Sunday, March 27, 2011

How Long?

Spring break is coming – lots of family vacations, road trips, and that universal refrain: “How long until we get there?”

College graduation is coming too, with the deeper refrain: “How long until I find a job?” “How long until I feel really settled, ready to get on with my life?”

“How long” is a phrase that seems to be part of who we are. We live so much of our lives in that painful in-between time. The journey is started, the destination is in mind, but that time in between seems impossibly long: to quote T.S. Eliot once again, “ridiculous the waste sad time, stretching before and after.”

Our sermon last Sunday focused on Abraham in Exodus 12 and Romans 4. Chris Hall, our much-loved professor, parishioner, author, and Bible genius, wound his way through those two lectionary texts to end with Nicodemus in John 3. It was a challenging, encouraging sermon, (and if you missed it, I highly recommend it). 

But I confess, somewhere in the middle of it, I found myself caught in the amazing “how long” of Abraham’s life. I had gone two days earlier to pray for Emily, a girl struck by lightening almost three years ago. God has done miraculous things in her life, but there is a long way yet to go, and her family, and those of us who pray, find ourselves asking “how long?”

So Abraham’s “how long” drew me in. And yes, I still heard every word of the sermon, but I was multitasking as I flipped back and forth between Exodus and Romans.

Abraham was 75 when God promised to make him “a great nation” and showed him the land He would give his offspring. He was 86 when he had a son by Hagar, the servant, rather than by Sarah, his wife. He was 100 when God told him to have his clan circumcised, and said he would have a son by Sarah, not Hagar. And 101 when Isaac was finally born.

That’s a long “how long,” with some serious missteps along the way. What seemed improbable at 75 by 100 was beyond impossible. Yet in Hebrews 4 Paul says this:
“Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.”
“Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed. . .  being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.”

Am I fully persuaded God has power to do what He’s promised? How long am I willing to wait in hope? And how do I demonstrate that hope, while I wait?

That refrain, “how long,” is echoed through scripture. Sometimes it’s God’s people, crying to him “how long”: “My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?” (Psalm 6)  Throughout the psalms the cry goes on: How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? How long will the enemy mock you, God?  How long, Lord, will you be angry? How long must your servant wait?

The question continues on through the prophets: “ How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” And even in John’s Revelation, the cry continues: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Revelation 6)

We ask “how long,” and yet, God asks the same of us: “How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions?” (Exodus 16)  “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them? How long will this wicked community grumble against me?” (Numbers 14)  “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” (1 Kings 18)

How long?

As I’ve been thinking about how much of our lives we spend in waiting, I’ve been struck with how, despite the waiting, the time goes flying by. It’s one of those baffling mysteries: we ride along asking “how long?” and then, suddenly, the ride is over, and we realize we missed it.

We are prisoners of time. We can’t make it move faster, no matter how we tinker with technology, trying to save time, speed time, rearrange time. And we can’t make it move slower. There’s a line from Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill that comes back to me now and then: “Time held me green and dying, Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

Time holds me green and dying, and as I wait, to see justice on the earth, to see promises fulfilled, the challenge is to fill the moments as they fly by, to live as someone who “against all hope, in hope believes.”  

Our service ended last week with Al Gordon’s amazing anthem, “How Long.” It’s a powerful expression of longing, waiting, and affirmation. Cruising the internet for a faithful rendition of it, I came across a powerful Tearfund video that captures my hope: to live each day as if justice is on its way, to redeem each minute because the promises are true. To wake up each day to the opportunities and challenges of that day, and to work at whatever I’m given as an offering toward the day that’s coming.

Chris Hall talks often about the “music” of scripture, the song that sings through it that we’re often too tone-deaf to hear. The “how long” song we sing is part of that music, and the song has contrapuntal parts. Repeated, again and again, “how long”: until questions are answered, until healing comes, until justice appears, until we sing the victory song. 

And then, for those who hope and believe, there’s the answering refrain: “Yes I know, you will come. Yes I know, you’ve already won. Yes I know, my redeemer lives, my redeemer lives.”

Woven through both the longing and the hope is the prayer: "Come, Lord Jesus, we are desperate for you here. Come, Lord Jesus, all creation crying out."

Check out this video, enter into it in prayer, and see if you can sing along.

 Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Why Kneel?

         The taste
        of rain
        —Why kneel?
         (Jack Kerouac)

For some reason, kneeling and Lent seemed connected in my mind. Thinking back on the very non-liturgical faith tradition of my childhood, I can’t remember kneeling, or any mention of kneeling. We stood to sing, sat to listen. Our most demonstrative act was to shake someone’s hand after the service.

The first time I remember kneeling was when my grandmother had a heart attack, the spring I was 16. In grief, then prayer, I knelt beside her bed. It seemed the only thing to do. A few years later I witnessed a frightening domestic dispute, with threatened violence and verbal abuse. By the time the abusive party drove off, all I could think of was to kneel with the shaking injured party, and cry, and pray, and wait for God’s comfort and wisdom.

The first time I took communion in an Episcopal church kneeling at the altar, I found myself feeling deeply at home, spiritually fed in a profound and unexpected way, and thankful for the opportunity to kneel. There are times when kneeling seems the only thing to do, the best posture for meeting God, the safest place to be. After the tragic events of 9-11, our church held a prayer service, and I remember kneeling with so many others, thankful to kneel in God’s presence.

I’ve been thinking about kneeling this week, as the tragic news from Japan continues, as events in the Middle East unfold, as the world seems, more than ever, a precarious, fragile, broken place.

Why kneel? What are we doing when we kneel?

For me, kneeling can be a physical expression of lament. I kneel when life is too much, when the pain is too great, when there seems no place to turn. Nahum, describing the fall of Ninevah, says “Hearts melt, knees give way, bodies tremble, every face grows pale”  (Nahum 2). In Hebrew, the word for grief (כרא- kara) sounds exactly like the word for knee, kneel, smite, sink, fall, bring low (כרע - kara’). 

Kneeling is also an expression of repentence. The prophet Ezra, made aware of Israel’s sin, tore his tunic and cloak, “and fell on my knees with my hands spread out to the Lord my God  and prayed: ‘I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. From the days of our ancestors until now, our guilt has been great’” (Ezra 9).

Even more, kneeling is an expression of submission, and supplication. We are small and God is great. In kneeling, we set ourselves in God’s hands. Lepers, seekers, desperate parents knelt as they called out to Jesus for help. Jesus himself knelt in Gethsemene, praying in submission and sorrow before his journey to the cross. 

I sometimes find myself returning, when I kneel, to the words of TS Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” part of his book-length Four Quartets. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but became a British citizen, and an Anglican, in 1927. Fourteen years later, he served as an air raid warden and firewatcher in London during the Blitz, when German bombers targeted London for 76 consecutive nights. Between September, 1940, and May, 1941, forty thousand British civilians, half of them in London, had been killed by bombing. More than a million houses in London were destroyed or damaged.

"Little Gidding" is about many things, but in large part it’s about the pain of living in a ruined city, in a time of great devastation, and the challenge of living in faith when hope seems gone. In a letter to a friend, Eliot noted that the memorable line “Ash on an old man's sleeve” referred to the debris of a bombing raid hanging in the air for hours afterwards. "Then it would slowly descend and cover one's sleeves and coat in a fine white ash." That second section continues with a description of the bombers leaving the city: “In the uncertain hour before the morning/ Near the ending of interminable night / At the recurrent end of the unending / After the dark dove with the flickering tongue /  Had passed below the horizon of his homing . . .”

In the section before that, Eliot writes of kneeling, and of prayer: 
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion….
…You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
We come to our knees through different routes, through pain, guilt, grief, helplessness. And once there, we set aside “sense and notion,” all the games our minds play, all the willfulness so hard to escape. In kneeling, we speak to God in a way that goes beyond “the order of words, the conscious occupation of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.” Certainly we can pray in any posture, but in kneeling, in a physical way, we declare our need, our dependence, our submission.

Psalm 22 says “all who go down to the dust will kneel before him— those who cannot keep themselves alive.” Contemporary Americans tend to be control freaks, desperate to fortify ourselves against the hazards that surround us. But despite our efforts, we, like all who have lived before us, are “those who cannot keep themselves alive.” Independent though we are, resourceful as we like to think ourselves, a moment of honest reflection in the light of earthquakes and nuclear meltdowns will remind us that we are in need of resources and wisdom beyond ourselves.

The famous poem “Invictus”, poet William Ernest Henley’s one claim to fame, boasts “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” The truth is something different. We are not masters of anything. We are frighteningly dependent. Watch the evening news and be reminded of how fragile this life is. In kneeling, we find our place again, as people of the Lord’s pasture, small sheep in his care: "Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care." Psalm 95

We kneel now, in penance and petition, but we are also told there will come a time when all will kneel.  Isaiah tells us: "Before me every knee will bow;  by me every tongue will swear." (Isaiah 45) Paul repeats this in Romans 14:  “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’

Adoration of the Lamb ~ Jan Van Eyck
In Philippians 2, Paul expands this vision, to both a present reality (Jesus is already exalted, already give a name above every name), and a time in the future when we will kneel to acknowledge him:

 Therefore God exalted him
to the highest place
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth
and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
          Philippians 2

 In these days when we see the whole creation groaning, we kneel to remind ourselves that the story doesn’t end here, and to demonstrate our allegiance to the coming king and his eternal kingdom, that time when “God’s dwelling place [will be] among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

 Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Desert Days

You, God, 
   are my God,
   earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
   my whole being 
  longs for you,
in a dry 
   and parched land
   where there is no 

Psalm 64

The season of Lent is meant to remind us of Jesus’ forty days in the desert, in preparation for his ministry. It also echoes another desert passage: the Israelites forty years in the wilderness, before entering the promised land. 

The theme of desert runs through scripture: Abraham’s desert years, between promise and fulfillment of an heir. Moses, running from Egypt, resigned to nomadic life far from his people.

Some deserts look a little different: Jacob’s fourteen years laboring for his father-in-law Laban. Joseph’s years in a dark prison cell.

Part of the desert experience is deprivation: the loss of comfort, familiarity, people we love, places we feel safe. But even more, the desert is a place of question: what did God have in mind? Why did he say I was chosen, only to be left here in this dry, desolate place?

The Israelites, facing the desert, wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt. Abraham took matters in his own hands: pretending Sarah was his sister, fathering a child by Hagar. The desert is a place of testing: what does faithfulness look like, when nothing is as we had hoped or imagined?

Our practice of Lent, giving up chocolate or dessert, fasting a meal or two each week, doesn’t get us far in our experience of desert. But for me, the season of Lent is a reminder to press in to that knowledge of desert we all carry with us.

We set out on this journey expecting life would be easy. Trusting God would meet every need. Certain our fellow travelers would support and encourage us along the way.

And then things took a turn. Our prayers seemed to go unanswered. Our struggles grew greater, not less. A trusted friend – a fellow Christian - betrayed us. Those we turned to for help looked the other way.

The wilderness, the desert, is part of this life of following Christ. It’s reassuring, even comforting, in a strange sort of way, to spend time each year remembering this. We sometimes think, in our desert times, that God has forgotten us, or that we must have imagined what we know to be true. Yet Jesus himself, God’s beloved son, was led into the desert by an angel.

David, “a man after God’s own heart,” logged plenty of time in the desert, and left us his desert songs to remind us:
Hear my prayer, Lord;
   let my cry for help come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
   when I am in distress.
Turn your ear to me;
   when I call, answer me quickly.
 For my days vanish like smoke;
   my bones burn like glowing embers.
My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
   I forget to eat my food.
In my distress I groan aloud
   and am reduced to skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl,
   like an owl among the ruins.
Psalm 102
The desert reminds us: we don’t have the answers. We aren’t in charge. We are small people, held in the hands of a mighty God.

I love the story of Elijah’s meltdown: he faced off the prophets of Ba’al and wicked king Ahaz with amazing boldness, then ran off to the wilderness and collapsed beneath a broom bush, saying: “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” 

God sent an angel to feed him, and then Elijah traveled on for forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God, where he had a rendezvous with God. The full story is in 1 Kings 19. It’s an encounter with mystery, with power, and a reminder that god is in charge, has a plan, and that Elijah is not alone: God is with him, has a plan, and there are others who are faithful.

It helps to share our own stories of desert, to hear other’s stories, and to be reminded: the desert is part of the story. Not the start, definitely not the end. Psalm 107 encourages us: 
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
   his love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story—
   those he redeemed from the hand of the foe,
those he gathered from the lands,
   from east and west, from north and south.
 Some wandered in desert wastelands,
   finding no way to a city where they could settle.
They were hungry and thirsty,
   and their lives ebbed away.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
   and he delivered them from their distress.
He led them by a straight way
   to a city where they could settle.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
   and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he satisfies the thirsty
   and fills the hungry with good things.
The desert isn’t the whole story, but it’s an important part. And in our desert times, we do well to remember: we don’t have the answers. We aren’t the ones in charge. We’re called to be faithful, and to wait in hope, even when waiting is hard, and hope seems impossible. Lent leads to Good Friday, and beyond that, to the resurrection. 
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
 You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
       (T.S. Eliot, East Coker III)
 Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

(In)visible Witness

This Wednesday, March 9, is Ash Wednesday, and by the end of the day many Christians will be wearing a smudge of ashes on the forehead – a visible witness to the call for repentance.

It’s always interested me to see ashes on the foreheads of people who’ve given no other sign of interest in the Christian faith. It’s a good thing, isn’t it? A quiet acknowledgement of the life of the church, a reminder of the beginning of Lent, an expression of sorrow for the ways we’ve fallen short of God’s best.

I know there are non-liturgical Christians who find the ashes offensive. Acts of repentence are to be done in secret, right? In Matthew 6, the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, Jesus says “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

He goes on to give specifics: “when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

And “when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

And “when you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

So, ashes are a bad thing?

Is faith meant to be private? Is it strictly an individual thing, between me and God?

In Matthew 5, Jesus says ““You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

If we live our faith in secret, how will our light shine before others? If we don’t let our right hand know what our left hand is doing, how will our good deeds bring God glory?

I think Jesus was talking about motivation. In the Jewish culture of his day, charity, prayer, and fasting were assumed. Everyone knew what was expected, everyone knew how to do it, but, as becomes clear as Jesus talks about the Pharisees in other places, these acts of obedience had become spectator sports, done to impress, rather than please God or encourage others.

The current problem is very different.

In The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior, Steven Garber wrestles with a question that has troubled me for years: how can young Christians grasp a coherent worldview, when they don’t hear one fully articulated? But even more, how can they learn to live that worldview with integrity, when they see few visible examples?

In hours of conversation with Christians who have come through the early years of career and family with faith and focus intact, Garber discovered, among other things, that “what I believe is deeply affected by my social experience: my family, community, city, society, and century.”

On one level that seems obvious, but consider a culture where
We believe that each man must find the truth
That is right for him.
Reality will adapt accordingly.
The universe will readjust. History will alter.
We believe there is no absolute truth
Excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth.
We believe in the rejection of creeds. (Steve Turner, Creed)

Garber discusses the work of Peter Berger, a sociologist who has spent forty years studying “the relationship between belief and behavior in the light of modernity’s power to shape how we see and live in the world.” According to Berger:

“Meaning systems …must be lived collectively; constant interaction with other people who perceive and interpret reality in the same way as oneself is necessary if one’s “nomos” [socially constructed ordering of experience] is to be automatically effective in embuing one’s everyday experience with meaning. But modern societies have largely dissolved these supportive systems. … So in the end the individual is in a certain sense alone with the task of making sense of the world and his own place in it out of scraps and oddments culled here and there in his differentiated life and contacts.”

How do we understand what’s real, what works, what’s of value, what’s worth pursuing, when called on to construct that reality on our own?

There are plenty of philosophies available, products to buy, anthems to sing. Have it your way. Do what feels right. Be fastest, smartest, prettiest, best. Run over anyone who gets in your way.

Who advocates for the life of faith? If the only time we talk about God, his word, prayer, giving, fasting, discipleship, compassion, is Sunday morning or evening, if the only place that conversation about faith and practice takes place is in church,  no wonder kids think it’s irrelevant.

Deuteronomy 11 says “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates . . . .”

That passage may be familiar. What may be less familiar is the rationale just before it:

“Remember today that your children were not the ones who saw and experienced the discipline of the Lord your God: his majesty, his mighty hand, his outstretched arm;  the signs he performed and the things he did in the heart of Egypt, both to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his whole country; what he did to the Egyptian army, to its horses and chariots, how he overwhelmed them with the waters of the Red Sea as they were pursuing you, and how the Lord brought lasting ruin on them. It was not your children who saw what he did for you in the wilderness until you arrived at this place . . .. But it was your own eyes that saw all these great things the Lord has done.”

Moses was warning his people: what to you is real, clear, even obvious, in a different place and time will seem implausible, even ridiculous, if you don’t continue to share the stories of God’s work in the world. Daily, hourly, at home, on the road. God has demonstrated his power – now it’s up to you to keep that reality visible for those who haven’t seen it.

 We are surrounded by stories, voices, demonstrations of ways to live. More than any other culture, ever, we are inundated with ideas about what does and doesn’t work, what is and isn’t of value. The messages are non-stop, inescapable, wired into our children’s brains, popping up on our screens, pressing in from every side.

Who shares the message of faith? Who demonstrates what the life of faith looks like? Who makes the life Christ modeled visible, plausible, compelling?

If we have seen God at work, we need to tell about it, for those who haven’t seen it, don’t believe it, can’t quite imagine it. If there’s joy in giving, we need to share that, for those who can’t picture it, for those who worry about how they’d make ends meet if they redivided the monthly budget. If there’s power in prayer, we need to celebrate, testify, tell the story, affirm that yes, God is faithful, powerful, real. We need to talk about the realities of the Christian faith at the dinner table, driving to and from school, in quiet conversations before bed, at family gatherings with the extended family listening, with colleagues, friends, neighbors.

We also need to show what it looks like. I know many kids and young adults who have never seen anyone read a Bible except sitting in a church pew, who have never heard adults talk about God’s word in the context of a family decision. It saddens me to think of the times I’ve asked “who do you pray with about this?” and heard the answer, from kids, young adults, parents: nobody.

I am deeply thankful for the people who have been brave enough, consistent enough, to demonstrate the Christian life to me in a way I could see and understand. Family, friends, colleagues, faithful people who have shown me, bit by bit, what obedience looks like. What sacrificial giving looks like. What a life of prayer looks like.  What real repentence looks like. In real lives. In the real world I live in.

John Stott, in commentaries and study guides on the Sermon on the Mount, quotes the Scottish theologian AB Bruce: “we are to 'show when tempted to hide' and 'hide when tempted to show.’”

Too often, we’re tempted to hide, and to keep hidden what we’re called to make visible. We’re happy to express ourselves, but uncomfortable expressing the salt and light we’re called to live. We forget this amazing reality: we’re called to be like Christ. To make Christ known. In the particulars, the details, the dailiness of life.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
                                                     Gerard Manley Hopkins

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.