Ananias’ Courage: Acts 9, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and the PC(USA) A Corp

mlk behind bars.jpg

The conversion of Saul is oft-told in Christian circles. His is the most well-known tale: Saul’s dedicated work in rooting out Jesus followers from the ranks of Jews; the appearance of the Risen Christ who asks Saul why he persecutes the Lord; his transformation from the Saul of oppression to the Paul of liberation. The story has given we Christians a penchant for the dramatic conversion tale.

Today, though, let us focus on another figure in the Acts 9 narrative. Ananias is introduced to us as a devout man living in Damascus. Later scholars will argue whether he is to be regarded as an apostle or a prophet. His call is similar to that of Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah: God appears, calling out his name, to which Ananias responds: “Here I am, Lord.” God gives him a mission, to go via the Straight Road to find Saul of Tarsus, who was physically blind but had experienced a vision of Ananias coming to lay hands upon him.

Like most prophetic calls, this one is rife with uncertainty. Ananias knows about Saul’s reputation. He has been instrumental in the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Saul is not the type of person a Jewish Jesus-believer wants to encounter. He’s a zealot with authority. Regardless, God is explicit. “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel. I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

Ananias overcomes his fear. He walks into the house of Judas where Saul has been for three days, reeling from his experience and blinded by the light. Ananias lays hands, which some argue was the third Christian sacrament, after baptism and the Eucharist.  The scales fall from Saul’s eyes and he goes out to be baptized by Ananias.

Tomorrow, April 16, we mark the fifty-fifth anniversary of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote to prominent white clergy who had publicly called upon King and by association the Civil Rights movement, to slow down. King secured a pen and began writing a 7,000-word epistle that is perhaps the most important in our country’s history. King was prophetic with his words. He an Ananias writing to a Church filled with Sauls. He knew the dangers but was secure in his own sense of call. The push for justice cannot be contingent upon the comfort level of the oppressor.

Within the denomination I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA), there are currently heated discussions concerning our national restructuring. I do not pretend to understand the minutiae, but I do understand that the Advocacy Committee on Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC), the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACWP), and Presbyterian Women all feel discounted in the ongoing process. They are only being brought in after key decisions have been made, without their input. They are Ananias, trying to get through to Saul.

In the Church, we far too often like to think of ourselves as Paul, boldly going where God sends us, determined to preach the Gospel. But the Church is Saul to many in the Body of Christ. The Church is the white pastors who called upon King to slow down, telling him that he was an outsider upsetting the apple cart. One of the central messages of today’s passage is that sometimes we can be dangerous yet God sends people to us to help the scales fall away.

I’m a Stated Supply Pastor for a small congregation. I am not involved in the national conversations, but that does not mean that I can’t be Saul. As much as I try to reject racism in all its forms, that doesn’t mean I can’t be one of the white pastors telling King to shut up and know his place.

It really is a pivotal time for Mainline Protestant denominations. I imagine that is said every generation, but it is especially true right now. My colleague Rev. Keri Allen is an important, prophetic voice right now. She is pushing for us all, regardless of our relationship with power, to think theologically. This is great advice for any Christian, but it is especially vital when examining institutional structures that are like a legion of Sauls occupying a village of Ananiases.

May the scales fall from our eyes without the deaths of any more Stephens.

Clothed in Christ and Running Nude: My Holy Week with Hatred

day after easter.jpgResurrection consciousness is a process, not a moment. Mary’s Easter morning proclamations uttered in Aramaic were, in the coming days, whispered in Greek and Coptic, Semitic dialects and Latin. Resurrection consciousness requires both the seed finding purchase in good soil and the reaping of the harvest fruits: we must cultivate Christ in our intentions, express Christ in our speech, and manifest Christ in our actions. Resurrection consciousness is what emerges when we decrease so that God may increase (John 3:30).

However, the cultural Evangelical Christianity that has won out—a Christianity that seems to serve Mammon rather than God—puts all the Easter eggs in one theological basket: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14b). Proponents of this view ignore Paul’s belief that the Parousia, the Second Coming, was going to happen in his lifetime (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17); it should be noted that this same text indicates that no one has ascended to heaven yet: everyone who is buried is still awaiting their bodily resurrection. Evangelicals ignore these contradictions but furiously insist that complete and total assent to the literal, bodily resurrection of Christ is necessary.

Why do I bring this up? Because for the first time in my practicing Christian life, I went through Holy Week feeling pretty disconnected from God. I was also called into some very challenging ministry situations and preached three sermons. It was a shitty time for God and me not to be clicking on all cylinders. Now that we’re past Resurrection Sunday, here’s why I’m disillusioned:

How did Holy Week gain national attention this week, other than the actions of the Pope? A Fox News commentator used Christianity as a shield to deflect criticism, and the occupier of the Oval Office cynically delivered one of the most uncomfortable Easter and Passover addresses I have ever watched, unloaded a tweetstorm, and then barked out ignorant lies before going in to worship.

Yet, the one they call forty-five sees his approval numbers grow, supported largely by white, Evangelical voters. The seminary I attend has a number of self-identified white Evangelicals; for them, this is primarily a theological identifier. Evangelical theology largely is rooted in having a born-again experience, attesting to the inerrancy of the Bible, believing that Jesus is the only way to God, preparing for a coming judgment, and spreading the message. To be sure, there are more nuances but in the main, these are the core beliefs. (I don’t know a single theologically-serious Evangelical who supports the current Administration, by the way.)

Attenuating the theology, though, is all manner of political and cultural flotsam awash in hypocritical and demagogical jetsom. It is what allows someone to claim that God has anointed as divine leader a man who is incapable of summarizing the Easter story  I watched this week as white, self-proclaimed Christians made threats against survivors of school shootings, who ridiculed and victim-blamed as more names were added to the growing number of people of color who are shot and killed by police. Metaphorically, I looked around and saw people who look like me and claim the same God as me and they were screaming for Barabbas and supporting Herod. I was overcome with hatred.

I know that hatred solves nothing.  I know that it is a poison that harms only me. I know that I should not have approached the altar with hatred in my heart, that I should’ve prayed (I did) and fasted (medically, I can’t) and loved (I really tried). Believe me, I know all these things.

Resurrection consciousness is a process, not a moment. Paul writes in Galatians 3:27 that through our baptisms we are clothed in Christ. Well, this past week, I have been like the mystery man in Mark’s gospel who shows up at the arrest wearing only a loincloth, which is ripped off before he runs away nude (Mark 14:51-2). It has been hard for me to feel resurrection hope.

To be sure, I am not questioning my faith. I am just being honest that this year I was locked much more within Good Friday. I am questioning what it is I represent. Do I really believe that the Body of Christ is manifest in Church? Who is the Risen Christ the Church proclaims, and does he have any relationship with Jesus? Perhaps more than ever, I have felt the anguish and anger and hatred empire can produce.

Comfort comes, methinks, in the fact that resurrection happens without our assent; transformation occurs whether we notice or affirm; the feelings of hatred and anger I have are subsiding because I have not shamed them or guilted them, but rather have examined them, experienced them, and soon will discard them, as new emotions and experiences arise.

I slept with the window wide open last night, only to awake with snow covering the ground and trees. Now, the snow is melted, save the pockets of shade and secret corners, where flashes of white stand out against the deepening greens and bright purples. If we reduce resurrection to a single moment, there is so very much we miss.

An Easter Sermon: Running home scared is a perfectly good response to rumors of resurrection

 

empty tomb mafa
“Empty Tomb” by Anonymous, c. 1970s

Our first scripture reading this Easter morning comes from the Gospel of Mark, which contains the earliest intact account of Jesus’ resurrection. Interestingly, it reports a rumor from an unknown character rather than an actual resurrection appearance. We don’t see the Risen Christ, we just hear about him from someone we’ve never met and never encounter again.

 

As the story goes, Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary, mother of James set out for Jesus’ tomb at the first light after the Sabbath, fretting about the large stone they will have to move in order to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. They arrive, only to find the stone moved. In the tomb is a man dressed in a white robe.

Who is he? Could he be the mysterious man who appeared at Jesus’ arrest clad only in a loincloth, who was stripped nude and ran away? Could it be the author of Mark’s gospel? Scholars have speculated wildly, but in the end, we just don’t know.

Mystery man tells the women to not be afraid, which is both logical—fear seems a reasonable response on their part—and is reminiscent of Jesus’ own words spoken frequently. Do not be afraid. Mystery man then tells them a fantastical tale: Jesus, who was crucified, has been raised. His body is gone, evidence enough, it seems, at least for the time, that what the man says is true; he orders the women to tell the disciples, even Peter, who denied Jesus and ran, to get to Galilee, where Jesus will meet them.

The women flee the tomb, the account tells us, and say nothing, for they are afraid.

End of story.

Our second scripture reading contains a resurrection account written decades later; this one, from the Gospel of John, contains an actual appearance of the Risen Christ. It shares some details with the narrative from Mark, though. Both take place after the Sabbath has drawn to a close, although in John, morning has not yet broken. Both feature the stone having been rolled away. Both detail the absence of Jesus’ body. Both feature dumbfounded people trying to make sense of a bizarre situation.

In John, though, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb alone. Upon seeing that the stone has been removed she runs to find Simon Peter and the enigmatic Beloved Disciple. Mary, at least it seems to me, assumes that Jesus’ body has been stolen and has been taken to an undisclosed location, which will prevent him from having an honorable, religious burial. This seems to cause Mary no small degree of distress, as she is the one tasked with preparing Jesus’ corpse, or, perhaps, given the early hour, Mary has secreted herself away before anyone else can undertake it themselves.

Seeing the stone rolled away is in itself too much for Mary to face alone. We can hardly blame her.

Freshly alerted, a race is afoot between Peter and the Beloved Disciple. The disciple whom Jesus loves arrives at the tomb first, we are told, but is stopped short by the sight of the linens, limply laying where Jesus once was; funeral clothes without a corpse can be unsettling.

Upon arriving, Peter blows past the disciple whom Jesus loves, making it into the tomb itself before coming to a halt. He, too, sees the linens, but it is the cloth which had covered Jesus’ head now rolled up and set aside that commands his attention.

Doesn’t the relating of this detail seem so intimate, as though that little act is what stops Peter in his tracks?

The Beloved Disciple comes in and, the author tells us, believes. What he believes we’re not sure because we’re told specifically that they, both of them together, do not yet understand the fullness of the events, that Jesus’ resurrection is the fulfillment of scripture. What the Beloved Disciple believes we know not; what strikes Peter about the cloth neatly folded remains a mystery as well. But there they are, these details that changed lives.

Overcome, they run.

John’s narrative continues. Mary, alone at the tomb again, is crying. We can only imagine the depth of her trauma, having been, by all accounts, one of the few who witnessed the totality of the crucifixion and now discovers the empty tomb. Have bandits taken his body? Religious or Roman enemies?  We should take a moment to enter her sense of loss, her confusion: her rabbi is dead, and the avenue through which she can religiously and culturally mourn and honor him, preparing his body for burial, has suddenly been denied her.

The chaos of the last week, the heady entry into Jerusalem followed by the events in the Temple, the unexpected revelations in the Upper Room, the arrest, trials, crucifixion, death, and vigil must have left Mary raw. We can imagine that coming to the tomb she was expecting to have some moments of mooring, to be with Jesus’ body, to honor and love him. Imagine the trauma of having that, too, ripped away.

So, I think we can forgive Mary that she is so overcome with grief and distress that she does not even bat an eye when two angels appear and ask her what is wrong.

“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” she says.

Suddenly, Jesus appears, but Mary does not recognize him, mistaking him for a gardener. We can speculate why this is the case: his resurrected form is different than his earthly one; Mary is an emotional, spiritual, and mental wreck and it takes her a few beats to catch up; she is so focused on locating the body she is not aware of her surroundings; perhaps Jesus as a gardener is meant to be a play on images, reminding us of Jesus’ parables of seeds and harvests. Regardless, when Jesus says her name and she turns around, Mary recognizes him and goes to hug him, which he does not allow because he has not yet ascended.

I’m gonna go ahead and punt that last detail until next Easter’s sermon.

The Gospel of John is clear about what happens next, though: Mary becomes the chief apostle, the one sent out to deliver the good news of the resurrection: she tells the disciples of what she has seen and heard. The post-Easter story begins with Mary. It’s sad that this has ever been a controversial observation.

But what I take from both of these narratives is that running home scared is a perfectly good response to rumors of resurrection.

The story of Jesus being raised from the dead defies logic, to such an extent that for some it is the ultimate stumbling block of faith, especially since it has been placed at the center of Christian confession, thanks largely to Paul. If Christ is not raised, he wrote, our faith is in vain.

It seems that the further we have gotten away from the historical resurrection, the more we Christians have required each other to believe it completely and entirely, proclaiming it as the alpha and omega of following Jesus. Yet, with today’s passages, in both the earliest and latest canonical resurrection stories, we see confusion, fear, and very human concerns preventing people from understanding immediately and fully.

To be sure, as a pastor and as a devout Christian, I proclaim with every fiber of my being, “He is risen, he is risen, indeed!” But as I preached on Good Friday, I believe that one of the central, beautiful truths of Christianity is that God, through the Incarnation, came to understand that we can still have faith while being confused and scared. There’s room for questions in the resurrection story.

Sometimes we’re Mary looking for Jesus’ body to bury, sometimes we’re Mary proclaiming that Christ has been raised. Sometimes we’re racing to the tomb to get there first, sometimes we’re high-tailing it home to hide away in fear.

The pain of Good Friday is still there on the original Easter morning. It lingers for others in the weeks and months ahead as they each puzzle out what this whole, “raised from the dead” thing means. For some of us, resurrection joy may come quickly and easily. Understanding and living an Easter faith may be foundational to who we are, and that it a true blessing.

For others, it may be an ongoing process. A cyclical journey in which we annually race to and fro, from cross to tomb, from despair to assurance. The great comfort is that our sacred Scriptures make room for us. He is risen, he is risen indeed, even if we are hiding under the bed uncertain of what to do. Amen.

Where is God on Good Friday?

Crucifixion 1946 by Graham Sutherland OM 1903-1980

“Crucifixion” by Graham Sutherland
Art on board, c. 1947

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

It hits the ear like a loss of faith. A moment of extreme doubt giving way to exasperation, to anger, perhaps. It hangs in the air, this outburst, heavy like smoke on a windless field. God, I thought we had a deal! My enemies are all around me. My persecutors have nailed me to a tree. I loved them. I prayed for them. WHERE ARE YOU?

Scholars have even given this saying from the cross a fancy name: the cry of dereliction.

Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

The cry of dereliction. Dereliction, a word that has two meanings. The first is a feeling of abandonment. We can imagine that is where Jesus is at; his Gethsemane moment has reappeared. He’s bereft. The second meaning, though, is part of what makes Good Friday so difficult. Dereliction also means to shirk one’s duty. In this situation, Jesus is not the one who is found wanting. Where is God on Good Friday?

Before continuing it is important to establish that the cry of dereliction is the opening lines of Psalm 22. It is a prayer of deliverance, a prayer uttered from the depths of pain with the confident assurance that God will act in the present or very near future because God faithfully has acted in the past. We have nothing except the hope produced by pain and memories.

In Mark’s Gospel, the first in the canon to report the crucifixion, Jesus only utters the first line of Psalm 22. It can be argued that Jesus starts the psalm aloud and then continues it in his head or cries out the first line with the expectation that others will understand that, despite his horrid circumstances, he has retained full faith in God. And that’s a perfectly logical, theologically sound interpretation.

But I’ll be honest, that doesn’t work for me. At least not this year. I don’t know why, but God and I just aren’t on the same page. There have been some trying ministry situations over the past few weeks and for whatever reasons my spiritual well seems to be have run dry. God and I are missing each other, leaving messages on the machine.

This is the first Holy Week in my life that I have not felt profoundly close to God.

The cry of dereliction reminds us that sometimes the memory of God is all we’ve got. Like a faded black and white photograph that we didn’t store very well, coffee stains and yellowing about to kill what time hasn’t already taken, a phantasmal memory that haunts us and taunts us, remaining just out of our mind’s grasp. God. It can be easy to feel forgotten.

Psalm 22 is asking us to begin praising God on the cross because God has shown up in the past and will show up again. And there are lots of pastors tonight preaching that sermon and I say, God bless. It is a good sermon. But I can’t preach it because I’m still in the cry of dereliction.

Good Friday challenges us to look at our expectations of God. When we feel distant, what do we remember? When we have an Easter hope, to what does it point? I think we have to talk about what we mean when we say God will show up again. Because it is easy to make false promises, to boast and be grandiose about what God will do on Easter, but the truth is our lived faith often is much more subtle and dirty. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling Good Friday more this year than I am Easter Sunday.

So where is God on Good Friday?

Jesus does not pray the entire psalm aloud. He just prays the cry of dereliction, which seems to indicate that he’s not quite in the praising mood. Jesus is able to have his moment of doubt and pain, and it does not stop the power of resurrection. In Jesus’ experience of dereliction, God is already at work on the transformation that will occur Easter morning. The two are not mutually exclusive. The resurrection is in the offing. While Jesus suffers, feeling alone, God is preparing a place of glory.

This can sound kind of like empty promises if we regard God as a genie. The chaos and quandary of the cross are exactly this: they make no sense; the horror of God sending God’s son to die such a death defies logic, yet it perfectly exemplifies the eternal majesty of divine love. Nothing can kill it. And when we submit to it completely, we are granted everlasting life. perfect love remains even when we are overcome with alienating pain.

For me, this year, the cry of dereliction is especially potent: Jesus feels that human desperation, that disconnect, that panic, that summoning of faith that must happen when derelict. Sometimes all we have is the memory of a whisper, a memory of a whisper that our joy comes on Easter, that there will be confirmation again that God makes miracles, in the ways we least expect them, but right now all we have is the cry of dereliction. And that’s enough. Amen.

Choosing the Wrong Son of Daddy: On Adults Threating Kids, Holy Week 2018

There were no childhoods in the ancient world. At least, not in the way we picture them in the post-Industrial Revolution West. Childhood was to be survived. If you look closely at ancient Western art—at least, art through the Medieval period—children often are depicted with the features and bodies of miniature adults (homunculi).

uglybabyandmother.jpgMadonna and Child from 1304

There’s a bit of a chicken and the egg debate regarding whether art imitates life or life imitates art. Some claim that early Christian artistic renderings of children as adults stem from the theological notion that Jesus Christ is unchanging. In other words, when Jesus was born he looked like a grown ass man. Like, the original Simon Birch. Therefore, when shown as a pup Jesus looks like an angry longshoreman with a Napoleon complex and bruises from his last comeuppance. The argument goes, Christian art—or, more properly, art from Christian cultures—portrayed all children in a like manner. This could very well be the case.

More likely, though, was the notion that children were adults waiting to happen. They were to be loved, for sure, but they were to be trained, molded, prepared, and prayed over.  In the main, if you made it to the age of ten, chances were good that you could live to adulthood, which, depending on the culture and your gender, began anywhere from the early- to late-teen years.

This ish is rough

I would not want to be a young person today. Not with Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter, and all the other platforms I’m too old and uphip to know about; but I have been working with Millennials for over a decade. And I’m not quite sure how this whole generation thing is breaking down, but I’m pretty certain Generation Z will soon be on their way into my classroom. I’ve been marching with them, listening to them, teaching them, learning from them, and just being a fellow human being with them.

Most of the young people I’ve heard from, either directly or on television, want help from adults. (Seriously, how weird is it fellow Xers that we’re the adults in the room? Last I checked, I was in line for Tool tickets and somebody was going on a beer run.) This past weekend, though, millions of youth grabbed microphones, held signs, peacefully protested, and made it clear that they are tuned in and they are not dropping out. It is absolutely inspirational and I am so grateful for their energy and excitement because, to be honest, I’ve kinda chubby and I’ve got a lot of health problems, so my days of marching are probably over.

I don’t agree with everything they are calling for, especially as it comes to proposals to amend privacy rights for those with mental illnesses. I might write more on this later, but I don’t want to criticize these activists right now. I want to lift them up, but I also want to be one of the voices crying out at the adults who are berating them, especially those focusing on Emma Gonzalez.*

To be clear, I am NOT comparing Emma Gonzalez to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But the irrational hatred that is being levied at this young woman seems akin to that visited upon Jesus. Reading the inhumane things adults write about Emma has caused my skin to crawl, they refer to her as an “it.” She’s too brown to be “American,” she wears a Cuban flag patch, so she’s a “commie,” she’s a “lesbian,” she’s a crisis actor, she’s ISIS, she’s apparently everything they fear is “taking over” America. They RAGE behind their keyboards, on their phones, liking one another’s posting, working each other up into a lather, until, almost invariably, someone will post an undisguised threat. She thinks she’s bulletproof. She’s gone fully automatic r****d.

It’s happening on local FB pages and Twitter feeds. And while I try to ignore it, I know that I cannot, so I click on the pages and profiles of the people doing it and, almost invariably, they claim to be Christians. Again and again. White, angry Christians.

Do you even Bible, bro? 

Most of us who go to church on Good Friday are already the churchgoing type. The Christmas and Easter types generally aren’t thinking, “Hey, I know! Let’s go to worship on Friday night to partake in the darkest service of the year!” But if you’re reading this, I am going to assume that you’re interested and, if nothing else, maybe you’ll have something to help you when you yell answers at the Jeopardy! box.

In the Gospel of Mark, it is reported that every year Pilate releases a criminal for Passover as a sign of good will. Never mind that there is no record of this tradition anywhere outside of the gospels (and we have lots of records from this time) and we know that Pilate had no love for the Jews. So, this most likely did not happen historically. That’s fine, the meaning is not in the literal meaning of the text.

The year that Jesus is arrested, there’s this guy named Barabbas. That’s a pretty nifty moniker, especially if you know Aramaic. Bar means “son of,” abba means “daddy.” It is often translated as “father,” but most linguists say abba is meant to be a term of endearment used by little children for their daddies.

But do you see it yet? Do you?

The crowd is given the choice of one Son of the Father, Jesus, who will be murdered and in-so-doing, release the crowd (and humanity) from sin and death. Or, they may choose another son of the father, who is accused of murder but is freed from rightful punishment by the bloodthirsty crowd. So blind has their hatred made them, so certain are they that Jesus cannot be from God, that he cannot speak the truth about the death and destruction wrought by the people, that he cannot bear witness to the changes that must come, that they are willing to overlook murder just to see the one they hate bleed and suffer. He can’t be a real agent of God. He has no right to say the things he does. Who the hell does he think he is?!?!?! We’ve got to shut his fucking mouth for him, don’t we?! 

The Church has a clear-cut choice to make this Holy Week. Do we have our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace? Do we allow the Advocate to animate us, to propel us to stand with the oppressed and the victimized? When children who don’t want to be shot going to school are debased and dehumanized by scores of people claiming to follow Christ, something is wrong. And it’s not the people being criticized. It’s we in the Church who just shake our heads and say, “well, I’m not that kind of Christian.”

This Easter, let’s resurrect our sense of purpose and mission. Not to convert people, but to serve people. Not to build the Church, but to restore the Church to something resembling the principles of Jesus Christ. Because, to be honest, I’m in the need of some resurrection right now, surrounded as I am by people clamoring for Barabbas to be saved.

*I’m not going to post any screen captures. I’ll leave it at this and move on.

Roadtripping with Bipolar

ubcutsTomorrow I leave for Winston–Salem, NC for the final mid–semester intensive before I defend my dissertation in August, God willing and if the creek don’t rise. For the first time, we are gathering with other cohorts for a church conference co-sponsored by United Theological Seminary and Union Baptist Church, pastored by Bishop Dr. Sir Walter Mack, who is a longtime mentor at the seminary. In theory, I really want to go.

But there’s also reality. I’m on two new medications, something about which I wrote two days ago, which brings me up to a grand total of ten. Two meds have to be taken with food, one has to be taken an hour before food, seven have the side effect of dizziness, four can cause edema, five can cause drowsiness, and I’m a bit uncertain how these two new ones are going to interact with everything else as it has only been a few days since I started taking them.

I also have problems with large crowds, which sucks because I grew up following Bob Dylan. I’ve seen him live thirty-two times, and it isn’t more because I had to stop a decade ago. I have a pretty kick-ass live show list, but those days are gone. Add to my growing agoraphobia, severe tinnitus, hyperacusis, declining hearing, and tactile issues, events with lots of noise and people are an energy-draining nightmare for me, especially if Miriam is not with me to be an assuring and reassuring buffer.

I used to really like road trips by myself. I’m an introvert who likes complete control over the radio. Of course, we all have the same prep: do we bring food, or eat on the road? Since starting a keto diet, I am decidedly a “bring food” person. Today I finally have to face the wreck that is my car. I still have stuff in there from Julius Caesar, and by “stuff” I mean LaCroix cans and unwashed costume pieces. I am much less anxious driving in a clean car.

Since becoming sick, road trips are exhausting endeavors filled with contingency plans. What if I get too dizzy or fatigued and can’t make the drive in one day? I’ve already scouted hotels along the way and will get up early to make the opening worship. What if I have a bipolar episode, need help, but am unable to communicate? Miriam can track my phone and we’ll check in every hour until I get there. If I don’t respond within half an hour, she’ll know my location and can call for help.

I hope this week is a positive experience, but truth be told I am just hoping to get through it and back home safely. I don’t have children, So I don’t have to negotiate those challenges. I can only imagine the stress and exhaustion. I write as a chronically ill person finishing a doctorate. As a result of my own experiences, I think I am now more sensitive and aware of what I don’t know about others. Sometimes, showing up is the greatest thing a person can give. The energy I will expend just to show up dressed and with a smile on my face is enough to warrant another eight hours of sleep.

At this point, I don’t know what my level of participation and engagement will be; I hope high. Regardless, as I continue to discern God’s presence in life’s challenges, I am increasingly aware of how important it is to be kind to someone who is late, or who arrives a bit disheveled, or who may fall asleep during an event. Too often we assume laziness, poor organizational skills, or incompetence. We so often err on the side of cruelty.

My thyroid and medications are conspiring to tip me over 300 lbs. I’m constantly cold. I hear multiple high-pitched tones all the timealong with two other manifestations of tinnitus, from moment-to-moment I ward off panic attacks, I’m frightened to speak on the phone. I need a ridiculously powerful sleeping pill to sleep, yet I am deeply exhausted most of my waking hours. This is on good days. I push through all of this because life is beautiful. My being there is a sign that I care, that I’m engaged, just like everyone else.

I also call off. I lose focus. It can take me days to make a phone call because my anxiety is so high. I can be so exhausted it is perhaps unpleasant to speak with me because I look sick and/or disinterested. I forget things, misremember details, and can become confused and overwhelmed in certain situations. For all the positives you get with me, there is a growing list of negatives. I’m discovering that’s how it is with chronic illness, the greatest of which, for me, is Bee-Dee.

There are people who go through so much more than what I describe. So. Much. More. But that’s kind of the point. Our culture is cruel. We don’t have to be.

Your Own, Personal Pilate: A Pastor Pottymouth Production

 

Screenshot 2018-03-17 12.13.29Pontious Pilate, by all extrabiblical accounts, was a sociopathic asshole.  That documents produced by nascent Christianity, with the Roman sandal on its neck, paint Pilate as a reluctant pawn in a larger cosmic game is not surprising. From the earliest credal proclamations, Jesus died under Pontious Pilate but not because of him. It makes sense in a way: why poke an already enraged bear? By the time the Gospel of Mark was penned in 70 CE, the Second Jerusalem Temple was razed, never to rise again.

But let us dissuade ourselves from the romantic notion of Christians dying en mass at the hands of the Romans for the greater glory of God. A vast majority of the martyrdom stories from the second century are akin to novellas, stories that fit nicely within a culture that values dying for a cause. The risks were real, to be sure, but there was a choice to be made. You could stand up to the Empire, as did Jesus, or you could accommodate it. An overwhelming number of Christians did the latter. Many of us, myself included, make the same sort of choices.

Like the East Coast crowd and Snoop Dogg at the 1995 Source Awards, Pilate had no love for the Jews. His first day on the job he showed up flying the Roman standards, a direct violation of the previous agreement struck between Rome and the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish legal authority. The result? Perhaps the first ever non-violent sit it. Pilate caved, lowered the standards, but he never forgot. He raided the Temple treasury to build the aqueducts, something akin to the mayor of Washington D.C. raiding the offertory of the National Cathedral. Finally, Pilate terrorized and executed Samaritan pilgrims, an action that led to his being recalled to Rome for brutality.

Think about that. Recalled to Rome for brutality.

If scripture were made of tweets, Pilate’s would have looked something like the one sent out by the small, fat thumbs of Der Twittler last night after our racist, jelly-spined Attorney General Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. (Click here and here for facts and analyses.) McCabe himself issued a statement earlier today. pointing out that he and his family have been bullied and ridiculed by the chief executive for over a year.

The occupier of the Oval Office’s lawyer John Dowd is calling for Special Counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigation to cease. Again, this thoroughly corrupt Administration blurs the lines of any propriety, Dowd first claimed to be speaking for his boss but then claimed to speak only for himself, as if anyone would give a flying fuck what this troglodyte thinks were it not for his client. And across the Twitterverse and discussion threads throughout the interwebz, Russian bots and their American enablers are screaming that Pilate really tried to save Jesus. The corruption and abuse of power is breathtaking.

Lent is not symbolic. Good Friday is not about wearing black. We have choices to make. If we are serious about following Jesus, we have to call out the forces that killed him. That continue to kill people today. That kills us spiritually if we excuse evil, or even worse, rally to its side and become agents of destruction. I hold no delusions about the sanctity of the office of the presidency. Andrew Jackson was a genocidal racist. Woodrow Wilson loved Birth of a Nation, the first film screened in the White House. Let’s stop this faux patriotism bullshit. The office is only as great as we make it, and we have let it sink into the sewer and that is how it should be regarded. But I also think it is ridiculous to argue that there is some basic decency in the country that always reveals itself. That has been patently false time and time again; it takes proactive, sustained efforts and a willingness to not tolerate evil presented as being “good at heart.”

There are those who say that faith and politics should not mix. And then there are those who have read the words of Jesus. What we are seeing right now is biblical. If Pilate had anything to do with the historical Jesus’ death—and there are reasons why he might not have—it is much more likely that he took great glee in watching this rebel, this arrogant man who dared take on the Empire suffer a public and brutal humiliation.

Anyone who tries to justify the horrid things this sociopathic man-child does is siding with the Empire, not with Jesus Christ.

Sick, Broke, and Exhausted: My “daily sob story”

Sick, Broke, and Exhausted: My “daily sob story”

I was recently told by someone whom I considered a good friend that I have a “daily sob story.” As we parted company, he said he won’t miss it and used a colorful term to paint me as one who cries hysterically at the smallest thing. I wish I could say that I was able to brush it aside as I do many other bombs that are lobbed at me with some regularity, but I haven’t. It hit my soft underbelly. Like many people living with chronic illness, diagnoses don’t stop with the “big one.” Systemic issues reveal themselves, sometimes through drug interactions, sometimes through the stabilization of primary symptoms that allow secondary ones to manifest more clearly. Sometimes a fresh hell is asymptomatic and is simply an unpleasant surprise.

Let me start out by saying that there are millions of people who have more complicated diagnoses, who do not have access to the same quality care, who do not have supportive family, friends, and colleagues, or the ability to advocate on their own behalf. Frankly, it is sad that we’ve turned illness into a competition in which we have to qualify or defend our own realities lest we seem like we’re complainers looking for attention. That was essentially the accusation levied at me, one made a few months ago that still hurts enough that I am writing about it now, less than twenty-four hours after a new diagnosis.

For those who may not know, here’s my deal. I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder three years ago. I had been self-medicating with alcohol for years, which I continued to drink through the first year of my diagnosis. The initial mood stabilizer I was on, Geodon, caused me to have a nervous breakdown and I contracted viral conjunctivitis, a rare side effect, which did not do much to improve my mental state. I had to resign from a job that helped me pay for insurance. During this time, I gained 20lbs. I then switched to Lithium, which has been great at stabilizing my mood, but in three years I have gained 50lbs. I’m on three other medications to help manage my bipolar depression and General Anxiety Disorder.

My exhaustion level for the past few years has been pretty much beyond description. I’ve battled insomnia most of my life; natural and over-the-counter remedies do not work for me, and because of my weight I snore like all three stooges. I had two sleep studies late last year (just in time for the charges to be applied to the 2017 deductible, charges we’ll be paying off through 2020) that revealed I stop breathing 133x/hour. Diagnosis: severe sleep apnea. The CPAP machine is amazing and I use it religiously, but my exhaustion still remains. I take a sleeping pill with a dosage that made the nurse at my doctor’s office say, “Wow.”

Since I was a child, I have had problems with my ears. I was told that I would most likely lose my hearing around the age of 60; granted, this was in the early 80s and we have amazing treatments and hearing aids now. With that said, I have severe tinnitus, hyperacuity, and I need to have tubes put in every year (my hearing is declining rapidly, but the tubes should restore about 25%). There’s other stuff: I have become hypertensive. I have edema problems. Psoriasis. I just received a new diagnosis (see below). I am currently on ten medications.

Here’s the deal: I know that there are a lot of people who deal with many of these conditions individually or in combination. Some may deal with them all. I don’t believe I am special and I’m not asking for pity. I just want to make that clear, although I doubt it will stop the jackasses from making jackass comments.

When someone has the courage to speak up and say, “I’ve got some shit wrong with me and I’m not doing so well today,” I think the decent thing to do is not to belittle that person for being sick. Granted, my primary illness is a mental one. I see a therapist every week and I spend a lot of time trying to work through my paranoia and defensiveness, but it is fucking devastating to be ridiculed for sharing one’s struggles.

Chances are, there is someone in your life who is sick, broke, and tired. The energy it takes me to call the insurance company to appeal a decision is legion, and I ain’t got many. From the moment I wake up, I am thinking about how to time my meds, my meals, my water intake, how to manage if certain symptoms arise, feeling guilt and shame that I am unable to do the things I promised I could do because, well, because I’m sick, broke, and tired.

This week I began two new meds. The first is a new mood stabilizer that is weight negative that we hope will be able to replace Lithium, but that transition will be slow. The second is for my new diagnosis, a hypoactive thyroid. This could be the root problem of the weight gain, exhaustion, joint pain. Anybody who is on multiple medications knows that it is a bit of a roulette. This comes at a particularly bad time, as next week I am driving down to Winston-Salem for the mid-semester intensive for my doctoral program. I am terrified that I will not be able to make the drive in one go—I once had to stop overnight in Columbus on a trip to Cleveland—or that I will have dizziness, fatigue, confusion, etc. while I am there. Yet, if I miss the event, I have to repeat the semester, which simply is not an option.

I write this in hopes that at least one person will stop and think before they say something nasty to a person who deals with chronic illness. Stress is a killer. Feeling guilt and shame for simply stating facts about your life is bullshit. If nothing else, if I can’t reach the jackasses doing their jackassery, perhaps I can reach others who want to ven but feel they can’t: own your truth, you’re not alone, and I’m here whenever you want to kvetch.

“I’m washed in the blood of the Lamb, so I’ll be the biggest jerk I can”: On the surprising depth of Paul’s theology of the cross (a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

huge-tiny-.gifThere are times when I hear about the religious beliefs of others and I shake my head, wondering how anyone could believe such claptrap. Take, for example, Scientology. Like, seriously. How could anyone believe the story of Xenu and thetans? Then I remind myself that the Christian story is absolutely outlandish. It defies logic to the point of absurdity. We forget this to our detriment, and today’s words from the Apostle help us to confront the fact that God purposefully has used the preposterous to reveal the nature of God’s power.

Let’s establish a few important things. Paul is writing in response to a letter the church in Corinth sent to him, a letter which is lost to history; Paul is writing to a mixed community, Jew and Gentile together, that is struggling to co–exist without reverting to division and confrontation. Most potently, Paul centers his theology in an impending end-time, an apocalyptic eschaton that will happen within a generation. Paul puts a lot of eggs in that basket. Of course, Jesus has not come back yet. On that count, Paul is way wrong.

But today’s passage shows that Paul’s theology of the cross is much deeper than simply believing that the blood of the lamb washes you clean, requiring nothing more of the individual until Christ comes back. Sadly, this is what often passes for Pauline theology. I describe it as, “I’m washed in the blood of the Lamb, so I’ll be the biggest jerk I can.” In fact, Paul seems to purposefully refrain from using some of his favorite eschatological sayings in these early verses; his focus in on what God has done, not what God will do. Paul’s message to the church in Corinth is: “Look, you’re reverting to these positions of division and making something profoundly simple unnecessarily complicated. I’m passing on to you the same thing that I learned, that Jesus was handed over to the authorities, tried, beaten, crucified, killed, and on the third day, raised. That’s all you need. Understand this and you will be unified. This is wisdom, everything else is foolishness.”

I’ll admit, this is a theology one might rightfully fear. It appears, perhaps, to require that a person believes in something fantastical and absurd because, well, Jesus. Literally, “because Jesus.” And we Christians are largely responsible for such a shallow understanding of Paul.

Paul’s argument is sophisticated, a reality expressed more clearly through the original Greek than it is in English. It is important to establish two things right off the bat: one, Paul sees the world as transient and therefore no wisdom can come from it; and two, creation is fallen, and the world is in active rebellion against God. So, again, why do we expect wisdom from human endeavors? Any attempt to engage Paul’s theology has to accept these assumptions. Paul believed the end of the world would be an act of wisdom.

Eschatology is not at the center here, as I mentioned before because Paul is using harsh language to describe what God has done in the world through Jesus. Paul juxtaposes σοφία τοῦ θεοῦ (wisdom of God) with μωρία (moria), a word often translated as “foolishness.” However, μωρία is actually the root word for moronic. So, Paul is saying, “There’s the wisdom of God, and then there is the moronic claptrap given by the world.”

Paul then goes a step further. He says, “What passes for wisdom is moronic. The people whom the world elevates as wise are morons.” They believe that might makes right, that God is always on the side of the victor, that wealth and power are always signs of divine favor. When the moronic passes for wisdom, how then is God to be heard?

Remember that Paul is writing to a community of Jews and Gentiles, often called Greeks by Paul. “You Greeks love your wisdom,” he says. “And you Jews love your signs,” he adds, able to speak from experience about both as a Hellenized Pharisee. God, therefore, has flipped both of these conventions like Jesus rearranging tables in the Temple: God’s wisdom is that a peasant, itinerant Jewish preacher submits to the crushing power of religious and civic authorities, turning the cross, a sign of torture and imperial oppression, into the definitive symbol of God’s redeeming, liberating grace.

Think about that: foundational to our faith claim is that Jesus teaches us how to live the life we are designed to live by being rooted in the knowledge that God’s love, compassion, mercy, and justice prioritizes the least of these. As an eternal reminder of the seemingly absurd notion that God would side with the poor and the oppressed, we have the wisdom of the cross. It is in and of itself a scandal, something embarrassing, something that draws the ridicule and ire of the world, but it reminds us that God’s love is subversive. God’s love takes us to uncomfortable and difficult places, but our assurance is that God is with us. God is Emmanuel.

I get chills just thinking about the potency of this theology for our own time. However, that does not mean that Paul’s cross theology is not still problematic. Perhaps you, like me, are sometimes resistant to Paul because of how Paul has been used in damaging ways across the millennia. Yet, imagine how powerful and liberating this message must have been in the first century as the war drums between Rome and Jewish rebels became increasingly louder until they burst in 70 C.E. when the Temple was destroyed. Think of how immediate Paul’s theology of salvation makes God if you are poor if your whole life is spent being denigrated by others, called foolish, told you are unworthy of God? God’s wisdom, God’s redemption, begins by seeing that God defies categories.

Lent reminds us that God’s message has been consistent across time. If we want to know God, we must love others. We must reject false wisdom, push back against the moronic promises of a world that is at war with peace. What God has done through Christ is purposefully absurd on the face of it. Who would look for a God made manifest in a rebellious, heretical, provocative, and thoroughly debased Jewish preacher who ended his life nailed to a tree? The answer? Those who know that God is not to be found in the structures of power that oppress those whom God has prioritized. Our faith claim is ridiculous and worthy of ridicule if we believe that money brings happiness, violence brings peace, fear brings loyalty, and morons bring wisdom.

Lent faces us with big questions. What does the cross mean? What does it point us to? What does it reveal about God? And when we pick up our own, what are the contours of the cross? What is the wisdom we take upon our backs as we march toward our own metaphorical crucifixions? What will we die to in the world when we are resurrected in God’s wisdom? Who is the God we have discovered in the unlikeliest of places? Let us keep our eyes fixed on the City of David and continue to kick up the dust on the Jerusalem Road. Amen.

After the Sermon: The Jesus You Find

 

I love to listen to stories told by couples or friends who have been with each other for a long time. Generally, it goes one of two ways: the story is seamless, they riff off one another, pause for laugh lines, and bring to life their shared experiences. Or, they interrupt one another. Bicker. Challenge the facts. Both approaches, in their own way, have merit.

We have the latter today. Mark and John are the original Bickersons. Mark reports the calling of Simon and Andrew, James and John, the first four men to respond immediately to Jesus’ call to be fishers of human beings.

Last week, we considered John’s accounting of Nathanael’s call. Nathanael, who appears only in the Gospel of John, tells us a lot about John’s Jesus. He’s the things we have come to expect, having read Mark, Matthew, and Luke, called the Synoptic gospels—all of which were written before John—Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, King of the Jews. But to John’s Nathanael, Jesus is the fulfiller of all prophecy.

According to John’s reckoning, Jesus attends the wedding at Cana, and records his first and most universally celebrated miracle, turning water into wine. But then, he goes to the Temple, an event that the Synoptics all record as happening at the end of Jesus’ ministry. John puts it in the beginning.

John also makes some other significant changes. “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem,” he reports. Seems straightforward enough. The Greek word ἀναβαίνω (“to go up”) was used in reference to religious pilgrims. But Jesus does not behave like one on a pilgrimage. Not because of the actions that he takes in the Temple, but rather for the actions he does not.

Throughout John’s gospel there are references to the “Passover of the Jews,” and central Jewish festivals like the feast of Tabernacles and the feast of Dedication do not concern Jesus and his disciples religiously. Jesus does not participate. There is no last supper in John’s gospel. In other words, John presents Jesus and the disciples as Christians for whom Jewish festivals are meaningless.

So, Jesus comes to the Temple, not as a pilgrim who then discovers his father’s house defiled but rather as one who is objecting to Jewish worship itself. According to an expert on the gospel of John, “Jesus could not have waited until the end of his ministry to effect his protest in word and deed against this kind of worship.”[1]

Here is where, were our two friends Mark and John to be sitting on the couch telling the story of Christ, the bickering would start. Jesus was Jewish, Mark would say. His mother was Jewish. His brothers and sister? Jewish, Jewish, Jewish. They were Jews who did Jewish things because in case you forgot: Jewish.

The bickering would continue after John says, “The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty–six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body.” Uhh, Mark would interject, are you trying to say that Jesus was 46 years old? He was thirty, thirty–three at the most, so check your sources!

We would most likely witness full­–on arguing after John concludes, “But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.” We can imagine Mark shooting back, Jesus told people to be quiet about his identity because there were people trying to kill him. He was a human being with human emotions. He lost his temper. He got irritated with people. He had to because that is the nature of human love. But Jesus spent time with people, getting to know them, encouraging them to be their best selves. That was kind of his whole bag.

The Gospel of Mark was written first and, crudely stated, presents Jesus as a man-god. The Gospel of John was written last and presents Jesus as a God-man. They sit on opposite ends of the couch, our two friends, and see Jesus much differently. That tension (or diversity, depending on your perspective) lives in our faith tradition because it is part of life. We can love someone with whom we disagree, even vehemently.

We each of us see things differently. Sometimes these differences are picayune. Sometimes they are prominent. Sometimes we sit on the couch right next to each other, holding hands, and sometimes we are each jammed up against opposite arms, staring daggers and grinding teeth. It can be difficult when we feel that someone else’s perspective is so alien, so hostile to our own, that we don’t even want to be in the same room.

There is merit to a Jesus who is more human. This Jesus is not only relatable, but also seems necessary if we are to imitatio christi, imitate Christ in our own lives. On the other hand, a Jesus who is perfect, who is the exemplification of divinity on Earth is powerful and represents the love of God in transcendent, transformative ways. There are lots of Jesi in–between. There is a Jesus that meets us in every situation, whether we find ourselves sitting right next to him or plastered to the aforementioned couch arm.  Amen.

**

When I purposefully chose the Revised Common Lectionary and the Narrative Lectionary gospel portions for this Sunday’s worship, I didn’t know why I was doing so. There was just a nagging feeling in my gut. Because the information has to be sent to the paper on Monday by noon, I sometimes look back from the vantage point of Saturday and ask myself what I was thinking with a sermon title choice, or a decision to deviate from the lectionary we have been following.

This weekend has been difficult for me personally because of a recent piece that appeared in the local paper. I will pass over it without comment except to say that I understand being a public figure, I will be subject to criticism, fair or unfair. I’m a loudmouth who can have a poison pen. I know that backlash comes with the territory.  What was published is an attack piece, plain and simple.  Therefore, it is beneath my dignity to respond in print or to give a point–by–point refutation.

As someone who writes about following Christ and holding myself accountable for my actions, though, I try to reflect upon criticisms, even the ones that I feel are off–base. I think it is too my detriment if I do not, especially as someone who wishes to be a positive influence in the community.

My Christ was unrecognizable to the author of the…I don’t even know what to call it. Article is wrong, essay is too generous, and letter isn’t quite it either. But to the author, either I espouse a Jesus they’ve never seen or the implication is that I’m a hate–monger. I think it is important to get to the heart of this because it is an important issue to me. I try to be consistent and transparent in my life, perhaps too publicly but that is what I choose. And I try to emulate Christ in a way that is an ongoing mea culpa for the Church as a whole.

It is my responsibility to follow the Christ I see and feel, but always to remain humble and attentive to the experiences of others. It is important that when I use harsh words to denounce structures and systems that stand in opposition to the Gospel, those words be spoken with a genuine love that is rooted in understanding that each person bears the Imago Dei, the image of God. I believe I have been consistent in doing just that, and when I do not I have always recognized it, apologized, and worked to do better.

Just yesterday, at our community meal, I made four new friends who are exploring spirituality in vibrant and exciting ways. While none of them are Christian, their words helped me draw closer to God. In our conversation, we learned from one another and planted seeds of compassion within the fertile soils of our hearts. I still smile just thinking about the powerful energy we experienced together.

I write this addendum because it is important to me that people who read my work know that I am not someone who acts differently than he professes. People are important to me. Especially those whom Jesus tells us to prioritize. I will not help create spaces and call them safe, only to invite in and tolerate people whose ideology is based on destroying others. I’ve said it before and will again, if that makes me intolerant, so be it.

The Christianity I follow is not based on confrontation, but it is also uncompromising. Homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia: there are all grave sins that have put millions of victims in their graves. For those who wish to have transformation and healing, I offer to be on that journey. For those who want to justify prejudice, there is no relationship for us to share except that of mutual sinners who’ll have to answer to God.

I thank you for your time. Be well, do good works, and love one another. I’ll try to do the same.

[1] Ernst Haenchen, Robert Walter Funk, and Ulrich Busse, John: A Commentary on the Gospel of John, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 182.