3.19.2008

Stations of the Cross IX >> it is finished

Jesus spent his ministry preaching a great reversal: The first shall be last, the meek shall inherit the earth, possessions won't fulfill the rich. Now the reversal is complete. Jesus' death mirrors his birth. As kings aren't born in stables, attended to by cows and goats, so liberators don't set people free by dying at the hand of the oppressor.

Is this failure? The logic of the world – of Herod and Pilate – says that the system wins, the status quo is preserved. But the kingdom of God says that our view is upside down. If in nature a seed must fall to the ground and die in order to sprout new life, then are killing, preserving power and preventing challenge the only ways to save our lives? It depends on how you look at it, according to this meditation on the cross by Derek Webb:

What looks like weakness can do anything
And what looks like foolishness is understanding
When what is powerful has not come to fight
It looks like you're going to war
But you lay down your life

What looks like torture is a time to rejoice
What sounds like thunder is a comforting voice
When what is beautiful looks broken and crushed
And I say I don't know you
But you say it's finished

But I give myself to what looks like love
And I sell myself for what feels like love
And I pay to get what is not love...
Because I see things upside down.


The question is not “How can this kind of vulnerability square with the life we know?” Rather, it is “What happens to the lives we know because this view is really right-side up?”

3.13.2008

Stations of the Cross VII >> Linked by pain

Luke 23:36-43

The truth that Jesus' enemies – the systems represented by the Jewish council and the Roman governor – need to deny, a convicted thief can see.

The criminals hanging at Jesus' left and right know the system. They understand how charges get trumped up, testimony falsified, the book thrown at common criminals. One looks at the evidence: If this Jesus is who he says he is – the King of the Jews, the Son of Man – he ought to be able to save himself. Since Jesus is still on the cross, dying in pain, he mocks his helplessness.

It's the pain that helps the second thief recognize Jesus for who he is. Pain levels the playing field. In a classic scene in the TV series “Homicide,” a salesman is pushed in the subway and winds up compressed between a train and the platform – condemned yet still alive. As he deteriorates he asks Det. Frank Pembleton, sitting with him while he awaits the rescue that will kill him, “What is the cosmic reason for pain?” “It's the only thing we have in common,” the veteran detective replies, the thing that helps us understand people whose experience is so different from us.

Sure, too, of his own death, the second thief has no reason for illusions, yet he is too realistic for false hope. Unlike the servants of the system who need to dehumanize Jesus to preserve their status quo, this man restores to Jesus his name and his identity, expressing confidence that Jesus' kingdom awaits.

Jesus' radical message still causes the powerful to neuter or dehumanize him. Yet those who are suffering still name him, and hope for his kingdom. Their pain draws them into union with him.

Stations of the Cross VII >> The torch is passed

Luke 9:28-36

The face of Jesus, which had been mystically transfigured for us on the mountaintop, is now disfigured by us as he approaches his crucifixion.

If the legend of Veronica soothing Jesus' beaten and bleeding face hadn't survived exclusion from the Scriptural canon, we would have had to invent it. She stands in line with Simon from Cyrene, who helped carry Jesus' cross, and Joseph of Arimathia, who offered his tomb to hold his master's corpse. And we stand in line with all of them.

Veronica's tending to Jesus captures our reaction, millennia later, to the history of Christ's passion. She stood on the sidelines, helplessly watching her teacher face his death. We stand across the miles of history, knowing the outcome. Christ's passion has never been a mere piece of history, and it evokes our passion, as well. Our thoughts, words and deeds have the power today to cry out “Crucify!” or “Release him!” -- to soothe the brow of Christ and his fellow sufferers today with a cool cloth or to offer him (and them) sour wine with a ten-foot pole or pierce his side with a spear.

Veronica tends not to the cross or tomb, the necessary implements of the story, but to Christ's face – to his very humanity. She reflects Christ's transfigured radiance onto Jesus' battered face. The torch has been passed. Jesus has given his all; his death as certain as his resurrection. It's up to Veronica – and Simon and Joseph, Mary and the beloved disciple, Peter and Andrew and Paul, and you and me – to bear his transfigured face into the world he loves.

Stations of the Cross VI >> f2f

Luke 2:34-35, John 19:25-27

It's hard to imagine any sorrow greater than that of a parent burying a child. What loss can be greater than separation from one you have hoped for, birthed in joy, nursed and discipline and come to love and depend on? I've known people whose children have died, and there is a sense in which a big part of them died, as well.

What must Mary be thinking as she sees Jesus and his cross? Are there words for the anguish she must feel? Mary's strong faith and trust in God allowed her to turn her body and self over fully to bear Jesus, yet that trust must be near the breaking point. Simeon's words when the child was brought to the temple, so full of promise and strength, must cut her soul more painfully now than the figurative sword that he predicted.

As Mary wonders what she could have done, or said, to spare her child this torment, I am drawn to ponder how our species' failure to accept God's good gifts and order made this moment necessary. I marvel at the depth of love that would count execution an acceptable cost to repair that relationship, and I wonder at the shallowness of our humanity that sustains the breach.

Stations of the Cross V >> He da man!

John 19:4-6

We're able to inflict much pain and damage because of our ability to depersonalize people we don't know or can't see, as well as to rationalize away effects of our actions that aren't immediate.

If I slap you, it's hard for me to deny that it's your face that my hand is touching. I have to see you and be aware of you as I decide to hit. Yet I can wear a bargain shirt without thinking about the children who made it in a sweatshop. I can chart my pension without thinking about the exploitation, pollution, or questionable bioethics of the companies it is invested in. I can protest war or advocate it without knowing the everyday families whose lives that war forever change. If I sit in a traffic jam on the Schuylkill or run unnecessary electronic devices, I don't see the global temperature increase.

This week the Vatican released a 21st Century update of its list of deadly sins, which includes contributing to pollution and the widening gulf between rich and poor, and creating genetic mutations whose results we cannot know for generations. The list has provoked controversy and satire. But its value, like those of social statements by the ELCA and recent environmental proposals by evangelicals, is that it forces us to think about the far-reaching consequences of our actions and to realize that they affect, hurt and sometimes kill real human beings just like us, and damage the environment God has given us to steward. It starts to break down the rationalization of “its a victimless crime” that allows us to depersonalize so many.

Pilate participates in this depersonalization. In this reading his prisoner has already gone from “Jesus” to “this man.” In Jewish culture, one's name was so important that there was a naming ceremony for young boys, and one's person and one's name were inseparable. That's why it was so significant that God allowed Adam to name other creatures. Removing Jesus' name from the proceedings of public execution removes his humanity. He is just a cog in the unstoppable wheel.

What does this mean for me? Jesus gave up everything to go to the cross. He laid aside his divine nature, which could have ended this torture and execution at any time. And he laid aside every shred of his humanity, allowing, at last, even his name to be taken away, so that he could die, anonymous and alone. His name taken away, he identifies with me – and with the nameless and faceless poor, marginalized, sick and broken around the world.

If humans can do this to God, to a teacher living among them offering hope and healing and good news, who can't we depersonalize to get our own way? Yet if we can get angry at the dehumanization of Jesus, can we not also start to recognize him in the nameless others he identifies with and jam a beam in the machine, trying to reverse the cycle of depersonalization that plagues us?

3.12.2008

Stations of the Cross IV >> Because we can

Mark 15:16-20

How arrogant we can be in our certainty that we are right, that there is no other possible way to look at events or our own lives!

This arrogance usually asserts itself in private, because that is the only place we can be sure no alternate perspectives will meddle with our surety. The image of Roman soldiers taking Jesus into an inner courtyard for a little fun is all too familiar, not unlike the soldiers who debased their prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Listen! Hear them making sure everyone is present accounted for, so everyone is implicated. There's safety in knowing that no one has the moral high ground to accuse you, at least without convicting themselves as well. Jesus is alone and vulnerable, already bleeding and broken from his scourging at Pilate's hands. The now-famous photos from the prison in Iraq show soldiers debasing and trying to break prisoners who are already completely at their mercy – and reveling in it, smiling for images that document their brutality.

So, too, Jesus' captors have some fun at the expense of their beaten prisoner. “He's already physically damaged...let's mess with his mind.” Their mockery is painful, pressing sharp thorns into his aching head. Wrapping him in cloth of purple – reserved for kings and the powerful – and kneeling before him, must have been even more painful, because they were taking Jesus' very identity, his most cherished gift from his Father, and totally dismissing it, humiliating him (as if he could think straight enough to be humiliated at this point!) and rendering him as less than a person, stripped of the last shreds of dignity. One can see them bragging about their cleverness and macho to other soldiers – if not taking pictures of it and posting them on the Internet.

The temptation to take advantage of those too weak or marginalized to fight back is always present – in Jesus' day, and in ours. The more power one has, the harder it is to see others of lower rank, the broken and humiliated, as people, too. The cycle of dehumanization and violence displayed by these soldiers did not start with them, and it continues to echo into many situations in our world today.

The good news for us is that in this story Jesus is beginning to ascend the throne of his real yet invisible kingdom, by his refusal to save himself at our expense. He could have simply called in angels at any time to overthrow the high priests, to give Pilate a spine, to defeat his captors. But while that would have shown God's glory, it would have left Jesus different from and disconnect from us, from people who can't by their own power overcome oppression. What makes Jesus different from other 'gods' and binds us to him is that his power is less evident in his glory than in his weakness. He doesn't exhort us to transcend our humanity, but instead immerses himself in it, showing us how powerful it is to embrace our humanity as God intended it.

Stations of the Cross III >> Just doing my job

Mark 15:15

From the beginning of this brief scene, it's clear that this is a drama whose end is already written. “Pilate, wanting to satisfy the crowd...” Justice isn't the goal here. This is the political street theatre of empire, a ritual that cements Rome's authority under the guise of being benevolent.

Then, as now, it's possible for good leaders to be so caught up in the rhythm of the machine that they never think about the results of their actions. “My hands are tied.” “I'm just doing my job.” I used to think that Pilate's washing of his hands after sentencing Jesus might be a sign of his disgust with the Jews' insistence on releasing a guilty man and condemning the innocent. But in light of the unfeeling routine with which Pilate moves through this charade, the scene is more like any worker automatically washing off the unavoidable grime that is the result of his trade. “What is truth?” he had asked. Is this the query of a seeker, the cynicism of a political pragmatist, or the sneering dismissal of one who has surrendered hope to the grinding of the machine?

Hurting others and even brutalizing them can be handled in the most banal ways. New York's governor was caught on a wiretap arranging an assignation with a call girl and the tapes show no ardor, just the mundane details of moving packages of money and making sure his credit was good; as an afterthought he had to be reminded what the woman looked like. US leaders talk about the need to keep torture methods such as waterboarding legal with routine earnestness. (Maybe the logic applied to Eliot Spitzer, that one who treated others with an unflinching moral standard should be subject to it, ought to be applied to nations that regularly take other nations to task for “human rights violations”?)

Like Pilate, we are caught in systems that have their own seemingly relentless momentum. Consider the economy. As the rollercoaster accelerates downward, elites who have the experience and capital to take the long view focus on now and sell values down even while calling for confidence that things will get better. Most of us are just along for the ride, rolling with the punches of more costly food and gas, losing homes, disappearing jobs. Yet our consumption often depends upon women and children elsewhere working long hours for low pay in conditions we would never allow. Sometimes we're the pavement, and sometimes we are the steamroller.

Yet this is the world Jesus enters, the system he subjects himself to. His lack of resistance points out how likely we are to, like Pilate, try to please the crowd or ourselves rather than think about justice. By going through this brutal system he brings about good, not by uplifting the brutality and redeeming it by its good outcome, but by showing us that there is another way than “just doing our job.”

Stations of the Cross II >> Who, me?

Mark 14:53-72

I've spent a lot of time thinking about Peter's denial of Jesus, because I share that trait. Not that I've ever been in a position to publicly deny Jesus – this is, after all, a culture that values outward expressions of faith. I've never been in danger of persecution and, working so much in the church, not even of ostracism or being thought weird for having faith. But inwardly, I am able to deny what Jesus wants for me and to cheapen what he has done for me by seeking my own way.

I never really looked at Peter's denial as a denial of himself, of his true nature, who he was called and created to be. But that's exactly what it is. The one who so eagerly responds to Jesus, who gives up family and career to wander the countryside with his teacher, is not just denying Christ. In that moment a servant girl finds the heart of his weakness and he impulsively gives up the identity he has been forming in order to avoid what he thinks is a dangerous situation.

Jesus, of course, knows Peter's humanity. He names Peter's denial without judgment, without casting him away, though certainly with more than a little bit of sadness. Ultimately Jesus redeems Peter's failing, turning him into the core of his church and charging him with caring for his people. And scripture shows that Peter lives up to Jesus' faith in him. In Acts, in comparison with the very human, often clueless and rash disciple – a bit of a bumbler – Peter becomes a bold leader, an articulate and focused witness for his Master.

I feel that Jesus is bringing me, slowly and often against my nature, to a place where I am learning who I am in him. I pray that I can keep that focus, and move away from focusing on my own failings and start living into the faith Jesus has in me.

Stations of the Cross I >> Busted!

Mark 14:41-52

Who am I in this story? I would like to resonate with Jesus, who is giving his whole self over to God for what he knows is a horrible, painful torture and death. But in truth I really have trouble giving myself to God fully. I want to, but I am not there yet – though I am moving, slow but sure, in that direction.

I am more like the disciples: listening, trying to get it, but basically clueless, especially before I have time to think. Even in the midst of my time trying to discern where God is leading, I can sometimes be quick to react and try to keep things safe and understandable, if not controllable. When this happens, I have often heard Jesus calling me back, reminding me to trust, but not before I have reacted and, sometimes, done some damage.

I am fascinated by the brief, out-of-context mention of the young man following Jesus who, at the end of this scene, is grabbed but runs away naked and defenseless. He doesn't get it and knows it, and is honest about his need to avoid what is coming. There are often times that I want to avoid what I am being called to, but it is not uncommon that I try to pretty it up, to make it seem like I am seeking when I am really avoiding.

Then there are the “heavies” who are “just doing their job without thinking.” I like to think this is never me. But there are times when I phone it in – with God, with myself, with my family. And my work in the service of the church leaves opportunities to question the status quo and look for justice and relevance – and while I often pursue this with passion I am aware that there are times that I simply go along with the program. Sometimes it is easier; sometimes my interests align more with the institutions than with others.

It is still awesome to think that Jesus willingly – gladly -- gave himself to arrest, trial, torture and execution. We think of Judas' betrayal as the key action, but as God, as the Christ, Jesus could only have been handed over as his intention, just as the only way to convict him was for him to fail to mount any defense at all! Thank God that it does not matter that I am not worthy of this!

3.07.2008

From the depths

Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice...
I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him;
in his word is my hope. -- Psalm 130
When NPR snapped on and jarred me awake this morning, there was the usual litany of chaos and madness: Jewish students shot in their seminary library, in retaliation for brutal Israeli incursion into Gaza. Rescuers in Baghdad blown to bits by a suicide bomber who waited for people to aid victims of an earlier blast. Farmers cutting down swaths of the rainforest to grow soy for bio-diesel, since US farmers are growing more corn for ethanol -- both of which cause more carbon than the fuels they intend to replace.

Normally, the bad news as I drift to consciousness drives me to prayer. I try to figure out what would make these problems better and beg God to intervene.

Today, words failed me. I was driven to lament, to cry out to God with the mourners in Jerusalem and Palestine and Iraq, to groan with the earth trying and failing to keep up with our voracious appetites.

Lord, I cry to you from the depths. How long, O Lord? How long must we wait?

Today, I stopped thinking about these things and simply felt them. I felt the pain and cried out, as God's people have done since the beginning. I didn't want to fix anything, simply to be in solidarity and sympathy with those who suffer.

And I realized something: God, too, weeps for his people.

God is good and powerful. And the world -- even our violence, our greed, our attempts to do good that fall short -- all of this is God's. God's justice and mercy will prevail in the end.

In the meantime, God weeps.

And as much as I want to do something about this awful news, I learned what a privilege it is to first join God as he beholds his suffering people. Sitting with pain and with God -- what the ancients called lament -- made the depth of disaster real in ways that all my thinking couldn't. Crying out took the headlines beyond political issues and scientific problems, and revealed behind them people: humans who grieve and render aid and scheme and end up making things worse when they only tried to do the right thing. People like me, and those around me.

It seems to me that if I'm going to do anything about cycles of violence, to each other and our Earth, it will have to start with reframing abstract "issues" and grasping the pain and frustration and peril they cause to the people affected by them. I must cry out as if I am one of the victims -- because in many ways, I am affected. I must see those who are suffering as God does, and love them, and weep.

Then I can respond to people's pain in the places I inhabit. And if enough of us do this where we are -- wherever in the world we are -- God will change the world.
O Israel, wait for the Lord,
for with the Lord there is mercy;
With him is plenteous redemption
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.