Category Archives: Grace

The Attack of the Lying Suits!

I think I am finally beginning to understand.

You see, last week I preached for a friend so that he could take some time off. I’ve preached for him before and so his congregation is familiar with me.  Familiarity helps when you’re doing pulpit supply, and it makes the congregation feel better too, so there I was for Memorial Day weekend.

I got there early so that I could get settled and say hello to the folks as they came through the door. One parishioner, I’ll call him Dave, got there only a few moments after I did so that he could hand out the bulletins and greet folks at the door.

I talked with Dave about how he’d been since I’d last seen him and about the weather, which was hot and dry even up in the mountains. I knew there was a brush fire nearby and had seen the smoke as I drove into town. I’d also heard about the fire on the news and so I knew that locals were very concerned about what was being released into the air by the fire. The long and short of it was that this area of forest hadn’t burned in decades, not since the government had used Agent Orange to reduce the chaparral and increase water flow for the Salt River Project.**

Now that the area that had been deforested was burning, the locals were alarmed at the dioxins that might be released into the air by the fire. I asked Dave if he had heard anything from the fire service or the local government and he immediately started shaking his head. “Oh yeah, we heard from them all right. They told us we have nothing to worry about. They’re lying to us and we know it…lying right to our faces.”

I can’t blame Dave for feeling the way he does, even though I can’t be sure that the fire service or the government is actually lying. And the truth is that we won’t find out for a long time, and if we do find out, it will be because the local citizens start getting sick in record numbers…and the lies will have cost them their health and maybe even their lives.

We’ve all seen it happen: something goes terribly wrong, and the government or the giant corporation sends some official representative to assure the public that everything is going to be just fine.  They come to us dressed in finely tailored suits, armed with smiles and slick lies.

It’s the attack of the lying suits.

Erin Brockovich.  Michael Clayton. Silkwood. All The President’s Men. Syrianna…every last one of these movies tells the true story of corporate or governmental lies and coverups that cost the American people dearly.  We know the story of the lying suit so well, that stories about striking back at the lying suits have become a part of what we call entertainment.

And this…THIS is how we got Donald Trump as President.

I have been trying for months to find a way to understand Trump voters.  I have listened to them try to explain why they like Trump and it hasn’t helped at all…until Dave.

Huge numbers of Americans, many of them working poor, are sick to death of the lying suits. They have come to believe that any person who comes with a suit and a smile cannot be trusted.  They have been lied to and cheated. They’ve lost their homes to the financial crisis and the greed of multinational banks.  They’ve have had their property devalued and their health destroyed by corporate dumping and the subsequent pollution of the soil and ground water. They have been told that fracking doesn’t harm the environment even after they told the lying suits that they could turn their kitchen faucets into blowtorches simply by turning them on and then lighting a match next to the faucet.  They have been told that the city’s water infrastructure was fine even though the levels of lead in the water were off the charts.

It’s not as if lives were at stake. Okay, lives were at stake, but they weren’t important lives because no one whose life was at stake was wearing a well-tailored suit and a smile.

And then along came a rich man in a well-tailored suit, with a slick smile…

And he talked in the exact same way as the-people-who-are-sick-of the-lying-suits like to talk. And he railed against the government, just like the-people-who-are-sick-of the-lying-suits rail against the government.  He said unkind, politically incorrect things, just like the-people-who-are-sick-of the-lying-suits wish they could say to the lying suits.  He publicly ridiculed the lying suits and he refused to play nice with them no matter how hard the lying suits tried to get him to do what was expected of him if he was going to play politics.

He did everything that the-people-who-are-sick-of the-lying-suits want to do but can’t do because they don’t have the money or the power or the prestige to get anyone to listen or pay attention to them.

This is why we have Donald Trump as President.

And you can’t really blame the-people-who-are-sick-of the-lying-suits, can you? Because those of us who didn’t vote for Donald Trump deal with those same lying suits every day.

We work for them. They are usually our boss’s boss. And we don’t like the lying suits very much either.  They tend to screw us out of our pension, or deny us the benefits they promised us if we would only work for them for 20+ years, or lay us off along with 4,000 of our coworkers, all while taking their million dollar bonus for keeping the company profitable.

I think I finally beginning to understand.

I don’t like the man who the-people-who-are-sick-of the-lying-suits elected, but I am beginning to understand why they thought he would be a better choice than Hillary, who (let’s be honest) sometimes looks an awful lot like all the other lying suits.

I may not agree with their choice, but if I can understand why they made their choice, maybe I can find compassion for how they feel, and if I can find compassion for how they feel, maybe we can finally start a dialogue about how best to unite and move forward.

I think I am finally beginning to understand, and it’s the first ray of hope I’ve had in a while.

**  Read more about the use of Agent Orange in Arizona HERE

My Curmudgeon Speaks

Yesterday I drove a friend home from her chemotherapy appointment. She was starting a new regimen and wasn’t sure how she’d react to it, so she wasn’t sure she would be able to drive herself home.  I was grateful that I was able to help her, considering there isn’t much else that I can do to help her deal with having terminal cancer.  She, on the other hand, was sorry that she had to inconvenience me.  She is uncomfortable with the ways that cancer has forced her to rely on friends for help with stuff she used to be able to easily handle on her own.  I think anyone in her situation would be terrified of just how helpless they could become and how much they might have to rely on others to care for them and for their family before the whole thing would be over.

And you can’t really blame someone for feeling like that.

I don’t think anyone likes to ask for help from others. For some of us, asking for help makes us feel weak and incapable. Here in the US, we like to think of ourselves as independent and resourceful; we don’t rely on others, they rely on us.  How that equation is supposed to work is beyond me. If everyone relies only on themselves, then being reliable for others is impossible.  The math of this equation is beyond me, and I have two master’s degrees, so I’m not going to try and figure that one out. Instead, let’s deal with the assumptions that come with asking for help, one at a time.

Here we go, folks:

The truth is that humans are weak and incapable— every day, all the time, in one aspect or another of our life and health we humans are weak and incapable. Get used to it. No matter how healthy you are today, your body is ultimately frail and bound to fail.  Eventually we will all need the services of a surgeon, a physical therapist, a mental health counselor, an oncologist, a rheumatologist, or a neurologist (just to name a few.)  Eventually the frailty of our body will cause us to rely on our family, our friends, hired help, and even skilled nursing facilities just to be able to attend to our daily needs.  Our bodies are fascinating machines, capable of so much but they are also capable of terrible amounts of sickness, frailty, and failure.

Get used to it.  It isn’t a pleasant thought, but it is important to remember that birth is a terminal disease, as the mortality rate for human beings (as it is for all other living creatures) is 100%. If you are born, you will eventually die, and the majority of people will not come on their death suddenly but instead through a process of decline and increasing disability that will require the assistance of others in order to meet simple daily needs.

Having said that (rather bluntly…but I was hoping that we could talk turkey here on this blog)…

As a counselor, I frequently ask my clients why they have not asked friends and family for assistance when they are really struggling, and I get a host of reasons:

“I don’t want to be a bother.”

“I can never repay them for all their help.”

“I don’t want to be beholden to anyone.”

For my thoughts about the first one of those reasons, see the section above.  You will be a bother occasionally, and that’s the way life works. Get used to being human for the sake of everyone who loves you, please.

But what is our issue with needing to ‘repay’ the good that is done for us?

We seem to view assistance from others as if it is a loan we receive from the bank, requiring repayment with interest.  This is especially evident in the statement “I don’t want to be beholden to anyone.”  This betrays the belief that any assistance we receive is like a debt held over our head to be called in at random when it will be most painful or perhaps even destructive.

Folks…our friends and family members are not loan sharks lurking around, hoping that we’ll need something from them so that they can squeeze us later for whatever we’re worth. If the people who supposedly ‘love’ us behave like that, perhaps it’s time to consider finding a new group of friends and putting some distance between ourselves and our extended families, because there is no love in behavior like that.

The other thing that this attitude betrays is a transactional sense of friendship and love. “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”  There is nothing wrong with reciprocity; it gets a lot done in this world. The thing about reciprocity is that it creates a closed system where you only ever give to someone who can give back in equal amounts.  The implication of such a system is that we often end up refusing to give to someone who cannot give back in equal amounts, and that puts service and random acts of kindness out in the cold. It also reduces all of our most loving relationships to simple transactions where we give only so that we can receive in kind.

And that seems to be a huge problem in our society these days: many of us refuse to give to others unless there is something explicit that we can receive in return.  And don’t start on me about how giving to others “feels good”, because the people who refuse to be beholden to others only give for the “good feeling” when their giving is to faceless others like the poverty-stricken folks in Africa.  It’s easy to give to faceless others, and so much harder to give or receive when the face before you is not only known, but in close relation to you; giving like that creates the emotional debt of “beholden-ness” that these people are trying so hard to avoid.

What would happen in the world if we simply abolished the concept of repayment when it comes to kind acts? What would happen if no one was ever beholden to the one who helped them?

I would remind you that Christ, who died so that we might know eternal life, did not expect a payback for his love or his sacrifice.  You cannot give God anything as God possesses everything.  God is not ever in need. Christ did, however, expect that we would take the grace and forgiveness that we received because of him and pass it on.  He asked that we go to all corners of the world, making disciples and teaching them everything that he taught us…basically he asked that we give away all that we’ve learned from him and all that we’ve received from him, and then teach the next recipient to pass it on just as we have.

Jesus…turns out he’s the guy who invented “Pay it Forward.”

Perhaps that’s the answer to our feelings of indebtedness when someone helps us. Don’t pay it back! Take the grace that we’ve been given and pay it forward to the next person who needs us. Give to others as we have been given to. Help others as we have been helped.  And give without thought of repayment because we have been given to by Jesus without any thought of repayment.

And when that day comes that we can no longer give to anyone—on the day that we find ourselves helpless to pay anything forward ever again—let us pay back the service we receive in humble thanks and genuine gratitude, something else that is in short supply these days.

Thank you for enduring my curmudgeonly frustrations.  It isn’t often that I want to use this space to rail against human foolishness.  You are a generous, giving reader and I intend to pay your kindness forward with a less curmudgeonly post shortly in the future.

That is all.

Holy Week Schmoley Week

This is Holy Week. It began with Palm Sunday (which was last Sunday, April 9) and ends with the celebration of Easter on Sunday, April 16.  In between those two days we will remember the last supper of Jesus and his disciples on Maundy Thursday, the crucifixion of Christ on Good Friday, and the agonizing experience of the disciples as we await the resurrection during the Holy Vigil on Saturday.

It’s a busy week.

But what does that mean…Holy Week?

Are the other weeks not holy? Do other weeks somehow mean less?  Is this week more meaningful because of the historic events that we commemorate and celebrate?

I realize that some of you will call it blasphemy when I say this, but no…not really.

Holy Week is not any more ‘holy’ than any other week.  Holy Week does not imbue the days with special meaning, nor does it hold back any of the normal events that can occur during a week.

For instance, today is Maundy Thursday, and today the US bombed Afghanistan using the largest non-nuclear weapon in our arsenal.  Can we all agree that bombing another nation (even for good reasons like eliminating an ISIS stronghold) does not qualify as an action that is holy?  And please don’t start talking about how we must stop ISIS before they kill more Americans, because I understand that…and bombing and killing people is still not a holy action. Remember, God does not love the American people more than He loves the members of ISIS. And if, for some reason, you don’t agree with that idea, then you and I need to admit that we are not practicing the same religion at all and that perhaps you should find something else to read, like maybe something off infowars.com?

Are we all on the same page now? Good.

The truth is that Holy Week is just another set of seven days, like all the others sets of seven days that come before it and after it.  A week is a week, and every week is made of seven days…and a day is a day is a day, and that’s all there is to it.  None of them is holier than any other.

And this matters, because…?

There are two major reasons that this matters.

  • Setting aside certain days as holy gives us permission to forget that all days are holy to God and all people are holy to God. There is no time or person or situation that is not holy to God. All of creation belongs to God: time, space, people, plants, animals…you name it, it belongs to God and everything that belongs to God is holy.  Christian vegans will tell you that they became vegan because they could no longer sacrifice the holy lives and bodies of animals to satisfy their need for food and clothing items.  While I am not vegan, I get where they are coming from.  Proclaiming all thing holy has implications for how we treat the environment, how we treat material objects, how we treat the animals we farm, and for how we treat each other.
  • If everything is holy all the time, then we human beings are holy all the time, and this has huge implications for how we treat our bodies. It isn’t just the obvious stuff like how we eat, how much alcohol we drink, and whether or not we exercise, but also how often we take time to laugh, how much of our resting time is dedicated to connecting with friends and family, and how much time we take to simply contemplate where God is leading us in this life. I can’t tell you how many people set aside extra time for spiritual practices during Lent or Advent who then fail to set aside time for spirituality at all during the rest of the year (outside of time spent in corporate—church—worship). Think of it this way: we need to feed our spirits just like we need to feed our bodies. Imagine what would happen if we took time for meals during Advent and Lent but then failed to eat (except once a week) for the rest of the year.  How long do you think you’d be healthy if you did that?

I understand that many people need special holy times so that they don’t become habituated to the holy. This is a common problem for clergy because we spend a lot of time around what are considered to be sacramental things. It’s easy for those things to lose their sparkle, their special value, when you are around them all the time. This is why I’m not suggesting that we stop practicing things like Holy Week, or that we let them pass without setting aside extra time to observe all that they mean.  There is nothing wrong with the Christmas and Easter seasons; actually the problem is that we make them into singular events instead of exaggerations of our daily realities.

I am suggesting that we put a little more value on the rest of the year, that we allow each day to embody a little of the holy for us. Perhaps that would involve becoming more mindful of the blessings that God is raining down on us all the time. Perhaps that would involve becoming more aware and appreciative of the kindnesses we experience through others who are often total strangers. Perhaps that would involve taking time to appreciate the beauty of the smallest things in creation: flowers, fallen leaves, grass clippings on the sidewalk, a cloudless sky. Sometimes it might be as simple as letting yourself stop and actually taste the coffee you are drinking, looking for those herbal notes that Starbucks swears exist in the Sumatran beans they roast.

If all of creation is holy, then holiness is waiting around every corner to stun you with its power and fill you with awe and gratitude.  The world is a wearying place for souls, and awe and gratitude are excellent remedies for weariness.

This Easter, I wish a year of holy days and sacred discoveries for you.  As for me, I’m about to get a cup of Sumatran roast and sip it very slowly.

Happy Easter!

I Am Not Happy.

Lately I’ve had a case of the blahs.

I’m irritated with everything. I’m tired of everyone (hi honey…love you!). I am tired of my counseling practice and sick of being giving. I’m sick of weighing more than I want to but am unwilling to actually do what it takes to change that.  The worst part is that I am tired of caring…about pretty much everything. Every time I pull up next to a homeless person, I close my eyes and sigh because the feeling that I am supposed to do something for this person is draining the life out of me.  I know that sounds mean, but it’s just how I’m feeling right now.

I think I have what they call compassion fatigue. But I’m really low on passion for life and I’m drained of energy and ‘give a damn’ in general.

I could easily blame my blahs on menopause and there would be quite a bit of validity to that if I did. I am in the throes of wicked hot flashes, leg and foot cramps that strike without warning, pimples on my face and on the nape of my neck that just won’t quit, too many sleepless nights, and periods that remind me of the Arizona desert: some months it seems the river has run dry and other months are so bad it’s like “Noah! Get the boat!!”

TMI, I know.

While I am not going to lie about the stress that menopause is putting on my body and my life, I am unwilling to write off my blahs as a little menopausal mood swing because this has happened to me before.  In fact it has happened more than once, and every time, God was trying to tell me something.

This first time it happened, I was still a computer programmer and my children were still babies.  God used a major case of the blahs to convince me that I didn’t want to be a computer programmer anymore, which made it easier for me to obey God when God asked me to abandon my career and go to seminary full time. In other words, God used a case of the blahs to motivate me to ‘move on’…to get out of my rut and get my butt moving in the direction that He was pointing me.  Years later, as I reflected on that time and my experiences, I labeled what I was feeling as “holy discontent”.  To me, holy discontent is when God makes us restless, irritable, and maybe even downright unhappy until we realize that things need to change. It’s not that anything is actually wrong, it’s that God is not interested in us getting too content in that space. Holy discontent is what God uses to make us let go of things are no longer serve a purpose in our life and to start heading in God’s new direction for us.

I’ve been in this place for a couple of months now and I have only realized today that it might be holy discontent that I’m feeling.

Can we just admit that I’m kind of slow on the uptake?  Thanks.

In reflecting on my holy discontent, I don’t think that God is trying to lead me out of anything, although I need to leave the door open to that possibility just because I don’t want to shut off God’s guidance in this experience. The last time God planted a little holy discontent in my life was back in 2015 and it was because God wanted me to start writing. (Hello! Welcome to my blog! If it sucks, blame God. LOL)

I have no idea what God is trying to do in my life right now, although my reaction to the homeless person—the feeling that I’m supposed to do something for this person—might be a clue.  I don’t know.  Luckily, though, God has always been kind enough to place a few folks in my path to help me figure things out during past instances of holy discontent, which means that I should start keeping my eyes open for those folks.  It’s always easier to find someone if you are actually looking for them.

There is something else I think I’m going to do. A long time ago, a seminary friend of mine told me that the best way to devote yourself to the work of the Kingdom is to let God break your heart over some issue. Once your heart is broken, she said I would know where God’s heart was breaking and that would be my invitation to build the Kingdom in that broken spot.

Back when she said that to me, my heart was on fire for the Kingdom and I knew where God was calling me to work…in the broken spot of mental health counseling for the poor…and I don’t regret following the Lord into that spot, not one bit.  Now the fire in my heart is down to glowing coals that desperately need some kindling and I am consumed with holy discontent.

But I know what I need to do.

Holy, holy, holy Lord…I know You see this world and your heart breaks.  Break my heart into pieces, Lord, and show me where You hurt the most.  Then set my heart on fire again and give me strength to do Your will, whatever it is.

I pray it for me, and as we move into Jerusalem this Palm Sunday, I pray it for you too.

 

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.

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.