First Stories First

The Bible is about God.

Perhaps it seems frivolous to clarify this, but I believe it’s a truth we’re on the verge of losing. These days, everyone caters to us because everyone wants something from us. The game is to find out what we want – and then beat the other guy in promising how fast they can get it to us. It matters little the trade, most everyone’s in on the racket — our corporations schmucking for brand loyalty, our politicians grabbing for votes, our pastors and priests (and of course, I wrestle with these demons) clamoring for affirmation and dollars. It’s easy to see why we might get the idea that everything really is about me. But this me that everything seems to be about isn’t the true me. None of these shucksters really know me, nor do they care to.

When the Bible enters this milieu, we assume that Scripture (or God) does the same. The Bible dashes after our questions. God rushes, like a zealous car salesman, to push a model than meets our every whim. But though we may drive off the lot with all the bells and whistles, are we any better for the transaction? Are we any more joyful? Any more alive? Any more human?

We may finagle a god who makes us comfortable or endorses the life we are set toward (with minimal adjustments as a nod to the Almighty). We may sigh contentedly if we locate a god who delivers quick pithy lines to our struggles, the immediate relief we demand. But if we settle for this god we think we want, we will never engage the true God who rules over the Earth, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Mary and Peter and Paul, the God who raised Jesus from the dead. If we are committed to the God we think we want, we will never know that the questions we are asking aren’t the right questions at all.

God is God, and we are not God. And the Bible is the book that tells us both of these things.

If I you will allow me to indulge in a moment of ridiculous oversimplification: some of our most vitriolic theological battles of the last two centuries seem to pivot on this question: Is theology fundamentally humanity’s story or God’s story. I have no desire whatsoever to enter the slugfest, but between these two choices, I opt for the latter.

But – it’s no better to go the other extreme and say that God (and God’s book) is so otherly, so divine, that we ought not expect it to engage the complexities and harsh realities and the wild joys of being human. By this way of thinking, you go to the Bible to discover whether or not it is okay to kill, but you have to go to a shrink to talk about why your heart feels like it may break in two. In other words, you go to the Bible to hear God’s story, but you have to go everywhere else to learn your own story.

The Scriptures – and our wisest voices over the centuries – have refused this dichotomy. They have taught us that the Bible is about God, first – but that it is about us second. And it must be in this order because the way we most truly know ourselves is to know God. As Augustine said, we know ourselves better in God than in ourselves. Our stories matter because God has made the remarkable (and at times seemingly foolish) move to intertwine our story within God’s story. God does God’s will, but God doesn’t rush past us. God wills that humanity be more than a blip on the celestial radar. Quite the opposite – in Jesus, God vested God’s full self in the human condition. Jesus was not a lab experiment. Jesus is the revelation that God is not distant. God goes local. God knows, as Hebrews tells us, all our human travail and weakness.

God knows these dark spaces intimately because God has suffered them, with us. Our pain matters – not because we are the center of the story – but because the God of the Universe endures our pain with us and longs for our pain to be no more. Our joy matters – not because the Universe will melt if we are not sated (our burden is heavy, but not that heavy) – but rather our joy matters because Jesus defeated everything opposed to joy and invites us into God’s kingdom where joy is evermore.

And every place where sin and death prevail and every place where joy is thwarted, every place in our story where we encounter injustice or loneliness or longing for freedom or a place of belonging – those are the places where Jesus wants to make our stories new.

Mocked and Alone {into the story}

The soldiers also came up and mocked him…“If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
{Gospel reading for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King Sunday, Luke 23:33-43}

Scripture tells us that when Jesus hung on the cross, the religious leaders scoffed at him and the Roman soldiers mocked him. If it were not enough for Jesus to bend under the weight of the entire world’s sin, to be abandoned by friends and followers, to feel the Father’s dark absence – if all this were not enough to crush a man, then perhaps the ridicule of his persecutors would finish him off. I find that I can bear a good bit of pain and hardship, but the death-nail usually arrives with that one glancing jab, that one dismissive gesture – that moment when it finally lands for me – I am alone.

It doesn’t matter if (as for Jesus) an enemy delivers the word or the silence. Of course, we expect our foes to deride us; however, we also expect our friends to come to our rescue, to have our back. We expect our friends to see us in our distress and in our aloneness – to see us. As Jesus was scoffed and mocked, there were no friends, no rescue. Jesus was, in every way, alone.

As Jesus hung alone in agony, the soldiers attached a sign, a jeering act of sarcasm, above his bruised and bleeding head: This is the King of the Jews. The Romans didn’t believe this at all; they were heckling. Look here, he says he’s a king – and we’ve got him on a skewer. Even one of the criminals crucified next to Jesus piled on, deriding Jesus. You’re no Messiah – a Messiah would be able to save himself from all this. You’re a joke.

But in the strangest of turns, we find that these men’s taunts in fact proclaimed the bold irony of the gospel. Indeed, this was the King of the Jews. This was God come to humanity. This was the most impossible moment: God, in Jesus, surrendering himself to the most horrific anguish – all for the sake of love. And the criminal was actually right. The Messiah could save himself. Only, the Messiah chose not to.

If Jesus had saved himself, he could not have saved us. Jesus willing entered into the abyss so he could carry us out of it.

Wee Little Man {into the story}

And Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” {Gospel reading for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 19:1-10}

If you grew up in Sunday School, you know the story because you know the song. Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he… I’d hate to be known by young and old as wee, a sing-songy character relegated to children’s Sunday coloring projects.

Luke does tell us, matter-of-factly, that Zacchaeus was “a short man,” and that, in order to see Jesus, he had to climb a sycamore (or fig) tree. However, as Luke narrates the story, it becomes obvious that Luke holds Zacchaeus in high regard. Zacchaeuss was not a wee man but a courageous man.  Zacchaeuss had courage to run after Jesus, courage to follow Jesus, courage to throw the dice on whatever Jesus asked him to do.

When Luke makes the introduction, he tells us Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector (read: despicable tool of the Empire) — and rich. This addition is crucial. Any first-century reader would have assumed Zacchaeus to be rich. If you are a tax collector (and especially the chief tax collector) and if you get to doctor the books and add your “service” fees on the top and skim your pocket-money off the top of whatever you say is due – then, God knows, you’ve got money. You’ve sold your soul for it. Money’s the one thing, maybe the only thing, you do have. You’ve got no integrity, no friends, no dignity – but you are rich.

So why add this synonym? Why highlight this word?

It would seem this biographical note serves to push our memory back to the previous story Luke had just told, a tale of another rich man (Luke 18:18-30). This young, wealthy ruler came to Jesus, full of self-importance, asking Jesus to tell him whatever he needed to do in order to inherit God’s kingdom. Just tell me, he says. I’ve got it covered. Taken aback by such brash arrogance, Jesus lays down the law, literally.

“Well, you’re not that good. Why don’t you just go and keep all Moses’ commandments,” Jesus answers.

Remarkably, the wealthy ruler remains indomitable. “Yeah, all good there. Done. What else you got?”

What do you say in the face of such ignorance, such unabashed egotism? What do you say to someone who insists they have no problems, no weaknesses, no sin? Jesus upped the ante; Jesus hit him where it would certainly hurt. “Okay, then, if you are so almighty and good – go sell everything you own. And give it away.” Luke says the ruler simply walked away sad. This was the one thing he could not do. He could not surrender what he clung to for life: money.

Jesus summed up this encounter with his disciples: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.” And the disciples and those listening and all the first readers would have sat dumbfounded. What? How can this be… For them, the rich (by honest means – so long as you weren’t a Roman tax collector) were those closest to God. Wealth signalled God’s blessing. If the rich who’ve got it all together can’t get in…

But then, we come to a second rich man, Zacchaeus. The first rich man (the young ruler) was the one everyone assumed was righteous – and he went away without God. The second rich man (Zacchaeus) was the one everyone assumed to be evil – and the story ends with Jesus, at his house, having a party and ticking off all the religious elites. In an act of humble contrition, Zacchaeus offered this: “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody, I will pay back four times the amount.” And Jesus honored and embraced him.

It is as though the point was not at all about the amount the rich might give away but about the heart that acknowledges it has nothing to give, nothing to lose, a life fully cast onto God for mercy. That is the place to be – because Jesus is quick with mercy, quick to embrace.

Zacchaeus was not a wee little man. Short, perhaps – but his heart was huge. His heart was open to God.

I had a piece this week in the Washington Post. Take a peek.

Wrestling Under the Moon {into the story}

Jacob was left alone, but a man wrestled with him until daybreak. {OT reading for the 24th week after Pentecost, Genesis 32:22-31}

It is not good to prevail when one is wrestling an angel.
{John Walton}

Such a strange story. Jacob embarks on the long trek home after his exile for stealing his brother Esau’s birthright when he receives word that Esau and his warriors are heading their way. Jacob fears the worst. Though decades have passed and both brothers have aged and secured their own wealth and powerful family-clans, Esau may still have a taste for revenge. No one loves like brothers, but no one hates like brothers too – it’s a sad theme of the human saga.

So late in the evening, Jacob sends his people across the river, with an elaborate, ingenious stratagem for how the family is to split up and how they are to meet Esau in waves and what they are to say with each encounter – all scripted, just as we would expect from one whose name means schemer. Jacob schemed to get his father Isaac’s blessing. Jacob schemed to snatch Esau’s birthright. Jacob schemed to secure the cattle he wanted from his father-in-law. Jacob was a schemer par excellence.

But now Jacob was alone, alone with his fears and the weight of his years maneuvering and plotting and working the angles. Jacob must have sensed everything crashing, unraveling. He’d put together his best plan – but Esau was stronger, more powerful. Esau’s warriors were men of the sword, and Jacob’s conniving efforts were futile if Esau decided on payback.

What do we do when our skill and ingenuity are spent, when there is nothing else we can do – and when all indicators point to the fact that our best effort simply won’t be enough?

Jacob sat alone, under the dim moonlight, when a figure leaps from the shadows. And an epic wrestling match ensues. At this moment in the story, we are told that Jacob is grappling with “a man,” but later we discover Jacob is actually wrestling God – or an angel sent by God which, though I have no experience in such things, I would imagine is (for us mortals) pretty much the same as wrestling God.

Jacob and the angel wrestled through the night, and Jacob, true to form, proved scrappy. He had spent his life fighting, and he wouldn’t go down easy. Only this time, Jacob couldn’t win. When the angel tired of the contest, the divine wrestler touched (only touched, a flick of the finger, as if to say, “Now, you didn’t really think you had a chance, did you?”) Jacob’s hip.

And Jacob was done. Incapacitated. Finished. All Jacob could do was hang on, as Buechner says, like a “man drowning.”

This is the moment all of us schemers must come to — the point where we are finished, worn out, exhausted. Drowning. So long as we are convinced we’ve got life by the scruff of the neck, we will scheme and manipulate and keep God a safe distance. At some point, though, if God is kind, God will wrestle us to the ground and hold us there until we cry “mercy!” Mercy is what God longs to give – but we have to receive it.

God will love us with mercy that heals or with mercy that hurts – but from God, it’s mercy all the same. In the wise word of George MacDonald: “There are victories far worse than defeats; and to overcome an angel too gentle to put out all his strength, and ride away in triumph on the back of a devil, is one of the poorest.”

Heart-sick Tears {into the story}

O that my head were a spring of water,
           and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
           for the slain of my poor people!
{Old Testament reading for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Jeremiah 8:18-9:1}

Jeremiah, known as the weeping prophet, did not stand distant from his people. Jeremiah was immersed in their story, their life, their tragedies. Have you ever encountered a man quick with tears? It’s a powerful thing, genuine tears  – and most of us are uncomfortable with this raw, unmasked power. We admire it from a distance, but usually we don’t want it up close. Tears make us shifty, our eyes desperate to find a safe way to look away. We want to make the moment better, make the tears stop, fix something.

But Jeremiah just wept. Jeremiah cried because what he saw, what he experienced, demanded tears. This world is not as it should be, and the awake soul does not force a smile but rather echoes Jermiah’s words: “My heart is sick.”

My wife Miska is a weeping prophet. If a conversation strikes deep, as Miska always hopes it will, chances are that tears will soon follow. These tears are one of the burdens she bears in this world. At times, tears make her feel alone. They always make her vulnerable. It’s wrenchingly hard to feel the weight of other’s pain. But Miska’s tears are also gift; her tears heal. One of my favorite experiences is watching Miska’s powerful presence, coupled with her powerful tears, touch a wounded place in another’s soul.

Sometimes, tears speak for themselves, communicating truths that words would only diminish. I think there is a reason that the shortest verse in the Bible says, only, “Jesus wept.”

Who Loves Jesus More? {into the story}

The tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.
{Gospel reading for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 15:1-10}

This morning, on the one day a year the calendar explicitly tells us to cease from our labors (God suggests once per week – I prefer that rhythm), we walked to brunch at the Blue Moon, perhaps the hippest breakfast joint in town. Where else would you find a large picture of Willie Nelson hanging above the fireplace, dine amid the home turf for the Charlottesville Derby Dames (our local roller derby squad) and hear someone ordering gourmet pancakes and whisky?

The walk was perfect – the first nip of Fall and good conversation with the boys. Much of the time I spent with Seth. Lately, I’ve noticed Seth’s eagerness to be with me. We’ve always enjoyed each other; but for as long as I remember, Seth has provided me a humbling refrain: “I like you, dad. But I like mom better.” Seth never intended to wound. To him, second place is pretty darn good.

Sometimes, when he would get carried away with his affection, he would tack on a qualifying line, just to make sure his loyalties were clear. “I love you so much, dad,” Seth would gush. And then pause, wrinkle his brow and add, “But I do love mom more.”

This Sunday’s Gospel reading makes me wonder who it is that loves God more. I should be quick to admit that the text doesn’t talk at all about our love for God. Quite the opposite, it talks about God’s love for us. Like the shepherd who has 100 sheep and has 1 wander off, God leaves the many to go after the 1. The emphasis of the parable – and the whole of the Bible – is not how deep our love is for God but how massive God’s love is for his creation.

Still, there is a tenderness I see, the first hints at love perhaps, when the tax collectors and sinners –  the despised, the outcasts — shuffled close to Jesus. They wanted to come near and hear his words. I don’t know if they loved Jesus yet, but it was Love they were hearing, Love they were responding to, Love that made them gather ’round.

The dispossessed are always the ones drawn to the renegade. When we have no power and when the illusion of our own self-importance and our own kingdoms has been sufficiently pilfered, we are most able to hear the call of love. And then to gather ’round. To listen. To come close and find out if there might be something here worth hoping for.

The religious elites grumbled; they didn’t come to listen. The powerful Romans were nowhere to be found. Well, that’s not quite true. Some elites would come, here and there – and some Romans too – in humility, to receive. But when they came, they did not arrive as power-makers. They joined the long line forming, the line of sinners, the line filled with the desperate and the ruined. They came to be loved.

And then – and only then – would they have love to return.

Deprivation and Hope {into the story}

So, therefore, none of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all of your possessions.
{Gospel reading for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Ordinary Time, Luke 14:25-33)

Jesus words’ cause distress for many of us. We look at all we have – and all that we want to have – and we wonder (hope) what else Jesus could possibly have meant. Must I hand over the house I live in, the car I drive, the computer I’m typing on in order to follow Jesus? 
But this isn’t a matter of me surrendering the title or the keys of anything over to God; this is a matter of me abandoning the illusion that the keys or the title were ever mine to begin with. Scripture’s most fundamental truth is this: God is King. God owns everything. Everything.
Whatever I think I own – it’s an illusion. Following Jesus means coming to terms with the truth that God possesses all things. Following Jesus means seeing the world as it truly is.
We’ve heard the mantra: It’s hard to be Jesus’ disciple in America because we own so much. I see it slightly differently. I think it’s hard to be Jesus’ disciple in America because we find it so difficult to believe that we don’t own a thing.
Karl Barth said that our temptation is to live in ways that suggest “the characteristic marks of Christianity [are] possession and self-sufficiency” when in reality they are “deprivation and hope.” I love that paradox. I am deprived. I have nothing. Try as I might to make something of myself (and I try, try, try), it’s a bismal failure. I have nothing.
But I do have hope. I have hope because the King of All has named me Beloved. And has welcomed me home. And even now prepares me a feast. To give up my possessions is to admit the truth that I don’t have any possessions. And then to receive God’s lavish, unbridled grace and kindness.

Angels Everywhere {into the story}

I’m beginning a new practice (at least for a bit), interacting with one of the lectionary texts for the upcoming Sunday. I’d like to ruminate on them ahead of time, and I thought you might want to join me. Not sure exactly how regular this will be, but we will see. If you are unfamiliar with the lectionary, it is a way for many Christians across the world to read shared texts and hear together our shared gospel story. So, into the story…

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people show hospitality to angels without knowing it. 
{Epistle reading for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Ordinary Time, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16}

As a child, this was one of the Scripture passages that set our imaginations awhirl. Would I bump into an angel at the mall? Might I catch a mischievous wink from a cherubim on the corner?

This possibility of encountering divine creatures transformed the ordinary into the magical. Anything could happen. You could run into an angel absolutely anywhere.

The text seems to suppose that running across angels is humdrum. These angels are not met amid flaming bushes or a choir of heavenly hosts. They are met over dinner, breaking of break, coffee perhaps. Hospitality.

If there was anything we sunday school kids knew about angels, it was that they were God’s messengers. When an angel was present, God was present. And God is everywhere, ours to see if we’ll live with open eyes. It’s a good reason to pay attention next time we’re having a conversation, no matter the person and no matter how unlikely the space. You never know who you’re chatting with. You never know what you’ll discover in the story you’re hearing – and in the story you’re telling.