Sunday, March 29, 2015

Lent Six: Encountering Contradiction

Jesus Entering Jerusalem, Giotto di Bondone,
 Florence, 14th century
Palm Sunday has always felt a little disconcerting.

It seems we start the service with palms and praises, shouting “Hosannah,” and end with the reading of Christ’s trial, chanting “Crucify him.”

We enact, together, what church scholars call “the sign of contradiction,” from Luke 2: 34-35: 34:

Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

The Latin for “spoken against,” “contra dicere”, is our own word “contradiction.”

Jesus, the child born in a manger, embodied contradiction, and the Sunday before Easter, called both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday, draws us into that contradiction, raising more questions than it answers.

How would a child of blessing be a sword to pierce his mother’s heart?

How could something that seemed to start so well appear to go so wrong?

How could promised blessing become a stumbling block?

The crowd, gathering to applaud Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, cried “Hosanna!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Blessed is the king of Israel!”

The word “Hosanna” itself carries contradiction: it comes from the ancient Hebrew “Hoshanna,” which meant “Please save us,” a supplication from the needy.

Yet it’s used, on Palm Sunday and elsewhere, in a more triumphant way.

As we read the text, are we gathered as a crowd to plead for help?

Or shouting out victory over our opponents?

The uncertain context makes me uncomfortable.

Luke’s account, (19:38-40) says this:
When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” 
unknown Armenian artist, ceramic tile
So yes, the crowd was right to greet him with palms and praise.

Yet misunderstood what it was he was doing, unable to see he was heading toward his death. 

Instead, they linked the promise of Messiah with political victory in a way some followers have done ever since.

Then, in frustration, just a few days later, some, not all, joined the cry of “crucify him.”

In the gospel accounts, the passages between Palm Sunday and Jesus’ arrest are rich with confusing, urgent instruction: Jesus’ last words to his followers, words of warning, encouragement, and reminder that the story would not unfold the way they imagined.

In these passages there is a growing sense of bewilderment among his listeners, sometimes turning to confusion, sometimes to anger, then betrayal.

In the liturgical church, the week of Palm Sunday to Easter is called Holy Week: the heart of the Christian calendar, the focus of our faith.

A roller coaster of emotion.

A mirror to our inner intent.

What we want, like the crowd of Palm Sunday, is a smooth, sweet narrative with a clear, quick outcome: problems solved, enemies conquered, happy endings in place.

Smooth sailing toward the future.

What Jesus offers is something else completely:

A walk toward ever greater humility.

A reminder to set our own need aside and love and care for the hungry, homeless, imprisoned.

Forgiving silence in the face of opposition.

A sword to pierce both side and soul.

No wonder Judas turned away in fury.

No wonder Peter withdrew in fear.

No wonder ever since we’ve attempted to rewrite the story, linking faith and political power, lashing out at those who challenge our vision of victorious Christian life.
Betrayal in the Garden,
Max Thallman, woodcut, Germany 1921

Reading the passages, I find myself shaken.

It’s all too familiar.

The pompous leaders.

The unyielding power.

The outraged response at the quiet voice inviting us to take up our cross, love our neighbor, forgive yet again.

Father, forgive us, for we don’t know what we do.



Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lent Five: Escaping Blindness

In the days leading up to his crucifixion, Jesus repeatedly healed the blind and spoke out emphatically about another form of blindness. Matthew 23 records the most extended discussion, a series of seven
Jesus Heals the Blind Man,
unknown Ethiopian artist
“woes” directed at spiritually blind leaders. He says repeatedly “Woe to you, blind guides,” “blind fools”,”blind men”:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.  You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.(Matthew 23:23-28)
Those blind leaders were the ones who, days later, hurried Jesus toward the cross.

And ever since, blind leaders have insisted on obedience to peripheral issues, indulged their own desire for power, presented a righteous front while neglecting the more important matters: justice, mercy, love of God and neighbor.

Part of the goal of Lent is to shed the habits of heart that hold us in spiritual blindness. Yet often, we are helpless to see those habits that blind us, and too often our leaders do little to help us.

I think of the slave owners whose churches endorsed their self-righteous possession of fellow human beings.

And grieve at our own silence at the human rights issues of our day.

Pastor/author/counselor Paul Tripp, reflecting on spiritual blindness, wrote:
We can be physically blind and live quite well. But when we are spiritually blind, we cannot live as God intended… Physically blind people are always aware of their deficit and spend much of their lives learning to live with its limitations.
But the Bible says that we can be spiritually blind and yet think that we see quite well. We even get offended when people act as if they see us better than we see ourselves! The reality of spiritual blindness has important implications for the Christian community.The Hebrews passage [Heb. 3:13] clearly teaches that personal insight is the product of community. I need you in order to really see and know myself. Otherwise, I will listen to my own arguments, believe my own lies, and buy into my own delusions.
My self-perception is as accurate as a carnival mirror. If I am going to see myself clearly, I need you to hold the mirror of God’s Word in front of me.
I need to wake up in the morning and say, “God, I am a person in desperate need of help. Please send helpers my way and give me the humility to receive the help you have provided.” And I need to pray further, “Lord, make me willing to help someone see himself as you see him today. (Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, 2002, 53-54)
I thought of Tripp’s comments when I saw the Franklin Graham’s Facebook post that has been reposted from page to page this week:

How is it possible for someone who considers himself a spiritual leader to be so stunningly, painfully, grievously blind?

Did he read the testimony about police dogs attacking unarmed citizens, including a 14 year old boy?? Did he read the part about the police holding a gun to the head of a 19 year old man, arresting him for sitting in his own car, cooling off after playing baseball?

Did he read the report at all?

If not, why would he offer such comments, knowing as a leader they'll be repeated and reposted, knowing they'll contribute fuel and pain to an already simmering stew of anger?

Or is he so blind he doesn't think it matters?

Certainly he’s not alone. As our news sources become more and more polarized, our conversations more and more divisive, it becomes harder and harder to escape our own blindness.

Which is why it’s more and more essential that we seek out others to help us see what we’d prefer to ignore.

I fear we live in a time of great blindness - not so much on the part of those who claim no faith perspective and belittle the Christian church, but on the part of those within, those who speak most confidently on behalf of God.

A friend recently posted a link to this article: Why White People Freak Out When They're Called Out about Race.

It recounts the firestorm that erupted when a white Princeton male student was asked to “check his privilege,” and describes the way the white majority community insists on managing the conversation about race. Robin DiAngelo, a professor of multicutural education, explains:
In my workshops, one of the things I like to ask white people is, “What are the rules for how people of color should give us feedback about our racism? What are the rules, where did you get them, and whom do they serve?” Usually those questions alone make the point.
It’s like if you’re standing on my head and I say, “Get off my head,” and you respond, “Well, you need to tell me nicely.” . . .
When I’m doing a workshop, I’ll often ask the people of color in the room, somewhat facetiously, “How often have you given white people feedback about our inevitable and often unconscious racist patterns and had that go well for you?” And they laugh.
Because it just doesn’t go well. And so one time I asked, “What would your daily life be like if you could just simply give us feedback, have us receive it graciously, reflect on it and work to change the behavior? What would your life be like?”
And this one man of color looked at me and said, “It would be revolutionary.”

This should be the entry level of Christian discourse, the common expression of love for neighbor: gracious listening, genuine reflection, honest attempt to change our own offensive behavior.

Yet it's so rare, so unheard of, it would be revolutionary.

In the way Jesus himself was revolutionary.

This goes beyond the issue of race.

What would happen if women could offer feedback on the pain they’ve experienced in being shut out, shut down, and have that received graciously?

What would happen if those held in poverty could offer feedback about the systems that demean and deny them, and have that feedback heard and prayerfully considered?

What if Christians could sit and listen about ways we’ve judged, misrepresented, dismissed those who don’t share our faith? What if we could receve criticism graciously, offer thanks for the honest feedback, then respond in love to change our offensive behavior?

In 2 Peter 1, Paul advised habits that could lead toward spiritual sight:
Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. (2 Peter 1:5-9)
Real conversation, the revolutionary kind described above, would require real self-control, mutual affection, perseverance, love.

Those attributes are in short supply among our leaders, our news sources, our faith communities, ourselves.

So here are some Lenten practices to consider:

1. Acknowledge the risk of spiritual blindness: “God, I am a person in desperate need of help. Please send helpers my way and give me the humility to receive the help you have provided.”

2, Turn off the news sources that make us most comfortable, that fuel and excuse our blindness, and search out the full story, as close to the source as possible.

An Open Letter to Franklin Graham, Lisa Sharon Harper
3. On the question of Ferguson, read the Department of Justice report on the Ferguson police, or a reasonably impartial summar. And then read and consider the open letter toFranklin Graham (and yes, be assured, concerned faith leaders have written him, met with him, asked him to consider the impact of his words. He's demonstrated a stunning lack of interest).

4. Invite conversation with someone of differing race, religion, political expression, gender, age demographic, and ask for insight about experiences of injustice, oppression, pain. Practice listening graciously, exercise self-control, explore and consider other points of view. Pray for revolutionary conversations.
From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory,
and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice; and from all want
of charity,
Good Lord, deliver us.
(The Great Litany, Book of Common Prayer)

This is the sixth in a Lenten series.

Other Lenten posts:


From 2013:

From 2012:
     Looking toward Lent
     Lenten Sorrow : Lament and Nacham
     Lenten Silence: Charash, Be Still

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Lent Four: Expecting Suffering

When I write a blog series I usually start with a few words that I write down, rearrange, pray and puzzle over for weeks, sometimes months.
Sometimes patterns emerge. Sometimes new things jump into focus.

This Lent, I somehow ended up with “e” verbs: embracing, eluding, exploring.


Expecting what?

The last weeks of Lent traditionally focus on the passion of Christ – from the Greek word paschein (πάσχειν), to suffer.

He warned his followers in Luke 9 (the same chapter that speaks of John's beheading): 
The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:22-23 )
Matthew’s version of the story includes a brief interchange with Peter: 
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Matthew 16:22-24) 
Jesus’ point seems harsh, but clear: those who follow him should expect to encounter and share in the pain of the world.   Those who object are a stumbling block, trapped in a flawed perspective.

Jesus wanted his friends to be ready, not caught by surprise.

Expecting sorrow. Sacrifice. Suffering.

As a North American Christian, I’ve been taught that things should go my way. I have rights, protections, expectations. Suffering, sacrifice and sorrow have no place in the story my culture has promised.

Yet suffering, sacrifice and sorrow are part of the story we’re all called to, the part of the story we object to and avoid.

This morning’s news is full of stories of suffering: a monster cyclone shattered the impoverished island nation of Vanuatu.

A convent was attacked in eastern India and a 74 year old nun raped by six men. 

Since I sat down to write, this latest story: “Bombs outside two churches in the Pakistani city of Lahore killed 14 people and wounded nearly 80 during Sunday services, and witnesses said quick action by a security guard prevented many more deaths.”  

Whatever sacrifices we make in Lent are small, symbolic, and hardly representative of the real suffering of the world. Whatever suffering I’ve seen or experienced seems very small in comparison to even this morning’s news.

And sacrifice? It seemed almost irreverent this year, to be discussing giving up chocolate or Facebook, while on the other side of the globe followers of Christ are giving their lives, burned and beheaded by extremist enemies of the Christian faith.

The response of those communities is instructive, humbling, and deeply moving: Beshir Kamel, brother to two of the Coptic Orthodox Christians beheaded on a deserted beach in Libya, thanked ISIS for not editing out the last words of those kneeling as they waited for death:  “Ya Rabbi Yasou”: Rabbi (teacher, master, great one, Lord) Jesus. O Lord Jesus. Help. 

“Since the Roman era, Christians have been martyred and have learned to handle everything that comes our way. This only makes us stronger in our faith because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us."   
Reflecting on the deaths of these men, and so many others, Orthodox Christians point to their two-thousand year history of persecution and martyrdom, and remind other outraged Christians that this is part of the story, not cause for calls of revenge or war: 
In the precipice of martyrdom, St Stephen, the Proto-martyr begged God to forgive his killers.  Was there an apostolic uprising following that?
Hieromartyr Eutychius, disciple of St John the Theologian, was beheaded after starvation in prison, an attempt to burn him alive, and cruel beatings with iron rods…which were made to cease by his prayers.  There is no account of retribution. . . .
We stand proudly with the martyrs, whose blood is the foundation of the Church.  And we beg God to grant us equal strength when we have to face what they did. 
In worship in our church this morning, I found myself thinking of the video I chose not to watch: of the men beheaded, and their final words.

I had an overwhelming sense of their presence now with God, their names written on Jesus’ hands, their broken bodies carried in his arms.

I had a sense of God’s love flowing through them – through their wounds, their blood – to their heart-broken families, their shattered church.

I was struck by how reluctant I am to see past my own sanitized, safe little world. I don’t want to see their blood. I don’t want to kneel with them in their pain.

Yet I felt convicted to come home and watch, and pray.

It took a while to find the uncensored five minutes video. And no, I’m not going to link to it.

Icon of the 21 Martyrs of Libya, Tony Rezk
But I did watch it. Kneeling.

The world can be a brutal place.

And humans of all kinds can be agents of great evil.

In my recent reading in Acts, I was struck by the account of Paul heading off to Jerusalem after being warned by Agabus that he’d be bound by the Jewish leaders and handed over to the Romans. He acknowledged the warning and continued on his way, expecting trouble, but not moved by it.

It reminded me of accounts of the marchers in Selma, moving toward the Edmund Pettus Bridge: expecting trouble, but unmoved.

I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.
There are some who still find the cross a stumbling block, and others consider it foolishness, but I am more convinced than ever before that it is the power of God unto social and individual salvation. So like the Apostle Paul I can now humbly yet proudly say, “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” The suffering and agonizing moments through which I have passed over the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. More than ever before I am convinced of the reality of a personal God.   
From what I’ve seen and know of the world, suffering is inevitable. It can sweep through like a cyclone, smashing everything in its way. 

Or it can linger like the drip drip drip of mental anguish: Altzheimer's, psychzophrenia, unrelieved depression.

We can spend our days looking for ways to stay safe, running from choices that would open us to pain, responding with fury when our defenses fail us.

Or we can choose to expect suffering, choose to move forward forewarned and aware, but not gripped by fear or dissuaded from what’s right. 

This is the fifth in a Lenten series.

Other Lenten posts:


From 2013:

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Lent Three: Exploring Power

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”Matthew 4:8-10 
I’ve been thinking and praying about power: the way it plays out in relationships, economies, politics, churches, “the kingdoms of the world and their splendor”.

What would it mean to fast from power?

Or is the harder task to learn to use power wisely?

I’m not sure anyone would see me as a powerful person. I have trouble opening jars with lids too tight, hate schlepping anything heavier than a sleeping bag.

I have no impressive title, no official authority.

Definitely not rich or famous.

Yet, like anyone breathing, I do have power.

Power to build up or tear down, disrupt or support. Offer words of harm or healing.

And yes, my own power goes way beyond that. I can speak to the other side of the globe with a simple tap on a button.

I can finance a college education on the other side of the globe, provide clean water for an entire village, encourage a young entrepreneur, double a waitress’s salary for the hour or two she serves me.

I can vote, advocate, answer questions well or poorly, open doors of interest and learning, undercut growth with a simple “you will never.”


Richard Foster, in Money, Sex, and Power, (retitled The Challenge of the Disciplined Life) asks:
Have you ever noticed the number of times Jesus refused to use power? He refused to dazzle people by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple (Matt. 4:5). He rejected the temptation to make more `wonder bread' to validate his ministry (John 6:26). He refused to do many wonderful works in his own hometown because of the unbelief of the people (Luke 4:16-27). He said no to the Pharisees' demand that he give a sign to prove he was the Messiah (Matthew 12:38). At his arrest, Jesus reminded Peter that he could have summoned a whole army of angels to his rescue, but he did not (Matthew 26:53). 
This self-limitation, according to Foster, is an important mark of spiritual power.  

Yet there were many times when Jesus demonstrated unprecedented power: healing the sick, feeding the thousands, calming the storm, speaking of things he had no human way of knowing, bringing the dead back to life.

He insisted the power he used was accessible to any human who chose to follow him: “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these," these things you will do, and more” (John 14:12).

But his use of power was always supportive of a greater purpose. Foster suggests that spiritual power, “the power that proceeds from God,” is a creative power that restores relationships, sets people free, produces unexpected unity. 
Love is the first mark of spiritual power. Love demands that power be used for the good of others. Notice Jesus' use of power---the healing of the blind, the sick, the maimed, the dumb, the leper, and many others. Luke, the physician, observes that `all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came forth from him and healed them all' (Luke 6:19 NRSV). Notice in each case the concern for the good of others, the motivation of love. In Christ, power is used to destroy the evil so that love can redeem the good. 
Other hallmarks of power from God, according to Foster: 
  • Humility: “Humility is power under control. Nothing is more dangerous than power in the service of arrogance.”
  • Self-limitation. “The power that creates refrains from doing some things---even good things---out of respect for the individual.”
  • Joy “To see the kingdom of Christ break into the midst of darkness and depression is a wonderful thing.”
  • Vulnerability: “The power that comes from above is not filled with bravado and bombast. It lacks the symbols of human authority; indeed, its symbols are a manger and a cross.”.
  • Submission: “when, with humility of heart, we submit to others, vast new resources are opened to us. When we submit to others, we have access to their wisdom, their counsel, their rebuke, their encouragement.” 

It’s not hard to find examples of power claiming to be from God yet used in ways that cause great harm.

Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, Selma
My reading yesterday morning was in Acts 21, where the religious leaders turned their power against Paul. The Encounter with God note (written by my husband, Whitney Kuniholm) said “when religion becomes a means for human control, it is one of the most dangerous things on earth.”

The news is full this weekend of power misused for human control, in evil, ugly ways: bloody Sunday, a half-century ago, when self-righteous white Alabama state troopers and police beat unarmed protesters crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge en route from Selma to Montgomery.

The Department of Justice report, released this week, describing police dogs attacking unarmed teens, taser use, “swift, and at times automatic,” as a regular means of control.

I find myself wondering about the troopers and police who failed to speak up. Those uneasy with misuse of power who chose to remain silent.

I think of the words from Yeat’s Second Coming:  
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.
My fellow parishioner, Andy Crouch, in his own study of power, Playing God:Redeeming the Gift of Power, talks of the danger of pretending we are not all called to the use of power. He describes power as a gift, given to us all, intended for human flourishing.

Both Foster’s and Crouch’s books are well worth reading.

They describe the ways power can become selfish, coercive, destructive.

But they also suggest the joyful possibilities of power used for the good of all: parental power used to help children grow and thrive; institutional power used to address injustice and create safe spaces for real community.  Relational power, that brings wisdom, healing, encouragement, room for growth.
A discussion of Playing God by sociologist John Hawthorne offers an interesting summary framework ( put in my own words, not his):

  • “Make it so” power: this is power as control, a power that squashes anything in its way, a zero sum power that envisions no alternative but its own. Ferguson, Selma, Isis – the list could go on and on.
  • “Let there be” power: this is a power that opens room for expansive expression of realities already there: “teeming — varieties of outcomes flowing from creation in all sorts of wonderful ways. The creative power of God is expressed by setting things free to be.”
  • “Let us make” power: this is something totally new, the point where we become true image bearers of God himself, creative forces collaborating to generate new realities beyond anything we could imagine on our own.  
When I read through scripture, I see many examples of power misused, exerted as coercive force in efforts to control, but I also see the constant call to live in God’s creative “let us make” power: calling forth unexpected gifts, offering healing to the broken, pouring out life-giving compassion, singing songs of unity and joy in barren, desert places.

My prayer as I continue on my  journey through Lent is that we grow in discernment: able to see and reject destructive power that breaks down the weak and holds “the other” captive, strong enough to provide “let it be” space for others to grow into what they’re called to become, open and available to God’s creative, collaborative live-giving power that yields gifts beyond our imagining. 
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious richeshe may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,  so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love,  may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,  and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.  Ephesians 3

This is the fourth in a Lenten series.

Other Lenten posts:


From 2013:

     Lenten Song: Remembering Ranan 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Lent Two: Eluding Privilege

When we’re considering what to give up for Lent, privilege is rarely on the list of options.

William Brassey Hole, Forty Days in the Wilderness,
England, 1906
Yet Jesus’ second temptation shows him sidestepping an invitation to demonstrate his privilege as the Son of God: 
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:“‘He will command his angels concerning you,    and they will lift you up in their hands,    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”Matthew 4:5-7 
There are moments in the gospel narratives when it seems the Pharisees would happily have welcomed Jesus into their leadership club if he’d only agreed to share their privilege, endorsing theirs with his own. But he insisted on eating with sinners, talking to women, honoring Samaritans, touching unclean lepers. From his days in the desert to his death on the cross, he deftly eluded any privilege thrust his way, weaving his way toward the margins until he finally hung outside the city, taunted and reviled by those who passed by.

This eluding of privilege was no accident. Paul tells us in Philippians:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
A few sentences later, Paul describes his own task of eluding privilege in his quest to know and be like Christ:
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law,a Pharisee; as to zeal,a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under th law,blameless;But whatever gain I had,;I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.
Part of the goal of Lent is repentance and sacrifice, but part is the pursuit of deeper knowledge and joy. Paul understood that it was impossible to fully know Christ while holding on to privilege, and he was articulate and self-aware about the forms of privilege he could claim: religious birthright, exceptional ducation, endorsed experience, sanctioned racial identity.

He chose to count it all as loss.  “worthless,” in some translations. “Liabilities,” in another.

The Academy Awards last week stirred ongoing conversations about white and male privilege: all of the actors nominated were white; all the directors and screenwriters were male. In the fallout, the International Business Times reported that “the Oscar winners are voted on by members of the academy, and there are 6,028 voting members; 94 percent of them are white, 77 percent are men and 86 percent are over the age of 50.”

I’m not that interested in the Oscars, and no, I didn't watch them.

But I am interested in whose voices are heard, whose stories are told, and whose voices are excluded.

I’m also interested in the way privilege -acknowledged or not - becomes a liability and snare.

For years I attended the National Youth Worker Convention and grieved at how rarely there was an opportunity to hear from women, or non-white males. I watched with dismay as male youth leaders left the room at the start of the one set by a female band, and I listened to the disrespectful side conversations during the one female plenary speaker of an entire weekend. Apparently, I’m not the only one to feel concern: an online exchange about lack of diversity at one Christian convention prompted religion correspondent Jonathan Merritt to do a simple count: he found 19% female representation (20% at the National Youth Workers Convention, that’s an improvement, but not an impressive one), and 13% minority speaker representation. Minority female? Not sure – but from what I’ve seen, 1% might be overly optimistic.

This is not so much a political issue to me as a spiritual issue.

Read scripture, or church history, and the evidence is clear: it’s hard to hear God, or to represent him well, from a position of privilege and advantage.

Prophets, reformers, monks, desert fathers and mothers: their lives all suggest that the first step to listening well is breaking free from the voices of flattery, status quo, self-promotion, rationalization.

I started this week praying to see my own privilege more clearly, and looking for ways to set that privilege aside.

I’m not sure it can be done without completely breaking free from the systems and structures that hold privilege in place.

But I have some ideas about where to start.

Back in Philippians 2, Paul says 
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion,  then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
We can't look to the interests of others when we've never taken time to learn what those interests are.

We show our value of others first by learning to hear what they have to say.

But look more closely at the example of Jesus in his encounter with the Samaritan woman by the well:
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, 12th Century
 Tbilisi, Georgia
We all know how low this woman was in the social and religious hierarchy. She's a woman. That's low.
She's a Samaritan. That's lower still.
She's been married five times. Still lower.
She is currently living, in an unmarried state, with another man. Lower.
If the Samaritan woman isn't at the absolute bottom, she's got it pretty well in sight.
But here's the amazing thing. Jesus finds a way to place himself lower, to lift her up to the superior position.
"Will you give me a drink?"
Jesus doesn't come to her with answers or gifts or power or miracles or a sermon or a program or an invitation to come to church.
Jesus approaches this woman and simply asks for help.
He asks her for help. And it blows her heart wide open. 
When we start from a place of privilege, we assume we have the answers.

But we've never even taken time to understand the questions.

Our wisdom is one-sided, and our good news one-dimensional, until we find a way to elude the privilege that blinds and binds us.
Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.