Against Empire

urban meyer
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer

“The king must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again.’  He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.  When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests.  It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.” (Deuteronomy 17:14-20, NIV)

King Solomon was wildly successful.  He expanded the kingdom of Israel in every way: more land; more gold; more buildings; more wealth; more wisdom; big temple; big family; more and big of everything.  We do not have an account that anyone called out Solomon on his big expansive government and lifestyle.

Methinks the reason for letting King Solomon go unchecked was that he was surrounded by people who enjoyed and participated in his success.  Even though he was often operating well outside of the Deuteronomic law which was right there in black and white, Solomon’s subjects only saw that he established peace, security, and a high standard of living for the nation.  Solomon acquired a massive amount of horses, wives, gold, and everything the law warned against.

Solomon was very humble and wise at the beginning of his reign.  He did everything his father David asked of him, and more.  But his wild success as king gradually brought Solomon to acquire more stuff, more wives, and to fudge on the responsibilities and requirements of the king.  Solomon established an Empire and denied himself nothing when it came to the perks of power.

There is always a dark underbelly to the outward display of power, success, and wealth.  As time goes on, the Empire becomes a god and people begin supporting the system instead of the Deity who makes it all possible to begin with.  Pride replaces humility.  Foolish ignoring of evidence becomes the norm.  Optics arises as supreme.  Solomon basically enslaved a large swath of Israel’s population to get things done in the Empire.  His success was on the backs of a lower class of people.  But, hey, who cares, as-long-as there is no war, the borders are secure, and the nation’s coffers are getting filled beyond anybody’s wildest expectations?

When the Empire becomes supreme and brings in the money, no one questions the leader.  Yes, I understand all of this happened thousands of years ago.  However, even though times change, people don’t.

It doesn’t matter the context of the Empire’s power; if it exists, it operates eerily the same.  Whether it’s Bill Hybels as the leader of a wildly successful megachurch; Urban Meyer as the leader of a crazy successful football program at Ohio State; or, any government leader overseeing immense wealth; the same ignoring of evidence among constituents, congregants, citizens, and fans exists.  In other words, people tend to look the other way when things are going well.  Whereas the leader may have once started out as wise and humble, the eventual wild success changes them.

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Willow Creek Church founding Pastor, Bill Hybels

But things are never really going that well.  The dark underbelly hides realities of sexual abuse, domestic abuse, and all kinds of other abuses all in the name of maintaining the success, that is, the Empire.

Show me a wildly successful leader of an Empire, no matter what that Empire is, and I’ll show you an entire coterie of sycophants who continually look to cash-in on that success through recognition, power, and money.  In the case of Hybel’s context, Willowcreek Community Church, the elder board (eventually) did the right thing in resigning – once they got clear-headed enough to see that they were complicit.  Ohio State still seems to have their collective heads in the sand – not seeing the situation for what it is.  Meanwhile, abuse is not squarely dealt with because the system of Empire churns along with impunity.  Unquestioning support of a human leader, whether it is in sports, in church, in government, or in a business corporation because the Empire has such incredible success is a recipe for disaster.  People will get hurt and abused; and, the victims will have no one to believe them on the inside.  Too many other folks are benefiting from the Empire.  They don’t want to see the dark underbelly.

Personally, I always come back to Jesus.  He is the ultimate example.  The Lord Jesus was humble, meek, gentle, loving, and always used his emotions and abilities toward the ends of healing others, not hurting them.  Jesus did not build an Empire.  Yes, I understand an argument could be made that the Church is an Empire (and it did exist as one in Medieval Europe).  Yet, Jesus Christ purposely and deliberately eschewed Empire.  He often told people to keep quiet about his good deeds of healing so that the seeds of Empire could not even germinate.

What’s more, Jesus did not surround himself with sycophants.  He chose the most motley crew of people one could imagine.  Christ’s original twelve disciples were such an unknown and diverse bunch of rag-tag Jewish men that nobody could mistake them as Empire building guys.  They were about a movement, not an Empire.  They were concerned for the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of their own making.

The people we surround ourselves with, no matter whether we’re high mucky-muck leaders or lower-class invisible persons, or anyone in-between, is vitally important.  We all need loving persons around us who will tell us what we need to hear in a spirit of love and grace.  Speaking the truth in love is not optional equipment for any of us.  None of us do well with success unless we have humble and wise persons close to us who have the gumption and the grace to speak into our lives to help us, not hurt us.  When we don’t have that, things go sideways in a hurry.

If a guy like King Solomon, who was the wisest person who ever lived, can ignore his own nation’s God and Holy Scripture to get whatever he wanted, then how much more do we, who have less wisdom, need the grace of loving people speaking truth to our hearts?

Exposing the dark underbelly of Empire will always be fraught with the risk of people not believing and, worse, not caring.  That’s why the Christian New Testament liberally uses the word “light” to describe what kind of people we are to be.  Just as Jesus is the Light of the World, shining himself into all the dark and shadowy places of our lives and the systems of this world, so his followers are to be his flashlights, shining in such a way that is righteously persistent and gracious.

It isn’t our job to build a great Christian Empire to ensure prayer in public schools, the Ten Commandments in every courthouse, and manger scenes everywhere at Christmas.  Rather, it is our responsibility and privilege to fully embrace the status of poverty of spirit; grief, lament, and mournfulness over the sin of the world’s Empires; meekness toward others; hunger for right relationships; mercy for all; pure relations with everyone; and, peacemakers who shepherd people to the green pastures of forgiveness and harmony with God and humanity.

Today we all have the opportunity to build something greater than ourselves – a legacy which invites accountability, openness, and vulnerability which blesses the world and doesn’t seek its accolades.  It’s not always how you start; its often what motivates you and how you end that matters most.  Just ask Citizen Kane.

So, may you know the grace of caring relationships; the mercy of hearing hard things; the joy of being above board in everything you say and do; and, the humility to admit when you’ve gone off the rails.

Before We Chose God, God Chose Us

living bread

“Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died.  But the one who eats this bread will live forever….  For this reason, I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” –Jesus (John 6:57-59, 65, NRSV)

It would be weird if someone insisted that they chose to be born.  I think most of us would respond something like, “Um, wait here just a moment,” then go and call the local psych ward.  That’s because we have no problem understanding that well before any of us were born, the love of two people conceived us.  Our choices within our family of origin are ours to own.  Yet, the initial choice to be a person on this planet was not ours to make.  We, rather obviously, are delusional to think otherwise.

The same is true on the spiritual plane.  Just as life is a gift given to us, so to be born again and have eternal life is a gracious grant given to us by God.  Yes, if we are Christians somewhere along life’s journey we chose Jesus.  Yet, long before our own individual choices were made, before the foundation of the world, God himself conceived of us and decided to give us the gift of faith to believe.

Before we get in a huff about the perceived lack of control on our part, stop and consider what a crazy hot mess of an apocalypse there would be if you or I were in charge.  Whatever issues people might have with God, having someone else in the driver’s seat is a bit like putting Homer Simpson as the sentinel guarding the donuts.  Probably not the best of ideas.

I would rather stick with Jesus, even when his words seem edgy and scandalous.  After all, telling folks they need to “eat me” could really go sideways in a hurry.  It’s no wonder that the early church often got accused of practicing cannibalism at the Lord’s Table.

God in Christ chose us so that we could enjoy an incredible restored relationship with our Creator.  Jesus, the Jew that he was, often spoke with deep layers of meaning.  What on the surface might seem super-strange is meant to convey things in a much richer and fuller way.  If it confuses some people, then maybe we need to sit with Christ’s words for a bit before simplifying them into some mish-mash of blither that ends up having no real meaning at all.

Beyond the sheer literal description of eating the body of Christ and drinking his blood, and merely flattening it out to mean Christian communion with wine and wafers, it could just be that Jesus wanted us to grab hold the grace of discovering the following five realities of his merciful passion up close and personal.

  1. Participation

To ingest Jesus is to participate in him.  It is to have a close, intimate connection and union with him.  Jesus identifies with his people so closely that it is as if we have absorbed him into our very being as much as any food nutrients.

I once lived near an old fence line.  The fence was long gone but one lone fence post remained.  A tree had grown up alongside and then around the post.  The post remained because the tree assimilated and engulfed it.  The only way to remove the fence post would be to cut down the tree – they were that much a part of each other.

We are in union with the Lord Jesus.  No one is snatching us out of his clutches.  We participate in his life.  We live because he lives.  We make choices because he first chose us.

  1. Provision

When we eat, what we eat, how we eat, and whom we eat with are anything but ancillary issues to the ancient Near Eastern mind and practice.  Food is a gift, a gracious gift given to us by a merciful Father who has our best interests at mind.  At the very heart of God is a hospitable bent that invites the misfit person, the misunderstood, the misanthrope, the miscellaneous, and any other “mis-sed” person into his wonderful provision of food.

Eating meals for most people around the world isn’t just about food; it’s about offering the acceptance of hospitality and communicating encouragement and recognition through lively conversation with the dignity of listening to another.  We severely truncate the power of meals when food is just gobbled quickly down alone by ourselves to satiate our growling stomachs.

Christ’s words about himself being the living bread that comes from heaven is chocked full of meaning.  On the heels of just having fed the five-thousand with bread, Jesus not only connects himself with the manna God gave the Israelites in the desert, but also lets his followers know that he is the only provision that will truly satisfy the most intense hunger.  “Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness,” he explained in his greatest Sermon, “for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6, NIV).

Through the provision of food, God invites us into his life.  What’s more, we are ushered into the realm of those who are recognized, seen, and accepted – regardless of our glaring warts, quirky idiosyncratic ways, and shadowy sins.  That’s because when God creates, he provides.  And when he provides, he graciously gives his blessing.

  1. Protection

Maybe it goes without saying that, by now, God will protect those whom he engrafts into his very life.  Yet, it still needs to be said with deliberate unction: God protects his own.

Getting back to the food thing, God’s meal-deal includes a generous portion of protection.  To come under a person’s roof to enjoy a meal together is to come under the owner of that home’s protection.  God never intended to save us, feed us, and provide for us without giving us everything we need for life and godliness in this present evil age (2 Peter 1:3).

All the implements we need to both defend ourselves and move forward with offense are graciously given to us.  The helmet of salvation, the breastplate of righteousness, the belt of truth, the shield of faith, the shoes of peace, and the sword wielding Word of God are all for our protection.  We only need to put them on, pick them up, and use them (Ephesians 6:10-20).

  1. Profession

The nub and the rub of Christ’s discussion about being living bread is that people need to eat him, that is, him only.  In other words, you only get to God through Jesus.  Period.  No exceptions.  Understandably, this was a hard teaching.  It was so hard that, when his followers grasped what in the heck he was saying, a big chunk of them left.  They didn’t sign up for this kind of exclusive rhetoric and crap about only being one real bread.

It has always been the scandal of Christians throughout the ages to insist that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one can come to the Father except through him (John 14:6).  But there it is.  And no amount of watering it down makes it go away.

I love and adore a variety of people.  I have many friends from different faith traditions and belief structures.  I would die for every one of them.  I would come to their side at any time they call me.  And I believe they need Jesus.  I believe everyone needs Jesus.  I understand that not everyone wants Jesus, or acknowledges him, or believes he is who he claims to be.  Nevertheless, to try and mitigate or diffuse or minimize Christ’s very hard words is doing a disservice and an injustice to what Jesus was truly saying and claiming.

To profess Jesus as Lord and Savior is a gift that is being received from a gracious and merciful gift-giver, who is God.

  1. Perpetual

The simple observation about eating is that you don’t just eat once, never to eat again.  Nope, we continually eat every single day, most of us doing it multiple times in the day.  We in the West have refrigerators full of food, some of which ends up getting moldy and no good.  Maybe we stockpile food because we don’t connect it with Jesus.  If God is the One who truly gives the grace of a decent meal, perhaps we would feel less prone to buy food and eat it like it’s going out of style.

We are to eat Jesus.  Not once.  Not twice.  But continually.  Every day.  Christ is the perpetual feast.  We are to come to him day after day, receiving his gift of sustenance for us in every sense of the concept.

We can choose to come to Jesus because he has first given himself to us.  Before we chose God, God chose us by giving us deliverance from our misguided ways through the merciful work of Jesus.

Why I Do What I Do

Kierkegaard on life

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards… Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” ― Soren Kierkegaard

Motivation matters.  What gets us up in the morning tells a lot about why we choose to do what we do with our day.  The spiritual care of others out of the overflow of my heart, full of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is the driving force of my life.  It’s grounded in the goodness of God and God’s good creation.

As a Christian, I believe that all spiritual care begins with the God of creation and ends with the God of hope.  The Christian tradition emphasizes that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The apex of his creation, the height of all God’s creative activity, is the formation of humanity upon the earth.  Human beings alone have been created in the image and likeness of God – reflecting him in their care for all creation (Genesis 1:26-27).  Therefore:

All human beings on the good earth which God created are inherently good creatures and deserve utmost respect and common decency. 

People also carry within them a nature, due to the fall of humanity, of brokenness, fear, shame, regret, and pride.  Thus, people are complicated creatures with the capacity for both great good and benevolent altruism, as well as great evil committed through heinous acts, and everything in-between in their culture-making and their civilization (Genesis 3-4).

I have personally found the resolution to these realities of the presence of both good and evil, are resolved in the person and work of Jesus.  In Christ, I was made aware of my own guilt due to things I have done, and things I have left undone; given grace through his redemptive events; and, thus, extend gratitude to God through living into his original design of creature care (this is the structure of the 16th century Reformed Confession, The Heidelberg Catechism).   Therefore:

My identity as a person is firmly rooted and grounded in the soil of God’s grace. 

I freely give grace to congregants, patients, and others because Jesus Christ freely gave to me.  My Christianity has the practical effect of acknowledging that each person on planet earth is inherently worthy of love, support, concern, and care.

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Furthermore, as a Christian, everything in my life centers (ideally) around Jesus.  As such, I take my cues for how to extend care to others from him.  For me, Jesus is the consummate caregiver.  He entered people’s lives and their great sea of need with the gift of listening; a focus on feelings; and, the power of touch.  Christ was able: to listen to others because he first listened to the Father; to be present with others because he was present with the Father; and, to give love to others with the love he enjoyed within the Trinitarian Godhead (John 14).

This does not mean that I act as God acts; it means I love as Christ first loved me.  I am human, a creature.  God is divine, the Creator.  I do not have the role of God.  Rather, I emulate the caring practice of Jesus in his earthly ministry.  I embrace my human role to listen, establish empathic connection, and offer a supportive spiritual presence.

It is God who is active in giving the grace of healing and mending broken bodies, damaged souls, and fractured lives in his own good time and benevolence. 

In short, I embrace the process of care, and God brings about the outcome of transformation (1 John 4:7-21).  I am neither, therefore, responsible to change a person’s feelings nor involved to fix their broken body and/or spirit.  I am there to wed competency with compassion, detachment with support, and discretion with comfort.

Listening to, acknowledging, honoring, and inviting the communication of feelings is what I did, for example, with a healthcare patient named Esther (not her real name).  Esther was being surly and mean to staff and threw her food in defiance.  When I entered Esther’s room she yelled and complained of not being cared for.  I came and knelt beside her bedside, took her hand, and simply said, “Tell me what’s going on.”  A cascade of emotions came pouring out of Esther.  No one had the time (nor, perhaps, the desire) to listen to her.  Esther shared her frustration of chronic illness, a deep and hurtful wondering of where God is, and a profound pessimism that anything would ever change for her.

The only other words I offered Esther was: “I hurt with you.”  I was present, I listened, and I sought to live into what the Apostle John said: “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and in action” (1 John 3:18).  When I left Esther’s room, after I had stayed with her until she was calm, another dear woman was waiting for me, sitting in her wheelchair, outside of Esther’s room.  She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said with heartfelt declaration, “You are my Pastor!  A few weeks ago, when I was sitting alone after an event, you came and asked me if you could wheel me back to my room.  That’s not your job, and I know you are a busy man.  You didn’t have to do that, and I am so thankful you are here and giving kindness to an old woman like me.”  And she began to break down and cry.

In these visits, I believe I am emulating the compassionate presence of Jesus because:

People’s stories of joy and pain, laughter and sorrow, certainty and wondering, are sacred narratives – continuously being written and revised in the heart, trying to make sense of life and faith. 

Patients in need, residents in care facilities, those with disabilities of body and/or soul, and all who are the other side of the spiritual tracks may not be able to fully give themselves to their own motivations; yet, they are still full-time human beings who need the emotional connections which a caring and supportive person can provide.

Christ’s very pastoral response to nearly everyone he encountered was not to explain evil and trauma, but to confound and confront it with love. 

Christ with others

Jesus did not walk around performing unsolicited healings, but dignified people with asking them what they wanted, and if they desired to be made whole. “Do you want to be made well?” discerns that others need to explain their situations and their stories and does not assume that someone wants a change in identity (John 5:1-9).

The craft of caring for others is not only objective clinical-like work directed toward another person; it is also profoundly, personally, and subjectively transforming for the caregiver.  Every person, no matter who they are, is precious and carries within them the image of God.  The personal journey and discovery of God-likeness within each person is an emotional adventure worth taking.  Perhaps the greatest Christian theologian of the 20th century, the Protestant Swiss Karl Barth, believed that we are not fully human apart from: mutual seeing and being seen; reciprocal speaking and listening; granting one another mutual assistance; and, doing all of this with gratitude and gratefulness.  Barth used the German term Mitmenschlichkeit (co-humanity) to communicate that we are not human without the other.  In other words, human flourishing requires mutual giving and receiving.

Only in relation to each other, including those in need, do we thrive as people.

Christianity is a fellowship with God and one another, and not an isolated odyssey.  Thus, any kind of care-giving, for me, is a symbiotic relationship between the care-seeker and the caregiver, within the foundation of Trinitarian love, expressed with grace and hope given by Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The person in need not be Christian for this to occur, since all share the common human experience of birth, life, and death as people distinct from all other creatures, worthy of compassionate support and spiritual uplift.  This is the reason why I do and feel what I do and feel, as a believer in and minister for Jesus Christ.

Learning to Grieve Well

grieving well

One day, years ago in a previous church experience, Frank (not his real name) came up to me concerned about a woman in the congregation.  The woman, Daphne (not her real name), had recently had a miscarriage when just beginning her third trimester.  Frank proceeded to tell me that it had been a few weeks since the terrible event of Daphne’s miscarriage, and he had never seen her cry.  Frank was uneasy with this and wanted to go tell her that something was wrong that she wasn’t bawling over her tragedy.

Although I think Frank’s heart was mostly in the right place to have concern, there were a couple of things off about his thoughts.  These few things I’m going to highlight are important to keep in mind.  Whether you are grieving yourself because of some trauma or hard situation, or whether you want to be there to encourage and help another person going through trouble, there are two realities to keep in mind through the hard road of grief.  The first reality is this:

Grief is personal.  No two people grieve in exactly the same way.

Part of Frank’s concern was that he himself had gone through the death of a child, and he had cried much over it.  In fact, he had tears in his eyes just talking to me about something that happened many years ago.  Frank had found that his crying and emotional expressions were a central part of coming to terms with his own child’s death.  So, when Daphne was not responding in the same way as he had, he quickly assumed she was in denial and was not grieving.

The truth was that I was close to Daphne and her family enough to know that she and her husband were very much in grief, and were certainly working through their awful ordeal.  Daphne had never been much of an emotional person, and she found that lots of talking with girlfriends and other women was an important path of healing; and, that having her pastor pray for her and her family and just be around in a spiritual presence reassured her that God was with her.

A few weeks after Daphne’s miscarriage, she was clearly still in the throes of grieving.  I knew her well enough to know that eventually she would have that big cry session.  Daphne was a more reflective person, and her grief was buckets-load more cerebral than Frank, who tended to wear his feelings on his sleeve.  As it turns out, sure enough, two months down-the-road, Daphne’s emotions caught up with her and she had her own very personal big cry session.  This brings me to my second important reality that we must keep in mind….

You cannot put a timetable on grief, especially someone else’s.

Another part of Frank’s concern was actually his own anxiety coming through.  He knew firsthand how hard it is to go through something that you never saw coming and forever changes you.  Through Daphne’s tragedy, Frank was reliving his own nightmare.  If Daphne could get through her grief, hopefully by having a good cry and getting over it, then Frank could move on and not feel so damned uncomfortable himself.  This was, of course, not a conscious reality for Frank.  But that’s what makes grief so complicated.  Other people’s grief really does affect our own lives.  If we are not in touch with our own emotions and the deep hurts within that can be triggered at a moment’s notice, then we project our anxiety and our desire for tidy resolutions onto others who are not ready to be done with their bereavement or their grief.

When we put timetables on others’ grief, it says much more about us than the person grieving.  Statements like, “It’s been two weeks, and she should be over it,” and “When is he going to stop being so depressed?” come from a place inside of the statement-maker that cannot live with other people’s pain and would like it all to be better.  My bet is that such statements belie unresolved grief and hurt from the person making them.

Wise people sit with the emotions of others, and let them feel the full brunt of their feelings.  They don’t try to push emotions off, make the grief-stricken person better, or fix them so that they aren’t unhappy anymore.  The sage person knows that you cannot hurry grief along any more than you can make a turtle do a 4.6 second 40 meter race.  Besides, last I checked, the turtle ends up winning with his slow, yet deliberate pace.

When his good friend, Lazarus, was sick Jesus waited three days before he went to him.  In the meantime, Lazarus died.  Jesus was pressured to get there immediately, to take the fast track, to stop any sort of bereavement that might take place.  But Jesus didn’t let the anxiety of others dictate his Father’s agenda.  Because he operated on his own timetable, a miracle of resurrection proportions occurred (John 11:1-44).  And even when Jesus knew what was going to happen by raising Lazarus, that didn’t stop him from slowing down even more by taking the time to grieve and sit with others’ in their grief.  “Jesus wept,” was a genuine heartfelt response to the folks around him, as well as an authentic display of his own personal grieving over his friend’s passing.

jesus wept

What’s more, Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, never responded the same way to circumstances.  Whereas Mary wanted to be close to Jesus, Martha chose to work-out her frustrations in the kitchen.  Trying to pigeon-hole someone into a nice-and-neat grief to-do list never ends well for anyone.

So, how are we to grieve well when tragedy or trauma happens?  I’ve already hinted at it, but I’ll now give it to you plainly with two more realities….

You need to sit with your emotions.

When hard times come, our natural human reflexive response is to want to get away from the grief.  Feeling hard stuff hurts.  No one likes pain.  But feel we must.  Ignoring how we feel only puts emotions on hold – it doesn’t take them away.  Emotions must be felt deeply, usually over a long period of time for most people.  No one ever just “gets over” the death of a child or any other trauma.  It forever changes you.  Feeling angry, out-of-control, powerless, depressed, mentally and/or physically pained, and a whole host of other emotions can come flying at you like razor-blade arrows aimed at your heart.  Go ahead and feel them, feel them all.

Also, let others feel them, as well.  It isn’t anybody’s job to fix another person in grief.  You and I don’t heal people – that’s God’s job.

Your emotions will make a comeback in the future.

Just like the example of Frank, your emotions can get triggered by another’s grief, or even when you least expect it with seeing, hearing, or smelling something that reminds you of what you have lost.  Just because you grieved, and even grieved well, back there in the past doesn’t mean that it is a one-and-done affair.  Nope.  Not even close.  The feelings associated with that hard thing in your past can come back at the drop of a hat.  It’s okay.  Go ahead and feel them again.  Don’t short-circuit the emotions.  Coming to grips with trauma and hurt takes a lifetime of dealing with.  That’s not a popular message today; but it is certainly a true one.

I myself have had to learn the hard way that having a detached Mr. Spock-like approach to trauma only compounds the trouble.  I might not always be in touch with my emotions, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel deeply.  Sometimes I need to slow down and stop long enough to feel, instead of running away from my heart.

Trauma, tragedy, and hard circumstances forever change us.  We can never go back to the way things were.  But, over time, we can learn to pay attention to our emotions, acknowledge them, and live with them as guides and friends rather than as unwanted guests.

“Why, God!?”

why god

“Why, God!?” is a refrain expressed by all kinds of people and, most likely, by you at some point in your life.  That’s because we all face suffering, on some level.  The circumstances might vary from person to person, but we all have been touched by this fallen world and experience some sort of brokenness.

Brokenness of either/both body and soul comes in all shapes and sizes.  Yes, it sometimes is the result of our own foolish and/or self-destructive choices.  But sick bodies, broken spirits, and damaged souls are just as likely to occur simply because we live in this world that’s askew from how it should be.  In other words, sometimes we really are victims of disease, accidents, natural disasters, and mysterious evil that we have trouble putting a name to.

In such situations, it’s very normal of the human condition to cry: “Why, God!?”  I like honesty, and this is an honest question.  Personally, I don’t “poo-poo” people who are frank and sincere with God.  Yes, sometimes that question is only rhetorical – not really asking a question but expressing anger.  That’s okay, too, because God is more than big enough to handle a question asked in frustration, even rage.  Even a cursory reading of the book of Psalms reveals David’s emotions of not understanding many of his situations and exactly what he’d like to see happen.  Sometimes he pukes some awfully raw feelings onto God – and those emotionally charged words made their way as being a part of the Bible.

I get it.  Suffering is an unwanted companion, and we’d like to send it packing and have nothing to do with it.  Yet, suffering and the evil it can wreak is not outside the purview of God.  As heinous and as powerful as suffering might manifest itself, it is never beyond God’s capacity to touch it with resurrection power.

The answer to our “why?” question is, frankly, not usually answered – and even if it does get answered, sometimes we don’t like what we hear.  I want to make an observation about the New Testament Gospels and the life of Jesus, and I want you to consider it for a moment.  The observation is this:

Jesus never explained evil and suffering. 

Christ did not send out fliers and emails for a seminar on suffering from a divine perspective to be held at the downtown Jerusalem Hilton.  Instead, Jesus, the supreme Pastor, was present with people in their pain and wondering.  Jesus Christ did not provide cerebral answers to questions; he asked his own questions and filled people with God’s grace, forgiveness, and love.

Jesus encountered people in their concrete real-live struggles and trouble, and, when a group of five-thousand people were hungry, he asked, “Who will feed them?” and when folks were struggling with how to make ends-meet, “Where is your treasure?” and to those with misplaced values, “What does it profit?”  Christ’s questions were designed to shepherd and lead people toward a path of healing, not necessarily a way of being cured.  Jesus Christ’s words and actions were meant to show people that he himself is the path toward peace, healing, and, sometimes, even the perceived need to be healed.

In the encounter with a Samaritan woman, Jesus, the Pastor, comes along and has a lengthy conversation with her that began with talking about getting a drink of water on a hot day and ends with the woman being in touch, maybe for the first time, with her deepest need of being accepted, loved, and satisfied.  Sometimes I chuckle over some scholars and writers pouring over this story in John’s Gospel, trying to find the secret sauce or discernible outline to speaking with people in need of emotional and spiritual healing or enlightenment.  Yet, again, I’ll just make a simple observation about the story:

Jesus put love where love was not.

woman at the well

The woman did not have love from the Jews because she was a “half-breed” Samaritan.  Furthermore, she had a string of loveless marriages and was with a man who apparently was just using her.  Then, Jesus showed up.  He abandoned all contemporary Jewish convention by speaking with a Samaritan woman.  He put his agenda on hold.  He was fully present to her.  He asked questions and took the time to listen.  And then he extended to her the kind of love that she desperately needed. Drinking water from a deep well became a powerful metaphor and picture of cleansing and refreshment to a dry and parched soul that had not known love for a very long time.  Jesus changed her life.  He put love where love was not (John 4:1-42).

So, let’s wheel back around to the question of “why?” and “why” we ask it in the first place.  Typically, we want a fix.  We’re broken, and it’s a big enough mess that the only repair person is God.  God, however, doesn’t feel the same anxiety we do about the dilemma (in fact, he doesn’t have any worry at all).  Instead, God does something we usually don’t expect.  He sends someone to care, and another to help, and yet another to pray, and even more to meet various needs.  Behind the scenes, far from our fear-laden hearts, the Lord of the universe is paying attention to us and orchestrating a massive campaign of love.

In those times when it seems chaos will win the day, and in those seasons when evil appears to have the high ground, please know that there is a God in heaven who sees your life and is personally writing a protest song against the injustice and unfairness of what is happening.  And Christ’s resurrection is at the center of that song.  When it’s sung, it will melt fear, cause demons to flee, and create transformation in ways that you would never have seen coming.  Where we are looking for a supernatural miracle, God is eyeing to bring common ordinary people to your doorstep with a basket full of love.

When Jesus left this earth, here is exactly what he wanted his followers to know going forward:

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).

The ever-present love of Christ shall never leave you, nor forsake you.  You can count on it.  Allow your “why” question to turn into a “who” question.  “Who” will be with me to the end, will pour his love into my heart, and will hold me up when I can’t stand anymore?  Every path leads to one infinite source of living water: Jesus Christ.  It is to him that you and I are to find our peace and our rest.

Mark 12:18-27 – Go Ahead, Ask Jesus Anything

q & a

Sadducees, who deny that there is a resurrection, came to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a widow but no children, the brother must marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.  Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman; when he died, he left no children.  The second married her and died without leaving any children. The third did the same.  None of the seven left any children. Finally, the woman died.  At the resurrection, when they all rise up, whose wife will she be? All seven were married to her.”

Jesus said to them, “Isn’t this the reason you are wrong, because you don’t know either the scriptures or God’s power?  When people rise from the dead, they won’t marry nor will they be given in marriage. Instead, they will be like God’s angels.  As for the resurrection from the dead, haven’t you read in the scroll from Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God said to Moses, I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?  He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living. You are seriously mistaken.”

Okay, let’s just dive right in with the observational lessons:

  • Don’t be a dip-wad and try and trip up Jesus with philosophically ethereal questions
  • If you like being rebuked by Jesus as being ignorant, mistaken, and wrong, just try and be in control of how a conversation with him ought to go
  • Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus are all alive – Sadducees, not so much
  • Jesus will take the time to listen to you close enough to give you feedback – and maybe the kind you weren’t looking for
  • What we get hung up on, Jesus doesn’t – and what Jesus sticks on, we act like Teflon about
  • Do you really want me to keep going….?

To deny resurrection is to deny Jesus.  He died.  He’s now alive.  Hence, there is a resurrection.  More than that, because Christ lives, others live.  This is the Christian’s hope.  I fully understand that plenty of people don’t believe in resurrection.  Fine.  I would simply point such a person no further than their own mind and heart.  “Search your feelings,” as the Jedi would say, “What do they tell you?”  The evidence you need, you already have.

And this was the penultimate lesson of Jesus to the inquisitive Sadducees.  They already had the answer to their question for Jesus.  It was right under their noses the entire time.  They just didn’t see it.

You already have everything you need for life and godliness in this present evil age.  One of the great sages of the last century, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, wisely said:

“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.  Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

Resurrection has always been there because God has always been around – even when we don’t see him, perceive him, or acknowledge him.  It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to procrastinate the inevitable end of life scenario that awaits us all.  Anytime is the right time to do a bit of personal funeral planning.  But if we mire it all with the esoteric hypothetical questions about what would happen in the most far-fetched of scenarios, methinks God is big and smart enough to see through our puny charade.

Better to ponder what is truly within your own soul, and how Jesus might already be present without you even knowing it.  A good place to start in peering within is to give a straightforward honest reading of the New Testament Gospels and discover what resonates deeply with you about the person and work of Jesus.

Feel free to question him about anything you want; just brace yourself for what kind of answer you might receive.

The Power of a Name

jesus and mary magdalene

It is more than ironic that one of the most powerful emotions on the planet is a feeling that is simply overlooked and often not recognized: the sense of being forgotten.  I’m not talking about rejection, but just being looked past by another, neglected, or an afterthought.  The sense that you are on no one’s radar can be more than disappointing – it can be devastating and destructive.  Yet, there is a way in which you and I can push back on this reality for the benefit of others and ourselves.  And on the other side of it, there is immense joy and satisfaction.

Notice that I didn’t mention the feeling of rejection along with the sense of being forgotten.  Rejection is certainly something you don’t like to experience.  It’s not a pleasurable emotion.  But it isn’t the same as being overlooked.  At least with getting a repudiating brush-off you are acknowledged by another.  That is, someone noticed you enough to even give a rebuff your way.  But with being neglected and forgotten, there is nothing.  If you have ever gotten the silent treatment from a parent, a co-worker, or a parishioner, then you likely know that getting any kind of words, even harsh ones, can seem better than being ignored altogether.

Sometimes neglect is a life and death issue.  There was an occasion when Greek-speaking widows in the book of Acts were overlooked.  They were not given their share when the food supplies were handed out each day (Acts 6:1).  When this came to the Apostles attention, it was a serious enough situation to warrant a major overhaul to the ministry system.  Deacons were formed, roles were clarified, and a group of women received much needed food.  In our society today, elder abuse is real.  Sometimes we might forget (again with the irony) that leaving senior citizens alone and ignoring them is also a potent form of abuse.

Then, there is the situation of Mary Magdalene.  She had a “past.”  This Mary was immoral and influenced by the darkness (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2).  She was only a nameless person to be used for the benefit of others.  Then, she met Jesus and her world changed.  The darkness turned to light.  Jesus treated her like no other before.  Mary was as much a follower, maybe even more, than the twelve disciples.  It was she who poured the expensive perfume on Christ’s feet and applied it with her hair and her tears (John 12:1-8).  If there was anyone who loved Jesus, it was Mary.

So, you can imagine Mary’s grief when she saw her Lord tortured, crucified, and dead.  The one person on earth who looked at Mary and saw something more than an immoral woman, who looked beyond the infiltration of demonic influence and observed a woman who needed to be seen and truly loved was now gone.  But the story doesn’t end there….

“Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot.  The angels asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’  She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?’ Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni’ (which means Teacher).  Jesus said to her, ‘Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”  Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, ‘I’ve seen the Lord.’ Then she told them what he said to her.” (John 20:11-18, CEB)

Take note of how Jesus dealt with Mary.  He asked her two questions: “Woman, why are you crying?” and “Who are you looking for?”  Jesus didn’t ignore Mary.  He didn’t immediately get on with the business of prepping for ascension and overlook her grief.  Jesus also didn’t talk down to Mary.  By asking questions, our Lord entered her grief and was present to Mary in her sheer lament over not knowing where Jesus was.  What Jesus did instead is, I believe, one of the most powerful things which can happen and is clearly the antidote to all feelings of being overlooked, forgotten, and neglected.  Jesus said one word: “Mary.” He said her name.

Nameless people are forgotten people.  But those with names are real.  Saying someone’s name acknowledges, recognizes, and even validates another person.  That’s why when we are upset and mad at someone, we often don’t like to say their name.  Instead, they get referred to with some other moniker such as “his mother” or “that pastor” or “some guy.”  But when we use a name, it opens to us all a realm of grace, love, and compassion.  It’s easy to ignore another if they have no name.  Knowing a name and using it is the secret superpower which is available to everyone.  Even those without academic degrees and special training have ability to change the world with only the knowledge of one word: a person’s name.

Mary’s immense grief was turned upside-down in a moment to exuberant joy – through the power of her name being spoken by the Lord who cared enough to say it.

Jesus knows your name.  What’s more, he is pleased to say it.  Even now, Jesus sits at the right hand of his Father in heaven interceding for you by using your name.

If there is a skill which is worth developing, it is the ability to know people’s names and to say them.  Sometimes folks remark to me that they can’t believe my memory with names.  Um, not so much.  My memory is not really very good anymore.  It’s just that, if I want to know someone’s name I use it as often as I possibly can without sounding weird about it.  Repetition sinks it into my pea brain, not intelligence or some gift.

Which gets us back to the feeling of being forgotten, unnoticed, and/or ignored.  Acknowledging a person through using their name shoos away those negative feelings for others as well as helps give us connection with others.  In other words, it’s more than good sense to use people’s names – it is the very stuff of healthy relationships.  Relations don’t sour because of differences; they go south when we stop using given names.

Those who care don’t have a special caring gene.  They just know the power of a name.  And it matters to them to liberally validate others with the grace which comes with knowing and using another’s name.  And speaking of names, the Scriptures tell us that there is only one “Name” under heaven by which we are saved: The Name of Jesus (Acts 4:12).  There is such power in naming, that it is truly a life and death affair.  In the name of Jesus Christ there is no overlooking, no neglect, no being forgotten.  With Jesus, there is connection, relationship, attention, and remembrance.