‎"Be regular and ordinary in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and orginal in your work."
-Gustave Flaubert

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Water Falls From our Mouths

Acts 2: 1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all gathered together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

“When you hear a train coming, and there’s no tracks, run for cover.” As a child of the Midwest, I’d often hear these words of warning concerning the presence of a tornado. Maybe we should warn people in a similar way concerning the presence of the Holy Spirit when they come to church… Or not.

The Spirit of God is not the possession of the church. It blows where it will, loves novelty, and is not as reverent of tradition as we are. It is often offense, a dissonant Spirit traveling through the voices of people we are suspicious of- in the voice of the foreigner, or the odd stranger. Maybe the person’s not even a Christian, at least not in an orthodox sense. Sometimes the religious outsider is the most receptive to the Spirit, and sees with freshness and originality the truths we take for granted. Even when the outsider discourse of the ‘spiritual, not religious’ variety gets stale, the Spirit will seize a different kind of outsider to revel it’s power.

The Holy Spirit transcends sterile language systems. It travels freely from one thread of discourse to another. When one language game becomes rote, the Spirit hops to another box car. When one form of discourse becomes too ideologically rigid, the Spirit will blow upon another, or invent a whole new form of discourse.

The Spirit comes to us when we least except, in a serendipitous encounter, speaking a surprising word that lifts us higher than ourselves. Higher and higher, God’s love for us comes with a clarity that lets us know it’s been there all along. We feel miraculously freed from the burden of our self-concern. But then when even the serendipitous becomes formulaic, the Spirit returns back to the church and works in the most ordinary words of the preacher. So maybe that tornado warning should be leveled after all.

Then with a mix of awe and dread and inspiration we stand with Peter, and find our own voice in the muck. And we take a deep breath, and open our mouth, and speak. We’re not as eloquent as we’d hoped, but the Spirit is in there.

The Spirit doesn’t nuance. It is never ambiguous, because the language of God’s love is never ambiguous. It’s as loud and clear as the roar of a train.  

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Cormac's Road and a Final Prayer

John 17:13-19

But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, a father and his son journey through the ruins of a post-apocalyptic earth. The world has been reduced to a dismal landscape drained of color. Nothing can grow on earth. No crops for food. The ghastly nature of survival has reduced people to cannibalism. The father struggles to protect his young son from cold, sickness, starvation and evil men. As his health deteriorates, we sense that the father is a doomed man. He’ll eventually die and have to send his son up the road without him. It’s a grueling, but simple and powerful story- the depth of a father’s love, and the depths of hell he will go through in order to keep his son alive.  

In the gospel reading, Jesus’ life and ministry are rapidly coming to a brutal end. He’s going back to the father, and he prays on behalf of his disciples. Like the father in The Road, he’s sending his disciples on up the road without him. He guarded them up to this point, and loves them greatly, but now they have to further the ministry of the kingdom and step out on their own. He asks God to protect them from the evil one. He asks that they be sanctified in truth. In a world hostile to the values of the Kingdom of God, they will need the clarity of truth and the comfort of Jesus’ words.   

And it’s not just the disciples Jesus prays for, but us as well. He sends us out into the world and prays for us, asking the father to protect us from the evil one and to sanctify us in the truth of his love and grace. We journey up the road as witnesses to his gospel. Jesus goes back to the Father, but his spirit is with us. He goes through hell for us, and with us, and then sends us up the road sanctified in the purity of his truth, to reach others in sacrificial love.

Prayer is always most momentous when we pray for those we love. And that’s what Jesus did, for the disciples, and even now for us.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sentimentality and the Cross

John 15:13

"No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."

Many portrayals of the nature of love are laced with sentimentality. Sentimental love goes heavy on emotional indulgence. It’s more navel gazing than neighbor oriented. More ego-affirming than self-emptying. A love that allows us to smile benignly at sin, rather than a love that holds us accountable to each other. This type of love looks pleasant enough on the outside, but has the whiff of death in it. When put to the test, it’s as wispy as air.

In contrast, Jesus’ love is much starker. It evaporates the mist of sentimentality through the cross. "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." Jesus' execution was no accident. He walked straight into the teeth of death, deliberately, for us. This love is so qualitatively greater than sentimental love that it's hard for us to recognize. In fact, we can't even choose it- it chooses us, which is to say Jesus chooses us.

The witness of the early church of Jesus' resurrection was a witness to this powerful love. Easter faith was energized by people who were pulled so strongly by the cosmic love that raised Jesus. They were pulled out of themselves and staked their lives on that which claimed them.

This was a love that was so powerful it made the resurrection an actuality. Jesus' resurrection was not only a miracle- it was the consequence of a divine love so heart-breakingly strong. Love made the resurrection real. And the resurrection gave love concrete embodiment.

What would a life lived under the influence of such love look like? What kind of fruit would we bear? What would a person do when she surrenders to the irresistible pull that raised Jesus out of the tomb? Fall forward in trust and see.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Wilderness Road

Acts 8:26-40

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went.  

When I was in my early twenties I hitchhiked across the United States. I can’t explain the exact motivation. I wanted to see my cousin in Arizona, but that’s not why I left. The only way to come close to an explanation is to say that I had a sort of fever, or that I felt like a wild animal with its paw caught in a trap- I’d gnaw my hand off to escape my hometown and to get out onto the road.

I was feeling the desperation and restlessness of my age, the awful yearnings that are most acutely felt during youth. I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I had the sense that time was fleeting, and that any hope of discovering something larger than myself, any justification for my living and breathing in this world, had to be found not just now, but NOW.

I was searching for unnamable things. My spirit soared with my thirst and ambition, a desire to reach up higher and higher in search of these things. I knew they were not to be found in my Ohio hometown, but out in the Western Plains somewhere, or out past the Continental Divide, or maybe in Arizona near my cousin. And if they weren’t in any of these places, well, to hell with it, I’d go further and further west until I reached the Pacific. And if what I was searching for wasn’t there either, I’d hitchhike south, maybe into Mexico or something. With the wind cutting through my hair, hitching a ride in the back of some stranger’s pick up truck, I would single handedly wrest these things from the hand of God.

One day I was standing by the side of the road in the Nebraska Panhandle, close to where I-76 and I-80 diverge. I got a couple of offers from people heading down 80 to Cheyenne. But I wanted to take 76 and work my way south towards Arizona. Finally after a couple of hours of waiting, a tough-looking man with a haggardly beard pulled over on the side of the road. He was wearing well worn blue jeans and a black Harley Davidson T-shirt. I was a little hesitant to get in the car with him. He told me he was heading to Colorado, but that he had to stop in Sidney, Nebraska first. I decided to take the ride and we headed west. We rode to Sidney, but when we left town he told me there was a state highway that led to Denver. I didn’t want to leave the heavily populated interstate for some deserted highway. Who knows were he would take me. But what could I do? We left the interstate and we drove out into the wilderness. I gazed upon beauty that I couldn’t see from the interstate. The expansiveness of the west Nebraska plains was awesome. The setting sun in this land was breathtaking.

But as we drove, my travel partner began talking to me about the Bible. It quickly grew bizarre, as he explained his rapture theology. I was a little freaked out, talking about the Anti-Christ and apocalypse, but at the same time I felt safer. He was talking theology. I knew he wasn’t going to harm me. He was a lonely man who wanted someone to talk to about God. Like me, he didn’t have time for small talk. He was, in his own way, searching for those unnamable things. There wasn’t any epiphany, as there was for the eunuch that Philip met on the road. No great revelation. No chariot- just his rusted old Chevy.

But there was, for a short time, fellowship, a human connection, and a mutually felt desire to touch the hand of God. I wasn’t much different from him. I was certainly just as lonely. That’s what searching for things you can never grasp will do to you. On this wilderness road we were both alien travelers in a world we didn’t belong to.     

It was night when he dropped me off in South Denver. I felt a little disoriented, buzzing on the after effects of his strange theology. But I thanked him for the ride and we wished each other well. I zipped up my jacket to protect myself from the cold mountain air and pressed on in the night. The Denver city skyline was at my back. Streetlights were shining above me.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Meditation: Psalm Twenty-Three and the Great Lacking

“The Lord is my Shepard. I lack nothing.”

So says the NIV translation. I love this terse translation of the first verse. There’s a ring of defiance in it. A resistance to evil. What powerful words they are when we feel crippled by a deep sense of inadequacy, or what we could call ‘The Great Lacking.’ We experience the Great Lacking when we feel there’s something missing, some mysterious quality or virtue that other people have acquired, and that we lack. It’s when the voice of the enemy diminishes us, or shames us, and we fail to live into the fullness of God’s love and grace.   

In popular culture dogma we’re also taught that there’s nothing we lack, because we’re inherently so special. Yet, the psalmist is more daring than culture’s adulation of self. The psalmist testifies to a God who is the source of our strength. It is because of God’s outpouring of mercy and love that we lack nothing. 

We lack nothing because the source of all goodness and love and power has called us into being from the beginning of time, and guides us, even when we walk through the darkest valleys. God anoints our heads with oil, and our cup overflows in the holy celebration of life in all its purity and sacredness.  

Friday, April 20, 2012

Meditation on Psalm Four: The Roominess of God

Twisted sheets from a night of tormented sleep. Restless nights stewing over problems we can’t control- health problems, financial problems, resentments that burn in our hearts and minds. We lie half awake and half asleep in a highly charged semi-consciousness dream state, haunted by anxiety. We ask ourselves on such nights, ‘What do I need to do?’ And when we can’t figure that out we cry to God, ‘Do something!’

The psalmist, I think, can relate to these nights. He doesn’t mince words, ‘Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress.’ I like the phrase, ‘You gave me room.’ The realm of God is broad and roomy, not stifling and rigid. A comfortable room with big open windows and a high ceiling, rather than a stuffy attic. God gives us breathing room. God gives us the distance we need when we feel the heat of distress, yet is close enough to hear our anguished prayers. The roominess of God allows the psalmist to say, “When you are disturbed, do not sin. Ponder it on your beds, and be silent.” Don’t fight, don’t fret, don’t fear- just be silent.

The roominess of God creates the space we need for trust, and even creates the trust itself. Left to our own ways, we wrack our brain with frantic thoughts that whirl in a loop. We trust in our own abilities to solve problems, and in spite of our best efforts to protect ourselves, we end up more insecure, fearful, and vulnerable. Yet the psalmist testifies to a God who hears our prayers, and who puts gladness in our hearts when we cannot. It is trust in this God’s care that allows us to sleep in peace. It turns our heated pleas of ‘What should I do?’ into the spacious assurance of gladness, safety, and rest.