Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Way of Being in the World

I’ve been thinking about how we live our Christian lives, and wondering what has been most helpful to me, this past year, in shaping a praxis that accurately reflects the good news of Christ.

First stop is a definition of “praxis.” There are spiritual disciplines, there are “things we should do.” But praxis is a word that has surfaced in Christian community lately that for me seems to go a bit deeper. In the world of education, praxis means “applying what you’ve learned,” or “putting theory into practice.”

In the world of faith, it’s been interpreted as “reflective active,” “living what you believe,” a combination of thought and action lived in community with others who share the same understanding and vision. N. T. Wright describes it as “a way of being in the world." The term praxis carries the idea of conversation lived out consistently with others, a shared understanding of God and active faith that informs the way we worship, work, and care for one another.

From what I can see, Christian praxis can only happen in conversation with others. So one question I’ve been asking of friends and family, in hopes of spurring conversation, is this: what book have you read recently that has most impacted the way you live your Christian life?

The question grew out of my own awareness that much of what I read rarely finds its way into practical application. Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline impacted me strongly, and continues to shape the way I walk out my faith, but I first read that thirty years ago. What has impacted me in the decades since?

Another book that came to mind was Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. That prompted discussion of finances, budget, and visions for the future at a time when we and our friends were just starting careers, beginning families, thinking through what would matter for the years ahead.  Sider’s vision and practical application have had a lingering influence on our giving, tithing, planning, and financial values, but again, my husband Whitney and I read that about the same time we read Celebration of Discipline - in our very early twenties.

Two recent books that came to mind for me were worlds apart, yet helpful in praxis in ways that many books I read are not:

The Better World Shopping Guide, by Ellis Jones. Thoughtful friends gave me this as a gift. I received it as a loving challenge to live out more faithfully questions of justice and economics. It’s a guide for socially responsible shopping based on questions about how corporations treat employees, demonstrate care for the environment, contribute to justice or injustice. Its helped us to rethink how we spend our money, a reminder that every act has consequences and that small changes can have far-reaching impact.

Sabbath, by Dan Allender. I’ve mentioned this book before, but continue to be surprised at how Allender’s discussion of Sabbath has challenged much of what I think about work, time, schedules, goals, relationships, worry, rest. The practical application of Sabbath, I’m realizing, reaches into every corner of our lives. Sabbath is a way to set aside anxiety, disengage from the values of the world around us, and step into a place of quiet where God can begin to transform us from the inside out.

Other books suggested by those I’ve talked with:

Living Like Jesus. Another book by Ron Sider, this one challenges individuals to be conformed to Christ, while reminding the church to provide “a little picture of heaven,” in relationships, economics, politics, service, stewardship of the earth. I had forgotten how quietly practical this book was, and agreed immediately when it was suggested.

Halftime: Moving from Success to Significance, by Bob Buford. My husband Whitney recommended this one as a practical encouragement for men in mid-career to rethink their values, reaffirm identity in Christ, and use resources, opportunities, and experience strategically for the kingdom of God. I haven’t read it, but like the questions it raises: What am I really good at?  What is most important to me? What do I want to be remembered for? I find myself wondering if there’s a similar book for mid-career women.

Not the Religious Type, Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist, by Dave Schmelzer. Again, I haven’t read this, but plan to. Here’s part of a review on Amazon that caught my attention: “Schmelzer makes the case … that each of us has cultural baggage, Christian, secular or otherwise, that can be detrimental to following Jesus, but that rather than fighting over issues of one culture over and against another he argues simply for the experience of God wherever a person may be.” This sounds like an effective pastor’s personal story of his experience of living and sharing the gospel, a helpful demonstration of faith in action.

It’s been interesting to me how many of the people I asked about books and praxis had nothing that came to mind. I rephrased the question several times: What’s helped you in your Christian walk? What’s challenged you to change in some way? What might you give to someone wondering what it means to live as a Christian? What have you read in the last year / recently / that you remember that has made a difference in how you live?

I know there are good books out there. I’m assembling a list gleaned from my favorite book blog –heartsandmindsbooks.com - to share in my next blog post and to read in the year ahead.

But I'm still asking the question: any books you’ve read that have shaped your praxis, challenged your practice, brought new energy to your walk of faith?

If so, please share them! Praxis is a conversation.

I’ll close with one last suggestion offered by one of our daughters - Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, by Wendell Berry. I’ll quote most of it, since it’s a great reminder and challenge as we start a new year:

So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus

that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion - put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
. . . Practice resurrection.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Hope

When I was a kid, my Christmas hope was small: I hoped we’d have a tree.  For some reason, I took that seriously, and it often seemed to be in question. Times were hard, and trees cost money; adult energy was in short supply, and trees took time and effort to buy, wrestle into their stands, and decorate. We had quite a few “miracle” trees, but also some sad Christmases without.

Another Christmas hope, of course, was for presents. I knew there would be at least one, but that one would be practical (a coat? boots? pajamas?) So I hoped for an extra present – something fun? Would that be too much to ask?

Later, my hope turned to family: would I make it home for Christmas? would any of my siblings be there? would the larger family gather?

In young adulthood, hope seemed beside the point, as I slid into the Christmas dash of presents, decorating, cooking. Add cards, stockings, late-night wrapping. Did I mention cooking?

Looking back, I can see that my hopes for the Christian life were also rather small. Did I have my ticket to heaven?

I can hear objections. No. Of course that isn’t small. Eternal life is huge.

And yet. . . . My understanding of eternal life, of “salvation”, I’m afraid, was small. Very individual. Very far off.

As I grew older, my understanding of the Christian life was expanded, slightly, by the keeping of lists: things to do, things to not do. Ideas that fit. Ideas that didn’t fit. Did I mention things to not do?

I hear more objections. No. Of course those lists have nothing to do with eternal life.

And yet . . . What else were we up to, if not making sure we believed the right things, did the right things, didn’t do the wrong things?

Somehow, when I consider the words of the Old Testament prophecies, and the proclamations by John the Baptist, and then by Jesus, that “the kingdom of God is at hand,” it’s with a deep certainty that we should be hoping for more than eternal life somewhere in the distance.

There are prophetic passages from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, that sing of a powerful new global reality breaking into the sad, dark, broken world we live in. In this Christmas season, I’ve been puzzling over this prophecy from Isaiah 9:

 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. . .
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
   and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 


Yes, it’s so familiar we no longer hear it. We read it every Christmas, and the words resonate and inspire, but we say “ah yes, Jesus,” and rarely think beyond it. Of course, the prophecy refers to the birth of Christ, and his coming kingdom. But there are parts that surprise me: what does it mean that “the government will be on his shoulders”?

And which part of the prophecy was fulfilled in Christ’s birth, which in his resurrection, which is yet to come?
Let me approach the question differently. The angel, speaking to the shepherds out in the hills, said “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Was the good news, and great joy, meant to be immediate? Or was it far off? Was it for everyone, everywhere, or a narrowly chosen few?

I’ve been thinking about how often the prophets referred to “the nations.” Isaiah and Jeremiah alone refer to “the nations” 121 times. Enlightenment Christians have been led to believe that salvation is very individual, personal, rational: “believe the right thing, and you’re set.”

But the prophecies point to a salvation that is far more communal, global, interconnected, touching all of life.
Tim Keller, respected pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, explained the two conflicting views of the gospel in a Christianity Today article several years ago.

A generation ago, evangelicals agreed on “the simple gospel”: (1) God made you and wants to have a relationship with you, (2) but your sin separates you from God. (3) Jesus took the punishment your sins deserved, (4) so if you repent from sins and trust in him for your salvation, you will be forgiven, justified, accepted freely by grace, and indwelt with his Spirit until you die and go to heaven.
Today there are at least two major criticisms of this simple formulation. One criticism says it is too individualistic, that Christ’s salvation is not so much to bring individual happiness as to bring peace, justice, and a new creation. A second criticism says there is no one simple gospel, because everything is contextual and the Bible itself contains many gospel presentations that exist in tension with each other.

I’ve been trying to put in words my own view of “the gospel,” or the “good news” that the angels proclaimed to the shepherds. Here’s my best effort to date:

God, in allowing humans freedom, allowed us to set ourr wills, our plans, our agendas, against his own, in a way that brings broken relationships not only between humanity and God, but between man and brother, husband and wife, parent and child. This brokenness brings lasting harm to creation, our physical health, our understanding of work, our experience of love, joy, pleasure. On our own, we’re slaves to having it our own way, incapable of health in any aspect of our lives.

Jesus came to clarify God’s intent for us, to proclaim freedom, to show us what it looks like to be the people God created us to be, and then, through his death and resurrection, to give us the power to become those people: forgiven, restored, equipped to be agents of the kingdom, here, now, in this present reality.

So the good news is not just our own eternal relationship with God, but friendship with God, now, right here, in a way that impacts all creations, all people, all nations. And while we will praise God forever, in some way we can’t yet picture, we’re called to bring glory to him now, as we demonstrate his power, goodness, love. That calling is not for us as individuals, but for us as a community of faith, demonstrating the reality of God’s kingdom in every area of life: care of creation, care of the poor, welcome of the stranger, concern for justice in what we buy or sell, radical kindness to neighbors, children, the weak.

The implications of this good news are massive, explosive, uncontainable.

Working with youth, young adults, committed youth leaders, deeply committed Christians in difficult places, I’ve had the huge privilege of seeing what happens when this good news is taken seriously. I’ve also seen how easy it is for keepers of the status quo to dissuade young or new believers from allegiance to this vision of the good news.

The good news always brings demands. For Mary and Joseph: risk the simple comfort of your own private love story, face public scorn, leave your homes and run to Egypt with the wrath of Herod behind you.

For the shepherds: leave your flocks, go, see, then share the good news.

For the magi: leave the comfort of your wealth, embark on a dangerous journey that grows more dangerous as you near your puzzling destination.

For the disciples, the early believers, and every true follower since: put what you know and love on the line, be willing to risk ridicule, loss, abuse, for the sake of this life-changing reality.

N. T. Wright wrote a book a few years ago called Surprised by Hope; he argues that Christians have misunderstood the meaning of heaven, the promises of the kingdom of God, and as a result, have neglected the call to live in this present world as agents of that kingdom. He insists (and demonstrates persuasively) that when we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done,” we’re describing a current reality:

“God’s kingdom” and “kingdom of heaven” mean the same thing: the sovereign rule of God (that is, the rule of heaven, of the one who lives in heaven), which according to Jesus was and is breaking in to the present world, to earth. That is what Jesus taught us to pray for. . . This, as we have seen, is what the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit are all about. They are designed not to take us away from this earth but rather to make us agents of the transformation of this earth.

Wright’s Midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve 2008 is a helpful discussion of this Christmas hope; I’m tempted to quote the whole thing. I’d love to have a group of friends read it together, then sit down and say “what do we do next?”


 ‘The government shall be upon his shoulders’: that is the good news of the gospel. But the way Jesus Christ exercises his authority, consistent with the nature of that authority, is always through the healing and renewal of human beings, calling them as he called his first followers to the dangerous, difficult but glorious task of working as his agents, growing the kingdom as we say, making it happen for real people in the real world. Hence the to-and-fro between worship and witness, between what happens here at the altar and what happens down the street. With the story of the Christ-child in our hearts, and the Spirit of Jesus giving us energy and direction, we are called to be kingdom-bringers in whatever sphere we can. We have to think globally and act locally, campaigning for the big issues like debt remission and climate change, and working on the local issues like housing, asylum and unemployment. Isaiah spoke of the authority of the child growing continually, spreading justice and peace throughout the world, and it is through the work of Jesus’ followers that this is to come about, upheld and directed by what the prophet calls ‘the zeal of the Lord of hosts’.


My immediate hope is for much conversation in the year ahead about this good news, this life-changing call, and this eternal kingdom, visible in us as we choose to listen. And my deeper hope is to be a faithful part of this reality, and to see God’s kingdom lived, proclaimed, demonstrated here on earth.


May God bless you this Christmas. May He give you ears to hear the call of His good news, and wisdom and courage to obey. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Mary's Song

I’ve always enjoyed reading Luke’s account of Mary and Elizabeth in Luke 1. It’s one of those little advent side-stories that reveals far more than we take time to hear.

Mary, pregnant, unmarried, fresh from her shattering encounter with Gabriel, hurried off to the hills to see her much older relative Elizabeth. Elizabeth, past the time of childbearing, is pregnant with the soon-to-be-born John, the John who will become the prophet John the Baptist, the John predicted to her husband by Gabriel.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.  In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.


That little paragraph stirs up so many themes:

1.      Elizabeth’s obedience to the Spirit’s prompting. She sounds a little out there. How does she know Mary will respond well to what she says? Yet Elizabeth’s obedience in sharing what she was given to say deepened Mary’s own faith and obedience, and is handed down to us, all these years later, as an example of the Spirit’s action.

2.      The importance of rich, encouraging friendship among women (and men) of very different ages. Who is reinforcing the anti-Christian idea that we should only be friends with people our own age? How many times has God spoken through me to people much older? Much younger? How many times has God used courageous,s much younger people, faithful much older people, to nurture and encourage my faith?

3.      The spiritual liveliness of an unborn child. If John, in his mother’s womb, could respond to his unborn savior, Jesus, what does that tell us about when life begins? About the spiritual nurture of preborn children? About the potential spiritual responsiveness of even our smallest family members? Interesting to consider.

But the part of the story I’ve been considering comes next, Mary’s song of praise, often called “the Magnificat.”

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. 



I’ve always been struck by the prophetic beauty of Mary’s song. Clearly these words go beyond her own understanding, as prophetic words always do. They point to God’s faithfulness across generations, and the power of his plan.

But there’s an edge to this song, as there’s an edge to any prophetic message. As God extends his mercy, he scatters the proud. As he lifts the humble, he brings down rulers. As he fills the hungry, he sends the rich away empty.

I’ve been reading Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination, on the strong recommendation of our son. His insights into the announcement of the kingdom of God shed light on Mary’s song:

“The coming of Jesus meant the abrupt end of things as they were. . . . But surely implicit in the announcement [of the kingdom] is the counterpart that present kingdoms will end and be displaced.... The announcement carries within it a harsh criticism of all those powers and agents of the present order. His message was to the poor, but others kept them poor and benefited from their poverty. He addressed the captives, but others surely wanted that arrangement unchanged. He named the oppressed, but there are never oppressed without oppressors.”


Mary’s song of joy and praise was sung from the margins, on behalf of all those on the margins who wait with joy for the coming king. But her song was a threat to those in places of power: to Herod, to the Pharisees, to the rich, the rulers, the proud. In her song, Mary pictured a new reality.  According to Brueggemann, that’s what prophets do: help us see, and grieve, the present order, and help us imagine, look toward, believe possible, act in harmony with, the new reality that’s been promised.

Brueggemann returned to this theme in a later article (The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity):

As a little child Jesus must often have heard his mother, Mary, singing. And as we know, she sang a revolutionary song, the Magnificat--the anthem of Luke's Gospel. She sang about neighborliness: about how God brings down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly; about how God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. Mary did not make up this dangerous song. She took it from another mother, Hannah, who sang it much earlier to little Samuel, who became one of ancient Israel's greatest revolutionaries. Hannah, Mary, and their little boys imagined a great social transformation. Jesus enacted his mother's song well. Everywhere he went he broke the vicious cycles of poverty, bondage, fear and death; he healed, transformed, empowered and brought new life. Jesus' example gives us the mandate to transform our public life.


In our sermon today, Geof Morin talked about the cost of planting our feet firmly in the reality of the Christmas story. If the genealogical record in Matthew 1 is true, if the angel’s message to Joseph is true, if the coming of the savior, Jesus Christ, is true, how do we live that out? What does it cost us? How do the patterns of our daily life reflect this radical reality?

We’ll be singing lots of Christmas songs in the next week. Whose songs are they? Whose reality do they represent?

As I tally my Christmas spending, I find myself wondering: Am I one of the rich Mary sang about, one of those who will be brought low? Am I among the proud? Do I benefit from oppression? Do I quietly support the current regime, and turn from the oppressed?

As I plan my time for the week ahead, I wonder: how can I live more faithfully as a visible witness of a new kingdom, when I’m so firmly entrenched in the old one?

And what am I hoping for? That’s the question I find myself asking, as I prepare for Christmas, write my Christmas cards, finish my shopping, pull out my cookie recipes. At the end of the day, at the beginning of the day, what am I hoping for?

And what am I doing, now, to make that hope visible?

A friend, Chaz Howard, chaplain at UPenn, was featured this morning in an Inquirer article. His resolution11.org is one place to start the conversation.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Fifty-Five!

Today is my birthday. I’m fifty-five, and since I was born in 1955, this seems like a significant celebration. Fortunately, 20th Century Fox decided to release the new Narnia film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in honor of the occasion, so it will be a very merry day.

I’ve been thinking about age, and how uncomfortable women can be admitting their real age. We’re supposed to be forever 29, as if that’s somehow the golden moment of womanhood. My own memory of 29 is of no sleep, no free time, and bouts of young-mother depression. Not a stage I’d willingly return to.

In most other cultures, age is considered an asset, not a liability. Social status increases with age, and elders of both genders are honored for their wisdom, experience, and knowledge.

The U.S., with its love of the individual, its disdain for wisdom, and its endorsement of eternal adolescence, continues to forge new ground in fear of growing older. Hair color sales have doubled since 2001; plastic surgery and botox injections continue to rise far faster than projections suggested.

While men are impacted by this love of youth, women seem to bear a heavier burden. How many men lie about their age? Various studies have shown that women are perceived as old, on average, ten years before men. Women are targeted far more heavily for treatments and products that minimize the appearance of aging, and are far more likely than men to feel dissatisfied with their appearance. In 2009, women received over four million botox injections, (94 % of the total number), and 7.2 million cosmetic surgery procedures (87 % of the total). 75% of women over 40 dye their hair, compared to about 5% of men.

My own hair started turning grey before I turned thirty. Pressured by friends, I bought a box of Clairol hair color and took it home to read the label. It looked like more time and bother than I was willing to spend. At the time, my concern was both time and money, which were in equally short supply. When I raised the question with friends, they had strong opinions on the wisdom of home vs. salon dying, but not so much wisdom on the question of why do it at all. Why? “If you don’t, you’ll look old!”

I tend to look at decisions from the standpoint of Luke 14: “If one of you wants to build a tower, won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?” Sitting on my bed, staring once again at that box of Clairol hair dye, I pictured the hours adding up to weeks, the dollars adding up to thousands. And finally threw the box away.

When the topic came up several years later, I added concern about the health risks of hair dye: coal tar (listed as FD&C or D&C on ingredients labels) has been linked to bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma. Another common ingredient, lead acetate, is banned in Europe, since studies have suggested it disrupts heart activity, causes neurological problems, and can lead to fetal mortality. Wouldn’t the FDA tell us if hair dyes weren’t safe? Unfortunately, they have no oversight of hair dye, or any other cosmetic, cream, fragrance, or shampoo.

Add some unexplored environmental concerns: does anyone have any idea where all those chemicals go? Once they’re in our water, is there any hope of getting them out?

Time, money, health, environment. My current deepest concern is the American obsession with appearance. If women my age cave to the pressure to artificially change our appearance, what does that say to younger women, watching us? In a culture obsessed with physical beauty, in a world where digital presentations of women create impossible expectations, the pressure on teen girls continues to grow. The age of first cosmetic surgery, first Botox injection, first use of hair dye, all press lower every year. Add the danger of eating disorders, and the epidemic of depression and anxiety for girls who don’t measure up. Dove has done a good job of depicting the strain (beauty pressure / photoshopped beauty / true colors).  I’m not sure they’ve offered solutions.  

In talking with teen girls about appearance, I can’t help but refer to Romans 12:2: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. We live in a world where corporations profit from our dissatisfaction. As we conform to the world’s patterns we internalize its values until we, like those around us, value others for their appearance, dismiss those who are “ugly” or “old,” rest our own joy on how we think we look each morning. 

We’ve been sold a very expensive lie: combine the dollars we spend on appearance each year, and we’d have the funds to solve extreme poverty. Easily.

We won’t break free on our own, but we can offer ourselves, our aging, imperfect, physical selves, in gratitude, not complaint. God made us. Short, tall, skinny, plump, wrinkles, zits, bad hair days. We can wage the futile fight against time, or we can turn our attention to more important, more eternal things:
Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.

Worship the LORD with gladness;
   come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the LORD is God.
   It is he who made us, and we are his;
   we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving
   and his courts with praise;
   give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
   his faithfulness continues through all generations.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Advent Two

Today was the second Sunday of Advent, the Sunday we light the candle representing peace, and read the story of John the Baptist’s baptism of his cousin, Jesus.

It’s always seems an odd juxtaposition, but this Sunday the irony of it hit me harder than usual. John is proclaiming the coming of the Prince of Peace, and calling people to prepare. He announces that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and surely expects to participate fully in that kingdom as it becomes apparent on the earth.

But anyone who knows the little bits about John we’re given in scripture would know that before long John will be in prison, wondering why the kingdom hasn’t appeared in the way he expected. And not long after that, he’ll be dead, beheaded by a petty dictator trying to impress a teenage girl.

Like John the Baptist, we live in a between time – the kingdom is at hand; the kingdom is coming. We live with disappointment, and doubt, and the more obedient we’ve tried to be, the more deeply we feel the pain of trusting in a promise that hasn’t yet appeared.

The story of John’s doubt appears in Matthew 11: “When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’”

That’s not the real question. John knew without question the answer to that one: Jesus was the Messiah, prophesied by angels, confirmed by miracles in his own life and his cousin's, affirmed yet again by a voice from heaven. The real question was one John was afraid to ask: If you’re the Messiah, and if I’ve been faithful, why am I here, in prison? Why have you forgotten me? Why did this obedience gig end up so very badly?

John proclaimed Jesus’ coming by quoting Isaiah; Jesus responded to John’s question by quoting Isaiah as well. “Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. “ It’s an obvious reference, and expansion, of Isaiah 61, the text Jesus read in the synagogue when he began his years of ministry.

None of that was new to John. But “as John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John.” After asking “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” Jesus affirmed that John was a prophet, “and more than a prophet. Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist . . . .”

Part of the question that rises up in us, when we’ve tried to serve, to be obedient, to live in the way we believe God has called us, is this: Did I hear it right? Was I a fool to believe it? Did God really have a plan for me, or was I just supposed to put life on cruise-control, take it easy, not take my faith so seriously?

Somehow, we’ve been lead to think that if God really called us, it would go easily. If we’re following God’s plan, things should be smooth. Doesn’t God bless us if we obey? Isn’t that what confirmation looks like? Can't we expect visible success? Problems solved?

When things don’t go well, when things appear to fall apart, when troubles threaten and friends turn away, our immediate thought is “I must have misunderstood.”

But Jesus was clear: John, you’re right on track. A prophet, and more than a prophet. Don’t second guess it because you’re in prison. Don’t let your followers, or friends, or the people around you, discount you because it looks like it’s coming to a painful end.

There’s another part of John’s question, though: Have you forgotten me? Was I faithful for nothing?

Jesus’ answer has baffled commentators, puzzled preachers, and prompted one of the most compelling, troubling works of American fiction, Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear it Away:

“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it.”

Jesus said plenty of puzzling things, and translation often poses an additional problem in understanding what was meant. Did Jesus mean that the kingdom of heaven is subject to violent attack? That’s one way to read it, but there are others (quick summaries of quite a few).

My own impression is that Jesus was still building on the theme he started in the teaching of the previous chapter, Matthew 10: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword…. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it."

John the Baptist’s crossroad is one that any Christian struggling to serve, grow, and live faithfully will face. The choices are obvious. Some decide the whole thing was a sham from the start. If it can go this badly, obviously, there was nothing to it. Better to sleep in on Sunday mornings and set the whole endeavor aside. Others decide that autopilot might be a good alternative. Sure, God is real, but it’s not worth the hassle to try to figure out what He’s up to. Show up Sunday morning, agree to whatever “propositional truth” will cause least pain, and go about your daily business. Most pews are full of quietly discouraged disciples, who thought it should be easy, and settled for less when the going got hard.

Then there’s the path of that cloud of witnesses of Hebrews 11, that path of courageous faith, sacrifice and struggle that can lead to great victory, amazing miracles, martyrdom, apparent defeat. Whenever my own path seems less than successful, or more difficult than I had hoped, I remind myself of that amazing litany:

I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—  the world was not worthy of them.

Flannery O’Connor, discussing The Violent Bear it Away, wrote to a friend: “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”

As the days grow short and the weather cold, a big electric blanket would be nice. But even in this advent season, when we’re tempted by calls to every convenience and teased with visions of ease and plenty, Jesus calls us to be on guard, to stand firm, and to look to him as the example of what this life of faith will be. As he said again, not long before his own death: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”