Archive for June, 2010
Maybe a large part of the problem with christians in general is that when we approach the bible, what we call ‘the word of God’ or the ‘scripture’ (and rightfully so), we do so with the idea that it is a prescription. That is, we have a problem so let’s head to the Physicians Desk Reference and find the cure or something silly like that. Maybe we do not take enough time to consider genre.
That the Bible is made up of different genres was eye-opening for me the first time I heard a professor explain it. Well, of course, I knew there were letters and apocalypses and gospels and suchlike, but even though I knew that, my interpretive skills were not at a level where it mattered. All I was reading was the Bible. I was not reading a ‘letter from Paul to the Colossians’ or a ‘gospel written to the Gentiles in Rome.’ Genre, and thus context, mattered little and I suspect for many christians this holds true.
The standard practice of preachers linking God’s work so closely to church programs and priorities had a devastating effect on Christians who gave up on the church. For them, leaving the church meant leaving Jesus behind in the church. God was so closely linked to the building that it seemed he was the property of the congregation. The church acted as if it had God on salary, with him keeping regular office hours and even being on called whenever he might be needed.
“The claim on God and his activities, ironically, helps explain the empty pews in most of our churches.” (Michael Spencer, Mere Churchianity, 16)
Today’s readings are from Numbers 22:1-21, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 21:12-22, and Psalm 106:1-18.
Moab needed an ally and their king, Balak son of Zippor, evidently thought that words mattered. Thus he summon Balaam.
This is a curious story. It echoes thoughts from Genesis 12 where God said to Abraham, “I will bless those who curse you and I will curse those who curse you” (Genesis 12:3). Balaam was setting himself up for something terrible as was Balak. Balak says to Balaam, through his emissaries, “For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” This is terribly problematic because it must be somehow true.
So we will have a conflict here where God, who promised to bless and curse on behalf of Abraham, will be up against a man who also blesses and curses—in this case, on behalf of Balak to Moabite. Strange this conflict that must ensue. God spares Balaam the trouble, “You must not put a curse on these people because they are blessed.” (22:12) It kind of makes me wonder how there can be such a conflict.
Clearly Balaam was bargaining for more cash. Greed is a powerful ally (I’m fairly certain I heard this from a Jedi Knight.) And if it is greed versus God…well, clearly in this case Greed wins hands down.
NT Wright on Romans 6:
All this helps us, too, to understand the exhortation in chapter 6 to ‘reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (6.11). This is calling for an act, not of guesswork, nor of fantasy or speculative imagination, but of mental deduction: you are in the Messiah; the Messiah has died and been raised; therefore, you have died and been raised; therefore sin has no right to hold sway over you. That mental framework, and that alone, is the basis for the appeal which follows instantly: ‘So don’t let sin reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its desires’ (6.12). All of this—and much more, actually, but at least all of this—stands now behind Paul’s deceptively brief instruction at the start of chapter 12: don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” (After You Believe, 154-155)
To use a quaint christian metaphor: there can only be one king reigning in my body and it must not be sin. Yet all of this is couched in grace language: “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” (6:14) I am not governed by sin, law, or anything else that engages in a coup; I belong to Christ.
Frankly, I think that all too often I simply forget that and get caught up in the moment. Not one single part of me belongs to sin and therefore I should not feel compelled to offer one single part of myself to sin—as if I have an obligation to sin.
We learned a ‘pattern of teaching’ and we are to obey from the heart. We have come to obey it. It takes practice to be obedient, it takes time. We are not masters over night. And we do not gain so much from indulgence as we might be led to believe. Freedom consists not in the offering of ourselves to sin, but in the bondage of Christ.
The so-called ‘temple incident’ is one that Christians often use to justify their ‘righteous indignation.’ But if we were truthful about this I would say that it has nothing to do with us at all. Frankly Jesus would probably come in to many of our own temples and turn over many of our tables too, and whip us, and drive us out, and remind us what the Scripture says—and how we have made a mockery of Scripture by doing the things we do.
What Jesus did—and, let’s be honest, this is somewhat embarrassing—is strange. I mean, he had been alive for at least thirty some years and had seen this many times over during those thirty years. Why now did it suddenly offend him? Why now did he get bent out of shape about what was going on in the temple? Did it really take him that long to get angry about it? Had he not seen it a thousand times before?
And if that were not enough, after he turns over all the money-changing tables and drives everyone out, he sets up his own shop: the blind and the lame came to him at the temple. The implication is clear: the temple is a place of healing and restoration and some had taken over the temple space for their own objectives. How can the church be a place of healing and restoration when the church has been ransacked by those whose only objective is to secure their money?
There is a lot going on in the temple that day: Jesus driving out the capitalists, Jesus preaching a sermon, Jesus healing people, and children shouting in the temple. I love that: children were shouting in the temple and Jesus didn’t rebuke them but justified them. It was the curmudgeons who did the rebuking.
This scene must have appeared strange to all who saw it and heard it and, in some way, participated in it.
Concerning verses 18-22 I have scratched in the margin of my Bible: the appearance of fruitfulness is not the same as fruitfulness.
Praise the LORD.
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the LORD
or fully declare his praise?
Blessed are they who maintain justice,
who constantly do what is right.
A little ways down in this Psalm it says this, “They forgot the God who saved them, who had done great things in Egypt, miracles in the land of Ham and awesome deeds by the Red Sea” (21-22).
Forgetting is not easy yet sometimes it is easier to forget God than it is to forget those who have wronged us—or at least the wrongs they did to us. I have a suspicion that this is a large part of what is wrong with the world today.
Maybe, too, we have to practice remembering. Maybe we need to daily remember all that God has done, his faithfulness. Then in lean times when he seems strangely absent we will not be so quick to forget and lapse into the ways of Egypt he redeemed us from. Maybe I should start today making a list of all his ways of faithfulness, start remembering all his mighty deeds.
Maybe if we thought more of God, remembered more of his deeds, we would think less and remember less of all that humans manage to accomplish—whether evil or good.
The readings for June 22, 2010 are as follows: Numbers 16.20-35, Romans 4.1-12, Psalm 94, Matthew 19.23-20.
What I hope to do is provide a thought or two on the daily readings as a means of keeping myself accountable to the daily practice of reading from the Scripture.
In the early days of the church, God still dealt with people this way. Remember Annanias and Sapphira? Paul wrote in Corinthians that some people even died because they at the Lord’s Supper with contempt for the Body of Christ.
I wonder if the Lord still deals with people in the church this way? I wonder if there are still people like Moses who will intercede on behalf of the people? Still, who knows exactly how the Lord works in the church that is the Body of Christ?
Yet somehow or other in this strange act of God’s vengeance Moses, God’s servant, was also justified and vetted. Strange.
I like that Paul speaks of the ‘promise with value.’ He does so backhandedly when he writes, “For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless.” That means what God has promised us has value to those who pursue it by faith.
Frankly, I like that God has made promises to us and that all of the effort is on Him and not us.
We are blessed! It’s a wonderful thought to know that our blessedness comes not from achievement or abundance on our own part but from being forgiven by One who holds the power to forgive.
O LORD, the God who avenges,
O God who avenges, shine forth.
Rise up, O Judge of the earth;
pay back to the proud what they deserve.
How long will the wicked, O LORD,
how long will the wicked be jubilant?
There’s another beatitude in today’s reading in verse 12: “Blessed are those you discipline, Lord, those you teach from your law.” So two readings and, so far, two beatitudes. This Psalm is packed full and I want to note simply that the Psalmist has his eyes upon the Lord his fortress, his Rock.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?"
Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
Peter answered him, "We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?"
Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
What we find impossible, God does not. What we see as a massive chicane, God sees as an open road. What we cannot handle, God can. He’s talking here about rich and poor. The rich, he says, do not have a shot according to man’s ways and means and thoughts. Kingdom values are upside down: last are first, first are last. Who can make sense of it?
I suppose it is logical to ask, as Peter did when pointing out that they had in fact left all to follow Jesus: “What will there be for us?”
I suppose it is also logical to ask, as an American who has much and hasn’t been asked to give up much: “What about us? Are we too rich to enter the Kingdom? Are we mere fat men stuck in a needle’s eye waiting for judgment? What about us?”
What hope is there for even the poorest of Americans who live well above the standard of living of most of the poor in the world? Does anyone in America have a shot?
Well, who can be saved?
Like many people right now, I am reading Michael Spencer’s book Mere Churchianity, which was recently published by Waterbrook Press. I’m only two chapters in, but already I know the reason I bought the book and why I visited the late Spencer’s blog Internet Monk so frequently.
He tells his readers in the introduction exactly to whom he is writing and why:
Mere Churchianity is written for people who have come to the end of the road with the church but who can’t entirely walk away from Jesus. In the wreckage of a church-shaped religious faith, the reality of Jesus of Nazareth persists and calls out to them. I’m talking to those who have left, those who will leave, those who might as well leave, and those who don’t know why they are still hanging around.
And I’m writing to the outsiders who might be drawn to God if it weren’t for Christians.” (5)
I am one of those people to whom Spencer is writing. It’s a sad thing, really, that I am an ordained minister, have a Bible college education, earned my living from the church for the better part of fifteen years, and have been a Christian since I was at least thirteen, maybe sooner, and have very little interest, right now, in the church—and precisely because of the people who make up the church. I know it is a strange thing since I too am part of that problem, part of the church.
I’m not that far gone though. I still worship with the church on Sundays and when I am asked I am still willing to step to the pulpit and speak the word of God to God’s people. Truth be told, I love the church which is the main reason why it is so terribly painful to be living in this borderlands place that I am living right now. I know Jesus loves the church—ugly as the church is—and that he will never quit on the church no matter how far away the church wanders from or quits him. I know that I have no right to despise the body of Christ.
Yet I suppose that is the very temptation I have had to struggle with so much over the last eleven months of this pilgrimage: how can I not despise the very place where I have been so despised while serving as a pastor/preacher? Oh, it’s that grace thing I suppose and I’d rather not think of that; it’s much easier to keep provoking and nursing those needling thoughts about all I would like to say. The first time I was treated poorly by a church I went right back to the pulpit and took out a lot of frustrations on unsuspecting congregants. This time, the Lord is not so quick to allow me that opportunity again. So I have been wandering for nearly a year.
William Willimon wrote a smart little book he titled Sinning Like a Christian wherein he explores the so-called seven deadly sins. I was minding my own business tonight when my wife grabbed the book, opened to a random page, and began reading:
Maybe that’s why the Scripture tells us, ‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord, ‘I will repay.’ Vengeance, once of the most popular motivations for indignation, righteous or otherwise, is not a gift God gives to us. Vengeance, the ultimate, final righting of what’s wrong with the world, is God’s business, not ours. Because our anger can be so self-deceptive and delusional, so very dangerous to ourselves and others, the church has called Anger a sin, and a deadly one at that. We are to guard against it, fight it with all our might, repress it and stuff it in because, not being wise or as loving as God, we are not to be trusted with Anger.” (76)
Well, I wasn’t too happy with my wife after she read that ‘random’ passage of Willimon to me. I would have been much happier if she had read me a love-letter or a birthday card or the menu from our favorite local Chinese restaurant. Truth is, it hit me hard.
In about five minutes, on June 23, I will turn forty. I don’t care any more. I had my mid-life crisis when I turned thirty ten years ago and celebrated with folks from the church who, nine years after that fact, terminated my employment and sent me into a tailspin of anger, church homelessness, and depression. Forty? Pshaw! I can do forty standing on my head in the snow.
But forty is a special day because it also marks the first day of the rest of my life and the beginning of another change I need to make. I haven’t been on good terms with my Lord for the last year; he is so patient. He gave me a year or so to sort it out or, rather, to wrestle with all the emotions that come from such a drastic change as I have had to make. July 12 is the real anniversary, but June 23 marks my fortieth birthday and it is also the day I have decided to open up my Bible again and begin to read it and pray it.
I needed a break from it. I needed to know that I still hungered for it. I needed to know that it was still the Word of the Living God. I needed to know that despite everything that had changed about me, the Word was still capable of changing me even more. Frankly, I had to know that I still believed what was written in the book. So I am breaking my fast (it hasn’t been as complete as I make it sound) from the Bible and beginning all over again again because I believe that the Bible was also written to misfits like myself—people who are on the brink of walking away—people like those to whom Michael Spencer wrote. And Spencer did not write to justify their walking away, or thinking of walking away, but rather to show there is a reason to continue loving the church.
The Bible too.
I will be reading the Bible afresh, with fresh eyes, with new perspective, and with a new confidence—not confidence that it has ‘all the answers’ to my questions or that God will all of a sudden reward my diligence with new sermons or jobs or ideas or anything of that sort. No, nothing like that at all. Rather I will be reading the Bible just to see what it says about God and his way of dealing with rebels like me.
I have known my anger. I have known my bitterness. I have known my disgust. I have known hatred and a desire for revenge. I have known rebellion, distance, and blasphemy. I have known cursing. I’m tired of all that. I’m tired of the exhaustion that comes from living apart from a real living faith and conversation with the Living God.
I want to know Jesus. Better, He still wants to know me. And maybe together, Jesus and me, I will learn how to love the church again like I used to; like he never stopped doing, the way He always does.
Today’s readings: Numbers 16:20-35. Romans 4:1-12. Matthew 19_23-30. Psalm 94.
The Tales of Beedle the Bard, by JK Rowling
Children’s High Level Group, 2008
I don’t know if JK Rowling is a Christian or not. There’s a part of me that really doesn’t care if she is or not. Neither would prevent me from reading her books. But, no, it’s not like that. Of course I hope she knows the wonders of salvation and the grace of Jesus, but, well, whatever. There’s not really a way I can explain what I mean by that without being proverbially damned if I do and damned if I do not. How about I say it this way: I am one Christian man who is overjoyed that JK Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books and and even more overjoyed at the lesser acclaimed The Tales of Beedle the Bard.
I know some people who would have never hired me to preach at their church if they had known about my cache of Harry Potter volumes that I so prominently displayed—after reading—on the bookshelves in my study or if they knew that I attended not one but two midnight release parties! It could be, perhaps, that it was those same volumes that caused some in my former church to cast a suspicious eye my way and, eventually, call for, and receive, my termination. I doubt it. I know what was in their houses too. (*Smile*)
Many who belong to the uber-conservative christian caste of the church are terribly critical of anything Harry Potter. The bible writer called James wrote that, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing” (James 3:9-10). And so, to paraphrase: “Out of the same mouth comes praise for Narnia and cursing for Hogwarts.” Eh. That’s all it is. No one likes magic if it comes from the pen of someone who hasn’t stood up on an altar and declared their allegiance to Jesus.
Frankly, I think that some were simply unhappy that children were actually, gasp, reading. Or maybe they were jealous that JK Rowling sold more books with hidden christian ideas than did Max Lucado with blatantly obvious christian ideas. After all, Rowling dared to talk about things like love, friendship, self-sacrifice, justice, righteousness, and, well, you get the idea. And kids ate it up by the book-ful as did many, many adults.
But this has all been hashed and rehashed a million times over on blogs and in books. This short post is about Beedle and the short collection of wizard fairy tales ascribed to his pen and in this particular volume translated by the esteemed Hermione Granger. The book contains five such tales and is a scant 107 pages and can literally be read in under an hour. The five tales are wonderfully written in Rowling’s ironic and cheerful voice, but they are not her voice either. They are told in the voice of Beedle the Bard. Interspersed between each tale is commentary written by Albus Dumbledore. Rowling herself has written some footnotes explaining to us Muggles some of the more complex wizarding history and practices.
It was in the introduction to the stories that I came across the point of the whole book, if, in fact, the ‘whole’ book (a collection of five tales) has ‘a’ point. There Rowling wrote:
Beedle’s stories resemble our fairy tales in many respects; for instance, virtue is usually rewarded, and wickedness punished. However, there is one very obvious difference. In Muggle fairy tales, magic tends to lie at the root of the hero’s or heroine’s troubles—the wicked witch has poisoned the apple, or put the princess into a hundred-year’s sleep, or turn the prince into a hideous beast. In The Tales of Beedle the Bard, on the other hand, we meet heroes and heroines who can perform magic themselves, and yet find it just as hard to solve their problems as we do. Beedle’s stories have helped generations of Wizarding parents to explain this painful fact of life to their children: that magic causes as much trouble as it cures (vii-viii).
Isn’t this the truth? I know that I have personally been the victim of many a magic spell gone wrong. And, too, have I learned that there is no secret spell I can cast that will make this problem disappear or that blessing appear—as if magic spells and charms exist merely to serve my ends and means. There are plenty of times when we certainly wish that magic worked that way. I wish sometimes I could conjure of an invisibility charm and vanish from the world, but it has yet to happen.
In Dumbledore’s commentary on the fifth story The Tale of the Three Brothers he writes this:
But which of us would have shown the wisdom of the third brother, if offered the pick of Death’s gifts? Wizards and Muggles alike are imbued with a lust for power; how many would resist the “Wand of Destiny”? Which human being, having lost someone they loved, could withstand the temptation of the Resurrection Stone? Even I, Albus Dumbledore, would find it easiest to refuse the Invisibility Cloak; which only goes to show that, clever as I am, I remain just as big a fool as anyone else (107).
Sadly, while there may well be a Resurrection Stone and a Wand of Power, there is no such thing as the Invisibility Cloak. The one thing all of us would desire, to be hidden from Death and from others, is the one thing we cannot have in this life. It is a troubling fact of life that we cannot hide from anything. The Psalmist knew this: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139) For some reason God takes particular delight in forcing us to face all those people, place, and things that we would rather not face. He forces us to be seen and prevents us from being invisible. Oh, unhappiness!
I think it is easy to want to be invisible, to want to hide from everything. Sometimes, we don’t even want to hide from Death (recall Job who, so unhappy about his so publicly displayed suffering, wished he’d never even been born.) Sometimes we just want to hide from people for a while. What I truly admire about these stories and the stories of Harry Potter is that it’s often not magic that solves the problems or brings the blessings we seek in life. Often, more often than not, it is wisdom that is required, and this wisdom is only acquired by seeing and being seen in and by this world, by facing death a thousand times a day, and by continuing to live day in, day out, in all the strength that comes from being utterly helpless.
I recommend that you read this book because it is helpful for gaining some wisdom that will benefit you long before and after you reach the point in life where you realize that being invisible is simply not an option. Such wisdom is beneficial for those of us humans who realize that being seen is not only a privilege, but a responsibility.
Sinning Like a Christian, by William Willimon
Abingdon Press, 2005
A Peculiar Prophet (Willimon’s Blog)
I wish I had the courage to sin like William Willimon, but I know that if I did, people might look at me funny. After all, I’m not William Willimon. The problem with Willimon is not his theology. I think he is a fine theologian. His problem is not his preaching: he is thought provoking, at times his tongue is sharp, his wit is acerbic, and his sense of irony and sarcasm is astounding. I can take him in tempered doses which is why it takes me a month to read a 150 page book like Sinning Like a Christian. I read Willimon like I read Anne Lamott: slowly, cautiously, and with a small glass of sipping whiskey.
The problem with Willimon is that, for all his intelligence, he really doesn’t know when to quit, and when he keeps going he comes off as terribly judgmental, arrogant, and ungracious. So, Willimon, true to form, published a Postscript at the end of this book wherein he waxes eloquently about grace and love and happy-happy-joy-joy but manages to take swipes at former president George W. Bush and an unnamed ‘conservative, evangelical, Bible-thumping pastor.’ It’s at this point that Willimon tends to lose me: for as much as he talks about grace, he seems to reserve not the tiniest bit for those who are on the opposite side of the political aisle from him. I find this to be true of a lot of theological liberals.
Sinning Like a Christian is Willimon’s exploration of the so-called seven deadly sins. Overall, I think this book is worth the read if, and I say if, you can read with a light-heart and laughter. For example, take this quote, “Jesus was crucified for the very best of human good reasons such as peace, justice, doctrinal fidelity, national security, and on an on. We are rarely more murderous than when we are defending some noble ideal like freedom or democracy” (29). Frankly, it is this sort of statement that makes me want to vomit on the book. It is so painfully obvious what he is saying (and thank God and the warmongering conservatives he can say it!) It really gets old when one’s person political agenda manages to makes its way into a book that is not about politics. This is not the only time it happens in Willimon’s book, and it never, ever gets new.
It is difficult to continue reading Willimon after he makes such a blatant political statement. But, then, he will keep typing and come up with something like this:
The most moving moment in Sunday worship for me is when my people come forward at Holy Communion, streaming down the altar, and there they hold out empty hands like little children, like the famished folk they really are, empty, needing a gift in the worst sort of way…What’s strange, from the world’s point of view, is the empty-handed, needy, empty request for grace. (47)
That is beautiful. I wonder if Willimon is confident enough in God’s grace to serve communion to President George W. Bush? The true test of grace, it seems to me, is not how you treat your friends, but how you treat your enemies—especially your enemies who are your brothers in Christ. I’m not sure if Willimon is attempting to appeal to the more liberal folks among his readers or if he is just trying to irritate the more conservative folks among his readers. Anne Lamott is at least wise enough to realize that someday she will have to share a table with the former president (see her book Plan B, Further Thoughts on Faith). Sometimes I wonder if Willimon realizes that?
So what I’m trying to do here is write a short review that a) talks to the strengths and weaknesses of what is written on the pages of the book I am reviewing and b) gives you enough reason to actually want to read it. I’ve read enough Willimon books to know that he is, frankly, difficult to pin down theologically. Sometimes he is profoundly gracious and other times he is profoundly stupid. I say that lovingly, of course; he’s probably said the same thing about most of the people he reads. That’s why I say that Willimon is hard to read: sometimes you love him, other times not. I know, you need a reason to read him so I’ll go back to what I said at the start.
Don’t read him for his political views (I don’t happen to think that his theological or political liberalism is any better an option than another’s theological and political conservatism.) Don’t read this particular book because you hope to find something particularly insightful, or new, or interesting about sin. Don’t read this book because you hope to find something that cures what ails you because I don’t think the book is chock-full of the sort of answers you might be looking for. But if you want, and if you dare, read the book because no matter how much Willimon appears to withhold grace from his political enemies (i.e., those who are ‘conservative, evangelical, [and] Bible-thumping’), I believe Willimon actually understands grace all too well—and perhaps that is what frightens (motivates?) him to write in the first place.
“This is who we are, says Jesus, not big, self-sufficient adults, but rather little children, naked, frail, empty, and hungry, needing a gracious God in the worst sort of way. You can’t get into this Kingdom if you are all grown up and big and important. You can only come in through a very small door as an inept, bumbling, ignorant, and empty little child” (47)
And this is exactly the reason why I keep coming back to Willimon. No matter how distasteful he finds conservative politicians and haughty academics, he always comes back to grace. He cannot stay away from it. He circles it, swoops in, hints at its borders, dabbles here and there, and then in one final blow he unleashes a barrage of grace missiles (I couldn’t resist using a warfare metaphor to describe the tactics of a pacifist writing about grace; it’s my own bit of irony)—even he cannot stay away from it! It’s like he is writing along, happily minding his own business, and wham! out of nowhere—grace.
I’m a big fan of grace and my reason for reading Willimon is that he is too and he has found a way, amidst all the hoopla that is America, academics, politics, church and church-folk to articulate it in such a way that I actually find myself loving Jesus more and despising those who disagree with me less.
That, my friends, is the worth of a good writer.
“By the grace of God, a good-enough church, and lots of practice, it is possible even for ordinary folk like us to become saints” (146).
This morning, my second of three days away from work, I sat in a chair on the patio behind my house. There were about a million birds singing—all a different song, but all perfectly intelligible to someone or at least to another bird. The songs were wonderful even though they were not being sung to or for me. Maybe the birds would be offended if they thought I was listening in on their conversations and songs.
I just couldn’t help myself and I found myself wishing I knew their language so that I could sing with them.
While I sat on the patio, I read from Scripture. Specifically, I read from John 11 and the story of the raising of Lazarus. Theologians are quick to point out that what happened to Lazarus was a resuscitation and not a resurrection. This is a terribly important theological distinction.
I don’t think Lazarus cared what it was: all he knew is that he was alive. Nothing else mattered now that breath filled his lungs again and light flooded his eyes and the warmth of blood once again began flowing through his flesh. Jesus did more than raise Lazarus: he recreated blood, fired synapse’s, pushed breathe into his lungs, and gave Lazarus back his movement. Whatever he did, it brought Lazarus out of the tomb. Whatever it was, Lazarus was glad for it.
I suppose I have always thought, probably because I watched some Jesus movie one time, that Lazarus came out of the tomb slowly, stiffly, and without much animation. Maybe. He was, after all, wrapped in ‘grave clothes’ which probably prevented a great deal of motion. But maybe Lazarus came bounding out of the tomb sort of like that fella that Peter healed one day who went ‘walking and leaping and praising God’ in the temple courts. Maybe Lazarus came out with a leap and a shout something like, “He get this stuff off of me I can’t see, or talk, or run and leap and sing.”
Somewhere I read that the reason Jesus said, “Lazarus, come out,” is because if he had just said, “Come out,” the tombs would have emptied that day. He called Lazarus and Lazarus came out. Isn’t it odd that even the dead can hear the voice of Jesus—often are better than the living: the birds obey; the dead obey; the living….well, we practice. Can you imagine Lazarus shouting back, “No thanks! I’m fine where I’m at.” But who among us would refuse the call to life? Even the dead are smart enough to know that when someone calls you to life you hear, listen, and obey.
I wonder if any of those others, the other dead, laying bone dry in dusty tombs near Lazarus’ tomb lay there thinking, “Oh, please call me next! Please call my name! Please Jesus let me hear your voice!” There’s something strange about people not wanting Jesus to call out their name, something odd about those who so continually refuse to hear and heed the call to live and life.
As I read through this story I noticed that people kind of blamed Jesus for Lazarus’ death. Verses 21, 32, and 37 all seem to point in the same general direction: Jesus could have done something but since he wasn’t there he didn’t. I’ll bet they would be angry if they knew he purposely stayed behind for two extra days.
- Lord, if you had been here… (21)
- Lord, if you had been here… (32)
- Could not he who…. (37)
It feels like maybe they were thinking he could have done something but for some reason or other he did not. Let’s be honest and truthful: this is one of the most difficult aspects of faith and Jesus to deal with on a regular basis. And I am only too aware of the platitudes that mutter things like, “What God could have prevented in his power he allowed in his wisdom” or something like that. Frankly speaking, this is of little comfort to the grieving and wailing. Yet there it is. Jesus could have done something after all he did open the eyes of a blind man! If he had been there he could have done something.
Divine restraint is profoundly perplexing and discomfiting.
Sometimes Jesus just isn’t there in time to prevent something. Sometimes Jesus delays for an extra two days so he can shop or catch up on his favorite television programs. I don’t know the reason why he delays and I cannot say that I perfectly agree with it—you know, why not set the world right right now? Why is it wisdom to allow death instead of preventing it?
What would have been the greater joy? Receiving a resurrected Lazarus back from the grave or having him healed before he entered the grave? The only response we know of is that Jesus really made a lot of people angry with this stunt and some others put their faith in him. The raising of Lazarus caused a lot of problems and, to be sure, didn’t go all that well for Lazarus either (John 12:10).
Here’s the thing though. Jesus calculated all this and made the decision and we are privy to the wisdom of his decision with respect to Lazarus even though we are not always privy to the wisdom he employs in his decisions concerning our lives: Jesus was not content to merely ward off death for a little while. No. His goal was to crush death under the weight of its own hubris. Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death, but it was better to utterly demolish death instead. There is wisdom.
Here I am. I am thinking of that sort of wisdom—wisdom that is powerful enough to prevent anything, but doesn’t always do so. I don’t understand it, but I don’t suppose I have to. Anne Lamott writes beautifully that ‘the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns’ (plan b, 256-257).
Here I am, living in the mystery, living with the mysterious Jesus who evinces a sort of wisdom that allows pain and suffering and death because there’s something better he wants to do. The essence of faith is believing that Jesus’ wisdom, no matter how little sense it makes, is wise. The essence of faith is believing that things make sense to God even when they do not make sense to me. I’m not close to mastering this which is why I write about things like anger, envy, and pride.
So what are we to do with this Jesus? NT Wright has some helpful thoughts at this juncture:
What’s more, the suggestion that we treat Jesus as a moral example can be, and in some people’s thinking has been, a way of holding at arm’s length the message of God’s kingdom on the one hand and the meaning of his death and resurrection on the other. Making Jesus the supreme example of someone who lived a good life may be quite bracing to contemplate, but it is basically safe: it removes the far more dangerous challenge of supposing that God might actually be coming to transform this earth, and us within it, with the power and justice of heaven, and it neatly helps us avoid the fact, as all four gospels see it, that this could be achieved only through the shocking and horrible events of Jesus’s death. (After You Believe, 126)
I have to ‘do something’ with this Jesus who gave us a glimpse of what this transformed earth and life will be like in the raising of Lazarus. This Jesus who does things like raise people from the dead is not safe and cannot be domesticated. He is unruly and out of control: no one stands up to the biggest bully in town. People are typically content to let the bully have his way, and death was content to continue owning every street corner in town. Jesus came along and changed all that.
Jesus is not safe. What are we to do with him? What are we to do with one who purposely lets death have its way only so he can walk right up to its front door and not even knock before demanding that death give up its claim? If anything we can say that Jesus is not one who will deal nicely with death at all so who are we to think we have a chance of resisting him? The biggest bully in town does not stand a chance against Jesus and all Jesus did was say, “Lazarus, come out!”
What I am going to do with this Jesus? I can’t stop him or control him. I can’t resist him. I can’t not follow him.
It’s late now. The birds have put away their songs for the day. They are resting some place safe, waiting and watching for the veil to lift and the the dawn to break. They will awaken me with their songs blaring through my open window in the morning. I still will not know their song or the language they use so I won’t be able to sing with them. But I know a song of my own, it’s the same song Lazarus sang when he came waltzing or leaping or jumping or hobbling out of the tomb that fine September morning. I can sing it with Lazarus because I, too, have been raised to life.
Jesus let the biggest bully in town do its worst for four days. Then Jesus went to the bully’s turf and completely undid the best and worst the bully had to offer. Completely undid death. Completely.
So what do we do with someone who raises the dead, gives life back to corpses, beats up the biggest bully in town? What do we do with Jesus?
This is a test. This is only a test.