Monthly Archives: March 2017

It’s A Conspiracy!

Can we discuss “the peace that passes all understanding”?

I have heard that phrase for years. I remember hearing it as a child and wondering what it meant and how I was supposed to get something that I didn’t even understand.

Don’t get me started about trying to understand something that says, in its title, that you will not be able to understand it.

But I digress.

“The peace that passes all understanding” turns out to be one of the Christian code-phrases we hear about when millennials and agnostics write about the Church; words and phrases that appear to have no context for meaning if you are not already faithful.

I’ve got news: I grew up in the Church and accepted Jesus as my personal savior when I was only five years old, and I still did not understand lots of those Christian code phrases.  It isn’t because you’re young or seeking or simply unfamiliar with the Church; you don’t understand the code phrase because…well, because we Christians hardly ever take the time to define what the heck we are talking about and we pastors can be even worse.  We just throw the phrase out there like it means something and expect everybody else to understand it intuitively.  The evangelical movement has a ton of these phrases:

“Walking in victory with Jesus”

“Growing in grace”

“Die to self”

“Washed in the blood”

“The peace that passes understanding”

“Pray a hedge of protection”

There are plenty more but I figure you’ve probably gotten the point by now.  I remember hearing these phrases and wondering what they meant but never really asking for an explanation. Even when I did ask for clarification, the answer I received was often just as baffling as the code phrase itself.  “Walking in victory is when you have grown in grace enough that you are able to ignore the attacks of the Enemy and follow the will of God wherever it leads you.”  Okay, so how do you ‘grow in grace’ enough to ‘walk in victory’?  “You grow in grace when you ask Jesus to wash you in His blood and help you die to self.”

The explanations were kind of circular in nature.  After a while I just gave in to the thought that perhaps my experience of faith would explain these concepts to me and I would finally understand what no grownup seemed able to fully explain to me.

Don’t get me started on why I thought growing up would cause me to understand what other grownups were incapable of explaining despite their advanced age.

But I digress.

The problem with these Christian code-phrases is that they can lead to a conspiracy of lies around what it is to experience the Christian life.  It makes it sound like good Christians don’t experience fear or anxiety or depression…after all, they have the peace that passes all understanding!  And of course, they don’t struggle with finances or with adverse situations, because they are “walking in victory with Jesus” and victors aren’t losers! Only losers struggle.  If you’ve truly ‘grown in grace’ then you probably ought not to curse or lie or speak unkind words…in fact you can’t be even remotely sinful…because growing in grace implies that you are continually becoming more holy and holy people are squeaky clean!  And goodness knows that those who ‘die to self’ don’t act selfishly since their ‘self’ no longer matters.  Those who have ‘died to self’ just give and give and give and never get tired of giving because they receive all they need from Jesus…

Really?  Because that’s a bunch of BS.

Christian life is full of struggle and fear and pain and failure and sin and self-focus and self-care and prayer and reflection and growth in grace…

There! I said it!  One of those Christian code-phrases makes sense to me!  I understand growing in grace, because I came to understand grace when I became a Methodist.  Grace is an unmerited gift from God that helps me become all that God created me to be, by drawing me deeper and deeper into a relationship with God, which slowly changes me until I am conformed to the image of Christ.

Oops! I just used another Christian code-phrase.  In fact I used several.

The truth is that these phrases do have meaning.  Some are symbolic (since no one really bathes you in blood, thank goodness) and others are more representational of Christian life and faith as it is actually experienced, because I really should become much more like Jesus Christ as my relationship with Him grows deeper and stronger. To me, becoming more like Jesus (more Christ-like) means that I should be more loving and accepting of those on the margins of society and that I should actively seek social justice and equality for all people.  The Jesus I know is a bit of a rabble-rouser.

I want to get back to the conspiracy of lies.

In all honesty, the conspiracy of lies starts as a conspiracy of expectations. I grew up in a fundamentalist, evangelical faith tradition that emphasized orthodoxy (right belief).  We were taught that orthodoxy would lead to orthopathos (right experience). In other words, believe the right things and you will experience the right things.

That’s a powerful draw to faith!  Think about it—according to that concept, believing the right things will lead me to experience the “right” things: peace, prosperity, happiness, success, achievement…you name it, whatever this culture deems “right” is what I will get if I believe in the right ways.

Here’s a few things that our culture does not deem “right” despite their frequency in the general population:

Poverty

Domestic Violence

Divorce

Having children who commit crimes or use drugs

Addiction

Mental illness, including depression and anxiety

Unexplained or chronic illnesses that are difficult to manage

Wow.  Just wow. Can you imagine what it’s like to grow up believing that none of these things should happen to you if you have “right beliefs”?  And it doesn’t help to acknowledge that (of course) these things ‘happen’ to Christians, it’s just they don’t persist and (of course) Christians count on their faith to give them “victory in Jesus” over all these circumstances.

This is how you end up with a conspiracy of lies.  If right belief means right experience, then I better not let anyone know that I am having the wrong experiences, and if I do tell the truth for a brief moment, I better not let anyone know that my wrong experience is persisting.

The funny thing is that Jesus told us that He is “the way, and the truth, and the life”. (John 14:6) He also said that if we continue in His word, we are truly His disciples and we will know the truth and the truth will make us free. (John 8:31-32).

Does the “truth that will set us free” include telling the truth?  I think so. I also think it means that we will stop fearing the truth as if it will destroy us and invalidate our faith.  Get real people! We worship a Savior who cried out “My Father, my Father, why have you forsaken me?” as he hung on the cross, dying.  Jesus didn’t say that to quote a Psalm and look impressive. Jesus said that because it was His experience as He died a horrific death.

If Jesus didn’t lie about His pathos…and I don’t think we should either.

Skip the conspiracy…both the conspiracy expectations and the conspiracy of lies…and stick with the Truth.

It’ll set you free. Trust me on that one.

Advertisements

Florescent or LED?

Matthew 17:1-13

1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” 10 And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 11 He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; 12 but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

This is one of those passages of scripture that I cannot read without giggling. Seriously…I lose it when I read this passage.  If you aren’t in the mood to indulge my stupidity for a moment, be kind to yourself and skip ahead a few paragraphs to the point where I say “Back to the topic at hand.”

Okay…ready?

First I want to call him Jesus Christ Glow Stick or just Glow Stick Jesus. It’s as if Jesus was normal all this time and then he bent over too far and ‘click!’ and the glow stick part of Him was activated and he got all bright and glowy “and his face shown like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.”  This is the point where I start thinking that marketing folks could use Glow Stick Jesus to advertise the whitening properties of their detergent. “Transfiguration Tide…for clothes that are dazzling white!

Then I start imagining Glow Stick Jesus at a rave and all the little ravers, drugged up on Ecstacy, oohing and ahhhing over Jesus’ glowing visage. It makes me wonder if Jesus is able to glow in any other colors than ‘like the sun’, because if He can glow in different colors, that would be a major money maker.

Then I start wondering about Peter. What is wrong with that man? Your Lord and Savior turns into a glow lamp and two historical characters appear in front of your eyes, and the first thing you do is offer to build them each a house?  The least Peter could have done was to fanboy for a few minutes over Moses and Elijah, but NO…he goes all Bob the Builder on them to the point that God has to get involved and tell Peter to shut up and listen to Glow Stick Jesus.

Okay, God didn’t quite say “Shut up and listen to Glow Stick Jesus” but you get my point.

Finally…I have always wondered how the disciples knew that the two guys who appeared next to Jesus were Moses and Elijah.  Unless God requires the residents of Heaven to wear name tags (which makes Heaven sound like a convention or a senior center) then there has to be a couple of lines of scripture missing where the disciples say “Who were those guys?” and Jesus tells them that he was talking to Moses and Elijah.

And this is where I go from stupid to serious.

I’m a little stunned that Jesus forbade Peter, James, and John from telling the other disciples about the Transfiguration. Why would He do that? Why would Jesus set certain disciples apart from the others to have special knowledge about life after death, which would provide a huge amount of consolation during the crucifixion.  After all…Peter, James, and John just saw Moses and Elijah…two guys who had been dead for hundreds and hundreds of years and there they were, alive and well and speaking to Jesus. That’ll change your point of view when it comes to believing in life after death, and it would certainly change your experience of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus if you had already seen someone vividly alive after their death.  I feel like Jesus cheated the other disciples just a little. I don’t know why He would do that, and I have to trust that He knew what He was doing, but it still seems kind of unwise and even unkind to the other disciples. Don’t you wonder what seeing the transfiguration would have done to change Judas’ mind?

But that’s a blog post for a different day.

Back to the topic at hand.

Usually, after I stop giggling, I find myself wondering if we, or more specifically I, will ever find out what my transfigured self is like.  Do I shine like the sun and become dazzlingly white, or am I so flawed that I will flicker and sputter like a bad florescent bulb?  I’m guessing that it’s more of the latter, and that disturbs me.

Recently I was rereading a favorite book, Voices of Silence, the Lives of the Trappists Today by Frank Bianco.  I originally read this book when I was in seminary.  At that point in my life I was struggling to reconcile my own flawed humanity with a life devoted to ministry, and this book provided story after story of Trappist monks and priests struggling in exactly the same way, trying to reconcile their lives and failings with a deep desire to dedicate themselves to a holy life, set apart.  I reread the book every now and then and I always find new gems that I missed in previous readings.

The passage that caught my eye this time was actually a passage that caught my eye the first time I read the book.  Bianco was discussing his need for a hero with Dom Thomas (known as Mac in Bianco’s book) the former abbot of Gethsemane Abbey, who tells Bianco that this struggle is exactly what led to the fall of the angels.

“People need to feel that somebody has all the answers, that somebody is in control. They spend the major portion of their lives and energy trying to gain and…keep control.  They’re trying to prove they’re perfect…It’s a self-delusion that the devil himself bought. ‘Let us be like God’ he urged all those poor angels who followed him into damnation.”

My awareness that I would flicker and sputter like a bad florescent bulb might be a good thing if the search for perfection leads to damnation. I am acutely aware that I am nothing like God, nowhere capable of sustaining that kind of goodness, kindness, or awareness of the needs of others. Jesus was always caring for others and healing them, and I…I am mostly about myself, which is normal but annoying for a Christian who is supposed to be a leader of the Church.

Mac goes on to make the point that our imperfections are not what will lead us into damnation.

“You still don’t understand God’s love. Perfect love, he explained, cannot see imperfection …God is perfect love. Evil is self-love. It is philosophically impossible for God to even ‘think’ of evil. He cannot ‘see’ evil. It is completely outside His orbit. That fact tells us what our final judgement will be like…We will come before all-perfect love (God), who can only recognize love. He will only see as much of us as has been loving. That He will take unto himself…Sin and evil are nothing less than our inability to love. At those moments, it’s as though we’re invisible to God. He, the all-good, perfect lover, can only see the good in us.”

I am not sure that I buy into the idea that God cannot see us at all when we are sinning because an action that is love-less cannot extinguish all the love that’s within me, not even for a second. It does, however, explain my feeling that I flicker and sputter and flash like a florescent bulb struggling to light and remain lit.  The love inside me is like a force that fights for dominance, pushing its way to the surface only to be capsized by my ego and my self-will.  Luckily love is more of a buoy than a boat, inevitably righting itself and rising to the surface to claim its rightful place in the center of my life again and again despite my stupidity and sinfulness.

Suddenly, the idea of Jesus transfigured, shining like the sun and clothed in dazzling white makes total sense to me. Apparently love glows like sunlight, shining from within, illuminating not only the person who loves but the beloved, who bathes in the warmth of that love.

And so I flicker and sputter like a bad florescent bulb, and while that is not optimal, it is good news because it means that there is light and love in me that cannot be suppressed for long.  My job is to stay plugged into the Source and do my best to clear away anything that dims my light. This, I think, is what Wesley would call being ‘perfected in love.’  I would call it upgrading me from florescent to LED.

I’m still giggling about Glow Stick Jesus and the laundry detergent.  Sorry.

 

The Economy of Lent

Matthew 20:1-16  1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’  “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ 13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’   16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

A couple of weeks ago my pastor preached on Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the Vineyard. She did a great job, but I cannot say that for some of the other preachers I’ve heard tackle this passage.   This is one of those passages that is really hard to preach because if you are not really careful, you risk endorsing things that are horrifying, or making God seem like a jerk who rewards laziness.

If you just preach it straight from the text, no implications, you can end up with a God who doesn’t seem to reward hard work. Let’s admit it: we are all tired of dealing with the coworker who barely works at all and yet gets paid the same wage that we do. And it’s really hard to read this passage and not bristle at the vineyard owner’s ‘generosity’ because what the vineyard owner seems to reward is laziness. God endorsing this kind of behavior doesn’t work very well with our middle-class sensibilities.  But God is not interested in our middle-class sensibilities, and our work ethic is not the point of this passage of Scripture.

I’ve also heard this passage preached in ways that not-so-subtley encourage oppression. I’ve heard it preached where the point is to “Be a servant here so that you can be first in Heaven!”  I’ve also heard a few preachers add insult to injury by implying that this passage is God’s way of evening up the score for those who end up on wrong end of the social stick. In other words, God is going to make it better for the impoverished and those who are oppressed when they get to Heaven. This encourages the idea that lack of equality on earth is ‘just the way it is’ and we can count of God to set it straight in the afterlife, so we don’t really have to do anything to overcome inequality and injustice now.  God’s got it handled.

(Yes indeed, God does have it handled, but we’ll get to that later.)

Neither one of these interpretations work for me.

Seriously?  Be a servant now so that you can the first guy later?  It makes it sound like we’re in a competition to see who can impress God the most and therefore score the good seats at the Heavenly banquet.  Faith is not a competition, and our good works are supposed to spring from the depths of our faith…they should not be some showy way of impressing the Lord so that He thinks more highly of us.  Trust me, God already likes us.  If you need evidence…Jesus is evidence.

The second interpretation is even more egregious, because that kind of thinking has been used to justify the oppression of women and people of color for centuries.  This was an awesome way for the preacher to tell those who were oppressed be good little servants and willfully participate in their own oppression…and God would reward them later after they were dead…as long as right now they shut up and did what they were told like a good servant should.  The funny thing is that you can bet the person preaching the sermon didn’t think that they personally were going to be last in line in Heaven since they had given up a potentially lucrative salary to be a lowly preacher and servant of God…despite that preacher’s elevated social standing and overt power over their parishioners.  It’s just oppression with a clergy collar on it, and that doesn’t fly with me. Not. So. Much.

The funny thing is that God isn’t buying into our ‘best servant’ competition, nor is God willing to endorse our oppressive behaviors.

And that’s the entire problem with this passage: we keep trying to interpret it according to how things work here on Earth instead of how things work when God is in charge.

My professors in seminary used to call this the difference between God’s economy and humanity’s economy.

We all think that if we are last in line, that we’re going to get screwed.  That’s the way it is on Earth. Last in line for tickets means you get the crappy seats.  Last in line at the church potluck means that you get the leftovers that are mostly cold by that point. Last in line on Black Friday means that the good merchandise is all gone.

Last in line sucks…in our human economy.  On earth, being last in line is no fun.

The thing about God’s economy is that it looks nothing like human economy.

In God’s economy, last in line for tickets gets great seats. Last in line for God’s potluck finds a table overflowing with piping hot food, looking like God saved the good stuff saved for last, even though the folks who ate first seemed to look like they got really good stuff too.  Last in line at God’s Black Friday sale means that you get the things you really need and you don’t have to fight for them as if your life depended on getting that last box…because there is always at least one more of whatever it is that you need.

God never runs out of anything. God never gives anyone the small portion. God does not hand out consolation prizes.

In God’s economy, everybody wins. In God’s economy, everyone gets the good stuff. In God’s economy we don’t have to worry about where we are in the line because there is an endless supply of everything we need, especially God’s love, time, and attention.

And how does this resolve our bad behaviors? How does this challenge our oppressiveness? How does this set right the poverty of the Third World nations, or violence, or terrorism, or war or human trafficking or…

Again…we’re trying to figure this out with a human economy.

We want God to punish the bad guys and reward the good guys.  We want God to declare somebody the winner.  We want God to make clear who was right and who was wrong.

In God’s economy, Jesus’ death saves ALL humanity.  Jesus saves the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, the winners and the losers. God saves the oppressed and their oppressors.

God redeems it ALL and that is what erases the human economy, because there are no winners and losers left in God’s economy. No one gets the small portion…not even the last guy in line.

As we walk the journey of Lent for the next six weeks, maybe the thing we should give up for lent is our human economy. Maybe we ought to try living by God’s economy and see what changes in our life.

It may be the closest we can get to finding Heaven on Earth.  Check in with me in six weeks and we’ll see what happened.