Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Real World

I recently read a ranting criticism of ‘religious people’ that I found infuriating, and hilarious. The topic sentence of the writer’s attack was that people like me (yes, I took it personally) who live by “old fairy tales”—i. e., the Bible—are deluded, and not a little useless as citizens of something the author called ‘the real world.’ Apparently, I live with my head in the clouds spouting unrealistic inanities about universal peace, love, and abundance for all; whereas sensible and morally serious people have their feet more firmly planted on the ground. They know that in the “real world” you have to face facts, make tough choices, and compromise your ideals.

An Episcopal bishop once commented on what he called a “very silly” op-ed piece in the local paper that argued that in the ‘real world’ the last thing we need is compassion and other mushy-headed values. What we need is unrestrained capitalism and unequivocal support for strategic U.S. allies, even the nasty ones. “My response,” wrote the bishop, “is to fantasize that there probably is a special place in hell for people who take religious types aside and deliver condescending lectures about the ‘real world’, as though standing at a thousand death beds, knowing first-hand the many forms of human misery, and nurturing hope where the system is not about to provide it were somehow ‘unreal.’ It’s those who think that the ‘real world’ is about the acquisition of wealth and power, and not about their generous dispersal, who live in unreality. It’s people who struggle for status or who are obsessed with control who are not free. It is those who would be embarrassed to be a little less affluent who are ‘unreal.’”

Now, this is not to say that there is an ‘us’ who have it right and a ’them’ who have it wrong. We are always crossing over the boundary of hope into the land of cynicism, and back again. The world that demands we face facts and deal with ‘reality’ is our world too. When we lack a habit of discernment and resistance, we frequently find ourselves echoing our detractors. Prayer and hope and mercy are fine most of the time, we end up saying, but sometimes you’ve just got to face facts. We are not immune to the silly—and deadly—notion that the ‘real world’ is more real than the kingdom of God.

The critical question is who gets to say what’s real. Remember this famous flap in the Reagan Administration? Questioned about the conservation of forests, then-Interior Secretary James Watt replied that it won’t make much difference in the end if we have this or that policy of conservation because, “After the last tree is felled … Christ will have returned.” And after that, presumably, we will have no need of trees, or of the planet for that matter. Bill Moyers summed up his astonished outrage in a NY Times op-ed piece by noting that in American politics, “the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe to sit in the seats of power.” And that was in the Reagan Administration. If we added our own examples, we’d be here all day.

I have long held the opinion that the best thing we can do in the face of the decline of the so-called mainline is to turn our energies to the renewal of congregational worship. I’m not talking about duking it out over styles of worship, but about recovering the ethical wallop of worship—the ways in which worship of any kind, if it is laser-focused on God and the ways of God in history, can be a stay against delusion. For every time a congregation gathers to ponder together one of those ‘old fairy tales’ and confess its hope in the vision of life it describes, it renews a struggle over who gets to name the facts. It is (or can be) a habit-forming exercise in discernment and resistance, a form of fact-finding, a bracing reality check.

What’s at stake in all our praising, singing, and silence-keeping; our confessing, assurance and offering; our praying, peace-passing and blessing is the very definition of ‘real.’ The kind of ‘real’ that allows us to see how precious are all the people and things the ‘real world’ has abandoned as useless and hopeless. The kind of ‘real’, as Will Willimon writes, that allows us to see a nondescript teacher “squatting in the dust with a gaggle of common fisherfolk and former tax collectors and know that they are the light of the world.” To hear an opinionated Paul tell a “ragtag crowd at First Church Corinth, after chewing them out for fighting in church and acting bad in their bedrooms,”  ‘You are God’s treasure.’” To recognize in our own congregations, just as we are without one plea, God’s answer to what’s wrong with the world, and see “a sneak preview of God’s cosmic redemption on-going in our midst.” And to encounter a million people like the woman in Louisiana who raised, on a maid’s income, sixteen foster children, and who, when asked how she did it, replied, “I saw a new world a-comin.’”

A new world. A real world. God’s real real world.



In Charge

cranky-child-grocery-store-636-150x150Not long ago, I was in the supermarket looking for something I couldn’t find. As I wandered around, I kept bumping into the same mother and child. The boy was probably three, and in a bad way, squirmy and demanding. His mother was admirably calm, considering, but her firm  “No, honey’s” got tighter as he made a dash for the cereal aisle. When he ripped open the Cheerios, she’d had enough. In one practiced move, she yanked the box out of his hand, plunked him down in the carriage and wheeled him to the register before he could summon a sound.

And it occurred to me at that moment that it’s a terrible thing to be three. You want what you want when you want it, but you can have only what grown-ups decide is good for you and convenient for them. You can manipulate adults to a point, but your power is limited by size and weight; because you are small, in the end they hold all the cards. If all else fails, they can snatch you up like a head of lettuce, toss you in a cart, and wheel you away.

It’s no wonder little kids like playing grown-up—they give the orders, they say yes or no. But we know, as we watch them, that it’s an illusory exercise in more ways than one. Children imagine that it would be a fabulous freedom to grow up, because grown-ups do whatever they want. Everything they desire jumps down from the shelf into their carts. Little ones don’t know about the fright of decision, the tyranny of choices. Even less do they know about shouldering the unknown consequences of any given yes or no. What we have learned, most of us the hard way, is that to be in charge of yes and no is even more terrible than being three.

It’s a great irony of adulthood that no matter what you decide with your grown-up will, you still have to negotiate what others think is good for you and convenient for them, and live with the deals you make. And the kicker is that even though you’re now supposedly in charge, you are never not at the mercy of a rogue circumstance that can without warning or consent snatch the yellow box from your hand like a fed-up parent in a grocery aisle. Even if you’re 6’5” and weigh 240, life can still toss you in its carriage and wheel you away.

When it comes to self-determination, we are no more in control or better off at fifty than we were at three. Wisdom, then, lies in considering the lilies; in the sort of striving that begins and ends in abandonment, that begins and ends by making a great embracing peace.


The Jesus We Get

2john_re–St John Resting on Jesus’ Chest, c. 1320, Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp

John 6

In one of the lectionary cycles, there’s a long stretch when we’re asked to plow through some of Jesus’ interminable discourses in the gospel of John. Jesus talks non-stop from the middle of July straight through August. After a few weeks of this stuff your start to wonder if John’s Jesus ever does anything but talk.

I know a pastor in a lectionary tradition who gets really cranky when the she’s confronted with preaching on these long speeches. She thinks John’s Jesus is way too into himself. It reminds her of an old cartoon in which a man on a first date blathers on and on about himself to his dinner companion. Finally he remembers he’s not alone. “Well, enough about me,” he says. “Let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?” If John’s Jesus is that self-absorbed, he is not the Jesus she wants.

I like John’s Jesus just fine; but I confess that I like him best not when he’s making long cryptic speeches, but when he’s making one of those impossibly tender gestures for which John’s gospel is also known, such building a fire on the beach and making breakfast for his sad and exhausted disciples. Now, that’s the Jesus I want.

Well, that’s the Jesus I want today. I’ve wanted him otherwise.

At one time or another I’ve wanted a Che Guevara Jesus, a flower child Jesus, a Galilean sage Jesus, an apocalyptic prophet Jesus, a divine savior Jesus, a judging Jesus, a warm inclusive Jesus, a cosmic bellhop Jesus, a finder of parking spaces in Harvard Square Jesus, a homeless Jesus, a crucified Jesus, a risen Jesus, a Jesus in you, a Jesus in me, a feminist Jesus, an historical Jesus.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the course of trying to follow him over the years, it’s that you can’t pick your Jesus. You can’t always have him your way. Because it turns out that he’s never just the Jesus you want. He’s not even just the Jesus you need, or the Jesus you think you need. He’s always, as an old mentor of mine once put it, “the Jesus you’re damn well going to get.”

Take that speech we call ‘The Bread of Life Discourse” in John 6. Jesus addresses it to a crowd that for months has wandered the countryside with him, drawn by his healings, transfixed by his teachings. But the crowd’s mood turns fretful when he starts making some big claims about who he is. They begin to murmur, and if you do any kind of public speaking, you know that’s not a good sign.

They murmur because Jesus suggests that he is greater than Moses; not the deliverer, but Delivery itself. He suggests that he is more than a sage, he is Wisdom itself, that mysterious being described in the Bible as playing in God’s presence, privy to God’s secrets before the foundation of the world; a mother calling her children to eat and drink a great feast without having to foot the bill or earn their keep.

This is perplexing. Troubling. Maybe even blasphemous. And it’s not this Jesus they want.

The Jesus who turned water to wine? Fine. The one who healed the sick and multiplied bread and fish? Swell. The Jesus who walked on water? Awesome. Wonder-worker, story-teller, that’s a good Jesus. A Jesus you want.

Up to this point in the story, John’s Jesus has glided from triumph to triumph, glory to glory, and it’s been visible for all to see. But now he asks for more than enthusiasm about wise preaching and merciful miracles. Now he asks for a relationship so close that to get at it, John has to use images of eating, which (along with sex) is the most intimate of all shared human experiences. Now he’s asking for a friendship so intertwined and interdependent that elsewhere John can only speak of vines and branches. Now John is saying that Jesus is no open book, that he must not be taken for granted, that he is in a sense unknowable and unreachable unless God reveals him to you. Now he is claiming that he can show us the character of God.

In John’s rendition of Jesus, this god-like, life-giving, sovereign and inscrutable man is also asking people to decide, to decide whether to accept his claims about himself and his claim upon them. Some followers won’t, or can’t. “We know who his parents are!” they say. “We know where he comes from!” Do they think Jesus is an overachieving small town boy who’s letting all the attention go to his head? He would, it seems, be closer to the savior they want if he were more modest; if only he would put forward lesser claims. Or if he would just let them remain agnostic about the whole thing.

But he won’t.  All of a sudden he is the Jesus they are damn well going to get. And so they start drifting away. The circle around Jesus continues to contract for the rest of his short career as more people find him bewildering. First these, then a few more, even some of his intimates, until at the end only three women and John stand at the foot of his cross.

Here’s what I think: No matter which Jesus you want now or have ever wanted, there is a Jesus you are always damn well going to get; and in this case it is the Jesus who, in whatever guise, will always try to be intimate with you; will always want to lay a claim upon your whole life; will always wait for you freely to decide for him.

Following Jesus’ teachings and emulating his tender gestures towards people in need and proclaiming a just and merciful kingdom against the enemies of life are what a true disciple does; but they do not exhaust John’s definition of a disciple. John, after all, is called the “beloved disciple,” and his community, “the beloved community.” His purpose is to face you with the Fierce Belovedness he identifies so intimately with this man, Jesus.

You don’t need to be a follower of John’s divine-ish Jesus to do works of mercy and justice. People of all faiths and no faith do them too, often better than those who bear the name of Jesus. You don’t need his example to feed the poor, shelter the homeless, testify at a Senate hearing on behalf of research for breast cancer. You don’t need faith in Jesus to give an at-risk kid a job, visit a prison, comfort the dying, or be kind to animals.

Although many of us do find the full motivation for our various ministries in Jesus’ example and teaching, we can’t say for sure that we would never have acted selflessly without them. We might have found some other wisdom in which to root a humane and caring life. Ethical and exemplary human beings arise from a thousand sources that are not Jesus.

Christian discipleship is not just a matter of selfless behaviors, even if the gospel of Matthew reminds us that loving service of our neighbor will be the basis of our judgment on the last day. For John, the distinctive of the disciple is not only merciful deeds; it is also intimate friendship with Jesus—the capacity and willingness to relate deeply to this person who is able to pour the wine of gladness for us and sing in us the new song of God’s delight and pull back for us the veil that covers the character of God. This friendship is what makes disciples brave and persistent; for when disciples become Christ’s friends and receive his joy, everything changes. Life and ministry become more wonder than competence, more  surrender than skill, more beauty than plans, more imagination than programs, more gratitude and praise than committees and votes, more celebration than obligation, more grace than guilt, more tryst than task.

This inestimable gift rarely comes from the Jesus we want. It is most often the gift of the Jesus we are damned well going to get. The saddest thing is that around this Jesus the crowds are thin. At the feet of this Jesus not every hand is upturned and open. In his presence only a few delight.  If you wanted to be there with him, there’d be room for you. If you wanted to be his friend,  you would not have to wait in line.