Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. – Matthew 27:50-51a
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3:23-39
Few things are as threatening as freedom. While most of us, particularly here in the United States, treat freedom not just as a political right but a sacred right conferred upon us by God, real freedom frightens us no end. Most of us would far rather huddle with the familiar than expose ourselves to the unfamiliar; nothing is more terrifying than seeing the endless possibilities that lie before us and realizing it’s up to us what we do with them.
We in the Christian churches in particular are cowards when it comes to the reality of the freedom that is ours in and through Christ. Oh, we talk about it a whole lot. Usually, however, it’s a “freedom” to be jerks to other people. As St. Paul noted in Galatians, the best thing about Christian freedom is the opportunity to serve others. That paradox confuses so many outside the Church; on the one hand, we’re free – really free for freedom’s sake – while on the other hand we are to be servants to all. Most of the time this opportunity becomes a new Law, usually linked to those verses in Galatians that talk about sinful actions, lists of “Thou shalt not”‘s that replace the Ten Commandments. Rather than viewing the Christian life as an opportunity to live without enmity, to live without being slaves to physical pleasure, without being slaves to the envy of others we fall in to the very trap St. Paul about which St. Paul warns the Galatians.
Because freedom is terrifying.
In St. Matthews telling of the crucifixion, the moment Jesus dies the veil in the Temple – that which separated the Holy of Holies, the Throne of God, from the rest of the world – tears from top to bottom. God, like Elvis, has left the building. With the resurrection of Christ, the Holy of Holies now resides with us through the power of the Holy Spirit. The old binaries, set out by St. Paul so clearly in his Epistle to the Galatians, no longer mean anything because, now living in and through the Risen Christ in the power of the Spirit we are free from that separation from God evidenced in all the sinful divisions that exist in our fallen but now healing world.
Far too many of us, however, are terrified of that torn curtain. We want the sacred to be something set apart. We would rather live with those binaries that separate “us” from “them”. Thus it is we talk about the saved and the reprobate. We call some people doctrinally pure while others are heretics. We believe it is up to us to separate the wheat from the chaff; we further believe that chaff is other people. Just that we live this way, act this way, teach and preach this way demonstrates we are terrified of the freedom we have in Christ Jesus – freedom for the sake of real freedom in service to others.
Holy ground? It’s all around us. God is even now redeeming the land and the sea and the sky. Our churches and pulpits are no more special to God than our living rooms, locker rooms, or the forest floor. All of it, in and through the crucified and risen Christ is being redeemed, transformed, made new.
So why do we continue with the sacred/profane binary? Why pretend that differences with which we invest so much meaning, so much emotional energy, even sacred worth, are in fact not at all sacred? In fact, what if insisting on binaries – good/evil, beautiful/ugly, sacred/profane – is just another sign we aren’t being faithful enough?
If we truly are saved by faith through grace, why do we make of opportunities for free living new commandments? Why do we condemn some for “sinful” living when we have not first checked our own eye for that beam that may be anger or envy or lust? Why so much energy spent on creating “others” against whom we can measure everything from our own virtue to our righteousness? The Christian life isn’t a zero-sum game, with good guys and bad guys, winners and losers. The Christian life is one of freedom. Not just freedom from slavery to sin and death, but freedom truly to live for others for no other reason than we love them because they are God’s children. For some reason, we Christians continue to believe only we have that restored image of God, rather than hearing in the words of St. Paul and St. Matthew reminders that all Creation if God’s beloved child. All Creation is being transformed. Our job as Christians is not to judge the world; that’s God’s job and was taken care of. Our job is to love all that is, to be the love of God for the world.
That’s why I think so much of our talk in our churches is so broken. We have taken the gift of Christian freedom and traded it for a mess of pottage. We would rather rest in some false sense of security rather than risk the freedom that is ours, showing the world what is possible in and through the Spirit because of the risen Son. We are free for the sake of true freedom, to live for and love others just because they are, because they are God’s creation, beloved just as they are. Rather than be so hung up on sin, how about we in the churches start being hung up on love and joy and peace?
Those are some of the fruits of the Spirit. Not all this Us-versus-Them crap.
Live free. I dare you.
And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ – Matthew 9:10-13
N.B.: I am totally stealing this from my wife, Rev. Lisa Kruse-Safford, who shared her reflections with me this morning. It’s in so much accord with my own thoughts, I wanted to share it.
Being middle aged has both good and bad points. Having some decades of life experience offers perspective. It also, however, offers the false comfort of a sense of security. Reaching the comfortable shores of middle age relatively intact can make a person think he or she has this whole thing called life all figured out. Worse, it offers the far-too-tempting sense that such hard-won gains in wisdom and insight need to be shared, particularly with those younger than we are.
My wife is in a leadership position in the Conference of which she’s a member. This would seem to add to the pressure to ensure that those under her care, who look to her for leadership, should hear her words and see her ways as authoritative beyond merely institutional obedience. All the same, we in Northern Illinois no less than the rest of the United Methodist Church are in the midst of a very real struggle over issues that should, in the normal course of events, require very little effort to address. Sad to say, the power structure of our denomination has been entrenched for over 40 years in a position in which it has, for all intents and purposes, declared particular persons outside the bounds of the grace of God. While the larger American society and culture has come to an almost nonchalant acceptance of sexual diversity, religious leaders, including some in our own denomination, continue to declare such diversity an abomination – a Biblical term that means one is ritually unclean.
Behind the current moment, I believe, lie more than just differences of opinion regarding sexual minorities. These arguments, really, are stand-ins for other more pressing issues. It’s difficult to accept that one has become a part of the power structure of the Church, when the acceptance and use of power holds no attraction for you. Worse, it’s difficult to realize that one has two decades of ministerial experience, yet the changing weather in the Church are leading to choppy waters that are just too frightening, too fraught with unknowns. In such situations, the tendency of the powers-that-be is to retrench, to demand the status quo be honored. All the business about doctrinal purity is a symptom of this larger unease among folks my age and older – unease that the Church is moving to places we neither recognize, nor have as much space for such as us. Far better, it seems, to declare such territories forbidden, lairs of monsters and evil.
As always, Jesus is there, reminding us that his Way is something New. We are in the midst of a generational change that hasn’t been seen in over a 40 years. Schooled, in large part, in decades-old understandings of theological method, Scriptural interpretation, and mission and ministry, we face a world in which these ways of approaching the practice of ministry and the life of Christian faith seem less sure. We are, sad to say, that old garment. We are the Pharisees who are trying to understand something new through eyes schooled in old ways of seeing. We come to Jesus and wonder why he is eating with tax collectors and sinners instead of blessing our long-fought-for place of authority and power with the Divine Presence. Worst of all, we are told we need to go back and learn something we should have come to understand through years of study and practice and meditation: We are in the business of mercy. We mouth the words, yet Jesus is here – right here! – telling us we need to go and learn what that means.
Our youth and young adults have deep faith. They have a passion for mission, a desire for the Church to be the Church in ways that sound and appear strange – perhaps even heretical? – to our ears and eyes. The Church is being pushed rather than led in directions that are both exciting and frightening. As I often say about current pop music, folks my age don’t like it not because it’s bad but because it isn’t music created for middle aged white folks. In the same way, the new directions in which the Church is moving are outside our ability to grasp, perhaps even to envision.
And that is more than OK. That’s the way it ought to be. No offense to all those holding fast to their house built on a wadi. The rainy season has finally arrived, and what seemed such a solid foundation is crumbling because the waters have come. For all our pride in our accomplishments, we need to hear what Jesus is saying to us. Rather than demand our youth and young leaders conform to our ways of thinking and living and believing and being in ministry, perhaps we should see in it something not at all for us. Rather than worry that, because we don’t quite see what it might look like or believe it is something in which we have a place of prominence, perhaps the best thing – the only thing – we can do is create space for this New Thing. Rather than insist children, youth, and young adults come and fill empty spaces, all the while sitting still and remaining silent, being that new cloth trying to patch the old cloak of the United Methodist Church, we should stand to one side, pray, encourage, and look on in wonder at the new wine skins being created around us.
The idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country. – Rev. Jerry Falwell
It is becoming more and more difficult to consider oneself Christian and American. – FB comment
See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. – Matthew 10:16
Nine people gathered to study the Bible are gunned down without mercy or remorse. Three churches housing predominantly African-American congregations are set ablaze by arsonists in three states in five days. As the Supreme Court extends marital rights and responsibilities to all persons, many Christians rend their clothing, some declaring their willingness to martyr themselves in defiance of the law of the land. As our public mores continue to change, the role of the churches in shaping those mores seems to decline ever more. People of the Christian faith are nervous, wondering if being a Christian and an American is even possible.
We have always been a people of diverse faiths. Massachusetts may have been offered to the TULIP Calvinist Puritans, but Maryland was a Roman Catholic colony. The official religion of the Commonwealth of Virginia was the Church of England long after the War of Independence. Rhode Island was founded on the principle of freedom of conscience regarding religious belief. We have had Jews and pagans, Muslims and Japanese Shinto and Chinese animists and, of course, the variety of Native religious beliefs and practices, sometimes intermingling and cross-fertilizing with Christianity and other faiths. Still, our predominant civic faith is rooted in a secular version of the Calvinism that was at the heart of the Massachusetts Bay Colony when it was founded in 1620. In the centuries since, despite being officially secular and allegedly neutral in practice, our laws and public morals have walked hand in glove with a predominantly Protestant Christian sensibility. In my lifetime, most small towns were closed up on Sundays. Divorce, sex outside of marriage, the rights of women and minorities (including religious minorities such as Catholics, Jews, Orthodox, and others) were curbed by a legal system that reflected the preferences of the male, Protestant majority. We were, in many ways, a Christian nation in practice if not in name.
The past two generations have seen vast changes in that social, legal, and cultural landscape. While a vast majority of Americans claim some sort of religious allegiance, that number has dropped eight percent in a decade. While religious belief in some bland sense – an affirmation of the existence of God, however personally defined – continues, religious practice, adherence to even the most basic dogmas of the Church, and Biblical illiteracy are more the norm than the exception. We in the old mainline Protestant Churches – the United Methodists, the Presbyterians, the ELCA, the Disciples of Christ, the UCC/Congregational Churches – bemoan the graying of our congregations and continue to flail about as we search for something, anything, that will bring younger people back through our doors. The appeal of the church, it seems, is waning in tandem with the increasing separation of our social and cultural life from its influence.
What was once taken for granted is no longer the case. What once seemed an easy enough match up between our professed religious beliefs and our practiced social moral code now seems miles apart. We are, in the as Robert Heilein wrote, strangers in a strange land.
Which is as it should be.
When being a Christian is easy; when the state offers a silent nod of approval to the beliefs and practices of a particular religious faith; when we forget that our mission and ministry is rooted in conflict between the powers of this world that sent Christ to his death and the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead; when these things occur, being church is no longer a matter of being ekklesia, those called out. Being an Episcopalian is no different from being a member of the Chamber of Commerce or Country Club; being a Methodist is no different than being police chief or mayor; being a Baptist is no different than being a teacher or plumber. To be a Christian is just to be. Our sense of separateness, our understanding of ourselves as those who are in faith through grace no longer has the emotional and spiritual power it should.
None of which means we should love our country, or our fellow citizens whose lives and beliefs and mores may be very different – even diametrically opposed! – a whit less. This is our home, this beautiful, baffling, contrary country of ours. I know my life is enriched by all the different people I have known, by the friendships I continue to cultivate, and the conversations and arguments I will always have with people who are very different than I am. That some of my friends think Christianity is kind of silly, well, that doesn’t have anything to do with me. That some practice their beliefs in ways very different from my own practice helps me see how limited my vision continues to be. I hold those I know who are Jewish or Muslim or some other faith in as high regard as my fellow Christians. Perhaps a bit more, knowing how difficult it can be to be observant of a minority religion in a society that more than occasionally is actively hostile to them.
Those African-Americans I know who live out their lives in faith humble me; attending worship with them reminds me of the singular power of Christian faith: the affirmation of humanity in the face of systemic dehumanization. African-American worship, at least in my experience, is rooted in joy and celebration because it is as the gathered people of God they become a people, a people, not whatever the dominant society says they are. Black churches have always been targets for racist violence. White folk know it is here, in this place, all the things whites say about African-Americans – their fundamental evil, their laziness and shiftlessness, the threat they pose to white society – is not only denied, but their humanity is affirmed. Nothing is more threatening to principalities and powers than a people who believe themselves to be a people.
I find irony in the sign on the burned church pictured above. A church building should always be considered a dangerous place. To be a Christian should never rest easily with our other social relationships. We should always be troubled in our secular life by the insistent demands of the faith. Whether we call ourselves liberal or conservative or whatever, we should never forget our primary identity as Christians forms a filter through which we observe and live out that secular life. Entering worship on Sundays should make us uneasy; leaving worship on Sundays should remind us why we are uneasy. To be Christian and American is to be a sheep among the most dangerous wolves imaginable: they aren’t just in sheep’s clothing, but in the clothing of the sheep from our own flock. Lest we ever get complacent, we should always remember those who have been murdered in places of worship over the years; remember the church buildings set ablaze; remember that, increasingly, to be a Christian is to be thought someone who considers him- or herself better than others, rather than someone who is a servant to others.
Ours is a world filled with hazards. Our faith calls us to love and serve that world in humility. The transformation for which we work will never be voted upon, nor negotiated. It is the slow, steady work of millions of hands over many years, under the power of our loving, saving, ever-creating God. If that doesn’t make folks uneasy, I don’t know what will.
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” – Matthew 25:37-40
Did you know that, according to a 2012 Veterans survey, 22 Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans commit suicide? Were you aware that 65% percent of members of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association faced financial hardship while waiting for decisions on their disability claims ? How about the fact that the suicide rate for female veterans is three times higher than for civilian women? That the divorce rate for women veterans is higher than for male veterans? An IAVA Membership Survey pegged member’s unemployment rate at 10%. There is an organization whose mission statement is simple: “[W]here we support all our troops, families and veterans without conditions.” It isn’t, however, a church or congregation or denomination.
For quite a while now, the many challenges facing veterans of our recent long wars have troubled me. When I read of a suicide of a currently-serving service member or veteran; when I hear of issues of addiction, domestic violence, and other dysfunction; when I see people I know to be veterans struggling with our Byzantine DVA healthcare bureaucracy; when I see that, yet again, Congress has not followed through on proper funding for the DVA; all these things and more cause variations on sadness and anger, frustration and resignation. I’m not sure, precisely, what I or any other individual can do.
Since I’m not an individual, however, but connected to others through being a part of the Church of God called the United Methodist Church, I thought that, certainly, our Book of Discipline and Social Principles would contain statements that addressed the specific needs of veterans and their families. What I found, however, was nothing at all. Oh, we have general statements about promoting compassion for those living with mental illness; much of the section on the military deals far more with conscientious objectors than it does with veterans. Which is not to say that conscientious objectors should be ignored. It is, rather, to say there seems to be a rather large, gaping hole in our collective attention to the needs of many in our communities.
The two wars from which we are still emerging have placed an enormous toll on our financial resources as a nation. Even greater, however, is the debt we owe our veterans who return bruised, battered, and otherwise broken either in body, spirit, or both. Our politicians always seem to find enough money to send our young men and women to risk their lives fighting in the name of the rest of us. When it comes time to caring for our veterans with wounds of body and mind, however, for some reason the purse is suddenly empty. In the meantime, our veterans suffer immeasurably from inadequate care, interpersonal and social dysfunction, and a veteran’s healthcare bureaucracy that seems far more intent on making sure our veterans aren’t receiving unnecessary care and are worthy of whatever care they’re seeking than it is opening their doors to our veterans.
There are organizations out there advocating for better legislation. There are secular organizations that reach out and help veterans in a variety of ways, up to and including networking locally in support groups. What there is not, however, is a single United Methodist policy on providing as much care and assistance as possible, from offering local Iraq/Aghanistan vet groups meeting space through helping a veteran manage the twisting halls of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, to getting our suffering vets whatever emergent care they might need in a crisis. We United Methodists can do so much; there are eight million of us here in the United States. Some of those numbers have to include veterans from our recent wars. What, exactly, have we done, either as congregations or a denomination, to recognize the particular needs of our recent veterans? Other than “promoting compassion” – about as helpful as “I will pray for you” – what, precisely is our denominational policy on promoting the health and well-being of the men and women who need it?
We weep and moan about how we’re “losing millennials”. The thing is, among that particular cohort are men and women who signed up to serve their country, found themselves in wars without fronts, without clear boundaries between friend and foe, watching their comrades fall not in heroic battle, but because a homemade bomb exploded under their vehicle. The resulting physical and psychic damage, and the inadequacies of our political and policy response leave a gap one would think the Church would jump. Alas, we have been bemoaning our own troubles so long, we have failed to see that Christ is there in the pleading voices of the suicidal young woman; of the man under arrest for domestic violence; of the amputee or burn victim forced to fill out yet another form while still waiting the treatment they need. Our local churches have so much to offer our veterans, from space to assistance to actual expertise, but how many of our local congregations do so? Our denomination still has the wherewithal to call for real reform, real change, and real justice for our veterans while providing assistance to local congregations who might wish to start ministries such as these.
These are the faces of Christ for us, faces that often go unrecognized for what they are because of our own brokenness, our own sin, our own blindness. Perhaps we still can offer help. There’s time to act, to legislate, to organize, to minister. We shouldn’t wait for the next war to do this. We are called to be in service without prejudice or question. Let us show God we have heard the call.
When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him,and said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.’ Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.’ And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’ – Matthew 17:14-21
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise. – William Blake, “Eternity”
Before we go any further, I think it’s important to note that, despite the warning I gave when I started this Lenten Journey; despite what I’ve been writing, plumbing the depths of my own sin in order to have it all before me when I’m there before the cross, this whole “following Jesus” thing really isn’t a torment. On the contrary, it’s filled with joys and surprises, and the evidence that it’s all worth it passes me on the road just as surely as the reminders of my sin are all around me. These are not exclusive things. As Blake’s poem makes clear, if we bind ourselves to joy, we are as damned just as surely as if we bind ourselves to sorrow or evil. On the other hand, recognizing joy for what it is, something fleeting and free, should we be willing to be allowed at best a kiss as it goes by, will understand the power of that bliss that comes from beauty, and goodness, and truth.
As I pass down the road, I see so much that tells me this is the right road. Groups of people passing the other way talking about how they were hungry and in the middle of nowhere and Jesus was there, and food seemed to be in abundance. I see a pair of women, their faces glowing. They say they saw Him walk on water. One of his disciples tried and failed, and Jesus lifted him up out of the waves and they walked together back to the boat.
Of course, not everyone is happy. People with Galilean accents are complaining about this upstart, this local boy who thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips. Why, they knew his whole family! They watched him grow up from a child, knew what kind of scrapes and messes he, like all boys, find themselves in; now suddenly, he thinks he can preach to them in the synagogue, as if they would listen to him? I shrug, knowing ignorance and envy when I hear it. On the other side of me, Pharisees pass. They aren’t speaking, but their faces tell stories. I have a great deal of respect for the Pharisees; they hold fast both to law and tradition, as a way of ensuring they and the people are truly Holy as God commanded them to be Holy. They are both smart and occasionally wise. They use what they have at hand to try to be Holy before God and other people, which is something to be lauded. And here’s this upstart carpenter from Nazareth – of all places – telling them they’re doing it wrong. Is it any wonder they’re annoyed? The way of which he speaks is far too easy; the way of Holiness according to the Law is rigorous, it cuts the lean from the fat for a reason. This Jesus doesn’t want anything to do with that. Instead, he sits at table with drunkards and prostitutes, tax collectors and uncircumcised proselytes, laughing and chatting, telling them they are beloved children of God, that he has come for them because the well do not need a physician. Hmph.
Worst of all is that ragtag group that follows him so closely. They try to imitate him. IMITATE HIM! They cannot even cast out a simple demon bringing about epilepsy, and even Jesus gets frustrated with their lack of faith. Then he turns around and tells them that if they truly have faith, even faith tiny like a mustard seed, they can make mountains move. Has anyone, even Moses, ever made such a claim? No, there’s definitely something . . . wrong . . . with this guy. The question is, of course, who should do what about him.
As they pass, I listen carefully. What I hear makes me happy; happy that Jesus truly is changing the world around him just by his presence. Those who hunger are filled, while the wealthy are sent away empty. Empty and arguing among themselves over who Jesus is, and more – what to do about him. He is usurping their place, pulling the mighty down from their rightful places. It also makes me sad that these learned, intelligent, insightful men are so wedded to their books, their teachings, and their traditions they cannot see what seems so plain and clear to so many others: This Jesus, whoever or whatever he might be, exercised power and authority as if it were his birthright. He has no need to care about the good opinion of the self-appointed guardians of the faith, because this faith of Jesus is a faith of such power these teachers and upholders of the Law cannot even grasp it.
Alas, those gathered around Him, so sure both of Jesus and themselves, are also, in their hearts, unsure of the power they could have if only they would open their hearts to the Spirit to quicken that faith that is there. More wondrous things than curing a simple epileptic are in store for them – no need to pretend I don’t know more of the story – yet, at this moment, they are as lost and confused as those Pharisees who harrumph their way past me down the road. And surely, were I honest enough with myself, I would admit I’ve never been able to move a mountain. Indeed, has anyone, ever? Not that I can see. Does that mean I am no better than the Disciples at this point, part of a faithless generation, so weak and afraid I cannot even get better from this nagging depression that wants to take me over, dragging me down to a pit of despair so deep no light can reach me?
We are, sad to say, a faithless generation. As I’ve written recently, we are so frightened by pretty much everything, we actually encourage fear in others, if for no other reason than it fills up the pews on Sunday mornings, and more important those collection plates and baskets as they pass. We do not offer freedom to those held captive, whether it’s by illness or envy or an outdated, outmoded faith. Instead, we offer a new set of chains, that for all they are so beautiful, trap us and hold us just as surely as the weight carried by those Pharisees who could just let go of all they believe is their responsibility, and rather than admonish those around them, seek to love them. Our chains are not those of love, binding us to one another. No, our chains, for all they may glow like gold, are chains with words like “morality” written on them. “Gay” and “Muslim” and “Race” trace their way along the links. When we hear the name of Jesus offered up, our hearts leap with joy, much as John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth’s womb. Rather than allow our hearts to fill with joy, kissing this dove as it passes, we clamp Jesus in irons no less strong, marked no differently than our own, and demand he lead this procession of the shackled to the Promised Land.
Jesus, however, is far stronger, far more clever, and far more loving than we can imagine. Even as we clasp him tight, the chains dissolve and he insists we are free. We are free to love. We are free to live. We are free from fear. We are free from the need to measure the lives of others and find them wanting. We are free from the need to separate the Other from among us, but rather welcome that stranger, even as Moses admonished the people in Deuteronomy to welcome the stranger and alien in to the Land. And like that, Jesus is off down the road, out of sight before we can protest the need for his return to bind us to Him so that we are safe, so that we know right from wrong, so that we know who is and is not a proper object of our love.
I have stood and watched this spectacle many times, in many guises. Far too many people are far too comfortable bound and limited, refusing to hear that what Jesus offers us, if we have but the wit and wisdom to allow it to grasp us, is a freedom so profound and complete we no longer have need even to grasp hold of joy should it pass us by. As fleeting as it may be – a golden sunrise; the first kiss with a lover; the look and feel of a newborn child in your arms – these moments are with us precisely because they are not bound. So, too, are others not bound to us by our all too human desire to define and classify and separate. Jesus’s call goes out to all, and all gather round – the dirty and clean, the wealthy and the perpetually poverty stricken, Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Catholics and Baptists and Mormons and United Methodists – and sing His praises and race down this same road I travel. Except, of course, there have been, and always will be, those we pass along the way who have grown far too comfortable in their chains. Whatever may be written on them, no matter how many times Jesus causes them to disappear, asking only they have the faith of a mustard seed to see and do more wonders than he can describe, they reforge the chains, refusing to believe this gift he has, a gift offered at no cost, is meant for them in the way he says. His directness of speech, the depths in his brown eyes, his refusal to allow anyone anywhere to wander too far from this road on which I and so many others pass – these do not bring joy. They bring fear. A fear that demands they bind Jesus to them, and them alone, keeping them safe from all the harms that may come, all the Others who walk the same road yet are so unlike them.
Yes, this is the right road, indeed. It is the road we Christians have walked for thousands of years, asking all the same questions, facing all the same fears, hearing all the same objections, encountering those bound and free, those too happy for either laughter or tears, and those so offended they can barely breathe. That it leads to the same place it always has, a midden outside the walls of Jerusalem where the beaten and bloodied meet their final end in slow agony, well, that’s both part of the story and getting ahead of where we are right now. For now, it is enough to have caught glimpses, here and there, of a head of black curly hair, a rich baritone voice filled with amused frustration and infinite love. I know I am on the Way, the Pilgrim’s Way. The sin that I have faced so far, I know it isn’t finished. It can’t be, not if I’m to go to that same midden not to offer myself, but to fall before one particular cross and ask if it is possible if all that – all that and so much more – can and will be taken from me.
For now, though, I am happy. I’m happy because joy has flitted by and rather than grasp it, I have been allowed to brush my lips against it. I know I do not have the kind of faith it takes to move a pin, let alone a mountain. Not yet, anyway. That, too, might well lie at the end of this road. For now, I am happy the confusion, the fear, the anger, and the happiness that always follow in Jesus’s wake let me know I’m going down the right road.
And I’m not feeling bad at all.
‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.*
‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.*
‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. – Matthew 6:1-8
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:43-48
Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 3:7-10
Like many children, I took piano lessons. By the time I was in high school, both my teacher and my parents heaped a great deal of pressure on me when it came to recital performances. It wasn’t enough that I play well. My mother, in particular, would say over and over again, “I want it perfect-perfect-perfect.” I sometimes think that if she hadn’t recited that mantra over and over and over, I might well have continued to study music, enjoyed practicing and performing. Instead, both practicing and performing became chores for me. My personal goal was to the best job possible, and to cover whatever mistakes I might make with a bit of showmanship and flair. At least in my mother’s case, I knew she was not only tone deaf, but pretty much ignorant of music, so I thought I could make it through. Dad, however, was a different story. A classically trained violinist who studied at Carnegie Hall after high school, Dad knew music intimately. Then, of course, there was the teacher, who sat off to the side, and whose facial expressions and body language were always in my peripheral. Most of the time I did well enough; the last recital of the year, our teacher expected us to have the music memorized, so that we could concentrate on performance. For me, this was an exercise in muscle memory combined with showmanship.
I only have one memory where things went wrong. I think I was a Freshman in high school, and I was performing “Six Etudes” by Beethoven. The thing is, they were just that, six simple studies in harmonic construction, fingering, and dynamics. None of them were difficult. Yet, I distinctly remember completely blowing it. To the point that both my parents were red-faced with anger. That was the point at which I resolved I would not only no longer care about “perfection” but vowed that the moment I could do so, I would run as far from performing music as I could. This kind of pressure, I just didn’t need.
It’s a regret I continue to carry with me. Not least because, had I been a tad older and wiser, I would have allowed my mother’s repeated admonition to float in one ear, out the other, and vow to do what I could, the best I knew how to do, and leave the rest up to the audience to figure out. I have performed often enough in the years and decades since – high school bands, solo competitions, community bands, solo guitar and voice, playing guitar and drums and even saxophone with church praise bands – that the whole idea of “perfection”, at least when it comes to performance, just doesn’t exist for me. My hope and prayer is always and only that I do the best I can, and let the rest be covered by the audience and congregation’s ears.
Unlike that time with my parents when I was in high school, however, all too often, I hear all sorts of compliments for my performances. In all honesty, these compliments embarrass me, because I am all too aware of my deficiencies when it comes to performing and singing. My gifts are few; that I do not practice regularly makes picking up a guitar to join an ensemble difficult. I have to remind myself, sometimes, of even the most simple chords and changes. I have to run through a number several times before I become comfortable playing and singing at the same time. Even with the addition of monitors, giving me a chance to hear myself, that only reinforces when I’m flat (men tend to sing flat, while women tend to sing sharp; a high school church choir director taught me the trick of raising my eyebrows when singing, especially high notes, to keep from going flat) and part of me wants to stop because the dissonance is a bit too much for me to bear.
It isn’t just music, though. Hearing throughout one’s life, whether from family or acquaintances (friends are always better for the ego; by laughing at all the nice things people say, they actually help keep you humble) or even strangers, how intelligent, insightful, talented, whatever, one is . . . part of me wants to tell these people they have no idea what they’re talking about. Truth to tell, I’m none of these things. Whether it’s a musical instrument, a book, a class in college or graduate school, whatever achievements I’ve had are the result of a combination of work and luck. Nothing that I have done in my life couldn’t be done better by others, hasn’t been done better by others, and that people don’t or won’t recognize this bothers me.
On the other hand, I’m human. After a few years, then decades of people lauding something or other that I’ve done, not least among those being my wife, it is nearly impossible to prevent one’s head to swell. It’s almost unnoticeable at first. Soon, however, when you need a cart by your side to carry your head as you walk, because your neck isn’t strong enough to hold it up, it becomes necessary to fail in some spectacular way, if for no other reason than to burst that bubble that was once my ego. There have been times in my life – far too many that I care to admit – that I have taken inordinate pride in one or another accomplishment of mine. As if playing an instrument or reading a book or putting words down on a computer screen were some special thing available to only some chosen few. I have, thankfully, had those who burst my bubble, sometimes in the most marvelous, direct fashion imaginable. Nothing says love and friendship like reminding another they are, in the end, a person who not only needs to be reminded to zip up your fly but maybe, just maybe, make sure your shoes are tied before you trip, fall, and really hurt yourself.
The road on my Lenten Journey has come upon a square. In the middle of the square in a plinth, upon which stands a statue. As I get closer, I realize it’s a statue of me. I look around for something, anything, to deface or perhaps even destroy this abomination. Then, I wonder if it’s bolted to the base, or if I can get enough momentum up and just push the damn thing over. So, up I climb, but not before reading the plaque, which seems to read the same on all four sides: “Musician, Scholar, Author, Prophet, Parent And Spouse Extraordinaire, Faithful Christian”. It’s absurd. I can’t decide if I want to cry or puke. Lucky for me, like all such idols, for all their beauty, the feet are clay. It takes just a small shove, and the clay crumbles and the horrid statue tumbles to the ground shattering in to a thousand pieces. But not only the statues. The plaques that seemed bolted to the plinth, they fall, shattering in to shards of brass that are scattered everywhere.
The truth is simple. I’m just me. I have neither special gift nor talent. I struggle at being both a husband and parent, failing as often as I succeed, like most of us. What I have managed to accomplish in life isn’t all that much at all, beyond helping to bring two marvelous, special, beautiful, talented, smart, and funny young ladies in to the world. Of all the things I’ve done, helping bring my children in to the world is probably the one thing in which I take pride. Beyond that, all the rest – the music playing, the reading, the education, the writing – really isn’t a big deal. Indeed, several times each day I’m confronted with how little I know; how much better at those things I love so much so many others happen to be, for which I am always grateful.
And none of this is false humility. On the contrary, I claim no humility at all. To claim humility is the action of a proud person, and I want nothing to do with pride. I struggle through my days, giving to God any good that comes from whatever I might accomplish that day. The rest, well – the faults and missteps, the wrong words spoken at the wrong time, the attempt to say or do something special and failing spectacularly, the sense that each day I have to start over always beginning with a confession and prayer of forgiveness – that’s all me.
It isn’t that I don’t appreciate compliments. I do, in a way. I just wish people would recognize whatever they’re complimenting isn’t me at all. It’s God acting and working through me. I would, in the end, prefer people give God the glory while I remain invisible.
Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. – Matthew 12:32
I can forgive, but I cannot forget, is only another way of saying, I will not forgive. Forgiveness ought to be like a cancelled note–torn in two, and burned up, so that it never can be shown against one. – Henry Ward Beecher
When we lived in Virginia, there was a notorious case of a family vacationing in Italy. During that time, their child was murdered. Italian police found the killer, put him on trial, and sentenced him. After the sentencing, the parents of the murdered child walked up to this man, hugged him, and told him they forgave him. I would love to say I would be able to do the same thing, but never having been through such a horrible experience, I can only say that I hope I never have to face it. All the same, it’s what we’re called to do.
Forgiveness is difficult in a society that places so much moral weight on blame. Blame, of course, is for children. Ours is, by and large, a country of children, people who allow themselves the luxury of feeling offense and directing their bitterness at all those others who have hurt them. That this is what children do doesn’t seem to matter all that much; it’s all about blame, retribution, and justice is nothing more than revenge. We believe it is perfectly acceptable to kill another human being for all sorts of reasons, for even the slightest infraction against our persons or property. Please don’t carry on about the worth of human life in a society whose actions demonstrate such little care about the lives of others that taking the life of another is something people can do and be excused for.
If blame is for children, responsibility is for adults. Responsibility is owning one’s actions, saying, “Yes, I did this, I did that.” Others may enjoy the luxury of blame. Responsibility is the price a moral individual and society pays for understanding when that person or society has done wrong. Penance is, or at least should be, a part of responsibility; willingly doing something to make amends for actions that cannot be undone.
Speaking only for myself – and this is a Lenten Spiritual exercise, after all; my own and none other’s – I can say that forgiveness comes easily. The largest part of being able to forgive others is understanding oneself as no better – and usually far worse – than the one who might have committed some slight. Being a victim gives one a sense of moral superiority. Knowing that one is, as St. Paul wrote of himself, the greatest of sinners, gives one the kind of honest humility to look at the offenses of others and say, “You are forgiven.”
The hardest thing in the world, however, is to forgive myself. I look around me, offering pardon to any and all who might do the slightest thing, and know that is only because I remember all too well what I have done. My memory is all too clear. There are times that all that is before me are the actions, large and small – the betrayals, the hurtful words, the mean and petty actions – that seem at these times to loom so large as to define who I am. Forgiving myself for these things seems, to me, a cheap way out, a get-out-of-jail card. I have tried to live so much of my life penitently, doing and being better than the person I know myself to be inside, as a way of making up for the hurt I know I have caused; the people from my past who will not speak to me; the people who wear scars I put upon their hearts and lives. I am gentle, I think, because I have been far too rough. I am quick to forgive because whatever hurt occurs to me cannot match those I have caused others.
I read recently that the undefined “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”, quoted above, from St. Matthew’s Gospel, is, in fact, a refusal to forgive oneself. It makes out the whole Gospel a lie, the whole narrative of Divine forbearance, grace, love, and self-sacrifice meaningless if one is not willing to look in the mirror and say, “I forgive you.” To do so, however, just feels to me like a cheap out, a painless and penance-less way of pushing out of one’s mind all the evil of which I know I am capable. Forgiveness offers me a way to stop wrestling the angel without the pain of being hamstrung at the end. Precisely because forgiveness includes forgetting, as noted by Henry Ward Beecher in the quote above, I cannot handle the thought of forgiving myself because should I forget what I have done, it would be all too easy to do it again. And again. I cannot allow that to happen; being a moral person is no guarantee against acting in an immoral fashion. Knowing what is proper to do, yet doing the opposite, well, even St. Paul admitted he did the same.
Perhaps this is why Friedrich Nietzsche detested Christianity so much. For Nietzsche, to be truly human is to be heroic in the way the Greeks understood the concept – willing to be bold in action regardless of consequence. For Nietzsche, the son of an Evangelical Pastor, Christianity insisted we human beings accept a bad conscience as the price of living in the world, something he refused to accept as truly human. For him, weakness thrived where there was a willingness to embrace conventional morality, baptize it as “Christian values”, and live always with shame and guilt.
Were he in front of me today, I would counter by asking, “How is shame, and even a dollop of guilt, not appropriate when one has acted in ways that have hurt others?” I know his answer: Those who were truly hurt are far too weak to be worthy of consideration. Were they strong, they would accept the hurt as a part of human existence, and grow stronger through the experience.
Such a way of thinking about human life leaves far too many bodies in its wake. Our world has suffered far too many mass graves for me to believe it possible any good can come from living without consequence. Perhaps, to one such as Nietzsche, I am the epitome of that slave mentality against which he strove so much. That is neither here nor there to me. Those who revel in their own strength only to use it to destroy others are, to me, the epitome of evil. I want nothing to do with those who would so easily cause destruction and heartache and call it heroism.
Which leaves me back where I began. It is a conundrum I face every day. I know I should forgive myself. I know that if I should, that would include forgetting. Forgetting would open the door, however small the crack, to those parts of me that would like nothing better than to hurt others. So, I refuse to give myself the easy out of forgiveness. I hold myself accountable each day, living in a way that will, I hope, make up for the hurt I’ve caused others in the past. That means living gently. Forgiving others without much thought at all. It means, however, that I may well be committing the unforgivable sin. There are days, however, that I think I can accept that judgment with equanimity.
Forgiveness, after all, is for others. Me, I can’t and shouldn’t be allowed the luxury.