and to be in such close proximity with people like this, people we love, is a gift beyond words.

Denver.  Despite our distance from loved ones in WI and our friends in IL and OK, we love living here.  It’s perfect for us.  Cool mornings and warm afternoons.  Urban and outdoorsy.  Laid back and unconventional.  Mountains.  Glorious mountains.  And a church environment that is, at least in my experience thus far, completely collegial, cooperative, mutually supportive, and non-competitive.  I could hardly ask for more.

Health.  My body works.  It has not broken down in any serious way.  I am grateful for a mind that functions clearly (most days), for being generally pain-free, and for legs that can run.  I especially love having health to run.  Running clears my mind and lifts my soul.  I know that sounds a little ridiculous to some, but there’s hardly anything in life that I’ve found to be more cathartic and liberating than running.  I am grateful for it.

And much more… New friends, warm coffee, silent prayer, experiences that challenge and stretch, music that delights, falling asleep on the couch to a good movie with my bride, good wine, the smell of new books, the thrill of a new idea dawning in my mind, laughter, meaningful work, good memories, well-written prayers, difficult things that prove to be the furnace of new and deeper virtues, and the promise of a final resting place in God.

God of every good thing, thanks for your kindness.  Help us live this day in an awareness that we dwell in a God-saturated universe, filled with mystery, surprise, and uncommon goodness.

Amen.

A thought or two about Anne Rice

This past week, novelist Anne Rice decided to quit Christianity.  Rice, author of the best-selling Interview with a Vampire, along with several recent works which took a decidedly religious tone (Songs of the Seraphim and Christ the Lord), is stepping off.  Not on Jesus, mind you; but on the organized religion that is Christianity (Rice has been a practicing Catholic).  She wrote:

For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.  … I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.

I confess that I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, I see where she’s coming from – I really do.  I’ve had more than one good friend bail out on Christianity for many of the same reasons: they couldn’t see how the confused and often “disputatious”, anti-everything faith squared with the Jesus they knew and loved in the Gospels.  Classic case of “cognitive dissonance.”  In fact, probably the biggest reason I’m pastoring is because I feel that sense of disconnect and hope in some small way to be able to remedy it.

On the other hand, this makes me sad.  I love the Church.  Even more, I believe in the Church.  I am fully aware of the ways in which our witness is backwards and confused, believe me; nevertheless, against that backdrop of failure I see the multitude of ways in which the Jesus’ friends are living consistently with his Mission and his Story to bring hope and healing to the world.  The push-and-pull of trying to figure out what the heck Jesus means for our lives together, a push-and-pull done in community seems to me to be the force that generates mission…

Which is to say, I think that the Church needs Anne Rice, with all of her criticisms.  And I think Anne Rice needs the Church, which can give her a better Story by making her part of a historic people whose mission is nothing less than joining with the Creator God in the quest to “make all things new.”  I think a critic like Anne needs the discipline that comes from having to confess sin, take the Eucharist, listen to the Scriptures, and submit to things like Tradition, Authority, and Story.  I think that far from diminishing her criticisms, it will make them all the more poignant.  After all, real prophets are not loveless critics of their people; they rather are in a “lover’s quarrel” with their people.  Ezekiel sitting with the exiles…  Jesus hanging on a cross…

Anyway, all of that is to say that I resonate with Anne.  I just wish she would have stayed.  We need her.  She needs us.  And we all need Jesus.  He is still our last, and best, hope.