Every Day is Saturday

The first Good Friday brought death and despair and shock to the band of followers of the prophet from Nazareth. On the day after — what we now call Holy Saturday — there was grief. And fear. And regret over what could have been done, what should have been done.  And there was blame, plenty of blame, for whose fault it all was. 

I used to muse about what it was like that first Holy Saturday, what it was like to be stunned by what had just happened.  I imagined what it felt like to be overcome by the shadow of unexpected, brutal, solitary death.  I thought about how, with all hope gone, time must have seemed to pass slowly.  I pondered the fear in that Upper Room — fear that those huddled there might be next to die.  

I don’t wonder any more. 

Now, in the year of our Lord 2020, in the year of the Great Pandemic, it seems every day is that Saturday. I see death all around me and feel helpless to stop it. I am hunkered down in my Upper Rooms, admitting no one, venturing out only under exigent circumstances, hurrying back to the safety of my closed universe.  I watch the news trying to figure out who is to blame and who I can trust.  And I am afraid.  I am afraid that despite all my precautions, that illness — and even death — will come for me next.

It is not all the time, of course. Most of the day I soldier on, working, cleaning, doing crosswords, cleaning, Zooming with friends and family, and then cleaning some more. But there are moments when I feel the weight of Saturday, when I see pictures of the unthinkable. Mass graves being dug for the dead, just miles from where I grew up. People, exhausted beyond measure, who are keeping the world running while we hide and wait. Funerals being held via cellphone. There are times when the water seeps through the cracks in the dam and I am overcome.

Of course, I know what the apostles did not know on that first Saturday.. I know that although the hours of grief and fear and confusion passed slowly that Saturday, they did pass. I know that on Sunday morning, when they unlocked the door and let Mary in, everything changed. The joy of seeing a risen Jesus overshadowed all the pain. How can you fear death when you have seen that He conquered it? How can you grieve for someone who is not dead? How can you blame yourself for betraying Him when He has forgiven you for it?  

All that is true and I am profoundly grateful that I know what they did not. Yet, I think it is a mistake to fast-forward over Saturday to get to the happy ending. We are here, now, and it is right to mourn.  After all, Jesus mourned for his friend Lazarus and saw death as the great enemy to be conquered. It is right to remain cut off from the world, for now, as the ultimate act of self-sacrifice for our neighbors. We should not be ashamed of fearing illness or death — Jesus Himself asked for the cup of suffering to be taken from Him.  

I believe that God respects and honors our human experience.  He doesn’t ask us to pretend that there is no pain in death or that we are not afraid. He doesn’t set up the false equivalence that faith is incompatible with feeling pain (it’s people who do that).  

If you don’t believe me, read the Psalms.  Every form of human emotion — anger, anguish, physical pain, mental torment, vengeance, jealousy, bitterness, you name it — is there, part of Holy Scripture.  Yes, the Psalms always end in praise, and that is a great balm.  But they tell me that God respects and welcomes the expression of our emotions. 

In that spirit, I offer a Psalm for Saturday

My heart is broken, Lord.

for the sick and the dead, and those who love them.

for those who have seen their livelihoods vanish and struggle to provide for their families.

For those who are lonely

The unbelievers ask, “Where is your God?”

And then I see where you are.

Where you have always been, a breath away from anyone who calls on you.

The unseen hand comforting the dying and giving strength to the caregiver.

Inspiring your people to generosity and selflessness in a time of need.

Showing your immeasurable love on the Cross.

Standing outside an empty tomb, triumphant over this world’s pain and death.

And through my tears, I praise your holy name.

Just like that first Holy Saturday, this seemingly endless one will end, although we don’t know when, or how, or what the world outside our isolation will look like when it does.  I do know two things.  That God is with us now, in all our fear and confusion and grief.  And that God will be with us on the other side, offering us a hope we never dreamed of. 

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Two Tickets to Paradise

In the past two weeks, I’ve seen the finale of the TV show The Good Place, an adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, and attended the funeral of one of my oldest and dearest friends.  All in all, I’ve had the chance to think hard about the afterlife. 

The Good Place was a unicorn—a network TV show that encouraged serious thought about the meaning of life and death.  Oh, and it was a comedy that trafficked in satire, slapstick and silliness.  

The show took place in the afterlife, where people are consigned to The Good Place or The Bad Place, depending on the number of points they scored for “goodness” during their earthly life. In the course of navigating this system, the characters were asked to consider: What does it mean to be good?  What do we owe each other? Can people change?  The satire was sharp, often hilarious.  But at the same time, it presented philosophical arguments in a way that assumed our willingness to consider Life’s Big Questions while still enjoying a good fart joke. 

Aside from a nod to religion in the first episode (“All the religions got it a little bit right.”), and the fact that there were supernatural beings in control of both the Good and the Bad Place, the show was a paean to humanism.  These four humans consistently outsmart and outmaneuver the cleverest demons and the most well-intentioned angels. Their belief in human potential, the essential goodness of of people, and a sense of obligation to each other allows them to design a better system of the afterlife.  

And yet, when they finally make it to the new and improved Good Place, they are profoundly disappointed. True, their every desire and fantasies are instantly fulfilled, and they are giddy.  But they discover that after a while it is mind-numbingly boring. An eternity of “happiness” as defined by their individual desires and whims is unbearable.  

The funny thing is, this idea is completely consistent with the Christian worldview, which posits that a life centered on the self is at its core, profoundly empty. Pascal called this “a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator.”  St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.”  Although decidedly not Christian, The Good Place comes to the same conclusion:  Even if we have everything we want, it will not be enough. 

Paradise Lost gives us a similar view of what a human-centric Paradise is like. The play focuses on Eve’s temptation by Lucifer, who sees that despite the abundance of God’s creation, Eve wants more.  Not content to be able to communicate with birds, she wants to fly like one. She peppers Adam with questions about God, the garden, and why God doesn’t seem to have any grace to spare for Lucifer, who fascinates her.  God’s idea of Paradise isn’t enough for her; she wants more.  And more is what Lucifer offers in the Tree of knowledge of Good and Evil.  Her desire to define Paradise on her own terms is her (and our) undoing.

The Good Place and Paradise Lost both ask the same question: What happens when our idea of Paradise is based solely on our own desires? In The Good Place, without an idea of a good Creator who is able to provide what truly satisfies, the only choice is between eternal ennui, and escaping into nothingness. A Paradise of our making is fun for a while, but empty.

For their part, Eve and Adam do acknowledge a Creator, yet still behave as if what God declared good was not good enough.  Like the characters in The Good Place, they want Paradise to be about them. 

Which brings me to Max.  My dear, sweet, funny, exasperating, loyal friend for all of my adult life died this week.  And I’ve been thinking about what kind of a place I’d want him to be in right now.  

I don’t want him to be somewhere that is just a better version of this world, where we are granted every wish.  That’s not what the God of the Bible offers us, and we should be glad about that, because, let’s face it, even our purest desires are distorted by sin. 

No, for my friend I want something better, something purer, something that transcends my human capacity to imagine it.  I want him to spend eternity in a world that is God’s idea of perfection, not mine. I want an eternity– for him and for me — that is spent not looking in a mirror, but gazing on the face of God.

Throughout Scripture, God offers us so much more than our finite minds can think or imagine.  Listen to the invitation from the Prophet Isaiah: 

“Come, everyone who thirsts,

    come to the waters;

and he who has no money,

    come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

    without money and without price.

Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,

    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

    and delight yourselves in rich food.

Incline your ear, and come to me;

    hear, that your soul may live;

and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,

    my steadfast, sure love for David.

(Isaiah 55:1-3)

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Tabula Rasa

It is 6 a.m. on January 1st. The sun is not up yet, and neither am I.  Until I throw back the covers and my feet hit the floor, all good things are possible and all bad ones haven’t happened yet.  

The New Year is before me, clean and quiet as a new snowfall. There are no tracks left behind by words I regret, no rivers of dirty slush created by hurting someone I love.  I have not yet been petty or proud or petulant. I haven’t disappointed myself or anyone else yet.  I haven’t broken a promise, failed to be kind, or sinned in any number of ways against God or others. 

It is a delicious feeling, being suspended between the past and the future. 

Turning the calendar page allows me to put a bow on last year, with its joys and regrets, and look ahead to what might be.  I can imagine that I will do better this year — be more loving, braver, humble, fruitful. I can imagine that this time, all the discipline and goodness that has so long escaped my grasp will this year jump into my waiting arms and make itself at home.

After all, this is what New Year’s resolutions are all about.  Because the calendar says this is the start of something new, we say to ourselves, “I can be different and I will start now.”  Of course we can do this any month, day or hour of the year, but somehow we don’t.  We wait until an officially sanctioned New Beginning to wipe the slate clean and imagine a new story will be written on it. 

When I was little girl, that’s what I loved about going to Confession. I would go into the dark, musty-smelling box that was the confessional and tell my sins to the old, musty-smelling priest behind the screen.  When I emerged into the daylight, I loved the feeling that I had a tabula rasa — a clean slate.  

Today, when I say the prayer of confession in worship and the pastor declares my forgiveness, I often weep with gratitude. In that sense, every Sunday is New Year’s Day, because it places me on the fulcrum between the past and the future.

St. Paul puts it this way: 

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) 

This is what we all yearn for.  A fresh start, another chance to be better, unencumbered by our pasts.  I’m grateful that I have that chance every week. 

As I approach the Lord’s Table, I can say that, through God’s grace, “I will be different, and I will start now.”  

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Knit, Purl, Me

 

Yesterday I took a piece of my life and wrapped it in cotton-candy-colored tissue paper. The attached note, tied on with matching ribbon, declared that in this gift — this prayer shawl — every stitch was a prayer.

This is not exactly true. It is true that when I take up the needles, I pray — if it is someone I know, I pray for the specific ways this shawl will bless them. If it is for a stranger, I pray for God’s peace and love to surround them.

But every stitch a prayer? That’s a bit of holy hyperbole.

You see, woven in with the prayers is my life. Like a second strand of yarn, the pattern also contains whatever spiritual vibe comes from binge-watching Monk. My intercessions are for the friend who will receive this shawl, but sometimes they are also for my anxiety du jour. The steady breathing of the cat who sleeps next to me is as much a part of this undertaking as the sheep who has offered his fine coat to warm another. I fear the frustration of ripped-out rows or the impatience of wanting to get on with the next project also becomes part of my offering.

All of which is to say, it’s not all spiritual ecstasy and choirs of angels. It is simply hour after hour of my life.

Perhaps that is why I feel an emptiness when a project is wrapped in its beautiful paper and given away. I am proud of the beauty I have created and anxious to see it wrapped around someone who needs the joy and comfort of knowing that they have been prayed for. But I also feel like I’ve given away a chunk of my life, hours that do not seem as abundant as they once did. Wrapped in that tissue paper, tied up in that beautiful raffia bow is nothing less than months of prayers and petulance, intercession and impatience, and the discipline and occasional tedium of showing up, day after day, row after row, and committing to the work.

People who have received shawls often comment that they can feel the prayers embracing them. I wonder if they can also feel all the other things that have been absorbed into the strands. I wonder if I am now spiritually connected to this person in ways neither of us can fathom.

Of all the shawls I have made, some stand out.

  • The shawls I gave to my friend Jean when her mother was so gravely ill — one for her, one for her Mom. Jean and her Mom are both gone now, and I wonder where these pieces of me are now.

 

  • The one I gave to one of my oldest friends on the eve of her first chemo. In the months that followed, when I felt frustrated at being so far away, I imagined the shawl was an adequate stand-in for me.

 

  • The one that was left behind on one of the trips to the emergency room that were too commonplace in the last year of my father-in-law’s life. I like to think that part of me still rides around Kansas City in an ambulance with others who are afraid and in pain.

These invisible bonds between knitter and knitee bring to mind Dorcas, a woman we meet in the book of Acts. Dorcas was a seamstress who formed a community with needle and thread. She sewed tunics for “the widows” — women who were vulnerable, forgotten and often in need. And when she died, the widows held her legacy in their hands — all those simple, everyday garments that at first glance were unremarkable. Until the widows told their story — how they were made with love and how they bound Dorcas to them, and them to each other. As I work on my latest project, I wonder if when I’m gone, my “widows” will show their shawls to the other mourners and say, “See how she loved us.”

The story of Dorcas goes on to include a miracle. Their grief was so intense that they sent for Peter, who raised Dorcas from the dead, restoring her to the community, mending the fabric torn apart by death.

When I die, I do not expect to be miraculously resurrected as Dorcas was, at least not right then and there. But I do expect that the same power that brought Dorcas back to life will be active in me today and will allow me to serve others. I do expect that same power that brought her back to life will one day do the same for me.

Until then, I bind myself to people I love and people I will never meet with the softest wool and the smoothest needles, weaving in prayers and To Do lists, fervent intercession and mindless sitcoms. I will sit alone, hour after hour, like a busy little spider creating webs of connection between me and the world.

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Are You Ready?

 

I stood in her kitchen, holding a pan of lasagna.

She was a new mother and she had the disoriented look of someone who had just parachuted into enemy territory. I guess you could say that’s exactly what had happened to her, because this was not the homecoming she had planned. For one thing, after spending an extended time in the hospital, her newborn was already a month old. For another, his head was held in place by a metal bolt through his neck.

My friend who was involved in a ministry to parents of babies born with major cranio-facial abnormalities asked if I would bring this new mother dinner, since we lived in the same town. Even more than most new mothers, this woman had very little time or energy to worry about such mundane tasks as making dinner. So there I was, making awkward small talk with this woman I had never met.

After thanking me several times, she finally asked, “Why did you do this for someone you don’t know?”

I blathered on about how happy I was to help, that I knew she needed one less thing to worry about. All that was true, of course, but I could tell it wasn’t a satisfying answer. After all, why would a perfect stranger walk into her house bearing dinner?

I offered something bland and vague, along the lines of “I’m happy to help,” but even I knew that was inadequate.

Here’s what I wished I had said:

“I’m here because God loves you and I am just His caterer.”

“I’m here because God wants you to know that you and your son are perfect and precious to him.”

“I made you lasagna because God has rescued me from pain and confusion and exhaustion and I want you to know that he will do the same for you.”

Most of all, I wished I had said that I didn’t bring dinner because it was the nice thing to do. I didn’t cook for her because, as the Dalai Lama is often quoted as saying, ” My religion is kindness.”

The world can certainly use all the kindness it can get; I’m not discouraging it.  God knows (and I mean that literally) that we need to be more tolerant, compassionate and helpful to one another.

But the kindness of bringing dinner fills your belly, but not your soul.

Kindness can offer kinship and fellowship, but it doesn’t offer hope and it doesn’t comfort you when everyone has gone home and you are alone with your pain and fear.

No, my religion isn’t kindness.

My religion is belief in a God who sees beauty where the world sees deformity. My religion worships a God who knows what it means to be human, in all its glory and all its pain, and never leaves us.

My religion is in awe of a God whose Holy Spirit could overcome my fears and allow me to hold this mother’s child, looking past the rod in his neck, and smile at his sweet face.  I brought her a meal and she was appreciative.  I cooed at her baby boy and she was joyous.

Still, I regret my silence all those years ago. I take comfort in the possibility that maybe someone else was bolder than I and told her all the things I should have.

I’ll be ready next time.

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you;  yet do it with gentleness and reverence.   

                                                                                                       1 Peter 3:15-16

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When Evil Walks In

“I don’t want you to alarm you …” Tell me, is it possible to hear those words and not be alarmed?

The pastor of the church where I would be preaching that Sunday called to alert me about an “incident” during worship the previous week. A man showed up in the middle of worship and walked down the center aisle carrying a large duffel bag and ranting. He was “subdued” by the ushers and escorted out. “I don’t think he’ll be back, but the state police will be there on Sunday just in case. I thought you should know.”

Her voice was calm, and reassuring. Still, this is what I heard:

Crazy man.
Large duffel bag.
Had to be subdued.
State police.

My training as a lay preacher covered the design of worship services, doctrine, hermeneutics and Biblical exegesis. But not once did anyone tell me what to do when worship was disrupted by an angry man with a large duffel bag. All I could think was, “I’m just the substitute teacher! This is way above my pay grade.”

Other than being greeted by state troopers (which was, at once, reassuring and unnerving), it turned out to be an unremarkable worship service.

My worst fears didn’t come true that Sunday, but other churches haven’t been spared the horror I feared.

This week, it was Sutherland Springs, Texas where murderous evil breached the sanctuary. And, as if the execution of 26 people and wounding of as many more wasn’t horrible enough, the fact that it took place in a church was particularly hard to bear.

For believers, the idea that their sanctuary could be violated in this way was unthinkable. Many people think of church as the ultimate safe space, a place we can enter and then pull the drawbridge up behind us, leaving the world and its madness behind. When massacres happen in Sutherland Springs or Charlottesville, our idea of church as a spiritual stronghold is challenged.

So, here are the questions I’ve been chewing on:

Should we expect to feel safe in church?

Is church a space where God will not allow the world to intrude?

It strikes me that this is a First World Question. According to Open Doors USA, each month, 214 churches are destroyed and 772 forms of violence are committed against Christians worldwide. In countries like Syria and Iraq, the Christian population has been decimated. Churches in Mali, Nigeria, Somalia Pakistan and Kenya have been destroyed and Christians murdered.

For all the talk of the marginalization of the church in the U.S., and the ongoing culture wars that can make us feel under attack, the church in America doesn’t know the first thing about persecution. For too many of us, church is a soft place to land, a city whose walls protect us from all harm. The rest of the world has no such illusions. Every worship service is a defiant declaration that Jesus is Lord; no one expects the surrounding culture or political organization take that lying down. They are sorrowful, but not surprised, when evil comes to church.

I’m not suggesting that what happened in Texas last week was persecution; in fact, as of this writing, motives are unclear. But it has caused me to admit that I think that somehow when the church doors close behind me, the world and its evils will not intrude. I admit that I am like many people who think of church is where I can let down my guard and make the world go away.

But if the church is being the church — open doors, no moats or drawbridges here — it is possible evil will walk in. It is possible that God’s holy space will be profaned in word or in bloody deed. It is easy to worship in safety. Worshiping without guarantees of physical safety or comfort — now that’s real faith.

I recently went on pilgrimage to Ireland, tracing the steps of St. Patrick. One of my favorite places was Ballintubber Abbey, continuously in use since it was built in 1216. In 1653, the abbey was burned by Cromwell’s forces, destroying the roof and several outbuildings. Nevertheless, for the next 250 years, people continued to worship there, week after week, regardless of weather, and in spite of laws prohibiting it. As I sat in the rebuilt abbey, I wondered: Would I have been so faithful? Would I have been as brave? Would I have been a lookout for the priest hunters who came to kill my pastor? Would I have helped him escape certain death? Would I have been willing to kneel on the cold ground in worship?

Or would I have wondered, as I did this week, “Should I expect to be safe and comfortable in church? Will God allow the world to intrude?”

I don’t know why, but sometimes evil walks into church the same way it drives down the bike path or firebombs prayer meetings or enslaves young girls. I don’t know why God doesn’t always intervene to prevent such suffering.  But I do know that proclaiming Jesus is Lord is a declaration of war and I should be ready:

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Ephesians 6:13-17

 

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Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

I just ended one of the longest relationships of my life. With the exception of the year I spent in France, I have read the New York Times every day since I was 12. There is nothing else I can think of — no other habit or ritual or compulsion — that I’ve practiced longer or that has remained an unchallenged, unquestioned and uninterrupted part of my life for so long.

And today, I broke it all off. Like most breakups, the reasons are best left between the parties involved. Like most breakups, I hung on longer than I should have.

Why?

For many years, the New York Times was a mark of identity. When my 7th grade teacher declared it required reading, I understood I was being called out of the Bronx and into a different world. We were ”Intellectually gifted girls” (a distinction we at once mocked and embraced) and such girls read the Times. People who went to college read it, and when they graduated, they rushed to their important jobs with it tucked under their arms. Reading the Times was what smart, well-informed, sophisticated people did. I wanted to be all those things so it’s what I did. As a character in one of my favorite movies puts it, “I want to like what’s better to like.” And even though I am no longer a 7th grader eager to embrace the world beyond the boroughs, it was hard to let go.

Why do we hang onto things — possessions, relationships, newspaper subscriptions — even after we’ve outgrown them?

Part of it is inertia. As long as there’s no obvious harm being done, it’s just easier to leave things undisturbed and unexamined. But mostly, it comes down to identity.

When I contemplated leaving my career in corporate communications, one question I asked myself led to a full blown panic attack: “If someone asks what I do, what will I tell them?” In other words, who would I be if I no longer had that title? Better not pull at that thread.

When I consider purging my closet of clothes unworn, it’s never just about giving away that blouse or this skirt. It becomes a referendum on whether I will ever be that size again, and if not, what does that make me? Easier to just leave it on its hanger and move on.

When I sift through my bookshelves . . . oh, who am I kidding, I never give away books. Still, you get the idea.

In The Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster talks about the discipline of simplicity:

“The inward reality of simplicity involves a joyful unconcern for possessions. Neither the greedy nor the miserly know this liberty. It has nothing to do with abundance of possessions of their lack. It is an inward spirit of trust.”

That spirit of trust says that all we have is from God; it allows us to mimic God’s provision by making what we have available to others. It doesn’t mean living free of possessions. It does mean holding them lightly, because they don’t define us. It means being able to let go because if we do, we still have an identity that can never be taken away:

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)

I would add that generosity isn’t only about money or things. We are called to be generous with all the resources we have been given — our money, our time, our talents and our love. It is easier to write a check than it is to visit someone in prison, yet we are called to open our hearts and our homes as well as our wallets. It is who God made us to be.

And yet, we continue to collect and protect. Consider this: A search for books on “decluttering” on Amazon turns up 1,668 results. (I guess I’m not the only one who holds on too long.) The most popular of these books suggests picking up each object in your house and asking yourself, “Does this bring me joy?”

This is the wrong question.

There are better questions for God’s people:

“Am I relying on this thing, this relationship, this title for my identity?”

“Would letting go of it diminish my sense of worth?”

“Could this bring someone else joy?”

Breaking up is hard to do. I want to hold on to the identity I have constructed for myself out of job titles and clothing sizes and intellectual achievements. But God wants so much more for me. He wants me to rely solely on the identity and worth that can never be taken away:

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are.”

(1 John 3:1)

From this place of ultimate security, it is easy to let go.

 

 

 

 

 

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#RESIST

I don’t care what Merriam-Webster’s dictionary says, “gift” is not a verb. When I hear someone talk about gifting something, I want nothing more than to make them a gift of The Elements of Style and smack them upside the head with it.

I recently discovered that while I have been defending the world against the scourge of nouns-as-verbs, they have quietly made their way into the dictionary. I refuse to acknowledge or acquiesce to such barbarism. In the spirit of the times, I am declaring:

#NotMyDictionary  #Resist

I vow to preach the gospel of #neveraverb as long as I have breath. In the words of Martin Luther, patron saint of resisters, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.”

At the heart of my resistance — of all resistance — is the belief that I know better than The Authority I’m resisting. My defiance denies the authority’s moral, legal, academic or spiritual legitimacy in favor of my own. Now, resistance can be a principled, brave opposition to an obvious wrong. (Think Dietrich Bonhoeffer, William Wilberforce or Martin Luther KIng, Jr.) It can also be petulant, obstinate and self-aggrandizing, like my linguistic jihad against verbified nouns.

If it were only a matter of grammar, I could chalk it up to a charming quirk. But I fear this rebellious streak goes far beyond the Word Wars.

If resistance is substituting my own judgment for an authority’s then I am guilty of resisting God. You probably are, too. It’s OK, we come by it honestly. We inherited it from Adam and Eve.

“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” (Genesis 3:6)

In other words, God said “No”, but I know better.

She knows God has prohibited it; she says as much to the serpent. But she rationalizes her rebellion. It looks good, it probably tastes good. It will make me wise, and what could be wrong with that? Why wouldn’t a loving God want me to have it?” (By the way, I think this last is one of the most dangerous questions we can ask. For one thing, it assumes that if God loves us, He will give us our every desire, even if that contradicts His will and His word. For another, it often precedes an argument that ends in “I know that’s what He said, but He didn’t mean it that way.”)

Eve and Adam’s rebellion — and ours — is rooted in the desire to be the judge of what is good and what is not. Their desire has convinced them that they can ask God to scooch over so they can share His throne.

This is why our resistance hero Martin Luther famously wrote that the root of all sin is idolatry. We never break any commandment without having first broken the first: “You shall have no other gods before me.” After all, once that is abrogated, then the absolute moral authority that undergirds the rest of the commandments becomes just another voice in the din of relativism. And all the while we pile up one rationalization after another for why this is all perfectly fine and God is cool with it.

From that day in the garden to this day at my desk, people have struggled with the radical claim on our hearts and our heads of that first commandment.

1. There is one God, and it’s not me.
2. God alone has claim to all authority and truth.
3. When God’s word is clear, but I think I know better, see #1

When it comes to words, I cling to the notion that I know better than the dictionary. I suppose there is no real harm to this, unless you happen to be on the receiving end of one of my tirades.

But when it comes to God, my resistance reveals a dangerous idolatry.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus asks a haunting question:

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”    (Luke 6:46)

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Listen Up!

I’m a light sleeper. I’m constantly on the qui vive for intruders and middle-of-the-night phone calls announcing catastrophe. Earplugs make me blissfully unaware of my surroundings and allow me to sleep through the night. Those little balls of wax are a blessing to my physical and mental health.

Of course, insulation from reality can also be dangerous. Sometimes the very things we want to screen out are the things we are in most need of hearing. I don’t need to hear noises that will disrupt my sleep. But God is so sure I need to hear some hard truths about myself that He will shout until I hear His voice.

I’m reading Isaiah Chapter 58 every day during Lent. This past week, I’ve found myself lingering on the first verse:

“Cry aloud; do not hold back;
lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins.”

Before He begins His litany of the people’s sin, God warns Isaiah he’s going to have to break through the self-righteous, self-satisfied, self-pitying bubble they’ve constructed. He’s saying, “You know all the stuff these people don’t want to hear? You’re going to shout it at the top of your lungs! All their dirty little secrets? You’re going to blare it over a loudspeaker to get their attention!”

Isaiah 58 is withering indictment of the people’s hypocrisy. Their lips pray to God one minute and quarrel the next. Their fasting is more concerned with appearances than with true humility. They worship and praise the Creator while they mistreat His creation. And as if that isn’t bad enough, they have the effrontery of accusing God of ignoring their piety and not hearing their prayers.

“Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” (Isaiah 58:3)


The irony is too delicious.

They are so busy whining that God isn’t listening, they don’t see that they are the deaf ones.

They are all too happy to hold God to His promise of hearing their prayers, yet conveniently plug up their ears to His demands for justice, love and compassion. And so, God tells Isaiah to shout. He knows that there comes a time when gentle rebukes must give way to full-throated cries; when niceties and euphemisms must be abandoned.

He knows that nothing less than a blunt, blaring truth will penetrate our willful deafness.

God’s salvation story is punctuated with God having to turn up the volume so we will hear Him:

  • Only the final plague of the death of the firstborn was loud enough to get Pharaoh’s attention and make him submit to God’s will.
  • Only the prophet Nathan’s bold confrontation (“You are the man!”) was loud enough to bring King David to his knees in repentance.
  • It takes nothing less than a knock-you-off-your-feet encounter with the risen Christ to make Saul hear God clearly.

And so on throughout God’s encounters with his stiff-necked people. Until finally, God sends Jesus, a walking, talking, healing, sacrificing Holy Bullhorn to call us to to repentance, to salvation, to reconciliation with God. His life, death and resurrection are God’s greatest — and loudest — proclamation to the world.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” The fact of having ears apparently isn’t enough to guarantee hearing. There needs to be a submission, a willingness, an active decision to hear with the ears we have been given. Sometimes this means pulling out the ear plugs that allow us to sleep in blissful ignorance of our failure to love and serve as God intends. And when we don’t, we can count on God to make enough noise to pierce our deafness.

My prayer for this Lent:

Lord, I do not want to make you shout.
I want to hear what you have to say to me, even if it is hard.  I confess my my obstinacy and my self-righteousness and trust that you will forgive me.
Lord, give me ears to hear.
Amen.

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True and False Fasting

My inspiration for this Lent’s spiritual practice came from Twitter. There, among the streams of the sublime and the ridiculous, came this challenge from Lynne Hybels:

“Years ago a friend said that if I read Isaiah 58 for 30 days in a row, it would turn my life upside-down. I did. She was right. Try it.”

This seemed particularly appropriate for Lent, a time devoted to self-examination, penitence and fasting. Lenten fasting isn’t only about fasting from food, although that can be an important discipline. Fasting can be any intentional abstinence — from television, from gossiping, from social media. In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster says, “Fasting reveals what controls us.” I have certainly found this to be true. It is not until you try to do without something that you realize the hold it has on you and what deeper needs it masks. I never thought of myself as particularly tethered to my phone until I decided to abstain from electronic communication on the Sabbath. Talk about Fear of Missing Out!

But fasting isn’t only about what we give up; it is about what we can gain. Throughout Scripture, fasting is a way to draw near to God, to hear his voice, to know his will. Isaiah 58 will be my perfect companion this Lent. It challenges me to see the kind of fasting God honors. It shows me the true path to God’s blessing. It brings me to the headwaters of holiness.

I’m going to read Isaiah 58 every day this Lent and see where it leads me. Will you join me? Share this post facebooktwittermail
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