A Time for Lament

It has been a hellish week.

Too many innocent victims. Too much unfathomable violence. Too much hate on far too public display.

Beneath it all is a spiritual disorder: Too many of us are letting our fears, our preconceptions, our talking points and maybe even our paranoia obscure the common humanity that we all share.

In the midst of our failure, Jesus weeps.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is unequivocal: ALL lives matter. Yet Jesus’ identification with those who were marginalized and oppressed calls us to name those who are at imminent risk: BLACK lives matter. BLUE lives matter. This especially needs to be said by those of us who can trust that our white lives always matter.

There are powerful forces that use weeks like this to further distrust and division. It’s understandable that some feel pushed into an us-or-them mentality. Police officers and African-American males are especially on alert now. But this fear draws us deeper into our spiritual disorder.

Our tilted criminal justice system, the rampant economic inequality, our impulse to focus on small differences instead of the vast similarities we share — all of these we have come to accept (however grudgingly) as the status quo. In this week of innocent victims we remember Jesus, who was arrested with overwhelming force, and was executed for the crime of threatening the status quo of his time.

The message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is that we are all in this together. He consistently challenged systems of superiority, exclusion and oppression. He did not victimize others or play the victim, and he neither minimized suffering nor advocated “eye-for-an-eye” retaliation. Richard Rohr notes that Jesus rejected the natural human response to transmit our pain — which aptly describes our culture cycle of violence, outrage, divisive argument, then complacency followed by more violence — and instead chose to transform it, by holding it in himself on the cross.

A first step towards transforming the pain we feel this week is to lament, to sit with the pain and just acknowledge it for what it is. Experience the anger and frustration, and recognize our powerlessness in the face of pain. 

By stepping back we can see that by holding the world’s pain Jesus transformed an unjust execution into the path to a new way of life. And by looking past the urgent rush to criticize and co-opt — which dissipates just as quickly leaving us where we were — and bringing a different energy to the struggle, we gird ourselves for the slow, backbreaking work of bending the moral arc of our society towards justice.


Holy Thursday

“…Mary was an only child…”

Art Garfunkel’s high tenor gently filled the car as we turned onto Sixth Street, on the way to take a meal to The Well, a women’s shelter run by The Welcome Church. 

“…but she shone like a gem in a five-and-dime store.”

In the basement of a small Episcopal church on a side street, two of the women of The Well looked up from the movie they watched on a tiny screen to greet us warmly. As we busied ourselves in the kitchen preparing a beef stir-fry, other women arrived. They put down their carts or bags after a long day on the streets, free for a while from the burdens of homelessness. Most then went off and took a few minutes to themselves before joining the others around the table,

It was a familiar, domestic scene — except their “private” space was half of the tiny fellowship hall, jammed with cots hidden from the rest of the room by a makeshift curtain. And “home” didn’t open until 7:30 pm, and would send them back to the streets 12 hours later.

While the meal cooked we sat and talked over fresh vegetables and dip. Their concerns were heartbreakingly ordinary: The difficulties of getting to medical appointments. How hard it was to find fresh, healthy food. Missing the camaraderie of singing in the church choir.

Suzanne broke out her guitar and we sang old chestnut hymns. Shall We Gather at the River? Precious Lord, Take My Hand — “Oh, that’s my favorite,” Carol* said. Alice recalled a song from the old hymnals in the basement that she and a couple others had read the other night. “Could we hear what it sounds like?” Shirley passed out the worn books and we sang Lord of All Hopefulness. 

The women sang with joy and gusto. One voiced an especially gorgeous soprano. “God gave the the gift I wanted, the ability to sing,” she said. This eclectic congregation shared church. Where many would have experienced despair, the dingy basement hall was truly a place of hope.

During dinner, more stories. Carol shared her multiple medical conditions. But instead of whining, she offered gratitude for finding good doctors who care about her. Most are south of the airport, so she has to take a bus multiple times a week. “God has really provided for me,” she said.

Over pear cake with caramel sauce, Lisa shared that she had once lived and worked in New York City, and still enjoyed listening to NPR. Her situation, she hoped, was temporary. “I feel bad that I haven’t given up anything for Lent,” she said. “I guess being homeless is my Lent,” she allowed.

Before we knew it it was time to leave. After hasty goodbyes, and see-you-again-soons, we started the long drive back on the winding roads of Bucks County. 

During the drive, and since, I’ve been reflecting on this unexpected Holy Thursday. 

I was chastened to realize how little gratitude I feel every day for simple gifts — a healthy meal, health care, songs to sing, a comfortable home. 

I was a bit uncomfortable with the realization that, like Lisa, I (and any of us) could be an unlucky turn away from poverty. Or that, like Carol, health concerns can snowball into larger issues.

Mostly I was aware that Christ was truly present in that room — and that had more to do with the women’s joy and honesty than anything I brought to the table.

God showed up here — and can show up anywhere — even if we don’t have eyes to see. As the Garfunkel song concludes:

“…then you might have seen Jesus, and not have known what you saw.
“Who would notice a gem in a five-and-dime store.”

*The women are not identified by their real names.


An acceptable fast?

Isaiah 58:1-12

If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
    and satisfy your needs in parched places,
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to live in.

On Ash Wednesday many churches read the prophet Isaiah's dramatic rendition of what is true devotion to God -- and what isn't.

Isaiah starts with the people's satisfied cluelessness: They "seek me and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness." The people whine that God does not see their ritual piety and sacrifice. "Why do we fast but you do not see? Why humble ourselves when you do not notice?"

In their humanity the people of Israel then make the same mistake modern people of faith continue to make. We like to confuse the container with the contents; safely imitating the finger rather than the moon it points to. "The Jewish prophets had the uncanny gift to recognize when people were confusing partial and passing knowledge/information/data with eternal truth," Richard Rohr observes. We the people don't like our confusion pointed out so directly, so ancient prophets (like Jesus) were often killed; modern prophets are marginalized or branded heretics.

The people's confusion is a good example of what Rohr calls the first half of life. Traditions, rituals and doctrines provide safety and structure. I can know (and control) that I am not eating today, or wearing sackcloth and ashes. I can also know, judging from these external behaviors, who isn't in my tribe. I can do this even while I am mistreating workers or ignoring the poor, as Isaiah points out.

As the passage continues Isaiah describes God gently calling the people toward the second half of life, that place where meaning and connection trump the walls and barriers we like to erect.

The "fast" God calls for isn't merely an abstinence from food, but a felt and engaged connection with the afflicted, the marginalized, the hungry.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

In other words, the fast is not to indulge the ego's need to "be seen" as upright and worthy. It is to develop the humble seeing that knows that there is no difference, no separation between me and the imprisoned, the oppressed, the hungry, homeless and naked. God calls us to loose chains, to share bread, heated homes and clothing not so we can feel good that we have done so, but to honor the holy connection God has forged between all people and, indeed, all creatures and our planet.

This is how the light of God's people shines. The trajectory of Isaiah's prophecy is worth noting: It moves from the reality of the people's false, external religion to participating in the true feast that God desires -- which is really loving others as I love myself. The arc ends with a vision much more beautiful than being "seen" by God as dutiful. The ultimate goal is to emulate God's mercy and justice in the high calling of restoring ancient ruins and restoring the very streets upon which we and all God's people live.

This Ash Wednesday it is important to receive ashes, to fast, or whatever our tradition is. But let these practices reorient you from the ritual to the romance that lies beyond as you see your connection to all people and to God's deep desire for reconciliation and forgiveness.

A good way to do this today is to sit for 20 minutes with Isaiah's text, letting the words flow over you and noticing where the Lord stirs up discomfort, anger, longing or peace. Let the story embrace you and identify where you are within it, and where you desire to be.

In what ways do I find the rituals and traditions more comforting than the risk of connection and service to others?

What practices can I begin today


Jesus’ Gift to the Rich Young Man

Mark 10:17-22

The more I read this story the more I am convinced it is not about treasure, but about trust; not about keeping rules but about seeing the big picture.

It’s initially interesting in Mark’s telling of this story that the man calls Jesus “Good Teacher.” Jesus questions him saying: “No one is good but God alone.” To me this hints at the basis for the interaction. This man sees God active through Jesus; he is not just another teacher. He is drawn to Jesus, perhaps to be validated as “good,” but mostly because he is seeking something more.

Jesus first gives the standard “religious” answer: Keep the commandments. This is a checklist, but more than a checklist. This is the binary realm of dualistic consciousness: You have stolen, or not; you have murdered, or not; you have honored your parents, or not. It’s a guide for what Richard Rohr calls “the small self,” the ego that seeks to build itself up, put others down, and exert control.

The law can be a great source of certainty on a simplistic level. It implies a transactional deal with God: “If I do this (or don’t do that), God will accept me and welcome me into eternal life.” It also implies a separateness from those who don’t keep the same laws. And if we’re honest for most of us it allows us to say, “Thank God I’m not like them!”

This is approach is also about “control.” And it is our control, not God’s that really matters. It is I that keeps the commandments, and God is bound to offer suitable rewards.

The man quickly affirms that he has kept all of the commands since his youth – for as long as he has been accountable to do so. As I imagine this scene playing out, I do not hear the man boasting or arrogantly demanding his inheritance. He has come to Jesus as a seeker, asking for eternal life. I imagine the young man saying this in slight puzzlement, with a twinge of sadness. “I have kept all the rules – why am I still seeking?” Knowing the Hebrew texts he might be questioning the psalmist: “I have made the Lord my shepherd; why do I still lack something?”

This deep question gets Jesus’ attention. Mark shares a detail that Matthew and Luke skip over: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him…” One commentator says that the Greek word translated “look” really means to see deeply, to observe someone and know a truth about them. And what Jesus sees in this rich man moves him to compassion. He understands why the man is dissatisfied by keeping all the rules and desires a fuller, “eternal” life.

Many Christians have translated the phrase “eternal life” into “a place in heaven when I die,” an “eternal reward.” Scholars note that the phrase “eternal life” is difficult to translate. In The Secret Message of Jesus Brian McLaren calls it a life distinguishable from the common life most of us live. It is “a life that is radically different from the way people are living these days, a life that is full and overflowing, a higher life that is centered in an interactive relationship with God and with Jesus. Let’s render it simply “an extraordinary life to the full centered in a relationship with God.”” N.T. Wright calls it “the life of the coming age” – the age Jesus calls the Kingdom of God. Brian Stoffregen says eternal life is “experiencing God through the one God sent.”

In that understanding, it makes sense that Jesus “loved” the man (Stoffregen says this is the only place in the three synoptic Gospels that Jesus loves someone) by presenting to him not yet another command, but an act that can move him fully into this Kingdom-shaped life.

If I am honest I must admit that sometimes I get hung up on Jesus’ call to “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.” Our culture places a lot of value on what we own, and teaches us to derive identity from it. This command touches on the weaknesses in McLaren’s contrast to eternal life – “life as people are living it these days.” In many discussions of this text that I have participated in, solid Christians focus on the importance of providing for ourselves and our families and don’t consider the import of what Jesus says next: “you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

I hear Jesus not simply calling the man to let go of his possessions, but calling him more deeply into a life marked with surrender and solidarity. Jesus calls him to surrender the illusion that keeping the law earns him anything. He is asked to consider the possibility that God may have use for his wealth that have nothing to do with him, and to let go and live into that possibility. Selling all one’s possessions is not charity but a change of lifestyle. It moves him from seeing himself as different from the poor – even from seeing himself as a benefactor – and recognizing that he is the poor, and the poor are just like him. Selling is an act of solidarity, of standing with the poor in their poverty (as God does), of acknowledging the shared humanity and humility ignored by “life as people are living it these days.”

This entire exchange is about making the transition to a higher stage of the spiritual journey. Jesus calls this man to move from keeping the law’s externals to embodying its spirit. He is asked to leave the dualistic thinking that allows him to keep the law while separating himself from those who are different and enter the world of what Rohr calls “unitive consciousness,” where he would see himself as both saint and sinner, both rich and poor, and experience relationship with God through humble relationship with all of God’s people (not just those like him).

The young man knows he lacks something, and thinks he wants this kind of alternative life, with less focus on the wealth and the rule-keeping that he knows doesn’t satisfy. Jesus offers him that way, which requires taking on a more expansive, less ego-driven way of thinking. (Jesus knew, long before Einstein, that transcending our problems requires new ways of thinking.)

It’s not surprising that the man is “shocked, and went away grieving.” Jesus’ solution is the last thing his everyday small self would think of, and elevates following the rules to surrendering to the rule-giver. Like many of us in Western consumer society, he has many possessions and he is attached to them; selling them is a form of death of the assumptions he has played by his entire life.

I like that this story, unlike so many of Jesus’ encounters, does not resolve with a clear answer or an easy moral. The step Jesus is calling for is not a quick “decision for Christ” as much as a process of developing a new way of thinking, seeing and living. We do not learn whether the man takes Jesus’ offer or settles for his old pattern of keeping the commandments and his personal wealth. Because ultimately this is not his story. It’s ours. And its questions call attention to those we must face on our lifelong spiritual quests.


What I learned from posting a viral meme

This image was posted, without explanation, last Saturday around 12:30 pm. By Sunday night Facebook reported that it had "reached" more than 100,000 people. As of today it is still getting a few "likes" and "shares." According to our page Insights:
  • It has been served to more than 132,000 people.
  • It has been shared more than 2,000 times, with an equal number of "post clicks."
  • More than 9,000 people "liked" some version of the post.
  • More than 735 people commented on some version.
  • We also added 28 "fans" to our page over this time.
This is for a page with 1,100 "fans," where posts reach 200-500 people on average and engagement numbers in the single digits or teens are the norm.

So what did I learn?

  • When inspiration strikes, go for it! With all of the pouring water videos going around thanks to ALS fundraising, and some humorous responses, I thought of this simple image of our bishop baptizing an infant during a visit to Tanzania a couple of years ago. So I just jumped into Pixelmator and knocked this out for immediate posting. (This was our photo, shared on our Flickr page, so there were no permissions issues. Don't just grab images that are possibly copyrighted.)
  • Keep it simple. There are memes out there with a lot of text, but when you have an emotional image like this, let it speak for itself. (Also, in trying to boost another image post, we found that Facebook rejected it because text made up too much of the image.)
  • Humor works. Just have fun with it. Not that profound sayings won't work, but stay away from preachy. People already think the church is preachy.
  • Don't point out that you are responding to a trend. We didn't say anything about the ALS challenge, although people picked up on it and added comments to their shares, suggesting that people give or that they remember their baptism and respond.
  • Boost, but be realistic. We did experiment and spent $20 to promote the post to our fans and their friends. That did reach more than 2,000 people, but the vast majority of the shares, likes and views were viral...people seeing that through the normal exposure of our page and of our fans to their friends, and then passing it on themselves.
  • Interestingly most of the new likes came from the promoted post, which makes sense as we targeted friends of people who were already fans, some of whom were likely Lutherans who would be interested in our content. 
So if you have an image, an idea or an event that is meme-able, dive in. Be strategic about whether or how you promote it. And don't be disappointed if the post reach is only slightly larger -- or slightly smaller -- than your norm; we've had image posts go both ways. 

Happy meme-ing!

Reorganizing Church

Welcome Church "Welcome Table" 2013 by (C) Bob Fisher

David Lose, new president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, put up a thoughtful post earlier this month titled "What Role Does the Church Play in Our Lives?"

It's well worth a read. There are a couple of points in the post and its comments that I want to reflect upon:
Given how many other groups and movements legitimately lay claim to our allegiance today, can the Church ever expect to exert the level of influence in our lives that it once did?
When I first came to the church in the 1970s I recall folks at the small Lutheran parish that I joined wistfully recalling "Church Night," the idea that community groups -- even the schools -- would block off Wednesday nights (in our town) to kids to be at church events. The actual practice was long gone, but the sense of entitlement to it remained. Similarly I still hear church folks complaining that youth sports and other civic programs don't respect "church time" on Sundays. But the days of "Blue laws" are over and for many people catching up on laundry and chores, and even sleeping in, don't respect "church time," either.

So I don't think the church can "expect" to exert its former level of influence. It might earn some of that respect back, however, by creating spaces where people in the community can explore their doubts, talk about big issues, and maybe experience helpful spiritual practices without being expected to immediately become just like the people in the church.
What, then, do we expect of the church? Do we expect it to be “first among equals,” taking priority over every other affiliation (even when we often devote more time, energy, and money to other groups)? Do we expect it to help bring our other activities into focus, that we might see these different enterprises in light of our faith? Do we treat it as one of several groups that is important to us?
I lean toward the middle option, hoping that my participation in congregational life deepens me in the faith so that the Christian story provides a lens through which I look at and make sense of the rest of my life.
David, I lean with you toward the option of the church as a lens that brings our other activities into focus. This would strengthen the connection between "religion" and life out in the world. A lot of people seem to wish for the "first among equals" option, but that is just that--wishful thinking.

I think this role of providing context for the experiences of life is valid even for people who are engaged in the church. Without going to church I can experience deep, transformative sermons, contemplative prayer experiences, meditation, wise teaching, and find sacred music at my fingertips. A congregation that sees itself as a purveyor of religious goods and services is no longer a sole source. It would be a huge help to many people if congregations would create places where they can wrestle and learn and discuss in community -- and recognize that these spaces are as much "church" as formal worship.

A couple of readers offered their experiences and concerns in the comments:
As a preacher I have become increasingly dismayed at the apparent lack of change in those who hear the proclamation each week, including me. I pray for the movement that only the Holy Spirit can bring that will breathe new life into the dry bones that make up so much of our church.
How might our preaching, teaching, and conversations create faithful people who are transparent in their faith, open enough that anyone is willing to engage with, and who have an abiding relationship with God, their faith community, and their surrounding community (the up, in, and out of 3DM), that simply by living their lives, they provide the pictures, the glimpses, and relate the story of faith and God’s relationship of love and grace with the world in an easy, engaging way?
To the commenters I say: Seems to me the transformation you are talking about will happen best in interactive, safe and trusting conversations -- in 1-on-1's and intentional groups (like 3dm huddles), coffee conversations, committed small groups, etc. -- rather than in large group lecture mode. Worship might be a way to seed these ideas, but I think they will take root more deeply in environments where people can interact, share and struggle safely, question and doubt, and process how (if?) faith influences their lives. Now that would take some reorganization of time, people and priorities! Those situations seem to me to be as much worship as a regular Sunday liturgy.

The second commenter also wonders:
As our shift is taking place now and folks do not feel compelled or the need to enter into those doors to even look at the stained glass, what are we called to do?
I see this post as a humble way of asking ourselves and our contexts how we might become stained glass for the world. How might we strip down the lingo, language, jargon, insider speak, or need for someone to come into the walls and windows of the building?
I like the idea of being stained glass for the world. If people aren't inclined to come to us and give us authority, then our best option is to look like Jesus to the people around us, and to go out into that world to eat with them, heal them, celebrate with them, and stand up for them. That method seemed to work pretty well for the Lord, as I recall.

Eliminating the barriers of jargon, insider relationships, judgment of others and the requirement to enter our buildings will require some creative, discerning and fun re-invention. Not everyone is going to do this, of course. Despite the trends there are people for whom church-as-we-know-it "works," even if not enough to support the weight of our current building- and staff-heavy paradigm. To speak to the people David Lose is writing about -- those for whom the church is not the top allegiance or on whom it exerts little to no influence -- the church has to make safe spaces where people can experience God's mercy and justice, see God's people on mission to the world, express their doubts, hear the church confess its shortcomings, and find a way to give meaning to their stories by relating them to God's story.


Moving the goal line

Amos 5:14-15, 21-24
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. - Amos 5:23-24 

Our worship, our prayer, our study are not ends in themselves. They are the exercises that prepare us to join in God’s work of bringing justice to all people.

…[W]e have a responsibility to think bigger…these days. If spiritual practice is relaxing, if it gives us some peace of mind, that’s great — but is this personal satisfaction helping us to address what is happening in the world? The main question is, are we living in a way that adds further aggression and self-centeredness to the mix, or are we adding some much-needed sanity? — Pema Chödrön, “Taking the Leap”

Photo: Fairy Rapids, by Flickr user fs999 under Creative Commons license. 


Weathering the storms

Matthew 8:23-37

“Lord, save us! We are perishing!” — The disciples
“Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” — Jesus

Jesus says that faith and fear are not compatible.

It is comforting to know that the chaos around us is ultimately in Christ’s hands. But not every storm that rages around us — meteorological, existential or emotional — is stilled in the outward sense. Tornados destroy schools. Diseases don’t respond to treatment. Jobs are lost. Angry words continue to be spoken.

I need to admit, as the disciples did, that these storms are bigger than I am — “Lord, help me. I am going down.” Yet safety is not in the rescue; not in the calming of the sea, the avoidance of discomfort, nor in vindication. The safe place is simply Jesus’ presence, and the inner stillness to connect to his peace when the waters rise, rather than scrambling for what I take for “solid ground” under my own power.

Storms come. Chaos surrounds us. The solution is not to pray them away but to experience the presence of Christ in the midst of my fear and anxiety.

How will I handle the squalls that will come today? How will that affect my ability to handle life’s Category 5 storms?