Archives For Cross

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683.jpgDay 10

Like the time I accidentally saw my Italian great-grandma, who possessed a steel-worker’s mustache, naked, as much as I’d rather not, I can still recall one late morning when I was lifeguarding at my neighborhood pool.

At a quarter to some hour, teenage-me blew my whistle long and low to clear the pool for break. Climbing down off my stand, I noticed a girl, maybe 10 years old, bouncing and splashing around in the middle of the pool, evidently without any urgency or intention of exiting.

A relatively new Christian, I decided to be patient and kind just like I’d read St. Paul suggest in my NIV Study Bible, but after  testing the PH level of the water, I noticed that the little girl was still bouncing around the pool nowhere near a ladder or the steps.

Feeling the Jesus already irritated out of me, I marched the circumference of the deck to the point nearest her and then slowly, with no little drama, placed two exasperated hands on the waistband of my red lifeguard suit.

‘Hey, you, little girl. I’m talkin’ to you’ I said with clipped Travis Bickle affect. ‘I said: CLEAR THE POOL. It’s break time.’

‘I know’ she responded as though the fact that she knew was the most obvious thing in the world.

‘You know, huh? Well then…’ I said, my lifeguard voice now a far cry from 1 Corinthians 13, ‘why are you still in the pool? What are you? Blind or something?’

‘Yes,’ she said simply. ‘I am blind.’

I’m a big believer in odds, and the odds of this happening to me just didn’t seem possible.

‘What?’ I said.

‘I am blind’ she said again without contempt.

Ugh. Gut punch.

‘Shit’ screamed the red I could feel rapidly spreading across my face and through my eyes.

Her lack of malice made me feel all the more awful, so much so I said nothing.

Just to populate the scene for you:

Sitting within earshot of this exchange were 5 Stiffler’s Moms from church tanning themselves in too tiny two pieces, their Liz Claiborne sunglasses now perched on top of their foreheads so they could stare at me and, I assumed in a second, report back to the congregation.

Even then I’d correctly intuited that insensitivity to disability is a graver transgression in the United Methodist Church than any out and out heresy such as, say, not believing in Jesus.

Meanwhile, no more than 12 inches behind me, 6 of my closest friends sat around an umbrellaed picnic table. One of those six I hoped soon to make my girlfriend, a wager I now assumed was about as likely as, well, asking a random girl if she was blind and hitting on ‘Yes’ in reply.

I’d have rather had my swimsuit go slack and suddenly fall around my ankles, exposing my johnson and nether hair for all to see. Even now my cheeks (the other ones) get flushed whenever I think back to noisy gong Jason asking that little girl blind girl if she was blind or something.

What would that other something be, I wonder?

Eventually, in a tone of voice shamed low, I guided her to the ladder where she said ‘Thank you’ and I did not- I should confess- say ‘I’m sorry.’ It was an eternity that last not much more than a few minutes. Still it was one of those awkward-in-the-bowels, nothing can ever undo it moments where everyone within earshot wishes they could hide or die or flux capacitor it back an hour.

IMG_2576

Now-

Picture me as that blind girl, and you have some idea of what it’s like when people find out that I have cancer.

While I’ve remained fairly sequestered since I learned I have a rare blood cancer, I’ve still suffered plenty of those uncomfortable, shit-on-your-shoes moments.

The awkward, cringe-inducing moments usually begin thusly:

‘How are you?’

‘Uh…okay…fine…I’m fine.’

‘Really? You look…thinner? Have you lost weight?’

‘Umm…yeah…maybe a bit…well…the thing is…I have cancer.’

The pregnant pause that follows as reliably as the Earth revolves around the Sun usually gives birth to one or more cliches lying dormant at the mind’s ready:

‘You’re young and healthy. You’ll beat it” better than 3/4 of everybody assures me. Whether they’re attempting to convince me or themselves varies to the person.

‘Healthy except for the tumors squatting all over my body’ I always reply, sometimes silently.

Some respond to the pregnant pause by delivering up, either as an article of faith or something gleaned from 1st or 2nd or usually 3rd hand experience: ‘Well, I believe in the power of prayer.’

Many try to turn the foreboding cloud of cancer inside out by pointing vaguely to the silver lining of ‘advances in medicine and science.’

Some intend either the former, faith, or the latter, science, when they promise me in palliative tones that ‘miracles DO happen’ as though the prognosis I’d prefer to hear is how my full recovery is about likely as feeding an entire hospital with just 6 pieces of Wonder Bread and 2 filets of poorly breaded Tilapia.

I can tell from their faces and from what they toss back at me:

Hitting people unawares with the C-word is like learning that you’ve just been making sarcastic blindness cracks at a little blind girl.

IMG_2574

Nearly everyone stammers and then moves to tell me which Dr. Oz imprimatured books I should read or which cancer-fighting foods I should purchase at Whole Foods for $5 grand a pound.

Those less burdened by propriety or self-conscience immediately ask how often I’m throwing up or, I kid you not, ‘getting it up.’ Still others suggest cancer-themed movies I should watch like Michael Keaton’s forgotten film My Life or Bette Midler’s wish-we-could-forget-it Beaches.

Just yesterday a door-to-door salesmen from Capitol Meats, upon hearing I had cancer (Yes, I was playing the cancer card to avoid buying a gross of ground beef), said: ‘Damn, man…fuck that sucks.’

And then he added: ‘You should watch that movie…what’s it called…’ and then he started to snap his fingers to jog his memory, ‘Ordinary People…yeah, that’s a damn good movie.’

‘It is a good one’ I said, ‘but I’m pretty sure it’s not a cancer movie.’

‘Nah, man,’ the meat man maintained, ‘dude definitely dies of cancer in it.’

Okay, so not every conversation goes down like the blind girl in the pool, but once I’ve blind-sided people with the C-word and they recover enough to respond with the typical cliches, recommendations or curiosities, they then usually ask me:

‘What kind?

‘Of cancer?

And once I tell them Lymphoma, Mantle Cell Lymphoma, unless I’m speaking to a doctor or a nurse, that marks the end of their oncological knowledge; so, inevitably they steer the conversation to the biographical.

‘My _____________ (mother/father/aunt/uncle/coworker/neighbor/cousin…) had lymphoma’ they’ll say as though we’re discussing fellow frat brothers from faraway chapters.

‘Really?’ I’ll feign interest, ‘How did_____________ do with their treatment?’

‘Oh…umm…he/she did…’ and then 9/10 times their voice will trail off in such a way you’re led to only one conclusion.

‘That’s just awesome’ I’ll think to myself.

Before you accuse me of hyperbole:

The Friday before my surgery, the Friday after the night I learned cancer was the most likely culprit behind my troubles, my mom and I sat at the indoor pool watching my boys at swim practice when she breaks our own kind of pregnant pause:

‘You know…my uncle (as in, my Grandma’s flesh and blood brother) had lymphoma too.’

‘What? Really?’ I said, ‘I didn’t know that; I guess I should have checked the cancer box under ‘Family History’ along with ‘Heart Disease’ and ‘Mental Illness.’

‘What happened to him?’ I asked after she didn’t laugh.

‘Oh’ she said, brainstorming how to change the subject. ‘Umm…uhh…errr…yeah, he died.’

‘Great, just great’ I said.

She went on: ‘But he lived a long time…at least until his mid-40’s.’

And then I thought: ‘Mid-40’s?! Mid-40’s!? Geez, mom, that’s some cold shit.’

It’s no hyperbole.

When I spoke to the suit in the United Methodist Pension Office about my medical leave, he told me in a way that defied his bean-counting countenance:

‘I’m sorry to hear about your…uh…situation. I had a college roommate who died of lymphoma.’

‘I’m very sorry to hear that’ I said, suddenly wondering who was supposed to be comforting whom.

‘Yeah, he was such a great guy’ and just then I thought our connection had gone before I realized he was sniffling into the phone. Just before he started weeping.

Likewise did it go with the insurance rep who called to audit my care plan. My lymphoma, though a rarer breed, apparently put her mind to her own mother’s losing bid against blood cancer. You see, not only does the C word provoke people into unwittingly portending my death, it’s also (I’m also) a grim reminder to them of painful mournings of their own.

In other words, now that I have cancer, I rip the scabs off of people’s wounds.

For those without family or friends felled by blood cancer, a surprising number of people, upon hearing my news, turn for reference to America’s family of choice; i.e, celebrities.

‘Oh, did you know Jackie Onassis died of lymphoma?’ the checkout guy told me yesterday.

‘Really? Before I was worried but now that I know Jackie O died of it I think…what’s the big deal?’ I thought to myself before stretching a fake smile across my face and nodding solemnly.

‘I mean, thank God I have blood cancer and not some peasant disease like COPD’ I kept thinking to myself as I punched my debit number into the screen.

Seriously, Jackie O is what the lifeguard checkout guy hit me with when I blind-sided him with the C-word. I can only imagine how many times people with testicular cancer have to hear about Lance Armstrong or how often lepers with dementia have to hear about Senator Ted Cruz.

Like James Greer in Wonder Boys memorizing celebrity suicides, thanks to the offhand comments with which people meet the C-word, I now know that Charles Lindberg, Gene Autry and Joey Ramone of the Ramones all died of the very affliction now doing its damnedest to kill me.

10917425_10206002408001513_8943057669339658780_n

There’s something about the word CANCER that throws a wrench into most people’s mental gears.

For example:

Just yesterday when I told that same Capitol Meats salesman that I was no longer working, that I was going on disability (because, yes, I was playing the cancer card to get rid of him and his sales pitch) he immediately responded by telling me:

‘Yeah, one of my cousins on my Mama’s side is retarded. He’s real sweet though. You can hardly tell he’s a retard.’

I just nodded along and smiled, which probably only confirmed for him that I too was as disabled as his sweet cousin- which, fortunately, in his mind probably disqualified me from making such a hefty purchase of boneless steaks and pork chops.

There’s something about the C-word that messes with people’s heads. Some people see CANCER as a 2 syllabled body bag, one that’s already zipped up to around my chest port. To their minds, the C-word gives off an air of the inexorable that permits them to confess secrets they’d never reveal otherwise. You know the stuff normally reserved for eulogies:

‘You were my first crush.’

‘I never told you what your friendship meant to me.’

‘I thought you were a real dick in high school but I’m sending you positive energy now.’

‘I thought you were the worst preacher I’d ever heard for about 4 years but now I think you’re awesome.’

One person, upon hearing the news via the social media grapevine, sent me a copy of that poem, ‘Do Not Stand By My Grave and Weep,’ verses not only which I loathe but have only ever heard intoned- against my better judgment- at FUNERALS.

Of all the various and sundry responses the news of my stage serious cancer has elicited, by far the most common responses are:

‘Fight it.’

‘It’s time to do battle.’

‘Kick cancer’s ass.’

From their shoes, I think it’s exactly the right thing to say. It sure as shit beats telling me that Bob Ross died of lymphoma (too).

After all, ‘kick cancer’s ass’ isn’t burdened with any pray-it-away piety or false promises, and it puts the onus on me while positioning the speaker as being behind me, in my corner, rooting for me in the fight of/for my life.

‘Yeah, kick cancer’s ass’ I sometimes nod my head in response.

But here’s the real difficulty:

The ‘it’ in ‘Fight it, Jason’ is Jason.

The ‘it’ is me.

The cancerous cells are mine, only doing something differently (and far more efficiently) than my healthy ones. The chromosomes inverting themselves way down deep in my marrow, which is what gives me Mantle Cell Lymphoma- those are my chromosomes. They’re as much me as my eyes or my fingerprints or the corner of my lips that produces my smile. The tumors riddling my insides- they’re attached to my spleen and my stomach and my lungs and God knows what else, and it’s my lymphatic system that so conveniently delivers those tumorous cells to the rest of my body and possibly my brain (one of the unique perks of Mantle Cell).

What I only realize now that I have cancer is that a PET scan is very different than a battle map. There is no enemy massing outside on the borders of the Republic of Jason’s Body. The masses are in me, a part of me even. Even if I could shrink myself down like Martin Short in Inner Space to go fight ‘it’ in my GI system, I’d just as quickly discover that ‘it’ is also very much me.

Which means, of course, that the only way to kick cancer’s ass is to kick my own.

Normally this time of year, I’m giving up meat or booze or Facebook, but this Lent, though I’ve not chosen it, I’m doing something even more Christ-like, in a way. I’m forsaking myself.

Don’t applaud me. It’s out of necessity not any piety. It’s just the way chemo works.

The only way to kill the cancer in me is to let the doctors get as damn close as they can to killing me.

IMG_2609

I’m learning that there’s an inherent passivity to cancer no matter how proactive and intentional I might want to be against it.

For much of the balance of 2015 I’m literally a prisoner of my own body. On a cellular level my body echoes St. Paul: ‘For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.’

This is precisely why poor bastards with cancer like me so desperately need others- especially doctors and nurses- because no sane person, no matter how sick or scared, would ever willingly do this to themselves. This regimen of chemo-poison.

I appreciate the sentiment behind ‘Kick cancer’s ass’ but already I’ve learned:

The language of fighting doesn’t really work for cancer.

It’s too active; in fact, I don’t believe the active voice really works at all for cancer.

I don’t believe the active voice works for cancer in the same way the active voice doesn’t work for God.

I remember one homiletics class when I was in seminary. This belligerently confident, hyper-evangelical classmate preached his sample sermon before the class. His sermon was frenetic. He clearly thought he was the superior preacher to all of us and, admittedly, his delivery was effective.

However, our professor, Dr Kay, looked restless and irritated through the entirety of the 20 minute sermon. Once the student finished Dr Kay breathed out his exasperation and declared to the preacher:

‘Do you realize not one of your sentences had God as their subject?’

Contrary to all the Strunk and White rules, when it comes to our speech about God the passive voice is most often the best, for it alone conveys the necessity of our trust and dependence upon God.

The active voice makes it sounds like we actually have our shit together.

And just need God to show up sometimes.

But the passive voice better than the active confesses ‘You can do, God, what we cannot.’

The passive voice admits more clearly that when it comes to things that matter, like sin and marriage and parenthood and friendship and truth-telling and compassion and cancer, most often-

my enemy is myself.

The passive voice better points out that in much of life, but particularly with cancer, the path forward looks not like active ass-kicking at all but instead something in between resignation and resistance because that’s the space where God goes.

All of which is to say, as much as I’d like to ‘fight it’ or ‘kick cancer’s ass’ my only real hope is that God will be in me, setting things right, just as scripture promises God was in Christ, reconciling all things to himself.

IMG_2585

Speaking of Christ, by far the best response the news of my cancer has prompted was a JPEG of that charlatan preacher Joel Osteen along with the header ‘Imagine this is cancer when you’re kicking it’s ass.’

The JPEG response still trades on the fight metaphor and about the last thing I want to imagine is Joel Osteen inside me. I doubt his teeth would even fit inside my (now) 28 inch waist and his hair gel would likely spike my cholesterol.

I’ve scored many a point from the pulpit and I’m responsible for much clickbait at Joel O’s expense. No, this isn’t going to be an ‘I was all wrong’ epiphany but an ‘I was so right all along’ double-down.

What I mean is-

You only need to have cancer for about a day before you realize how impoverished is Joel Osteen’s power- of- positive- thinking active voice faith, his genie-in-a lamp-god who will reliably answer any prayer you’re bold enough to proffer.

One of the things you learn when you have cancer, along with how to read your latest lab work, is that only the crucified God, who has shared your fear and suffering and made your pain his own, only the crucified God can help.

 

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517Day 5

People assume cancer is a bad thing.

People presume just because I have a rare, incurable, quite possibly terminal lymphoma that will require searing treatment and scores of cash; a disease that will take a harrowing emotional toll on me and mine while- best case scenario- reducing me to a gaunt, hairless, infertile, (‘probably not’) impotent shadow of my former healthy, virile self, that it’s all downside.

But you know what they say about making an ass out of you and mption. Fools.

As it turns out, cancer is not without its uses.

It’s true.

Cancer’s like having an ace in the hole you can play whenever it suits you without ever having to leave the card on the table.

For example, driving to my oncologist’s office the morning before my chemo began my wife and I found ourselves running late.

‘Just speed.’ I said calmly from the passenger seat ‘You’ll make up the time.’

‘On this road?’ she replied like I had prophylactic chemo brain, ‘There are speed traps everywhere. We’ll get pulled over for sure.’

‘Maybe,’ I accepted, ‘but then all you have to say is ‘I’m sorry, Officer, we’re late for my husband’s chemotherapy appointment. He has (daub the eye)…cancer.’ Even the most tight-sphinctered cop wouldn’t give you a ticket.’

The cancer-house-always-wins odds washed over her. She glanced at me, her eyes glinting like Steve McQueen’s to Ali MacGraw in The Getaway.

‘Punch it, baby’ I said.

When life hands you a belly full of tumorous lemons, make lemonade.

The week I spent at home post-surgery, pre-chemo one late afternoon a pimpled idealist with a $5 t-shirt and a plastic lanyard came knocking at my front door, canvassing for some urgent political cause. Having pimped out my principles for such work myself back in college, I’m normally an easy mark for a sympathetic signature and a harmless chunk of change.

This time, though, I didn’t even have to resort to my typical ‘I was just making dinner’ excusing salvo.

No. Channeling my genuine and recent sense of bewilderment, I muttered: ‘I’m sorry…I just found out… I have cancer…’

When I said it- and, truthfully, I don’t even know why I said it (‘I’m an asshole’ might be one obvious answer)- I wasn’t expecting it to slink me free of her utopian overtures.

But sure enough, just like that, she was forcibly removing her clipboard from my hands as though its germs might infect neutropenic me. Grabbing her ballpoint pen and bold-faced brochure back from me, she affected a preschool teacher’s countenance and said:

‘You don’t need to worry about this right now, and you CERTAINLY don’t need to be giving away money.’

For a second, I thought she was going to hug me.

She looked like she was going to cry and, more importantly, I did not look $25 lighter for it.

See, who said cancer is a bad thing?

My second day of chemo I sat reading in bed, trying to ignore the wave of nausea creeping up my throat, when my cellphone interrupted the beeps and buzzing from my IV pole.

It was someone from the Honda dealership trying to persuade me with the slick logic of a payday loan to SAVE MONEY by trading in my nearly paid for car with a new completely unpaid for one. I’d met this salesperson several times before and, each time, he left me feeling like I needed a shower. If I’d been splurting blood from the jugular such that it was spraying Cormac McCarthy-style all over the ceiling, I would’ve bet a down payment that he’d pressure me into an extended warranty before applying pressure to my sputtering wound.

I guess I was wrong.

‘I’m sorry’ I said a few seconds into his cellphone schtick, ‘I’m actually in the hospital right now with cancer.’

The conversation was over as quickly as it had begun.

And, bonus, he sent me a card.

Cancer’s not all downside.

The C Word got me out of the change fees with Porter Airlines for a trip I had planned to take with my wife this spring but now cannot take ‘…because…(deep melancholy sigh) I have…cancer.’

‘Merci,’ I said to the customer service lady in Quebec City.

And yesterday when I called the Billing Department for my son’s viola, which we apparently rent from Mercedes Benz, I apologized for the missed payment.

‘It just slipped my mind’ I explained cloudily ‘after I started chemotherapy…which I’m taking…because…I have…cancer.’

See, cancer’s not all bad.

To those with the (hairless) balls to grab the tumor by the reins, cancer’s like the cellular equivalent of that long, steadicam tracking shot in Goodfellas. 

Sure, like the mob, cancer puts your life at risk but at least it makes you a made guy, opening doors with barely 4 syllables’ worth of effort. And, even better, it closes down unwanted conversations faster than saying ‘I’m a pastor’ or ‘Would you mind if I talked to you about Jesus?’

Cancer’s not all bad.

Just last night, having visited me in the oncology unit, my wife leaned over my hospital bed to kiss me goodbye.

She put her hand on my cheek, tender and soft, and I put mine on her waist. Her hand remained there on my cheek, as true and chaste as a Jane Austen heroine.

Meanwhile, mine- left and right- wandered gently upward, just enough to cop a feel of her…ahem.

‘How many times in 20 years have I told you not to do that?!’ she chastised me.

Me, adopting a confused look, like I was trying to do the sum of all those times previous in my head:

‘But honey…I have cancer.’

It almost worked.

Cancer’s not all weeping and gnashing of IV ports.

Today I learned they’re going to release me in a couple of days with a prescription for a medication for vaginal yeast infections and herpes. Cancer may have riddled my body with tumors too many to count, but it’s also handed me humor gold like herpes and vagina pills.

It’s two days away, but I’ve got my parting shot to Joyce, my favorite nurse:

‘Herpes?!

No wonder I was sleeping so fitfully! What were you nurses doing with me/to me while I was unconscious?!’

Already I can see her dark Kenyan skin blushing.

Cancer, as bad as it is, has its benefits.

I know it sounds crass, but it’s true: being able to say ‘I have cancer’ has its uses.

People think faith is like that.

Useful.

Especially when the shit hits the biopsy.

Even unbelievers assume that faith is useful for calming your nerves, helping you to cope with the fears and anxieties that come when the CAT scan shows objectively that the Grim Reaper’s taking long, hard sniff all over you.

Just yesterday my Easternly-bent Licensed Clinical Social Worker at the hospital, presented ‘Buddhist mediation techniques’ (just saying ‘prayer’ would’ve somehow sounded too superstitious I suppose) to this priest as a potentially positive ‘healing tool.’

And tools, we all know, are designed to be nothing if not useful.

People presume that faith is useful too in pondering the big, COSMIC questions that accompany terminal diagnoses. Faith is useful, so the canard goes, in justifying the goodness/presence/reality/reliability of God’s ways when the world appears otherwise cold to ambivalent. Faith is useful in defending God’s Benevolence amidst the malevolence wracking your life.

Faith, in other words, is useful not just for alleviating anxiety; it’s useful for supplying answers to mysteries too dark to leave without rebuttal.

Maybe that’s the way faith works for some people; in fact, I’m absolutely certain that’s how faith works for many people.

But not me.

For me, faith isn’t like that.

Faith doesn’t provide a shot of optimism or a push of positive-thinking, for faith in the Cross and Resurrection isn’t optimism; it’s against-all-odds, in-the-face-of-all-just-merit hope.

Faith isn’t like all the steroid chasers to my chemo-poisons, convincing me I ‘can kick cancer’s ass’ because I’ve the Big Guy in my corner for the bout of my life.

Faith is not useful.

Cancer may have its practical benefits, but I’m not so sure faith does- at least, not in the way we typically imagine benefits.

My faith has NOT alleviated my anxieties. It hasn’t helped me sleep easier at night and it sure as Hell has not silenced the abacus in the back of my brain always- always, doing the math and wondering if the odds will ever be in my favor.

And my faith doesn’t provide any easy answers or assurances. It’s certainly not a coping mechanism.

What I mean is-

Everyone, and I do mean everyone, it’s staggering, assumes that a rare, aggressive cancer diagnosis will beget the ‘Why me, God?’ question a la Job, which, by the way, in four short weeks I’ve realized is a terrifically craptastic book of the bible.

Cancer doesn’t make you ask Job’s question any more than faith arms you with his answers.

What cancer does- it thrusts you into a community of people you didn’t know existed, people who are hurting every bit as if not more than you.

For example, there’s a girl on my oncology unit. She’s 23 and a 2 week olds’s mother. She learned she has cancer- has it bad- during her delivery. I’ve listened to her cry every night when they come to bring me my night meds.

The nurse I spoke to at my hematologist’s office, just before starting chemo, she said I was one of 30 people she was scheduled to see that day alone. People of all shapes and sizes and situations.

And ages.

Cancer doesn’t make you wonder ‘Why me, God?’ Only a dick would get caught up with that kind of question.

No, cancer throws in you the scrum and makes you ask ‘Why them, God?’

Why us, God?

Why this world? Which is the only possible world if the world is indeed the perfection expression of God’s infinite Goodness.

Why this world where a lion fulfilling its lioness leads to the lamb being slaughtered and where a few efficient tumorous cells fulfilling their design leads to cancer?

You see, that’s the problem with the Book of Job. The cast is too small, the point of view too limited. Job never so much as goes to the doctor’s office.

Cancer doesn’t lead you to ask ‘Why me, God?’

Cancer leads you to wonder why God can’t seem to enter or act in our world without casting shadows.

So faith isn’t ‘useful’ for me.

For me, faith is more like that story in Mark 8 where Jesus needs a do-over before healing a blind man. After Jesus’ try, the man says ‘I see people…but they look like trees walking.’

Faith is like that for me; it’s to have been touched by Christ only to have the world appear more bewildering than when you were blind (and happily so, it turns out).

Like that story, at least for me, faith gets you wondering why God doesn’t seem to have gotten everything right the first go round. I’m sure it works that way for plenty of cognitively dissonant people out there, but for me faith is not ‘useful’ amidst my suffering. Faith amidst my suffering instead puts me in mind of others’ suffering. Faith reminds me that Christ’s suffering isn’t isolated or even unique but somehow summarized in it and encompassed by it is the suffering of all those others who were crucified on the same day as him.

Faith isn’t useful; it compels even now, somehow, to be useful to others in their suffering.

Faith doesn’t alleviate my anxieties- not one iota- but it does bring me up close to the anxieties of others where, maybe, someday, I can prove useful.

Faith isn’t useful, especially not in the sense my Licensed Clinical Social Worker encouraged.

Christian faith, and by that I mean cross-shaped faith, doesn’t cultivate a positive, productive attitude.

Christian faith produces hatred.

It provokes perfect hatred towards the meaningless of all suffering, the absolute needlessness of sin and the sheer unnatural emptiness of Death, which the first Christian evangel outs as our ‘last enemy.’

So while cancer has proved useful in giving me a lifetime of jokes about my vagina, faith doesn’t work for me in a similarly productive fashion. What faith gives me is more like a posture, knowing that in the suffering and dying of the faces I see in the oncologist’s office and here on Unit 21 I do NOT see the face of God. I see instead God’s Enemy against which my faith has enlisted my meager help.

That’s not exactly ‘useful’ in the way cancer’s useful for a good dirty beaver joke. But it is, I suppose, the Gospel.

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

7. What Do We Mean By Incarnation?

We mean that God the Logos, without taking off divinity, puts on humanity in Jesus.

What we do not mean by the incarnation is the nativity. We do not mean that incarnation can ever be shorthand for Christmas, as though God taking flesh and redeeming humanity could be isolated to only one discrete moment in the Son’s life.

The incarnation does not name a single moment in Jesus’ life as the footwashing, crucifixion or the resurrection do.

Quite the contrary, the incarnation names everything from the Spirit’s overshadowing of Mary to Jesus commending the same Spirit back to God upon the cross. The incarnation is not an event distinct on the timeline of Jesus’ life from the cross.

Rather Jesus’ faithfulness unto the cross is but one manifestation of what it means for the Word to be incarnate.

The incarnation is the given behind all that Jesus says and does.

Likewise, incarnation means humanity is not perfected simply as a consequence of the Word assuming flesh.  The incarnation does not heal humanity of temptation until the Word is tempted in the wilderness. The incarnation does not redeem humanity of its fear until Jesus experiences it in the garden of Gethsemene. The incarnation does not rescue humanity from its violence until the Son carries a cross instead of picking up a sword, and humanity is not freed from death until he suffers and overcomes it.

The cross, then, is not in distinction from the incarnation; it is a product of it.

“Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” – 1 John 4.1-3

§8-10: Incarnation Quiz

Jason Micheli —  December 17, 2014 — 3 Comments

Untitled44Here’s a pop quiz based on the first 10 sections of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.

 

1. Prior to the Incarnation, God the Word was:

A) Far away from us with God’s back turned against us because we are sinners and God is holy.

B) Nearer to us than we are to ourselves because even prior to the Incarnation the Word imbues all things in creation and holds them in existence.

C) In Heaven.

Bonus: What does it say about us that we typically think of God as remote? 

 

2. According to St. Athanasius, God the Word took flesh in order to:

A) Suffer God’s wrath in humanity’s stead.

B) To pay the price, suffering sin’s penalty for us.

C) To die our death and, in doing so, exhaust Death of its power over us.

D) To demonstrate God’s holiness by demonstrating the wages of sin upon the cross.

Bonus: What does it say about us that we interpret the cradle and the cross punitively when Genesis 1 speaks of death as sin’s consequence in no such tones?

 

3. Athanasius identifies the debt paid by the Incarnate One as:

A) God’s honor

B) Sin

C) Fidelity

D) None of the Above

Bonus: Why do we literalize scriptural metaphors like ‘debt’ when the Church Fathers felt free to use them without explaining exactly how they worked. 

 

4. For Athanasius, the place and purpose of Christ’s teaching in the Incarnation is: 

A) For us to get right with God through right actions.

B) To describe for us the ideal human life which will be possible only in the Kingdom.

C) To show us what we should do because Jesus told us to do it.

D) To reveal the means by which our tarnished humanity may be restored in God’s likeness.

Bonus: Why do so many of our understandings of how Jesus saves us on the cross have little place for the life and teaching of Jesus? 

 

You don’t really need the answer key do you?

Redacted Scripture: Torture

Jason Micheli —  December 16, 2014 — 1 Comment

According to the Pew Research Center, 60% of American Christians support the use of torture against suspected terrorists.

According to Red State, 54% of those who attend church at least once a week support the use of torture.

According to my email inbox after I ‘liked’ Brian Zahnd’s blog post ‘You Can’t be a Christian and Support Torture’ the % is at least 60.

And 100% of the time, reading those emails, I’m like WTF?

Not only do I oppose torture because I have many friends and congregants in the military whom I do not want to see harmed because of a practice that only inflames extremists, makes it easier for them to recruit and thus prolongs conflict, I oppose it for the simple reason that, as a Christian, I believe God took the flesh of an innocent man who was tortured as a suspected terrorist against the Empire.

Since we preach the foolishness of Christ crucified tortured, I thought it worth revisiting the Passion story.

The Redacted Passion Story.

wwjt

As soon as it was morning, they [raised the terror alert and] held a consultation with the whole security council. They [gagged and] bound Jesus Yeshua Bin Yosef and led renditioned him away to Pilate’s the Administration’s headquarters black site to accuse him [for enhanced interrogation].

Pilate The Administration interrogated him, ‘Are you [the terrorist who claims to be] King of the Jews?’

The suspect answered him, ‘You say so.’

Then they accused him of many things. Pilate The Administration asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’

But Yeshua Bin Yosef made no further reply, so that Pilate The Administration was incredulous.

Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for the people in order to placate them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder and terror during an insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate The Administration to do for them according to his custom.

Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the terrorist who claims to be the King of the Jews?’ But they administration officials stirred up the people [with fear and patriotic fervor] in order to have him release Barabbas for them instead.

Pilate The Administration spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do with the man terrorist you call the King of the Jews?’

They shouted back, ‘Torture him!’ The Administration asked them us, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’

But they we shouted all the more, ‘Torture him!’

‘Shall I crucify torture your leader?’ Pilate The Administration asked.

‘We pledge allegiance to no one but the emperor nation’ they we cried.

So Pilate the Administration, wishing to satisfy placate the crowd us, washed his hand of Yeshua Bin Yosef’s blood [and so did we] and released Barabbas for them.

And after flogging depriving Yeshua Bin Yosef [of sleep for 7 days], they handed him over [for additional enhanced interrogation techniques].

Then the [private] soldiers [contracted by the government] led him down into the courtyard of the palace pit; and they called together the whole cohort goon squad.

They clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some barbed wire into a crown, they put it on his head. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, the King of the Jews!’

They struck his head with a bat, spit on him, and then they knelt down in homage to him [and shoved a tube up his anus for rectal feeding].

Only after mocking him, they stripped him naked. Then they led him out to torture him.

[They broke his legs and forced him to stand for days.]

[They locked him in a wooden box no bigger than a casket.]

They even compelled a stranger to carry his cross to taunt the naked Yeshua Bin Yosef [with snapping and snarling dogs]; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.

Then they brought Yeshua Bin Yosef to the place called skull. First, they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they tortured him, dividing his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.

It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified water-boarded him.

The accusation top secret file on him read, ‘The terrorist who claims to be the King of the Jews.’

Along with him they water-boarded two criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 

Those who passed by heard about it on cable news [happy they were ‘safe’] derided Yeshua Bin Yosef, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would blow up our temple, save yourself, and come down from the cross up from the water!’

In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, government officials were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come up from the water now, so that we may see and believe.’

[Nearly drowned and gasping for breath,] Yeshua Bin Yosef cried out: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’

Those who were water-boarded with him also taunted him.

When it was noon, darkness a cable blackout came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Yeshua Bin Yosef cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ 

Having breathed his last, Yeshua Bin Yosef was buried in an undisclosed location.

[His followers either fled in fear or were rounded up and tortured themselves.]

[Pilate The Administration, having washed its hands of their blood, pointed to the fact that the Temple was still standing and the people were safe as justification for its alternative interrogation methods.]

[At least, 60% of Roman citizens supported their methods as well.]

Calvinism: Old Debate, New Day

Jason Micheli —  September 19, 2014 — 1 Comment

CalvinismDebate_BannerTo prove that I’m not completely a narcissist- or that I’m at least sufficiently self-aware to pretend that I’m not a narcissist- I thought I would offer you a few nuggets from others that have come my way and proved fruitful for my own reflection:

Brian Zahnd is a pastor, author and blogger who, like me, has been deeply influenced by David Bentley Hart and the work of the early Church Fathers and Mothers. Brian recently represented what I’d call the ancient view of God and the atonement in a debate with Calvinists sponsored by Christianity Todayzahnd-photo

Don’t let the Calvinists’ propensity to machine-gun scripture citations fool you into thinking they’re making an argument, and don’t let it fool you into missing how deeply biblical Brian’s argument is itself.

The videos are long and, if you’re a theology nerd, that’s wonderful. Listen while you make dinner.

 

 

 

I saw a friend on FB post something regarding 9/11 with the words ‘Remember But Remember Rightly.’

Oddly enough it’s the same chord I tried to strike in my sermon on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Whether it measures up to the challenge of the FB prompt I’ll let another judge.

Here it is: 9-11-300x205

Psalm 137

9/11/11

It’s a date seared into memory.

587.

587 BCE

Five- hundred and eighty-seven years before Jesus.

 

The date the unthinkable happened.

A date that would be shared by all

and yet an experience that, for each and every person who survived it,

would be incredibly personal too.

 

The date they were attacked

when they never thought they could be:

their’s was a nation too strong.

They were, literally, ‘one nation under God.’

 

And yet they were

attacked.

By an enemy from far away.

An enemy they didn’t know

and would never really understand.

 

Their enemy razed the city.

Buildings

that had once been symbols of blessing and wealth

reduced to rubble.

 

Many died.

And there was much heroism.

 

For a time

the nation appeared rudderless.

And the familiar language of faith

stuck in the throat.

 

Not long after the attack

there were deployments.

Deployments of the nation’s

best and brightest

and, too often,

the tragically young.

 

The deployments split families.

Marriages were stretched across a crucible of time and distance.

Children grew up faster than their parents returned home.

Spouses worried if their partner would ever return.

Or if they would return the same person.

 

They named the deployments Exile.

 

587:

a date that seemed to change everything.

A date they’d always remember.

 

I remember

where I was.

 

Working in the mailroom at Princeton

my supervisor, Vince, got a call from his wife

who was in the hospital dying of cancer.

The nearest TV was mounted in the corner outside the dining hall.

The TV was on mute.

And for a while all of us standing there staring up at the buildings

we were on mute too.

Until the tower fell

and the silence became a chorus of whispered ‘Oh my God’s.

Then we watched

what everyone else everywhere else watched:

the towers falling one after another

as though they were made of sand or ash

the dust-covered New Yorkers running for their lives

the firemen forsaking their lives

the bodies falling from broken windows

having chosen what they took to be a better fate.

 

I remember Vince, a Catholic,

his fair-skinned face turned a splotchy red

as he pointed angrily at the TV and asked me through clenched teeth:

     ‘Just where the hell is God right now?’ 

For the first time Vince had just realized

that ours is a God who isn’t always useful

in a crisis.

 

I fumbled some responses to answer Vince.

And that was the first time I realized

sometimes words

even religious words

just won’t do.

 

I remember that afternoon

at the elementary school where I tutored

all of us determined not to tell the children

what had happened.

The adults all had tears in their eyes

but tried to smile them away for the kids

who knew better even if they didn’t know what.

The school

like everywhere else

felt like a funeral home.

 

I remember the lanes of Route 1

running north in to NYC empty

traveled by nothing but trash blowing in the breeze.

I remember the digital DOT signs outside my apartment

blinking the auspicious alert: ‘All roads into NYC closed.’

 

I remember running into a classmate that evening.

Joseph was Egyptian.

He’d just had insults hurled at him at WAWA

by passersby too angry and too scared to learn

that he was, in fact, not a Muslim

but a cradle Presbyterian.

 

I remember my sermon that Sunday after Tuesday.

My first sermon ever.

The pews were filled to capacity.

But more notable than how many were there

was who wasn’t there

who would never be there again.

I remember the prayer list that Sunday swelled 8-fold

with lists of sons and daughters and grandchildren and nieces and uncles

and what floor of which tower they worked on.

I remember my sermon that Sunday wasn’t good or bad.

It was inadequate.

Words just wouldn’t do that day.

 

I remember my counseling professor

the Wednesday morning after.

All of us in class still shaken and numb.

Someone asked him how we should respond

as Christians.

He made mention of the prophet Jeremiah

and then told all of us who were married

that we should respond by going home

and making a baby.

I remember how that struck me

as unconventional

and maybe inappropriate.

I didn’t understand what he’d meant

until I held my son for the first time

six years after that Tuesday.

I remember the first high school graduate I ever prayed with

before he shipped off to basic training

and who knows what else.

I remember the first time I flew after 9/11

from the Newark Airport

looking around me

scared and suspicious

in a way I wasn’t raised to be

and had never been before.

I remember after I was appointed here

going to visit at Walter Reed

and understanding

maybe for the first time

both the tragedy

and the honor

in what our men and women in uniform sacrifice.

I remember the conversations I’ve had with you

5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and 9 and 10 years

since that day.

Listening to you tell me about your deployments

and learning how your work is far more complicated

than what fits onto a bumper sticker

whether its red or blue.

 

Listening to you tell me

what its like

to hold your family together

while your spouse is deployed.

What it’s like

when your little kids have trouble remembering

the parent who’s not there

what it’s like

when your teenager starts to resent

the parent who’s not there.

What it’s like

to have a baby

with your husband not there.

What it’s like

to listen to the news

everyday

on eggshells.

 

Psalm 137

is the only psalm

out of 150

that can be dated reliably.

 

Most psalms

because its poetry

you have to guess at the context.

So Psalm 51

‘Against you and you only, Lord

    have I sinned’

we guess is about David

and his sin with Bathsheba

and his murder of her husband.

Or Psalm 72

‘Give the king Your judgments, O God 

    And Your righteousness to the king’s son.’

we can guess is about the crowning of Solomon.

 

With most psalms you have to guess.

But not Psalm 137.

Psalm 137 was written just after it happened

just after the enemy

invaded

killed

destroyed

and took the nation’s strongest citizens away

to Babylon.

 

Psalm 137 is very obviously written

by those living as prisoners and exiles in their enemy’s land.

It’s written in response

to their enemy’s taunts and jibes:

Where is your God now?’ 

    Now that your city’s in ruins 

    Sing a song for us of your God 

    Sing us a song of Zion

    A praise song.

 

But notice

how these victims respond.

Notice what they do.

They refuse.

They don’t plaster over the pain

with piety or platitudes.

They don’t try to justify their faith.

They don’t defend God

with answers or explanations

or arms.

They don’t take the bait.

They don’t answer.

They don’t sing a song of Zion.

They don’t avenge.

They weep

and lament

and they remember.

 

They remember:

life as it was before

and should be again.

They remember:

what was done to them

who and what was lost.

 

And they plead for God

to remember them.

 

When they were victims

when they couldn’t sing

when they couldn’t praise or pray

when they couldn’t answer why this had happened

when no other words would do

God’s People remembered.

 

The psalmist even writes

if God’s People don’t remember

one day

music and praise and prayer

won’t just be difficult

it will become impossible:

‘Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

     if I do not remember…’

 

As painful as remembering is

not remembering

says the psalmist

will be even more painful.

Because without remembering

you forget the way things were

and you resign yourself

you surrender

to the way things are now.

Or you resort

to the ways of the world.

For the victims of the exile

for God’s People

memory offers hope.

Remembering is resistance.

To remember is to refuse to be a victim

Because

to remember is to not lose sight of

to not let God off the hook for

the way things should be in this world.

 

As a pastor

words are my job.

Words are what you pay me for.

Standing in the pulpit on Sundays

when something happens to you

when you come to my office looking for advice

you expect me to have a word.

 

But on days like this

I don’t much want to be a pastor.

Because on days like this

I’m suspicious of words.

 

I’m mindful that it’s religious words

murderers say to themselves

to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime.

I’m mindful that no words of mine

(or any pastor)

can answer or explain or ameliorate what happened.

I’m mindful of the preacher’s temptation

to exploit a terrible experience

just to make a pious point.

On days like this I’m suspicious of words

because I know

maybe better than any of you

how often we use religious words

to deceive ourselves

and cover-up our pain.

I could preach you a sermon

about how new life comes out of death

about how light shines in the darkness

about how God, in Christ, bears the wounds of the world

with us

about how ‘suffering produces endurance

     and endurance produces character

     and character produces 

     hope.’

And it’s not that those things are not true.

It’s not that those things are inadequate.

It’s that those words are premature.

Ten years is still too soon for those words.

After 9/11

there were many preachers who were quick

to get to the affirmation and praise.

And I suspect after this 9/11 it’ll be much the same.

But the Bible knows its own dates like 9/11.

And in the Bible

the People of God never do that.

They never rush prematurely to praise

or certitude.

Nor do they retaliate.

In the Bible the People of God

grieve and protest and complain

with sorrow and rage and anxiety

for years and years and years and years and years.

They remember.

So today I simply invite you to take this psalm as your cue

and do what people like you in the Bible do.

Remember

those who died

the heroism that was the only clear and steady thing that day.

Remember

those who’ve born the burden of protecting us in the years since

and the families who’ve born them

the children and the youth who’ve known nothing in their lives

but war and fear and terror.

Take this psalm as your cue

and remember how united we were after that day

and how unafraid we were before that day.

Take this psalm as your cue

and remember what was done to us.

Because it’s in remembering that we refuse to settle.

Take this psalm as your cue

and call on God to remember

that he’s promised us better.

When no other words will do

God’s People

remember.

Untitled30

The word to which Inigo Montoya refers in the Princess Bride is ‘inconceivable.’

For many people outside the Kingdom of Florin, it’s inconceivable that another Word doesn’t mean what they think it means.

From cliched, Christian-speak catch-phrases (‘wherever 2 or 3 are gathered’) to familiar flannel-graphed VBS stories (‘Truly, this was God’s Son’), Christians are guilty of routinely misunderstanding, misquoting, misapplying or just plain MISSING verses of scripture.

So I offer you (in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) the 15 Most Misunderstood Bible Verses.

#14: The Centurion’s Confession

“Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said: ‘Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

(Mark 15.39 NRSV)

Adam Lewis Greene is a graphic artist who specializes in book design. Greene recently began a kickstarter campaign to produce an elegant, readable, novelized version of the Bible.

‘Bibliotheca’ as he calls it struck a chord, quickly exceeding Greene’s initial fundraising goal of $30K by almost $1.5 million.

Evidently others saw in the Bible what Greene sees: an unreadable book.

As a book designer, Greene notes that the encyclopedic format of most Bibles, with thin pages, small fonts, tight margins, lack of white space, unfriendly chapter breaks, distracting verse and footnote citations obscure what scripture fundamentally is: a narrative.

A story.

Meant to be read as you would a novel or a memoir from the beginning to the end.

Reading John’s Gospel, say, in one sitting from start to finish can reveal more about John’s message than any scholarly commentary.

We miss something of the original intent, Greene argues, when we divvy John’s Gospel up into discrete units that we then bloodlessly cross-reference with a hundred other small units of scripture.

The Bible’s encyclopedic form lulls us into forgetting that the evangelists weren’t writing numbered verses. They were creating art; that is, they composed their narratives in such a way as to have an affect upon us.

The bad design of most editions of the Bible, encouraging us to read scattershot as we would a reference book, leads to bad readers of the Bible.

Perhaps no verse of scripture makes Greene’s point as clearly as the centurion’s ‘confession’ at the end of Mark’s Gospel:

‘Truly, this man was the Son of God.’

399px-cranach_calvary2

Crucified, Jesus has just cried out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!’ which itself is a verse from Psalm 22, a prayer the Roman centurion would not have known.

Seeing the would-be King nailed naked to a tree and ostensibly crying out in anguish, this soldier says ‘Obviously, this was the Son of God!’

Son of God? Based on what exactly?

As far as he knows this rabble-rousing rabbi has died an indignant death, abandoned by his followers and by his God, with his movement in tatters.

What would compel a Roman centurion suddenly now to see Jesus as the Son of God?

It doesn’t jive with what Mark’s just told us nor with how he’s unfolding his story.

In spite of the incongruity, Christians persist in interpreting this soldier’s statement as a noble, sincere profession of faith. The centurion thus becomes the Gospel’s first reader, modeling the reaction we should have to encountering the crucified Christ.

On a baser level, the centurion becomes exhibit A for how even a Gentile can see what the Jews do not see: ‘Duh, this was the Son of God.’

Such an interpretation, I believe, reduces Mark’s sophisticated narrative to the kind of unsubtle ‘art’ you’d expect of a Kirk Cameron movie.

Instead the centurion’s ‘confession of faith’ in 15.39 is yet another instance of the irony that thematically unites Mark’s entire Gospel.

Take Adam Greene’s advice.

Read Mark straight through, it’s short. You’ll see: irony abounds.

Only demons recognize Jesus’ authority.

The man who can exorcize demons is accused of having one.

The blind see what the seeing cannot.

He says to give to Caesar what belongs to him, but he’s just implied everything belongs to God.

The mock title above his head (‘The King of the Jews’) turns out to be true.

The ones who charge him with blasphemy commit it in doing so.

When he cries out to God, the crowd thinks he’s soliciting Elijah.

God condescending to be God-with-us in Christ results in us condescending to sin so that we can be me-without-God.

The ‘vindication’ of resurrection results in fear that produces a final failure when Mark concludes his Gospel by telling us the Easter witnesses ran away scared and didn’t say anything to anyone.

There’s a good grammatical reason not to read 15.39 as a confession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God, but the simpler reason is just to read Mark, from start to finish.

“You are the King of the Jews?” Pilate sneers at Jesus.

“Hail, the King of the Jews!” the soliders taunt.

“So, you are the King of Israel?” the bystanders mock and laugh at the Cross.

And “Truly, this was the Son of God” says the centurion.

Marc-Chagall-1887-1985-Apocalypse-en-Lilas-Capriccio-194547

In other words:

“Yeah right, this was the Son of God” is the better interpretation.

“Truly, this was the Son of God…Not” best captures how Mark thinks the world  responds to the foolishness of the Gospel.

The centurion’s comments are part and parcel of a story festering with cynicism and sarcasm.

The centurion’s ‘confession’ at the foot of the Cross is but another instance of the irony Mark employs in telling a Gospel that he believes can only be received properly as a scandal and offense.

That we persist in hearing the centurion’s confession as sincere only implicates us in the irony.

inigo_montoya

Does God abandon his People, Israel? That’s the question running through the entirety of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It’s also a question Marc Chagall, a Jew, struggled with in his art during the horrors of the 20th century.

For a recent sermon on Romans 8, I invited friend and art historian, Janet Laisch, to bring Paul’s wrestling to light by bringing Chagall’s artwork of the Crucified Christ to light.

You can listen to the sermon here below, on the sidebar to the right or download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

Like the Psalmist using words to pray for God’s protection and forgiveness, Chagall one of the most famous modern artists and a Russian Jew used his art to pray to God for protection and forgiveness.

Like Paul in Romans 8, Chagall asks—through his art and poetry—if God has abandoned has abandoned the Jews.

chagall02

This is Chagall’s Vitebsk a pen and ink on paper show the Pale of Settlement or territory on the outskirts of Vitebsk, within the border of Tsarist Russia where Jews like Chagall were forced to live.

Chagall was born July 6, 1887 and created art until the night before his death in 1985.

On the right, Chagall is holding a paint palette and is out of proportion—too large—for the space. In real life, Chagall was too “large” for the Pale and eventually move to St. Petersburg to study art, then Paris, is exiled in USA and returns to France until his death.

The church dominates the horizon in this drawing and in real life even for Jews like Chagall, the church dominated his life. The church led anti-semitic pogroms where Christians raped and even murdered Jews that Chagall witnessed growing up in the Pale. The state condoned the church.

rain-1911

 

This image, Rain, 1911, charcoal and oil, shows the compound where Chagall lived with his large family of eight surviving children; he was the oldest and his mother doted on him. Compared to Christians outside the Pale, their clapboard home was modest though compared to other Jews living on the compound, Chagall’s family lived well. His mother ran a grocery—foreground right—which supplemented his father’s job as factory worker. They rented out huts on the compound for extra income which enabled Chagall to attend school with Christians.

This led to an artistic awakening. After he first saw a classmate drawing, Chagall decided he wanted to become an artist. His mother accepted and his father gave-in to Chagall and they paid for art lessons and for him to move to St. Petersburg. He became so successful there that a benefactor paid for Chagall to move to Paris.

3chag

 

After moving to Paris, Chagall painted I am My Village (1911) and is characteristic of his work. It has bright colors, expresses joy through whimsical symbols—two small figures in the center show one upright and one upside down– and folk references: Vitebsk town and a woman milking the cow. He ignores rules for realistic color and proportion in favor of whimsical designs. His friend Picasso complimented as one of the best modern artists other than Matisse and of course, Picasso himself.

RNS-CHAGALL-PAINT a

However, Chagall’s art and prayers become more sad between 1933-52 coinciding with German Aggression, WWII and the Holocaust. Like Psalm 44, Chagall paints lament poems and prayers. This photograph shows Chagall painting Solitude.

After Chagall returns from Israel, he focuses on Old Testament and other bible scenes. Chagall wrote about Israel, “I walked the very streets Jesus walked.” Thus, Chagall, a Jew, follows Christ’s footsteps.

solitude_chagal

 

This image is Solitude, an oil on canvas from 1933. It marks the year Hitler becomes Chancellor. The painting like Romans 8 seems to ask God if he has abandoned the Jews. Vitebsk, in the background, is recognizable by the church steeples. In the foreground an Hasidic Jew, perhaps even Chagall, wears a prayer shawl or tallit and clutches the Torah. He looks very depressed. The fiddle beside him, if it were being played might console him. Beside it, a white cow, the original title of this work, and also a reference to Israel herself from the Old Testament. The depressing answer—Chagall feels- is given away by the angel in the night sky flying away. Chagall feels abandoned but continues to pray.

This Russian icon represents the work Chagall would have remembered and loved from sneaking into Christian churches. Chagall wrote, “for me Christ has always symbolized the true type of Jewish martyr. The symbolic figure of Christ was always very near to me, and I was determined to bring him out in my young heart.” Crucifixion_of_Jesus,_Russian_icon_by_Dionisius,_1500

Between 1938-52, Chagall painted a series of crucifixion images. He is not the first Jewish artist to paint the crucifixion. In the late 1800s artists responded to Theologians who sought to remind Christians that Christ was a Jew. Chagall was the first Jewish modern artist though. And other followed. None painted as many. Some said he was obsessed painting more than 30 crucifixions in a span of 14 years.5-marc-chagall-painting-of-jesus

White Crucifixion from 1938 is the first in the series. Chagall painted it in response to the Nights of the Broken Glass where Christians did almost nothing to stop Jews from being murdered. It is also Pope Francis’ favorite work of art.

Here Chagall juxtaposed Christ’s suffering with contemporary Jews’ suffering. Chagall painted a complex theology. In the center, Christ is the Christian Messiah—with a halo and the white light descending from the top of canvas represents divine light like a Russian icon.

Also, Jesus is a Jew.

He wears a tallit, the acronym INRI is written in Hebrew, “Jesus of Nazareth—King of Jews”

Above the cross, Old Testament prophets replace Christian angels and at the base of the cross the candles may reference Yom Kippur. Chagall repeatedly included symbols of Yom Kippur in the crucifixion images.

Circling Christ are the atrocities committed again Jews. A Nazi soldier is burning and desecrating a synagogue. Other recurring images: wandering Jew—who Chagall identifies with himself—refugees: woman clutching a baby, man clutching a Torah, a man with a sign “I am Jew, a boat of refugees, a burning town with a small cow, and Communists soldiers carrying the red flag march forward. We know that the communists were no better friend than the Nazis to the Jews.

 

Chagall paints these images as a prayer pleading for help from God and help from Christians.

Persecution_Chagall_600

Another Crucifixion image, Persecution from 1941 coincides with Chagall fleeing France and escaping to America before the Nazi invasion. Chagall feels guilt that he is safe while is brothers and sisters are not.

Again, Chagall emphasizes that Christ is a Jew. He wears a tallit and the chicken at the base of the cross is a symbol of Yom Kippur.

After fleeing to USA, Chagall refers to himself as the wandering Jew, “The man in the air in my paintings…is me.. it used to be partially me. Now it is entirely me. I’m not fixed anyplace.” In Medieval Christian legend, the wandering Jew who was present at the crucifixion was doomed to wander the earth forever until he accepts Jesus as Messiah.

6a010536b72a74970b0120a596a44d970b-800wi

This photograph captures an ancient Jewish folk custom that Chagall practiced. The chicken is whirled three times above their head and sins are symbolically transferred to the chicken so they are free of sin for the new year

20-Descent-from-the-Cross-resize

 

Another crucifixion from the war years is Descent from the Cross 1941. Here Chagall identified himself with crucified Christ. The INRI acronym is replace with Marc Ch. He is dealing with the guilt of being safe in USA while his brothers and sisters suffer. A man with a chicken head helps Chagall down—the chicken head symbolizes Yom Kippur that Chagall will be forgiven. An angel flies in from right and hands the artist a paint palette and brush—symbolizes a resurrection. Chagall wrote a poem about this and other paintings where he painted himself as a crucified Jesus.

 

The gift of painting is from God. Chagall’s prayers are answered. God does not abandon him.
chagall

 

Yellow Crucifixion from 1942 is Chagall’s response to Nazis “Final Solution.” Newspapers disclose that Jews were being moved from ghettos to concentration camps for extermination. The yellow background symbolizes the yellow star of David—labeled Jude—which Jews were forced to wear. 
The yellow smoky background may symbolize the poisonous fumes of extermination—the Jews like sheep to slaughter.

The Divine Christ—halo—is a Jew. He wears the prayer bands on arm, phylactery on forehead and at the base of the cross the ladder is a symbol of Yom Kippur—as are the green torah scroll, the candle and horn.

Chagall juxtaposes suffering Jews with Christ’s suffering. On the left, the ship sinking, a drowning man and two struggling in the water may reference the tragedy SS. St. Louis—the refugee boat that after landing in Cuba only disembarked a few Jews—sending the majority back to Europe and back to the Nazis.

Next, the Holy Family on a donkey may reference their flight into Egypt and their escape from Herod who murdered Jewish babies.

A man with a sign “I am Jew” wanders while a village burns.

Chagall wants the viewer to equate the suffering Jews with Christ. They are from the same stock. They need our help—he prays and pleads.

18-The-Crucified-resize

 

This image, The Crucified from 1944, depicts a horrific nightmarish street scene where three crucifixions line the streets and three more Jews die in the snow. The only living person is the fiddler on the roof. It coincides with the German occupation of Chagall’s boyhood home, Vitebsk. Chagall is very explicit. Contemporary Holocaust victims are suffering like Christ suffered. Like Christ they are innocent.

Marc-Chagall-1887-1985-Apocalypse-en-Lilas-Capriccio-194547

 

Chagall painted Apocalypse (shown above) in 1945, the same year when pictures of concentration camp victims were published. Like the title implies Chagall saw the Holocaust as great battle between good and evil. He seems to pray that God must see Jews on the right side? Christ is naked. He is completely exposed and humiliated like the victims. He is no longer shown divine but Jewish. He wears phylactery—mini prayer book—on his forehead, his tallit is nailed to the cross. The Nazi soldier like a monster from the apocalypse has a tail. Chagall laments the loss of humanity—that nothing was done.

exodus-1966

This crucifixion image is much more hopeful. Exodus from 1952 captures the postwar return of the Jews to what is left of their homes. The flame on the bottom, left indicates that homes do not offer much. They are still in need of our help. Christ as a Messiah—with halo—lights the way. The crowd moving looks happy and hopeful. Some smile and talk. At the top right, a rooster—symbolizes forgiveness. The Jews must move forward with their lives. The woman in a wedding dress is Chagall’s beloved wife and Moses—Chagall’s birth name– at the bottom right may be the artist himselfreuniting with his fellow Jews.

the-sacrifice-of-isaac-1

 

After the war, Chagall continues to explore religious Old Testament stories and crucifixions though the colors are brighter and more cheerful. In Romans 8, Paul referenced the sacrifice of Issac as an Old Testament event that prefigures the crucifixion. The subject is hopeful. God does not abandon us, the angel intercedes before Abraham sacrifices his son.

Chagall also designed many stained glass images for Cathedrals throughout Europe and America.

IMG_2543

Chagall’s stained glass offers a beautiful expression of God’s love. Chagall depicts the crucifixion on the top left. In the center, a couple embraces and is surrounded by flowers. Chagall in this image designs a crucifixion image as Christians understand it—God’s ultimate sign of love. Chagall here creates an answer to his prayers.

God never abandons his people.

Untitled9Here’s my sermon from this weekend. While we’ve been taking a look this summer at how Paul uses the Psalms in his letter to the Romans, I thought the Psalm he uses in Romans 11, Psalm 94, warranted exclusive focus.

It ends with the verse ‘The Lord our God, the Lord will wipe our enemies out’ for goodness sake.

You can listen to the sermon here below, on the sidebar to the right or download it in iTunes here.

 

‘Just what the hell is your problem?! Reverend?!’

Because it was New Jersey, at first I thought she had a problem with my holding the church door open for her.

Her sorta, kinda of a question had been loud enough to stop the worshippers ahead of her on the front steps outside. And she was obviously angry enough that everyone behind her in line suddenly weren’t in a hurry anymore.

‘Just what the…is it with you?! she asked exasperated.

Little did I know then how that would become the defining question of my pastoral career.

She had close-cropped Terri Gross hair and the kind of horn-rimmed glasses you expect to be distributed by the Democratic National Committee.

I’d seen her come in to the sanctuary as the service began; I’d never seen before. Like most of the crowd who gathered that evening she was a stranger, a visitor, a mourner, searching for meaning in a place she hadn’t searched before.

     It was Wednesday evening, September the 12th.

The day after.

I was still just a student at Princeton. I was approximately 7 weeks in to my first gig as a solo pastor at a small church that’s no longer there.

Linvale Methodist Episcopal Church - Linvale

Irma, the church organist, and Les, the church accordion player (yes, the church had an accordion player) had helped me put up some xeroxed signs around town that morning.

I didn’t really know what I was doing other than to think offering a worship service might be a good idea.

‘Service of Lament’ read the xeroxed signs I stapled into telephone poles.

The small sanctuary was Christmas crowded that evening, filled with bloodshot eyes and tear-stained faces I’d never seen before.

My preaching text that night was that ‘For such a time as this’ line from Esther, a little book rife with violence and ethnic hatred and where God seems not present at all.

The other scripture passage I used as the opening prayer: Psalm 94, a clench-fisted communal cry for vengeance.

Vengeance against our enemies.

I remember I had to print the psalm in the bulletin because the United Methodist Hymnal Committee chose not to include it in the hymnal.

Because I used it as the opening prayer not the scripture reading, we didn’t follow the final verse ‘the Lord our God will wipe our enemies out’ with ‘This the Word of God for the People of God/Thanks be to God.’

But we did say ‘Amen.’

As in: ‘May it be so.’

 

It seemed the kind of prayer that captured how everyone felt that day. I didn’t notice the volume go soft before we got to the amen.

So I was caught off guard when the woman with the short hair and arty glasses met me at the front doors with: ‘What in the…is your problem?!’

‘Um, excuse me?’ I replied.

     ‘Praying for God to wipe out our enemies?! Isn’t that the same kind of religious fanaticism that led to yesterday?!’

I tried to diffuse her anger with ill-advised humor.

So I said: ‘Oh no, ma’am, it’s much worse than that. That word ‘wipe out’ in the psalm, daka, it’s the same Hebrew word from the flood story. It’s actually a prayer for God to do to our enemies what God did to all those who didn’t make the 2×2 cut.’

I was new to ministry, but I could tell I’d just stepped in it.

‘Christians aren’t even supposed to have enemies!’ she shouted softly. ‘They’re supposed to love everybody.’

Then she pointed her finger at me scoldingly and asked:

     ‘Do you really think Jesus would approve of you praying something like this?’

rp_shapeimage_1.png

She’d greeted me by asking what was my problem, but what she’d hit upon with her question was our problem.

As in, you and me. Christians.

What do we do with a scripture passage like this? A foam-in-the-mouth prayer that desires the destruction of our enemies?

We believe in Jesus, the one who in his Magna Carter on the Mount commanded us to LOVE our enemies.

 

Would Jesus really approve of this psalm?

What do we do with it?

 

Of course, for the heretics and anti-semites among us, the easiest thing to do is just dismiss Psalm 94.

Dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts. One of those angry, jealous, wrathful God passages. One of those Old Testament texts.

Like the passage in Samuel where, because God is holy and we are not, a boy named Uzzah is struck down dead for accidentally touching the ark.

Psalm 94- we could say it’s like that, one of those Old Testament texts.

The problem though is that those Old Testament texts, warts and all, are stuck on to every promise God makes to his People Israel. And if you dismiss those, you’re left with a Jesus in the New who has no promises for you.

So what do we do?

Do we chalk it up to context? Put it in perspective?

Do we say that this prayer, Psalm 94, gives voice to the voiceless? That it’s anger and rage and lust for payback are exactly what you’d expect to hear from an impoverished and exploited people?

It is. And it does.

So we could chalk it up to context and remember that the people who prayed this weren’t like us at all and maybe feel a little better about this bible passage.

At least until we remember that over and over again God promises to be on the side of people like the ones who prayed this prayer.

People not like us at all.

And that puts me right back feeling a little queasy about what I should do with a passage like this.

 

Maybe we could go the other way with this passage. Just say no.

No, Jesus would not green light the defeat and destruction of your enemies.

But, no worries, because that’s not what’s going on in this passage.

It’s not as troubling and incongruent as it sounds at first, we could say.

Because praying to God to avenge you- as ugly and visceral as it seems- IS  a way of acknowledging that vengeance, no matter how bad you want it and how justly its deserved, isn’t yours to mete out.

Praying to God to avenge you is a tacit recognition that vengeance belongs to God alone.

And so we could say that a passage like Psalm 94 isn’t as nasty as it sounds. We could say that giving over your vengeful rage to God is a way of giving up your claim to it. That it’s better to put your hate and violence into prayer than into action.

I think there’s something to be said for that.

But the words still stick in the throat, don’t they: ‘The Lord our God will wipe them out.’

Even if it’s about putting your anger into prayer not action, it still doesn’t sound very Jesusy. It’s hard to imagine the Jesus who commanded us to love our enemies green-lighting the defeat of our enemies.

‘Do you really think Jesus would approve of a prayer like that?’

She asked me a second time.

She’d upped the ante with the anger in her voice.

But I was just a 3rd semester theology student. Just in my 3rd month of ministry. I hadn’t yet been dressed down by an exiting worshipper as I am by He Who Must Not Be Named here at Aldersgate every week.

So I didn’t know what to say. Not knowing, I simply told the truth:

      “Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that,’ I said, ‘Jesus prayed that prayer.”

She shot me the kind of look I’d reserve for Pat Robertson or Joel Osteen and she walked out. Disgusted.

But it’s true.

As a Jew, Jesus would’ve prayed 3 times a day, the shacharit in the morning; the minchah in the afternoon; and the maariz in the evening.

3 times a day.

And each of those 3 devotions would’ve included at least 1 psalm. At the very least, Jesus prayed this prayer every 50 days. At a minimum, Jesus prayed for the defeat of his enemies 7 times a year.

So when you do the math, you discover that as Jesus hung on the cross and said ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ he had prayed for the defeat of them at least 210 times in his life.

That means when Pontius Pilate executed a gathering of Galileans for worshipping Yahweh and mixed the Jews’ blood with the blood of animals as a final insult, chances are Jesus had prayed ‘Lord, how long shall the wicked exult’ in the past month.

210 times.

That means when King Herod conscripted the poor in Galilee to construct his palace at Sepphoris, ‘they crush your people, Lord’ had only recently been prayed on Jesus’ lips.

And when Herod took John the Baptist’s head, it wasn’t long after that Jesus prayed ‘God will repay our enemies for their sin; the Lord our God will wipe them out.’ 

     Like any good Jew of his day, Jesus would’ve had it memorized.

     210 times.

     So when Jesus throws his Temple tantrum and screams ‘you’ve turned my Father’s House into a den of thieves,’ it wasn’t too long previous that he’d prayed ‘the proud and wicked say ‘the Lord does not see.’

     And when Jesus takes bread and wine and tells the 12 that he’s like Moses delivering the slaves from Pharaoh, it couldn’t have been that long since all 13 of them had prayed ‘O Lord, you God of vengeance, shine forth!’

    It hadn’t been very long. At the most: 50 days.

    Maybe that day Jesus prayed this prayer.

    For the defeat of his enemies.

iraqui-christians

    “Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that,’ I said, ‘Jesus prayed that prayer.”

But I was just a student, still only a rookie pastor. I didn’t know what to say.

Because if it’s true that Jesus the Jew prayed this prayer, then the better answer to her question would’ve been another question:

     Who do you think Jesus had in mind when he prayed this psalm?

Who do you think Jesus pictured when he prayed for the defeat of his enemies?

     It’s the better question.

     Because to ask ‘Who did Jesus have in mind when he prayed Psalm 94?’ is but a way of remembering that Jesus had enemies.

     I mean- we know Jesus had enemies, but so often we act as though Jesus didn’t know he had any enemies.

     Which of course makes the cross an abstract, a-historical solution to our spiritual problem: sin and salvation. Or worse: it treats the cross as inadvertent, unhappy end that Jesus didn’t see coming.

    So often we act as though good, loving Good Shepherd Jesus never had an impolite or unkind thought in his head. Not so.

     To ask ‘Which enemy did Jesus have in mind when he prayed Psalm 94?’ is but a way of remembering that he had them.

    For Jesus to be fully human- as human as you or me- in 1st century Galilee means that Jesus had enemies. Enemies he wanted to defeat. Enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel.

     You see, it’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies whose defeat he prayed for that you’re able to hear his gospel the way he intended it to be received.

     Because when Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies and pray for them, there’s a 1 in 3 chance he was thinking of King Herod.

     And when Jesus commands his followers not to resist evil and violence with evil and violence of their own, the odds are even better Caesar and Pilate immediately came to everyone’s mind.

    And when Jesus commands them to forgive a fellow believer who’s wronged you, I’m willing to bet the Scribes and Pharisees were on Jesus’ mind. They plotted against him at least that many times.

     It’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat that you’re able to hear his gospel rightly.

     But maybe we don’t want to hear it.

     Because once you hear his gospel rightly, you can’t help but notice how Jesus does exactly as he says.

     For when the Scribes and Pharisees finally condemn Jesus and come for him in the Garden, Jesus tells his followers to put away the sword.

     And when Jesus is mocked, beaten and scourged, he makes good on his commandment.

     He doesn’t retaliate.

     He turns the other cheek.

     And when Pilate and Herod and Caesar and the priests and the soldiers and the crowd and you and me crucify him- when his enemies crucify him- Jesus responds by loving them: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’

     He dies rather than kill.

     He doesn’t resist evil with evil. He suffers it. He dies to it.

     And in dying to his enemies, Jesus defeats them. Destroys them, scripture says. Triumphs over them.

     When we forget Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel, we then don’t know what to do with a scripture passage like Psalm 94.

     We think we need to dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts replaced by the New. But the confusion we feel about a passage like Psalm 94 is really our confusion about Jesus.

     Because it’s not that the prayer in Psalm 94 is antithetical to Jesus. No, Jesus is God’s answer to the prayer in Psalm 94.

     Pay attention, this is everything.

     Jesus doesn’t replace Psalm 94.

     Jesus enacts it.

     It’s not that the prayer for our enemies to be defeated is the opposite, alternative to Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemies.

     No, it’s that love of enemies is the way we defeat them.

     We completely miss the revolution Jesus leads from the get-go because all our faith is in the kind of battles we wage.

     Love of enemies is not Jesus telling us we should passively endure our enemies; it’s his strategy to defeat them.

     The cross is not how evil defeats Jesus.

     The way of the cross is how Jesus defeats them.

     The way of the cross, the way of suffering, forgiving, cheek-turning love is the way we ‘wipe them out.’

     And I know- at this point someone always wants to argue that Christ’s enemy loving offensive just isn’t effective in our world.

     But today, right now, the crucified Christ rules the Earth from the right hand of the Father.

     And Caesar? He just has a salad named after him.

     So you tell me what’s more effective.

Poster

     After the woman with the short hair and glasses stepped out the sanctuary doors in disgust, a few strangers later a 50-something man came up to me.

     His thick white hair had a severe part on the side. You could tell from his dress that he’d come straight from work. His red tie matched the color of his countenance.

     When he shook my hand, he pulled me towards him in a ‘I know it was you, Fredo’ kind of way.

    And he said, angrily: ‘I’m not a religious person, but you’ve got a lot of nerve.’

    ‘Here we go again’ I thought.

     ‘Where do you get off praying that? Forgive those who trespassed against us?! Did you see what they did?! Just where did you get an irresponsible idea like that?!’

     ‘Uh, well, um…Jesus’ I said.

     He shook his head. ‘This was my first coming to a church. I can see I haven’t missed anything.’

     And he stormed out.

     I wonder-

     If our discomfort with a psalm like #94, if our dismissals of Christ’s commandment to love our enemies is because we’d like to go on thinking Christians can be Christian without having enemies, or just having the same enemies everyone else has.

      I wonder if our discomfort and dismissals are because we’d like to go on thinking we can follow Jesus without making enemies.

     Making enemies for the way we follow Jesus.

Untitled10111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the earlier installments here.

Here are questions 27-28

I. The Father

27. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing then what is evil?

There are two kinds of evil: evil suffered and evil done.

To evil suffered we give the name ‘creation.’

To evil done we give the name ‘no-thing.’

Evil suffered is what comes to a creature from outside it, the evil that happens to a thing for which it is not itself responsible.

Evil suffered is relative in that the suffering of one creature comes about by the flourishing of another; for example, when a lion eats a lamb the evil suffered by the lamb is real but it comes about by the lion simply fulfilling its lion-ness.

Evil done is particular to responsible beings, as in, wickedness.

Evil done is ‘nothing,’ meaning it’s an absence or privation within a person.

A wicked person does not possess within them something called wickedness. There’s no such thing as ‘wickedness’ in and of itself. Rather a wicked person is someone with an absence of good, a person who fails to be fully human.

If we were ‘free’ in terms of being independent from God, then evil suffered would present the only problem of evil, for God, having no control over our free actions, would not be able to prevent evil done.

However, since God is the cause of all things, both evil suffered and evil done present problems for believers in God.

“He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”    

– Matthew 5.45

28. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, is God responsible for evil and suffering?

Responsible? Yes.

But guilty? No.

If God is the cause of all our actions, even our ‘free’ acts, then God is the cause behind both evil suffered and evil done in that God has created all things in the world and continually holds all things in existence.

In the case of evil suffered, God has created and continually holds in existence a world in which the flourishing and fulfillment of one creature leads to the suffering of another. A tumor flourishing as a tumor leads to the suffering of the person with cancer.

A lion fulfilling it’s lioness leads to the suffering of the lamb.

So God is responsible for much of the evil suffered in the world, but God is not ‘guilty’because there is not another kind of world God should have created. A world where God stops the lion from eating the lamb, for example, would be a world where God prevents the lion from fulfilling its lioness. In other words, a world of machines rather than a world of creatures.

In the case of evil done, God has created and continually holds in existence every person who commits evil. Even as those people commit evil, God holds them in existence. Their evil acts are never ‘free’ in the sense of being independent from God so in this sense God is responsible for evil done.

However, God is not ‘guilty’ of evil done for evil is not a thing which God has created. Evil is a privation, an absence, identifiable only in relation to the good God has made. Evil is a defect, the failure of people to flourish and fulfill their humanness.

Whereas there does not seem to be another world free of evil suffered that God should have created, it does seem possible that God could have created a world where humans do not fail to fulfill their humanity.

That God did not create such a world is a deep mystery to which we can only reply by way of the Cross.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12.21

Here’s my sermon from Sunday occasioned by the baptisms of Tyler and Parker.

The texts for the sermon were Romans 10.1-10 and Psalm 19.

You can listen to the sermon here below, on the sidebar to the right or you can download it in iTunes here.

 

image001-2

Dear Tyler and Parker,

 

In the event the bishop has whisked me away to another parish or, more likely, exiled me to the Eastern Shore, allow me to introduce myself.

I’m the right reverend Jason, as in I’m right in most things and reverent about very few. I’m the one who baptized you.

Sorry.

By now, confirmation age, you’re old enough to realize that what I’ve done to you commits you to struggling with some inconvenient choices.

     ‘Will you serve God or Money?’ is one such dilemma.

‘Will you study hard to get as far up the ladder as you can or will you live the posture of servant?’ is another.

‘Will you trust that happiness is what can be captured in a filtered, homogenized Instagram pic or will you cross your fingers and trust that happiness is found among those who hunger and thirst for God’s justice?’ is still another choice.

 

They’re inconvenient choices because in every case the choice your baptism commits you to goes against the grain of both country and culture.

     Therefore, your baptisms- if done rightly- make you not just a Christian.

They make you odd.

By the time you read this letter, Tyler and Parker, you’ll be the age when ‘odd’ is about the last thing you’ll want to be. By the time you read this you’ll be an age where what you want most is to conform, blend in, be normal- a desire from which we never recover.

I won’t be shocked then if you’d like to register your complaint with me for what I’ve done to you in baptizing you. But, truth be told, you should take your gripes up with your parents too. They were more than just accessories to the crime.

Your baptism? They did it without your consent. They did it against your will even. They didn’t wait until you were old enough to ‘understand’ whatever that may mean.

They didn’t postpone your baptism until you could choose it for yourself, and in that your parents may have done the boldest thing they could ever do for you.

Tyler, Parker-

I can guess what you’re thinking: it was just a bowl of H2O. In a school cafetorium at that.

True, but trust me: your baptisms may be the most counter-cultural acts your government employee parents ever commit.

     By baptizing you into the way of the Cross- BEFORE you can make up your mind for yourselves, your parents prophetically, counter-culturally acknowledge that you don’t have minds worth making up.

You don’t have minds worth making up; that is, not until you’ve had your minds (and your hearts and your habits too) shaped by Christ.

How could you possibly make up your own mind? Choose for yourself?

After all, what it means to be free, to be fully human, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself just as Jesus loved. So how could you ever make up your own mind, choose for yourself, until after you’ve apprenticed under Jesus?

Tyler, Parker-

I realize telling you you don’t have minds worth making up on your own sounds offensive. If it sounds like I’m being offensive in order to get your attention it’s because I am.

Indeed I have to be offensive.

We live in a culture that thinks Christianity is something you get to choose (or not), as though it’s no different than choosing between an iPhone or a Droid.

Notice no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even die for it. But people do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’

It’s just such a prejudice that produces nonsense like the statement: ‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord…but that’s just my personal opinion.’

When engaged couples tell me they’re going to let their children choose their religion for themselves when they’re older, I often reply to those couples that they should raise their kids to be atheists, for at least that would require their children to see their parents held convictions.

Our culture teaches us to think we should get to choose the Story of our life for ourselves.

Which, in itself, is a Story none of us got to choose.

Which makes it not just a Story but a Fiction.

A lie.

     It’s a lie to suppose that the choice is between religion or no religion.

It’s a lie to suppose that the choice is between faith or no faith.

It’s a fiction, to believe the choice is either the Christian Story or No Story.

Today we baptize you against your will, before you can make up your own mind or choose a Story for yourself. We do so because if we do not make you a participant in the story of Christ then another rival Story will soon and surely takes its place over your life.

The Story of More. Or Might.

Today by immersing you in a Story not of your own choosing your parents go against the grain of the culture.

     It’s a prophetic act that’s made all the bolder when you pause to consider that in baptizing you your parents accept that one day you may have to suffer for their convictions, the convictions that brought you to the font.

lightstock_5799_small_user_2741517-2

Tyler and Parker-

You’re just confirmation age, still only padawans, so you might be wondering how in the world what we do to you today could lead to you suffering because of the convictions we mediate to you.

After all, you might be thinking, ‘Christianity is about a personal relationship with God. Faith is private, a matter of the heart.’

Isn’t that what Paul means when he gives what sounds to us like a more eloquent version of the Sinner’s Prayer in Romans 10? Isn’t Paul saying that faith is what we believe (personally and privately) in our hearts?

Actually, Paul doesn’t mean anything like that, but for you to see that requires you to know Paul’s context.

When Paul wrote Romans, around the year 55, Christianity was a small, odd community amidst an Empire antithetical to it. Christians were a nation within a nation. Christianity represented an alternative fealty to country and culture and even family.

     Baptism then was not a religious seal on a life you would’ve lived anyway. It was a radical coming out.

It was an act of repentance in the most original meaning of that word: it was a reorientation of everything that had come before.

     For to profess that ‘Jesus is Lord’ was to simultaneously protest that ‘Caesar is not Lord.’

     As you’ll learn in confirmation Tyler and Parker, the words mean the same thing: Caesar, Christ. They both mean King, Lord.

You cannot affirm one with out renouncing the other.

Which is why in Paul’s day and for centuries after when you submitted to baptism, you’d first be led outside. And by a pool of water, you’d be stripped naked. Every bit of you laid bare, even the naughty bits.

And first you’d face West, the direction where the darkness begins, and you would renounce the powers of this world, the ways of this world, the evils and injustices of this world, the world of More and Might.

Then, leaving that old world behind, you would turn and face East, the direction whence Light comes, and you would affirm your faith in Jesus and everything that new way of life would demand.

In other words, baptism was your pledge allegiance to the Caesar named Yeshua.

If that doesn’t sound much like baptism to you, Tyler and Parker, there’s a reason for that.

A few hundred years after Paul wrote his letters, the Caesar of that day, Constantine, discovered that it would behoove his hold on power to become a Christian and make the Empire Christian too.

Whereas prior to Constantine it took significant conviction to become a Christian, after Constantine it took considerable courage NOT to become a Christian.

After Constantine, with the ways of the world ostensibly baptized, what had formerly been renounced became ‘Christian-ish.’

Consequently, what it meant to be a Christian changed. It moved inside, to our heads and hearts.

What had been an alternative way in the world became a religion that awaited the world to come.

Jesus was demoted from Risen Lord of the Earth to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs.

Which meant ‘faith’ became synonymous with ‘beliefs’ or ‘feelings.’

Tyler and Parker-

I apologize for the historical detour, but I do want you to see how it’s the shift that happened with Constantine that makes it possible for us to read Romans 10 and assume that when Paul writes about faith he’s talking about our personal beliefs or private feelings or that when mentions ‘salvation’ he has life after death in mind.

Nothing could be further off the mark.

Because for Paul the word faith is best expressed by our word ‘loyalty.’

Allegiance.

To discover just how complicated being loyal to Christ can get, you need look no further than verse 4 of that same passage, where Paul says that Christ is the telos- the end or the aim or the goal- of the Law.

Of course, by Law Paul means Torah.

By Torah Paul means Scripture.

By Scripture Paul means Revelation.

And by Revelation Paul means….Everything.

     Everything God had heretofore revealed to his People all of it telegraphs the way of Christ.

     All those strange kosher laws in Leviticus? They anticipated the day when Christ would call his disciples to be a different and distinct People in the world.

‘Eye for an eye?’ It was meant to prepare a People who could turn the other cheek.

The ‘You shall have no other gods’ command was given so that we could recognize that kind of faith when it finally took flesh and dwelled among us.

When Paul writes that Christ is the telos of the Law, he simply dittos what Jesus himself says to kick off his most important sermon: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

     Another way of saying that is how Paul puts it in a different letter when he writes that ‘Jesus is the eikon of the invisible God.’ 

SONY DSC

     Parker, the way your wood-working Father might translate that would be to say:

The life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe.

     And that’s why being loyal to Christ can be so difficult and complicated, Tyler and Parker, because if the life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe then Christianity entails a hell of a lot more than believing in Jesus.

     It’s about following after Jesus.

     It’s about immersing ourselves in the way of Jesus, which by the way is what the word ‘baptize’ means.

     Immerse.

     Tyler, Parker-

     What Paul intends by calling Jesus God’s Telos is the same claim with which we wet your heads:

     That the truth of the universe is revealed not in the grain of the judge’s walnut gavel, not in the grain of the banker’s mahogany desk and not in the grain of the oval office’s mahajua floor.

     The grain of the universe is revealed in the pattern of life that led to the pounding of nails into wood through flesh and bone.

     If you’re tracking with me that can sound like bad news as often as it sounds like Gospel. Because if Jesus reveals the grain, the telos, of the universe, then that means:

The way to deal with offenders is to forgive them.

The way to deal with violence is to suffer.

The way to deal with war is to wage peace.

The way to deal with money is to give it away.

And the way to deal with the poor is to befriend them.

The way to deal with enemies is to love them and pray for them.

And the way to deal with a world that runs against the grain is to live on Earth as though you were in Heaven.

Perhaps now, Tyler and Parker, you’re beginning to intuit how what we do to you today- if we follow through on our end- will make you two a lot more dysfunctional in our world than you otherwise would have been.

 

It’s no wonder our culture- Christians included- would prefer us simply to ‘believe.’

Believe in a generic god. Or just believe in the freedom to believe.

 

The “beauty of nature may lead you to declare the glory of God,” as the Psalmist sings, but the beauty of nature won’t ever lead you to a Jew from Nazareth.

And you can be safe and damn certain it won’t ever lead you to a Cross.

But the way of the Cross is the path we commit you to today.

 

If I’m honest, a part of me feels as though I should say I’m sorry, for if you stay true to that path you’ve no reason to suppose it’ll turn out any better for you than it did for Jesus.

 

On the other hand, Parker, your Dad’s a pretty good carpenter. He can tell you that whenever you work against the grain, even when that seems the easiest, most obvious thing to do, eventually you’ll run into difficulty. And ultimately the fruit of your labor will not be beautiful.

 

Perhaps as much as anything that’s what it means to have faith in Jesus, the telos of the universe. It’s to trust that in the End the shape of his life will have made yours beautiful.

Sincerely,

Jason

20140803_104521

images“I knew Alfred Dewayne Brown was stone cold innocent the moment I met him. I am from Northern New Jersey and was a Public Defender with the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn, New York, so I have developed a strong “bullshit” meter. I can usually spot a lie better than a polygraph. When I first met Dewayne on Death Row in Livingston, Texas, 60 miles north of Houston, I knew the man was 100% innocent. 

I had absolutely no doubt. When I walked out of Death Row for the first time, I did all I could to fight back tears and keep from being sick because I was so excited and nervous at the same time. I was also scared as hell and worried whether it was too late to save his life and that I was going to be there at the prison watching him die right in front of me.”

- One Big Setup: The Alfred Dewayne Brown Story 

To my mind, other than the Cross itself, the most compelling reason for Christians to oppose the death penalty is that it commits what belongs to God alone (the taking of life) to a system which is vulnerable to human error and moral corruption.

To insist that system is immune to such error risks violating the first commandment, as it places a degree of faith in the criminal process that belongs to God alone.

Or, in Pauline terms, it values our justice system over God’s justice.

What scripture calls ‘idolatry.’

images-1My friend and parishioner, Brian Stolarz, begins his forthcoming memoir with the above confession.

Apparently not everyone’s BS radar is as well-calibrated as Brian’s, for Alfred Dewayne Brown (pictured below) was sentenced to be killed by Texas without any physical evidence to corroborate the charge of murder, despite having an IQ which- by law- should’ve precluded him from capital punishment and in the face of the fact that the state’s only witness had been bullied into perjuring herself.

Even a BS radar half that of Brian’s could’ve sniffed out Alfred’s innocence, or, if not his innocence, at least detected sufficient doubts to give his lynch mob pause on their way to Calvary. brownalfred

Last week Arizona botched the execution of Joseph Wood, who died nearly 2 hours  after the supposed ‘lethal’ injection administered by his executioners.

Joseph Wood gasped and struggled for nearly 2 hours before he finally died. Who’s to say how many seconds or minutes or hours Wood’s killing fell shy of qualifying as ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’

Wood’s botched execution provoked outrage and incredulity among most of the public, callous, satisfied jeers among some of it and promises of (not independent) ‘review’ among the public’s officials.

What’s truly outrageous and, I believe, sinful is how the chair or the syringe or the noose is only 1 example of how the capital punishment apparatus is fraught with corruption and prone to error.

In Alfred Dewayne Brown’s case, the hold-it-in-your-hands evidence that would’ve supported his alibi all along (a phone record) was- all along- HIDDEN in the garage of a homicide detective.

Before you utter ‘What the…’ to yourself, wait:

Alfred’s IQ, which marks him as mentally retarded, was ginned up by the state’s doctor so as to nudge Alfred a nose past the qualifying line.

BTW:

Let’s not forget the moderately salient point that the grand jury’s foreman, whom transcripts unambiguously identify as leading a pile-on against Alfred’s girlfriend, was a retired cop.

A retired cop.

In a cop killing.

Jury of his peers.

The aforementioned doctor has been censured.

The cop with the garage and the prosecutor who turned the blind eye?

Not sure.

The girlfriend bullied and jailed to induce her to perjure herself?

She’s since changed her testimony.

Back to her original testimony.

Alfred Dewayne Brown?

Still on death row.

Despite consensus of his innocence.

In a twist of irony only Pontius Pilate could appreciate, all-but-exonorated-Alfred sits on death row while Texas decides whether or not it will grant him a ‘new trial.’

Brian shared his story of working for Alfred’s life in a sermon earlier this summer. You can watch it below.

You can read the latest stories about the grand jury’s foreman and its treatment of Alfred’s girlfriend here, here, here and here.

What happened to Joseph Wood on the table in Arizona happens to innocent (usually black) people in interrogation rooms and jury rooms more often than most of us would like to confront.

To turn a blind, blithe eye to such injustice, however, places us under St Paul’s auspicious words:

“I have great sorrow and anguish. For I testify of them that they may have great zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For not knowing the justice of God, and seeking to establish their own form of justice, they did not submit to the justice of God.

For the Messiah is the aim of all law so that justice may be based on loyalty to him.” 

– Romans 10.3-4

(Theodore Jennings, trans)

The more internet outrage and chatter Alfred’s case generates the quicker Texas will be compelled to give him a new trial or, even better, his freedom.

So leave a comment, ‘like’ it on Facebook, retweet it or forward it on to a friend.

A small gesture towards God’s justice that could go a long way. Do the right thing.

 

 

 

rev-charles-moore-327x388You may have missed it in the mainstream press.

Last week a retired United Methodist pastor in Texas set himself on fire in a shopping center parking lot.

Rev. Charles Moore intended his self-immolation as an act of social protest against the death penalty, homophobia and racism of both his denomination and his home-state.

Not only did Moore see his suicide as his destiny, he saw it as an unavoidable act of faithfulness- the place where his Gethsemane led.

Methodists, I think it’s fair to say, aren’t known being particularly exciting or taking up extraordinary means to make their point. Moore’s immolation, however, reminds Christians that the line between mysticism and mental anguish has always been a fine one.

While I certainly don’t want to make hay of another’s struggles of the soul, I do think it worthwhile pondering whether Moore’s self-immolation can be construed as faithful according to Christian grammar.

In letter he wrote in June, Rev. Moore drew an analogy between himself and the Protestant saint of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“This decision to sacrifice myself was not impulsive: I have struggled all my life (especially the last several years) with what it means to take Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s insistence that Christ calls a person to come and die seriously. He was not advocating self-immolation, but others have found this to be the necessary deed, as I have myself for some time now: it has been a long Gethsemane, and excruciating to keep my plans from my wife and other members of our family.”

Of course, any student of history could point out the obvious distinction that renders such an analogy erroneous: Bonhoeffer didn’t commit suicide.

Bonhoeffer didn’t choose death or martyrdom.

Bonhoeffer chose a path of faithfulness he knew might well lead to his death.

The difference could not be greater nor could their appropriation of the cross be more divergent.

Self-immolation is (I hope is clear) an outlier but nonetheless it relies upon a certain logic of the cross that is quite mainstream: the belief that a greater good can come from suffering and death.

Such a belief consequently baptizes suffering and death as means towards greater aims for it reads the Cross as what God requires/desires in order for the transaction of redemption to be complete.

The myth of redemptive suffering/violence IS a myth.

To put it more clearly if more crudely only a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement can lead to someone like Rev. Moore construing his own self-inflicted suffering as a divinely sanctioned means to a social justice end.

It’s a broad generalization but this IS a blog after all:

Rev. Moore’s logic of the Cross is no different than the understandings preached from pulpits on most Sundays and sung in nearly every 19th century hymn and contemporary CCM song.

Rev. Moore’s self-immolation reveals how destructive such interpretations of the Cross can prove.

My recent theo-crush, the late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe once wrote: timothy-radcliffe

“Jesus teaches us two things.

First, he teaches that in order to be a human being we must love fully and without condition.

Second, he teaches us that if we do love this way, they’ll kill us.”

More ably put perhaps but this is the same point McCabe makes when he writes:

 “The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human…And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid on him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to his Father is to be totally, completely human.

Thus, Jesus was crucified because he was human not because the Father planned to have him killed for some greater cause.

We must always remember and never shy away from the fact that we crucified Jesus, not the Father. 

We have created a world that is characterized by suffering and death—by oppression, torture, and even crucifixion. We must not become confused on this point: God never causes suffering. God is always God for us, always for human flourishing, always for love.

Jesus was killed not because God wanted him to be killed but because we wanted him to be killed.” 

McCabe seeing Jesus as the truly human one is a point not altogether different from what Paul means in Romans 1 and 3 when he identifies Jesus as the Faithful One.

Because Jesus shows us what it means to be authentically, fully human, he also accordingly reveals to us what it means to be faithful. And what we see revealed by Jesus is not someone desiring death nor someone who sees violence as the means by which God chooses to redeem.

Rather in Jesus the Faithful One we see a lover of God who accepts- with no small amount of terror and regret- his death rather than resort to violence himself.

Without Easter, the Cross just is what Rome intended it to be: tragic.

And when we remember that the Cross is what we do to Jesus not what God does to Jesus we can see Rev. Moore’s act for what it so sadly is: suicide.

 

hobby_lobbyWhile corporations are now considered people- religious people- under the law (I hope all corporations start tithing now), prisoners on death row continue to be deemed less than creatures under the law.

They can be killed.

To teach us that killing is wrong (let’s hope they were guilty).

For profit entities that bring you cheap wicker baskets made possible by child labor (not to mention population-control policies which incentivize abortion) are now more of a ‘person’ than the flesh-and-blood people behind bars, the former eliciting more of our empathy and moral outrage than the latter.

“I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison a morally afflicted CEO and you came to visit me.”

You wouldn’t know- at all- from the media coverage, but while SCOTUS handed down the Hobby Lobby decision activists, Christians and clergy gathered this week on the front steps of the Court to protest the death penalty.

Chances are you’ve heard plenty about the Green family who owns Hobby Lobby and how they’ve been praised for taking a principled stand for Christ.

RNS-CLAIBORNE-COLUMNChances are you haven’t heard anything about this Christian quietly walking across Texas to show his solidarity with those his state plans to kill in the coming months and years.

That you might have only heard about the protest here speaks volumes about the holes in our Christ-centered compassion.

Christian culture is sex-obsessed, singling out a few discrete issues around which to hoist the banner of ‘life.’

Protestants would do well to learn from our Catholic friends who insist that disparate issues like abortion, poverty , healthcare and executions all belong to a single ‘seamless garment’ of life.

My own United Methodist tradition nears schism fighting over our official language labeling homosexuality as ‘incompatible with Christian teaching.’

Little commented upon is the fact that our Discipline also views the death penalty as black-and-white at odds with the Gospel, for the death penalty

“denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.” 

Translation:

In the death penalty we stop God from doing what God wants to do in people.

Change them.

That half of all United Methodists and many of its clergy support state-sanctioned killing in violation of our Discipline receives not one iota of the indignant moral outrage these days reserved for clergy presiding at same-sex unions.

Pastors aren’t brought up on charges for supporting the death penalty in the face of church teaching.

Sex is just sexier.

Plus, it requires less of us where Jesus’ requisites are concerned: that we love sinners.

Or at least begrudgingly admit that Jesus loves them.

On the front steps of the Court today you’ll find people who hold many moral and legal reasons they oppose the death penalty:

There is no way to remedy mistakes. 

There is discrimination in the application of the death penalty. 

Application of the death penalty tends to be arbitrary 

The death penalty involves medical doctors, who are sworn to preserve life, in the act of killing. 

Executions have a corrupting effect on the public. 

The death penalty is an expression/confession of the absolute power of the State. 

Even the guilty have a right to life. 

CrucifixionThe reasons are many but for Christians there’s a single primary motivating view.

It’s a view, I would argue, that cuts closer to the quick of the Gospel than do the drivers behind the other competing issues which preoccupy Church and Culture:

The New Testament teaching that we do not put sinners to death because Christ has already been put to death for every act of human sinfulness.

It is in the face of Christ that we see the full extent of how God’s mercy meets God’s righteousness.

God says in the Old Testament that vengeance belongs to him.

Only in the New Testament do we see how literal God meant it.

For in Jesus Christ God bears the full penalty of our rebellion against God and neighbor on the cross.

Here’s my sermon interview with a friend and death penalty attorney, in case you missed it:

 

16 CARAVAGGIO 02 THE SERMPON OF STEPHEN

 * The Stoning of Stephen

Judith_beheading_holofernes

* The Beheading of St. Paul

Caravaggio-Crucifixion_of_Peter

* The (Upside Down) Crucifixion of Peter

lorenzolotto_christandthewomantakeninadultery

The Woman Jesus Refuses to Condemn to a Legal Execution

(aka: The Woman Caught in Adultery )

St Andrew Apostle

* The Whipping and Crucifixion (on an X-Shaped Cross) of Andrew

religion-facts-christianity-james-the-just

* The Stoning (and Clubbing) of James, Jesus’ Brother

images-1

* The Execution (by Arrows) of Jude

archbishop-romero-death-630x420

* The Assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero

 

gallows

* The Hanging of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

tumblr_mw2ydbozLD1qbhp9xo1_1280

God’s Mercy for Cain by God (Following the First Murder)

 

chagall-the-white-crucifixion-1938

* The Execution of Jesus (aka: God Incarnate)

* = Lawful executions of innocents carried out by the official governing bodies of the time

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517Here’s my sermon for Memorial Day weekend. The text was a smattering of verses from Colossians 1 and 2.

The argument I attempted to make in the sermon is indebted to two books I highly recommend:

 Lt Col Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society  

Stanley Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity

Central to Hauerwas’ work is the assertion that war presents a powerful counter-liturgy to the Cross that the Church must always reframe in light of the Cross and Resurrection. Such reframing is what I attempted to do in there sermon.

You can listen to the sermon here in iTunes or download the free mobile app here.

My Grandpa died this spring, just before Holy Week.

Maybe it’s because I preach so many funerals, but I’ve learned that when it comes to death this paradox is true: while no amount of words can ever do justice to a person’s life, sometimes a single sentence can encapsulate the essence of a person.

The paradox is true in my Grandpa’s case.

If you want to get a sense of my Grandpa, a sense of who he was and how he was to the world around him, then really you just need to learn my Grandpa’s favorite joke.

     “Why don’t they send donkeys to college?”

Answer: “Because no one likes a smart-ass.”

That my Grandpa had occasion to repeatedly tell this joke to me will probably not surprise anyone.

I remember once when I was a boy we were eating burgers at a diner near the stockyard where my Grandpa had been buying some cattle, and I remember I’d said something snarky and sarcastic, and my Grandpa responded by saying ‘Remember, Jason, why they don’t send donkeys to college.”

And little elementary-aged me replied innocently: ‘Gee, Grandpa, did they come up with that policy after you went to college?’

And my Grandpa stared at me and then slowly knit his eyebrows and then like a tire with too much air he suddenly burst out laughing and pounded the table as if to say:

Like Grandfather, like grandson.

My Grandpa went to Drexel in Philadelphia for college, an opportunity made possible by the GI Bill. My Grandpa was part of what Tom Brokaw called the ‘greatest generation,’ a description that embarrassed my Grandpa.

My Grandpa fought in the Pacific in World War II.

He never spoke about the war, which sort of taught me never to ask about it.

He only spoke about it to me once, in fact. So rare was it that the memory has always stuck with me.

I was in Middle School and, after my Grandma moved into a nursing home, my Grandpa moved out of their big, brick Georgian in Downtown Norfolk and into a condo .

The moves rearranged all the familiar furniture and knick-knacks. Thus, hanging on the wall in the new condo was something I’d never seen before. A medal.

‘How’d you get that?’ I asked him, pointing to the medal.

‘Ah,’ he waved it off, not saying anything

I just stood there, waiting for more of an explanation behind the medal. But none was coming.

So I asked him- what it was like, being in the war.

And I remember, he looked at me like you do when you want to warn a little kid away from touching a hot stove and he said:

‘What was it like? Scary as hell.’

chagall

In his Letter to the Colossians, St Paul makes the audacious claim that on the Cross Christ has made peace.

That the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross was a sacrifice not simply for our individual sin but rather the Cross was a triumph- a Roman military term- over all the Powers of Sin and Death (with a capital P, S and D).

Paul says here in Colossians what the Book of Hebrews means when it says that the blood of the Cross is a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice that eliminates the necessity for any further, future sacrifices.

Including the sacrifice of war.

In other words, what Paul and Hebrews are getting at is the counter-intuitive claim that Christians are people who believe that war has been abolished- a claim that would seem to be rendered false by something as simple as that medal on my Grandpa’s wall, whatever he earned it for.

     Christians, Paul is claiming, believe that war has been abolished.

The grammar of that is very important; the past tense is the point.

     It’s not that Christians work for the end of war. It’s that Christians live recognizing that in the Cross of Christ war has already been abolished, that Christ has made peace.

     But what does that even mean?

After all, many of you know first hand as my Grandpa did that war is anything but absent from our world and sometimes its presence is unavoidable.

So what does it mean to believe that on the Cross Christ abolished war?

To believe that on the Cross Christ has made peace once-and-for-all means that we live as faithfully as we can to that reality even though the “real world” doesn’t seem to corroborate what we confess.

But to live and believe what scripture tells us about Christ’s Cross begs the question, especially this weekend:

 How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has abolished war?

Notice- the suggestion is not that it’s wrong for Christians to observe Memorial Day.

Instead the suggestion is that how we observe Memorial Day should be different from how others observe it.

Others who haven’t pledged allegiance to Christ the King.

A King who established his Kingdom by giving his life rather than resort to taking life.

How we observe Memorial Day should be different from how non-Christians celebrate it.

Because non-Christians are not caught in the tension between remembering those who’ve died in war and remembering that we believe on the Cross Christ has won a once-for-all peace.

That tension- it’s been with Christians from the very beginning.

For instance, for the first 3 1/2 centuries of the Church’s history soldiers could not be baptized until after they resigned their commission, a position the Church changed when they decided that sometimes responsible citizenship demands war as a last resort.

The tension has been with the Church from the very beginning.

For example, in the Middle Ages the Church recognized that one of the dangers of war is that we forget who and whose we are.

So during the Middle Ages the Church insisted that during feudal wars certain days on the calendar be set aside- called the Truce of God- when the warring parties would cease and desist, abstain from all violence.

The Truce of God was the Church’s way of reminding Christians that even when war is a necessity and peace is not possible our ultimate identity and loyalty remains.

To the Prince of Peace.

I remember my Grandpa giving me that ‘don’t get too close to the fire’ look when I asked him what it was like, being in war.

And in an almost confessional tone he said: ‘Scary as hell.’

‘Scary because you thought you might die?’ stupid, Middle School-aged me asked.

‘No’ he said ‘scary because I thought I might have to kill.’

Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but the fear my Grandpa gave voice to was the same aversion General SLA Marshall observed in his study of men in battle in the Second World War.

 

General Marshall discovered that of every hundred men along a line of fire, during battle only about 15-20 of them would take part by actually firing their weapons at another human being.

The other 80-85% would do everything they could (short of betray their comrades) to not kill.

This led General Marshall to conclude that the average, healthy individual has:

“such an inner and usually unrealized resistance to killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is at all possible to turn away from that responsibility.”

General Marshall’s observation is not, I think, a psychological insight- at least, it’s not only a psychological insight.

It is, I think, a theological one.

I believe it’s a theological insight that we heard confirmed in scripture today.

Many assume that the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is the sacrifice of their lives, to lay down their lives for us, and, obviously, that is a great and grave sacrifice.

But I think the argument of scripture and General Marshall’s study invites us to see it differently.

The Book of Genesis tells us that each of us- we’re made in the image of God.

But then Colossians 1 tells us what the prologue of John’s Gospel tells us:

That Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

Jesus is the logic, John says, of God made flesh.

Speaking of logic, scripture gives us a simple formula:

We are made in God’s image

Jesus is the image of the invisible God

Therefore:

We are made in Jesus’ image.

We’re made, created, hard-wired, meant to be like Jesus.

That’s what St. Paul means he calls Jesus the 2nd Adam. We’re created with a family resemblance to Christ. We’re made in Jesus’ image.

And Jesus would rather die than kill. And so would we.

You see,

If we believe the Bible, if we believe that we’re made in Christ’s image then that means the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is not the sacrifice of their lives, great as such a sacrifice may be.

No, if we’re made in Christ’s image, then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is to sacrifice their innate unwillingness to kill. For us.

If we’re made in Christ’s image then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops isn’t the giving of their lives, it’s to sacrifice their God-given unwillingness to take life.

Too often liberals use Jesus’ teachings about loving enemies and turning cheeks and putting away swords for moralistic, finger-wagging.

That we should oppose this or that war because we should be more like Jesus.

But- politics aside- that kind of finger-wagging, I think, is to get it exactly wrong. Or backwards.

Because the claim of St. Paul and the Gospel isn’t that we should be like Jesus.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are like Jesus. Already. More so than we believe. We’re made in his image.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are not natural born killers.

We’re created to bless those who curse us, and to love our enemies.

It’s in the family DNA.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we’re made in Christ’s image. We’re designed to lay down our lives rather than take life.

And so when we ask our fellow citizens, when we ask our children, to (potentially) take life, we’re asking for a far greater sacrifice than just their lives.

We’re asking them to sacrifice what it means for them to be made in God’s image; we’re asking them to sacrifice their Christ-like unwillingness to kill.

For us.

And that’s a sacrifice whose tragedy is only compounded when our soldiers return home from war and we expect them to allow us to applaud them at baseball games but not to tell us about we’ve asked them to do.

That our troops are willing to make such a sacrifice for us is what the Church calls grace- a gift not one of us deserves.

That we perpetuate a world that makes such a sacrifice necessary- when the message of the Cross is that it’s not- that’s what the Church calls sin.

But I still haven’t answered my original question:

How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has already won peace?

During the Crusades, wars in which the Church played no small part, when soldiers returned home from the Holy Land they would abstain from the sacrament of holy communion for a year or more.

Even during the Crusades there was an understanding that though the act of war may be necessary and justified, the actions of war nonetheless harm our humanity.

They do damage- not just to the enemy- but to the image of Christ within us.

And so before returning soldiers would receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament of communion, they would undergo the sacrament of reconciliation in order to restore the image of Christ within them.

The Crusades are seldom cited as a good example of anything, but, in this case, I believe they have something to teach us, particularly when it comes to thinking Christianly about Memorial Day.

Because the Crusaders- for all their other faults- understood that our God-given, Christ-like unwillingness to take life is the ultimate sacrifice of war.

But they also understood that that ultimate sacrifice is not ultimate.

As in, it’s not final.

It can be healed. Reconciled. Restored.

And, as Christians, that’s what we should remember when we remember those who’ve died in war.

Because, after all, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to an abstract ideal (like ‘Freedom’) nor by pointing to something finite and temporal (like a nation).

Nor do Christians even make sense of death by saying the dead are ‘in a better place now.’

No.

Christians make sense of death by pointing to the promise of Resurrection.

lightstock_128163_small_user_2741517

Christians make sense of death by pointing to Resurrection promise that what God does with Jesus at Easter, God will one day do with each of us, with all who have died and with all of creation.

All will be raised. All will be redeemed. All will be restored.

Such that, on that Resurrection Day, scripture tells us ‘mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’

In other words, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day all the harm done to our humanity will be healed, even- especially- the damage done by the sacrifice of war.

You see, the process of restoration that the Crusaders practiced when they returned home- it was a snapshot of our larger Resurrection hope.

Because, of course, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to a faraway Heaven we’ll fly away to some glad morning.

No, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day, the last day, Heaven will come down to Earth. God will dwell with us. And all of creation will be restored.

All things will be made new. Not all new things will be made.

All things will be made new again.

That means the promise of Resurrection is not just that the sacrifice we’ve asked our soldiers to endure will be restored.

It also means that whatever measures they took in this life for justice or peace are not lost but will be taken up by God and used as building blocks for the City of God.

And so, really, the best way for Christians to observe Memorial Day is to do so the same way we celebrate every Sunday- in the mystery of faith:

Christ has died- making peace on his Cross.

Christ is Risen- to be a sign of the restoration God will bring to all of us.

Christ will come again- when the good we’ve done in this world will become a part of God’s New Creation.

Jesus-the-Prisoner‘Christ didn’t just suffer in the past. Christ still suffers today with us, with anyone who suffers in the world.’

I first heard those words from Brother Alois, the prior of the Taize monastic community, last May during a pilgrimage to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

His words hit me with converting clarity.

Because not one of us 1K pilgrims missed the clear, straight, connect-the-dots line he’d just drawn from the Crucified Christ to the all-but-crucified Lakota Indians on whose land we prayed.

When Brother Alois mentioned ‘collective suffering’ an accompanying illustration or further explanation wasn’t needed.

imagesI thought about those words again last week at Pub Theology as I listened to a friend and lawyer in my church, Brian Stolarz, reflect on his experience of working for nearly a decade to get an innocent off death row in Texas.

Alfred Dewayne Brown had been convicted of a cop-killing in Houston. Despite a lack of any forensic evidence, he was sentenced to be killed by the State on death row.

Brown’s IQ of 67, qualifying him as mentally handicapped, was ginned up to 70 by the state doctor in order to qualify him for execution. This wasn’t the only example of prosecutorial abuse in the case.

At one point in his story, Brian shared a memory of meeting with Brown on death row and afterwards coming upon:

“a church group passing out bibles. They were also passing out fish platters for the prison staff because they were “doing God’s work,” according to a banner draped over a table.

I didn’t want to debate the fact that God would probably not be cool with an innocent man being executed, or probably executions at all, and they should check themselves a bit. I just took the bible and said thank you. I grabbed one and remember reading some Psalms and some of the New Testament on the plane ride home.” 

One Big Setup, 222

Brian went on to mention the dubious reaction from the Christians when he suggested to them that maybe he too was doing God’s work by advocating for the condemned.

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that those same Christians believed their ‘Christian duty’ was to prepare the prisoners (vis a vis the sinner’s prayer) for eternity, not accompanying them in the present.

Here’s what hit me about what Brian shared:

The ‘traditional’ evangelical understanding of the cross, what theologians call ‘penal substitution,’ not only has nothing to say to people like the Alfred Dewayne Brown, penal substitution speaks no good news to them because it simultaneously privileges people like me.

Penal substitution is an understanding of the atonement ideally suited for oppressors and people who benefit from oppressive systems.

On the pop level, penal substitution is the understanding of the cross that says ‘Jesus died for you.’

For your sin.

Jesus died in your place. Jesus died the death you deserve to die as punishment for your sin. Jesus is your substitute. He suffered (suddenly I realize how the past tense is key) the wrath God bears towards you.

On the purely theological level, I’ve always had my theological gripes with that way of understanding the cross, but when as I listened to Brian the this-world, moral deficiencies of penal substitution hit me like a slap across the face.

Saying Jesus Christ died for you, for your sin, for your sin to be forgiven is good news to… sinners.

But what about the sinned against?

What we flipply call ‘Amazing Grace’ is good news for wretches like Isaac Newton. For slave-traders and slave-masters. Thanks to the cross, they’re good to go. Their collective guilt and systemic sin…wiped clean by the blood of the cross.

Hell, we might as well continue in those sinful systems because what matters to Christ isn’t our collective guilt but our individual hearts.

Yet what about those whom the ‘wretches’ has made life an exponentially more wretched experience? What about those innocents wrongly condemned to die at the hands of the State- just like, it’s so obvious it shouldn’t need to be pointed out, Jesus?

At the Lord’s Supper we proclaim that Christ came to set the captives free, yet we persist in an understanding of the cross that bears zero continuity with that proclamation.

We spiritualize and interiorize gospel categories like ‘suffering’ and ‘oppression’ and ‘deliverance.’

Because it suits us.

Because we are ourselves are not oppressed, have no actual desire to be delivered from our ways in the world and suffer only the affliction of the comfortable.

Penal substitution, I realized upon hearing Brian’s words, makes the mistake of acting as though Jesus of Nazareth is the only one to ever be strung up on a cross of shame and suffering.

Put differently, there’s something profoundly wrong about any ‘theory’ of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross that doesn’t lead straightaway to Christian solidarity with modern-day prisoners.

6a00d83458da2d69e200e54f5bc5ac8833-800wi

By making the cross theologically ‘necessary’ for atonement, penal substitution obscures the real, messy, historical fact that Jesus’ indictment, sentencing and death were all unjust.

When we abstract Jesus’ execution out of its historical context, it becomes too easy for us to stop identifying with those in Jesus’ place in our own contemporary context.

That 100% of Christians in America worship a God who was executed by the State but the majority of Christians in America support execution suggests that we’ve so theologized the story that we’ve lost the plot.

To suggest the primary meaning of the cross is that Christ died for their oppressors’ sins is to perpetuate, in a very real way, their suffering.

If Jesus wept over Jerusalem, I’ll be damned if he doesn’t weep over a place like Houston. And if he called the Pharisees ‘white-washed tombs’ for turning a blind eye to Rome’s oppressive systems, I wonder what he might call us?

Listening to Brian, I realized again that Christ doesn’t die for us so much as Christ dies

A) because of us and

B) as one of us.

With us. In solidarity with those who’ve suffered like him at the hands of empire and indifference.

Location, location, location.

Real estate can make you hear the gospel with different ears, even if it’s from behind bars. That’s what I realized again listening to Brian.

The cross is the opposite of good news unless it is today what it was for the first Christians: a symbol of protest, a demand for and a sign of an alternative to the world’s violence, a declaration that Christ not Caesar is Lord.

The primary message of the cross for someone like me, then, isn’t that God’s grace has saved a wretch like me though it can include that message.

No, the primary message of the cross is that it’s a summons to suffer, as Christ, for those whom the world makes life wretched.

Rather than Jesus being the answer, the solution to our selfishly construed problem, the Cross is meant to afflict us with the right nightmares.

Christ is Risen.

He is Risen indeed.

And indeed (sorry NT Wright) it’s not with ambiguity.

I marked this Holy Week by dipping again into the work of the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe. Here is an excerpt from his essay on Easter Vigil.

In it, McCabe reads the Easter stories as they are, straight up, in the Gospels- not as full-throated victory shouts but as qualified, murky signs of something more to come.

Jesus’ resurrection, says McCabe, belongs better to that category the Church calls sacraments.

marc-chagall-revolution-resurrection

“The cross does not show us some temporary weakness of God that is cancelled out by the resurrection.

It says something permanent about God:

not that God eternally suffers but that the eternal power of God is love; and this as expressed in history must be suffering.

The cross, then, is an ambiguous symbol of weakness and triumph and it is just as important to see the ambiguity in the resurrection.

If the cross is not straightforward failure, neither is the resurrection straightforward triumph.

The victory of the resurrection is not unambiguous; this is brought out clearly in the stories of the appearances of the risen Christ.

The pure triumph of the resurrection belongs to the Last Day, when we shall all share in Christ’s resurrection. That will not, in any sense, be an event in history but rather the end of history. It could no more be an event enclosed by history than the creation could be an event enclosed by time.

Perhaps we could think of Christ’s resurrection and ours as the resurrection, the victory of love over death, seen either in history (that is Christ’s resurrection) or beyond history (that is the general resurrection).

‘Your brother’ said Jesus to Martha ‘will rise again. Martha said ‘I know he will rise again on the last day.’ Jesus said ‘I am the resurrection…’

Christ’s resurrection from the tomb then would be just what the resurrection of humanity, the final consummation of human history, looks like when projected within history itself, just as the cross is what God’s creative love looks like when projected within history itself.

Christ’s resurrection is the sacrament of the last times.

Just as with the change in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the resurrection can have a date within history without being an event enclosed by history, without being a part of the flow of change that constitutes our time.

The resurrection from the tomb then is ambiguous in that it is both a presence and an absence of Christ. The resurrection surely does not mean Jesus walked out of the tomb as though nothing had happened.

On the contrary, he is more present, more bodily present, than that; but he is, nevertheless, locally or physically absent in a way that he was not before.

It is important in the Thomas story that Thomas does not in fact touch Jesus but reaches into his bodily presence by faith.

It is important in the Mary Magdalene story that Mary does not at first recognize Jesus.

Here is a resurrected, bodily presence not too tenuous but too intense to be accommodated within our common experience.

So then Christ’s resurrected presence to us [through the sacraments] still remains a kind of absence: ‘…we proclaim his death until he comes again.’

Good Friday is ground zero for speculating about the atonement.

Many of ‘theories’ of the atonement rely upon a literal reading of the ‘Fall’ in Genesis to which probably Jesus himself, being a Jew and Rabbi, did not subscribe.

That’s not the only problem with how we often speak on Good Friday.

To many Christians, the crucifixion is the means by which God solves the problem incurred by Adam’s Fall. Not only does this ‘solution’ seem much worse than originating problem (fruit of the tree vs. torture and execution of an innocent man), it seems to miss the (obvious) extent to which the crucifixion is an intensified instance of the first sin: the rejection of God’s love.

Herbert McCabe, a Dominican philosopher who died a decade ago, enjoyed subverting the conventions of popular piety. In the excerpt below, McCabe meets head-on the challenges posed by Darwin et al to any literal understanding of the ‘Fall.’

By first concurring that social science suggests humanity’s ‘Fall’ was up not down, McCabe locates what Christians mean by ‘original sin’ not in a mythic, primordial Garden but in the historically concrete case of the crucifixion:

chagall

“I can remember a time, it seems quite long ago, when it was definitely not respectable to talk about original sin. The notion plainly belonged to some depressing and pessimistic version of Christianity…the other thing that made original sin less respectable was its connection with the whole Adam story.

It seemed ludicrous that one man’s failure should somehow infect everyone else.

And, any way, how many people could still possibly believe in anyone called Adam?

But it seems reasonable for us to try in terms of our ways of thinking to answer the question ‘How come human society is the way it is?’

I would say that the answer is that human beings ‘fell’ not down but up.

That is to say, humans are maladjusted because they have powers which are greater than they can control…

I would also like to propose a Pickwickian sense in which the occasion on which original sin was committed was the crucifixion of Jesus- that this finally gave meaning to this state of Sin.

In the crucifixion of Jesus it is finally manifested that the maladjustment of man amounts to a rejection of God’s love.

The sin of the world comes to a head in the crucifixion, shows itself fully for what it is. And, of course, in coming to a head is simultaneously conquered.

The Cross is both the manifestation, the sacrament, of the sin of the world, and the manifestation, the sacrament, of the redeeming act of God. It is just as we realize our death that we find life. It is only when it appears as sin that it can be forgiven…

To believe that Jesus is God is to believe that, in rejecting him, people are making the most ultimate kind of rejection, the final contradiction of themselves.

The crucifixion is not just one more case of a particular society showing its inhumanity. It is the whole human race showing its rejection of itself.

The resurrection is the Father’s refusal to accept this self-rejection of man.”