Imagine That

Photo credit: Laura LaSpalluto

With the late afternoon sun at just the right angle, the Creation of the World, rendered in stained glass, had never looked more beautiful. I have worshipped in this space many times, with many of the same people that are here today for an interfaith worship concert. I know that this institution and the people in it believe the church is a force for good in the world, a light in the darkness. That’s why I was so unprepared for what happened.

In this sacred space, a lampstand of the second largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., people got to their feet and cheered the notion that what was wrong with the world was religion.

The song that elicited this Standing O was John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The soloist invited us to “Imagine all the people, living life in peace.” How we ache for that, when the city of Aleppo is reduced to rubble and its citizens dead, starving or in exile. Dare we hope for a world that “will be as one” when terror and mayhem are striking ever closer to home? We wake every day to a cacophony of political distrust and acrimony. It’s no wonder we hear hope in Lennon’s words and we stand and we cheer. Yes. This is what we want. This is what we hope for. We want it so badly that it’s easy to only hear the words of love and peace.

But there are other words that get lost in the sentimental haze of this beloved anthem. They are the words that show us Lennon’s way to this utopia:

Imagine there’s no heaven …
Imagine there’s no countries …

And no religion, too …

We can have the peace we long for if we could just be free from the corrupting forces of political and religious institutions. No countries, no religion, no possessions: this is how we can be selfless, loving and living in pure harmony. This is the thoroughly modern worldview that says people are basically good, and if they’re not, we can blame the government, or the church, or economic systems.

The Christian worldview is very different. Humans are a paradox. We are created in the image of God and declared good by Him, as depicted in the stained glass windows that were the backdrop for this afternoon’s exercise in irony. Yet at the same time, we carry within us the potential for rebellion, selfishness, violence and greed. In other words, we have the capacity for sin.

In this view, we can acknowledge that political and religious institutions have brought pain into the world. Yes, greed keeps some fat and happy while other starve. But these are the result, not the cause of human depravity and violence.

There is disorder in this world that political and religious institutions neither foster by their presence, nor prevent by their absence.

There is disorder in this world because there is disorder in us, and when that disorder is allowed to flourish, we have Aleppo and Orlando. We have modern day slavery and gun violence and every form of suffering a depraved mind can invent.

Ironically, “Imagine” — Lennon’s paean to basic human goodness — reached #1 in the U.S. after his death in 1980. The sources of violence and discord Lennon cites in his song — country, religion, greed — are not what motivated his murder and their absence wouldn’t have prevented it.

No, for that we have to look beyond the easy answers of oppressive systems into the human heart — even into our hearts.

The Christian worldview says that there is a persistent force of evil at work in the world, a force we can either resist or surrender to. To contend that the only obstacles to the peace we long for are political, economic and religious systems leaves us dangerously vulnerable to the most formidable obstacle of all: Sin.

Like John Lennon, the prophet Isaiah had a vision of a world without conflict and pain. Unlike Lennon, in Isaiah’s vision, the root cause of all the world’s pain will be dealt with by a savior with the power to do what we cannot. Our savior, in his life, death, and resurrection began the work of making us selfless, loving and able to live in peace with one another. And in his return, he will complete that good work he has begun.

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
 
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;

but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;
    and a little child will lead them.
 
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
                                               (Isaiah 11:1-7)

Imagine that.

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(Un)Welcome

Or, Why I Stopped Being Such a Good Hostess

 

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One Sunday I stood in the back of an empty sanctuary. I was the “substitute preacher” that day, and was taking a few moments to center myself before worship began. I closed my eyes and began to shake my head emphatically from side to side. My husband asked, with some alarm, “Are you all right?”

“I’m shaking off the sign,” I said, as if I was a pitcher who didn’t want to throw the fastball. Not only didn’t this clarify anything for him, it made him even more concerned for my sanity, so I told him about The Thoughts.

Sometimes, right before I preached, I would start thinking, “What makes me think I can do this? I’m not holy enough, not learned enough, haven’t been a Christian long enough. It wasn’t that long ago I was the person who mocked believers, who scoffed at the very notion of God. It’s pretty cheeky of me to think I have any business being in the pulpit. Who do I think I am, anyway?”

With shaken confidence I would preach anyway — after all, what choice did I have? But once I began, I remembered that it wasn’t my worthiness that consecrated the words; the Word consecrated me. Once I began, I would feel the joy that I always did, the feeling that this is exactly where I should be. Still, the next time, The Thoughts showed up on cue.  

After a while, I got tired of them. I got tired of being thrown into a tizzy right before I was going to lead worship. I got tired of doubting that God wanted me in that pulpit.

I got tired of the sniping, snarky, soul-sucking voice of Satan.

Because that’s what it was. The Thoughts had me asking, “God, am I unworthy? Does my past unbelief permanently disqualify me from proclaiming the gospel? Am I kidding myself when I think that You have called me to this?”

When Jesus says that His sheep recognize His voice, He is right. When I thought about it, I could see that The Thoughts were not the voice of my shepherd.  Jesus doesn’t sow doubt and fear and shame.  Jesus would never say “You’re not good enough.  You can never be better than your worst sin.”    

No, The Thoughts gave voice to one who only wanted to silence me, to make me believe that a transformed life was not possible. 

I recognized in them the voice of Satan because, let’s face it, who else would want to keep the Gospel from being proclaimed?

Why, then, was it so easy, so natural, to entertain these thoughts? And entertain them I did. They rang the doorbell, and I showed them in.  I entertained them because they disguised themselves well, either masquerading as humility, or sneaking in on the coattails of my dear old friends self-doubt and despair. 

I showed them to the most comfortable chair, and fed them so they could grow fat and happy. I made up the guest room with its breakfast tray and fresh flowers and invited them to stay as long as they liked, even if that meant there was no room at the inn for my shepherd and his unmistakeable voice.

I pride myself on being a good hostess. My greatest joy is house full of people, all talking at the same time, entering and exiting separate streams of conversations seamlessly, like some kind of conversational double-dutch. And food, lots of food. So the thought that I would ever refuse hospitality for any reason makes me shudder. And yet, I have learned that some guests should not be welcomed.

There are guests that are not coming to me for the warmth of my table or to share the blessings of my home.  Instead, they seek to “steal and kill and destroy” and I have let them. I have listened to them tell me I’m not enough or that I’m too much. I have been attentive to the whispers that insult and demean me, that steal my hope. 

St. Paul knew what to do with such things.  This is what he tells the believers in Corinth: 

“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

                                      ( 2 Cor. 10:5, emphasis added)

Now, when The Thoughts present themselves, I can say, “Oh, so it’s you again! Have you met my shepherd?  He’s in charge of who gets in and who doesn’t.” I’ve never thought of Jesus as a nightclub bouncer before, but that’s the image that keeps coming to mind:  my Savior working the velvet rope that guards my heart and my soul.  It makes me feel safe.  It makes me smile. 

 

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To Die For

In the courtyard of Caiaphas' house, Jerusalem

In the courtyard of Caiaphas’ house, Jerusalem

Have you ever watched someone you love when you think they’re not looking and think, “Yes, if it would mean your happiness, if it would save your life, I’d die for you.” 

Maybe you have believed so strongly in the righteousness of a cause that you were willing to risk your very life for it. Some powerful images come to mind: the lone protester defying tanks in Tianamen Square, civil rights marchers facing snarling dogs in Selma, or a line of martyrs kneeling on a beach, seconds before they are beheaded for their faith. I am in awe of such people.

Popular culture is full of epic love stories and tales of heroism that demonstrate love and commitment so strong that it would pay any price to protect and ensure justice for the innocent.  These stories give us goosebumps and allow us to believe in the goodness of humanity.  They are beautiful stories, but they are not the story of Good Friday.

Like all of Jesus’ life, the story of Good Friday turns a familiar narrative upside down:

in this story, the Hero doesn’t sacrifice himself to save the innocent; he dies to save the villains.  Think Batman dying to save The Joker and you’ve got some idea of what happened on Calvary.  

This is how Paul’s Letter to the Romans puts it: 


We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him. (The Message)

 

We can understand dying for someone worth dying for. But what about the person who has hurt you deeply?  Would you give up everything so that person could live a life of freedom and peace?   What about the parade of evildoers that come into view every day:  terrorists who murder and rape, child abusers, financial criminals, politicians who make the veins in your neck pop and bile fill your mouth. Any volunteers to die in their place? Anyone?  

Maybe when I’ve mastered Jesus’ command to bless those who harm me, I can tackle something more challenging.  But for now, my answer is:  I would die for my husband. I would not die for Donald Trump.  But Jesus would and Jesus did.

And it wasn’t just for some abstract multitude of Sinners. What Jesus did was also very specific, very personal, and beyond any human calculus of good or bad, worthy or unworthy. Before He died for All of Humanity, he willingly died for one human: Peter, his weak and cowardly best friend.  The intimacy of his sacrifice is often lost in the Grand Story of the Passion. 

It all played out in a courtyard, where a cold wind blew and a rooster crowed.

There Peter stood by a makeshift fire that couldn’t warm the spiritual shiver slicing through him. Just a few hours before, he proclaimed with great bravado, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!”  Those words mocked him now; with each denial, he grew colder and more ashamed. The rooster crowed, and his despair was complete. Bad enough he had failed so miserably, but His Lord knew he would and knew he did.

He knew he did because Jesus was near, just beyond that courtyard in a dark, damp pit, utterly alone. Jesus heard the rooster crow and He knew it happened exactly as He said it would.  Peter — His comrade-in-arms, who promised to defend him to the end — had failed him miserably. His friend has broken his heart. And still, He allows himself to be tortured and humiliated and mocked, not only for the sake of all sinners past present and future, but also for this sinner, for this one, weak, flawed man who had abandoned Him.  

Christians often talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus.  If we’re anything like Peter, that means there are times we’ll boast about our faith and our fidelity and in the next breath, lie to save our own skins.  It means that, for all our confidence in our own goodness, we will falter and break His heart.  For us, in our humanity, this would seem to be a deal breaker.  But Jesus knows that our human frailty, while painful to Him, is exactly why He had to step into the breach.  

This Good Friday, let us not be satisfied to say that Jesus’ sacrifice was grand, sweeping and for the salvation of all.  Let us stand in the courtyard with Peter, shocked at the pain we have visited on our Lord.  Let us crouch in the pit with Jesus, the Hero of this upside-down story, whose sacrifice for the unworthy was and is intensely personal, emotionally costly and for the salvation of one.  

And let us remember that Peter’s story didn’t end in that courtyard and neither does ours. God will do for us what he did for Peter:  Forgive us.  Give us resurrection life, fueled by the Holy Spirit.  Give us grace to heal, reconcile, love, maybe even to sacrifice ourselves for those we consider “unworthy.”  

More from Paul’s Leltter to the Romans:

“We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.”

Not cowering in that courtyard — but standing tall and shouting our praise in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory.

 

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Faith and Fear

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When I was 30, I thought that my life had become too safe. I decided that every time I went on vacation, I would do something that terrified me. So I parasailed over the Atlantic Ocean. One time, despite my fear of heights, I climbed a series of rickety ladders leaning unsteadily up against the side of a mesa in Arizona. I keep pictures of these accomplishments on my bulletin board to remind me that it is possible to not let fear rule my life.

Fear is just part of being human, which is why the Bible talks about it a lot. (The word itself appears 399 times!) Scripture assumes that we will feel fear. The question it asks is, “What are you going to do about it?”

One of my favorite stories is from the book of Daniel. Here we find Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, condemned to die because they would not worship the golden idol of the king of Babylon. They expected God would be faithful to His faithful promise to be with them, even if he didn’t save them from the fire.  Now it’s easy to think that their great faith in God meant they weren’t afraid. I think they were plenty afraid.

But faith is about what we do with our fear.

Do we allow our fears to set the boundaries of our lives, then resign ourselves to living within them? Or do we acknowledge our fear, even respect it, but make it subject to boundaries set by God – what God expects of us and what we can expect of God.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did that. Afraid or not, they knew what God expected of them: You shall have no other gods before me. Afraid or not, they knew what they could expect of God: God would be faithful to them, too.

Now, they weren’t sure how God would do that. They just knew he would. And when they are thrown into the furnace, we see how God fulfills his promise. A fourth man, “who had the appearance of a god” enters into the fire with them, and all four emerge, unharmed. Instead of removing these three faithful believers from the danger and pain, God was with them – in the most literal sense.
And for a completely different picture of faith and fear, I think of Peter. Peter and the disciples find themselves in a storm — the wind is howling, the boat is pitching back and forth and when he sees Jesus walking on water towards him, he thinks it’s some ghost come to finish them off. But even though it looks like Jesus, and sounds like Jesus, Peter needs more proof. He says, “If it is you, tell me come to you on the water.” Peter gets his proof – he is able to walk on the water towards Jesus. Then Peter looks at the storm and sinks because in that moment, he doubts that God is with him.
In the middle of the fire, you can almost hear Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego look at the fourth man and say, “God is with us!” as if they expected him all along. Of course God is with them! That is what God does.
In the middle of the storm, Peter seems to say, “God is with us?” as if he can’t quite believe it.  Peter not only didn’t expect God to be with him in the storm, he didn’t believe it when he was.

Faith is about what we do with our fear.  It is not about some unshakable certainty. It is not some superhuman bravado. It is expecting God to show up when what we fear has come true.
When you are in the middle of the storm, or the fire, or the health crisis, or the family problem, what are you expecting?  Do you expect God to show up?  More importantly, do you recognize it when he does?

 

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