Monthly Archives: July 2012

Echoes of Past Suffering and Grace

Cleaning out more old files for the moving company packers that are coming tomorrow I came across a chaplaincy note pad from my year at Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta.  I wrote this re-interpretation of Psalm 23 (and it has stayed with me, though I thought I lost this original writing in chicken scratch between patient notes) in the midst of hard days and after a particularly hard visit with a 16 year old new mom who claimed not to have known she was even pregnant.  This time was probably my most theologically and pastorally formative time in my life to date.  These words are rough and lack polish but I dare not edit them… they have more life for me the way they have always been… rough and raw.  

“The Lord is our shaper, at times God makes us to lie in hospital beds and leads us to turbulent sorrows; God breaks us. We are lead in sorrow for the sake of our witness to God’s presence.

Even though we are broken, inadequate, humiliated, pained, alienated, oppressed, and ignored we shall fear no human powers or systems, for the Lord is with us, Word and Spirit move through us. God prepares a cross for us in the presence of even our own mocking. And yet nothing we can do will stain our clothes of grace – for we dwell in new creation for all time and beyond. Amen.”

A Sacrament of Tears

On Friday morning I woke to another story of violence – you did too.  A shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, CO.   Many dead, many more wounded, and many many more once again confronted with tragedy.  However I didn’t weep.  I didn’t feel bad that I didn’t weep… in fact if in full confession I would have been surprised at the expectation to weep, stories of violence are absolutely everywhere.  And I’m hardly the first to reflect on our lack of surprise, or the way we have become de-sensitized to violence.  But I received a needed and necessary gift that very night that spurred this reflection…

My family was over at a friend’s house for dinner and conversation.  It was a meal about thanksgivings and good-byes.  As the kids got restless… okay more restless than they naturally are, we decided to turn on the TV and find some cartoons to distract the kids.  As we often do they turned on the TV and then started flipping through the TV guide menu to find cartoons and like most TVs this meant you could still see the show that was on in the background.  It turned out to be an episode of America’s Most Wanted.  None of us really triggered much on it.  I remember hearing the actor speaking in that fake panicked voice that seems to be a prerequisite of every episode of America’s Most Wanted.  The girl was in the police station saying her friend had been killed by her friend’s boyfriend.  She said she had found her friend with a bag over her head… and then the show had a visual flashback to the girl stooped over her friend’s bloody body in the garage and then a brief encountered with the blood soaked boyfriend holding a gun.  We got the channel changed… but the one person in the room that saw and heard it all with completely rapt attention was Warren.  (The kid really doesn’t miss anything.)  My seven year old very sensitive and loving son spent the next thirty minutes or so in tears.  Sobbing at certain points.   Questioning at others.  Was it real… what had she done wrong… why had she been killed if she did nothing wrong????

I do not seek to shelter him… I also do not need him to grow up any sooner than the world will make him.  That day the world made him grow up a bit.  I didn’t dodge any questions.  We talked quietly about it.  We lit candles in memory… we said a prayer.  We spoke of grief and fear. 

What was remarkable to me about this is not that he was scared.  It was that more than scared he was deeply sad… sad that she had died… sad for the senselessness of her death that could make no sense to him for there was none to be found.  He was weeping for her… or really for the person that some actor (who really is hardly good enough to be called an actor) was portraying.

Now fast forward to last night’s Sunset worship service.  We always celebrate communion at that service just following the sermon.  The sermon was part of a series on Ephesians and the preacher ended talking about needing to fall on our knees in prayer for the world in the wake of unspeakable violence.  I looked at the table and the image of Warren’s tears came to mind superimposed before the table that held bread and cup.  Then it came to me that we grow callouses to violence… whether it’s the violence of a shovel to our hands, or a visual assault of tragedy before our eyes.  We become calloused to violence – and Warren has no such callouses… which is hard on him.  But I also believe it is how Christ calls us to be in the world, to not let our heart be hardened.   We are not meant to be calloused people.  We are meant to weep in the wake of tragedy… and we are meant to weep with those who are weeping.  And then I heard Jesus’ words, “This is my body broken for you.”  And I realized that the Table is about breaking callouses and opening our hearts.  Breaking our callouses that we might weep… that we will bleed… that we will mourn, and doing this in remembrance of one who did all this for us as well.

It’s hard to open ourselves to this kind of heartache.  We are far too interested in protecting ourselves from harm.  But in the breaking of bread we also testify to something else, another truth as well.  That which is broken will not stay that way.  Tears will be wiped away.  The broken will be made whole.  That if the each of us is willing to allow our hearts to break for one another than there is yet hope for a world gone mad with self-interest, violence, and hate. 

This is my heart, broken for you – do this in remembrance of me.  These are my tears, shed for all people – do this for the healing of the world.

Disciple: What’s in a name? (With assist from Holden Caulfield)

In the last several years I have received far more resistance in the church on using the word disciple than I would ever have imagined.  People in the church just don’t want to claim it, or name themselves by it.  I could understand something of this hesitancy if it was born out of the feeling that the word was too rigid (and admittedly there are some who feel that it seems to lend itself to Pharisaical Christianity… but that is a different post for another time) or formal or that it conjured too many images of Ewan McGregor as Liam Neeson’s Padawan learner (okay, forgive the Star Wars reference please – I couldn’t help myself).

However this is not the reason most people beg off the word.  The vast majority of people who I have conversed with about the problematic nature of talking about being a disciple of Jesus Christ do not like the word because they feel it sets too high a standard and we do not feel adequate for it.

I’m usually at this point caught speechless. (Not anymore, but it feels good to say so for dramatic effect and because there was a time when it was true.)  The word disciple is too high a standard for Christians to bear?

I’m a big fan of Kierkegaard… Soren Kierkegaard.  (Please read that in your best James Bond voice.)  And most who will read this know that already.  So on some level maybe I was programmed by his writing to be adverse to such assertions that we can be Christians without being disciples.  Kierkegaard makes a point to note that his sense of calling was to convince most Christians that they really weren’t Christian, and then to help them see what it would mean to actually think and live in the way of Jesus Christ and get on board.  (This is clearly my loose paraphrase, but I’m convinced Soren would have approved this version of his call.)

So what is a disciple?  What is involved with our notions that disciple is too high a standard?  Can we actually have too high of standard if we name ourselves Christian after the one who commanded us to be, “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect?”  (Lots more to say about that claim, but that too is another post for another time – you can find those words at the end of the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew set in the midst of that Gospels greatest teaching on discipleship.)

I do not wish to answer all those questions here… WE have to answers those questions TOGETHER – and individually as well as corporately.  So what is your response?

As we think about those questions here are some thoughts I do have on the subject:

If you wish to be Christian it means wishing to follow in the way of Jesus Christ – it’s a way of life, not simply a statement of belief(s).  This way is synonymous with being a disciple – one who learns the way of life of a teacher they have chosen to follow.

The disciples of Jesus in the Bible do not set a very high example.  In fact they are consistently fallible, misguided, and… well… clueless.  I came across a great quote two days ago (I already shared it on Facebook) from J.D. Salinger’s book The Cather in the Rye.  (The book turned 61 and I happened to be looking over some quotations from it.)  And I came across this quote from Holden Caulfield.

“I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible. Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth. They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while He was alive, they were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head. All they did was keep letting Him down. I like almost anybody in the Bible better than the Disciples.” 

Holden – angsty youth as he is – understands the disciples better than most.  They don’t “have it all together.”  They aren’t super Christians.  They are no different than most of us as far as being “good.”  Which I’ve heard said is only true of God… can’t quite remember who said that one… 😉

Now here is what Holden doesn’t get.  (And he probably wouldn’t have liked any better than the rest of us.)  The one trait I consistently find in the disciples that sets them apart – that is, makes them holy.  Is their dedication to continue to follow in the way of Jesus.  They endeavor to do their best to live into the example of Christ.  The young man who is asked to give up all he has to the poor and then follow walks away.  Peter is no less challenged and perplexed (Luke 18 for the full story) but HE STAYS!  I’m fairly convinced that he doesn’t like it, wishes it didn’t have to be this way, but also can’t imagine choosing a different path.  Mostly I get that idea from the next story.

In John 6 many disciples leave… MANY (far more than the 12 we remember) leave… and when Jesus – knowing he has offended them asks the twelve if they too shall leave Peter says, “Where else could we go –you’ve got the goods, the insight, the light and life we seek.  As much as it would be easier to leave we just can’t… because we want what you have, we want to be who we were created to be and you alone seem able to help us.”  (Okay, I acknowledge some serious paraphrasing there but again I’m willing to bet those words work for the THE word.)

That is what it means to be a disciple… staying the course.  Not being right, not being good, and certainly not being as perfect as God (because even God’s perfection remains to be seen as well… yes yes, another post for another day.)  Let us maybe agree to get over the idea that we aren’t good enough… and let us agree to stick around with each other in spite of our discomfort, or dis-ease, our offendedness long enough to be formed by the one who is life… love… peace… healing… advocate… and friend.  The one who is God-with-us.  Let us be who we are created to be, called to be, claimed to be: disciples of Jesus Christ, followers of the way.


“Descended into Hell”

Over the last few years I’ve grown less fond of the Apostle’s Creed… I always knew that it had little (nothing) to say of Jesus’ life.  And that mostly was an intellectual recognition for me, I didn’t feel the lack I just knew it existed.  But as I’ve spent more time on discipleship and formation of a life lived in the way of Jesus I’ve come to realize that this lack is really unacceptable.   However, it does still have powerful ideas to share and proclaim and my favorite, by far, is the line,  “he descended into hell.”

It is a controversial line – challenging to say the least, offensive to many.  In eight years of being the primary contact for visitors and new members I have long since lost count of the number of people who ask why we say such a thing and others who wondered why we added it to the creed.  (I hate to burst your bubble but we didn’t add it, we just didn’t take it out either.)

So why is this my favorite part – beyond that I love things that stir controversy (because controversy, hopefully, stirs reflection and critical thinking)?  There are reasons I give for why it is there, and these get themselves – eventually – to my love for it.

We understand that Jesus died, died, died on the cross – and hell is the “land” of the dead.  So it’s partly a statement that Jesus really is dead for the three days.  Jesus did not simply pretend to die, or seem to die – Jesus really did die.  (Rabbit trail alert: How many of us are still Trinitarian at the cross?  Do we also say, God died, died, died.  I do – but it seems to me that many of us do not… but that is a conversation for another day.)  I like this assertion but it is not why it’s my favorite part.

We also understand something of a tradition of the harrowing of hell, though that tradition itself is contested and probably most prevalent in artistic works of the Eastern Church that show Christ’s resurrection in the company of the departed.  But in the development of the idea of the harrowing (plowing up, making fertile) of hell we are developing the thought from the letter of 1 Peter 3:18-20 Jesus descends into hell to bring there the good news.  Jesus ministry has always been among the downtrodden, the excluded, the “sinners” and this is an extension of that ministry.  This gets closer to what I love about the statement.  In “descended into hell” I see us proclaiming two wonderful truths.

The first is that when God dies on the cross, God becomes God-forsaken and goes to hell, the “place” of God-forsakenness (“Father, why have you forsaken me?”).  In this act the impossible happens – God enters the very place which is thought to be forsaken by God.  Thus we know that there really is no place that God’s light doesn’t shine, that good news is not preached… and realized.  The harrowing of hell.  Hell hath no fury like a God who will not let God’s people go.

The Psalmist in Psalm 139 already knew this of course, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

And this brings me the full expression of what I love about proclaiming, “descended into hell.”  We put our faith in a descending God.  Not God on high, not enthroned on praise, not with God’s head in the sky or a transcendent heavenly God – God descends… constantly.  God descends to human flesh to be with us.  God descends to death and death on a cross, power perfected in weakness enduring shame and ridicule to bring about new life, hope, and the healing of the world.  But that is not enough… God must descend farther – the ultimate shame and scandal – God descends into hell.  Hell?  But that’s where evil goes, that is a place of eternal punishment… God can’t go there!!!  And yet we say it when we proclaim the Apostle’s Creed – every week at the church where I worship.  God descended into hell.  There is no place God won’t go to bring healing, hope, life, and light.

So what does that say to us?  If we follow a descending God – a God who descends even into hell, to free the forsaken, to turn the tables over, to be in all ways and all places to all people – than what does that mean for us?  Where are we to go?  Who are we to go to, and for what purpose?

The so-called scandal of the cross ( a messiah who saves by dying, power demonstrated in the ultimate demonstration of weakness and death being hung until death on a Roman cross) is not the final scandal, God always sees to it to descend further and farther… there is no place from which we can flee God’s presence.  There is no place we are not called to be good news reflecting the light and life of Christ.

Descended into hell…. Come and follow.