Monday, August 29, 2011

looking back...

I am 47. I can see 50 in pretty clear focus. In a handful of years I will have outlived both of my parents. And I find myself looking back more often. It is not that I have stopped looking forward; it’s just that I am finding the path ahead is greatly defined by the path behind.

I see change. The world has changed. The ways we communicate have changed. But, mostly, I am thinking about how I have changed.

As I came to the close of my 20s – as I faced 30 – I was certain about a great many things. I knew what was right and what was wrong. I knew what God loved… and what he hated.  I argued and debated for right belief. I smashed secular records, gave up R-rated movies, salty language, and beer. And I wondered, if not out loud, if HIV was not a natural consequence of sin. I voted republican.

When I look back at 20-something me, I am not ashamed or filled with regret. I know that that version of myself was a necessary part of becoming who I am in this moment. And I am encouraged because I am beginning to understand that growth cannot happen if we remain static – that when we grip to tightly any moment in time, we miss the beauty of change and growth and wisdom.

These days; I rarely, if ever, listen to “christian music”. I love and embrace salty language… and beer. I don’t believe that the earth was made in 6 days and I don’t believe that LGBT folks should be denied a seat at God’s table. And I look back at that 27 year old kid and realize that we still have something in common. We both want desperately to live as closely to God’s heart as possible. We both are seeking wisdom and truth and we are both being changed by every question asked.

And so… I look back and marvel at the evolving reality of the man I am while I look forward to meeting the man I will be when 50 has almost disappeared in my rear-view mirror.

Friday, August 26, 2011

the parable of the lost sherpa


So you are climbing Everest and you have contracted with a Sherpa to guide you to the top. Thing is - he has never led an expedition to the summit. He has been on the mountain most of his life. He’s been to the summit with other sherpas.  And you like him, he’s scrappy and determined; and really wants to go to the summit… to lead a team to the summit. So you go…

At base camp you notice that he’s not always as sure of himself as the more experienced sherpas. He seems to ask a lot of questions. He alternates between great enthusiasm and deep doubt. But he is going. Doubt or no doubt; he is going. And so you follow…

At the next encampment you notice that some new climbers have joined the team. The young Sherpa has invited them. He seems to like them but you are not crazy about them. They are just so different… so unlike the rest of the team (or maybe they are just unlike you). But they seem to want to climb and he wants to lead them (and you) up the mountain.

Then you notice his gear. You have never heard of the maker and you have been climbing for a long time. You also realize that the map he carries, his map to the peak, is not the standard map. In fact, it is a map that many of the other sherpas have rejected – warned others not to trust.

And still more climbers join. Some with no maps. Some with maps they have drawn themselves… and worse; you begin to believe your team is lost.

And you become afraid.

You wonder, from base camp, if the novice Sherpa and his team made the summit. You kinda hope he makes it but you know in your heart there is no way he could have. And you think aloud, “I’ll come back and try again… I'm sure I will.”

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

tribes III

A tribe is defined as a connected group on a mission. Many of us find our tribe when we find a place or a group that feels like home... a place that fits. We long for acceptance and the ties that bind - ties that are often missing from our natural families.

But what if our search for home - our search to fit in and be accepted - turns toxic in that it corrupts the mission

What if the mission becomes comfort?

What if the mission becomes convenience?

What if we begin to bristle at the idea that a tribe requires anything of us at all?

In our efforts to make a "home" for our tribe, have we given up the core of the word's definition? Have we put aside the "mission" that defines us.

Why does your tribe exist? What is the mission? What are you building or tearing down? How are you changing your neighborhoods, your cities, the world? And... if your mission is to make sure that all are comfortable, that no one feels the pressure of expectations... are you a tribe at all?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

the holiness of dirty hands

Matthew 27:24-31
New International Version (NIV)

24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”

25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”

26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

The Soldiers Mock Jesus

27 Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. 30 They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. 31 After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
We ended last week in the upper room with Jesus. As we have continued this week, we have seen him betrayed, arrested, and brought to trial. As I read back over this narrative – especially in Matthew 27 – I noticed a theme that I had not really seen before. The chapter begins with Judas:
3Judas—the one who had betrayed Him with a kiss for 30 pieces of silver—saw that Jesus had been condemned, and suddenly Judas regretted what he had done. He took the silver back to the chief priests and elders and tried to return it to them.

Judas: 4I can’t keep this money! I’ve sinned! I’ve betrayed an innocent man! His blood will be on my hands. (The Voice)
and then…
5Judas threw down the money in the temple, went off, and hanged himself. 6The chief priests looked at the silver coins and picked them up.

Chief Priests and Elders: You know, according to the law, we can’t put blood money in the temple treasury.
The priests take Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor, and Pilate listens to their accusations and questions Jesus as well. Pilate is perplexed by the situation and is even advised by his wife:
18Pilate knew the chief priests and elders hated Jesus and had delivered Him up because they envied Him. 19Then Pilate sat down on his judgment seat, and he received a message from his wife: “Distance yourself utterly from the proceedings against this righteous man. I have had a dream about Him, a dream full of twisted sufferings—He is innocent, I know it, and we should have nothing to do with Him.”
And finally, we see an exasperated Pilate. He has found no guilt in the man Jesus. He has offered a common criminal in exchange for Jesus’ life - and still the crowd cries for the blood of the Nazarene. With no other way to appease the growing blood lust, Pilate literally washes his hands and absolves himself of responsibility.

Clean hands…

It seems that there is great concern with most of this narrative’s characters with the purity and cleanliness of their hands. Judas seeks to erase the blood from his own hands as he casts the payment for his betrayal at the feet of the priests. The priests are unwilling to place the money back into the coffers from which it came because it has now become “blood money”. Pilate’s wife dreams of the coming sufferings of an innocent man and pleads with her husband to avoid staining himself with Jesus blood. And finally Pilate literally washes his hands and turns Jesus over to the mob with these words:
Pilate: You will see to this crucifixion, for this man’s blood will be upon you and not upon me. I wash myself of it.

Crowd: Indeed, let His blood be upon us— upon us and our children!
And there it is… finally… someone willing – even eager - to wear the stain of this man’s death. Willing not only to wear it but to pass it on to their children.

The phrase “Plausible Deniability” entered our vocabulary in the mid 1970s and has been used a great deal since, especially in the political realm. The idea behind it is that those in the highest places of power are insulated from certain unsavory activities so that they are able to believably deny participation in questionable activities. If you are a fan of mafia movies or series like “The Sopranos” then you know that the mob works in much the same way. A form of this idea seems to be at work in this story. Everyone involved; from Judas to the priests to Pilate seem less concerned with Jesus guilt or innocence than in protecting themselves from being dirtied in the whole messy affair. Everyone wants to walk away from this story with clean hands.

But what if dirty hands are a good thing… what if holiness is found in dirty hands?

One of my favorite songs is a tune written and recorded by the Indigo Girls. The song is called “Hammer and a Nail”. Here’s a bit of the lyric:

…even my sweat smells clean -Glare off the white hurts my eyes 
Gotta get out of bed, get a hammer and a nail, learn how to use my hands 
Not just my head, I'll think myself into jail; now I know a refuge never grows 
From a chin in a hand in a thoughtful pose - Gotta tend the earth if you want a rose 

The idea is pretty simple, really. Most of the stuff that brings life and fulfillment and peace… most of these things get your hands dirty.

When I was a kid I had a mom who believed in work. Physical labor. HARD physical labor. We owned 20 acres but our house was built in the back corner of the property with only about 20-30 feel from our back door to deep, thick, southeast Arkansas forest. My mom wanted a big pretty back yard. So… she called the guy who owned the woods behind us and got permission to clear and landscape it – about 100 yards beyond our own property. And when I say she got permission for us… I mean me. I spent two months (or so) on that job and suffered exhaustion, a horrible case of poison ivy, and used several bars of lava soap. I was probably 14 or 15 at the time. I can’t say that I remember it fondly but I can say that, once it was done, it was really nice. Pathways through the larger remaining trees. Flower beds. It was really nice. And my hands were really dirty. Also worth noting that, due in large part to my mother’s belief in physical labor, I graduated high school at 135 pounds with a 30” waste. A young man once told his father, who was a farmer, that he had decided to go to college to pursue the “higher things” because the higher things could be pursued in the shade.

The book of Acts is a story of a people who got their hands dirty. Who risked and worked and sweated to carry the kingdom as far as they could reach. Unfortunately, Christianity quickly became defined by what we believe rather than by what we do. You don’t have to spend five minutes on the internet to figure out that that has not changed much in the last 1700-1800 years. Doctrines don’t get our hands dirty. Arguments over theology rarely put earth under our fingernails. The word “Liturgy” does not mean “what the people believe” or “how the people think”. In means – the “work of the people”.

Our history is filled with Saints who were not afraid of dirty hands. In today’s reading we see the story of Maximillian Kolbe, who hid Jews during World War II and was eventually executed in the camps at Auschwitz. Or Russian Saint Basil the Blessed (the Holy Fool) who shoplifted and gave to the poor in order to shame the miserly rich and who openly rebuked Ivan the Terrible for his violent behavior toward his own people. We see the ink stained hands of the Irish Monks who transcribed the scripture at Kells. Father Damien, Mother Theresa, Bonhoffer, Corrie Ten Boom… Hands that touch and embrace the leper, the AIDS victim, the prisoner, the orphan. Dirty hands… Holy hands…

When Jesus left his disciples on the mountaintop, he left them with a task… a great commission. He told them - not to get their beliefs straight or to establish sound doctrine. He told them to “CHANGE THE WORLD.”

Augustine, no opponent of theological and doctrinal purity said that any interpretation (of scripture) which leads us into living a life of love has been interpreted "goodly" even though not correctly. In other words… If what we believe about the bible leads us to do the work of the kingdom – then our theology, no matter how messed up, has done its work. If I can paraphrase the entire book of James: “don’t tell me what you believe – show me what you have done – show me the dirt on your hands.

We change the world when we get our hands dirty in the mess of a friends divorce – in a homeless camp in the middle of Chenal – when we love folks that don’t look like us or believe what we believe. We get our hands dirty when we decide to grow something of our faith instead of settling for a processed, pre-packaged version of somebody else’s faith.

There is another character in today’s passage who was not motivated by an effort to escape the blood on his hands… Jesus

In him we see what the work of the kingdom looks like. In His stained hands we see the sacrifice involved in being more than a hearer of the word but a doer. We see the sweat and blood mingled on his brow. We see the dust of the road to Calvary caked on his legs and chest in a muddy mixture of earth and sweat and blood. We see a God who was willing to get His hands dirty in order to show us how the world is changed.

My life is part of the global life; I'd found myself becoming more immobile
When I'd think a little girl in the world can't do anything
A distant nation my community, a street person my responsibility
If I have a care in the world I have a gift to bring

May we be a people who believe that we are responsible for one another.

May we find the beauty in thinking less and doing more…

TALKING less and doing more.

and may we joyfully take the dirty, stained hand of those around us into our own earthy grasp and continue to tend the earth and change the world.

His Kingdom Come…

Sunday, August 07, 2011

the beauty of peeling paint

This is a holy moment…

Matthew 26:26-35 - New International Version (NIV) 26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the[a] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” 30 When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. 31 Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written:   “‘I will strike the shepherd,     and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’[b]   32 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” 33 Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”   34 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” 35 But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.

A sacrament, in a general definition, refers to a ritual meant to invoke divine presence. The Roman Catholic Church defines a sacrament as “an outward sign of an inward (invisible) grace, instituted by Jesus Christ”. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) established the 7 sacraments which are still recognized by Roman Catholics today.  The 7 Sacraments are: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Marriage, and Holy Orders (ordination). The Eastern church general accepts the same 7 Sacraments or “Holy Mysteries”, while most Protestants accept only 2 – Baptism and Communion.

An argument can and has been made that, in today’s passage, it was not Jesus’ intent to establish a new sacrament; that he was, in fact, simply observing the very old tradition of the Passover Meal and that his admonition “as often as you do this…” was an assumption that his followers would continue this yearly observance of Passover but with a new and deeper understanding of its meaning.  Regardless of Jesus’ intent, the New Testament seems to indicate that this practice eventually became much more frequent than the yearly Passover feast.

Holy Mysteries...

The Orthodox Church teaches that the Sacraments are humanity’s mystical participation in divine grace. I think maybe that is true. One of the tragedies of modern evangelicalism is the move away from this mystical eastern belief paradigm to a rational logic based system.  Our need to understand has become greater than our need to simply know. Our effort to build a systematic theology which answers every question and defeats every challenge has damaged our ability to wonder… to experience awe… to have our breath taken away by the beautiful mystery of our existence and the Word who was there from the beginning.

When we lose mystery; when we trade it for understanding, we lose the sacraments… the beauty of this holy moment between Jesus and his friends. This moment becomes a one dimensional picture – a familiar image on a canvas – a moment whose beauty is covered and hidden in our understanding; our interpretation of the event.

Arguably, Leonardo DaVinci’s “The Last Supper” is one of the 4 or 5 most iconic and well known works of art ever created. Painted between 1495 and 1497, the painting measures 15 ft x 29 ft and covers the entire wall of a monastery in Milan, Italy. Because of the materials used and the nature of the painting, it began to deteriorate pretty quickly and by 1556 fewer than 60 years after its completion, one critic declared to work “ruined”. 

By the 1970’s the painting looked like this and in 1978 a 21 year restoration project began which involved, perhaps to oversimplify, painting over the original work – essentially covering the original with an official copy. Some critics claim that the restored version contains significant changes in color, tones, and even some facial shapes.

Those of you who are art history buffs may enjoy this but I imagine others are looking for a connection – other than the painting’s subject matter - to the text. Here it is:

I wonder if in our desire to understand - to create a good doctrine or theology – we lose the beauty, the mystery of the sacrament in our effort to improve it.  Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) saw the painting on a trip to Milan in 1844 and said:

"First we visited the fading inimitable fresco of Leonardo da Vinci. How vain are copies! not in one, nor in any print, did i ever see the slightest approach to the expression in our Savior’s face, such as it is in the original. Majesty and love - these are the words that would describe it - joined to an absence of all guile that expresses the divine nature more visibly than I ever saw it in any other picture."

If familiarity really does breed contempt; many of us have lost the mystery of Eucharist through repetition… through vain observance. If your tradition is a highly liturgical tradition, maybe the bread and wine have lost their power through monotony and dry ritual. Others see no mystery because our traditions removed them… intentionally. By observing the sacrament erratically or rarely -  by moving it from the center of worship to an afterthought – our traditions have sought to make the practice a shallow symbol with no real cause for awe or contemplation.
But what if there is more? What if the act of breaking bread – drinking wine – is more than a picture… more than a symbol? What if the mystery of Eucharist – of all the sacraments – is that in their observance we truly touch the divine? What if Christ is actually present in the bread and wine? If that were true – if we believed that were true – who would we invite?

A few years ago, Jerusalem gave me a book called “Take this Bread”. The book was written by a journalist named Sara Miles. It is her story – a story of unexpected encounter and transformation found within the deep mystery of Eucharist.

One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, and took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans—except that up until that moment I'd led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. On my walks in the neighborhood, I'd passed the wood-shingled building with its sign: ST GREGORY OF NYSSA EPISCOPAL CHURCH. Now with no more than a reporter’s habitual curiosity—or so I thought—I opened the door. What happened a few minutes later is a mystery. I still can't explain my first Communion; it made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb, or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening—I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happening—the piece of bread was the “body” of “Christ,” a patently untrue, or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happening—God, named “Christ” or “Jesus,” was real, and in my mouth—utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry. …why did Communion move me? Why did I feel as if I were being entered and taken over, completely stirred up by someone whose name I’d only spoken before as a casual expletive? I couldn’t reconcile the experience with anything I knew or had been told. But neither could I go away: for some inexplicable reason, I wanted that bread again. I wanted it all the next day after my first Communion, and the next week, and the next. It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger, pulling me back to the table through my fear and confusion.

Sara Miles encountered the flaking, deteriorating paint of a centuries old image - uncovered and un-restored. Maybe this is what happens when we encounter mystery. Maybe this is where he awaits us. Maybe we find him, not so much in understanding but in touch, encounter, experience, presence.

Most relationships are rooted in mystery. When my wife asks me “do you love me?” I certainly answer “Yes”. But when she follows up with “why?” I have a hard time finding an answer. After 26 years it would seem that I could easily answer that question and yet – I cannot. If we are honest, in most of our relationships, it is much easier to find reasons not to love. If our love for our partners, our friends, our families could be justified through reason or understanding then love would cease to transcend reason. We would only love those who deserve our love. We would love no one… and no one would love us.

Love is mystery. It is transcendent. And it comes without explanation or an answer to “why?” It comes from presence, from connection. It comes whether we seek it or run from it.

What caused John to leap in his mother’s womb? What caused men who earned their living at sea to drop their nets and follow a young carpenter? What caused Saul to take a new name and to follow (and eventually lead) a cult he had been on his way to crush? What caused an atheist, left-wing activist to weep for love and to hunger for bread and wine that fed the soul as well as the body?

Understanding? Reason? A fresh coat of paint on a decaying image?

or - maybe - it was presence… divine presence. Maybe each of us carries within us a tiny combustible piece of His divinity – the fingerprint of our creator. And maybe when we are near Him – when He touches that divinity – it glows and it burns and it changes us. We do not always understand. We do not always need to understand. We see Him and He changes us. We touch Him and He remakes us. We come near him and we are born… again.

We come to the Eucharist table with high expectations or no expectation at all. We come with great faith, with doubt, or with no belief at all. We are invited to experience him - all of us - and no matter how we come, He is here.

"I was, as the prophet said, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. I found it at the eternal and material core of Christianity: body, blood, bread, wine, poured out freely, shared by all." ~ Sara Miles

May we find awe in His presence…

May we find wonder…

May He take our breath away whenever he is near…

His Kingdom Come…