O, Brother, Let’s Go Down

Yeah. I watched the Ted Bundy thing on Netflix. Fascinating stuff. I bring it up for one part at the end of the first season-the part when the mullets and the college bros gather outside the prison where Bundy is to be executed via the electric chair. You can see the lit room where the killing is going to take place in the Florida dusk. The mood for this execution is celebratory. They gather to cheer a (terrifyingly possessed) man’s death, a national terrorist of the most grotesque order, a man who in the most chilling way possible, is still just a man. Nonetheless, they gather in what is either a clear display of humanity’s taste for blood and love of vengeance, or a media hyped excuse to party. I’ll say that it’s both. In any case, they have come together for revenge, blood, expiation, justification, and debauchery. There is hardly a soul that could fail to soothe its self-hatred by comparing itself to a scapegoat of Bundy’s caliber.
 
Thought about in that way, Bundy is a pure anti-Christ. But that merely stretches an already overstretched digression. The point is that I was greatly struck by the bald facts. These collected humans genuinely wanted their fellow human to suffer and die, and they wanted to be there to celebrate it together when it happened. They basically tailgated an execution.
 
As a fellow human, carrying our kind’s universal trait of having a pure, if off-kilter, sense of justice, I find it hard to argue against punitive justice in the case of Ted Bundy. Even those most fiercely opposing capital punishment might make an exception for him. The angels of restorative justice are tempted to make exceptions for devils. (Thou art the man! God forbid!) But what is startling, is how ready everyday folk are to indulge in jugular vengeance, even if vicariously. The gun, or in this case, the switch, in someone else’s hand only makes it easier to let loose the viciousness deep within. What is going on here? Symbolic murder? Catharsis? The satisfaction that comes with revenge without the actual substance? What’s the difference between hating a man and murdering him? (Careful, you probably disagree with Jesus on this point.)
 
Let’s not open an ethical wormhole by asking if Bundy is the exception that morally permits us to oblige our darkest impulses, if only symbolically. We won’t really drink blood. We walk away from the truth tellers who are honest enough to say we will. Rather than venture the wide and winding path of trying to find Esau’s descending ladder of sins, and what punishments correspond, never mind our place on the ladder, let’s limit the observation to this. To varying degrees, we idolize death. This is us.
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Addiction in Brattleboro

When progressive Christian Brian McClaren wrote “A New Kind of Christian”, back in the early to mid ots,  I wonder if he knew he was just verbalizing an old kind of Christianity for a new audience. The progressive evangelicalism that emerged during that time eventually came to understand they were late blooming Mainline Protestants. Here in 2019, the Emergent Church no longer seems to be a thing  But not because of change in theology or drop in influence, but because they realized the redundancy of having two labels (Mainline and Emergent) for what really was the same thing, with perhaps the one and only way progressive evangelicalism stands out from the Mainline is the absence of a hierarchical church system. Other than that, let’s be real.  Same thing. So they kinda got absorbed.

A lot of petty infighting over the decade, and it turned out to be about labels.

But to be fair, a lot of the infighting was about what to do with postmodernism, whether to embrace it, accept it, or resist it, theologically and/or missionally. I don’t want to minimize how important that is.

But my question is: has the world gotten better since Christians fled to their respective “response to postmodernism” corners? And whether it has or not, which missiology is best fitted for this new world?

I live in Rural/small town New England. Brattleboro Vermont to be exact. But I would include New Hampshire and Western Mass as part of the same basic cultural landscape. The church culture in small town New England is (to me) unique. The categories are…

  1. Embrace Postmodernism theologically and missionally.
  2. Accept the reality of postmodernism for the purpose of mission, but do not embrace it theologically, or
  3. Resist postmodernism with all our might. For it is the incarnation of Satan.

As far as I can tell, there are no 2’s in Brattleboro, Vermont. Just 1’s and 3’s. In terms of overall population, there are very few professing Christians, and nearly everyone who professes Christ is over 55. But there are church buildings everywhere. Most of those buildings house a few dozen liberal and mainline protestants in them every Sunday. Most of those churches have practiced postmodern Christianity decades before Brian McClaren  thought he was blazing new trails with the Emergent Church. In short, New England culture is postmodern, and the church is too. And if a church is not wholly of the milieu, it’s aggressively reacting against it. So that’s the lay of the land.

So with postmodernism comes outreaches of mercy, and lefty activism. Homeless shelters and food kitchens and demonstrations and social justice groups, and worship services abound. All good stuff. But nevertheless there is an epidemic of underbelly suffering affecting us all; without preference for race, religion, culture, or class. It’s officially called the Opioid Crisis, but I think an equally appropriate term for it would be “the angel of death.”

And that is an area I recently learned is without the presence of our town’s faith community. I don’t really understand why. I could theorize. But that’s all it would be.

And what is the Church’s response to this crisis? We might ask it differently: how does the church appear in Brattleboro as the city on a hill?  But I want to take issue with the question.

The postures of embracing, accepting, and rejecting all carry themselves in a way that says, “the church has the solution.”

I.e. “how is the Church going to be a city on hill?”

The mainliner exclaims, “By feeding the poor. Sheltering the homeless. Fighting for social justice.”

The  evangelical says, “By witnessing/telling our grace stories/being incarnational/doing outreach/properly contextualizing?

So if the church simply did what they were supposed to do then Brattleboro would… what exactly? Get better? Become the kingdom?

I don’t know. The blind cannot lead the blind. And the problem with the blind is that they are always the ones out in the front showing us all where to go-the ones with the answers. (Wait?…)

I can just hear us.

“Thanks Jesus for the cross, the advice, the good words, and the resurrection, but we good-hearted humanitarians, we can take it from here.  We will build a bright shining tower for you. Let’s call it, er, Babel! Yes!…Wait. Is that too on the nose? How about, ‘City on a Hill’. Without a vision the people perish, right?”

But the light of the world is Jesus Christ. And if the light seems dim it’s not due to a drop-off of zeal in the church, but maybe it’s a matter of zeal in the wrong direction, a zeal for something else, a zeal that turns our eyes from the light himself and makes Church into a blind, lifeless, and outdated coping mechanism for boomers, bound in hymnals, Bibles, prayer books, bulletins, and programs.  

I fear our eyes have been dimmed to the ancient truth that the kingdom is realized in darkness, pain, death, and devastation. It is not magically conjured into clean mainstream society by the power of positive thinking, a massive increase in adult baptisms, or egalitarian political agendas. Unless the kingdom is sought in the dregs of acute hopelessness, it will will not be seen.  And until the servants of God lay down their signs and run to the trenches they may never really see the Jesus they speak so highly of at church.

In the Gospels, it was faith in Jesus that healed the hopeless ones. He said to them “your faith has healed you” as if to shift credit from his touch to their faith. Which is odd. (Cuz I do think Jesus is the healer. Duh!) But it was as if our master considered his part to be that of simply being present when saving faith burst into bloom, as if his primary role was to be present to affirm the healing, and into bursting faith he spoke words of life. A missional model? Perhaps…

Last night at discipleship, I was asked to reflect in writing upon who I thought were my angels and messengers and what they were saying to me. I wrote the following.

My angels have human bodies. Jim, Rick, and David. (Not real names). These are recovering drug and alcohol addicts. I have heard each of them confess their need for Christ in prayer. And never were their respective prayers contrived cliched religious utterances, or merely going through the motions.  But I heard them confess their afflictions and their need for Christ in tender, but urgent pleas, as if to a parent that they had hurt, but whom also was their only resort, their only hope of salvation. Hearing these true and pure confessions brought me out of my religious stupor and I realized afresh, in my heart, that I, that we all, need Christ like that. Desperately. And that those who are know that level of need are those who have been caught in addiction.

Until I heard a desperate person in recovery cry out to God, I don’t think I really knew what contrition or Romans 10:13 was about. And to my surprise, hearing real cries for heavenly help helped me finally understand mission. Which is that I have more to learn about and from Jesus than I can teach about him. The missional question is not, how can I be a light, but, where is the light to be found?

In the Gospels Jesus is rarely found behind official podiums, but much too often for his own safety, in the derelicts of the desperate. If mission is to serve Jesus, and to serve Jesus is to serve the least of these, then serve “the least of these”  I must, but the secret of the kingdom is that the desperate turn out to be the teachers. I believe God may be found in Brattleboro’s hidden Gethsemanes, the places that middle classness cannot let tourists see, in the dark and hidden needle laced gardens of our town, where people cry out to God, not as their daily or weekly ritual, but as their real and very present need.

 

Psalm 22: My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

Psalm 22

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
   Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
   and by night, but I find no rest.

Yet you are holy,
   enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
   they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
   in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm and not a man,
   scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
   they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
   let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’

Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
   you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
On you was I cast from my birth,
   and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Be not far from me,
   for trouble is near,
   and there is none to help.”

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

These words set the tone for the whole Psalm. Upon which, by the way, I will take more space than usual to reflect. For here are the very words of Jesus on the cross. And his Jewish audience would have recognized it and they would have understood that Jesus was not just being poetic; comparing his particular pain to a text they memorized as children, but he was identifying his whole person, this whole event  to the whole Psalm, and by extension to the whole of Israel’s, and by extension, humankind’s bloody history. That is how Jewish references worked. Jesus wasn’t being clever or ironic. He was utterly sincere and prophetic. I should point out in addition that being prophetic has little to do with predicting the future, although that may be a feature of it. Future-telling is not intrinsic to the definition of “prophecy”. To be prophetic in the broader sense is to make an overt poetic connection with something from the past or future. Here Jesus’ prophetic words for the cross backward and forward. Backward to Psalm 22 and forward to the Epistle to the Hebrews where it says of him, that he was tempted, that is, he suffered, in every way like us, and yet without sin. And because of this he is able to help those who suffer as he did-afflicted, persecuted, and misunderstood i.e. the “fellowship of his sufferings”.

Another figure whose personal tribulation serves as a template for human suffering is of course Job. Who lost his family, his possessions, and his health, and endured it all without sinning. What is interesting is that even though neither Jesus nor Job sinned through their trials, they both addressed God in a way that might seem to teeter on irreverent or ungrateful.  After all, God is not just anyone. Which is, maybe paradoxically, why he gets the brunt of the complaint. He alone can do something about so much suffering.

Extreme suffering, from now on let’s say affliction, for God’s people, feels like divine abandonment. It’s like staring into nothingness and seeing only more nothingness, like being suspended in nothingness, surrounded by abyss.

It’s like a broken promise.

Other memory verses offer little comfort. For David, the writer of Psalm 22, Jesus, and Job all know the promise, “I will never forsake you.”

“God who never forsakes, where are you?”

It’s bold. It borderline blasphemy. It’s near faithlessness. But it is sanctioned by invisible saving grace. For the suffering of Christ (of God!) is the initiation into the throne of grace which is not entered sheepishly, but boldly. As Queen Esther went boldly but perilously to the throne room of Xerxes, knowing that if the King of Persia refused to extend his scepter it would be at the price of her life, so we enter the Holy God through the body of Jesus. Only an intimate has the right to say to the Creator, because in this case, he happens to be their Father (and brother!)- “Hey, where are you! I thought you were good!” If you’ve ever openly questioned the goodness of God, the man on the cross is with you and for you.

But though the believer dangles over the edge of doubt, and even touches the dragon’s groping claws she is never captured, or taken from the hands of the Father who endures her clueless tongue lashes.  

She always claims the “yet”, which holds a simultaneous tone of slight disdain, open hope, and reverent restraint.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
   Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
   and by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
   enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
    they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
   in you they trusted and were not put to shame

“I am forsaken by you God” cries the afflicted. Yet… (Is she confused? Self-assuring? Sarcastic? Backtracking just a bit before the God she just baldly declared to have abandoned her?” )

“You are holy. Your people lift you up in praise. Our ancestors trusted you. And we have heard how you saved them. We have heard how you answered their cries. We have heard how you rescued them from shame. There is precedent here. Because you are holy, and because you have a history of salvation, we have reason to hold back our despair. “

Desperation sounds bolder than faith. The words  following the “yet”, sound much less confident than the words following “my God”. What kind of grace endures you and I for our boldness in accusation, and meekness in faith?

After a brief, if tepid, affirmation of God’s past faithfulness, the afflicted launches headlong into his own pain again.

But I am a worm and not a man,
   scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
   they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
   let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’”

A worm is a thing trampled into dust and ignored. A earthly belly crawler good for nothing. Modern science knows that worms aren’t good for nothing. But this is poetry, not biology. The point is, the afflicted expresses how lowly he feels, how lowly he is in the hierarchy. He is mocked. His peers shake their heads in shame. They make funny faces at him and mock his trust in God.

Remarkable that they would mock him for trusting God as he has just let out a cry, “Why have you forsaken me?”

Mockery is a shot of dopamine. To the one who mocks of course. That’s why he does it. It doesn’t matter if it’s logical. What matters is that the one mocked is brought down. In this case, the mocker simply affirms the afflicted’s feelings for his own pleasure. He calls the other’s pain for what it is, and in doing so, twists the knife to his own delight-reminds the afflicted that yes, yes, he is indeed forsaken, a hint that he, the mocker, is evidently, nay obviously, not forsaken, but even blessed,  by God who, yes, the proof is in the pudding, hates the afflicted one.

It’s juvenile. But human. It feels good to kick the man whose down.

But in Jesus’ own life, the poetic turns into history. Jesus  made a ministry out of making the self-righteous feel less righteous, less worthy of God. And his dying on the cross, was vindication  to his enemies that God had finally chose them over him. So they spoke the hurtful words out loud, if only that their own ears may hear the justification, for hearing is believing, and repetition aids in learning.

How sweet self-righteousness is!

Next comes the second round of “Yet”. But this time it is not the vindication of God’s goodness, but of his love and favor for the afflicted.

Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
    you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
On you was I cast from my birth,
   and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Be not far from me,
   for trouble is near,
   and there is none to help.

“Even though my suffering is fodder for the mockers  that I really am abandoned by you God. I still have reason to trust you. For at this point, who else will I turn to? I have known no other God, and I have no one more powerful  or capable to do anything about my affliction.”

Perhaps, after all the poor persecuted one thinks, “I am forsaken by God. I see no reason to trust him. But to whom else can I make my appeal?”

The sinister thought those who are truly afflicted have, if their honest, is that God really doesn’t care about their suffering. It is one thing to let your child suffer something you know they will overcome and be better for. It’s another thing to actually abandon your child.

The most intense and clarifying trials of our souls are those which bring us to a point of decision. as we hang over the abyss-has God really abandoned me?

You will recall that Jesus made the decision before he was risen.

“Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit”. If he believed with all his heart  that God had abandoned him, how could he say that? He made the bold decision to believe that God would not abandon his beloved to Sheol. And  I think he made the decision for us all. “Father, as representative of new creation, of new humanity, into your hands I commit my Spirit, and therefore all creation.”

And what did the Father do with this faith? He blessed it, and raised the Son of Man to life!

Friends. This is really all there is to do in the end. Clamor, kick, and scream, and pray if you will, but this is it. In the end, all there is is a commitment of oneself  to God.

The Comfort of Being Sad

“‘Who then can be saved?’
‘With man it is impossible. But with God all things are possible.'”-The Gospel

“I miss the comfort in being sad”-Kurt Cobain 

Hope is the unseen and therefore to use what is seen in order to induce very present and visible hope is not to induce real hope at all, but to conjure a temporary feeling of hopefulness in the absence, that is, as a substitution, an off-brand, if you will, of real hope. On top of showcasing a temporary hope, such platituding makes for a false hope. For hope which is seen is no hope at all.

Hope springs from the depths of a despair very few of us have ever seen and ends in an eternal ocean of gladness that none of us can imagine, or put to words. We should be blessed to be named with“those who mourn”.

But although “blessed are those who mourn” is true, it would be perverse for one to pursue this blessedness intentionally, as if it can be received in time, in this world.  Perverse it is to think that by praying for a scorpion one may apprehend the mourners blessedness as if it is something he should wish for normally.

It’s like a kid asking his parent to get grounded out of the blue, having done nothing good or bad, yet. Is it as noble as it is stupid? Does it not have an aura of pretension? Of what annoying people call “virtue signaling”?

Pray with moderation. Don’t be absurd  and ask God for tribulation. Don’t be obnoxious and ask him for wealth.

No mourner is sitting on the street in a puddle of wretchedness, begging each of his superiors for fifty of their cents to buy food, beer, chocolate milk, cigarettes, and heroin, wishing that more people could experience the blessedness that is his life.

But Jesus says that addict is blessed.

Which, let’s just say it, is offensive. To everyone. For different reasons. To the addict because it attributes his curse to blessedness. And to the middle class person because it makes very little of his worldly success.

“The prayer of the righteous man availeth much”

What about the prayer of the destitute and afflicted?

Either way, it’s the Lord’s.

Father, in heaven. Your name is too holy for my unclean lips, and yet here I am. May your kingdom and will come to this place of woe, affliction, and destitution, which we call earth.  I don’t know what to ask you for except I am hungry and you are the provider, so get me through another day. Help me forgive like you forgive. Forgive my many shortcomings. It’s so hard to survive this harsh world without breaking your law. Guide me through the gauntlet with minimal bruises. Without your guidance I am hopeless.”

If that’s the prayer of the destitute and afflicted, Mrs. Job has a suggestion

“Curse God and die.”

Mrs. Job was enlightened.

Call me callous, cynical, and nihilistic, but I don’t need to hear songs of praise for some Christian who is going through some trying situation for not abandoning the faith. Of course he find worldly hopefulness! That’s the beauty of it!

Hope is all we have! I have no problem with made up hopes in and of themselves. We lie to ourselves to survive! This is the great white lie of human history and I think it is beautiful!

But to try to pass off the platitudes that get us through as if these were identical to the heart of this grand faith, this mustard seed planted by the mournful, which is of course Christianity–that is really to put a veil over Christianity!

If Christianity is false, offensive, depressing, and horrid, let it be so in clear sight!

The hope of the Christian is not the message of some best selling preacher, I said, charlatan, nor is it the vision of the sincere but short sighted humanist.  

It is the whimpering of one whose faith in God, should we come right up to it, would not appear praiseworthy, beautiful,  imitable, or commendable, but mysterious and frightening. That’s if it were even visible.

The way people talk about death when they actually face it is proof that they don’t believe in the eternal, that they don’t have real hope. Hopefulness they have. Methods of survival in the midst of earth shattering sadness is theirs, but not real hope. Real hope can’t hide a deep sadness. Condolences sound distinctly like people talking themselves into something. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Have you ever had these words laid on you? “She is in a better place”.  Did you believe they really believed it? I don’t know about you. But I never believe they believe it. And now I am sitting here trying to imagine what it would be like to be in the presence of a person believing their own (sincere, vulnerable, and heartbreakingly human) condolences. Yeah. It would frighten me if they did. We don’t cry at funerals because we are going to miss our loved ones for a few decades until we get our shot to hang on clouds. Otherwise, the tears shed in funeral parlors would be of the same essence as tears in an airport. No. We cry because we are being forced to face what’s too powerful for us, death. And it is nearly impossible to conjure the raw Christianity to shake off the belief that they are truly gone, or the horror of knowing that one day we will be too.  

Nonetheless, there is a place for hope in this world.  But it looks strangely unlike hope. 

That place is the forgotten Bethlehem, the dark Gethsemane, and the excruciating cross, where God refuses to solve humanity’s woe without joining it.

And in Gethsemane in particular, Jesus, on our behalf, hands us all over to the will of a God who has just refused his hope filled and rational request for earthly reprieve from suffering execution by asphyxiation, and instead directs his only Son’s despairing eyes toward the unseen, unproved, and unbelievable hope of resurrection.

God practically incentivizes doubt and confusion. (Perhaps to make prayer intelligible)

It is a false god whose pure will gives us only warm fuzzies.

But some will protest with sarcasm, “So masochism it is.”

No. You can’t manipulate redemption or suffering.  You can’t carve your own cross without admitting another kind of worldly hope, a hope in your own ability to atone. You can’t offer yourself as a lamb to God  For you are the one who needs saving from death.

Suffering will come. But woe to the man through whom it comes. To pick up a scorpion is unnatural. To make a direct request for one is perverse. But to pray for a genuine  blessing is to be shown a picture of your savior crying out to God with the voice of David, giving you the hope you really didn’t ask for-that of incarnation and resurrection. Meanwhile you sleep. Sword in sheath, your great white hope.

What I have said is this. The joy you seek is supernatural. It is infinitely higher, lower, further, and deeper, than you can imagine, than you can imagine you would want. The Spirit of joy groans deeper than you can imagine. And you are nearer to God the deeper your groans.

Who can say to God what David, and thus Jesus, says, sweating blood in the garden? “Look away from me that I may smile again?”

Heaven is a real hope. I do not deny. But for eternity, not time. The hope of resurrection doesn’t touch feelings in a way that validates it in real time. Heaven and resurrection are  unapproachable in this hopeless temporal world. The highest hope within temporality is not an end to our pain, but is communion with God in suffering, the pure assurance that suffering is meaningful because it is shared in and with God.

What does this mean for “social justice?”  Should we leave the mourners to their blessedness? Why take that away from them?

Woe to him through whom the stumbling block comes!

Whether they know it or not, God is present with mourners because he is present in suffering. He has seized captainship of suffering by the cross. Hope is unseen for now. But suffering has meaning with God at the helm. So not only does he suffer in the manner of sufferers. He suffers with them in the present. Whatever you do to the little ones, the mourners, you do to God.

To look at a man in his puddle of wretchedness and think that the call of God is merely to assist in his exit from the puddle is noble, but mistaken. Mistaken not because he doesn’t need help, doesn’t need your help. God forbid! He certainly could use your help! Mistaken not because you are not obligated to help. For you are as obligated by nature to help another as you are to feed yourself. Lack of mercy for your neighbor is a form of suicide. Not because you have to answer to God for how you treated your neighbor, in some empty space where incarnation is absent, but because how you treat your neighbor is itself your answer. But you shall not forget that the decisive element, for your Christianity, if you claim to be a Christian, is incarnation, which is not for the sake of  temporal justice. Because God is present between your mourning neighbor and you, your response to God’s incarnational love for you waits reciprocation, not because God’s love is conditional and depends on your response- it’s not as if God is testing us by putting the poor always among us-it is just the nature of love to of itself demand reciprocation without attaching any strings at all-to the chagrin of familiar sense. The tears of the oppressed seem to all with ears to hear as the love of God, demanding without demanding a response, the mirror response of incarnation.  

I say all that to tell you this. That the mourners are blessed because their inheritance is eternal, and in this eternal kingdom, of which no words can utter the meaning, they will not mourn.

But that is no seeable hope. So we don’t say to the mournful. “Don’t worry poor wretch. Jesus comes to save”. Though it’s the most glorious truth! That is not what they need right now, in the temporal. I mean, it isn’t about what they need. That’s apparent. They need water. Give it to them without pride. But if real hope is what you desire to give them, here is the not so glamorous truth. You can’t! Hope is not a commodity. You can either join them in mourning, or ignore it. You can either seek God or have the pleasure of not seeing people cry. You can believe what they might not believe, what they might even pray to Jesus without knowing, in a place too deep for words, the place of prayers only the Spirit can hear. You can believe, you can hope against hope, that in eternity the mournful are blessed. And in time, mere time, the highest is no hope, but is in fact love-we join the mourners and are together joined with God, a friend to whom you have come so close you may be terrified and astonished on some woeful day to hear these heartfelt but stupid words come uncontrollably out of your mouth, “look away from me”! And God will chuckle with a hint of sadness at the irony as at a child who scraped their knee, thinking her life might be over. For he answered that prayer for only one, that you might never know its full horror.

But let us also not see such a distance between us and those that mourn. Woe to us who think we are rich, who think we see, who avoid or plunge into the pain of others assuming we are outside, beyond, or above, who think we are in the position of giving but not receiving, for if we are not sick, then we cannot be moved to cry out, to seek a physician, to get to know the Son of David. Blessed are the sick. For they seek and find. 

Let the world argue about the duties of the haves toward the have-nots. Let Christians seek to understand what it truly means to have and have not. The blessing of those who mourn is not in this world. But love is. It’s love, not hope, connects woe to God.

 

Hopes and Dreams

I doubt there has ever been a large portion of the younger generation at any period in time that didn’t insist on emotional authenticity. If there is one thing young people hate, it is the awareness or even suspicion that someone is selling them.

But I’m thirty-five now. With a wife and three kids. At that age and life stage where I’m too old to be hip and too young to be wise, and yet both old and young enough to know it.

I don’t presume to speak for my own generation It only ever feels like I’m projecting, so I might as well speak for myself.

So what does myself want? Real, real, real. That’s what I want. I want real spirituality. Not band-aid spirituality.

I feel especially ill equipped to speak for the burgeoning generation behind me.  But now that  I have been the pastor of a church made up entirely of Boomers, minus my own family, and one or two others, I feel I can say, if there is a generation I do feel ready to represent, it is (most ironically to people who know me) the oft maligned generation of my parents.

I can tell you what they want in a pastor. Comfort and reassurance in their waning years, chicken soup for the soul. The older I get, the less caustic and more sympathetic I am toward that sentiment. Still, being younger, it does leave a faint superficial taste in my mouth. But, to put on the other shoe, someday death will seem closer than life, and then I might be in some pew expecting the wide-eyed preacher to just make me feel a little less scared, especially if they are young enough to be my kid. I can’t imagine at that life stage I’d even try to pretend I’m not among the supremely wise, and be able to much tolerate rebukes about my shallowness or cynicism.

I’m also sure there is a balance between chicken soup and raw non-gmo style ministry. But I hate talking about balance. So I won’t. All hedging henceforth aside, I will speak for the one I am most qualified to speak for. In other words, this isn’t about how to get millennials into church by “being more authentic”. This is about, if you take away the salary and the  most literal pulpit I am gifted each week, how to get me into church.  Really, it is about how to get me into a Christian community at all, formal church, with steeples and deacons, or if it’s more your thing, a missional community with candles and hummus, and maybe board games.  

A real Christian community is a group of people who agree that Jesus is the creator and king of the universe, crucified for sin, risen, and coming again to drop heaven fully on earth, and want to have fellowship around these beliefs-by participating communally in the Lord’s Supper, preaching the good news about Jesus, baptism, singing, prayer, confession of shortcomings, and reflection on the Holy Scriptures known as the Bible. Their hope is that through these regular practices of discipleship, along with engagement with their neighbors, especially the oppressed, the beauty and reality of Jesus and his kingdom will be seen and embraced by their friends and enemies, their neighborhoods, and their cities.

If that is too general. I’m sorry. (Not sorry) It’s on purpose. I’m not that picky about the finer points of theology.

The struggle I have with what I affectionately call “Boomer Churches” (Reminder that I am the pastor of one of those) comes down to my inability to determine if church for them is about life, or if it is a pastime, a distraction, a safe space,…a comfort zone. When it has appeared to be the latter, it has no interest for me.

Now people congregate with their friends around common interests and ideals. Largely, that’s a wonderful thing just by itself, especially in the internet age.  However, Christian community is a specific type of community, more than a hangout. It can and should have its shallow moments. But it cannot be constituted as such.  It’s essence is a deep connection to reality.

Spirituality is about connecting with what is real, not escaping from it. I think a church gathering ought to function as a reminder of what is real and as a strong reaction against mere human nature-the felt need to never face the truth straight on, whether it’s thought too painful to bear or too good to be true, to work and entertain the truth away, every day. Either way, the real Christian communal experience is neither a guilt fest nor a feel good party, although on the emotional level, it may sometimes accompany unpleasant feelings and other times express pure joy. Sometimes, the real Christian community may foster all the feelings at once.

But when our expectations of church are the same as our expectations of drugs, food, and entertainment media, we are actively escaping real community.

When the service (to say nothing of the problem of equating “church” to “church service”) is always described as “nice”, “lovely”, “helpful”, “beautiful”, “rejuvenating”, or “inspiring” (which hopefully church is those things) and almost never as “raw”, “difficult”, “real”, “thought provoking”, “provocative”, “healing”, “life changing” or “offensive” it is time to evaluate if we are practicing communal discipleship or medication; if we are connecting with reality or escaping from it.

And this isn’t about preferring deep and melancholy to feel good and happy. Ascetic and liturgical expressions of church can be just as escapist. Not all the truths we run from are negative. Some of the hardest words for me to accept are reminders that I am loved. My fear of failure produces the habit of seeking refuge in the morose; a quality I suspect few understand, and not one I recommend.

That’s because what is great about the gospel is its ability to hold the positive and negative truths together. The truths of life, that it is all suffering, that humans without God are irreparably damaged, that the bad guys get to keep being bad guys, that death is pretty much here.

But also the truth that death has no sting because Jesus is risen, that sin is cured by the suffering of God, that the bad guys time to be bad has a term limit, that the kingdom is even nearer than death.

So when a local Jesus community gathers, it isn’t about escaping or feeling better (or worse.)  It’s about connecting to reality. It’s about connecting to Jesus. It’s about vulnerability. It’s about connecting to one another; being honest and open with one another. It’s about facing the hard, but love filled, joyful, and hopeful words of the good news about Jesus.  It’s about experiencing more than friendliness and a warm heart,  but love. It’s about mourning over the state of the world, while rejoicing in the hope of the gospel. It’s about blessing one another as we scheme ways to bless our physical neighborhoods, not retreat from its suffering, but be present in and with it. It’s not about making charitable donations, its about being charitable donations, which is as much about receiving charity, requiring a certain kind of strange and risky fellowship in the slummy parts of our towns, so foreign to most North American churchgoers

My hope for North America, for New England, for Southern Vermont, is for the existence of vibrant and explicit Jesus communities that have the inspiration and courage to creatively and wisely face the realness of the world with each other,  in all its gore, and mess, its sadness, desperation, and loss, as well as its inevitable redemption, its inherent and breathtaking beauty, its hidden hope, it’s real love, as found in Jesus.

Is this hope, this dream, this prayer, a millennial or Gen X thing? Is it just a “me” thing? Honestly, I don’t presume to speak for a generation or to a generational issue. This is my head and heart laid out. If there are any whose hearts long for the same kind of community in Southern Vermont, join me and my family in prayer. And also, if you can or so desire, dinner.

 

The Perpetual Ruins

Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins”-Psalm 74:3

This stood out. I hope it doesn’t come off the wrong way to say I have read every Psalm at least once every month for 6 years. I say this not to make any point about how spiritual or vigilant I am. I am blessed to do this. I bring it up to make a different point. I know the language of the Psalms. That is pertinent for two reasons.

First, it matters because this turn of phrase just sounds weird. It isn’t normally the way the Psalms speak.

Second it matters because this idea of Israel, Yahweh’s people as “perpetual”, although not often stated in exactly that way is thematic in terms of God’s relationship to his people. As Abraham J. Heschel says it,
“God has permanently attached himself to Israel”.

Yes his covenant is everlasting. God has made a promise to himself that no matter what his people do, he would never stop being their God, he would always be merciful to them, always restore them, never forsake them. He would discipline them in ways that would feel to Israel like abandonment, allow other nations to dispossess them in return for their unfaithfulness to him. But in the totality of his relationship to the children of Jacob, he would honor his everlasting, perpetual covenant, he would always allow, even aggressively draw out repentance. He would always welcome them back. He would always be their God, even when they were less than “his people.” God had left himself no other choice than to stay in familial attachment to this “stiff-necked and obstinate people.”

Parents get it.

The Psalmist is uttering a very common prayer when he says, “Direct your steps…”. Most prayer in the Psalms is asking God to do what he promised. That fact has always made me justify my laziness in praying. If God can’t lie, then the fulfillment of his promises do not depend on my praying. But anyone who is even a moderate novice in true prayer knows that it is not God who depends on our prayers, it is our modest faith which is the needy one. Prayer is like a note to ourselves of truths we easily and always forget, with the added bonus that in it we are connected to the only being in the universe who can do anything about the impossible. There is something about knowing we are not alone in the universe, that there is something, someone beyond the clouds. (I hear your atheist snickers, but you too go mining above the atmosphere. The drive is primal.)

So he says to God, “direct your steps”, “make your way”. Other psalmists might say, “Hear our prayer, O LORD. “Attend to our pleas for mercy”.

Prayer in the Psalms sounds as desperate exasperation. Faith is always full of pathos. Disinterested faith is not a thing.

“Direct your steps (O, LORD) to the perpetual ruins.”

The historical context of Psalm 74 is that the nation of Israel lies conquered. It’s temple and city destroyed. Which to a people who connect God and faith directly to city and place of worship, is not only the defeat of their nation, the enslavement of they and their families, but a crisis of faith, and the seeming defeat of God, if not a renege on his promises.

Deep wound.

But it’s the adjective which caught my eye. That word perpetual. It might be thought redundant to talk of ruins as perpetual. Ruins are perpetual. Even if you can restore to relative similarity, you will ever be able to restore a city to exactly what it once was. Ruins are the perpetual proof of the temporariness and vanity of humanity’s great cosmopolitan efforts.

I can picture my four year old son constructing a magnificent tower of jenga blocks all the way to the ceiling. And if he did, I would condescendingly praise his efforts. Because that’s what good dads do. But the hard truth is that I could knock it down with a breath, if I wanted to. And my son, if he wished, could agitate me enough to want to. He could put a sign next to his artful wonder of the world which read, “Proof that I don’t need anyone.” Anyone would include me of course. And then I would consider it a service to my son, and maybe moreso to the world, to nip the egomaniacal monster waiting to burst forth through him (though us all) by doing what would appear ruthless, and kick that tower down to the perfectly vacuumed floor, a fact taken for granted by the ungrateful little blessing who builds Jenga towers.

Or I could be merciful and correct my son verbally and warn him that if he doesn’t remove the sign and check his pride, I will kick that tower down.

In neither case am I wrong. I would not destroy the tower because I am sadistic and enjoy crushing the souls of four year olds. I would because pride is cancer, and I am not waiting until chemotherapy is necessary.

And in this analogy it would be so easy to prevent a Jenga tower from existing in my house. A perpetual lesson learned with difficulty, if ever, that it only exists in my house if I want it to, and that beauty is temporary and fragile.

If I really wanted to make the lesson clear, I would leave that dilapidated tower on the perfectly vacuumed floor.

The story of Israel is perpetual in two ways. In one way it is the story of the unending love and faithfulness of Yahweh. In another way it is the story of the stubbornness of God’s people.

So we are always asking God to direct his steps toward the ruins because our doomed towers are ever on the floor.

The great paradox of life is that we are all beautiful and we are our all ruined. Nature as we know it groans as a beautiful ruin unto itself, awaiting its redemption, which is inextricably tied to the redemption of humanity.

From birth #1, our flesh and our hearts are molded in the hateful pride of our father Adam, whose tower of anti-neediness has been trying to reemerge in various forms on God’s perfectly vacuumed earth since the beginning, and perpetually knocked down by God, making his attempts to curb the monster within appear ruthless, putting our lives, faith and even his own reputation in perpetual peril that we may learn this lesson-the only strong tower on which we can depend is God himself-the Rock of ages.

The only hope of ending the cycle of ruination is the mercy of God.

“Direct your steps.”

And God answers this prayer in the form of a man named Jesus. (How else can I say it?) Jesus is the tower which is knocked down, and resurrected as the indestructible and and untouchable perfection of beauty.

So now the nature of our towers are exposed because they all are stacked up next to Jesus.

“The one (beyond the clouds) who sits in the heavens laughs…”

Our shortcomings are destroyed with Jesus. The best of us are hidden, and swallowed up, and become one with his unparadoxical beauty. In him perpetuity is transferred from the ruins to redemption. In him, God fulfills his covenant promises, his familial duty to the offspring of Abraham, that is, to every single one of us.

And faith is to prayerfully and passionately remember this perpetual love, as shown in Jesus. God’s salvation is never waiting for us to get life unruined. But for us to reach rock bottom of ourselves that we desperately cry out. “Direct your steps!”

Or we could keep trying to build laughably inferior towers. This will not end well.

All the Wrong People

I’ve never understood how Christianity became quite so tame and respectable, given its origins among drunkards, prostitutes, and tax collectors…

…Jesus could have hung out in the high-end religious scene of his day, but instead he scoffed at all that, choosing instead to laugh at the powerful, befriend whores, kiss sinners, and eat with all the wrong people.”-Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s words at a funeral she officiated for a young (self-identified) queer named Billy who committed suicide.

But… the Psalmist says,

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers.

There is this song I remember from my youth group days.

The things I used to do, I don’t do them anymore (3x’s)
There’s been a great change since I’ve been born again.

Then it went on to the “places I used to go, I don’t go there anymore.” There was even a “humorous” line that went all, “the things I used to date, I don’t date the anymore.”

In my adolescence, certain things were emphasized regarding how a new person in Jesus was to behave. It seemed as if the bottom line of being born again, of having Jesus in my heart, of being a Christian, was to abstain from all appearance of evil, and all appearance of evil came down to sex and drugs, and anything that referenced them in some way.

So it was that good people were straightedge virgins who stayed away from sex and drugs and people who were a little too lenient about sex and drugs. Those latter folk were either unsaved or backsliding. That’s basic and overgeneralized. But you get the picture.

The question of why Jesus ate with sinners was answered that, 1. Jesus could handle it because he was sinless and 2. He didn’t become intimate with them.

Number one is basically saying that only sinless people can hang out with sinners. But since Paul says that all have sinned, I suppose this means that nobody can hang out with anybody. Except Jesus. He is the only one that can hang out with anybody.

And number 2 doesn’t quite cut it either since eating with people was (and still is) a sign of intimacy. Which is the point of the religious’ and powerful’s great beef with Jesus. They weren’t upset that he was merely in the presence of sinners. The problem was that he was identified with them, like he was one of them, dining with them and all. It’s like if you saw a well-dressed business man and panhandling street person in the same coffee shop, but at different tables doing different things. The business man playing with his phone, waiting for his coffee. The street person doodling on a napkin having been parked at her table for several hours now. You’d think nothing of it. But if you saw them at the same table sharing coffee cake and stories, laughing and having a good time,  you’d think something. Maybe you’d be cynical. Maybe you’d think it was great. Maybe you’re woke and you’d still think nothing of it. Maybe you’re so woke that you’d think the businessman was probably using the street person for something. Point is. There is a difference between sharing a public space and a personal table.

But who is Jesus in this analogy? The businessman or the street-girl? In the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life the dissonance that disturbed the religious and powerful wasn’t the sight of an upstanding man of the cloth eating with sinners. The dissonance was between how Jesus was repping himself (a legitimate teacher of the Law with divine authority, a prophet, and on top of that the Messiah) and how he showed up in everyday life. He looked and sounded a lot more like the people he was eating with than the priests and scribes criticizing him, and in more ways than one. The religious and powerful hated the way Jesus was appreciated and adored by the common people, the rapport and cache he had with them. The religious and the powerful demanded reverence. Jesus demanded nothing. He served. And he healed. And he taught. He offered himself.

It is high time to define the crucial term. Sinners.

In my youth I thought of sinners as sex and drug addicts. But I believed that I was also a sinner, and that I was still a sinner after Jesus saved me. From my sin. So even though “sinners” were sex and drug addicts,  in my mind, I was a sinner too. But I was different. I was a virgin who didn’t do drugs. Sure, I lusted, masturbated, and watched people do drugs and make out wicked hard on television and in the movies with people who weren’t their spouse. And according to Jesus, that qualifies as sin. But I had gotten saved and wasn’t an addict. So I was different.

I mean I didn’t stop with the lusting and what not. But I was a good kid, and I hung out with good kids.

Except there was my friend Dan who smoked weed. And my friend Markus who partied. And my friend Justin, who had sex. Some of my friends said they were saved. And some of them didn’t. I guess I did hang out with sinners.

And if Jesus was around, or I was alive back then, Jesus would  have hung out with me, served me, healed me, taught me, and yes, save me. If I wanted him too.

Or. I could just throw away this idea of being a sinner. And then I wouldn’t have to bother with Jesus at all. (Of course I wouldn’t actually think that I was not a sinner. That would be heresy. But I would definitely want to make a distinction between me, a bonafide Jesus follower, and other people. I mean, not that I am better. I am just “a sinner saved by grace”, but a sinner who is a better kind of person because of what I believe. Everyday I thank God that he saw fit to make a sinner like me just slightly better than other sinners, or I should say, “better off”, by forcing my hand to sign on the dotted line named “Gospel: that doctrine in which intellectual assent makes the difference between which terribles go to heaven and which ones get tortured by Jesus forever.” Aren’t I humble? It’s only by God’s grace I am so.) Then I’d have no need of a physician. That’s for sick people. And I am not a sick person. I’ve been saved.

Actually, in that case, I’d only be the sickest of people, with a whole camel lodged in my throat and dead men’s bones for a skeleton.

(Is “saved” the new religious clique? I think that’s what I am saying.)

There is “sinner” the way those Pharisees used it. There is “sinner” the way the Psalmist used it. And then there is “sinner” the way we evangelicals use it today.

A sinner in the Pharisees terminology is an outcast. And they were cast out of the community because they did not conform to the Pharisees rules, which they couldn’t, often because of life circumstances.  But as outcasts without support from the synagogue, such people were in a vicious cycle, needing to resort to begging and prostitution, in order to survive. So not only sinners were these. But “unrepentant sinners”.

The sinner in Psalm 1 is placed alongside the scoffer and the ungodly. There is no reason these should necessarily be sex and drug addicts, or breakers of religious tradition. If we look at the context of the Psalms, and the constant crying out to God and praising him for salvation from oppressors, I think “sinners” are then “oppressors”. Outwardly they may appear to be mostly obedient to Torah, but in their oppressiveness they miss the spirit of God’s rule, and thus miss it entirely, like the religious and powerful in Jesus’ day.  So blessed is the man who does not do life like an oppressor. Oppressors are born right out of a stubborn refusal to accept God’s righteousness as the way. Oppressors are constantly trying to control, even the means of salvation. Ultimately because their desire is to be the means. But blessed are the meek, the oppressed, the poor, and those who mourn, for their trust is in God, who is righteous, and who is making, has made, and will make all things right. It is not to say that the meek, the oppressed, the poor, and the mourners are without sin, but that at the end of the day, their ever waxing and waning and waxing and waning trust is in the Lord their God, not the State, and not their own “righteousness”, not the “righteousness” of the Pharisees, and not a metaphorical Gospel document they metaphorically signed so they don’t have to worry about being tortured forever by blue-eyed Jesus.

And when a modern evangelical says “sinner” he simply means everyone. Which puts us all in the same boat and means that brown-eyed Jesus would want to eat with every single one of us. He wouldn’t care how we dressed. Where we worked. Or what we had done or not done. Or what we could offer. Or what we couldn’t offer. He would take the burden of carrying our own misplaced need to be validated on his back. If we would have him. He will disrupt, destroy, and deconstruct our alternative ways of trying to be righteous, that is, valid, apart from him.  But this disruption is freedom. If we have ears to hear.

And having him would change us, without us knowing it. Without us feeling the progress. Sanctification feels like stagnancy. Good for the ego. Others might notice it though.  In the way we show up with them. You know, like Jesus. Not caring about their earthly reputations and how that interplays with our reputations, and the man-made expectations placed upon us. Seeing past the masks, to commune with another human in the gleeful absence of caring about superficial differences, those difference having been disrupted, destroyed, and deconstructed by a God who hangs out with sinners. In God’s eyes, there are no Pharisees. There are no tax collectors. No businessmen. No street-people. And under God’s rule everyone becomes a person to serve, a person to have our feet washed by, by virtue of their being a person. The religious and the powerful, the ungodly, they may scoff and oppress those who try to live under God’s rule of deconstructed distinctions.  Because their sense of self worth is based on distinction. Distinction is the shrine to their validation, the idol of their hearts. But the only real difference is between God and man. And when God became a man he showed us all that there is no essential or root difference between a dust bellied man and another dust bellied man before an eternal God, no matter how we insist. The blood of  meek and righteous Abel speaks a better word than the jealous murderous Cain. Jesus didn’t hang out with “sinners” because he preferred their company to the Pharisees’. He would hang out with everybody because everybody needed him. But the Pharisees wouldn’t have him. Because he hung out with everybody. He did not respect distinction. He was not impressed with their offerings of vegetables, choosing instead to become as Abel and his sheep. And in definitive identification Jesus suffered like the oppressed, bearing the brunt of the rage of the religious and the powerful, on behalf of sinners, outcasts, and all the wrong people. 

So if you get caught hanging out with the wrong people, or the wrong people start coming to you, it might be a good sign. Don’t let the church people’s criticisms bother you in the least. God saves only sinners.

All names in this post have been changed to protect the sinners.