A Procession of Fools

Easter is on April Fools’ Day this year, and I dug back in my blog archives and discovered this liturgical prayer from 2012 when Palm Sunday fell on April Fools’.

You looked foolish,
an uncrowned King,
riding a donkey for your
great triumphal entry.

Did its master know you?
(Did he boast to friends–
Jesus was really riding my ass)?

And you call us to
be foolish for your sake
to believe in ways that
confound the wise
and frustrate the strong.

O Humble King, whose entry
announced a different kingdom.
You came with
weakness,
Not with money and power
but in humility.

Let us be bold to walk with you.
Use us, Lord, to bring your
presence into our cities and towns.
Let us carry you with us.

As fools and jackasses for Jesus
Let us walk on, knowing that death and shame await,
but in the end, you King of Fools will reign.

Lent: Jesus and the Demon of Status Quo

Mark’s gospel tells us that after Jesus called his first disciples—Simon, Andrew, James and John—they left their nets and followed him. They all went to Capernaum. On the Sabbath day Jesus was teaching in the synagogue and a demonized man was there.  The man screamed, “What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? We know you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus quieted the man, cast out the demon, and he set the man free (Mark:1-21-28).

This was Jesus’ first healing, and his first confrontation with the Darkness after his wilderness temptation. And it happened in a house of worship. The three L’s of exorcism are: location, location, location

Diverse interpreters of the Bible understand these unclean spirits differently. The quasi-charismatic evangelical hermeneutic that shaped my reading of the text, takes the spiritual world as a given. These are demons—beings of personal evil bent on destroying humanity. Post-Enlightenment bible scholars with a bent toward demythologizing the supernatural look at what the spirits means within the early church’s proclamation. So one group looks at demons as personal evil (could it be . . . Satan?) and the other group see demons as representations of cultural and institutional structures (e.g. the ‘spirit of the times’). The result is that one camp reads this account as Jesus’ confrontation with a very real spiritual being, the other camp understands this as Jesus’ encounter with systemic, structural evil.

Of course these two readings are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to observe, in the context of Mark, a man in the synagogue who was really demonized and that Jesus’ first miracle and confrontation with the demonic happened after his teaching challenged the teaching of the scribes. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22).

Ched Meyers observes, [T]he meaning of the powerful act must be found by viewing it in terms of symbolic reproduction of social conflict” (Binding the Strong Man, Orbis 1988, 2008, 142). The demonic stronghold becomes apparent as Jesus opposes the pervading political, social and religious thought.

Meyers writes:

Although Jesus identity is hidden to the protagonists (e.g. the disciples) in the story, the demons know exactly who he is. Clearly understanding the political threat he poses to the status quo, they struggle to “name” (that is control) him (1:34; 3:11) (143).

In Lent, it is easy to talk about following Jesus and the cost of discipleship. It is even easier to conceive our Lenten journey as our own little private devotion to God. However, walking with Jesus the way of the cross necessarily will bring us into spiritual, political conflict with evil. Following Jesus means opposing structures and systems which hurt people. In Mark’s story, Jesus’ teaching is contrasted with the scribes for the authority of his teaching (1:22, 27). In Matthew 23, Jesus is explicit in condemning the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, and the way they subvert true justice. And yet these were the social, political and cultural leaders of his day.

The way of the cross is not about private spiritual devotion. It confronts political realities. This was as true at the beginning of Jesus’ mission as it was at the end.

“What’s that got to do with us Jesus of Nazareth?”

The status quo tends to hurts people. If you want to see the reality of demons, question it. When you hear the phrase what’s that got to do with us (or what that’s got to do with me) you may be listening to a demon. Cain, the first murderer, uttered a similar sentiment, “Am I my brothers keeper?”  That’s demonic. It is also demonic when a Christian apologist shames mass shooting victims for speaking out about assault rifles. Or when the victims of domestic or sexual violence are discounted because of due process. Or when you see an angry outburst when someone dares to say black lives matter, and challenges the practices of law enforcement and mass incarceration. Narrow is the gate to salvation but we have institutionalized the wide way of destruction.

Following Jesus will bring us more and more into confrontation with the powers because the way of Jesus is diametrically opposed to the kingdom of this word. To walk with Jesus will mean challenging unjust systems, structures and the status quo. If it doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong.

 

 

 

Picking up the Pieces, Reaching for Wholeness.

This past weekend, I drove up to Portland for a Christian conference of sorts. I went to the Northwest Ekklesia Project Meeting. Chris Smith and John Pattison, authors of Slow Church were the speakers (I heard about this gathering via Chris, and I’ve interacted with both authors online, though we had never officially met them until this weekend). In three sessions, Chris and John described our age  as being characterized by profound fragmentation, and they offered three biblical metaphors of church (Church as family, as body, as light) as a counter vision and way of being in the world. John and Chris drew   on their book, Slow Church, their current personal projects, and stories from church communities they’ve been privileged to interact with as a result of their book.

This was not one of those huge church conferences, but an intimate gathering, tucked into a small church in northwest Portland. Nobody made me wear a name tag, so I wasn’t subjected to institutionalized intimacy. There was only about 20-30 people there. I learned pretty quick that everyone else was in a thicker sort of community than I am in. The other folks who were gathered were committed to neighborhood and place, and they didn’t just do church together. Most were part of intentional Christian communities (co-housing, shared life, etc.). Nobody made me feel out-of-place for my thin, anemic communal life, or like I didn’t belong there. I felt enfolded in the hospitality of the group, but it made me aware of ways my experience of church was far less robust.

In the first session, John noted that fragmentation is a characterization of every age—in the very warp and weft of the universe. However, he identified three forces of fragmentation peculiar to our day: radical individualism, hypermobility, and materialism.

Traditionally the season of Lent is a time for preparing. We fast, and we examine our lives, we repent, and we strive to follow Jesus more wholeheartedly. And yet, I am not whole. I recognize the forces of fragmentation in my own life but also the longing for wholeness.

I am individualistic

John Pattison noted in his Friday night talk that the Apostle Paul uses the phrase ‘Our Lord’ something like 53 times, but only once says “my Lord” (cf. Phil 3:8). Similarly, 22(?) times the New Testament speaks of Jesus as “our Savior” and only once does an individual refer to Jesus as ‘my Savior’ (Mary, in her Magnificat, Luke 1:46).  Our post-Enlightenment age emphasizes the private individual. We are the self-made men. And faith and spirituality has become privatized. Evangelical Christians preach the need to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, and deemphasize the fact that Jesus came to overturn the social order and establish a new people.

And yet so much of my Spiritual journey is all about me, following my bliss, me on my journey toward my self actualization.  But Jesus calls us to something fuller, deeper and more involved than my personal relationship with him. God is community (Trinity) and the community the Godhead establishes images God’s unity in diversity, God’s justice and God’s love for all.

I hunger for deeper community, even as my own woundedness and suspicion keeps me from others. Part of my journey this season is to experience more of God with others because spiritual experience is so much more than the internal experience of my own human brain.

I am rootless

Sitting in a room full of people with a deeper, thicker experience of community life, I was struck with how hypermobile my life is. In conversation with Chris and John, before the conference began, I revealed my circuitous journey, and how I came to be in Medford. Born in Edmonton, Alberta, raised in Hawaii, two short years in urban mission in Atlanta and Miami, Vancouver BC for seminary, North Washington for several years, my pastorate in Florida and now, my neighborhood in South Medford. And then John went to talk about hypermobility as led to further fragmentation and rootlessness

Theologically, I prefer stability. I’ve read my Wendell Berry and Eugene Peterson. I went to a Parish Collective thing a few years ago and cried through the whole thing feeling like these were my people— those who commit to place and neighborhood and strive to feel the rhythm of what God was already do there.  As much as I’ve moved, I believe wholeheartedly in tending the soil where you are, and committing to place. Jesus was God with human skin come to dwell among his people. Incarnation happens in place, and there is reality we won’t enter into if we keep  on moving. I feel the rootlessness, but wherever I moved, I’ve hoped it would be for the long haul.

I am a materialist. 

Materialism means valuing the material more than the spiritual. It creates within us both a consumer mindset, where people and things are commodified, and a scarcity mindset, where we are most conscious of our material lack (e.g. resources, programs, technology, etc).

Certainly I feel both the forces of commodification and scarcity in my soul. Too often, my individualist impulse has subsumed even spiritual practices into commodities— techniques to achieve my personal satisfaction. And the weight of scarcity also weighs on my soul. Everything is a commodity and none of it is enough.

But of course, as in Browning’s phrase, my reach exceeds my grasp (or ‘what’s a heaven for?’). I long for a greater sense of God’s Presence to invade my reality, alerting me to where the real world of the senses doesn’t comprise all of reality, and that there is always more of God around than I realize. I feel too much the weight of scarcity, but the promise of Jesus is abundant life.


I am an individual, isolated from the Other. I am rootless, longing for connection. I am a materialist and a consumer, longing to taste and see the goodness of God. These forces of fragmentation are useful to me as a self-diagnostic, describing how fragmented I feel most of the time, but they also help me see the things I long to see in my life, in my journey with Christ. Fragmentation is not the end of the story.

 

 

Braving My Lenten Wilderness

If your church follows the lectionary, you would have heard Mark’s rendering of Jesus’ baptism, how the Spirit descended like a dove, the Father spoke affirming words, and how the Spirit immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness (Mark 1:9-15).  Mark is the most economic in his description of Jesus’ wilderness temptation, but we know from reading his account: (1) Jesus was there 40 days, (2) he was tempted by Satan, (3) he was with the wild animals, and (4) he was waited on by angels. At the end of his desert days, John, his cousin, was arrested and Jesus went to Galilee preaching, “It’s time! God’s reign has come close! Change your heart and trust the good news!”

The forty days of Lent—Ash Wednesday to Easter minus Sundays in the western Church calendar—correspond to the 40 days of Jesus’ wilderness temptation. To practice Lent is to self-consciously follow Jesus into the wilderness. There we will be tempted, we will grow hungry, we will see ways we are in danger. But like Jesus, who was ministered to by the angels. We will sense ourselves as being held in God’s care, and have God’s presence mediated to us.

Going to the wilderness is the hardest part of practicing Lent for me because I feel like I’ve already spent too much time there. Jesus took forty days and clarified his call before going about the countryside preaching, teaching, casting out the Powers and healing the sick. But wilderness haunts my story and still feel perpetually, vocationally frustrated. I graduated from seminary in 2010 with a mountain of student debt. Unable to find a way into pastoral ministry and needing a job, I worked at a hardware store in Blaine, Washington. I call that season of my life, ‘Waylaid in Blaine,’ and while there were gifts and blessings and the angels of God ministered to me and my family, it was a desert place for me.  I was eager to move into the land of promise.

A few years later I got the opportunity. I uprooted. My family and I moved across country where I took up the role of lead pastor of a small congregation. I was 40. Our fourth kid was born there. We named our son Benedict Asher (meaning blessing and happiness) because I mused. “After 40 years in the wilderness, we are now in the promised land, doing the things God has called us to do.”

My son is indeed a blessing, but a year after coming to Florida, the church and I parted ways. They were a small congregation with big bills feeling the weight of scarcity and they needed a leader who would turn things around for them. I didn’t deliver on their hopes (e.g. grow the church, bring in money, invigorate them with spiritual vitality). But it wasn’t just them. I failed to deliver on the things I feel called to.  I mishandled important relationships and I failed in my attempts to get the church to partner with the wider community. I think it was an impossible situation and I was a bad fit for them, but I still feel the ways and places I didn’t measure up, and I grieve the broken relationships.

But for the next eight months, I lived in that community, seven blocks from my old church. I dreaded running into former congregants because when I saw them, I felt like a failure. Some members reached out and were kind, but most severed all contact. My kids would cry because we couldn’t go to that church anymore. Me too. And while I had worked at building community connections and relationships, I suddenly felt like any investment I had in the neighborhood would be perceived as competing with my former church. Every interaction became difficult for me (I’m normally gregariously extroverted). And it hurt. A lot. I don’t think I ever felt so isolated.  We were in the wilderness again, unsure of next steps and feeling isolated.

So we uprooted again, heading back to the Northwest and ended up in the city of  Medford, Oregon. We ended up in a new city but carrying the self-doubt, disillusionment, and disconnection. We started attending a local Methodist church and slowly building a life here. We subsist, ministered to by the angels, but in lots of ways I’m still in a wilderness place. I have had opportunities to preach and have healed somewhat, but I feel gripped with fear and haven’t done much to pursue the things I feel like I’m called to.

So entering the Lenten Wilderness is just a decision, for me, to recognize my own spiritual locale. Here I am. Where are you? Is your life the land of promise? Or are there ways you feel, as I do, vocationally and relationally frustrated? Perhaps you carry wounds that keep you from giving and receiving love in a community? The Spirit drove Jesus to the wilderness, but as we listen to the Spirit’s whisper, perhaps we recognize the ways we are already there.

This past weekend I drove up to Portland for a conference. On the way up, I listened to the Audiobook version of Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness (. She describes her own longing for connection and true belonging and what it means to “brave the wilderness.” She offers up the acronym BRAVING to those of us who find ourselves in the wilderness (Lenten or otherwise):

  • Boundaries – being clear about our own boundaries and the boundaries of others
  • Reliability – the decision to trust others to do what they say they are going to do, and doing the same.
  • Accountability – trusting others who apologize and make amends for their mistakes, and doing the same ourselves.
  • Vault- holding in confidence what is shared with you and not sharing stories that are not ours to tell.
  • Integrity – choosing courage over comfort and practicing what we say we believe.
  • Nonjudgement – Nonjudgment of others in relationship, non-judgment for ourselves. We can fall apart, we can ask for help. We can be needy.
  • Generosity – Choosing to be generous in our assumptions about what people do to us and why.

So here I am, in the wilderness, longing for connection. Wanting to step with courage into calling, but still feeling wounded and afraid. I want so badly to be on the other side of the desert, speaking Good news of God’s closeness and welcome. But here I am. And I must brave this place and learn to find my voice again.

 

Why Would You Give Up Something For Lent?

This is a question I ask myself every year, and if you are among those of us who give something up, the why may be the most important part of your Lenten fast. Do you give something up because your faith community does, and because you always have? Is it a way to jump-start your new diet? Are you trying to quit smoking, overeating or drinking until you blackout? Is there some other habit you want to break and you love the support of a Lent practicing community?? Do you want to undertake some heroic discipline to prove your devotion to God? Do you think if you don’t eat chocolate God loves you more?

The answer to that last question, when we put it so baldly, is an obvious no. God will not love us more if we spend less time on Facebook, don’t eat chocolate or candy, or give up (for the next six weeks) eating green eggs and ham in a box, with a fox, in house, with a mouse, here or there or anywhere. And yet, sometimes our participation in fasts or religious practices feel like it is just us trying to prove our worth to God.

The prophet Samuel’s words to Saul offer us a corrective, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22). To obey is better than sacrifice. Unfortunately, us post-modern pilgrims find neither obedience or sacrifice appealing and sometimes miss the wisdom in the prophet’s words. Sacrifice was a ritual designed to appease a god. When done right, it reminded the person sacrificing of their own brokenness and the way they wound themselves, others, and God. When done poorly, as Saul did in 1 Sam. 15, it was a way to honor God without submitting to God’s desire for our lives. We don’t sacrifice rams, but our Lenten fast can be a similar religious pretending. We may fast before God when our heart is somewhere else. 

movie-poster-joy-luck-clubBut obedience is a hard thing for us too. We tend to think of obedience in legalistic terms. A slavish following of rules and a harsh authority structure.  One of my favorite movies is the adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel, The Joy Luck Club (1993). There is one scene where Suyuan, an immigrant from China, and little girl June clash over her not wanting to take piano lessons, and Suyuan shouts, “Only two kinds of daughter. Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind. Only one kind of daughter lives in this house. Obedient kind!” As a father of girls, I quote this to my daughters all the time. And they both ignore me every single time I say it.

The word obey in Hebrew was shema. It means hearing, listening, attending to. The obedient life is the listening life. It is a lifestyle mindful of God’s presence in our lives. To obey is to pay attention to God and God’s desires for us. This is the first and best reason to give up something for Lent: to train our ears and hearts to hear God and listen to him in all of life. If we give something up, it is because we recognize it as a thing that numbs our sense of the Divine. We eschew distraction in order to be more mindful and to listen well.

The second reason we fast in Lent, is because we believe spiritual transformation is possible. It is why I do it. I recognize I am not who I want to be, and I am not who I pretend to be most of the time. I earnestly wish I was more compassionate, braver, more prayerful, and less petty, shallow, and wounded. I believe in spiritual transformation, that as we give our heart to God, he makes us new. I give something up, I fast, I cast off distractions because I hope it will change me.

But our spiritual transformation is not just about personal change. It is about welcoming the Kingdom of God into our neighborhoods, cities, our nation. One of the reasons we don’t see a greater change in our lives is because of our participation in systems and structures which mitigate against God’s coming kingdom.

For example, we all agree racism is pretty awful. People should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. But we do not live in a post-race society. Our culture still bears the mark of centuries of slavery, a hundred years of Jim Crow, historic redlining and discriminatory policies, mass incarceration of African American males (when white American’s guilty of similar crimes get lighter or no sentence), violence against the Black community, etc.  As a white privileged person, I am part of a system that has benefited me, even in ways I’m not particularly aware, and hurt other people. Our belief in spiritual transformation challenges these systemic realities. It can’t be only about private devotion. Spiritual transformation means welcoming the system overhaul of the Kingdom of God.

The Bible passage that best informs every Lenten fast (or any other kind of fast) is Isaiah 58.  Isaiah  58:6-9 reads:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

When we make fasting and Lent about ourselves and solely about our relationship with God, we are doing it wrong. Yes, it is good to break some bad personal habits, but how can our Lenten Fast participate in God’s justice? Are the oppressed set free because we gave up Scotch (but not other single malts)?

1024px-fast_dayI try to think about Justice with my Lenten fast. For several years, I have given up, to various degrees, eating meat during Lent. But as I’ve done this, I have also tried to faithfully cross-examine my economic participation in America’s industrial food complex. Issues come up like our cruelty to animals, economic oppression of rural farmers, exploitation of immigrants for cheap labor, environmental stewardship, etc. Taking a step back from my consumption of certain things has given me space to examine my lifestyle and choices. I am not vegan (except seasonly, during Lent), but because of trying to practice Lent conscientiously, I have changed some of my buying practices the rest of the time too.

If you give up chocolate, God doesn’t love you more. But when we recognize that the harvesting of cocoa beans in West Africa exploits child labor and slaves and that our conspicuous consumption (not to mention the demand for cheap chocolate) contributes to untold suffering, we begin to make changes. Our fast unties the yoke of injustice.

So give something up for Lent. Use your fast as a way to cast off patterns of life that distract you. Attend to God’s presence in your life. Believe that spiritual transformation is possible and look for ways to participate in God’s justice.

A Love as Strong as Death?

This morning we awoke to a strange confluence. It is both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. One day which is devoted to repentance and remembering our death, the other, at least in its post-Hallmark-guise, revels in romance. I was raised in a branch of Christianity where Lent was an optional add-on, and you weren’t expected to give anything up in the weeks leading up to Easter. But the strangeness of an Ash Wednesday Valentine’s Day makes me almost certain that this will not be a bumper year for chocolate makers and confectionaries. Though honestly, love will win out and you are probably already too late to get your reservation at that fancy restaurant.

The verse that hangs over most of our Ash Wednesday observances is Ecclesiastes 3:20, “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” In the service for the Imposition of Ashes, we sometimes substitute the word “ash” for the “dust.” Neither dust nor ash has much substance and both metaphorically get at the ephemeral quality of our time on earth, but ashes evoke also the repentant image of ‘sackcloth and ashes.’

Given our Valentine’s Day theme for this year’s Ash Wednesday party, my mind keeps thinking of this passage from the Song of Songs:

Place me like a seal over your heart,
    like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
    its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
    like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
    rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give
    all the wealth of one’s house for love,
    it[c] would be utterly scorned. (Song of Songs 8:6-7, Emphasis mine)

The Song of Songs is a series of romantic love poems in the Hebrew Bible. Once upon a time, theologians and Bible interpreters allegorized these Songs, making them all about our relationship with God. Sometimes their interpretations were fanciful. More recent commentators, on the other hand, read these as wholly about the love between a man and a woman (or women) and see very little here to do with God. There are several modern commentaries that will make you blush with how vividly they explore the sexual imagery (e.g. Marvin Pope’s commentary in the Anchor Bible series). The truth is somewhere in the middle. These are romantic poems, and romance reveals something of God to us.

It is the confluence of love and death that brings this passage to mind.  The poet describes ‘a love as strong as death.’ Of the two, death, harsh as it may be, seems much more real.  It has been called the great equalizer. Benjamin Franklin famously stated, “Nothing is certain except death and taxes,” and certainly it is true that everyone dies. From dust we came, to dust we shall return. 

In the Ancient Near East context of the Hebrew Bible, they wrestled with the reality. Death was the enemy. Iain Provan observes:

Death, as the book of Ecclesiastes, so powerfully reminds us, overshadows all of life. It is a mighty power, as the ancient Near East already understood when they characterized Death as a hungry diety, dragging all life down into a deep pit from which there is no escape—the world of the dead, from which there is no escape. (NIV Application Commentary: Ecclesiastes/Song of Songs, 372).

And it is true. None of us get out of this life alive.  John Donne’s haunting phrase comes to mind, “therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” The Hebrew poets and prophets were more honest about the reality of death than we generally are (as are, our modern poets and prophets). We tend to avoid thinking about death until Death within his bending sickle compass come and its reality is no longer avoidable.

Love as strong as death sounds nice but it feels unbelievable. Everybody dies. But too often we see our love thwarted, unrequited, frustrated, and broken. If love is as strong as death then why do we feel so alone?

Provan writes, reflecting on this passage, “Death comes to all. Yet love, we are told, is its equal, and the passion that the lovers share is as stubborn and unrelenting as the underworld (Sheol, NIV, “grave”), which pursues all living things to swallow them up” (368-369). The experience of being in love steels us against the dying of the light.

But more than that. Love undergirds reality. At the center of creation is the Triune God—a community of Self-giving Love that loved the world into Being, and though not all is right with it, loves the world still. God is love, and the God of love, loves us all. Everybody dies but nobody gets out of this life unloved. 

St. Augustine paints love as fury and fire, bringing us away from certain destruction to the wide way of salvation:

No deluge of this age, no torrents of temptation extinguish the fires of love. Concerning it, Scripture says, Love is as strong as death. For just as, when it comes, death cannot be resisted — with whatever arts, whatever medications you may greet it — and those who are born as mortals cannot evade the fury of death; so too the world can do nothing against the fury of love. On the contrary, death is set before us as a likeness of love. For just as death achieves heights of fury in the work of destruction, so love achieves heights of fury in the work of salvation. (The Song of Song’s interpreted by Early and Medieval Commentators, The Church’s Bible, location 5473).

This is the ground we all stand on. If the reality was just we are all going to die I’d have no desire to press into God in this season, or any other. When a pastor marks us with ash, whether with a substantial smear or a wispy trace, they will make the sign of the cross on our foreheads. The cross was God’s chosen method to make visible his love for us all. O Death, where is your victory? O Death where is your sting? 

Love is not as strong as death. It is stronger. May we know with greater certainty God’s love for us!