Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I am a Pharisee

I am a Pharisee. No, really. As I read more and more about Jesus and his adversaries, I realize that I am absolutely, definitely on the wrong side of that divide. As Lent progresses and we approach that dreadful moment in Jerusalem when Jesus is condemned to death, I cringe because I know that my voice would have been one of the loudest, shouting, “Crucify him!”

I love rules. I love logic and precedent and order and structure and hierarchy. I love checklists and perfectly planned occasions. If I could condense my faith into a To-Do list, I would have already done it and crossed that off the same list. I am conservative to my core, and I really don’t like that about myself. In one sense, I’m glad I live in the twenty-first century rather than the first, so I don’t actually find myself opposed to the Jesus movement. But that still makes me wonder how my Pharisaicalism is hurting me today. What battle line is my human nature pushing me to the wrong side of?

All of this comes in response to today’s NT lesson from 1 Corinthians. In 1:20-31, Paul writes about foolishness and wisdom: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.” I am one of those Jews who demand signs. I am one of those Greeks who demand wisdom. In order for me to give my heart to God, it needs to make sense to me. I need to understand it before I can believe it. But that’s not how faith works. In fact, as Paul points out, that is the complete opposite of faith.

Faith is the state of being out of control. Instead of holding on to what makes sense, we allow God to take over. Instead of demanding that everything line up the way we think it should, we trust God to lead us wherever he will. Each of us is being led in different ways to step away from a life that is lived according to our rules and into a life that God controls. Am I worshipping at the altar of what makes sense to me, or am I standing in awe of something I could never wrap my mind around?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Joseph's Dreams

I read a good Lenten reflection on today’s OT lesson (Genesis 37:1-11). The author puts into words what I think all of us must be feeling when we read about Joseph relaying to his family his dreams of his own primacy over them. That author wrote, “Joseph - STOP! Just shut up and there will be peace!” It is hard for us to read about the youngest son blabbing to his brothers and father about them bowing down to him. Joseph’s father says it best, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” The answer to the family disunity seems obvious—just keep it to yourself!

But these aren’t just accidental dreams. They are prophetic. Fast-forward several years and we will discover that Joseph’s family is desperate for his help when he is an official in Pharaoh’s household. But that’s a long way away. We have to go from dreams, to murderous plot, to slavery, to more dreams, to famine, to chance reunion. On that side of the story, the dreams, which actually set that whole work in motion, aren’t quite as easy to dismiss.

On the one hand, we all know that discretion is often an important part of preserving family harmony. But on the other hand, sometimes God calls us to a place that shakes things up. When is it God’s will that families be torn apart? Or, better yet, when is God’s prophetic word sharp enough to turn brothers against each other? It might not always be God’s will that Thanksgiving be a peaceful time. When is it right to say what needs to be said? When a grandparent is blindly racist? When a father is unaccepting of his gay son? When a mother cannot admit her alcoholism? When the family seems more interested in preserving peace than listening to God’s will?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Put On Your Jesus-Thinking Cap

I was transformed by today’s reading from the NT (Philippians 2:1-13). As I read it, something that I had always understood in one way was taken in a new direction. Maybe that’s because I’ve never really read this passage before.

Paul takes a super-familiar text to describe Jesus and incorporates it into his instructions for the Christian community at Philippi. Quoting an early creed or confessional statement, Paul writes,

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

I remember in seminary learning that this was an important text that gave insight into the theological development of the early church—how they got from “Jesus is a really great guy” to “Jesus is God himself.” That’s a big leap, and I could write and write and write about it. I love that part of this passage. That’s where my focus has always fallen before.

But that’s not Paul’s point, and that’s what shocked me this morning. Paul isn’t explaining to us who Jesus is. The community to which he wrote likely would have already known that catchy little ditty about Jesus. For them, that wasn’t the source of the teaching. There wasn’t anything controversial about it. The real meat of Paul’s writing comes at the beginning of the quotation: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” That’s the real kernel of the message.

When it comes to intracommunity relationship, Paul is calling us to have Christ-like minds. And what does that mean? It means to empty ourselves totally. Never has that been more important for the church than now.

We’re facing big changes—theologically, culturally, financially. People say this is one of those 500-year-moments (not sure I buy into that) when everything we know and value gets shaken up. Regardless of the timing behind it, things are being transformed. Battle lines are being drawn. Denominations are being torn in half. Dioceses are drawing swords. Parish are splitting. And none of that looks like what it means to have the mind of Christ.

We are called to a higher standard. Community itself is more important than being right or wrong. That kind of value judgment isn’t really supposed even to enter the equation. We are to have the mind of Christ, who lowered himself to the very basest point imaginable—total humiliation and obedience for the sake of the other. How might that instruction transform our conversation?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

You Chauvinist Pig!

When I went through premarital counseling, I had already gotten a year of seminary under my belt. Naturally, I knew everything or at least had been given the resources to figure anything out. When it came to choosing the lessons for the service, I was drawn to Ephesians 5 (“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord…”). Although it had something to do with me being a chauvinist pig, it was also because that was a tough passage even for a confident (i.e., arrogant) seminarian.

How could the biblical model of marital relations still speak to marriage in the 21st century? Looking back, it’s easier now for me to say that it can’t and leave it at that. When I was chewing on that issue back then, I made sense of it by balancing Paul’s instruction for husbands with his instruction for wives. If wives submit as unto Christ and husbands love as Christ loved us, then everything should be peaceful in the house, right? Who cares whether a patriarchal husband makes all the decisions if he’s acting like Jesus?

But I wasn’t really happy with that. And I’m definitely not happy with that. Here’s where I am today…

Just when I thought Jacob and his sister-wives were stuck in the ancient world, the patriarch goes and asks his wives for their input when making a big family decision. In today’s OT reading (Genesis 31:1-24), Jacob hears God tell him to pack up his family and possessions and take them back to the land of his ancestors. But, before doing so, he sits down with Leah and Rachel and asks their opinion. Remarkable.

I think Jacob knew what I now know—something I didn’t know when I was going through premarital counseling. And that is that happiness is a mutual gift. Love is shared—even if it’s only one-way, it requires an other. For Jacob to be happy in his new home—for Jacob even to be willing to consent to God’s word—required the participation of his wives. And, because it was God’s will, they agreed. Or, put a better, clearer way, because they agreed we can say that it was God’s will. Discerning what God wants us to do involves community—especially if that community involves a family. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

What's the Price of Mandrakes?

I’ll let you sleep with my husband if I can have some of your son’s mandrakes. That sounds ridiculous, but it’s exactly what happens in today’s OT lesson (Genesis 30:1-24). I’ve never had a mandrake, but they must be pretty good.

Actually, I had to look mandrake up on the Internet to find out what it was. I was picturing a citrus fruit (don’t know why), but it turns out that it’s a root that has hallucinogenic properties. But before you conclude that Rachel was willing to trade her husband to Leah for a ride on the magic bus, consider that mandrake and ginseng are similar and that ginseng was thought to have fertility enhancing properties. Well, at least that’s what Wikipedia says, so who knows.

But what we do know is that Rachel was pretty desperate to have a child. Her archrival and older sister Leah had already given their husband Jacob some children and had even gone past the age of childbearing, so letting Jacob crawl back into her sister’s bed didn’t seem so bad to Rachel. I’m not sure you could say that the plan backfired, but Leah did end up having more children. Eventually, however, the mandrake kicked in, and Rachel conceived and gave birth to Joseph. And we all know what happens to Joseph.

But what I’m interested in is how God works in this situation. Madrakes traded for sex. Tribes of Israel founded in the rival beds of sister wives and their servants. And yet through all of this it’s Leah who gave birth to Judah, who gives birth to the royal line and eventually Jesus. What does that mean?

To me, it means that hindsight is important. The old saying that hindsight is 20/20 doesn’t quite get it. I think this story suggests that until we’re generations beyond a circumstance we might be completely blind to God’s will in the situation. How can we discern God’s plan in the midst of a sex-for-roots scenario? The answer is that we can’t. And that’s where faith comes in.

We must look back over the history of God’s relationship with humanity and see that, in the long run, God takes care of us. He works through even the weirdest and unholiest arrangements to reveal his will for the world. Does that mean that God is really just our ability to make sense of situations? It’s pretty hard to imagine humanity stumbling through the various calamities we’ve brought upon ourselves and maintaining a confidence that God is real unless he had been guiding us through history all along. I look at moments like this one from Genesis 30—completely convoluted—and take comfort that it took generations for Israel to realize how it all worked out. That means I don’t have to figure it all out today. Or even tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Rebekah: Desperate Housewife

I once openly criticized a fellow seminarian for reserving the television in the student lounge to watch Desperate Housewives. It was new in the UK, and she had never seen the show before. Normally, I wouldn’t have said anything (and I shouldn’t have, anyway), but this student was one of those truly special human beings who exudes holiness. I couldn’t figure out why she of all people would want to watch a show that I perceived as being sensationalist, sex-filled worthlessness. I’m embarrassed to remember how self-righteous I was.

When I read this morning’s OT lesson (Genesis 27:1-29), I’m shamed even further because this passage about Jacob stealing his father’s blessing away from his older brother involves as much deceit and seeming unholiness as any prime-time drama. Rebekah overhears her husband sending her older son out into the fields to hunt game for his last meal, and she seizes the opportunity to trick him out of his blessing. The bond between a father and his son is a special thing. Sure, so is the bond between a mother and her son, but to use complete and total dishonesty to get what one wants seems wrong on every level.

Jacob fakes the stew. He fakes his name. His mother puts goat-skins on his hands and neck to fake his brother’s hairiness. He fakes his brother’s outfit. And he fakes his way into the blessing that was intended for his brother. It’s all a lie—every bit of it. Yet this is how the Lord works. We know how the story plays out—Jacob is blessed; he wrestles with the angels and is renamed “Israel”; he becomes the father of the twelve tribes; and, as patriarch, is partially responsible for the salvation of the world. And all of that because of a scheming plot worthy of Desperate Housewives.

What really bothers me is that this isn’t an obscure text in one of those books of the bible whose name I can barely remember. This is central, front-page Judaism. This is a foundational story in the narrative of God’s people. And there’s nothing to be proud of here. How is it possible that God uses these means to work his will in the world? Even the Psalm for today declares, “Through your commandments I gain understanding; therefore, I hate every lying way” (119:104). How does Rebekah’s treachery end up paving the way for God’s plan to unfold?

One might simply say that a wife knew better than a husband what God wanted in this situation. That’s often the case. My wife is usually right about things like this, but (thank God) she doesn’t often resort to this level of chicanery. I think a better way to put it is this: even Isaac’s best intentions were unable to undo God’s will for the world. Isaac intended to bless his elder son, but, as God message to Rebekah had been delivered while the twins were still in her womb, the younger was destined to rule over the elder. Ultimately, it didn’t matter what Isaac thought was best. God was in control.

How often do we think that we know what’s best, yet how often is God’s way different than our own? We rely on things like custom, tradition, heritage, and precedent. God is the author of all those things. It matters not whether we prefer first-born children or good-for-you television. Whether we forsake our earthly responsibilities or refuse even to consider what God’s will might be, God is in control. In the big picture, even our biggest failures cannot undo God’s plan for us. Maybe that’s a source of comfort.

Don’t get lost in worrying about what God wants. Let God take care of that. Our job is not to anticipate everything that God would have us do, agonizing over the “what-if” question of what happens if we make a bad decision. We might as well flip a coin. God will work through even the ungodliest plans to reveal his will to the world. Our job is not to anticipate that will but to discern that will as it unfolds around us.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Should Forgiveness Hurt?

To rehabilitate or to punish—that is the question. Whether a judge is sending someone to prison or a parent is sending a child to time out, what is the motive behind it? Do we want someone to be changed and become a better person, or do we just want a criminal to suffer. Honestly, in my house, it’s sometimes a mixed affair. When I send my child to time out for the gazillionth time for the exact same offense, I wonder whether I’m passing judgment because I really expect a change or simply because I’m supposed to.

The same question holds true when we think about repentance and judgment. Must our sins be paid for, or are we being transformed into the people God is calling us to be? Is Jesus’ death on the cross redemptive because of its punitive effect or because it shocks us into righteousness? What does it mean to be sorry for one’s sins? Sorry, to me, implies suffering—even if only in a moment of mental anguish. Must I feel remorse to be forgiven, or can I simply sin, return to God, and rejoice that I am forgiven?

In today’s reading from John 7:53-8:11, Jesus spends a lot of time bent over, writing in the dirt. Some religious authorities brought to him a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery and asked whether she should be stoned to death—as Moses and the law commanded. Looking up from his dirt-writing, Jesus replied, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” And they went away, one at a time, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus and the woman were left.

That Jesus hits the Pharisees with that zinger is interesting, but I’m even more drawn to his exchange with the woman. Jesus asks, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” When she verifies that none remains, Jesus continues, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Jesus, it seems, prefers the rehabilitation-approach.

I wonder what that woman felt when Jesus turned her loose. Was she grateful? Surprised? Ecstatic? When the story unfolds, I forget just how sinful this woman was. She had been caught in the act of adultery. Her death was all but certain. Her psychological trauma had already been experienced as she was dragged to the site of her potential execution. When Jesus releases her from her obligation, I wonder whether she was humbled or even shamed. The fact that Jesus sends her away with the bidding, “Go and sin no more,” suggests that this was a transformative moment for her. And it can be for us as well.

We do not simply hear Jesus say, “Your sins are forgiven.” We must also hear him say, “Go and sin no more.” For forgiveness to be real, we must face the reality of our sinfulness. That moment of face-to-face honesty doesn’t need to feel like a punishment, but it needs to make us squirm—not so our agony can be redemptive but so we can be transformed. Embracing our redemption means leaving behind our sinfulness, and that doesn’t happen easily. We may not be required to pay the price for our transgressions, but we must be rehabilitated by the one who did.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Bowl of Soup for a Birthright

Have you ever noticed what happens to older siblings in the bible? Cain and Abel. Ishmael and Isaac. Esau and Jacob. Given the ancient custom of oldest siblings being preferred in hereditary matters, one might expect them to be favored in the bible. Almost without exception, the opposite holds true in the bible. It is the younger child who is portrayed as the reader’s favorite. Today’s OT passage (Genesis 25:19-34) drives that point home.

Have I mentioned that I’m the oldest of three boys?

My wife and I had wills drawn up not long ago. Our lawyer asked us by what method we wanted our estate to be passed along to our descendants. The question was mostly a formality. Our lawyer asked because he had to, but he already knew the answer was per stirpes, which means that it is distributed equally to each branch of the family. I enjoyed pondering what might happen if we chose primogeniture, by which the eldest child inherits the entire estate. What might that do to our children? (Anyone who has experienced the whittling down and exactly equitable distribution of a parent’s estate to the last penny could get a chuckle out of that.)

In Esau’s day, the oldest male got it all—no questions asked. Yet he comes in from a hunt, famished, and his younger brother forces him to sell his birthright in exchange for some stew. Are we supposed to applaud Jacob for his craftiness? Are we supposed to weep for Esau for his misfortune? I struggle with this passage—not to mention the trickery involved with the paternal blessing in the chapters that follow. What does this passage mean for us today?

Let’s start with what you’re born with. What are you given simply by virtue of your birth? And what are you denied simply because of the circumstances of your birth? I might not like to admit it, but, like Esau, I despise my birthright. I take for granted all the things I was born with—parents who love me, the full use of my physical body and mental capacity, the ability to pursue my dreams with little standing in my way. How often do I stop and think about how differently things could have been?

I remember a political philosophy class from college in which the merits of affirmative action came up. After a student asked whether affirmative action had run its useful course, the professor replied, “When you think your life could have been the same had you been born a black female, then affirmative action will be finished in this country.” I don’t seek to debate the merits of the program in this space, but it’s worth asking…what if you had been born differently? What might you have missed out on?

Many of God’s blessings are bestowed on us before we are born. Do we attribute those to him? Is it mere chance? Is it divine providence? What does it mean to embrace and be thankful for our birthright? Esau’s folly is too often our folly. We place more value on a bowl of soup than a lifetime of opportunity. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Smell of Babies

I was given the chance to hold a little baby the other day. Someone came into the office with her 6.5-pound granddaughter, allowing the staff to coo and melt with admiration. I had been to the hospital earlier that day, so I didn’t ask to hold her. I wasn’t worried about it, but wanted to be cautious. So I wasn’t disappointed when, after I made a passing comment about how cute the baby was, the grandmother dumped her into my arms.

Not much bigger than a bag of sugar, she slept soundly in my arms. She smelled the way babies smell—not unpleasant but distinctive. My wife is pregnant and should be giving birth in a few weeks, so I considered the experience a chance to brush up on my baby-holding experience. It isn’t that often that one gets to take a tiny precious little thing like that into ones arms.

On this day, we remember a time when Simeon, the old prophet who dwelt in the Jerusalem temple, took the 40-day-old baby Jesus into his arms and declared, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” This man took the tiny God-incarnate into his hands and exclaimed to the Temple that God’s salvation had arrived in the form of this defenseless child, who probably weighed about as much as a bag of sugar.

What does it mean to hold God in your arms? How does it feel to stare down at God almighty, asleep against your chest? His mother and father were amazed at what was being said about him. I wonder whether they got a little nervous when the cute but slightly crazy old man started singing these strange things about their infant son. At Christmas time, when I hear the nativity story, I think about God being born in a stable in Bethlehem, but, just as Luke’s narrative trails off, I quickly forget about God being a baby.

That Simeon was able to take God into his arms gets to the heart of our faith. Ironically, it’s easier for us to imagine God as all-powerful, infinite, and beyond all comprehension than it is for us to understand how that same God fits into a tiny little child. But God became as vulnerable and weak as that infant. God allowed himself to be embraced by a gray-haired prophet. It’s an even more tangible expression of the incarnation than the birth itself.

God reaches out to us in an irresistible way. Just try to stay away from a little baby! God embraces us by becoming embracable. He wants us to stare down at his sleeping face and brown, stringy hair. He invites us to smell that familiar baby-smell and sigh ever so gently at the wonder of it all.