It is interesting to see how often Jesus responded to people who asked him to bring his divine power to bear in the lives of others. He once pronounced that a man was forgiven for sins and then healed his paralyzed body on the basis of the faith of the man’s friends. Jesus healed others and even raised a person or two from the dead because those who cared about those people brought their causes to Jesus.
I wonder how many people throughout history have experienced significant changes in their lives when others obeyed Jesus’ admonition to “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” In theory, if these words were taken seriously, Christians would be the best kinds of enemies to have.
I know I’ve had people who have prayed for me throughout my life. Sometimes that bothers me, because I don’t like the idea of another person seeing things in me that I don’t see for myself. Of course, in my twisted, dark mind I don’t imagine someone praying, “Give Mike the grace to grow in love and mercy.” I hear them asking God to make me stop being such a jackass. Just because I’m an extrovert doesn’t mean I’m not overly sensitive.
So, my thoughts on Lent today centers on my dependence upon others to bring my life before God and to pray on my behalf. In some very important ways, my life hangs on the faith of others. I am like that poor, paralyzed man that was lowered through the roof by his friends so that Jesus would heal him. As the story is relayed to us (Mark 2:4 and Luke 5:19), the man never speaks for himself (perhaps his mouth was paralyzed along with the rest of his body). In fact, no one speaks except Jesus. In both texts, Jesus’ observation is the same:
“When he saw their faith . . .”
It was the very actions and, possibly, even the looks of expectation on their faces, that caused Jesus to respond. The sick man was dependent upon his friends to transport him from his home to the roof over Jesus’ head. He had no choice but to allow them to lower him on his cot through the hole they had carved in the roof and down to Jesus’ feet. And then the man was dependent upon Jesus to act.
And Jesus did.
In my family, we sometimes talk about “lowering the ropes” in reference to someone for whom we are praying, a person who may be so broken that having faith seems impossible. It occurs to me that sometimes I am the person being lowered through the roof, the faith of my friends rushing like the wind past my spiritual paralysis and pouring over Jesus, inviting him into my broken life.
And sometimes you are that person as well.
I wonder if there are people out there who are languishing in independence, with no friends to lower them on ropes of faith to the feet of Jesus. Such independence would be like being stranded on the Moon. It would be a horrible freedom, one that would allow paralysis and death to have the last word.
The faith of the friends, however, prompts Jesus to have the last word. And his last words sound like this:
“Son, your sins are forgiven.” And, “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.”
While I love the rhythms of the Church calendar, I’m not always good at engaging with them on a personal level. I’ve gotten better at my attentiveness to Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and so on, but there are practices that I often avoid.
Like giving up something for Lent.
In the Catholic neighborhood where I grew up, my friends would talk about giving up certain things for Lent, like watching TV or eating candy or whatever. It never made a significant impact on me and, since I didn’t come from a family that cared about such things, it never had a place to land.
But now I do care about such things, but I continue to be hesitant to scrub things out of my life for a few weeks and call such self-denial a spiritual practice. So, a couple of years ago I decided to add a discipline into my life during Lent rather than subtract something out. I soon discovered that the very act of addition required other apparently less important things to be automatically subtracted. Funny how that works.
So, in this Lenten season, I’ve come upon a unique addition to my life as a result of partial incapacitation. Soon I’ll have shoulder surgery and will be required to keep my right arm in a sling for about six weeks. There are certain things that I won’t be able to do during that recovery period, the most significant being the ability to drive a car. That means I will have to embrace a certain level of dependence as I look to others to get me where I need to go. In doing so, some independence will be subtracted from my life
My wife, of course, is thrilled beyond belief at the prospect of driving me the 17 miles to my office in the mornings. My co-workers are drawing straws to see who has to run me to the train station at the end of the day. I offered, in martyr-style, to ease everyone’s burdens by walking the distance, hitchhiking, or just sleeping in my office. They all thought those were creative and wonderful ideas. I think they were mocking me.
I am already coming to realize that complete independence is, for the most part, an illusion. As I sit in my chair at home writing these words, I am dependent upon my computer to work properly, the light next to me to burn brightly, the city’s electrical grid to supply power to both, and so on. I’m seeing that everything I do is dependent on something else.
I believe, in principle, in my dependence upon God. But mostly I believe in my dependence upon my perceived independence. I have a difficult time praying, “Give us this day, our daily bread,” because I’m not concerned about running out of bread. I have enough food in my pantry and enough money to buy more. I don’t even have to think about God when it comes to food. I can feed myself, thanks.
And I understand that this is a problem.
Hence, my Lenten discipline of adding physical dependence into my life. The timing is pretty good, really. The sling is scheduled to go away just after Easter, so I’m conforming to the Church calendar pretty well.
I’m hoping to soak myself in what the apostle Paul said to his Athenian conversation partners in Acts chapter 17: “In him we live and move and have our being.” I think that will be a helpful addition. I’ll wait and see how the subtraction plays out.
At the end of Matthew chapter 5—the end of the first third of what we call “The Sermon on the Mount—Jesus says some things that tend to drive people crazy:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
It seems difficult to conjure up warm and fuzzy feelings toward people who wish you harm. But that may not be the point of love, and perhaps that’s not the point of what Jesus is saying.
God is the central player in the generous act of love, and Jesus affirms that as he describes the way that God cares for all people through the natural order of things. Love for the enemy, like all of God’s love, is an ongoing activity into which we are called to participate. In other words, God’s love is a party in process, and we’re always showing up at a celebration that is fully underway.
I like to think of things like love and hate as spinning cycles or wheels. You can either break the spinning of the cycle or you can latch onto it and enjoy the ride. You can join into the cycle of hatred and it will keep spinning faster and faster. You can also break that cycle by not offering it the energy it demands. In a similar way, you can jump into God’s cycle of love, allowing it’s power to carry you into places you could never go to on your own power. And even though you can never break God’s cycle of love, you can certainly refuse to participate in it.
I believe there are a number of things that work this way, things like love, forgiveness, and generosity. That’s why what Jesus says at the end of the quotation is so important to us:
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
In the Greek of the New Testament, the word that we often translate as “perfect” can also be “mature” or “complete.” This is not an impossible call to strive toward perfection, but rather a call to participate in the generous, loving, life of God, to launch our lives into the spinning cycle of his reckless love—a love that has universal impact. Love finds perfection, not in our flawlessness, but in our vulnerable engagement with God’s love.
I wonder if, during certain parts of Jesus’ words that are reported in Matthew chapter five, his listeners thought that he had gone off the rails, that some of his mental circuits had gotten sizzled by the heat of the sun. He says things that violate basic wisdom, not to mention the logic of justice.
He reminds them of a familiar saying, one that is found in Exodus 21 but was also a common statement in the ancient near east regarding appropriate retaliation:
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
It seems to make sense, really. It’s certainly better than the possibility of violent overreactions (as in, you steal my chicken, then I burn down your house, steal your children, and send you off to live with the scorpions). If offenses are addressed with like treatment, if the punishment is in proportion to the crime, then perhaps true justice—the restoration of balance—can be administered.
But that form of logic seems to be lost on Jesus. His “But I say to you” response is stunning in its reckless disregard for parity and fairness:
Do not resist an evildoer.
If someone sues you, give more than what was demanded.
If you are forced into servitude, serve beyond the requirements.
Be generous toward those who can never repay you.
These very unrealistic responses completely ignore the ongoing realities of the world. In order to keep the inevitability of injustice and violence at bay, responses that limit the effects of human violation are necessary. Otherwise, injustice will reign supreme, and the powerful will oppress and even destroy the weak.
So, how’s that working out for us today? Is justice or injustice the dominant theme in the world?
Jesus orients his listeners—including us—toward responses that do not seek to balance the scales of justice (sometimes thinly disguised forms of vengeance), but rather to break the cycles of injustice by refusing to keep the fires of violation blazing. Not responding in kind to violence and offense exposes those actions for the distortions that they are, allowing the twisted face of evil to reveal its true nature. Jesus suggests that his followers—like him—maintain a loose hold on what others hold dear, recognizing that the real treasures of life lie within God and not in the temporality of human life.
Jesus shakes up his listeners by declaring that certain conventional and legal actions (or inactions) are not at the heart of goodness, not at the core of righteousness. He reminds them of what everyone already knows (“You have heard . . .”) and then pulls the rug out from underneath their feet by pushing them away from their perceived moral and ethical safety zones (“But I say to you . . .”). So:
Not committing murder doesn’t eradicate the internal anger that resides in one’s heart.
Not committing adultery doesn’t magically erase the objectifying of someone as a mere object of sexual desire.
Following the legal rules that allow a man to divorce his wife—thereby forcing her into a new marriage relationship in order to avoid becoming destitute—doesn’t wipe the slate of oppression clean.
These first three admonitions, while clearly not ignoring the fact that actions and thoughts do not necessarily have the same consequences (actually killing someone brings a more severe result than just thinking about murder), bring to the forefront two important emphases:
First, there resides in the human heart the potential for the worst of human actions. Therefore, all people stand together in a sea of dark possibilities. It’s one thing to make a right judgment about something, as in bearing witness to some observable event (such as, “Officer, that car made a left turn and crashed into the light pole;” or, “I saw that man strike that woman and run away with her purse”). It’s another thing to claim that the possibilities for wrongdoing and error do not exist in those of us who haven’t committed any crimes. Such a claim is at the heart of judgmentalism.
So, just because a person didn’t pull the trigger on the gun doesn’t mean that her inner anger, an anger that makes murder a possibility, has no unrighteous power.
Just because a man hasn’t cheated on his wife doesn’t mean that his constant lusting over his neighbor’s wife doesn’t have the potential to destroy lives and relationships.
Second, legal permissions and boundaries do not necessarily mirror what is truly right. In Jesus’ day, a man could divorce his wife, sometimes on flimsy grounds, as long as he gave her a certificate of divorce (most likely a legally-recognized document that freed her to marry another). To be a divorced and disempowered woman in that time would be a sure ticket to destitution. Jesus wouldn’t allow for such a legally protected action, as though the boundaries of the law eliminated the destruction that would surely follow.
I wonder how things would change for us if, when we heard that someone did something awful, rather than saying, “How could he do that?” we lamented, “I am capable of the same thing.”
I wonder how generous our hearts might become if, while respecting the reality of our national laws, we didn’t allow legal regulations to be the ultimate definers of righteousness? For example:
Do the existence of immigration laws and national borders mean that “neighbor” is defined only by the legalities of residency and citizenship?
When the courts make a declaration requiring obedience—whether related to abortion, marriage, immigration, discrimination, and any number of other important issues—is the conversation over for followers of Jesus? Or do we look to him and wait for him to say, “But I say to you . . .”?
The words of this sermon in the gospel of Matthew—typically called “The Sermon on the Mount”—have been studied, reflected upon, and cherished by people for centuries. But they are not necessarily words of comfort. They force us as readers to confront ourselves and challenge our own perceived securities.
There is a road leading down from a mountain in Mexico where I have ridden my bicycle several times. There is a big sign on the side as the road begins its winding, eight-mile descent. The sign reads, “Curvos Peligrosos.” Dangerous Curves.
There should be a heading at the beginning of this message from Jesus that reads: “Palabras Peligrosas.” Dangerous Words.
In the movie Minority Report, the minds of three young seers are tapped to give future law enforcement authorities the ability to stop crimes before they actually happen. These glimpses into the future allow the police to thwart wrongdoing—especially murder—when the acts are nothing more than possibilities bubbling in the perpetrators’ minds.
Jesus said some startling things about guilt, sin, and righteousness—things that didn’t allow for the disconnecting of the mind from the body, of intentions from actions, of the state of the heart from the committing of the crime. He showed that the apparent outward righteousness of certain religious leaders—specifically the Jewish scribes and Pharisees—was a smokescreen that obscured the hidden realities of their inward realities. He wasn’t shy in his attacks against their hypocrisies and would say things like,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” (Matthew 23:27)
As Jesus sat with his followers on the side of the mountain, he must have shocked them with the contrasts he made concerning what they had learned from their childhoods in home and synagogue against the deeper way of thinking about life that he was laying before them. He challenged them with seven brain-twisting examples drawn from the law of Moses and also from conventional folk wisdom:
Love for the enemy
Giving of alms
Jesus brilliantly reminds his followers about what they have heard about each of these topics, and then moves behind the veil and reveals the heart that birthed each action. Are people free from the sin because they haven’t committed murder or adultery? No, because the reality of anger and lust in the human heart binds all people together under a shroud of guilt where the seeds of destruction and violation are planted, sometimes sprouting and sometimes not.
Are people safe when they build walls against one another through the legalities of divorce, the craftiness of contractual language, rules allowing for revenge, and the acceptability of hatred? Jesus collapses them all, and draws his listeners into ways of engaging with others in the completeness of love that comes only from God.
It was probably easy for people in Jesus’ day to allow social, religious, political, and military frameworks to provide artificial safety zones in which to live. It’s just as easy for us to do it as well. It’s easier to label other people as sinners when we deny the realities of our own hearts. It’s easier to allow the boundaries and borders of nation-states to define the word “neighbor” than it is to see all people as co-humans made in the image of God. It’s easier to crush others under religious dogma than it is to listen deeply and find where God is already at work in the lives of those who are not like us.
There are many areas of life and thinking where Jesus rightly declares, “You have heard that it was said . . . .”
It’s more important for us to hear, “But I say to you . . . .”
[See Matthew chapter 5 for the details of Jesus’ words to his followers]
The ancient laws chronicled in the Old Testament often confound people. It’s not just the Ten Commandments, but also the myriad of dietary/social/economic laws that fill the pages of books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy (not most people’s preferences for devotional reading). The laws seem to us to be mostly irrelevant in our time and provide us with clear evidence of the fruitlessness of legalism when it comes to pleasing God.
Or, could it be that something else is going on here?
Imagine the ancient Hebrew people as they suffered through generations of slavery under the yoke of the Pharaoh in Egypt. After their rescue under Moses’s leadership, they wandered in the wilderness for a long time before landing in a place that would become their homeland. What was going on for them in that long sojourn?
They were being reformed.
The lens through which the people saw the world would be colored by their experiences of captivity in Egypt. Their religious views would be as permeated by Egyptian mythology as much as it was by early Semitic worship practices. How would they move from a people oriented around slavery to a people with a destiny crafted and energized by the God of the universe?
They would be reformed by adherence to laws that would reorient every aspect of their lives. They would be required to think in new ways about human relationships and interactions, the nature of life-giving work, the purpose and effects of communal worship, and care for the world around them. It would take a great deal of reorientation to extract the mentality of slavery from the people and to reorient them around the presence of the God who had rescued them from Egypt.
And Jesus sits on the side of the mountain and tells his disciples, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
It appears that, for Jesus, the law and the prophets were not static propositions but rather signs and wonders that continuously directed the people into the living presence of God. Yet the law had become rigid and life-draining in Jesus’ day, framed by the religious elite as measurements of personal righteousness, a righteousness attained by disciplined adherence to the ancient code of Moses.
And Jesus must have startled his followers when, after affirming the authority and purposefulness of the law and the prophets, he warns of a distortion that was evidenced in the Jewish religious leadership of the day:
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
And what comes next will shake people’s understanding of righteousness for centuries to come.
As Jesus looked upon the crowds from his vantage point on the side of the mountain, he called them blessed. His disciples, gathered around him as he spoke, must have recognized that Jesus’ words were not spiritual abstractions, but statements of reality. The crowds had come to Jesus, and “they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.” The blessing to which Jesus referred had been experienced in the lives of the people, not simply anticipated as a reward for spiritual purity.
The tone of Jesus’ message shifts as his attention moves from the crowds to his disciples. He now speaks of blessing that comes to “you”—those now gathered before him:
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
These are words about vocation, the vocation of following Jesus, of learning anew what it means to be the people of God. There will be persecution—the history of Israel’s prophets confirms the inevitability of resistance. But there will also be the embodiment of God’s intentions for the rescue of the world, an intention first spoken to the ancient patriarch Abram as he was summoned from his nomadic life into a destiny that would result in the nation of Israel:
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
The blessing that Jesus extended to the crowds brought healing and life. The blessing that he gave to his followers drew them into God’s mission. Once again, this blessing was no abstraction; the blessing came as the result of responding to the call of Jesus to follow him. Those who put their trust in Jesus would not create a new religion—they would renew and enliven God’s original intention for Israel for the sake of the entire world.
Jesus sits on the incline of the mountain and positions himself so that he can look into the faces of his disciples who are gathered before him, but also to look beyond them to the crowds gathered in the valley below.
What is he seeing?
He sees many who are poor, not only in terms of resource but also in terms of life. Their very bodies suffer the poverty of malnutrition and disease, and the hope of a renewal of God’s breath within them is vague at best. That is, until Jesus has touched them. He sees them in the distance and brings them out of the depths of despair when he claims,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
There are those who have given up on their lives, seeing their suffering and pain as evidence of God’s disinterest in them. Others came in despair, having lost hope that their loved ones might be made whole again. But Jesus declares a reality that they are only beginning to experience, and he calls out,
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Many who have brought loved ones to be healed by Jesus have spent long periods of time as caregivers. Some might have taken on their tasks grudgingly, but others would bring care with love and gentleness, characteristics that would not have put them in league with the strong and powerful of the world, those who would not be encumbered by the concerns of the infirm. Jesus sees those who exhibit humility and points them toward a surprising destiny:
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
There would be those in the crowds who strained against injustice—injustice seen in the dominance of the Romans over the Jews, injustice within the very life of Israel, and the injustice of sickness and pain being visited upon God’s people. They would long for things to be put right in the world and for God’s intentions to be made real in the here and now. They long also for their own hearts to be made right before God. Jesus celebrates their longing and gives them hope:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
There would have been many people in the crowds who had left homes and businesses to bring others to the feet of Jesus. Many of those who were suffering would have been incapable of such travel on their own. They would have been dependent upon the mercy of others whose bodies were whole and strong to carry them to the valley were Jesus might bring his healing. Those who had given of themselves for the sake of others did not miss Jesus’ notice:
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
One of the insults branded upon Jesus by his opponents was “friend of sinners.” Jesus was not put off by those who lives were lived out on the fringes of religious and social respectability. In his encounters with these “sinners,” he found some who, in the midst of their brokenness, exhibited a transparent innocence, an innocence that allowed them to be exposed before Jesus so that he might draw them into a new kind of life. Unencumbered by the scheming and posturing that often characterized the strong and powerful, their eyes were opened to the fullness of God that was in Jesus. Jesus saw them, too:
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
It may be, because of the large gathering of people, that soldiers were present on that day. They might have been Jewish temple guards or even Roman soldiers, standing off and away from the crowds, watching in case some form of insurrection might be brewing. Jesus sees them just as he sees the others, and he redefines their vocations, calling them away from the corruption and violence that was always a possibility for them, and to a new view of themselves of ones who might foster peace in a violent and destructive world:
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
Stories of Roman persecution of the Jews were commonplace in Israel. Some were devastated financially by unfair taxation. Others might have suffered at the hands of Rome’s interrogators whenever plots to overthrow Roman rule were suspected. Many had been sent to their deaths, rows of crucified bodies reminding the populace of the power of the dominant rulers. Perhaps even anticipating his own suffering and death, Jesus refuses to allow those who have been sinned against to be forgotten:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus sees them all, and calls them blessed. He draws them—the sick, the tormented, the poor, the unpowerful, the marginalized, the “sinners”—away from the fringes of life and into the circle of God’s love. It is a place of God’s blessing, a place were hope and healing thrive.
It is a much larger circle than anyone could have imagined.
I appreciate good storytellers. For me, the gospel-writer Matthew ranks up with the best crafters of words that serve to foster a hopeful imagination (as the scholar Walter Brueggemann titled one of his great books) in the readers.
Here’s an example of Matthew’s work:
"Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them . . ." (Matthew 4:23-5:2)
Can you see yourself in this story, following Jesus around, elbow-to-elbow with people who have gathered with the hope that their loved ones and friends will be healed in their bodies and minds? It’s a diverse group, made up of pilgrims coming from different parts of the region, giving evidence to Jesus’ broad reputation as a healer.
The picture that Matthew paints here sets the stage for what is coming next. There is nothing abstract and legalistic about the words that Jesus is about to speak. Instead, what he will say is personal, purposeful, deconstructive and reconstructive. Jesus will not offer a new set of laws that will take the place of the old forms of religious legislation; he will set people free into a new kind of living that demands honesty about the human condition yet draws people into relationship with both God and human beings in ways that crash against the boundaries of culture.
Jesus brings healing to those who were suffering, people brought to him by those who were not afflicted by disease and pain. Jesus sees them all, and he then he moves up the side of the mountain. I imagine him sitting in a place that provides an expansive view of the valley below him, not posturing himself as a lecturer behind a podium, but rather as an observer, one who has come from the gathering of the people and now reflects on who they are and how they might live in the hopefulness that comes from a life centered in God.
Jesus sits down and his disciples come to him, sitting around him, waiting for their teacher to speak. I imagine him, as he prepares to lead his friends into new depths of understanding, looking past them, over their heads, toward the crowds below who are now a gathered people who have just experienced healing in their midst.
Jesus sees them clearly. Then he begins to speak. And the first words that his friends hear are not about them. These words are about those that Jesus sees in the valley below.
I recently attended the Big Orange Book Fair at Chapman University in Orange, California. It was great fun and I had the opportunity to interact with several authors and also to enjoy their panel discussions.
One young writer spoke of her reluctance to do any marketing for her work (fortunately for her, her father thought otherwise) because she could only think of writing. For her, it was a thing she loved and the idea of publishing her work for the benefit of others hadn’t really occurred to her.
I had a nice conversation with her, and I must say I appreciated her focus on the love of her craft, even though I’m all for sharing one’s work with others, at least at some level.
This morning I ran across this quote from Rainer Maria Rilke (cited in Henri Nouwen’s book Reaching Out (p. 40). She is speaking to a young man who has asked her if he should become a poet:
“Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you to write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places o f your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.” (Letters to a Young Poet. New York: Norton, 1954, 18-19)
This is helpful wisdom for anything that we feel compelled to do, whether in the arts, business, religion, medicine, law, sports, or whatever. Do we do this because of a hopeful outcome, such as recognition, money, prestige, or power? Or do we put our hands to this work out of love—love for the thing itself, love for the power that compels us, love for what it sparks within us?
People sometimes ask how a religious guy like me can be interested in writing horror stories (“He seemed so nice and normal, although he kept to himself. We never imagined that he . . .”). So I share my “Author’s Note” that I wrote a year ago for my novel A Body Given (part 2 in a three-part series):
While I’ve been a fan of vampire stories since I was a kid, I didn’t start writing about the undead until my grandchildren attempted to convince me that these soulless monsters were just a race of unfortunate and misunderstood beings. Seeking to correct their misperceptions, I set out to write a short story that became my novel This Side of Death, which continues to remain largely undiscovered and, at least by my grandchildren’s reckoning, largely underappreciated.
Nevertheless, the story still wants to tell itself, as these things often do. I’ve discovered along the way that a vampire story is a great vehicle for exploring the depths of evil that plague the human race. My vampires try to be true to the traditional legends, so they are unkind and unmerciful along with being undead. They also expose the darkness that often lies dormant (and too often not dormant) in the hearts of living, breathing, human beings.
The vampire genre also allows for explorations of faith. Since the legends themselves are a reversal of the Christian Eucharist (the blood of the many for the one versus the blood of the One for the many), there are numerous parallels and metaphors that allow a writer to move between the horrors of death and the mysteries of faith.
There is a third book in the making that will probably end this series of vampiric journeys. It too wrestles with horror and faith, moving the story to a new location through the lives of both new and familiar characters.
Stories never emerge in a vacuum, but are an accumulation of experiences, imaginings, influences, and relationships. I am indebted to writers whose wonderfully chilling books have offered me inspiration and pleasure, especially Bram Stoker, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Anne Rice, and Elizabeth Kostova. Their stories continue to creep at the margins of my imagination.
I am also indebted to those who have been my helpers along the way, those whose input and correction kept me from going too far off the rails in my storytelling. I am grateful for the excellent editing job done by the skilled hands and eyes of my daughter, Laurelin Varieur, who is not shy about correcting my errors but also seems to know how my mind works. I was given hope that my story might hook readers when an early manuscript was read by my friend Lydia Van Hoff, who likes a creepy story as much as I do, and may have actually met a vampire or two in Northern Ireland. And I was expertly guided through the description of the effects of type-1 diabetes by my fine grandson Jacob Karnofel, who made sure I got all the highs and lows right and, like his siblings and cousins, did not hesitate to set his grandfather straight.
And I am thankful that you are about to read this book. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
There’s an interesting piece today in the Washington Post about the challenges facing the possible emergence of a progressive religious movement. Once again, this causes me to think about what we (and, by we, I’m speaking mostly to those who follow Jesus) mean when we use the categorical terms conservative and progressive.
As I’ve written before, I would like for us to challenge our own categories by asking questions like: What are the things that we desire to conserve? Do those things have lasting value? What are we trying to conserve that is merely culture-bound? And how is it that we see ourselves progressing? What are we progressing from, and what direction are we progressing? By what motivation, energy, and power do we progress? Is our progress energized by the Spirit of God, or by the power of cultural voices?
When I wrestle with these questions, I wonder if we can’t be both of those things at the same time, given some legitimate answers to those questions. If we act conservatively with the assumption that everything we cherish has ultimate value, then we risk an arrogance that can blind us to what God is doing in the world (biblical example: The Holy Spirit falls on Peter’s gentile friends [Acts 10-11], and the conservative value of Jewish exclusiveness is rattled, and a progression revealed by God emerges). If we act progressively with the movement of culture, we risk losing our basis for theological and biblical reflection and end up getting swept up by every societal shift that claims to be progressive.
If conservatism is characterized by safety, and if progressivism is characterized by new risks, then the only things I can think of that adequately hold both in tension are new cars.
Think about it: The safety features in cars today are a quantum leap from what existed 40 years ago. Airbags, seat belts, braking systems, and overall construction all help to create cocoons of safety for human beings. At the same time, theses cars have the capacity for face-distorting speed, with a mechanical responsiveness that would dazzle the minds of stunt drivers of past generations. A new car has the capacity to create joy in the hearts of both conservatives and progressives. They might even take a ride together.
On top of that, these cars are expensive. Conservative or progressive, both will dive deeply into our capitalist economic system in order to purchase new automobiles. That’s just how it is. Banks who offer car loans could care less about our politics.
I would love to see us all quit screaming at one another, caricaturing one another (and then skewering the caricature), and condemning one another. Now might be a good time to start listening, talking and reflecting. We have to question the things we think need to be conserved. We have a long Christian tradition of conserving the wrong things and ignoring the right things. We also have to question our progressive leanings. If culture is our only criteria for interpreting Scripture, theology, and ethics, then any cultural shift will do.
And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away. (Ezra 3:11b-13)
People groups often adapt to change in fits and starts. Some people like fresh inventions and innovations; other people find the new expressions difficult or substandard, and long for things as they used to be.
The people of Israel had been in exile, and had recently been released to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the city under the watchful of King Cyrus of Persia. The city walls were repaired, taunting enemies were chased off, and—with great anticipation and fanfare—the foundation of the new Temple was laid.
The former Temple—a glorious structure built by King Solomon—had long been destroyed. The new Temple would bring joy to the people as a worshipping community, but it would be a different structure than the one that preceded it.
So there was both rejoicing and weeping when the foundation was completed. Perhaps the older folks wept, not only because the Temple was returning to Jerusalem, but also because it would be different from the one they remembered from their youth. For the younger people, who had no memory of the former Temple, it was a new and exciting project, one that would finally ground their identity in their homeland.
We’re told that all the voices—the weeping, the laughing, the mourning, the rejoicing—all came together as one voice.
We who follow Jesus do so in a culture that is characterized by rapid, discontinuous change. It’s not just that the world around us changes—technology, international relations, social and legal boundaries—but also that the life of the church keeps changing. New expressions of worship and mission emerge, sometimes on their own, and other times in the midst of congregations that have been immersed in many years of tradition. People often rejoice when these changes come. Others, however, weep.
The older I get, the more I appreciate this tension. It’s difficult to distinguish between traditions that have deep and lasting value and those that are just temporary cultural preferences. It’s both exciting and frightening to pursue innovations in worship and communal life. It’s too bad, however, when the response of the church is to divide and separate, draw lines in the sand and create boundaries that alienate.
It is a joy, however, when all come together and search for the fingerprints of God in what seems to be emerging in our midst—not new expressions for the sake of newness, but fresh engagements with the Spirit of God that capture new images and songs, revitalizing ancient traditions and creating new ones. And within all the tension that comes with new things, the voices that cry out do so as one voice, a voice that rejoices before God.
Right now I’m hearing the prayer of Jesus—a prayer that anticipates even us—that might help us think about this:
“I ask not only on behalf of these [disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)
When the Bible uses the term “sin,” it isn’t just talking about people misbehaving. Sin is a bigger, darker concept than just the idea of being naughty. Sin is an orientation away from God—essentially forgetting about God—and looking for meaning and identity in other things. Ancient Israel did that when they abandoned God and chased after numerous fertility gods, idols that seemed sexier and more functional than the God who had rescued the people from slavery in Egypt.
Sin also creates victims. Along with all of us sinners, there are those who are the sinned against. These are people who have been abused, neglected, oppressed, used, and discarded. This victimization often results in an identity grounded in pain, and pain always demands medication.
The biblical imagery of sin includes one of a person walking along a path that is sure to end up in a proper destination. And then the person decides to wander off that well-worn trail and do some exploring. Once off the path, the person becomes disoriented and loses all sense of direction. Fear and desperation emerge and the person embraces a new identity: A person who is lost.
Wilderness experts often caution people about what to do when they get lost in the woods, because too many people do the wrong things when they lose their way. Once off the trail, they panic, exhaust themselves, get dehydrated, and get even more lost than they were in the first place.
That’s a good biblical image for sin. And, as a wise man once said: Sin makes you stupid.
When followers of Jesus start following other desires, stupidity isn’t far from the scene. When our identity as kin to Jesus changes into something else—as lonely people, misunderstood people, needy people, addictive people, suffering people—our desires demand fulfillment from a source that is other than God. There are all kinds of stories of extra-marital affairs, substance abuse, thievery—you name it—that take place within the shared life of churches when people’s identities shift and wander off the path, the way, that is Jesus.
Psalm 73 says it well:
“When I was beleaguered and bitter, totally consumed by envy, I was totally ignorant, a dumb ox in your very presence. I’m still in your presence, but you’ve taken my hand. You wisely and tenderly lead me, and then you bless me.
You’re all I want in heaven! You’re all I want on earth! When my skin sags and my bones get brittle, God is rock-firm and faithful.” (vv. 21-25, The Message)
“The recurrent error of our technologically conditioned age is to look for what’s wrong in our lives so that we can fix it, or what needs doing so that we can have something worthwhile to do. There are things wrong that need fixing; and there are jobs that need doing. But the Christian life starts at the other end—not with us but with God: What is God doing that I can respond to? How is God expressing his love and grace so that I can live appreciatively and in obedience?” (Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall, 138-9)
This week I had the privilege of teaching the first of a two-week intensive course on the subject of the church and mission in a global context. At one point we began talking about how the church’s mission begins, not with a question about historical tradition (“we’ve always done it this way”) or cultural preference (“what do people like?”), but rather with an inquiry about what God is doing in this time and place. The church’s role, we decided, was to participate in what God was doing in the world around us.
So I asked for examples of how we’ve seen this work in our respective faith communities. It took a while (for me, too), but we did have stories of people coming together in prayer and conversation, seeking to grasp, even in weakness, fear, and trembling, God’s ongoing activity and preferences, and then taking the risk to join into the missional party that was already going on.
I came home from that first week in Phoenix on Saturday night, and jumped right into a full, life-giving day on Sunday. After a rich and reorienting worship gathering, my wife and I had lunch with friends, sharing stories of joy and pain, hope and faithfulness. In the evening we hosted some young Venezuelan friends—children of the partner churches in South America who had grown into adulthood and were now making their respective ways here in the States. It was a day of fullness and life.
As I take a little time to reflect on these past days (without that time of reflection, the days often just melt together, blending with the mundane and routine, losing their significance and meaning, becoming part of the purée of time), I am asking the two questions that Peterson poses: “What is God doing that I can respond to? How is God expressing his love and grace so that I can live appreciatively and in obedience?”
Every pleasant relational experience is not necessarily a signal that one’s life direction has to change or that a new vocation must be embraced. But reflecting on experiences that bring life and joy allows for the consideration that the Spirit of God—the source of life—is always at work, and that work is seen in the lives of real human beings, all struggling to find their place in the world.
So, on this, day, I ask those questions on a personal level, not just for the church. Maybe you are asking them as well. May God surprise us with his mysterious responses.
This is nothing new. Multiple generations of mockingbirds have staked out their territories here. I’ve lived in this house for almost 20 years and there’s always been a mockingbird squawking and flying around, acting like it owns the place. Snotty little creatures, they are.
Mockingbirds also seem to be insomniacs because I hear them singing all through the night (I just read that they are particularly noisy during full moons, thereby revealing their affinity with vampires and werewolves). They are also copycats (okay, copybirds) because they mimic the sounds that other birds make.
I often sit on my back porch to read. The resident mockingbird would sit up on a telephone wire and scold me once in a while, but mostly it would ignore me. But this weekend, I experimented with a little bit of mockery of my own.
I stood under the wire where the bird was perched and did my humanly best to mimic the call that I heard. I noticed that it started looking at me in the weird bird way that they do, with their heads moving back and forth so that their sideways eyes can see you. Every time I copied the bird’s call, it would give me that look and then make another sound, which I would feed back to it. After a while, I retreated to my cherished spot on the porch and continued my reading.
In just a few minutes, the bird landed on the railing near to where I was sitting and gave me its look. We exchanged bird talk for a while, and then it flew under my porch, flapped around, and took off. We’ve continued this little human-avian exchange several times over the past couple of days.
I wondered: Is the bird trying to connect with me? Is it seeking to establish a unique bond with me that would draw us both into the complexities and wonders of the created order? So I did some Internet investigation and explored the various calls of the mockingbird.
As it turns out, the bird’s call to me was an aggressive one, telling me, in bird essence, to get off of his lawn. It could be that, in its astonishment that one of the large, clumsy, land dwellers would speak in bird language, it still wanted to poke its sharp little beak into my eyes and then snip my aorta so that I would cease to be a threat to its territorial claim. Or, it could just have been having fun with me.
I choose to believe the latter theory. It occurs to me that if I would figure out how to do a non-aggressive call, the bird and I might become friends (after all, it probably did sound like I was picking a fight). And I’d better be sure that I don’t attempt something that could be interpreted as a mating call. That could have difficult ramifications.
I tend to worry too much about global things. There’s a lot going on all around us—politically, socially, economically, and even religiously—and I’m concerned with how we Christians are or are not responding to these things. I worry about how dramatic and rapid cultural shifts will affect Christian communities of faith and their role of ministry in the world. I struggle with how reactive we can all be and how we aren’t very good at listening to one another, looking one another in the eye even as we disagree. These things trouble me.
It was a life-giving respite to share a conversation with a bird. Yes, as it turns out, we were speaking aggressively to each other. But the bird came close and we made eye contact, two mortal subjects sharing the breath of God in our bodies. In that contact, annoyance turned into communication, and aggression turned into curiosity. I am coming to like this bird.
I can’t determine exactly what the bird thinks of me, but I’m appreciative that it came close and looked me in the eye. And, to be clear, the lawn is mine.
Nahari: I'm going to Hell! I killed a child! I smashed his head against a wall.
Nahari: Because they killed my son! The Muslims killed my son!
[indicates boy's height]
Gandhi: I know a way out of Hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father have been killed and raise him as your own.
[indicates same height]
Gandhi: Only be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.
(from the movie, Gandhi, 1982)
A large group gathered outside City Hall to express their protests regarding a significant social and political issue. Ten of the protesters got into a fight, five against five. They were arrested and brought before the magistrate.
The judge heard the defenses and then ordered each protester to meet privately with him, one at a time. Each person, after being interrogated, left the judge’s chambers looking puzzled, perplexed shoulders shrugging one after the other.
After a few hours, the judge returned to the bench.
“I have learned many things about each of you today, and I have a verdict to render and penalty to impose.
“You are guilty of unlawful assembly and disturbing the peace. You may choose one of two consequences.
“I have discovered that four of your number—two from each side—are talented at cooking. Two of your number—one from each side—are musicians. One week from today, you will turn yourselves in at the homeless shelter on Main Street. You will prepare a dinner party for a group of children who have recently been rescued from the streets. Those of you who do not cook or play music will serve, help with games, and clean up.
“If you choose not to participate in this, you will be taken immediately to jail where you will remain for six months, and then pay a fine of $10,000. Your choice.”
All the defendants chose the party.
On the day of the event, the cooks immediately began to argue about the issue that started the trouble in the first place. The musicians each bragged about the protest songs they had written against their enemies. The others just folded their arms and glared. The guard assigned to them reminded them all that the children would be arriving in a few hours and failure to serve them would result in a renewal of punishment number two.
So, the cooks began to talk together, sharing recipe ideas and sorting through the supplies that had been arranged for them. The musicians shared ideas about songs that would bring joy to these lost children, and even co-wrote one just for the event. The others began setting up chairs and tables, discussing the best way to create an environment of safety and fun for the children.
The children arrived on time, the last child followed into the room by the judge. The prisoners looked at one another and gulped nervously.
The party came off beautifully. The downcast, fearful faces of the children were transformed into beacons of light and hope. The food was delicious, the music glorious, the service attentive and fun. Once the children left and the room was cleaned and put back in order, the judge informed the prisoners that they had served their sentences well and were now released, free to return back to their former lives.
“May we stay a little while longer, judge?” said one of the cooks. “There’s a bit of food left, and we’d like to eat it together.”
“And we wrote a song together about our day,” said one of the musicians. “You might want to stay and hear it.”
“We’ve got an idea for another party for the children,” said one of the servers. “There are plans to make.”
The judge stayed and dined with the protesters. After the food was eaten, the song applauded, and the plans blessed, he asked them a question.
“So, are you no longer protesting against each other?”
“Oh, no,” said one of them. “There is much on which we disagree. But today we became human and real to one another. I still protest about the issue, but I no longer have enemies to protest against. I protest now among friends.”
The above story, sadly enough, is a work of fiction.
I once knew a man who set his wristwatch alarm to go off (quietly, so that only he could hear it) every hour on the hour. When the tone sounded, he would stop what he was doing and become attentive to what was going on around him. He would pay close attention to the people near to him and would watch for signs of what God was doing in that time and place.
I think it’s time for followers of Jesus to listen for the tone, stop what they are doing, and pay attention to what is going on.
We live in a highly reactive society, and Christians seem quick to mirror that cultural reactivity. So when things happen around us—new rules on marriage, new standards for immigration, new economic policies, and so on—we react and draw lines so that we know who “they” are and who “we” are. After all: “We” are the good guys, and “they” are the bad guys. It’s important to know your enemies, right?
There is a two-fold problem with this for followers of Jesus: First, there is no “we” or “they.” There is only “us.” Second, we are not to deal with “enemies” in the traditional way of hatred.
In the midst of all the national and international turmoil, we Christians are missing a golden opportunity. We are missing the opportunity to look at the drama in our society and see our own complicity in it. We are missing the opportunity to see the one’s we have labeled the “other” and see ourselves in those people, regardless of their sexuality, their national origin, or their politics.
The apostle Paul nails this:
“. . . you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” (Romans 2:1)
Paul was working to get the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians to learn to live together as one spiritual family. They seem to have been quick to draw lines of separation between them, judging one another and allowing each side to think it had moral superiority over the other. Paul just doesn’t go for that. In fact, he claims that all human beings stand in solidarity with one another, not only in their universal access to God but also in their brokenness:
“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . .” (Romans 3:22b-23)
All human beings stand side by side in the reality of God’s love but also in the reality of sin and brokenness. In that sense, there is no one but “us” in the room.
So, when we are confronted with the social and political issues of our day, rather than beginning at the lines of division, we need to begin at the beginning: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All. That means all. Including you and me and all those “others” out there.
I’m not suggesting that everything is okay because we’re all screwed up (that would be no different, in effect, than saying that everything is okay because nobody is screwed up). I’m saying that the recognition of our solidarity with the rest of the world must draw us into humility and repentance before it allows us to consider standing in the place of judgment. And if, by “judgment,” we mean standing above others in a spirit of condemnation, then we have taken on a role that does not belong to us. If, however, we mean that there is a judgment to be made between was is life and what is death, what is helpful and what is hurtful, then we just might be able to pursue that course for the sake and the good of the world. Remember: It’s a world that God loves.
As far as having enemies goes, we who follow Jesus are not called to have enemies at all. We might have to recognize that there are people who don’t like us, who wish us harm, who categorize themselves as our enemies, but we don’t seek to have enemies. In fact, people should expect that the best enemy to have is a follower of Jesus. That’s because, as Jesus said,
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven . . .” (Matthew 5:44-45)
We in “the church” have missed so many golden opportunities throughout history. If we miss the opportunity to see ourselves in the same mirror of brokenness that we think reflects only the image of the “other,” then we miss seeing what God is really doing all around us, and what he desires to do within us.
“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:15-17)
Last week I read, with a combination of interest and dismay, the story of the florist in Washington who refused to sell flowers to a gay customer for his wedding. She is being sued over that decision, and also being characterized as either a religious bigot or as a hero, depending on one’s point of view.
The CNN article goes on to describe how some Christian groups have accepted gay marriage as a social and legal inevitability, while others have vowed to continue to fight against it. I suppose we can appreciate that, in the USA, we are able to have the freedom to battle each other without necessarily drawing blood (I’m hoping that doesn’t happen).
I recently heard a pastor, in a church service where I was a visitor, insist that it is the job of Christian people to preserve “the moral high ground.” From what I could tell, most everyone there seemed pleased with his declaration.
But I think he was wrong.
While I’m all for being moral (depending, of course, on what basis morality is grounded), demanding that particular moral standards be upheld by the larger society is not our job. Enforcing a certain “moral high ground” (which can be based on cultural preferences just as much on religious convictions), as if we Christians are the nation’s moral police, is not our job.
Bearing witness to Jesus is our job.
Being a people who are being formed in his image is our reality. And we do all of that in a context that we do not control. We live in a dominant culture, but we are not the dominant culture. “American” and “Christian” are not euphemisms. Like it or not, we are exiles. Our host nation is, for the most part, a friendly one, be we are still exiles, citizens of another kingdom where Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.
Having said that, it still matters how we live. In fact, it matters more how we live than it does how we declare what we think. If someone asks our view on same-sex marriage, our answer will either label us as bigoted haters or as compromising heretics. You just can’t come out unscathed with your answer.
But I’m not so sure that anyone needs to know what I think about a topic like that. I think it matters more how I live and how I interact with others. My views end up creating artificial categories and assumptions that deepen the divisions we seem to be creating on a daily basis. But my actions will reveal more of my heart than will my words.
More than one non-religious writer (like Roy Hattersley, in this 2005 Guardian UK article) has confessed that religious people, while having views about things that trouble skeptics, tend to be the ones who behave charitably. During disasters like Hurricane Katrina, churches mobilized all through the Gulf Coast and Christians from all over the US and Canada descended on the region to bring help and care to the people who were suffering. This kind of thing happens all the time, and even an atheist like Roy Hattersley can marvel at the phenomenon.
Maybe there were folks there (I happen to have been among them) who differed in their views about why the disaster happened, whether or not the government had failed, etc., but none of those views really mattered. What mattered was the care given to those who suffered. What people thought was trumped by what they did.
I wonder what would happen if, when asked our views on topics like same-sex marriage, immigration reform, and so on, our answer was “Watch what I do. Then you might know what I think.”
Or, to put it another way:
“Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:18)