Sunday, April 19, 2020

Who Do You Trust?

Who do you trust?
Francis S. Collins, 2010


What evidence would it take to shake that trust, or to make you rethink your own assumptions?

Imagine learning your own religious leaders could bribe one of your closest friends, pay off those hired to keep the law, share fake news in ways that make your own life more dangerous.

Imagine hearing strange news from marginalized sources, then seeing with your own eyes that their story is true.

What a disconcerting, destabilizing time for the disciples in the days after Christ’s death: wondering what was true, who to believe, what to do next.

Then joy, excitement, courage, as they opened their hands and hearts to a resurrected Christ.

What a disconcerting, destabilizing time for us all, as we watch our leaders – political and religious – argue, contradict, spin the facts for hidden agendas. As we grapple with clashing points of view that make all our lives more dangerous. As we look for evidence, grieve what we see, wonder what will happen next.

Duplicitous leadership is as old as humanity. So is confirmation bias.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were a classic example of both. Mark records:
The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” (8:11-13)
In reality, they’d already been given signs. Some were there when a voice spoke from heaven when Jesus was baptized. Some saw the man healed from leprosy. Some objected when the man lowered into Jesus’ presence on a mat stood and walked away. Some would have been in the synagogue when Jesus miraculously restored a man’s shriveled hand. They would have heard of the feeding of five thousand, the feeding of another four thousand, the healing of a man born deaf and mute, the healing of a man born blind.

What kind of sign did they want? What would open their own defiantly blind eyes?

I find myself thinking that in regard to our current president: how much evidence do you need of blatant, unrepentant, determined disregard for anyone but himself? The evidence was clear long before the 2016 election. It compounds daily. It is now costing lives and strangling our economy.

Peter Kreeft, 2014
As Jesus knew, in some cases no sign can break through. The Pharisees' pride and love of power outweighed compassion for their people or interest in truth.

And now, today, some religious leaders, many political leaders, many of my dearest friends, hold fast to their confirmation bias, looking for evidence to affirm their vote and loyalty, shouting down all conflicting evidence, trampling truth for partisan reasons, with no hint of compassion for the staggering pain confronting our country and communities.  

Yet confirmation bias cuts in many directions.

For some, a determined agnosticism shuts out any hint of reality beyond the material world.

For some, a narrow fundamentalism insists that any question of faith or articulation of doubt is unacceptable.

What questions, what signs, what accumulated evidence can break through the walls of our own most firmly held assumptions?

It’s helpful to remember that while our beliefs may in part be rational and evidence-based, in much larger part they are formed by experience, culture, desire, guilt, constructed layer by layer over a lifetime of hurt, confusion, compromise and
Rabbi Greg Hershberg, 2011

God sometimes breaks through all of that with a vision of himself, in dreams where Jesus speaks to hungry hearts. But more often, change of heart comes through encounters with loving believers who show more than tell what it means to follow Christ.

This has been the case in academic settings, among communities of scientists, in urban neighborhoods. In Iran, faith in Christ is spreading quickly as recent converts, many of them women, share their own new hope and joy with friends and family. Two documentaries, Sheep Among Wolves I and II, tell the story.

I think of that breakfast on the beach, where Jesus and his discouraged disciples shared fish over a fire.

My own faith has been fed, year by year, by encounters like that. Talking around a fire with sisters in the faith. Meeting for coffee with brothers who live what they believe. Reading the personal stories of thoughtful men and women who opened their hearts to listen and found their lives changed completely.

I pray, in this strange season, that we listen and love in ways that challenge confusion and open the door to light and truth and joy.

Some other reflections on miracles, faith and resurrection:

Common Miracles, Dec 18, 2011
Is the Resurrection Just a Myth?, April 12, 2015
The Defining Question, March 27, 2016

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Risen Indeed

White Crucifixion, Marc Chagall, 1938, France
More than ever, this year, I’ve felt the pain of Jesus’ disciples, as they careened from fear to fury to confusion and guilt. All compounded by unspeakable sadness and an avalanche of doubt.

Imagine investing years of your life in pursuit of what your people had been promised, then watching family and friends shout it down just when victory seems assured.

Consider your own religious leaders, supposed spokespersons for God, speaking and acting in contradiction of all they ever taught you.

Picture a day when evil seems triumphant, when death has the final word, when everything seems scrambled and confused.

Why would we call such a day “good”?

There has been no time in my own lifetime, here in my sheltered world of safety and privilege, when death has seemed so very close. There were more than 700 deaths in New York yesterday, for the fifth day in a row, bringing the total acknowledged coronavirus death toll in New York State to more than 8,600 in just a matter of weeks.

Here in my own state of Pennsylvania, the bell-curve of deaths is still rising sharply, and stories filter through of illness, hospitalization, sudden death. Friends are sewing masks for area hospitals.

My husband and I have been in near isolation for a full month now, obeying orders to stay home, praying daily for friends who work on the front lines of medical care and food supply.

It’s a sad, strange, confusing time, made more confusing by conflicting messages from leaders ignoring their own medical experts. Who is in charge? Where are supplies? Why was there no response or preparation until the worst was staring straight at us?

Daily, many times a day, I pause to review the disciplines I wrote of during Lent: lamentingwaiting, praying, opening my hands, acknowledging I’m never in control, never was, never will be.

I am fasting more than planned.

I am praying more than ever.

I am thinking of, longing for, reflecting on resurrection.

I believe, without question, that when this body of mine breathes its last breath I will be present with my savior.

I believe, without question, in a resurrected body and “the life of the world to come.”

I wonder, often, what that world will be like. I expect flowers, laughter, birds no longer afraid of human forms. Feasting with loved ones who haven’t gathered in decades.

A friend’s young adult son died this week, not of the virus, but of an overdose after years of struggle with addiction and years of being clean.

Did the stresses of the current season push him into relapse?

Will he be resurrected?

From what I know of God’s mercy and love, my friend’s son is already present with his resurrected savior, already celebrating freedom from the weight of addiction and the years of guilt and dread.

During my own years of struggle with doubt and sadness, in my late teens and early twenties, I spent many hours with C. S. Lewis. He grew up an agnostic, studied among intellectual atheists and found his way to faith and joy in a way that gave him great clarity about what he believed and why.

In his slim book Miracles, he wrote:
The first fact in the history of Christendom is a number of people who say they have seen the Resurrection…
It is very important to be clear about what these people meant… What they were claiming was that they had all, at one time or another, met Jesus during the six or seven weeks that followed His death. Sometimes they seem to have been alone when they did so, but on one occasion twelve of them saw Him together, and on another occasion about five hundred of them. St Paul says that the majority of the five hundred were still alive when he wrote the First Letter to the Corinthians, i.e. in about 55 AD. The New Testament writers speak as if Christ’s achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe. He is the “first fruits”, the “pioneer of life”. He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so. This is the beginning of the New Creation: a new chapter in cosmic history has opened. (Miracles, 188-191) 
While I grieve the deaths of those I love, and pray for protection for those near and far living and working in the daily threat of disease, I know death is not the final chapter. Christ “has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so.”

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul wrote at length about the resurrection, saying, in effect: “we do not mourn like those who have no hope; we mourn like people who know the resurrection is coming.” 

In Romans he took this even further: 

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What we celebrate on Easter is the resurrection of Christ, but also the resurrection of fragile people like ourselves, the resurrection of those who have died, of those who will die. 

And the restoration of the world itself: broken, damaged, restored, made new. Restoration and eternal healing beyond imagining.  

The Lord is risen.

He is risen indeed.


Orthodox icon of the resurrection: the harrowing of hell

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Lent Six: Opening Our Hands

Entry into Jerusalem, Giotto, 14th century
I started Lent five weeks ago planning to give up sugar: a superficial sacrifice to remind myself of Christ’s time in the wilderness.

Giving up sugar has been surprising easy this year. Far harder has been giving up projects, plans, meetings, schedule, all swept away with no recourse or discussion. Even simple pleasures have been set aside: spending time with family, meeting friends for coffee, a quiet evening out.

I know others have given up far more: jobs, income, personal safety, health, loved one, life itself. These weeks have turned into a global season of loss and grief and uncertainty.

Reading the gospel of Mark I’m struck at all the disciples gave up, sometimes willingly, sometimes with resistance. 

Christ said “follow me,” and they followed. He said “Go preach and heal, but leave your extra cloak, extra food, extra comfort behind.” They went.

They bought in, whole-heartedly, to a vision of the future in which Jesus would lead: the lord, the king, the messiah. Palm Sunday was the high point of that vision: Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem with crowds cheering Hosannah.

Then their vision slammed into something unexpected: Jesus talking more openly about his own death. Jesus walking straight into danger although they begged him not to. Jesus washing their feet as a servant when they wanted to hear more about how he’d oust the current king. Jesus going, without a fight, to trial, then mockery and beating, then death.

Jesus washing the feet of Peter, Jesus Mafa, Cameroon, 1970s
Jesus asked them to give up family, home, predictable future, but then he asked them to give up more. They argued over who would sit next to Jesus when he came into power. He told them they didn’t know what they were asking. Their world turned upside down in just a few short days: hopes crushed, expectations shattered, all sense of their own roles scrambled as Jesus went to die.

In a way, it’s almost funny, to watch Peter, a fisherman, argue with God incarnate about the best way forward, second-guessing a plan in place before the world was formed.

Yet it’s so familiar. I see that in myself almost daily, sometimes almost hourly: surely we could do this differently? Surely there’s a better way?

The disciples had spent three years with Jesus, had heard his warnings and his prayers, but when their world turned upside down, they were caught off guard, wondering what to do next, wondering how to follow when the path seemed so uncertain.

We find ourselves in a similar space: caught off-guard, uncertain, wondering how to help, how to pray, how to plan.

In Renovation of the Heart Dallas Willard talks about abandoning outcomes to God. We “accept that we do not have in ourselves — in our own ‘heart, soul, mind, and strength’ — the wherewithal to make this come out right, whatever ‘this’ is”.

We DON’T have what it takes to make “this” turn out right. So we wait, hands open, empty of all we thought we knew, waiting for what comes next.

I’ve been pointing to songs from the Porter’s Gate project, songs that have taken on new meaning in this unfamiliar season. Today, I find myself returning to one that didn’t resonate the first few times I heard it:
O humble carpenter, down on your hands and knees,look on your handiwork and build a houseso you may dwell in me.
The work was done with nothing but
wood and nails in Your scar-borne hands
O show me how to work and praise
trusting that I am Your instrument.
The words are so simple it's easy to miss the point: the work isn’t ours, but God’s. He uses unexpected tools, unexpected times, to prepare us for praise and service. During these times when we feel most lost, must uncertain, God is already there, already shaping us, to be part of a work far beyond our expectation, a work already complete in the humble carpenter, Jesus.

I  rest in that mystery, captured in this final refrain:
The kingdom’s come and built uponwood and nails gripped with joyfulness,So send me out, within Your waysknowing that the task is finished.The dead will rise and give You praise -wood and nails will not hold them down!These wooden tombs, we’ll break them soonand fashion them into flower beds,The curse is done, the battle wonswords bent down into plowshares,Your scar-borne hands, we’ll join with them,serving at the table You’ve prepared.
May you wait with open hands in this strange season, trusting that the battle is already won, the day of resurrection is coming, and God will show us new ways to serve as we join him at his table.

This is the sixth in a Lenten series: