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.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday through the Eyes of Children

"Before God built me I was flat," my son said one night before bed.

"Then what happened?" I asked. 

"God breathed on me and I got big."

I had never previously thought about the human dimension before the whole God breathing into humanity's nostrils thing. Sure, it always struck me as an odd choice on God's part. I simply glossed over the obscure imagery as though it was normal for all divine-human relationships.
"Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being" (Genesis 2:7).
Could you imagine if that was how they taught CPR?  My son was right, it was a little silly. 

I frequently tell people, "my kids are the greatest theologians I know.” They point out the obvious in ways that confront previous held assumptions. They expose truths and mysteries about faith and biblical story that students of Scripture and professional church folk, like myself, have missed despite our degrees and fancy titles. 

Like the time my daughter asked, when she saw a picture of Jesus’ 12 disciples, “why are all of Jesus’ friends boys? Where are the girls?"

We then found the story in Mark 5 of the little girl who was raised from the dead.  The parable instantly became her favorite. 

In these child-like musings, my children teach me.  And when my son spoke of being built, as though we were balloons waiting to be inflated, I could not help but think about Ash Wednesday and the beginnings of our Lenten journey. 

Ash Wednesday is a reminder that our existence hinges on the Creator. We are not independent beings.  
"We do not merely regard ourselves as bound; we are bound. Our own existence stands or falls with the existence of God." (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1)
Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our finitude and dependency upon Another.  We are bound to the God who made us.  We are bound to one another. The ashes remind us that we are even bound to the creation itself. 

And when we here the words, “remember you are dust, to dust you shall return,” we  are reminded of our need for God over and again to breath into us. We depend upon God’s Spirit, for without the breath of the Creator we remain flat.