March 27, 2013

Playback: Normal

Two extra church services this week, Thursday and Friday evenings. Frankly, it can be a chore to work these nightly interruptions in to a busy weekly routine, especially if worship tends to feel more like an obligatory act than a spiritual privilege. Even so, in this week of weeks, our annual Holy Week, I urge you to take time to dwell with others in the communion meal on Thursday and to sit with others before Jesus’ stunning sacrifice on Friday.

To be sure, we share in communion and ponder Jesus’ death in many a Sunday morning service. It’s not as though this is your one shot. But one of the under-appreciated gifts of Holy Week is that we get to experience Jesus’ passion in real time. The events of last supper, passion, burial, and resurrection are uncompressed from a normal Sunday morning summary and are presented to us at their normal speed: day by blessed day, one saving event at a time. No one I know has expressed the importance of this uncompressed playback better than Alan Lewis. Reflecting on the mystery and blessing of an annual Christian holy week, especially the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday cycle, Lewis writes:

Christian faith simply would not be, did it not hear, believe, and tell what once took place between the sixth day of one week and the first of that which followed. What keeps the heart of the Christian church beating, and its blood circulating, if not the story of those days, so endlessly rehearsed, with such infinite variety and such steadfast unalterableness? Sketched out by the very first preachers, subjected to profound reflection by the apostles, extended and elaborated four different ways by the evangelists, later reduced again to apothegms by the drafters of countless creeds and confessions, the story of Christ crucified, buried, and risen continues even now to be told and acted out, year by year and week by week. The worship of every Sunday is a fleshed-out echo of what Christians have heard happened that third day, that first day of the week. Likewise the church’s hymns, when thoughtful, and her preaching, when faithful, reannounce the first proclamation of death’s death and sin’s atonement. Each act of baptism dramatizes the dying and rising again of the Savior as well as that of those he died and lives to save; and in every celebration of communion the same story is presented and re-presented with particular intensity and unique effect, red wine refocusing the savagery of execution on Golgotha and the breaking of bread re-releasing the astonished cries of recognition in Emmaus.

Since none of these retellings of the story can be anything but symbolic and abbreviated, the Christian family takes time once a year to replay the events at their original speed — to experience for themselves the somber, then joyous, sequence, moment by moment. Through a few hours of worship and many of ordinary life, they relive annually the growing tensions of the climactic week; the grieving farewells, shameful betrayal, guilty denial, and agonizing fear of the night before the end; the long, dark, deadly day of pain and forsakenness itself; an ecstatic daybreak of miracle and color, song and newborn life; and in between one eerie, restless day of burial and waiting perhaps for nothing: a day which forces us to speak of hell and to conceive how it might be that God’s own Son, and therefore God’s own self, lay dead and cold within a sepulcher.

Such is faith's story, which we are invited now to hear freshly as if for the first time; to think about with the widest stretching of our minds and our imaginations; and to make our own, as the key to learning how to live and even how to die.

-- Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday by Alan E. Lewis

Indeed, we learn together. As such, I hope to see you on Thursday and Friday, no less so than on Easter Sunday. And may the good hope of the coming resurrection bless and bolster your life’s ministry in the here and now.

March 14, 2013

Silent Listen

Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken. - Isaiah 1

Throughout these Sundays in Lent, we’ve started our worship with a time of silence. Love it or loathe it, sitting together in protracted silence at least has the effect of showing us, by way of contrast, just how noisy the world can be. Not long ago, I pulled into a gas station and was astonished to discover that all 8 pumps had flatscreen monitors mounted on top of them. Each screen had it’s own ads running, and you could hear them all at once. I used to get some of my best thinking done, pumping gas. No more. Now I get to hear about 2 for 1 pickles and home equity loans.

We live in especially noisy times.

I was struck by many aspects of the papal announcement in Rome this week, but not the least by his call for a time of shared silent prayer. Ten thousand people crammed into St. Peter’s square, all of them silent. The television commentators hardly knew what to do with themselves. I suppose in TV Land, and by its tutelage so also in our busy lives, silence is usually a problem to be solved, a gaping hole to be filled with more disposable banter.

But not for us who follow Jesus. Silence is not a burden, but a gift ... if we are open to it. The first Lenten Sunday’s time for silent prayer prompted one wise member among us to point out a simple fact of letters that had never before occurred to me: The words SILENT and LISTEN share the same letters. Beautiful. And that fact seems illuminating for us believers. The point of silence in worship is, ultimately, to make room in our spirits to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. We empty ourselves of all noise in order to make room for God’s pervasive word. In that way, silent prayer is another mode of fasting: deliberate restraint that makes room for reception.

When given the opportunity for shared silence in worship, we all might do well to pay attention to what comes crashing into that space, spiritually speaking. Those other voices that vie for our attention, those worries and wanderings and wants, these likely signal places in our lives in need of spiritual sequester. Silence unmasks our noisy spirits, and that’s why we avoid it so.

So if the silence is unbearable, if it brings about more agitation and restlessness than shalom and sanctuary, be brave and try to get to the bottom of what it is about intimate worship that vexes rather than blesses. After all, if we cannot be alone in silence with our own thoughts and feelings, there’s a good chance we likewise cannot welcome the Holy Spirit into our spirits. Maybe there is no room in our inn. Or, to say it positively, when we can quiet down the noise of our lives, even for two sacred minutes, we thereby make a little more room for the Spirit to do what it does so well: comfort, confirm, and challenge us with the word and way of Jesus.

What is silence in worship like for you? What can you determine about the noise in your life? Do you hear the Holy Spirit speaking into your spirit? What do you hear the Lord Jesus saying to you, his disciple and friend? ... and to us, one little portion of his great gathered body?

In what remains of Lent, and in every season, may all our silent prayers become listening prayers.

March 10, 2013

Semicolon Crisis

Mark serves up a stunning situation in 14:32-51.
late in the evening
on the heels of the supper
feet have been washing
Now he takes some of those disciples outside
and asks them to sit and wait
in his own words
I feel bad enough right now to die.
Stay here and keep vigil with me.

Three years of ministry, now behind him
all the encounters
all the teaching
all the miracles
and of course
along the way
a growing controversy
a grumble that turns into an sabotage
as Jesus’ words and way with others
the authority by which he demonstrates
the Father’s power and purpose
these become
an affront
an insult
to the leaders of his own faith family

And so by the time of this encounter in the garden of Mark 14
the seniors pastors and ruling elders have conspired to do him in
Turns out the Session is his biggest problem
one of his own posse
short-sighted and hungry for the money
Judas helps them bring him down

The point is:
all of this is bearing down on him in the garden
He knows what has already taken place:
the plans for his demise
Worse: he knows what is about to take place
a religious electric chair

No wonder Mark can say
Jesus is
“He plunged into a sinkhole of dreadful agony.”

Mark has Jesus praying down on the ground
which is to be noted
since good faithful Jews of Jesus’ day usually prayed standing up
arms lifted to heaven
So there on the ground
three years of showing them God now behind him
the culmination of their sabotage now before him
Jesus prays an astonishing prayer:
Abba, Father,
(an intimate address)
for you all things are possible
(not so much a theological fact as a precious naming of trust)
And then it comes:
Remove this cup from me;
yet, not what I want, but what you want.

Have you known the crisis of wanting the cup to pass to someone else?

Of wanting to go over
any direction but

Here’s the astonishing thing:
Jesus did
Jesus does
that crisis
of wanting the cup to pass to someone else

Father, for you all things are possible
remove this cup from me
(Did he say cup?  I’m sure he meant cross)
Remove it
Take it away
Give it someone else
It’s too much
It’s too hard
It’s going to be the end, I know it
Let this cup pass from me
Let me turn back from this
Let me go around instead of through

One of the reasons I trust the teaching of the four gospels
is because they show us such unexpected sides of a “Savior”

Who sets out to produce propaganda for a successful religious movement
only to show us a Messiah who
on the night before his terrible ending
wants out of the deal
wishes it on someone else
wants the cup passed?

It makes for a terrible propaganda piece
But it sure does show us the gospel

Hebrews 4:
We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested and tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Ours is not a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin.

Make sure you have room in your faithful imagination
for a Jesus who wants out of his contract
because only that Jesus can save me and you
only that Jesus take our death upon himself, and therefore into God
only that Jesus can show God what it is like to be us
Father, remove this cup from me

even so
everything depends on what happens during the semicolon
A semicolon!
Such a miniscule sort of punctuation
for marking such a massive space in Jesus’ prayer

Remove this cup from me
yet not what I want, but what you want.

How long must that space have been?
30 seconds?
30 minutes?
30 hours?
(Long enough for his entourage to fit in a power nap.
He should have bought them Red Bulls)

Do not be deceived
by the deceptively small and pragmatic semicolon;
invented by an Italian in 1494;
for separating words and phrases of opposed meaning

Remove this cup from me
yet not what I want, but what you want.

What takes place in that little space?
What brings forth that turn from one clause to another?

What transpires between eternal Father and struggling Son
bound together in the elasticity of the Holy Spirit
such that Jesus can move from
cup passing
“have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way”
from I don’t want to do this
I will do what you have for me to do
Count me out
Count me in

I was struck by a line in a manual on punctuation:
“A semicolon is used when a sentence could have been ended, but it wasn’t.”

Jesus’ role as messiah could have ended right here.
But it wasn’t

This crisis of calling could have derailed the entire gospel train.
It didn’t

This night of anguish and despair and loneliness
it could have brought God’s entire unlikely work to a halt
But it didn’t

Remove this cup from me
yet not what I want, but what you want.

Entering into a space of honest, earnest, soul-searching prayer
(Is there another kind of prayer?)
the divine son is put back into a position
to rediscover the faithfulness of the father

He trusts that
although the father takes no pleasure
in the suffering that is about to commence
Such suffering, for faithfulness’ sake
will be allowed
for the greater good
so that the suffering of a senseless sort
the kind with which we are all afflicted
and with which we so often afflict others
so that this can be put to death
and raised to new life
(the original sequester)

This is not just mere acquiesce
As if a son loses a fight with the father
and simply most learn to cope

It is more like fresh fresh
living trust
growing again where only fear was taking root

Across and around this semicolon moment
Jesus shows us again
what it looks like
to love the Lord your God
with all your heart, mind, soul, strength

March 6, 2013

Lent, Served Cold

Lord, who throughout these forty days 
For us didst fast and pray, 
Teach us with Thee to mourn our sins 
And close by Thee to stay.*

I’m done with the snow. I miss the sunlight. On a day like Tuesday, when the sun makes a startling mid-day appearance, I feel as though I should run to my neighbors’ homes, shouting “Do not fear the strange orange ball in the sky!” In other words, I’m ready for spring.

But … Maybe, just maybe, the persistence of winter serves us followers of Jesus well, seeing as how the Lenten season still has a few weeks to go before giving way to spring. Lent: that forty day (not counting Sundays) solemn march toward Easter and the relief of Jesus’ resurrection. In Lent, the hymns and songs slow down. Explicit prayers of confession resurface in our worship. And everyone’s giving up Facebook and Snickers for a time. Lent is a season for contemplative restraint.

As Thou didst hunger bear, and thirst, 
So teach us, gracious Lord, 
To die to self, and chiefly live 
By Thy most holy Word.

Lent is a time for deliberate restraint because Jesus practiced the same throughout his forty days in the wilderness. He did without creature comforts, in order to get clear about his calling. So we do without, in order to make fresh space in our lives for him, his word, and his way. We hold back from some comforts in order to decipher where and what we are holding back from God. Perhaps the bracing wind, the little mounds of stubborn snow, and the mulling slate sky overhead, perhaps each has an appointed role to play right about now. Perhaps they help mark these many weeks as a time to “die to self.” Because in killing off some of our wants, we learn to live by what God has already provided. We die a little bit, precisely to welcome more of the resurrection into our reality.

Abide with us, that so, this life 
Of suffering over past, 
An Easter of unending joy 
We may attain at last.

Since a little cold makes one ready for a little warmth, perhaps for now we say: Come snow. Come dark skies. Come bitter wind. Come mark this Lent as a bundle-up time, a constricted season. Come help us withdraw into ourselves just long enough to examine how it is with me and neighbor and Jesus. Maybe, along these lines, Lent is a meal best served cold.

(Naw. Forget all of this. It's too cold out. I’m ready for the bright light of the son.)

*Lyrics from the hymn Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days by Clau­dia F. Her­na­man, Child’s Book of Praise; A Man­u­al of De­vo­tion in Sim­ple Verse, 1873.