Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Holy Week According to the Pharisees

“The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing.  Look, the world has gone after him!’” (John 12:19)

The shouts of “Hosanna” that reverberated throughout the streets and off the city walls of Jerusalem caused Jesus’ adversaries to sense defeat. In the minds of the teachers of the law, this grassroots Messianic movement no longer claimed merely the allegiance of a handful of Jewish peasants; rather, the message and mission had captured the imaginations of the world.  According to the Pharisees, the Way of Jesus had gone global- or at least Gentile- and they had no choice but to throw their hands up in surrender. 

That is, until Friday. Apparently the pep rally of Palm Sunday didn’t stifle the energies and strategies for too long.  

Still, that’s not what bothers me about this text.  I am not even as unsettled by the pressing realities that only a few days later the same hallowed Jerusalem walls reverberated a different word- “crucify!” After all, the fickleness of humanity is fairly constant.

What bother’s me about the Palm Sunday text is that I don’t know if Jesus’ sparring partners would utter the same words in 2015. I am not sure they would claim, “Look, the world has gone after him!” Instead, for me, Holy Week elicits new forms of lament that linger at least until Sunday morning. You could say I am tempted to embrace a reversal of the Pharisaical fatalism:

You see, we can do nothing. Our efforts are in vain. Try as we may, the world remains broken. Lions devour lambs. Drones and threats of terror are preferred over pruning hooks and plowshares. Political and religious rhetoric push people farther apart instead of pull friends and foes together.  Reconciliation across racial, economic, geographic, denominational and ideological communities appear more improbable than generations before. Children become collateral in both neighborhoods of privilege and villages drenched in oppression. Hosanna?!  Look, the world has gone after power and dominion no matter what the cost. Will deliverance ever come?   

Nevertheless, cynicism will not become my central discipline during this sacred seven-day journey. This Holy Week, I will instead sit with a revised echo of the Pharisees as my eager and hope-full prayer for the world (and our churches) to indeed go after this Jesus. In the presence of so much unrest throughout our local and global communities, I will dare to open my eyes and look to see evidence that we are not and will not be overcome by darkness.  I will hold on hope for the possibility- nah, probability- that just maybe we can and many are doing something as those who pursue the One who promised not to condemn the world but to save and make it right again. 

I will pray expectantly, not only for the church, but also for the world caught in between beauty and despair.  I will pray for a world whose Lord is the Christ and promised future is reconciliation. I will pray for the world to go after the dreams of God and the rhythms of love and redemption. I will pray for the church and churches to take the lead and (continue to) do the same. 

I will believe in the resurrection even when Twitter feeds, news outlets, and unending stories of injustice near and far tempt me to abandon the greatest of all Christian hopes. 

I will trust the story of Easter as affirmation that even when the world fails to go after Jesus as Lord, Jesus indeed goes and has gone after the world which he loves. 

After all, this kind of belief and trust in Life’s great triumph over death and all its friends is the only advantage we have on our pilgrimage from streets draped with palms to a tomb we pray will be empty so enough. 

“The only advantage ‘we’ have over the world around us is that we know that He is our Lord and theirs too, and that we may use the access to God which He has opened up for both us and them. ‘We’ may believe in the midst of the others while they do not yet believe. ‘We’ thus do so visionally in their place.  In this way ‘we’ hold a position they have not yet occupied or even have abandoned. ‘We’ do it for our Lord, the Lord known by us, and therefore for them whose Lord He is also although they do not yet know Him.  Hence, ‘we’ also pray in anticipation with them and for them as we pray with and for one another and for ourselves.” 
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4, pp. 102-103.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Lent, the Myth of Elevator Buttons, and Another Modern Psalm

We’ve all done it. We are running to make it on time to an appointment or we simply don’t have the patience to wait an extra second or two so, after we have stepped into the elevator and selected the correct floor, we reach for and push the button marked “Door Close.”  In order to gain even the slightest edge in our race against time, we frantically press the plastic button and assume we have the ability to interrupt the timing systems and safety mechanisms of the elevator.

Today I learned the button is a fraud.  In a podcast by Radio Lab, the hosts uncovered the plausibility of approximately 80% of these buttons marked “door close" being non-functional.  They are disconnected intentionally. Engineers do not hook up the wires of these bottom level buttons in order to protect and preserve the integrity of the traffic patterns and rhythms determined by the computers within one of our most underrated technologies. 

That’s right, we actually do not have the ability to manipulate and speed up our upward or downward mobility no matter how many times we jam that button with our index fingers or thumbs. Despite our best intentions, the door will remain open until the integrated system is ready for it to be closed. 

Every Lent I am reminded of a similar truth, we cannot bypass the liturgical season linked to lament, confession, and unsettling encounters with our sin, suffering, and a crucified God.  No matter how many times we attempt to skip the 40-day journey to the cross, likely favoring the sentiment of Easter over and above both Ash Wednesday or Good Friday, the liturgical rhythm and the sacred season must be endured.  The timing mechanism and traffic pattern of the Christian calendar always follows the jubilee of Advent, Epiphany, and a brief stint in ordinary time with a more somber Lenten road. 

If we are honest, we need this pause.
"Then Jesus came with them to a plot of land called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, 'Stay here while I go over there to pray.'" 
Matthew 26:36, New Jerusalem Bible
We need this pilgrimage of contemplation and discontent.  We need the Spirit to provoke our consciences and disturb our souls, not so much for the sake of sorrow and grief, but in efforts to remember our call and commission in the midst of a creation that continually groans. Lent is a season when we are forced to confront the dark realities of a despairing world and our despairing selves even as we reaffirm our commitments to cruciform discipleship.  Lent is a holy bid to slow down and rest where we are and as we are- fragile persons in a fragile world in a fragile time.  Sure, we are those who cling to a promised future, but we must relinquish our temptation to rush upward and close the door too soon on God’s dreams for welfare and wholeness in the here and now. 
“One cannot say, ‘Thy kingdom come!’ without hope for our time, for today, for tomorrow.  The great Future, with a capital F, is also a future with a small f.” 
---Karl Barth, Prayer 39 
May this Lent be an opportunity to prayerfully engage the here and now, the present places of brokenness in our world, communities, congregations, and our own selves. May this Lent be an opportunity not to rush ahead, but to slow down and consider where and how we may have missed present moments to embody God’s concern for despairing persons near and far.  May this Lent be a chance to keep the door of confession and lament open for just a bit longer as we then consider fresh possibilities both to receive and practice the resurrection that is surely coming.

This Week's Modern Psalm for Lent: "Come As You Are" by Crowder

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Lent, Legend, Leprosy, and the Liberation of a Little Girl: Modern Psalm Week 1

One of the joys of parenting is the chance to tell and retell biblical stories to our children. 

This (intended-to-be) daily ritual has also served as a regular reminder that no matter how many times I read the Bible, there will always be something new to learn. 

That was the case the other day when the story my kids chose from their children’s Bible was the preschool version of 2 Kings 5. 
It's o.k. I had to look it up, too. 

The story is about a little Israelite girl who was taken captive by Naaman, commander of the Aramaen army (modern day Syria).  The narrative reads:
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet [Elisha] who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”
The remainder of the chapter illustrates Naaman's encounter with Elisha.  The prophet instructs the commander to bathe in the Jordan so to be healed of his leprosy and ultimately returned to Aram. The real kicker is when Elisha gives Naaman a blessing, “Go in peace" (5:19).

When I read the abbreviated and paraphrased rendition of this story to my kids, what was most fascinating was how the childrens Bible reduced this narrative into a neat and clean story about enemy love, i.e. little girl who sought the healing of her captor, and a foreshadowing of the free gift of grace we receive in Christ, i.e. Naamans offer to pay Elisha to be healed being ultimately rejected. 

I was not about to dive into exegetical debate with my three-year-olds.  I also thought their fragile imaginations may not be ready for my cynical nuances. Yet I couldnt shrug off the disturbance of conscience- were we really supposed to celebrate the healing of this warden of an imprisoned youth while that same little girl remained in captivity?

I gave the story a pass for the night and tucked the Twinado into bed. The next morning, I was still unsettled. 

Did the writer of this text leave something out? What about the little girl? What about liberation of the captives?  Why didn’t Elisha demand the little girl’s release as payment for Naaman’s healing? After all, if it wasn’t for her, Naaman would have withered until he died a slow, painful, lonely death.

Instead, Naaman is given more than his fair share of chances, forgiven of his pompous attitude when invited to bathe in the Jordan, and sent away as if it were no big deal to worship both the God of Israel and the false idols of Aram.  

Gehazi, Elisha's own servant, identifies with my bewilderment, "My master has let that Aramaic Naaman off too lightly by not accepting from him what he offered. As the LORD lives, I will run after him and get something out of him" (5:20).

And then I hear echoes of Common and John Legend’s recent hit, “Glory." A perfect modern psalm to begin the Lenten journey:
Freedom is like religion to us
Justice is juxtapositionin' us
Justice for all just ain’t specific enough
Agreed.  The justice of 2 Kings 5 isn't specific enough, or at least not universal enough.  What about  the little Israelite girl whose desire for freedom is overlooked in favor of the redemption of her oppressor? It appears this juxtaposition, i.e. of Naaman's liberation with the freedom of the enslaved, was missed by the writers of this piece of Scripture.

Even when we dig deeper into Gehazi's rally cry for retribution, we are confronted with the ulterior motive of his quest for a fair resolution.  Gehazi is neither concerned about the little girl nor justice.  Rather, the servant wants payment.  So Elisha responds: 
"'Where have you been Gehazi!?'...Therefore the leprosy of Namman shall cling to you and your descendants forever.  So he left his presence leprous, as white as snow" (5:25, 27).
Will this little girl's war ever be won? Will her Selma march ever come?

Needless to say, this portion of the Hebrew Scriptures does not currently rank high on my list. The messiness and loose ends disturb my soul. On the surface, God's preferential option for the poor and oppressed has encountered a potential lapse in consistency.

But 2 Kings 5 may be the perfect Lenten meditation. 

The narrative begs us to consider the little girls and all others who live in captivity while their captors reap the benefits of power and privilege.  Naaman’s deliverance dares us to wrestle with the tension of praying for the redemption of our enemies while also, or more specifically, longing for justice on behalf of those abused and offended by their egregious behaviors. This justice should neither be reduced to nor confused with vengeance or acquisition of financial gain.  The children’s rendition of the story challenges our conscience as we confess the ways in which we smooth over the rawness of the human experience in favor of palatable religion. 

Elisha’s blessing, “go in peace," even confronts our dreams of shalom in light of a world saturated in so much war, terrorism, dis-ease, various -isms, and deep-seeded despair. 

These are all the musings of pilgrims on a Lenten quest to the cross, longing for the glory of Easter morning.

I guess I’ll keep reading 2 Kings 5 it to my kids until that glory comes.  After all, they may have already been wondering what happened to that little girl. Maybe I should I ask them...

Modern Psalm for the Lenten Journey: Week 1

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Church as Friend to the Community, Advocate to Children: Reflections from Weekend with Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson

"Has the church become so insular, in light of our perceived problems and divisions, that we've missed the opportunities in the global society emerging all around us?" This was possibly the most profound and pointed question posed by Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Director of the PCUSA Office of Public Witness.

We were gathered at The First Presbyterian Church of Germantown in Philadelphia for day two of conversations on Race and Christian Witness, a collaborative event hosted by the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus and the Presbytery of Philadelphia in celebration of Black History Month. Sunday's remarks built upon a foundation laid by the previous day's challenge, "If we [the church] are still boxing one another at the bottom we will never be able to confront the real and oppressive power struggle at the top."

The pastor, prophet, and social advocate dared us to consider if our church speak and ecclesial debates serve the greater good- the greater good not being the legacy and preservation of bricks, mortar, and polity. Rather, do our church systems and committees, debates and varied theological convictions birth a concern for the greater good of our community and our neighbors with whom we share a zip code?

This may have been the reason Rev. Dr. Nelson shifted the tone of the gathering's discourse and the sentiment of his rhetoric. Better said, the traveling preacher broadened the conversation on reconciliation, frequently limited to black versus white, to include issues of immigration, corruption in the prison systems, violence in our neighborhoods, and the education afforded to our children.  Rev. Dr. Nelson raised his prophetic voice, "If the community with a church on every corner is crumbling, there's a problem with the church.  If there's a church in the community, education should not be a problem. The church has to become again a friend to the community, a friend to the children."

This missional commitment to communal engagement reminds us over and again that our mandate as the people of God is not solely to leverage the church, although there is a proper place for such ecclesiastical work that has now become my own, but more so to work towards the in-breaking of God's dreams for the world.  Disclaimer: these dreams are not for the establishment of some sort of eternal church in the age to come. In the verbiage of Presbyterianism, God has called the church as a provisional demonstration of and to bear witness to the kingdom of God already here and yet to come.*  This sobering reality of the church's finitude should not cause us sorrow, but propel us towards renewed and authentic works of love, justice, and reconciliation. 

Rev. Dr. Nelson was not raising any radical ideas or innovative paradigm shifts this past weekend. I am confident he would say the same. Instead, his powerful preaching was a call to memory and recollection of the church's shared history of fidelity and incarnational labors of love in diverse contexts around the world.

Yet somewhere along the way, likely as the faithful became immersed in the age of individualism, our collective narrative became isolated rituals cemented in doctrinal and governmental systems. Which led to some of the preachers final statements of hope and exhortation, "God can [and will] work through us, but we've got to get out of the cultural mindset of me, myself, mine."

Rev. Dr. Nelson reminded the church that despite an age of decline, we still have work to do.  God is not finished with the church or our missional witness near and far. As long as two or three are gathered...

I am blessed to be a part of the rich heritage and creative spirit that is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  While there is much to lament, there is far more to celebrate.  If we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, we will find great encouragement and renewed strength in the vast collection of stories, past and present, whereby the church has embodied it's call:
"This community, the church universal, is entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation and shares God’s labor of healing the enmities which separate people from God and from each other." (Confession of 1967,  9.31)
The conversations that took place this weekend are only the beginnings, actually the continuations, of reflections framed for the purpose of participation in Jesus' call towards reconciliation.  The world around us is indeed divided, saturated in racial, generational, economic, religious, political, educational, and denominational segregation. What message does the body of Christ reverberate in a world all too familiar with division and strife? Is it any better?  We can do better.  We must do better. As we fix our eyes on our call as a reconciliatory people who follow a crucified and resurrected Savior, we will do better.

Thanks, Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson. You not only moved our conversations a little bit farther, but also pushed us to put into practice real Christian Witness.

"We have to do something better; we have to do the one thing that is needed.  We have to believe; not to believe in ourselves, but in Jesus Christ...So far as it lives in and from itself it is a religious community like any other, serving the enmity against God's grace...As soon as [the church] looks into itself it finds only a religious community.  But it must not do this."
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II. 1 159-61

*I love the old language from earlier edition of BOO, "The Church of Jesus Christ is the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity." (G-3.0103). Provisional is defined, arranged or existing in the present, possibly to be changed later.