Monday, March 29, 2010

Why Do You Seek The Living Among The Dead

This week's scriptures are Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 24:1-12.

Easter make us uncomfortable. We don't often admit it; but the whole resurrection thing makes our rational, scientifically oriented, 'just the facts ma'am' cultural mindset queasy.

It takes little more that a googling of the phrase "resurrected gods" to find that there are myths throughout the history of civilization of what are referred to as "life-death-rebirth deities." They are associated in large part with the works of James Frazer, Jane Ellen Harrison (The Golden Bough), and of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell.

Often critics of the Christian faith have used this scholarship to point to the belief in Jesus' resurrection as little more that a psychological wish fullfillment and/or the co-opting of the mythology of neighboring cultures by the early Christian community.

Though the scholarship of Frazer and others has come under some serious fire for its reductionism and its simplistic presentation; there is some truth in their claims regarding the myths involved...and some notable ignored differences as well. C.S. Lewis, in acknowledging this, spoke of the time "when myth becomes fact." And while I believe that he was on the right track, I do not think he went far enough.

It does not surprise me that the human "collective unconscious" (as Jung referred to it) yearns for a who can conquer death and oppression and sin. It doesn't suprise me any more than the fact that a baby, born just seconds ago, will almost immediately began rooting around looking for its mother's breast to nurse. In the same manner, it doesn't suprise me that a mother, upon hearing her baby crying in hunger in the next room will have a physical response. Theirs is a relationship in which the weak one instinctively seeks the nurture and protection that the strong one can provide; and the strong one, by her very nature, responds to her baby's cry. [By the way, if you have problems with this image, don't blame's all over the Old Testament, particularly in the writings of Isaiah and Hosea]

Listen to the words of Isaiah, "Behold I am doing a new thing" and let me tell you what that new thing is. In nearly all of these myths, the deity is murdered by its enemies-often other gods (the most notable exception being the Norse myth of Odin hanging himself on a tree as a sacrifice to himself). The rebirth or resurrection is a victory over the other gods who now are subservient. And the resurrected god goes off to rule in the otherworld. Humans, left here, hope that in some future they may, though their prayers to the god (look at the myth of Osiris in particular as the one most pointed) get to live after death.

So, you say, what's this new thing? So far, it sounds like Easter is just the same old, same old in a new wrapper.

The new thing is this: Jesus did not suffer and die and conquer death just so you and I can go to heaven. And our resurrections are not the byproduct of some cosmic battle between the gods....they are the end game.

Mothers come when babies cry, because it is the nature of good mothers to respond to their babies hunger. No one lives, and no one dies, outside of God's loving embrace. Humanity cries out, and God comes. God bridged the gap in our relationship with God with God's on self. God would not let disease, or mental illness, or poverty, or sin, or even death come between God and creation...and God still won't.

And it's not just for some future's for right now. I need a resurrection now....not just when I die....but now. Now, when life has worn me down to the nub; now, when it seems that I will never overcome the shortcomings that seek to drag me down; now, when sadness and pain seem the order of the day. And that's what Jesus rose to give you and me.

Here's the difference....from manger, to cross, to empty tomb....God's focus was God's relationship with you and me. The resurrection Jesus promises us isn't just 'bye and bye' but 'here and now.'

Do you remember Bruce Springsteen singing Rise Up (the actual song title is "My City of Ruins") over the 911 tragedy? Well try this on for size:

On Easter morning, after everything that evil and hatred and death could throw at Him, Jesus kicked open the door of His tomb, and sang God's own holy version of Rise Up over all creation. Not just for then, not even just for now, but for ever and ever and ever.

In Jesus' resurrection we are given the gift that 'made like Him, like Him we rise' now and forever more we are a Resurrection People.

Christ is Risen.
Christ is Risen Indeed.

See you Sunday,

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Will Our Children See The Promised Land

This week's scriptures are Number 13:17-14:4 and Luke 19:28-40.

I have often wondered how the people if the Israelites felt when they realized that they would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land.

They'd come all that way across the wilderness...kicking and screaming, murmuring and complaining...but they'd come. They'd seen that God would, indeed, provide for their needs; from water to food to guidance across the barren waste. Now they've arrived at the edge of the end of their journey. They're finally just about to be there...there in that place that God had promised them when they stated out...there in that place that would be home.

But before they go in, they send out spies to look over the tactical situation of settling in the region. They spies come back with wonderful news: the land is wonderful. In fact, they come back bringing a single bunch of grapes that is so big that they have to carry it on a pole between two of them (vs. 13:23). But, there are giants in the land. "When we set eyes on the Nephilim e felt no bigger than grasshoppers; and that is how we must have been intheir eyes" (vs. 13:33). The people rebel against going into the land, and God punishes them by saying that not until all of them were dead would the children of Israel be allowed to cross the border. The journey of God's people was lengthened because of their fear.

As a parent, I've wondered whether the question ran through the minds of the parents in this community of pilgrims, "will my son, my daughter, get to go into the Promised Land; or has my failure, my sin, meant that they too will die here in the wilderness?" "Will their journey be thwarted because I as afraid to fight with giants?"

As a therapist, one of the things I very often do is to ask my clients to make a "family tree" that goes back at least 3 generations counting themselves. I then ask them to note the issues (alcohol, mental illness, family violence, divorce, etc) that have been evident. As they go through the Family Tree (or genogram) flagging these issues they are often suprised to see that the same problems that brought them into therapy have been alive in their families for generation after generation. When I am talking with a client who is a person of faith, I will sometimes refer them to the biblical story we're looking at and point out that in their Family Tree they have been able to identify the 'Giants in the Land.' The issues at hand have deep roots and seem HUGE to them...and they often are. But the question is, will they go in and 'claim the Promised Land' or will they, in their fear of addressing these problems, extend their multi-generational life.

Of note in terms of scripture is the fact that when one of these giants is finally slain, it is David who does so...after that, scripture shows a whole litany of 'giant slayers' in David's family...slaying giants becomes almost a family business.

During this past Lenten season you and I took on some disciplines. We weren't always successful at them, and they often pointed up some things to us that made us unhappy or concerned. There are giants in the land. We know now what some of them are. They block the way of our entering into the fullness of the life that God has for us. Many of them are generations old. What will we do?

This Sunday morning we will dedicate a beautiful baby boy, Evan Gibson Foutz. We will also be committing ourselves to the task of his care and nurture as he grows toward a faith in the God who loves him.

Such commitments remind us that one of the ways we live out those promises is by dealing with the giants in our lives. To the extent that we do so, we free future generations from carrying the burden of those giants. As a father and a grandfather I know something about both the generational healing power of doing that work; and the ways in which those giants travel across the generations when they're not dealt with.

May this fortunate intersection of Evan's dedication and the end of the Lenten season remind us that we can face our giants in the power of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection as we seek to keep our promises both to God and to those who come after us in family and faith.

Hope to see you Sunday.

Friday, March 19, 2010

"If I Be Lifted Up"

This week's scriptures are Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:1-17.

It's Friday evening. Late for me to be writing this blog.
Whenever I'm this late writing you can bet that one of two things has happened: either my week has been crazy; or I'm struggling with the passages. This week it is both....and there may even be a connection.

The book of Numbers from which the story of the Bronze Serpent comes is thought to be the product of what is referred to as the "Priestly Source." This source is very concerned with rules, the power of the Priesthood, and punishment for those who cross either. The book offers a parallel account of the Exodus in its middle portion from which our passage comes.

Frankly, I have a problem with the leanings of the "Priestly Source." It consolidates power in a small group of folks (those of you who know me are well aware of my 'Authority Issues'); and the picture the book paints of a God who is so quick to take offense and strike back with serpents, leprosy, and death doesn't sit well with me. Maybe it doesn't need to. God doesn't need to run anything by me for my approval...but I am aware that this isn't the only view of the Isrealites life with God that the Books of Moses fact there are (at least) two others.

Well then, you might ask, why did you put these two scriptures together? The answer is, I didn't. In John 3:14-15 Jesus says, "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." John, writing some 60 or so years after the resurrection, looked back at the crucifixion and quotes Jesus as making a link between it and the story from Numbers.

So what do we make of this....what do we do?

I said the second reason I run late writing the blog is when my week has been crazy. This has been true as well this week. Maybe it's that Spring is here. Maybe there's a full moon. Maybe it's just the way it is this week. But all week long I have been dealing in particular, intense ways with people who have been "bitten" by the way they've been living their lives. The "stuff" as one might say, has been hitting the fan a lot this week for these folks. Calls made in panic and tearful pleas have hit record highs. Now mind you, in my work as a therapist I get a fair number of these anyway. But for some reason this week has been an all time high. Like the Isrealites writhing in burning pain from the bites of the serpents, these individuals have suffered from the results of their behaviors. Their agony and pain is no less real because they brought some of it on themselves, or because it's psychological.

And here's where I think the important difference in our two passages comes. Moses makes a serpent out of bronze and puts it on a pole. It is lifted up in the wilderness and those who gaze on it are healed of their venomous wounds. The message of the Bronze Serpent is "look what your behavior brought down on you." Often that's also the message of therapy: "look at your behavior...this is the you want to change?" And these are important insights and important questions.


The message of the John passage is radically, radically different.
Jesus said, "if I be lifted up, I will draw all humanity to myself." The message of the Bronze Serpent is "look at the result of your behavior." The message of the cross is "Look at the result of my Love." What wonderous Love is this? It is not a blood bribe. It is a Loving Gift. It is God's own Self experiences all that I might have experienced. Both those wounds that life has inflicted on me, and those that are self inflicted all come to the cross and are displayed on the body of Christ. Look what Love has done. Thanks be to God.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Shame in the Wilderness

This weeks scriptures are Exodus 32:1-14, 19-24 and Luke 22:54-62.

These passages are about shame. Specifically they are about the shame that human beings feel when they have turned their back on God; when they have denied their faith; when they have rejected the One who has cared for them in favor of other gods. This rejection is often....almost alway....based on fear.

Shame is one of the most profound emotions with which we as human beings deal. As a pastor and as a therapist I have found that shame underlies much of the work that needs to be done whether the issues are those of trauma or of questions about God's care and love for us. As for me personally I have found that underneath many of the struggles in my life has been an ongoing issue of shame...both in relation to shame about specific behaviors on my part, and a pervasive sense of shame about simply being...and my experience has also been that I am not alone in these struggles.

One form of shame that is particularly diffficult for many of us stems from the feeling that there is something inherently wrong with us, that we don't measure up to some unseen standard. Many of us got this feeling early on in our lives when we got the message that our parents wanted someone different from who we are. Perhaps they wanted a child who was another gender, or had different abilities, or a different disposition. When we're carrying a sense of shame for just being then our shame at something we've done takes on a darker, more pervasive quality. It is no longer a healthy shame that leads us to repent, to change, to apologize; but an unhealthy shame that leads us to say things to ourselves like, "see, you can't ever do anything right. All you do is hurt people's feelings, mess up their lives, wreck their plans. No wonder mom and dad were never happy with you." Can you see how easily it is to move from one to the other?

Unhealthy shame takes us out of the conversation. Because we feel like the thing that is wrong is part of who we are we see no way out, no way to change, and so we retreat, we hide. Peter did this after Jesus' crucifixion. The beauty of his exchange with Jesus by the fire that morning when Jesus asked him, "Simon Peter do you love me?" was that Jesus drew him back into the conversation. Jesus made it clear that Peter's denial was not the end of the conversation, that Jesus still wanted to talk; still wanted a relationship; still had work for Peter to do.

The Isrealites had reason to be ashamed. They had moved quickly from the point at which God was closest to God's people to trading that intimacy for an idol that they could manipulate and control. Aaron had reason to be ashamed. His excuse, "I threw the gold in the fire and out popped this calf" is a piece of minimization and avoidance of responsibility worthy of an Oscar (any time someone begins an explanation with "all I did was..." you can be sure they knew exactly what they were doing). Peter had reason to be ashamed. He denied the man who he had followed and loved and believed was the Christ. And if the story ends here it is all bad news.

But the truth is found....and the grace is the fact that the final story isn't ours-it's God's. We find ours story in God's story. God's story isn't controlled by our shame. God doesn't allow our shame to end the conversation. Jesus is going to keep talking to Peter. God is going to call Moses back up on the mountain and re-issue the commandments. God will keep the conversation going.

Because this is true, because God is faithful in staying in the conversation even when I try to exit it; I can talk to God about my shame. I can (often very gradually) come to believe that my shame is not the defining word in God's view of me. And I can come to trust that God's love for me is not only not controlled by, but can cleanse and free me from my shame....whatever its source.

This is Good News. This is terrifying news as well. Such a love is beyond my ability to understand. But just because I can't understand it doesn't mean I can't accept it and rejoice in it. It is a redemptive love beyond my control or my comprehension. But it is a love that I can say yes to and recieve with joy.

Hope to see you Sunday.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Are We Willing To Live On Manna And Quail

This week's scriptures are Exodus 16:4-36 and Luke 4:1-13.

In response to the grumbling of the Isrealites in the wilderness, God furnishes them with manna in the morning and meat in the evening between dusk and dark.

But the catch was that they were only to gather enough manna for that particular day-or in the case of the Sabbath, for the two days. If they attempted to save manna, it soured or became infested with maggots. Embedded in this instruction was a reliance on God and God alone for provision. This is the attitude that echoes through all of Jesus' responses to Satan, whether about bread, or power, or security. God would provide. And God did. When the temptation was over, an angel came and cared for Jesus' needs.

The challenge that this poses for me is enormous. I know, in my heart of hearts, that the wilderness journey-the Dark Night of the Soul-demands this kind of trust if it is to be survived...even as it tests and challenges that trust. But I also know in my heart of hearts how difficult this kind of trust is. So many experiences in our lives make trust hard to come by. We want security; not the security of God's promise, but we want a security we can hold in our hand and put in the bank and horde against a bad day.

It has been in the darkest days of my life; when everything was falling apart; that I had to ask myself, "am I willing to risk it? Can I live on "manna and quail?" All to often the answer is, "I don't know. I'm scared. Help me believe. Help me trust." It is in the wildernesses of our lives, the Dark Nights of the Soul, when everything else is stripped away, that these questions become most real; that they take on their greatest weight.

When I was in my mid-twenties and in seminary I worked in inter-city Atlanta. A seasoned pastor there told me of children who, if they were given two pieces of chicken at dinner, would wrap the second piece in a napkin and put it under their pillow. They were making sure that they would be able to eat tomorrow. They had learned that they could not trust their environment (home, foster care, wherever) to supply their needs for tomorrow.

Many of us struggle with the same attitudes. Not necessarily about food, but about emotional needs, money, love, security. Behind each of these struggles is a story of loss or trauma or pain. In the grumbling in the wilderness the Isrealites at least brought their story to the conversation. Mind you they didn't bring it up front and clearly. They didn't say, "we've been enslaved for so long that it's hard to trust God to care for our needs. It's easier to look back through the past with selective memory or to lean on old ways of soothing our pain." But they were talking-and that's the starting point.

As long as you and I can stay in the conversation...especially when it means talking about our fears of living on whatever our version of God's "manna and quail" is....we can trust that God will meet us in the dialogue. God will not abandon us or condemn us because of our fears. God wants to keep the conversation going.

I look at this Exodus passage; then I look at the quality of Jesus' trust and willingness to be totally dependent. I have to say to God, "I have trouble trying to live on "manna and quail". I am afraid. Calm my fears. I believe; help my unbelief. I pound the steering wheel. I cry out in the night. Sometimes I just clam up. But God waits. Patiently. God will not abandon the conversation.

Hope to see you Sunday.