Pentecost Goes Like This

For lots of enlightened, sensible Christians, Pentecost is like the crazy uncle: he can tell some real barn-burner stories, but you sure as heck want him out of sight anytime company’s over. It’s easy to see why we’ve arrived here, with Acts’ wild images of the holy tempest blowing and the fire dancing on heads, not to mention the zany circus show you land on with late-night televangelists.

However, Pentecost tells us the story of how Jesus’ promise to bring heaven to earth is happening now, right in front of us. The Holy Spirit’s wind arrived “from heaven,” and it blew right past all the inhibitions, all the religious resistance. God decided it was time to send a shockwave of mercy, hope and renewal; and so the Spirit came. And life exploded. Grace erupted. In a matter of hours, those who’d been sworn enemies were locking arms, those who’d been rejected were welcomed like long lost family, those who didn’t have two pennies to their name were all of the sudden eating like kings. When Heaven arrives on earth, it can look lots of different ways, but it always looks at least something like this.

Easter Light

We have stepped into the bright land of Resurrection. Whether we feel it or not, Resurrection has come. Easter is not our annual occasion for turning a naive eye away from the truth, all the while humming and smiling and refusing to stare reality in the face. Easter is the season where we yield to the Story that begins to make sense of all this madness, all this glory, all these dreams and disappointments that are forever colliding, forever giving us existential whiplash.

Easter doesn’t deny death or ruin. Easter says that death is so powerful, such an enemy, that God entered the fray. God still enters the fray. Easter tells us there is reason for joy. Easter reminds us that while we certainly have reasons for tears, we also have much reason for laughter. Easter insists that we refuse despair, we kick cynicism to the curb, we pick up our saggy bones and dance.

With Easter, we have an invitation to come out into the bright light, to believe that the God who raised Jesus from the dead can (and will) raise every kind of thing from the dead.

Fourth Week of Advent: Saying "Yes"

No matter what impression Lifetime network movies may leave, angels don’t show up often. But when they do … batten the hatches.

An angle appeared to Mary, a simple girl of thirteen, maybe fourteen, years. “You’re going to have a baby,” the angel said – and then I imagine a long pause, the angel wondering if Mary could handle the words to follow. “A baby … from … the Holy Spirit.”

Fear. Bewilderment. What will Joseph think? Incredulity. Shock. Laughter. What will my parents think? More fear. Dizzy. Dizzy. Dizzy.

But clarity arrived almost as quickly as the confusion. After only a short conversation with the angel, Mary spoke with the courage of a woman who was no longer a girl: “May it be so, Lord.” Mary simply said “yes.”

Each of us will happen upon a moment where a simple choice will be laid in front of us. Will we say yes to God, a yes that will most certainly careen us into the unknown? Will we surrender control, surrender the future, surrender ourselves?

These weeks of Advent, we have waited. But as Christians we wait so that we can hear. We wait so that we can obey. We wait so that we can say yes. It is a fearful thing to follow a God we can never control. But when we say yes, we say yes to life. Yes to joy.

To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude toward life. So is to trust that something will happen to us that is far beyond our own imaginings. So, too, is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life, trusting that God molds us according to God’s love and not according to our fear. {Henri Nouwen}

A very merry Christmas. Thank you for walking with me through Advent. And thank you for reading my words this year. It means a lot.

Second Week of Advent: Danger

If we had to describe the Christmas vibe in a word, gentle might do. Most of us grow warm-hearted as we see white twinkles showing up on our street and nog showing up in our fridge. We watch sappy reruns like Charlie Brown’s Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life. Some of us take time with friends to gather on the porch of a neighbor we barely know and belt out carols, which is a rather odd practice if you think about it. In December, we think of the children. We reminisce. We are usually more generous – precisely why all the bells and red buckets and nonprofit appeals pop up everywhere about now. Christmas is a sweet, kind-hearted season. And it should be.

However, we are kidding ourselves if we think that the deepest truth of Christmas, the moment toward which Advent points, is gentle. I’m thinking of Mary whose entire life was disrupted with a visitation from a fiery angel. I’m thinking of Herod whose empire, constructed by a lifetime of manipulation, subterfuge and violence, would be crushed in one swift moment under the Kingdom which has no end. I’m thinking of shepherds who trembled when the Palestinian night-skies ripped open with the kind of angel’s music that makes you hit the ground in terror and wet yourself (not exactly the image you want on a Christmas card).

Mostly, I’m thinking of a cross. Jesus said that he came not to bring peace, but a sword. Of course, elsewhere (and repeatedly) he also said he brought peace. In fact, he is the King of Peace – but apparently not that kind of peace. Not the peace that is frilly and tame, the kind that means nothing because it pretends to be everything. Jesus did not bring peace stripped of any real power because it can only offer us timid platitudes about the quaint advantages of being nice. Jesus carried in himself the kind of peace that made every force aligned against peace quake in its boots. It is a dangerous thing to encounter Peace when your allegiance is power or war or greed or self.

This Advent, my heart longs to be disrupted. I’m weary of the ways I domesticate God, the ways I’ve figured out how to subvert God’s call to true life by the well-ordered, comfortable life I create. Advent scares me a bit. Advent is dangerous. Because God is dangerous.

First Week of Advent: Rest-Time

For it is impossible to “put Christ back into Christmas” if He has not redeemed it — that is, made meaningful — time itself.
{Alexander Schmemann}

One of the subversive affects of following the Christian calendar is how this way of marking time intrudes upon us. Jesus’ claim is that he is Lord over all. Lord over our money. Lord over our politics. Lord over every human kingdom. Jesus is even Lord over time. There are few things we consciously think of less – and few things that (though we barely ever consider it) rule us more overtly than the way we live and measure our days. Whether your prevailing calendar is an academic year or a fiscal year or a retail year (and will someone, for God’s sake, please stop Black Friday from swallowing up that one small space of quiet we had left – Thanksgiving) or merely a plodding-along year, the Church’s calendar stands there, quiet and solid, resisting every competing claim for our devotion.

Our calendars mark our time and, with each tick, remind us to get moving (faster) and to get planning and to get working – because, of course, ruin awaits if we don’t rule our minutes well.

The Church Year, however, does much more than mark time; it tells a story. The Church Year invites us to enter, each and every year after year after year, the central narrative of our history: the story of God come to us in Jesus, living, dying and living again – and now ruling over the universe and moving toward that moment when all God’s creation is good and peaceful once again.

And this is crucial for us to remember – God’s time always begins with rest. Each week begins with sabbath, the day where we rest from our labour, content in the fact that since God is working, we don’t have to. Most humans view rest as reward. After we’ve exerted all our energy and emptied all our resources, then finally we can collapse and receive a moment’s rest and try (at least for a nanosecond) to recoup without guilt. This is a miserable way to live. This is also a very secular, human-centered way to live.

God’s invitation is to begin each week resting first. Each week, we acknowledge that we are not Lord of the Universe. We do not make anything happen. The sun will rise and fall without us. We cannot, when all is said and done, control our fortunes or secure our family’s well-being. We do our part; but we are completely reliant on God doing God’s part first. We work from rest, not the other way around. And this practice takes shape at every level. In the Hebrew daily rhythm, the day begins at sundown. In other words, the day begins with sleep. You sleep first, resting while God is at work; and then, you awake to join God in whatever activity God has already been up to.

It makes complete sense then why Advent is the beginning of the Church Year. Advent is a time of waiting, resting and being quiet. In Advent, we don’t do much of anything … other than sit and wait and hope and pray. Our attention is turned fully toward God. For four weeks, we have a long sabbath. We rest in anticipation for all God has been – and is now – doing.

Mustard and Mulberry {into the story}

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 
{NT reading for the 22nd week after Pentecost, Luke 17:5-10}

I’ve never much liked this story. While there’s some debate about whether or not Jesus actually referred to a mustard seed (poppy seed is one of the other possibilities), it makes no difference. Either way, the point is the same: the seed is tiny, minuscule, next to nothing. And Jesus says that if we have even itty-bitty faith, just a dollop, we can command a mulberry tree to lift its roots out of the crusty earth and walk its way right down to the sea. Matthew’s account is even more dramatic – there, we are told that pint-sized faith moves mountains. Moves mountains. What??

When some read this account, it stimulates exciting, supernatural possibilities. That’s all we need, a thimble full of faith – and look what could happen. Hold on, everybody… When I read, though, I am bewildered. I’ve never moved a mulberry tree, certainly no mountains. A couple weeks ago, my mom received word that she has bone cancer. I’d love to take a drive to Texas, say a blessing over her and know that vile cancer would evaporate. But I can’t. I don’t possess that kind of faith.

I’m wondering if that might be (at least partly) the point.

When Jesus spoke these words, no disciples jumped up to start tossing trees. In fact, a wider reading suggests that the disciples were confused, perplexed – humbled, we might say. The disciples consistently attempted to commandeer Jesus’ kingdom imagery and displays of power into resources for their own agenda. And Jesus would always refuse. Jesus would say something outlandish that would put them in their place. For instance, Jesus would invite the disciples to gather up their 1/2 teaspoon of faith and rearrange the hillside. An offer like that is bound to take a person down a notch.

Perhaps Jesus’ response to the disciples’ mixed-motives request for an increase in faith wasn’t intended to help them gain a positive vision of their endless possibilities, a divine pep-talk. Perhaps the nod to mulberries and mountains was to show the disciples how small they were, how much they needed God.

God isn’t one we use, one to provide us with material for divine magic tricks. God is, well, God. God is the one we worship. The one we love and obey. The one we hope in. The one who, in Jesus, died and rose again to defeat evil, embody redemption and commence new creation.

With the mountains and mulberry trees, perhaps Jesus was suggesting we don’t first need bigger faith. We need a bigger view of God.

Parting Words {The Challenge of Easter}

This shared experience has been a good one. Each author has given us something unique, and I have enjoyed the reading and the stretching. Thank you, all.

I keep coming back to the basic question: why the resurrection? When everything went haywire back in Eden, why didn’t God just send in a new species to start over from scratch (maybe in a hovering ship, V-like). Why are we even having this conversation when it would have been so easy for us to simply never have been, for everything to have ended just as swiftly as it began – concluding with only an Adam and an Eve and a sly snake and a great dream gone wildly wrong?

Apparently, there is something about the sheer presence of life (even life that may seem insignificant at the moment) that God is resolutely unwilling to abandon. I imagine God understood the consequences of allowing this story to play out the way it has (and this is where we could offer the long litany of human evils), but still – here we sit. God would not abandon, never. Rather, God would rescue.

In this telling, resurrection is not the last-ditch effort of a God frantically flinging his final hope at his venture careening out of control. Rather, resurrection is the inaugural salvo of God’s decisive endgame for the redemption of his original project. Resurrection is like Normandy. After D-day, it’s only a matter of time. One day, God will again call all of his creation good. Very good.

Given this, Jesus’ resurrection does not (contrary to many versions) primarily look backward, as if it’s main function is to serve as shock-and-awe proof that we better listen to what Jesus has to say (though we should listen to what Jesus has to say). Instead, Jesus’ resurrection mainly looks forward to all the resurrection that God intends to do all over the place. In my heart, and yours. On my street, and yours. In third-world red light districts and among nuclear arsenals and even – can we imagine it – on Wall Street.

Jesus’ resurrection is not so much the exclamation point but rather the new beginning. Jesus’ walking out of the tomb was like the opening line of a novel’s climactic scene or the first note of a symphony’s rousing crescendo. Resurrection is not just what God did in Jesus, but resurrection is the prototype for what God plans to do in us – and in every nook and cranny of his creation.

So, does it matter if resurrection is, well, real? Physical? It depends. We only need resurrection to go as much into life as our world has sunk into death. If Eden and all its beauties and bodies and joys and pleasures were truly, physically good – and if God really intends to call all that good again – then resurrection had best roll up its sleeves and (apologies to Olivia Newton John) get physical.

But maybe we fudge on this whole physical thing and opt for some disembodied hope because the straight forward version just seems too good to be true. Our longings hint that we are, as Wright said, “made for relationship, for stewardship, for worship – or, to put it more vividly, for sex, gardening and God.” However, our longings seem too fanciful, too dreamy, too childish, too mythical, just too much, way too much.

Maybe. Or maybe “too much” is exactly what God has in mind.

The Challenge of Easter {5}

Retaining and Forgiving Sins
{justin scott}
On this fifth Monday of Easter, our guide for the fifth chapter of The Challenge of Easter is Justin Scott. 

*******

N.T. Wright spends the final chapter of The Challenge of Easter on two topics: the implications of the Easter story in our day-to-day lives and the epistemology of love. As a young Christian with a science degree and an overgrown quarter-life identity crisis, both topics are of profound importance to me. But in the interest of time I’ve chosen to focus on the former.

My journey into what it means to live the gospel in one’s vocation began years ago with a nagging feeling that as a Christian, I am just not radical enough. I believe in a God who condemns my non-believing friends. I believe in his son, who said I should pluck out my eye if it causes me to sin. I believe in saints who died on crosses hung upside down for preaching about this God and his son. I have found myself awake at night trying to reconcile these things with my average, urban, American lifestyle. Why is it that most Christians seem called to pretty comfortable lives?

Many Christian teachers in my life have tackled this problem. The concoction of reformed Protestantism I grew up with went to great lengths to blur the lines between the sacred and the secular, to explain that all truth is God’s truth, to convince me that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever—which means doing my job and loving my neighbors as best I can to his glory. With this background I come to Wright’s challenges: to bring to the world the shape of the gospel, to set up sign posts which say there is a new way to be human, to find new ways to tell the story of redemption.

And lo and behold in the third paragraph of chapter five, Wright speaks directly to me about how these things might be done:

“If you work in information technology, [I do!] is your discipline slanted toward the will to power or the will to love? Does it exhibit the signs of technology for technology’s sake, of information as a means for the oppression of those who do not have access to it by those who do? Is it developing in the service of true relationships, true stewardship and even true worship, or it is it feeding and encouraging society in which everybody creates their own private, narcissistic, enclosed world?”

I will ignore what sounds like a swipe at the internet in that last sentence and say that I wish I felt that there are good answers to these questions for me, because it would mean a profession much more inspiring than the one I’m in. It’s hard not to feel that at some level Wright doesn’t get it. I design circuits for a living. These circuits and their purposes are not slanted toward power or love. Their technology does not oppress or free others. They do not encourage a closed or open society. It’s just not that glamorous.

I wish it was. I want desperately to be a part of something bigger—something that really does erect a proverbial billboard for forgiveness and redemption. I’ve written pages upon pages on my personal blog about this, which may be just the work of a guy in his roaring twenties trying to make sense of his idealism. The truth I keep coming back to is that for many of us, our professions do not lend easily to creating symbols of redemption. What then are we to do? How then should we live?

In all my years of asking many, many forms of this question, I’ve come to only one real conclusion (which many days I still find a lacking appeasement for my restless ambition): obedience. It’s summed up well in a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, shared with me by this conversation’s first writer, Nathan Elmore:

“We have literally no time to sit down and ask ourselves whether so-and-so is our neighbor or not. We must get into action and obey—we must behave like a neighbor to him. But perhaps this shocks you. Perhaps you still think you ought to think out beforehand and know what you ought to do. To that there is only one answer. You can only know and think about it by actually doing it. You can only learn what obedience is by obeying. It is no use asking questions; for it is only through obedience that you come to learn the truth.”

If God calls me into some vocation which reflects the undercurrent of his redemption, it is he who must call me. It isn’t my job to determine the course; it’s my job to follow. My job to spend time with him, listening for his guidance. My job to serve those he brings into my life. My job to repent. My job to love and to serve. My job to make each decision he brings with an eye towards forgiveness and generosity. My job to obey.

Such ideas are not lost on Wright. In my favorite line of the chapter, he states: “The Christian vocation is to be in prayer, in the Spirit, at the place where the world is in pain, and as we embrace that vocation, we discover it to be the way of following Christ, shaped according to his messianic vocation to the cross, with arms out-stretched, holding on simultaneously to the pain of the world and to the love of God.”

Amen.

Justin is an engineer who plays the piano. He lives with his lovely wife Erin in Washington, DC, and struggles to make sense of it all at guessworktheory.com.

The Challenge of Easter {3}

The Gospel Accounts

{john blase}

On this third Monday of Easter, our guide for the third chapter of The Challenge of Easter is John Blase. 

_____

Let’s go—much as that dog goes,
intently haphazard….
—dancing
edgeways, there’s nothing
the dog disdains on his way,
nevertheless he
keeps moving, changing
pace and approach but
not direction—‘every step an arrival’.
~Denise Levertov – Overland to the Islands

Intently haphazard – Levertov’s phrase beautifully describes the dog out on a walk.  I believe it also gives us a winsome way to view those other hounds, those Gospel witnesses of the resurrection.  Wright says “As I read the Gospel accounts, I have a sense that they are saying, in effect, ‘I know this is extraordinary, but this is just how it was.’”  There is no intentional effort by the Gospel writers to turn evidence that demands some verdict; they proclaim “He’s alive!” and that was that.  And, the way I see it, they and the early church go from there intently haphazard… changing pace and approach but not direction… and so may we.

Wright encourages us to grasp the full significance of the bodily resurrection, that its not just life after death or Jesus is alive today, but that “Easter day was the birthday of God’s new world.”  I do not disagree, not one bit; however I just don’t know how to do that, grasp the full significance of something.  I seem leashed to a more day-by-day, scent-by-scent, sniffing out of what Easter fully means.  Does that hint at some doubt?  Possibly, but not necessarily.  It may hint at being overwhelmed by life’s redolence, not wanting to miss jot nor tittle.  My gut tells me Wright would allow room for such, but only as long as after a little while, I keep moving.

The chapter closes by highlighting Jesus’ word to those first witnesses – “peace be with you.”  I will not speak for you, but as for me and my thoughts, I routinely place “peace” in a somewhat military frame, bordered by cease-fires or swords into ploughshares or a chartreuse VW van from the 60s.  But with Wright’s reminder and Levertov’s imagery, I’d like to propose “peace”, at least the kind Jesus breathes on all of us shaggy disciples, as more of an invitation to a tail-wagging edgeways dance into the new creation, God’s new order, never disdaining anything along the way for each new walk is scented with possibility, but always moving, ever hope-filled, every step an arrivalintently haphazard.
Ready?  Let’s go.

John Blase lives with his wife and three kids in Colorado…there’s a Beagle too.  He edits the books of others by day and writes his own by night, sorta like Batman. John blogs regularly at the dirty shame, wears cowboy boots every day, and drinks his coffee close to the bone (black).

From Death to Life

You’ve got to give yourself to something in order to truly experience it. You can’t know the deep ocean waters unless you dive in – not even the BBC’s Planet Earth (good as it is) allows you to taste the salty sea or get that short panicky sensation when a high wave envelops you in crashing, rushing, drowning torrents.

For weeks, we’ve remembered death, via lent. And we haven’t watched it from afar; we’ve submerged ourselves in it. We’ve tasted our sadness and sat with our sorrows. We’ve faced up to our failures and our hollow places. We’ve mourned over injustice, and we’ve been quiet enough to sense our longing for redemption. All this is to say we’ve come nose-to-nose with the reality of sin, what the Puritans referred to as “the plague of plagues.”

But death is not the central character in God’s story, the Good story. In God’s story, death is the villain, the ruinous beast that brings havoc but in the end, gets it just desserts.

Life – that’s where God’s story leads. When God finishes a story, the villain is finished, the child is found, the shattered pieces are beautiful again. When God says the end, the hungry aren’t hungry anymore, the lonely aren’t lonely anymore – and the tomb is magnificently empty.

So, in these days ahead, I’m giving myself to resurrection. I’m going to allow life to slip in, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Sometimes believing something good is a whole lot harder than believing something bad. I love it that Eastertide stretches out a good bit longer than Lent. In God’s way of reckoning, the beautiful always outlasts the ugly.

The way that our church All Souls Charlottesville entered life and death during this season was truly a story to live in. Read about it, if you like.