Monday, May 26, 2014

Deadbeat God?

Several members of my family have become big fans of Supernatural, the long-running TV series about 2 brothers,Sam and Dean, who hunt and kill monsters. Along the way they have fought demons, met angels, started the “apocalypse,” tried to assassinate Lucifer, gone to hell and heaven. You would think this would be just my cup of tea but somehow it doesn't grab me like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who have. 

But one thing Dean, the older son, said in an episode struck me as we binge-watched. The “apocalypse” has begun, Sam and Dean have been killed and find themselves in heaven and an angel tells them that God is absent and is not going to fight the devil or the end of the world. Dean, still smarting from learning certain bad things about his own father, sneers about God being “another deadbeat dad.” And certainly that is what a lot of people think when they see what is going on in the world. If God is loving, how come there is such evil in the world? Why are people allowed to murder one another? Why do people get raped? Why are little girls kidnapped by warlords and little boys turned into child soldiers? Why are poverty and violence and substance abuse allowed to destroy families and entire communities? Why do we suffer?

Whole books have been written about this and due to time constraints my treatment of it will not be as thorough as the subject demands. But it seems to me as if people who ask this either want God to (a) strike dead anyone who does wrong or (b) restrain people from doing wrong. Both of these would effectively render our freewill moot.

In the first case, there would be a heck of a lot of dead bodies in such a world. And it seems unreasonable to kill everyone for every sin. There would have to be a graduated scale based on severity of the sin but how would it be set up? Should God only strike dead those who kill? What about those who merely beat or cripple others? What about those who, through financial trickery, destroy people's lives by causing their companies to fail, their jobs to go away, or by compromising their ability to afford their home? Should God simply inflict such people with excruciating pain? How small a sin would excuse one from immediate painful punishment? Such a world would still have suffering and, what's more, widespread fear and emotional trauma among the general populace. People wouldn't be likely to transgress nor would they be inclined to do much of anything else. They would avoid taking initiative lest they face a moral dilemma where they must choose the lesser of 2 evils (and punishments) or accidentally break a rule and get zapped. I don't see this as an improvement over the world we live in.

The second alternative is that God directly intervene to restrain all persons who try to harm others. This reminds me of the restraint chair at the jail. When an inmate gets violent, the officers put him in a wheeled chair that is tilted back, has a concave form of the human body and arm, leg, and torso straps. A nurse checks the patient's vital signs and circulation every 15 minutes. It is designed to keep the person from hurting himself or others. So should God do the equivalent, like, say, freeze people at the point they are about to something wrong. That's less drastic than killing them. But intermittent paralysis would be pretty awful to experience. It would emphasize how little control one had over one's life. It would make people passive. But it would not make people better. In fact, by stopping the consequences of one's acting out, many people would probably get very frustrated and bitter. They would become passive-aggressive in their interactions, seeing just how nasty they could get without triggering punishment. The world would become like a very unpleasant police state.

God did not create us to be robots, programmed so that we cannot choose to do anything but what is good. True, if he had there would be no evil. But also no love, because love needs to be voluntary. Love has to be a choice. It's not really love if you can't help but love someone. That's compulsion. I think few people would give up their basic ability to choose in order to have a world with no negative consequences to one's actions.

Which brings us back to the state of the world as it is. People can chose to do harm and what they intend to do, they can do, letting others suffer the consequences of their bad choices. Bad things happen to some good people. And some bad people appear to have pretty good lives. In fact a recent scientific study has shown that not only do the victims of bullying suffer long-term negative effects, like anxiety and panic disorders and depression but the bullies themselves, provided they are not victims of bullying by someone else, tend to have very low blood levels of C-Reactive Protein (or CRP). This is a biomarker of chronic inflammation and high levels of CRP are tied to increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. So in this regard, bullying seems to pay off! (Although one researcher points out that bullies are more likely to have bad school attendance, which can lead to an impoverished life, and are more likely to be in a gang and carry a weapon, which increases their risk of traumatic injury and early death, thus negating the health benefit.)

So does letting us have free will and letting the consequences of that play out in this world make God indistinguishable from an deadbeat or absentee dad?

What if the problem was not that Father is absent so much as ignored by his children? What if what is keeping us from experiencing God's love is not him but our refusal to listen to him or to have a good relationship with him? While I talk to many inmates whose parents and siblings are also in prison, there are a surprising number whose parents and siblings have never been criminals. Good parents can have kids go wrong. There is no infallible formula for predicting who will go bad.

In today's gospel Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” Yeah, but Jesus hasn't returned yet. So we are still left without him, right? Wrong. Because Jesus isn't talking about the Second Coming. He goes on to say, “On that day you will know that I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you.” He is talking about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Jump back 3 verses where Jesus says, “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him or knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” We are not orphaned because the Spirit of God is with us and, as of that first Pentecost, in us.

The Spirit in us enables us to do what we ordinarily could not—like obey Jesus' commandments. Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” He immediately follows this up by saying, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth...” The Spirit is essential to following Jesus. Jesus was empowered by the Spirit and as his disciples, we must be as well. We cannot hope to live like him unless his Spirit is in us. And if we follow his commands by the power of his Spirit, we should avoid a lot of misery. In Romans 13, speaking about the commandment to love one's neighbor, Paul writes, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” If the people of this world truly loved one another as Christ commanded, most of our problems would resolve themselves and most new troubles would never arise.

There is a You Tube video in which a dentist finishes fixing a man's teeth and the patient says, “Thank God!” The dentist questions the idea that there is a God. He points out all the wars and problems in the world as evidence of God's absence. The patient then says that he doesn't believe in dentists. After all, there are a lot of people going around with broken, infected and missing teeth. The dentist replies that he can't help it if people are too stupid to go to a dentist. The patient says, “Exactly. And it's the same way with God. He can't help anyone who doesn't come to him but insists on doing things their own way.”

There is a lot of truth there. Countless people have found in God help for their problems: their anger, their addictions, their arrogance, their anxieties, their aimlessness, their sadness, their loneliness, their hatred and/or fear of others. I've cited before how science has shown that people who worship weekly do better both mentally and physically, even living longer on average than those who don't. It's rather like exercise: a readily available remedy for many of life's ills that costs nothing but commitment. And yet a lot of folks don't make use of God. In the US, the most religious of the first world countries, less that a third of people regularly attend worship, according to a new anonymous survey. You can't blame God for not helping the 70% of folks who don't want his help.

But some will object, “What about those who are religious and yet suffer and even die?” How can we say God is a loving Father to those people?”

In one of my Bible studies at the jail I had an inmate who was afraid he had lost his salvation because he cursed God when an 8 year old girl he knew died of a disease that had afflicted her most of her short life. Initially I primarily dealt with his problem. He of course was worried about the so-called unforgivable sin. I explained that Jesus was speaking of those so screwed up that they attributed his good works of healing to the devil. People who see good as evil and evil as good cannot be forgiven because they will not ask for forgiveness. If they do not recognize goodness, they will not desire or seek it. It's like in Pakistan, where people will not go to international healthcare workers for vaccinations. That's because, as the CIA recently admitted, such drives were used for espionage. The effect of this is that Pakistan has one of the highest rates of polio in the world and also that terrorists now target healthcare workers thinking they are American spies. If this attitude is not changed, people will not seek medical help. And if people think the healing work of the Spirit is evil, they will not come to God for healing or forgiveness. By their own hand they are closing the door on the possibility of being forgiven.

But Jesus said in the same passage that blaspheming against him, the Son of Man, was forgivable. And indeed from the cross, Christ asked his Father to forgive those who were in the act of crucifying him. Why is insulting Jesus not also unforgivable? Because you really have to get to know Jesus to accept him. Initially, people tend to approach him as a mere human, capable of both good and evil. They may initially insult him by thinking him wrong in his words or his actions. But upon really getting to know him, they may rethink their original reaction and become a follower of Jesus. Many people, like C.S. Lewis, C.E.M. Joad, Alister McGrath, Dame Cicely Saunders, Malcolm Muggeridge, Anna Haycraft, Dawn Eden, Chai Ling, Francis Collins, Kang Kew Iew, and others have come from disbelief in God to devout Christianity.

I assured the inmate that Jesus will not cast out any who come to him and repent. He did not attribute a good action of the Spirit to the devil. He questioned whether the death of a child, viewed by all as a bad thing, could be the act of a good God. And that is the question I really want to look at.

Why does God allow the innocent to suffer? As I have said before, this is not a line of argument to present to people who are in the throes of suffering from a loss. Not only is it up to them to find a meaning to the painful parts of their lives, giving them a glib neat answer is wrong--for two reasons. First, it can alienate them from God if you suggest that “there is a reason,” that “it is God's will,” that “God needed the person with him” or anything else along that line. If God has not personally appeared to you and told you why that specific person is suffering, it is presumptuous to give your reasoning as God's. Second, a reason, no matter how logical, will probably not bring comfort. If you lose a child, it is of no solace to know that there is neat logical reason for your loss. When people are sad, rationality is neither needed nor heeded. Simply to be there for them, showing Christlike compassion and love, is the best you can offer.

But that doesn't mean that the abstract problem of the suffering by the innocent cannot or should not ever be wrestled with. Indeed it gets blamed for people falling away from the faith so often we must examine it. 1 Peter 3 tells us to be ready to give an accounting for the hope within us. Even scripture devotes a whole book, Job, to the problem.

We've already seen the problem of trying to conceive of a world in which others cannot make an innocent person suffer. You either have to remove everyone's freewill or alter the physical consequences of harmful acts. People thus become either puppets or ineffectual in their interaction with the world. But what of the kind of suffering caused by what insurance outfits call “acts of God?” What do we make of cancer in those who never smoked, heart disease in those who have not lived on a diet consisting of fried, salty processed foods, or mental illnesses that erupt just when a young person is on the cusp of adulthood?

One factor, which we know from science, is that these are all physical ailments with physical causes. Smoking can increase one's risk of cancer but it is not the only cause. Likelihood of heart disease goes up with poor eating and lack of exercise but there are other causes as well. Mental illnesses are increasingly seen as arising from the structure of the brain itself, so that by medical imaging one can recognize the brain of a person with schizophrenia or autism or sociopathy. fMRIs show us how the brain functions differently in those with Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's or epilepsy or alcoholism. These things can be the result of what we do to our bodies and brains or what is done to them by others or by viruses or by the DNA we inherit. Often for these things to arise there need to be several factors working together. A neuroscientist was startled to find that he himself had the brain of a sociopath. He posits his loving upbringing for his being a bit coldblooded and ruthless at times but not a violent criminal like some in his family tree. Australian researchers found a gene implicated in a specific form of depression. But not all who have this gene have a greater risk of depression. It seems to be triggered by having a major trauma in one's childhood. A similar scenario plays out with our veterans. War is hell but why do only 12.5% of soldiers suffer from PTSD? A recent study found that pre-war psychological vulnerabilities were as important as trauma and combat in a soldier developing PTSD. In other words, when you combine life-threatening or traumatic combat experiences with childhood physical abuse and/or a family history of substance abuse, you get an individual who is at a much greater risk for the physical changes in the brain called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Similarly standing on the edge of a roof puts you at much greater risk of falling and suffering the physical consequences on your body. Whether you voluntarily stood there or were forced onto there, whether you jumped or were pushed, is, in terms of the damage, irrelevant. It's nothing personal; it's gravity, the same force that keeps us all from flying off of this spinning planet and into airless space. So one contributing factor in suffering is that we live in a physical universe where forces both big and small, both visible to the eye and invisible, both willed and unwilled, have impacts and consequences.

As I said, such a cold rational answer provides little comfort. It's like giving the formula for mass and velocity as an answer to a parent wondering why their child was killed by a car. Logical reasons do little to help us in our grief.

These being the facts, the question seems to shift not to why do people suffer from these natural causes of disease and injury but why do others not? But even that question is not the correct one. People suffer even when they are physically unharmed. Many veterans suffering from PTSD were never in combat. So how can they suffer? Let's take a guy in the motor pool. He says good bye to a friend driving a combat vehicle on a routine mission. Later he finds out that his friend (or friends) were killed by an IED. The person from the motor pool was not touched physically but nevertheless finds himself traumatized by his loss. His wounds may not be visible but they are just as real. And science is still working out the mechanism here.

The real question then is not why do some suffer while others don't. We all suffer from pain and loss, emotional or physical trauma, to some degree. But why do some recover when others don't? Take the sick child. I'm sure her parents, friends and family all prayed for her. People inevitably do in such cases. And when the child recovers we thank God. The pain and suffering in the child's life is seen as prologue to their recovery. The negative sensations fade. But what about those who don't get better but die? Why didn't God save them? Why would a good God not heal everyone, especially when they do go to him?

I do not know. I do not know why God heals some but not others. Anyone who tells you differently is lying. (Neither do doctors know why they can heal some folks and yet the same techniques and drugs do not cure others. Nor do they know why some people survive despite what should be unbeatable odds.) But if physical life is all there is, then there is no justice to who lives and who dies. Without an afterlife, who could blame us for railing against God? This would be the only arena for his actions and seen that way, they do seem to fall short.

Jesus says, “Because I live, you will live also.” (John 14:19) Jesus said this before his death and resurrection but this is especially true afterward. Only the resurrection of the dead makes the woes of this world tolerable. Only if our physical death is not our end, only if we are given new and improved bodies--immortal ones--can suffering on any scale be let go. Only then can we say with Paul, “ I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18) Since my neck surgery, I no longer dwell on the years of pain I suffered. I am grateful that it is behind me. Over eternity the effects of our suffering will fade to nothingness. 

When we are living with God in his new creation where there is no death or mourning or crying or pain, we will be able to fully forgive those who harmed us, as if they had merely stepped on our toes. But that's the future. For now we have Jesus' presence in the form of his Spirit, assuring us that this is our destination, that the current “vale of tears” is temporary, that our sufferings will end when he wipes away our tears. And we will know we were never orphaned.

Monday, May 19, 2014

All the Way

When I was a home health nurse I really got to learn my way around the Keys. I had patients who lived in broken down trailers and patients who lived in housing projects and patients who lived in apartments and patients who lived in mansions. I had patients who lived in Key West, Marathon, Tavernier and parts in between. I had patients who lived in gated communities, in trailer parks and on dirt roads in the woods. I learned that there is not a path in this archipelago that someone doesn't live on. Finding them could be a challenge. And so, when I worked for Staffbuilders, whichever nurse opened the case would write down the directions to the patient's place. This would be photocopied and given to any nurse, CNA or therapist who had to make a visit. Occasionally I would make corrections on the original when they were inaccurate (“left” accidentally written down rather than “right”) or vague (I might add an obvious landmark at which to turn if, say, the street had no sign or had one hard to spot while driving down US 1 at 45 miles an hour). We didn't have GPS or the Waze app back then, so this was the next best thing. The very best thing, though, was those rare occasions when a colleague would actually go with you and show you the way to your destination.

Today's gospel (John 14:1-14) takes place after the last supper. Jesus is giving the disciples vital teachings they will need for the rest of their lives, but especially for the next few days, after his death.

Though Jesus has warned him that he will be arrested and killed, they can't believe it. He is the Messiah. He will liberate God's people from the Emperor the way Moses liberated the Israelites from Pharaoh. He can't possibly die. So when Jesus says he is going some place, they are not thinking about his death. To us, Jesus' talk about going to his Father's house is obviously about his going to heaven. But the disciples might simply think he is going back to the temple, God's house, again the next day. They've accompanied him there before. Why is he saying they can't come now? So if he is not going there, where is he going? And why does he insist they know the way? Thomas straightforwardly says, “Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

To which Jesus famously replies, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” What did he mean by that?

When Jesus says he is the Way, it means, as William Barclay points out, that Jesus doesn't merely point out the way or give us directions to God; he is the way. Because coming to God is not about following a bunch of rules but following Jesus. He is our Sherpa. He guides us through the hazards of life, protects us from getting lost and takes us to the heights. And our ultimate destination is not a place, as if God were limited to a certain location. Our destination is a state of being; it's about becoming a new person, a person through whom others can see God. We are to be, as C.S. Lewis put it, little Christs. We are anointed at our baptism and incorporated into the Body of Christ, the embodiment of his ongoing presence on earth.

When Jesus says he is the Truth, it means he is God's living Word, his expression of who he is. As J.B. Phillips put it, Jesus is the expression of God in terms we can grasp—space and time and humanity. As Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Indeed, we see him in action, facing the stuff we face: family problems, rejection, being deliberately misunderstood, betrayal, violence and death. We see how he acts when rules get in the way of doing the right thing. We see how he acts when confronted with mental and physical disease, disability, hunger, and prejudice. We see how he approaches sticky situations where religion and politics are too cozy and when they are at odds and when religion is being used to cheat or harm people. And Jesus often does this through asking pointed questions, some of which are rhetorical where the answer is obvious and some of which are open and are meant to make us think deeper. As Jesus said, the Spirit will lead us to the truth, which is to say, he will lead us to and deeper into Christ.

When Jesus says he is the Life, it means not merely that he is the source of life but a particular kind of life. It is the divine life of self-sacrificial love. That is the life we see him live and the life he offers us. Eternal life doesn't just mean a infinite amount of ordinary life but a different quality of life. It is the life of the Trinity: the Father loving the Son loving the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, which spills over into his acts of creation and the redemption of those people and creations that he loves.

The interesting thing is that these descriptors of God requires us to respond. What good is knowing that Jesus is the Way if we don't embark on that journey? What good is knowing that Jesus is the Truth if we don't explore that truth? What good is knowing that Jesus is the Life if we don't avail ourselves of that life and truly live it?

If we acknowledge Jesus as the Way, we need to deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow his way. It is not the way of the world, the way of putting oneself, one's desires and prerogatives, ahead of others. It is not the way of following numerous religious or ethical rules, as if we were capable of reaching God through our own efforts. It is not the way of mere intellectual recognition of God's existence, as if by simply asserting that God is gets you to God. It is the way of trusting Jesus and then letting that trust naturally lead us to imitate his loving way in the world. For us it it the only way.

If we acknowledge Jesus as the Truth, we need to commit ourselves to that truth. We need to see all things through the lens of Jesus. We need to see all people as created by God in his image. We need to see everyone as a person for whom Christ died. That rules out dismissing, denigrating, dehumanizing or demonizing anyone. It rules out bullying others, calling them names, reducing them to a sin or a syndrome, or characterizing them as merely an example of a larger or more abstract problem. We do this all the time. I myself have done this. I frequently used the late Fred Phelps, leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, as an example of hate disguised as Christianity. But did you know that Phelps started out as a civil rights lawyer? He represented African Americans in many racial discrimination law suits against school systems, police and utilities. He represented 2 female professors in discrimination lawsuits. He received awards for his work including one from the NAACP. None of this excuses his later picketing funerals or his theology. But it does show that even someone like Fred Phelps cannot be reduced to a purely evil stereotype. He deserved our prayers that he find grace and learn from the Bible which he said he took literally that Jesus meant what he said about loving both our neighbors and those we construe to be our enemies. People have come out of Nazism and the KKK and other hate groups to find true repentance and the love of God. Phelps also reminds us of how obsession with one small thing in scripture to the point where it obscures the larger message of the gospel of Jesus Christ can lead a good man into bad theology and bad behavior. Had Phelps kept his focus on such verses as John 3:17--“Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that world might be saved through him”--or Ezekiel 33:11--“As I live, declares the Lord God, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live,” he might have spoken and acted differently. I do not know how Fred Phelps went from someone who helped the oppressed to an advocate of oppression, but the only Christian response to him and any other person is to love and pray for him. The truth is that God is love and so, as 1 John 4:20 points out, to hate others is to contradict the very heart of Christianity.

If we acknowledge Jesus to be the Life, we need to start living that life. As I said, this is God's eternal life into which we are invited. So it is a life ultimately without limits. All too often, we limit ourselves. We tell ourselves that we can't do this or that because of our upbringing or our education or our race or our gender or our income or our looks or our addictions or our temperament or our body or any number of reasons. But Paul wrote in Philippians, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” And in today's gospel Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” These are rather amazing statements. We will do greater works than Jesus'? He will do anything we ask in his name? What should we make of these astounding promises?

Let's take the second promise first. Jesus says that if we ask anything in him name, he will do it. Anything? That sounds contrary to both what we know of God and what we know from experience. God is not a genie who must grant our every wish if we use the right magic words. I have heard Christians talk as if God will be compelled to do anything so long as we claim it “in Jesus' name.” But he is the Lord and does not take orders from us. And indeed we see in both the scriptures and in our lives that this is not so. Jesus prayed in Gethsemane that his Father let “this cup,” that is, his crucifixion, pass him by. That did not happen. And I'll bet not a few of us have asked God for things that did not come to pass. I prayed long and hard that a friend of mine not die and leave her 2 children without a mother. That prayer was not answered with a “Yes.” So how can Jesus say that he will do anything we ask him for?

Context is really important in understanding any statement. “I killed tonight” means a very different thing when said by a comedian than it does when uttered by a serial killer. In the first of the two verses I quoted, Jesus is talking about us doing his works. I don't think Jesus suddenly and unexpectedly switched from talking about his mission to talking about us getting everything we personally desire. He is still talking about his work. So it is only when we ask for things we need to carry out the Great Commission and the good works that he has prepared for us to do that he will give us whatever we ask. It's like a soldier being sent on a mission and being assured he will be given whatever he requests to accomplish it. That is not a promise to give him booze or prostitutes or anything else he wants to indulge in. It is a promise to equip him to do whatever is asked of him. Which is why Jesus was not given a reprieve from the cross when he asked. That was his primary objective. And Jesus himself qualified it with the condition that “not my will but your will be done." That overriding concern, that his mission be brought to its proper conclusion, was answered in the affirmative.

But even so, will we do greater works than Jesus did? The Greek word translated “greater” here literally means “larger.” It's not that Jesus is saying that we will do works of a better quality than his but that we will do bigger things than he did in his earthly life. Jesus fed 5000 hungry people. The universal church feeds millions around the world daily. Jesus only healed people inside his homeland. The church has set up hospitals and clincs and sent doctors and nurses out to heal folks all over the globe. Jesus preached the good news to those who lived in an area the length of the Keys. Christians have preached the gospel in just about every country in the world. When we act as the Body of Christ, the fellowship of all those who have heeded Jesus' call, we can and have done amazing things.

Jesus is the way to God, the truth about God and the life of God. He is our path through life, our goal in life and the power to get us from the one to the other. He is how we are going, where we are going and why we are going. He is the Alpha and the Omega and it will take every letter in between in every combination to spell out all he is to us, his companions on the way.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Radical and Old

Most alcoholics who quit drinking successfully do so through group therapy or a self-help group like Alcoholics Anonymous. Very few people recover by themselves. The advantages of such groups are that everyone is in the same boat. They can empathize with the struggles each member of the group is going through. They've been there and done that. They may even have advice only another recovering alcoholic would know. They can also detect any B.S. a member is indulging in and call him or her on it. And because we are social animals, members become part of a group with a ethos that defines them. Group support is important as is the natural feeling that one doesn't want to let your group down. The support of the group is very helpful in maintaining sobriety.

In Acts 2:42-47 we are looking at the early church right after Pentecost. If you could go back in time and join the first Christian gatherings, they would not look much like today's church. They had no buildings. They met in the temple, probably using the meeting rooms that were available, as well as in the homes of believers. They didn't have Bibles or hymnals or worship books. They didn't have a liturgy or written prayers. And yet we see the basics of the church to come in this passage. “They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” You'll probably recognize that from the questions we ask each baptismal candidate. Because right there we have several essential elements of Christian worship which we practice to this day. Let's look at each.

The apostle's teaching is listed first and this would have been a unique feature. If, as is likely, these early gatherings were based on the synagogue service of the time, they would be structured like the part of our service we call the Ministry of the Word. There were prayers and the reading of the scriptures, probably using the Septuagint, the official Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The teaching of the apostles would then follow, taking the place of the sermon. As we see in the sermons recorded in the book of Acts, the apostles especially used references to Christ from the Psalms and the prophets. But they also would have had a wealth of stories about what Jesus said and did. Imagine how it would have been to hear Peter, John, Thomas, or Matthew recall some incident that they experienced with Jesus—the time the storm almost swamped their boat, or how they tremulously handed out bits of the five loaves and two fishes to a hungry crowd of 5000 before realizing their baskets were not running out of food. Or imagine their chilling accounts of Jesus' passion, crucifixion and death. Or their awestruck accounts of that first Easter, the women's startling news and the sudden appearance of Jesus in their midst. Imagine the vividness of these eyewitness accounts. We get glimpses of these in the gospels: the fact that the grass was green at the time of the feeding of the 5000 or the exact position of Jesus' burial garments in the tomb.

We know that the canonical gospels made use of numerous sources. Luke speaks of investigating the events, checking with the eyewitnesses before writing his gospel and its sequel, the book of Acts. John Mark acted as secretary to both Peter and Paul, giving him access to a wealth of material,which is probably why his gospel was the first and was built upon by both Matthew and Luke. But those two gospels also have different sayings in common from a source other than Mark which scholars have dubbed Q. And each gospel has unique stories and sayings not found elsewhere. John has a separate source of stories and sayings of Jesus that does not overlap with those of the synoptic gospels but supplements them beautifully. How many of these come from these first days when the apostles were recalling and sharing this wealth of information illuminated by Jesus' post-resurrection teachings?

Next we are told that the first Christians were devoted to fellowship. Like a 12 Step program, this bonding is crucial. Just as it is hard for a person in recovery to navigate alone our hedonistic society, which openly advocates self-indulgence, it would have been hard to be a solitary Christian in Jerusalem. While outwardly looking like devout Jews, the early Christians would be seeing and interpreting everything in a different light. If you talked a lot about Jesus you would at best be tolerated by family and friends, the way we do when someone we know develops an enthusiasm for nutrition or exercise or a spiritual discipline. “Good for you” we say and then turn to our own interests. At the worst you would get into arguments with folks who were alarmed at your new devotion to a man who was, let's face it, killed for being a heretic and radical. They would try to set you straight or even complain to the local religious leaders about you. You might get thrown out of your synagogue. You needed the support of other Christians to maintain your walk with Christ and to keep from caving in to the pressure of family and friends to conform to traditional Judaism. Meeting with other Christians allowed you to share your concerns and triumphs in the faith with them and vice versa. The church for the first 300 years of its existence was a counter-cultural movement. It was swimming against the tide and it helped if you had others going your way.

Next we are told that the first Christians were devoted to the breaking of the bread. This is obviously the practice of participating in the Lord's Supper, sharing the bread and wine in Jesus' name. It probably came after the synagogue-style service, a uniquely Christian addition to their celebration, forming the basic structure of worship we still use. Again imagine what it was like to have one of those who were actually there at the last supper, recalling and reenacting how Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to the disciples, telling them “This is my body,” and then taking the cup, blessing it and passing it around, saying “This is my blood.” Imagine then what it would be like to receive bread and wine from the apostles and then invited to partake. It would be the next best thing to actually having been in that upper room on that Passover evening with Jesus. And so they ate his flesh and drank his blood in remembrance of Christ.

Next we are told that the first Christians were devoted to the prayers. I find it interesting that it says “the prayers” rather than “praying.” And I think it means that Christian prayers were already distinct from Jewish prayers. They were speaking to God in Jesus' name. They were asking for what they needed in Jesus' name. They didn't have to worry about making sacrifices for their sins because of what Christ did for them and they could therefore ask for forgiveness in Jesus' name. Because of him they knew they could “boldly approach the throne of grace” and address God as loving Father.

Usually when we look at this passage we stop there and feel that we have pretty much encapsulated the most important practices of the church. But there's more. And it makes us uncomfortable. But I'm a nurse and I'm trained to notice discomfort and to investigate it and its causes.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.” Actually the word translated “awe” is the Greek word phobos. That's one reason this passage makes us uncomfortable, especially if you read it in an older translation where it is rendered “fear.” But in the context “awe” is a good equivalent. The powers, primarily of healing, which the apostles displayed, got people's attention, validated the message the apostles preached and instilled a healthy respect for them among the people.

I am not going to suggest we need to enter the charismatic movement. I am in favor of healing services and speaking for my own experience, God has been very good to those we have prayed for and laid hands on in my parishes. But let's face it. People do not look at much of anyone in the church with awe or even a modicum of respect.

You know what might remedy that? If we were actually following Jesus. Surveys have shown that, contrary to popular opinion, the main reason why so many young people are dropping out of church is not that we aren't playing enough contemporary music or that we aren't on social media enough. It's that they see how we've been watering down Jesus' message and not behaving like him. Specifically, we are not showing the high personal morality and self-sacrificial love that characterize Christ's life and ministry. Look at the popularity of Pope Francis. He is saying and doing a lot of things that are more in line with the Spirit of Jesus than they are with the usual modus operandi of the Roman Catholic church. Imagine how people would react if he were to make actual changes in church policy and practice. People would regard that as nearly miraculous. If we, like Jesus, were less concerned with protecting the status quo and more willing to make exceptions to the rules for those in need, less focused on Sunday morning and more geared towards a day to day ministry, less worried about bringing them to us and more concerned about meeting them where they are, less concerned about defining who we are than discovering who our neighbor is and what he or she needs, people would be, if not awed, at the very least impressed by our commitment to live a Christ-like life.

Which brings us to the part of this passage we really shy away from: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” What are we to make of this early form of, less face it, communism? I had a history professor who argued that Marxist Communism was a Christian heresy, an attempt to create a sort-of materialist Christian society without Christ. So we in the West reacted by sanctifying capitalism. And we are still more concerned that there be no diminishing of anyone's right to make and keep as much money as they can than we are that everybody's basic needs be met. Nor do we want people begging in the streets or sleeping in doorways or in alleys or under bridges like some third world country. So we arrest them and put them in jail. The month before Fantasy Fest the sites where the homeless camp and congregate are swept and our jail population swells. Must keep things pretty for the tourists. We also don't want people who have lost their homes due to economic misfortune to have to live in their last major possession, their car; so we put them in jail as well. The fastest growing segment of the homeless, up to 30%, don't live in shelters but in their vehicles. We don't want the mentally ill wandering around untreated; so we put them in jail too. A third of the homeless are mentally ill. More than half of all prison and jail inmates are mentally ill. That's total. Only 45% of Federal prisoners are mentally ill but 56% of State prisoners and a whopping 64% of local jail inmates are mentally ill. We don't want our young people strung out on drugs or self-medicating with alcohol; so we put them in jail as well. Over half of the prison population has drug charges. 50% of all young black males in this country now have a record as do 40% of all young white males. 1 in 32 Americans is in prison. 25% of all the prisoners in the world are held in the US!

Jesus did say that we are serving him if we feed the hungry, clothe the underdressed, welcome the foreigner and visit those sick or in prison, but I don't remember him saying that to make such visits more convenient we should gather up all the least of his siblings and lock them up in one place! I certainly don't see our prisons as the logical outcome of what the first Christians are doing in verses 44 and 45.

I looked at a lot of commentaries on these verses and those that didn't skip past it but actually dealt with this disconcerting aspect of the newly formed body of Christ tried to explain it away as a one-time anomaly, not incumbent upon anyone today. No one saw it as, say, a manifestation of the Holy Spirit who just got poured out on the church a few verses before. And I'm not going to try to diminish what seems to be the plain sense meaning of this passage. This sharing of resources is the earliest and freshest expression of the kingdom of God by those filled with his Spirit. Make of this inspired part of the Word of God what you will.

That being said, we certainly can't ignore this amazing example of Christians caring for one another in radical and concrete ways. If we do stuff half as revolutionary and generous, the world will take notice.

And the world will, if verse 47 is anything to go by, be pleased with us. We are told that the first Christians had “the goodwill of the people.” The word in Greek is charis, meaning “favor, pleasure, grace.” Not many non-Christians regard us this way today. They see us bad mouth each other, defend the indefensible, and go after people for reasons they find inexplicable. They don't see us forgiving as we are forgiven. They don't see us treating others as we would like to be treated. They don't see us loving our neighbors as ourselves and they certainly don't see us loving our enemies. (Both of which, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out, are usually the same people!)

Jesus said it is by our love for one another that the world will know that we are his disciples. And disciple is just a fancy word for student. By that standard, I'm afraid most of us would be flunking out of Jesus school.

We do pretty well on the first 4 things we discussed: transmitting the teachings of the apostles, fostering fellowship, breaking bread together and saying the prayers. We rarely do anything that could be called miraculous even in a metaphorical sense and we are not creating radical ways of dealing with economic inequality, even within the church. Small wonder we are losing favor in the eyes of those outside the church.

The key to reviving our churches is usually said to be doing new things. And it's true that people are indiscriminately attracted to things that are new. But new does not always last. Remember laser discs? Or “I'm OK, You're OK” aka Transactional Analysis? Nor is every new idea always a good one. Lobotomies, anyone? Rather than ranking things by vintage, we need to ask if they are true or false, right or wrong. We need to take a page from Jesus who said in Matthew 13:52, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like a homeowner who brings out of his treasures things new and old.”

We need to be open to new ways to express and transmit the ageless truths of our faith and our practice. And we need to recover that which is awesome as well as that which makes us uncomfortable and commits us to radical generosity. It won't be easy. Though beginning it will be. All that requires is listening to the Spirit of God and saying “Yes.”

Monday, May 5, 2014

Not The End

I was one of those people who was really into the TV series Lost. I followed each of the clues the series dropped like bread crumbs from every kind of loaf in the world. I read the internet chats and Jeff Jensen's Entertainment Weekly posts folding each morsel into new grandiose theoretical confections. And in the end the whole thing was about a rock that stoppered the island's magic. I and a lot of fans were disappointed. We suspect that, reassurances to the contrary, the writers really did not have that ending in mind all along. It felt like it was just thrown together. But at least they did have an ending.

Not all series with a central mystery do us the courtesy of giving us an ending. When I was a kid I got intrigued by a series called Coronet Blue. The title was the only clue an amnesiac remembered about his former life. It ran one summer and was not renewed so the mystery was never resolved. The same thing happened with a series called John Doe about a man who knew everything except who he was. Lots of fascinating clues. No ending.

And now I am a fan of Game of Thrones, a gritty fantasy show about a war of succession which has several cut-throat claimants to the throne, plus dragons and eerie creatures called White Walkers. Not only is the TV series without an ending in sight, neither is the series of books on which it is based. Author George R.R. Martin still has at least 2 books to write to wrap things up and he is in his mid-60s. He is a very slow and painstaking writer, with gaps of up to 5 years between books. Everybody wants him to finish before the TV series runs out of plot and, of course, before he dies! We have no guarantee of either outcome. Supposedly the producers of the series have presented him with a provisional ending that he has approved. So whatever happens to him, we will find out who ultimately rules Westeros.

At least the British show The Prisoner did have an ending, albeit an allegorical one that is still debated by fans. And Joss Whedon accomplished the miraculous in getting a film, Serenity, made to resolve most of the questions brought up in his canceled TV series Firefly. And it became pretty clear in reading the Harry Potter series that J.K. Rowling had a definite ending in sight while writing the books. And unlike Lost, it was a good ending.

The Bible is really one long story, the love story of God and his creation. God makes the world and its people and pronounces them good. But we humans disobey him and, in his words, “ruin” his world. Instead of washing his hands of us, God sets about redeeming humanity and his creation. He starts by narrowing his focus to the offspring of one faithful man, Abraham. Then he narrows it further to the descendants of his grandson Jacob. He makes a nation of them. When they are enslaved he rescues them and makes a covenant with them. He teaches them that he is a God of justice and faithfulness, mercy and forgiveness. The message is repeated and reenforced by a series of prophets.

God then focuses on the descendants of Jacob's son Judah,and then on his descendant David. He makes a king of David and promises that one of his royal line will rule forever. But the people of Israel and even the Davidic kings fail to obey and remain faithful to God. He lets his people go into exile and rescues them once more. But they are a shadow of the kingdom that flourished under David and his son Solomon. The prophets tell the people that God has not forgotten his promise but will send an anointed one, a Messiah, to restore and rule them.

And that's where Jesus comes in. When he arrives on the scene, the descendants of Judah are at a low point. They achieved independence once more for a brief time only to invite the Romans to take over! Yes, that's the demoralizing scandal of their situation. About 140 BC, having gained freedom from the Seleucid successors to Alexander the Great, an independent Jewish kingdom existed under the Hasmonean Dynasty. But after 80 years, this kingdom was split by a civil war between 2 rival sons of the king. The people asked for Rome to come in and bring peace. And the Romans took over, eventually installing Herod the Great as their puppet King of the Jews. Through their own actions, the people of Judea and Galilee were under the thumb of the pagan Roman empire, whose emperors began to call themselves gods. In addition, there had not been a prophet giving the Word of the Lord on their plight for at least 200 years. So it seemed to the people that they had hit rock bottom. It looked like the perfect time for God to send his Messiah.

Then John the Baptist came, preaching repentance in the name of the Lord. And Jesus arrived, healing and preaching forgiveness. Jesus displayed mastery over demons, diseases, disastrous weather and even death. Surely he was the Messiah. He would raise an army like his ancestor David, overthrow the Romans and inaugurate God's kingdom on earth!

And then he was killed. And to his followers, it seemed like the story had been canceled abruptly with no proper ending. All they were left with was disappointment and questions. And that brings us to our passage from Luke 24:13-35.

Two disciples are walking to Emmaus, 7 miles from Jerusalem. They are discussing the whole sorry affair when Jesus joins them. They do not recognize him at the time. We are not sure why. Perhaps it was the fact that they were walking west and therefore into the dazzling light of the setting sun. Anyway Jesus asks what they are discussing and they tell him about the prophet who was crucified and how their hopes in him were dashed. And they add the surprising news that his tomb is empty and the women say he is alive.

You can't help but feel sorry for these two, especially when they stop and look sad. They say, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” They don't know what to make of it. They were invested in this story. They had devoted their lives to it. Now nothing made sense.

Jesus does not coddle them for one minute: “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Rather harsh. But he does get their attention. And they really want to know. Did they get it wrong? Was the answer there all along? “Then,” we are told, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

Notice that it says “in all the scriptures.” Remember that at this point not one word of the New Testament has been written. All the disciples have is what we call the Old Testament: the Torah, the Writings and the Prophets. So nowhere in there does it say, “Jesus of Nazareth will do this or that.” And yet when you read the Hebrew Bible as a Christian you keep hearing passages that resonate with what we know of Jesus, echoes of future history.

It starts in the first book of the Bible. In Genesis, God (talking to whom?) says "let us make humanity in our image." First clue that God's oneness is far from simple. When humanity disobeys God and introduces actual rather than potential evil into the world, God sets his plan to redeem his creation into motion. He promises that the descendant of the woman will crush the head of the source of evil. He tells Abraham that the world will be blessed through his offspring. Abraham is even willing to give up his son but God substitutes his own sacrifice in his place. There is a sense in which the story of Joseph, a good son wrongly punished, whose trials bring about a greater good, prefigures Christ.

In the story of the Exodus, the blood of a lamb saves God's people from death. Moses predicts that God will raise up a prophet like him whom the people must obey.

The Psalms are a treasure trove of glimpses of the coming Messiah, who is both the Son of God and the son of David. Psalm 22 chillingly gives a first-person account of one whose hands and feet are pierced, whose clothes are divided up through the casting of lots and who asks God why he has been forsaken. Other psalms speak of one whose bones are not broken, who is betrayed by a friend, who is given vinegar to drink, and who prays for his enemies.

The writings of the prophets also add to the picture of God's Anointed One. In Isaiah alone we learn of his birth, his Davidic lineage, his Galilean ministry, his beating, his humiliation, his death to save others from their sins and his being buried in a rich man's tomb. The other prophets add more details until we get to Malachi, the last book of the Hebrew Bible. There are, depending how you divide up the passages, between 110 and more than 300 prophesies that apply to Christ in the Old Testament, which I have bookmarked in this Bible.
These are the verses that refer to Christ which Jesus shared with the disciples as they walked along.

Few stories are so well constructed that the revelation at the end strikes you both as a surprise and yet as one which, upon further reflection, seems inevitable. In movies, I can point to Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and M. Night Shamaylan's The Sixth Sense. In literature, the Harry Potter series leaps to mind. We now know that J.K. Rowling intended all along that Harry's destiny echo Christ's willing death to save us. She builds to it the same way the Bible lays down the same clues about what God intends his Son to accomplish.

And the first ones to hear the whole story explained were the two disciples heading to Emmaus. Imagine how they felt. They thought the story they were part of, the story of Jesus, had been going great. They thought they would soon be crowning him king and following him into battle to overthrow the Roman occupation. Then it seemed to all go wrong. Jesus was crucified by the Romans. The story ended badly to their mind. But, with Christ's explanation, they now see that this was all part of God's plan from the beginning and had they looked at the scriptures properly, they would have seen the true path Jesus was taking. And what they thought was a disaster, his death on the cross, was in fact God's way of reversing the damage done by our sins, as well as his way of forgiving those sins.

Every one of us sees our life as a story, a movie in which we are the hero or heroine. And sometimes things happen which completely disrupt the script we have written in our head for our life. You don't become rich and famous. You don't marry the handsome prince. You aren't the best in your chosen field. You don't overcome your handicap or disease or the circumstances of your unhappy childhood and live happily ever after. And because we have been told how such stories are supposed to turn out, we are disappointed. Raised on stories where everyone unequivocally triumphs over everything bad that life throws at them, we don't know what to do or how to go on.

Part of that is because we think the story is over. I see that sometimes in new inmates at the jail. A young person or even a middle-aged person who has never been in jail before comes to me looking panicked or crying and thinks that their present circumstances are permanent. A 19 year old black girl thought her life was over because now she would never become a nurse or get her life back on track. I googled and printed up for her the stories of at least 3 women of color who went to jail and then got their lives together and did great things. One was named a CNN Person of the Year. I frequently repeat a line from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: “Everything will be all right in the end. If it's not all right, it's because it's not yet the end.” As Bishop Frade points out, that is one of the key teachings of the Bible. The disciples thought that with Jesus dead, all was lost. But Jesus' death was not the end of the story. With God, the situation is never hopeless.

Sometimes we think the story of our life is ruined because it's not turning out as we wanted it to. But an unexpected plot twist is not the same as an unhappy ending. I can't tell you how many actors were athletes or dancers until an injury derailed the career they had been pursuing all their lives. But had this painful disappointment not occurred we would not have had the screen careers of John Wayne or Charlize Theron or Tom Cruise or Summer Glau or or Forest Whitaker or Amy Acker or Philip Seymour Hoffman. They could have simply given up when their dreams of being an athlete or dancer were shattered. Instead, they found themselves in careers where their other talents were given range and in which they were arguably more successful.

Peter was a fisherman. Matthew was a wealthy tax collector. Saul was a zealous Pharisee. God ended their careers and gave them very different lives than the ones they may have imagined. Unlike the actors I named, their new lives were hardly glamorous. They endured imprisonment, beatings, stoning, and shipwrecks. They all died as martyrs. But none ever expressed regrets. They seized on the new lives God gave them and lived in gratitude for what they received from Jesus and in hope for what was to come.

Our lives are in God's hands. He is the one controlling the story and he has determined it will have a happy ending. We can throw all kinds of minor plot twists at him but he will still get his happy ending. We can screw up our part; we can make bad choices; we can fail him but he will still turn it all into a happy ending. It may not look that way because we are still in the middle of the story. 

Beginning with Jesus the story's focus stops narrowing and starts to widen. Through Jesus the Spirit of God begins to work with the Twelve disciples turned apostles. He moves to the 3000 pilgrims at Pentecost, to the Gentiles to whom Saul turned Paul preached the gospel, to their followers, to the whole Roman Empire, to the East and West and North and South, to all the corners of the globe and all peoples and all nations whose every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever.

That's what God is working toward. Any other point in time is not the final state for any person or life. Even our deaths are not the end of our stories, any more than Jesus' death was the end of his. And it is all his story—his story of a creation he pronounced good, creatures he made in his image and how, when they went bad, he set about recreating them until they become what he intended them to be all along. It's not over for this world or for us when we think it is. 

In fact it will never be over. Remember how you just hate it when a really good story ends. You don't want it to stop. You love all the characters, and you don't want their stories to end and you want to know what happens next. Well, this is the best story ever. Because this is the neverending story of God's love. We are the characters he created and loves and he's determined that we will go on forever. And when he gets everything back on track, when he gets the story back to where he wants it, when all our stories and subplots converge, every chapter, every episode, every adventure will just keep getting better and better and better.