Monthly Archives: February 2013

What Stress I Am Under [Luke 12:49-56; Isaiah 55: 1-6]

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Does the title of this piece sound familiar? Have you said something like this in the last ten days? You can identify…yes?  Me too. None of us is a stranger to strains that put us on medication, drive us into therapy, or land us in the doghouse when our tempers fray and our coping mechanisms fail.

That we feel stressed from time to time is natural. It’s been shown that we need a certain level of stress in order to be creative, motivated, and responsive to others. So if a deadline or a creative challenge or a crying baby stresses you out, don’t worry, be happy. It’s good for you.

Ordinary stress, physiological or psychological, is not going to kill us. Stress itself is not remarkable. What’s remarkable is that so many of us are willing to tolerate higher and higher levels of it.

Of course, if your house gets blown apart by a hurricane, your kid gets arrested for shoplifting, or your doctor gives you bad news about your last mammogram, you don’t have a choice about how high your stress level goes. If you’re a Syrian refugee in a camp in Turkey, a soldier on patrol in Afghanistan, or the mother of a teenage boy in certain sections of a big city on a hot summer night, it’d be a miracle if your stress level were not off the charts.

But much of the stress that has us on the verge of stroke, acid reflux, and road rage is unconnected to such dire things. It has to do instead with our insertion in a world of dizzying choices, so many choices that we feel disempowered by them, frustrated and depressed by sheer variety. Or it’s connected to the images of success and the good life that bombard us daily. We are set up for stress by high expectations about relationships too—parenting, the kids’ SAT scores, whether our teeth are as white as God and Crest intended. Powerful economic and cultural interests are out to get us, and we seem to have fewer and fewer defenses against them, given the influence of the media, the mediocre state of our spiritual lives, and the erosion of the power of traditional communities of wisdom to anchor us.

We have become so inured to these manipulations that even the most sincere among us have a hard time getting a clear read on what our heart-of-hearts really desires. Even the most idealistic and committed among us are easy prey for corporate marketing departments who every day determine on their own what is good for our well-being. These interests have a story to tell about what it means to be a fulfilled and contented human being, a powerful and appealing story they tell artfully and well. And most of us believe it.

We Christians have a better story to tell about the source and meaning of a good and happy life, but it seems we believe it less and less, we rarely rely on it ourselves, and we are very reluctant to tell it to others. What an irony that we who have the ‘Greatest Story Ever Told’ have lost confidence in its power to ground and shape us, ceding the ground to Madison Avenue, where there is every confidence in formative myth-making!

Perhaps we have come to acquiesce in our own unhealth because we sense that to de-stress our lives by resting in faith in the arms of the old, old story of a trustworthy God will require changes too radical to contemplate. We may long to simplify our lives, to choose downward rather than upward mobility, to learn to pray and observe more faithfully the pleasures, rhythms, and rituals of a grounded life, but we are have a hard time taking the first step to make it come true.

The thought of what it will take to de-stress stresses us all the more. And so we accept the unacceptable, take the pills, pay our therapists, and settle for small oases—a day or two without Facebook, a week-end away without the phone.

It’s time to listen to Jesus.

In an unnerving story from Luke’s gospel, Jesus announces that he is anxious too—he feels stressed, under pressure to get on with a ministry that he describes as a work of provocation and controversy. His mission will strip him and his followers of the comforts of home and family, even cost them their lives. All the traditional loyalties will be on the table to be weighed against the graceful reality of the kingdom of God that Jesus announces and embodies.

He is aware of the adverse reaction he is stirring up; and so he chooses images of fire, which means judgment and cleansing, and images of discord and disruption. If the new relationships of the kingdom undermine the traditions and cause trouble, so be it. He speaks about the “baptism” he is chafing to immerse himself in. He is at a crossroads, a crisis is fast approaching, a juncture all his disciples also face, sooner or later.

For us who follow him, this crisis might be big, bold, obvious, and immediate, like a crucifixion. But it is more likely that it will be subtle and less dramatic, and that it will unfold over time—maybe a sense prompted by a passion for justice that you must change your profession and do a new thing; or an inner voice insisting that you finally break that debilitating habit that has kept your soul in thrall and prevented you from loving the way you were meant to love; or a growing inner attraction to God that finally leads you to a scary but joyful new capacity to give away who you are and what you have more generously.

It could be a single moment of insight, or a long season of life. Whatever it is, it is a crisis, a crossroads at which we will be asked to accept that we will never be happy unless we let our hearts be governed fully by something or someone for whom we are willing to make real sacrifices.

The crazy-making stress we accept every day is different from the sort of stress Jesus says he is under, but his and ours are connected by this notion of governance and sacrifice:

Jesus’ stress is what happens when you are impelled from within. It arises from his faithfulness to a grounding vocation that has shaped everything about him and governs him completely. It is the impatient energy, the eagerness of a person in love.

Our stress arises mostly from not surrendering to something that governs us in a truly grounding way, and to live a more spiritually aimless life that makes only momentary, fragmentary sense. We hedge our bets about anything that feels like a final claim on us, and squander all our energies perfecting our defenses.

Jesus’ stress stems from the urgency to know and do God’s will.

If we are under stress, it is often because we are so easily blown around by distractions and so passively governed by unexamined wants and needs that we can’t figure out our own will, let alone God’s.

It starts early, this heart-confusion of ours. John Ortberg, a well-known preacher and author in evangelical circles, tells a (now-famous and oft-reprinted) story about the search for grounded happiness in his own young family.

He has three little kids who regularly worship at the shrine of the Golden Arches. It’s the only place they’ll eat. And they always want the same thing. It’s just a couple of basic food items and a cheap little plastic prize, but in a moment of marketing genius the folks at McDonald’s gave it a great name—the Happy Meal. The Meal of Great Joy.  You aren’t buying McNuggets and a Hercules Ring, he says, you’re buying happiness.

Every now and then he tries to talk them out of it. He gives them a dollar to buy their own cheap little plastic toys, but they want a Happy Meal. They cry for a Happy Meal. A lot. He does not want to be the father who won’t buy his kids the Meal of Great Joy, so he buys them the Happy Meal, and it makes them happy—for about a minute.

You would think, Ortberg muses, that his kids would eventually catch on and say, “You know, I keep getting these Happy Meals and they don’t give me lasting happiness so I’m not going to buy them anymore. I’m not going to set myself up for the stress of disappointment.”

But it never happens. They keep buying Happy Meals and they keep not working. No young adult ever returns home to say to her parents, “Remember that Happy Meal you gave me? That’s where I found lasting contentment and lifelong joy. I knew that if I could just have that Happy Meal, I would be anchored for a lifetime. And I am. Thanks, folks.”

Contentment, meaning, purpose, fulfillment, a God-governed, centered and meaningful life—many of us still believe it’s just a Happy Meal away; only our Happy Meals, Ortberg notes, keep getting more expensive, more complicated, more dangerous, more self-defeating and more elusive. And our stress keeps rising, our frustrations become downright cosmic.

We dream of a mystery inheritance or a Powerball win that will be the escape hatch that permits us to live the simple life in Tuscany or raise llamas in Vermont, forgetting, as they say in AA, that wherever we go, we takes ourselves with us. The truth is that there is no such thing as a geographical cure for the stress that arises in us from spiritual aimlessness—unless, of course, you decide against Tuscany and go instead on the open road to Someplace New with Jesus.

The Happy Meal our hearts truly crave is the one set out in Isaiah 55, the great banquet of creation that God is always offering. It is the banquet at which the messiah breaks bread for free, pours abundant wine with joy, and gives us the whopping prize of acceptance, mercy, forgiveness, and the bonus of a world to serve, full of kin to care for.

And all these things are ours when, by grace and over time, our hearts come at last to rest, as Jesus did, under the merciful governance of the God whose only demand—and gift—is love.

Bus Stop

lI’ve carried her in my head all these years. She got in there one day in the fall of 1998 when I was idling at a very long light at a suburban intersection and just happened to glance to my left. She was waiting for a bus at the corner across the street, half-leaning, half-standing with her back to the pole with the long metal T sign that tells you where you will go if you take the Number 12 or the Number 57.

An unremarkable person, she was middle-aged, medium height, brown hair. A large black bag with gold buckles weighed down one shoulder. Her collar was turned up against the unseasonable cold. She was by herself in the corner, no one else around.

I wasn’t really focusing on her, just taking in the pole and the sign and the corner, and registering her standing there too, nothing more. That’s why what happened next was so startling. Her face darkened and fell. I mean it buckled. It had been perfectly placid and then it just buckled, as if it were tin foil, as if someone had reached in and crumpled it up to throw it away. I had never seen something like that before and I was shocked.

Then she whirled around. Really, whirled is the right word, and she began hitting the T sign with her fists. Over and over she whaled at the sign. Her big bag slid off her shoulder and down her arm and bounced around wildly, the straps caught in the crook of her elbow. She was howling as she pounded the sign, or at least I remember it that way, but my windows were rolled up and the heater was on, so I might have imagined the howling.

Before I could react—what did I think I would do?—the light changed. I had to move. There was a long, impatient line of cars behind me. I looked for her in the rear view mirror, but a box truck rounding the corner made it impossible to see. For a second I thought about pulling over, running back, asking if there was anything I could do, but by then I was too far downstream in the current of traffic.

What had happened on that corner? What was it about? Was she angry, or anguished, or mentally ill, or despairing, or just sick of waiting for the bus? What grief or memory or decision or violence or finality or pain impelled that frenzied pirouette and powered her bare fists against that metal sign over and over and over?

Did she stop and compose herself, get on the bus when it came, looking as placid and unremarkable as she had before whatever had been unleashed was unleashed? That night, did she cook supper for the kids, or play cards with friends, or alone in her apartment take a long sudsy bath with a book? The next day and the next, did she recover? Did she settle the question, find a great therapist, talk to her pastor, enter a rehab, work it out with her spouse, or just suck it and keep going, up because grief is a long process and she knows there will be good days and bad?

Or is she in a locked ward somewhere, or alone now because her spouse and kids had been through enough and just couldn’t take the volatility any more, or is she fidgeting anxiously at her desk until quitting time when she can have a drink or get a fix or binge and purge because that eruption at the bus stop, for all its violence, not yet her bottom? Or is she meeting over coffee with someone from her church this morning, telling him about the time when, in a gale of tears and howling and flailing fists, time Jesus came to her in the tombs on the corner near a T stop and exorcised her, finally, returning her to her right mind? Is she praying with him, asking Jesus to save him too?

I told you that she’s been in my head all these years. At first in a disturbing way, then in a familiar way. I’m grateful to her. Not that what happened that day is about me. I know it isn’t, yet I feel blessed and privileged because of it. Not knowing who she is or what her frenzy was about or what happened to her afterwards has been an odd sort of gift. I feel connected to her, and I pray for her, but I also feel I owe something to her, in the way you feel indebted to an anonymous donor who gave you a heart or a stranger who pulled you from a hole in the ice on a late winter lake.

Maybe that comparison isn’t very apt. She didn’t mean to add a drop of grace to my salvation, didn’t even know I was there, probably wouldn’t have cared that I was there if she had noticed me noticing her. She didn’t purposely give me anything like a heart or effect my freezing rescue. Nonetheless, I feel indebted and I feel linked.

I have something of hers, or I got something from her–it’s hard to explain. I got to see a mystery, I got to see her, and now I can never not know that faces may crumple in an instant, that fists may shoot out to pummel route signs, that soundless howls may rise on any corner anywhere, and that when you have seen and heard and cannot explain, what you must do, at least, is not forget.

I Will Give You Rest

oxen-yokeIn a famous text from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus invites us to lay our burdens down. I have quite a few that need offloading. Come to me, he says, and when I hear him, I know he knows. He knows how exhausted I get. I need his rest.

So, how do I get it? He says, Put on my yoke, learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart.

Jesus’ rest is connected to putting on his way of being, a way of gentleness, a way of humility. I’ll have rest, he says, when I learn to live that way too.

But how do I learn humility? Should I grovel and cry, Oh what a worm am I? When people say that they love the way I sing, or that I make great brownies, should I reply, Oh no, my sister sings much better than I do; or, It wasn’t me; it was God working through me who made those delicious brownies?

That seems false to me. Doing that doesn’t make me light. It makes me phony. There’s no rest for my soul in pretending I am not who I am. Maybe the humility Jesus is talking about is more like that—just being who you are—no more, no less.

Who I am—a creature of infinite worth and estimable achievement, and a creature who occupies only an infinitesimal place in the cosmos. A creature who is God’s crowning glory, and a creature who is also always deeply conscious of my origins in the clay of the earth. A creature unique and irreplaceable, and a creature who shares an ordinary common lot with other human beings and with everything else God made.

In other words, I am lovely and great, but in an ordinary sort of way. And that lovely sort of ordinariness just might be the secret of the rest and contentment Jesus makes available when you go to him.

It doesn’t come naturally. Which is odd, because it’s the one thing that should come naturally—just being who we are. But it’s something Jesus says we need to learn. And he says we can learn it from him. And when we learn from him to be ordinary, to be who and what we are, then we will rest.

oxen-yokeOf course, we don’t usually think of Jesus as someone who was ordinary. I was taught to believe he is anything but. But he seems to have thought of himself that way. Remember that story about John the Baptist watching Jesus approach the Jordan and refusing at first to baptize him? Poor John: Here comes the Messiah, God’s Son, and John is supposed to treat him like an ordinary sinner and give him a bath of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.

When John sees Jesus lined up with everybody else, he wants more than anything for Jesus to step out of the line of these basic regular people. To exempt himself. To make it clear he is not like them. But Jesus doesn’t do it. He won’t. It’s where he wants to be. In that line. It’s where he knows he belongs. With us. Like us, who are ordinary, and in need of God’s mercy.

Then the Talking Dove comes down to announce that God is delighted with Jesus. What makes God so thrilled? I think God is happy with Jesus not so much because he’s God’s unique divine Son, but because he’s a human son who claims no advantage over any other child. His contentment with being ordinary is what makes him so lovable. If God is sweet on Jesus, it’s not because he’s different, divine and perfect. It’s because he’s so happy to be one with all the basic regular people God has loved with a passion ever since the world began.

Then the story tells us that Jesus goes into the wilderness to be tempted. What do those temptations add up to? They’re all about being special and spectacular and more than human. And Jesus resists them. His resistance sounds almost easy when you read it in the book, but it was a huge ordeal. He needed forty days of fasting and prayer and struggle to prepare to meet the intense demonic challenge of choosing to remain simply human, to let God be God, and not usurp the privilege. It was so hard that after it was all over, one gospel writer says that ministering angels came to kind of put him back together.

You wouldn’t think that just being human would be so hard. But it is, at least for me. The temptation to set myself apart, to make myself exceptional is relentless. My striving to be more than human is the source of much of the soul exhaustion Jesus says he longs to soothe. His way is a way of ordinariness; living in the truth, embracing dependence on God and solidarity with every other thing. The payoff is lightness, Jesus says. Lightness, relief, and rest for the soul.

oxen-yokeIt’s not simple being simple. It requires attention, intention, discipline. It requires simplification of life, taking your standard of living down a notch or two (if, of course, you have a choice in the matter), developing a resistance to acquisition–because all these things are deeply related to the striving of the ego to cast aside the trappings of ordinary humanity. And it requires the help of trusted others to help you keep vigil over your unruly heart and re-train your desires. It takes time and tenderness and patience and prayer to learn to enjoy life for what it is, not for what you need it to be — a stage for your own protagonism. It takes time and tenderness and patience and prayer to begin to take pleasure in the world without having to be at the center of it.

You can’t just decide to be ordinary and voila! It’s a practice. We need it because we’ve lost the art.

Jesus calls it ‘taking his yoke.’ It’s a yoke that binds us to others and to himself so that together we can all walk in step to the everyday rhythms of human ordinariness. His yoke keeps us from getting unhinged again from our own humanity. It keeps us from getting loose and chasing after something better than being human, and from exhausting ourselves in the effort, because that ‘something better’ just isn’t there. There is, in God’s eyes, nothing better than being who we are.

I retired last June. I laid down my professorial burdens. Not all of them, but most of them. I really needed to. I was exhausted physically and spiritually. I loved the work—I still do—but I wasn’t in love any more with working. There’s a difference.  Anyone who’s ever spent time in academia knows what I mean. Students and colleagues you can really engage and learn from are great. Institutional maintenance and politics, not so great. And the grind of daily commuting, less great still.

Before I retired, here’s what I most looked forward to—an empty email inbox. I detested my inbox. That box had a life of its own. It was always full. Every two minutes another message would land in it, and instantly I’d feel vaguely oppressed with obligation. Almost angry about it. The thought that I had to put one more thing on my to-do list depleted me. I especially loathed messages that came flagged with one of those aggressive little icons that tell you how to feel—this message will make your day, this one is a PROBLEM, this one is more important than reducing the federal budget deficit.

I was yoked to my inbox. It represented all the dehumanizing things about working that I had let creep into the definition of me and had now grown so tired of. That kind of yoke chafed and wore me down. I longed to wake up the day after my retirement and find my inbox empty.

Then I woke up the day after my retirement and found my inbox empty. I was overcome by an unexpected, surprisingly powerful sense of abandonment. Nobody wanted my advice. My expertise. My charm. My leadership. Nobody needed me to fix something, to do something, to arrange something, to teach something, to be someone special for them. Who was I? The waters had already begun closing over my head. Soon I would completely disappear from view.

Or so I imagined. Or so my Tempters, ego and neediness, whispered in my ear. I had what I said I wanted, and it was not what I wanted, and yet it was, but, no, it wasn’t. It was a perverse moment. It hit me then that for me the spiritual challenge of retirement is going to be the redisoxen-yokecovery of ordinariness. I will be spending time peeling away the layers of accumulated not-so-ordinariness, especially that stubborn layer that says my gifts are the definition of me, and that nobody but I can satisfy the need others have for gifts like mine.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I am seeking to deny my gifts or downplay the contributions I’ve made over my career—I actually think I’ve done pretty well. To say otherwise would be phony. It would make liars out of many people who have told me that I did well. But now that I’ve stopped working full time, I see more clearly the ways I let those things obscure the simple, ordinary creaturehood that is my true glory and my best gift to others. I’ve cultivated those other things well, but simple humanness, not so much.

I have a lot to learn in the days ahead about how to be who I am, and how to walk in step with the ordinariness of life and the wonder of everything else that, like me, just is. I also realize that this is not a retirement challenge only. It presents itself more acutely now that my affiliations and daily activities are no longer what they once were, but it’s been the challenge all along, the challenge of my Christian life, which means the challenge of my human life; the challenge of humility and truth and spiritual realism in everything I am and do. And I think I may not be the only one who has it.

If it’s yours too, I hope you will believe Jesus when he says to us, If you learn humility from me; if you love your common human lot in all its ordinariness; if in all your ambitions and activities you aspire first, last and always to be simply human, nothing more and nothing less (for it is a very great thing); then you will know my rest. Your life will lighten up. This truth will set you free. You will put down self-imposed burdens and take up the only one worth carrying—my yoke, the bond of human solidarity. You will see how wonderfully common you are, how much you need each other, and how much you belong to each other; and you just might just learn to reverence one another. To learn these things is to live in my world, the kingdom of God, where love makes all things easy, and simply being who we are together makes every labor light.

A Project Bigger than Your Life

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–Avraham Binder, “Jerusalem of Peace” 1994

Luke 13:31-35

Our story opens with Jesus still in the Galilee, still on his way to Jerusalem. He’s been on this somewhat desultory journey for several chapters now, and you have to wonder if he’s as determined to get to the holy city as he claims to be in other places in the gospel of Luke.

Jerusalem, of course, is not the only place a prophet might meet a bitter end. Some sympathetic Pharisees approach him with ominous rumors about the dangers right where he is: “Get away from here,” they say, “Herod’s trying to kill you.”

They aren’t talking about Herod the Great who was king when Jesus was born and, according to Luke, died right before his return from Egypt. They’re talking about Herod Antipas, one of the Great’s three sons who each rule one third of their father’s not very big territory.

As rulers of the earth go, Antipas is a bush league potentate. All the same, a threat from any Herod is a serious thing: the Great slaughtered the innocents of Bethlehem, Antipas beheaded John the Baptist. And that’s just for starters in the nasty catalogue of Herodian terror. But Jesus doesn’t scare easily. He dismisses the threat, calling Herod an old “fox.”

Later in this story, as he approaches Jerusalem, he will liken himself to a hen that gathers her chicks under her wings in the face of imminent threat. So when Jesus calls Herod a fox, we imagine he’s thinking about Herod. And why wouldn’t he? Herod fits to a T the image of a wily predator slinking through a hole in the fence, licking his chops at the thought of God’s defenseless brood scattered around the barnyard.

But there’s another meaning of ‘fox’ that fits our story just as well. To call someone a fox was to insult him as cowardly, silly, trivial. In other words, Jesus could be saying that Herod is a gutless wonder. A nasty piece of work, to be sure, but in the great scheme of things, very small potatoes.

Jesus replies, “Tell that old fox I’m going to keep healing today and tomorrow, until the third day”— which is to say, I’m going to do what I do until God determines otherwise, and no puny human king like Herod can stand in the way.

God is in charge, Jesus is on God’s schedule, God will decide. Herod is a laughable inconsequential speck in the universe compared to the mission of infinite reach and eternal consequence that Jesus is carrying out for God.

Jesus knows himself to be the agent of something large and long, wide and deep, indestructible and lasting, something completely unlike a puppet ruler’s tiny jurisdiction in a region half the size of New Jersey.

He is the agent of a realm that can’t be corrupted, overthrown or occupied; a regime that has no imperial designs, no lust to subjugate, and yet encompasses everyone and for all time. Herod’s sovereignty is a meaningless sway over nothing, but the sovereignty of God is cosmic and never ends, even if Jesus dies.

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–Avraham Binder, “Jerusalem of Hope” 1998

As for that death, Jesus seems in charge of it here. He informs his listeners that despite all the threats, it’s not going happen there, in Galilee, Herod’s territory, under his authority. It will take place in Jerusalem, the city of God.

Jerusalem sits at the heart of Luke’s story of Jesus like a magnet. It is, as another preacher put it, a desired and dreaded destination, the site of fulfillment and the scene of failure, a haunting paradox of a place where the most intense spiritual emotions are concentrated and the most ferocious violence is unleashed; a stubborn paradox of a place, where God dwells gloriously in the Temple and God’s prophets meet the stiffest resistance and the ugliest end.

Today Jerusalem still stands for all our stubborn human paradoxes. Jerusalem makes us weep. It made Jesus weep too.

No matter how certain he seems that God’s will is being done on earth as in heaven; no matter how laughable it is that God’s intentions could be thwarted by pretentious human powers; no matter how confident he is that the world is on a unstoppable trajectory of healing and justice, when he pictures Jerusalem, he is overcome with grief.

It sounds so good when you preach it, this “God is winning” message; but when you look at this world…

“I have wanted to gather you,” he laments, embodying the desire of all the prophets for the peace of God’s people. “I would have, but you would not,” he cries, summing up the longing of God for the whole human race.

The sight of Jerusalem wrenches out of Jesus the question of the ages, “How long, O Lord? Will things ever change?” It is a question of bewilderment, of unrequited and squandered love, of futility. It is a form of that other appalling question that Jesus will speak to the empty heavens outside the City, hanging on a Roman cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

Here is a vital lesson for us. Watch Jesus and learn that you can dismiss Herod as a pipsqueak and still question God. You can laugh at human pretentiousness and still feel the anguish of no end in sight. You can weep and wail and shake your fist and demand in your grief-stricken rage that God keep God’s unkept promises and still walk to Jerusalem with your face set like flint and your spirit resting in God’s hands.

Lamentation and confidence ground each other. And if we never lament, never wonder in our heart of hearts if anything we do makes a whit of difference, never demand answers and insist on divine faithfulness, it may be that we have never seriously engaged the world.

John Thomas, former general minister of the UCC, once observed that futility is the question hanging over every thoughtful, honest disciple. How many times have we prayed for peace, and the tanks rolled anyway, the planes flew, the bombs fell, and all those people died?  How many gun deaths and mass shootings have happened after we vowed, ‘Never again!’?

Week after week in church, we talk confidently about God’s promises, about ministry as transformation, about creating communities of radical hospitality and bold global mission, but most of the time the best any of us actually does is help a few wounded souls – and our own – limp from one day to the next, coping as best we can.

In homeless shelters, food pantries and soup kitchens, despite the selfless efforts of staff and donors, no one is solving the problem of hunger and homelessness. Neither are the politicians, who could.

We have the poor with us always, abandoned to the whims of the pious powerful for whom justice is a question of personal choice and political expediency. Social workers drown in caseloads. Parents can’t protect their children from the bizarre and hurtful fantasies the culture seduces them to dream.

And you and I?  I can’t speak for you, but I know that I will carry to my grave serious sins I did not want to commit, but committed anyway; unhealed hurts I want to forgive but can’t; gifts and energy I meant to use for the things of God, but have not, and likely never will.

A sense of defeat haunts all our hopes, Thomas observes. A victory in one part of the world, or in one part of our lives, seems sooner or later always to be overshadowed by some greater tragedy, some more horrific evil. Our noble personal intentions are thwarted by our tax dollars at work.

It is no wonder that in the face of this intractable complexity, many good people lose heart and decide to withdraw, tend their own gardens, and let the rest of the world go to hell if it wants to.

This is not the path Jesus takes. With tears in his eyes, he keeps going. Without for a moment minimizing the enormity of the pain he sees in all the Jerusalems of this world, he insists that he is engaged in a project greater and more coherent than the nonsensical and agonizing frustrations of his small slice of history. He sees over the immediate horizon. He is about a project bigger than his life.

Such a project requires a disciplined faith that knows the difference between hope and optimism, struggling daily in the dark without the solace of outcomes. It requires a face set like flint towards Jerusalem and all its painful paradoxes. It requires a steadfastness born of grief and lament, a trudging sort of hope that in practice is often nothing more than putting one aching foot in front of the other.

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–Avraham Binder, “Jerusalem the Golden” 1998

What makes this futile, foolish trudge down the road to Jerusalem redemptive is that, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, its foolishness is revealed as wisdom in the end, and its futility becomes the occasion for new striving. This is the sort of faith Paul encouraged when in the face of encompassing difficulty he wrote, “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”

This is the quality of faith we are invited to probe and try on and share by accompanying Jesus on the Lenten journey—the sort of hope that Frances Moore Lappe, a long-time fighter against world hunger, was talking about when she wrote, “If you are working on a question that can be solved in your lifetime, you may be wasting your life.”

Wasting my life? That judgment will surely seem exaggerated, even harsh, to people like me who are fainthearted stragglers on the trudge up to the holy city, weak in vision and self-justifyingly unsure whether there’s much to write home about at the end.

But to those who walk the futile road so stubbornly; who walk it in the company of the saints who have walked it before them and in the company of those who will come after them; to all who have experienced the long defeat and fight on with a longer courage anyway, it is the gospel truth, the Word of the Lord.

So let those with ears of faith to hear, listen.

What Grace Is Doing for Us All (Matthew 11:28)

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–Women Miners Carrying Coal, Vincent Van Gogh, 1881-82

Lent, we know, is a season of repentance. It is also therefore a season of mercy, for whenever we confess with the hope of conversion, whenever a desire to be free from a wounded or wounding life moves us to reach for help, pardon and healing are already ours.

As professor Greg Mobley writes, at the heart of Christian experience lies “the urgency of love in the present that overwhelms even the terrors of the past.” This urgency, he says, is what the slaver John Newton called “amazing grace,” and the torturer Saul of Tarsus called “the free gift of righteousness.”

In my lifetime, the urgency of love has lifted from my back more than one burden of shame and sorrow. If you have experienced the same relief even once in yours, you know what I mean when I say that I would wish this grace on my worst enemy (as well as, of course, upon my dearest friends).

I would like to suggest a simple Lenten exercise. On the Sundays of Lent when you come to worship, look around at the people with you there and try to grasp this reality – that sitting next to you, across from you, in front of you, are people carrying burdens which, if you knew all the facts and feelings of them, would rob you of breath. Then consider yourself, and your own.

During the silence at the time of confession, imagine Jesus removing one of your burdens. Tell God that you believe that you can be free.  Be grateful. Then imagine that you are helping people around you unload too, loosening knots, guiding bundles to the floor, moving them away with your foot.

Then, after the assurance of pardon, when the worship leader invites you to share a sign of Christ’s peace, step over all that useless cargo and greet your neighbors – light, relieved, and gratefully amazed at what they did for you, what you did for them, and what grace is doing for us all.

One Thing Necessary

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–Photo from Keystone Pipeline Protest, REUTERS/Richard Clement

Remember the terrorism color code? It was invented in the previous administration to inform the public about the level of threat we faced at any given moment. When it got racheted up one ominous notch from yellow to orange, we’d be told, for example, that attacks on “soft targets” — malls, apartment buildings, hotels — were being planned somewhere by someone.

It was pretty scary stuff, but the officials who spoke at color code news conferences always said the same thing: “Don’t worry. Carry on your daily lives. We will protect you.” Okay, except that by definition soft targets are impossible to protect; and who wouldn’t worry at least a teeny bit about what a dirty bomb might do to Park Street Station at rush hour? I know I did then—and I still do.

But terrorism isn’t the only thing that worries me. The impending sequester worries me. Rising gas prices worry me. Gun violence worries me. Economic inequality worries me. Wall Street worries me. The breakdown of congressional compromise worries me. Racism and homophobia worry me. Drone strikes worry me. Increased settlements in the West Bank worry me. Global warming worries me. And that’s just for starters.

Most of all, I worry that things are implacably on track, and we are powerless to change them. Marches, protests, righteous legislative lobbying, letters to the White House all seem to go nowhere. I feel guilty that I’m not doing enough, which is true—I’m not. At the same time I think nothing I or others do, no matter how great or noisy, will ever really change things. I get angry and tired and cynical; and when this happens, it’s a sign that I am coming at the world, and at the work, all wrong.

I came across this paragraph in a piece by Kari Jo Verholst in Sojourner’s several years ago. It made me think deeply about what’s needed if Christians who care, who care deeply, are to avoid burnout, cop-out, or despair. I return to it every now and then when my mood turns especially sour. It helps me refocus on the only thing that should worry me—that my worrying will turn to idolatry, that I might sow a seed in the world unwatered by faith, that my care might yield nothing more than the same bitter fruit I decry.

Those of us who think of ourselves as social justice people often use activism as a shield against fear and loneliness. Leery of those who peddle spirituality as self-help and who ignore the ‘root causes’ of injustice and suffering, we can be fearful of admitting our own fatigue and dismay. [Herein] lies an idolatry… More often than not, we understand the gifts we have been given—the prophetic word, the cry of challenge to unjust systems—as something deposited in us, rather than something that flows through us. Thus we interpret our lives according to our faithfulness to this gift, rather than according to our relationship with the God who is the source of gifts and callings. This severance … either causes us to interpret ourselves as being of singular importance, which renders us easily threatened, or it increases our already deep sense that we are always failing, no matter how hard we try. In either case, cut off from our life-source, the seed we sow in the world will be born of this fatigued arrogance, and we become just one more force out there imposing its vision on the world.

The season of Lent begins with a testing. Jesus in the wilderness is confronted by illusions that try to master him. The biggest illusion of all is that he will not need God, but that by his own power he can meet the challenge of engagement with the world. He shakes off that illusion and emerges from the wilderness fully alive, ready to testify, eager for mission, but with no guarantees about the success of his efforts to change the world.

All he knows is that he has chosen—over every other power, every other posture, every other solution—to entrust himself to the love of God and to bank on God’s faithfulness to the world into which he is being sent. It was enough for him. May it be so also for us.

At Least He Knows (Luke 4:1-13)

jesus_tempted–Jesus Tempted, Chris Cook

There were soldiers and tax collectors and beggars and even a few outstanding citizens standing around on Jordan’s bank that day when Jesus went into the river, when the voice from heaven came, when it dawned on Jesus who he was, when he felt just how loved he was, when he learned how infinitely delightful God found him, when God told him, You are my Son.

There was someone else there too, watching the moment unfold, listening to that voice, musing about whether this would be an opportune time, or whether to wait, to wait and see. When the Spirit led Jesus from the Jordan directly to the wilderness, the devil on the bank went right along with him into desolation.

He abided with him through the forty-day fast. Then, when Jesus was famished, he struck up a conversation with that Son.

At the Jordan, a voice from heaven spoke; in the desert, it is a voice from hell. But not the hell you imagine. Not flames and pitchforks, but the expanding torment of a pinprick of doubt.

You, God’s son? Well, if you are… if you are… if you are.

The temptations in this story are three: to be spectacularly useful (turn the stones to bread), powerful (serve me and I will give you everything) and immortal (throw yourself down). But there is only one temptation really, one embedded in these three: to wonder who you are. To entertain the question, Am I who God says I am?

What we need to take very seriously is that Jesus was really tempted to try the stone-into-bread trick. He thought for a moment and maybe more than a moment about taking that suicidal leap from the pinnacle. He wondered what it would be like to acquire all that delicious power and wealth, all that glory, through the agency of evil.

And that means that he also entertained the idea that the voice from heaven had been a chimera or a lie. It means that he wondered about what he had heard at the river and worried that even if it was true, maybe God’s delight in him wouldn’t be enough, maybe it wouldn’t last, maybe  it could be taken away, maybe it had to be earned and re-earned over a lifetime.

This was the temptation in the wilderness: to disbelieve that he was the apple of God’s eye. To fashion a life on some other grounds.

Too many of us know intimately what doubts like these can do to you. They torment you. Too many of us know what a life on other grounds feels like. It feels like hell.

Isn’t this the hardest thing? To embrace ourselves as chosen and cherished? To believe God when God says we are loved and disbelieve the devil’s lies when the devil says we are not—at least not loved like that? That God has duped us and will get us in the end? That our worthiness is no foregone conclusion? That we had better get busy and find some other identity, some other shape for our hearts, some other satisfaction for our hungers, some other way to make our mark?

Isn’t this the hell out of which the tempter rises to address us, the horrible striving place in our souls and psyches, even in our bodies, where no love is ever enough love for us because we are so unable to credit the First and Final Love?

And if I harbor doubts about me, there is little chance I will think of others as beloved of God. I will more likely see myself in competition with them for the scraps of the devil’s promises. I will not be alone in this, either. We will all kill each other over who will get to be most spectacular and useful and daring and powerful and, we think, therefore loved; and we will all try hard never to die. Hell, indeed.

Our inability or unwillingness to know ourselves beloved may be a psychological problem, a socially-conditioned problem, a family history problem; but it is also a temptation, maybe more than anything else, a temptation; a reasonable voice that says ‘If…” and offers to help us out of the wilderness of our longings by providing attractive substitutes for the ‘one thing necessary.’

Honest to God, there are times when, contemplating my own struggles to believe the river voice and not the desert voice, contemplating the painful lives of so many people I know who struggle with the very same thing, I seriously  wonder whether what we need in order to save our Christian lives may be fewer psychologists and more exorcists.

Jesus didn’t give in to the temptation of the devil, we know. The scripture tells us that he bested Satan at the game of dueling bible quotes, he trusted God, he emerged from his ordeal victorious over the devil and took up a powerful ministry of mercy that led to his death and to his vindicating resurrection.But it was never a given. It could have been otherwise.

Don’t be a docetist and think that Jesus serenely sailed over the temptations in a divinely easy way. Such a Jesus would be a bloodless, aloof God-in-a-man-suit performing an act for our benefit, giving us an heroic ethical example of righteous resistance, but nothing more. And if that’s the case, there’s no reason to follow him anywhere, let alone to stake our lives on him.

It wasn’t the case. Remember that in one of the gospel accounts, God even has to send angels to tend to him, he is so exhausted and beat up by what he’s been through. It was an ordeal, not an example.

And then there’s that sobering last line. The devil left him, it says, defeated for a while; he left him ‘until another time.’ Until an ‘opportune’ time—that is, any time he spotted a promising opening. Which means there may well have been some. Which means that the Tempter revisited Jesus when he was at a low ebb, and Jesus had to undergo the torment all over again.

I sometimes read the gospels and try to imagine just what those opportune times may have been. What was Jesus doing up on those mountains when he went off to pray alone? Was the triumphal entry into Jerusalem more tempting than we think?

Whatever they were, it’s never quite settled. Not for him, not for us.

I’m not sure what to make of this, other than to let it calm me down into a more humane acceptance of the chronic nature of this question of belovedness and the pain it causes. Other than to let it normalize a little the experience I and many others have of a two steps forward, one step back rhythm in the life-long journey of letting God speak to our hearts a word of tenderness we can finally believe. Other than to say—and I find this immensely helpful—‘At least he knows.’

At least he knows.