It is finished

One of the top stories on AL.com this morning was an article written by Greg Garrison called, “Why do they call it Good Friday?”  It’s a great article and the author does a great job explaining context, theology, and tradition.  I appreciated the explanation and the question being asked in such a public way; however, I found myself taking it a different direction.  I wasn’t sure that even with the answers in front of me that I understood it.  Explaining the meaning of the cross of Jesus doesn’t help me to understand it.  I want to sit with it.  Wrestle with it.  I want to consider the cross and what Jesus’ last words, “It is finished” mean to me.

We have gotten slightly uncomfortable with mystery and I am the first to begin trotting with anxiety to my nearest Google search bar to satisfy my curiosity and questions.  This isn’t a question that google can answer.  Why is the day that God died a good day?  We can look up generations and ages of beautiful and thorough theological thoughts to find an adequate response, but in other ways it’s more a question of perspective and experience.  I am far away.  Any answer that I come up with wouldn’t be able to touch or respond to the agony and the grief of those crowds, disciples, and family members that gathered on that deadly hill and saw their Savior die.  To those witnesses, in that moment, there was very little that was good.  On that first day, the finality of the cross was crushing.  There wasn’t 2000 years of explanation to comfort us and tell us that everything is going to be alright, Sunday is coming.  I imagine when Mary went home that night, she didn’t thank God for grace and for forgiveness.  She was probably closer to feeling the words that she heard from her son, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  She probably had to be carried home from trauma rather than walking back in victory.  If Mary slept at all, it was out of exhaustion and grief rather than peace and assurance.  The comfort and anticipation that we have of a few days later was dead to her.

“It is finished.”  To us, those words are a transitional movement.  They are an accomplishment of one part of Christ’s ministry before another that starts with angels and large stones being rolled away.  To the disciples and others, “it is finished,” hung in the air like death.  Their thoughts immediately went to scattering and survival.  Let’s not distance ourselves too much though.  Even with over two millennia of story that tell us that everything is going to be alright, we know that feeling too well.  We know what hopelessness feels like.  Maybe we know the next chapter of the cross in our minds, but we all have moments in our lives that feel like we’re at the foot of that cross and our hope is stolen and murdered.  We’re not so far away.  We know how Friday can feel.

There are circumstances in this life that we don’t feel are ever going to change.  We can push, fight, cry, and yell all we want.  We can know all the right answers, even the disciples had been told it would be alright, but when you’re in the midst of a battle, it’s hard not to recognize that sinking feeling of death when you know you’re on the losing end.  You feel beaten.  You feel finished when the words from the cross echo through us, “It is finished.”  We are finished.

Sometimes hope is so very hard to see.   Sometimes hope looks like death.   But hope is not so easily finished.  The words that we take as loss and death keep ringing and hanging over us, too stubburn to fade away.  “It is finished.”  Those words contain the seeds of Good News.  They are not words about us.  They are words for us.  We are not finished yet.  Rather, the power that death and hopelessness had over us is finished.  The chains that addictions have over us is finished.  The power that anger and stress have over us to crush us and crush those around us is finished.  Every voice, diagnosis, and debt that told us that we are not capable of being made new again is finished.  It’s broken, helpless, and impotent.  We can know the explanations of why Good Friday is good, but until we’ve felt what it’s like to have what’s bent, broken, and dead in our lives redeemed and given a taste of recreation, our perspective of the cross will always fall short of eternal.

Our story stretches thousands of years to the cross of Jesus, and before that, to the first moments of creation when God wanted to be with us.  We are the ones who sit in a mystery.  We see beyond ourselves.  We look upon death and still see hope.  We are the ones who can look at a veiled, tortured and absent God and know that he is still king.  We are the ones that endure as a flickering light in the darkness so that others may see a sense of hope and steadiness.  On this Good Friday, rather than just answering the question, why is it good that God died, we can start to show the world.  We can be the ones who stand watch for three days and care for those who still tremble.  We can be the ones who leave here today with a story and a purpose that God is not finished with us yet.   A new day has come.  A new type of Friday.  A Good Friday.

*the feature picture is from Flickr image share sourced on Google images

I am thirsty

Taste has a way of taking us back.  A bite of home cooked bread, or the first sip of our favorite drink has a way of awakening a pool of memories and thoughts.  Within my family, occasions like New Years are remembered by the taste of smoked salmon and cheese fondue.  I can tell you whose birthday party I’m at by what kind of birthday cake is being served.  I even remember when my sisters and I were kids, the first time I ever had skim milk was at my grandmother’s house splashed over a bowl of Frosted Flakes.  I knew what my cereal was supposed to taste like and it wasn’t whatever was swimming around in my bowl.  To this day, I cannot stand the taste (or lack thereof) of skim milk, but I always remember that moment whenever I see a carton.  Taste has a way of tying us into our memories in a unique and powerful way.  In light of Holy Week and especially Maundy Thursday and the last supper, it’s fascinating what role and position taste plays in the story.  Let’s talk about the two last things Jesus tasted before he died.

In the gospel of John, the last request and the last sensation that Jesus has other than pain is taste.  His last statement of need or want is contained in John 19:28, “I am thirsty.”  When we look at the words in light of the last taste and the last cup that Jesus took for himself before this moment, they take on a significant position in the passion story.  It was presumably around the table with his disciples the night before, during the meal where Jesus shared broken bread and a cup of shared wine that Jesus experienced his last taste before the cross.   The wine at the table, he was surrounded by those he loved and cherished.  The sour wine at the cross soaked into a sponge suspended on a stick of hyssop, he was surrounded by guards and those filled with hate.

These two last drinks of wine bookend what the gospel of John calls Jesus’ final hour.  On the front end, the scriptures beginning in John 13 say, “Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.”  On the back end in 19:28, on the cross, when he asks for his last drink, it says, “When Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said, ‘I am thirsty.’”  What lies between the wine at the table and the wine on the cross is the final lesson, the final commandment that Jesus left for his followers, and I believe left for us.  “Love one another.”  Love each other like I loved you.  This is how others will know that you are my disciples, by the way you love each other (John 13:31-35).

Jesus demonstrated most fully what this love looked like when during that final meal and around their last cup together, Jesus rose and took off his outer robe.  He tied a towel around his waist and began to wash his disciples’ feet.  After he finished, he put his robe back on, returned to the meal and told them, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set an example that you should also do as I have done to you (John 13:14-15).

With this last commandment and this last example of a love that is humble and deep, Jesus finalizes his preparation for the church.  Then, he gives it away.  He gives away the church to us.  He asks for us only to kneel, wrap a towel around our waist and serve each other out of the love that he has for us.  He asks us to love in such a way that when others who are searching and hurting say, “I am thirty”, rather than sour wine, they can find the source of living water and the cup that runs over with God’s grace.  It says they will know where to look by the way we love each other.

And so I wonder, as that sour wine, suspended on the stick of hyssop, as it wet his mouth, did the taste and wetness stir his memories as we know that taste does with ours?  Did scenes flash of his last drink with his friends?  Did the taste bring back through the pain and through the exhaustion a memory of the first moments of his ministry when he turned water into wine?  Wine to wine, a sense of completion through the agony.  One last, painful, futile, sour taste and human comfort before the end.  All was complete.  What he loved, the people, the church, are cared for and in another’s hands now.  Our hands. We continue the ministry and the life of God when we cannot see him and cannot find him with the help of the Holy Spirit and the help of each other.  We hold the kingdom in trust together, gathering around a table to remember and taste what God has done for us.  We break the bread of community and sacrifice and share the cup of salvation so that others may come and taste that the Lord is good.

feature picture from: http://request.org.uk/festivals/holy-week-and-easter/maundy-thursday-in-the-church/

Christian worship that hasn’t happened yet.

I love worship.  If I am asked by supervisors or strangers what I love most about being a pastor and what gives me the most energy, I say worship.  I love thinking about it.  I love putting different pieces together.  I love thinking about the space and how it can be used or how the people might interact with each other and with God.  I have a deep and joyful belief that whenever I walk into a sanctuary or worship space before anyone else, usually very early in the morning, that God is already there and the Holy Spirit is already hovering over the face of our deep places that we bring with us.  However, worship is a strange beast.  There are very few hard and fast rules.  In different spaces, worship looks different, smells different, and sounds different.  Sometimes we feel close to God and close to others.  Other times, we feel lost, congested, and frustrated.

I was once told by a professor to look at Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam fresco.  mich5

She said that what happens between their two fingers is liturgy, or what we do as people in worship with God.  I grabbed onto that image and stored it away.  I could see the energy, the tension and the anticipation that comes with reaching towards God and finding a God that is already reaching towards me.  The small space between their fingers is mystery.  It’s tension and peace, vulnerability and acceptance.  It’s the very heart of worship.

Similarly, Pre-Christian Celtic spirituality provided an image that stuck with me and flavored the type of worship and Christian faith that developed in that region.  They referred to certain places and events in worship as “thin places.”  A place where the borders between heaven and earth are nearly indistinguishable and one can experience a rare closeness with God.  While my beliefs of an ever present God who lives with us and even within us pushes back on this idea to a degree, I feel that most people might have a sense of what these early Celts were talking about.  Most people have a particular space or time when they felt a little closer to the divine than normal.  Somewhere it was easier to think, easier to pray, or easier to listen.  There is something about that space between the fingers.  There is something about the thin places in our lives.

So, the question becomes how do we create thin places, if they’re able to be created at all? Do we just stumble upon them?  Is there a secret formula or script that must be followed or recited precisely in order for God to respond?  How, like the painting of Adam, do we stretch out our fingers more for the touch of God?  How do we worship and who is there in worship with us?  We’ve gotten very good at providing answers to the question, but I am not sure if we’ve made nearly as much progress satisfying the question.

There might be an image or experience that comes to our mind when we picture or think about a worship service or act of worship.  After rolling that image around in our heads for a minute and coming up with some idea or image, I am interested now in what we’re not thinking about.  What is the worship that we haven’t thought of yet and haven’t experienced yet?  Are there walls or buildings?  Is there music?  What is the work of the people?  What does prayer look like, sound like, and smell like?  I don’t want to come across as dismissive.  “Think of what is meaningful to you.  Now, let’s just push all of this aside and start all over!”  Rather, I want to jump in the deep and murky waters because I believe God hovers over them as well.  I want to think about how we can be more involved in people making connections and stories with God and each other in Spirit and Truth.  I want to know how people are making connections and stories outside of the Church and why they don’t need or expect worship or churches to be a part of their story.

I want to see God more and I believe that worship can be deeper and wider than what we’ve seen so far.  I want to hear how God is moving in ways that I didn’t consider or believe at first.  I want to hear about how prayers are being answered and lives are being changed in ways that were never thought possible.  If everyone brings their experience and revelation of God to worship and adds their faith story to the story of the faith community then we, in a sense, are never complete as long as people are missing and uninvited.  Our voice is never whole and our prayers are never fully complete.  How can we help make more thin places and how can the space between our fingers become more alive with a spark of creative life.

The Good Idea Fairy

I’ve been at war for years against a foe that’s elusive, disruptive, and catastrophically dangerous.  He goes by the name of the Good Idea Fairy.  Image

I was briefed on the danger of the Good Idea Fairy during my initial days in the military.  The intel collected on this particular enemy thus far warns of covert and disruptive operations.  If caught unaware, certain individuals are suddenly overwhelmed with the genius of a certain idea and become hopelessly blinded to the obvious flaws in tactics, logistics, and overall lack of common sense.  More experienced staff and leaders may be familiar to the signs that a Good Idea Fairy is in the area and have developed safe zones and no-fly zones in which spontaneous “good ideas” offered by “that guy/gal” are quickly contained before they can spread.  In the military, the counter strategy is to isolate the infected (typically) officer and distract them with some form of a Power Point presentation with pictures until the Good Idea Fairy has safely left the area.

I am a very common target for the Good Idea Fairy.  I have come to learn that The Good Idea Fairy knows the route from my house to my office rather well.  As a pastor and chaplain, I find myself often knocked over the head with his magical wand as I tweak and twist worship and outreach strategies to change the world, or at least my little corner of it.  My wife, soldiers, and members are pretty good about getting me back down to the ground and throwing me outside or in my office until the effects wear off.  I am always looking for the next great idea or trying to identify the areas that I am losing touch with the community and the world around me.  I’ve found that as a pastor, I forget.  I forget what it’s like to not be a pastor.  I forget what it’s like to not think about church events and services.  I forget what it’s like to wake-up on Sunday morning and go over options on what to do with my day.  I forget what it’s like to be the type of person that I’m trying to get to know.  And when I really think about it, my great ideas are normally at the expense of great relationships.  Who are the great people that I’m leaving behind when I’m too busy trying to make great ministry?

I think we’ve left some good people behind– labeled as bad ideas in our search for the perfect good idea.  I preached this last week about a Good Idea Fairy in the Old Testament.  In a story about Abram and Sarai, God promised them not only a great and wonderful land in which to live, but God promised them descendants and offspring in which to fill the land and become a great and powerful nation.  Now, as the situation begins to unfold, I quickly recognize the work of an ancient Good Idea Fairy.  Abram and Sarai can’t have children and it is going to be awfully hard to fill up an entire promised land without some sort of heir apparent.  I can only imagine what kind of dinner conversation took place as Sarai came up with the good idea to let Abram sleep with her Egyptian slave girl, Hagar, and conceive an heir through her.  Somehow Abram found it within himself to grudgingly and selflessly agree to have sex with now two women until a son was conceived.  Amazingly enough, Hagar does become pregnant and her relationship with Sarai begins to deteriorate and unravel quite quickly.  Imagine that.  What seemed to be such a good idea to Sarai and Abram at first becomes quite the family drama and ends with some of the most heartless and cruel treatment of a young pregnant girl with no choice and no rights that I’ve ever read about, and yet they seem to write it in such a way that one feels that surely Hagar deserved what she got.  Maybe if she didn’t dress like an Egyptian slave all the time, people wouldn’t look at her like an Egyptian slave.  Now I understand my modern perspective and moral perspective are much different than ancient Middle Eastern customs, but the isolation and abuse of others for the sake of pursuing what we believe to be good ministry and good organization planning is all too common across generations.  The baby is not even born yet before Sarai and Abram write off Hagar and her unborn child as their unfortunate bad idea and run her off into the desert trying to get home.

This isn’t the only time that Hagar finds herself in the wilderness, pushed off as a bad idea, with nothing to show for her sacrifice than broken promises and a child that she was forced to conceive and raise, now desperately close to death.  It’s at this point that God does something that I think Abram and Sarai wouldn’t expect.  Who knows if they ever even found out, but God appears to Hagar and speaks to her each time she finds herself alone and desperate.  God tells her that even if everyone else around her as discarded her as a bad idea and broken their promises with her, God will keep God’s promises and still see her and her son through until they too become a great nation.

It’s a hard story to deal with if you’re a big fan of Abraham and Sarah.  We may try to justify their actions and we may try to convince ourselves that their intentions were good or noble on some level; however, the Good News is what happens in the wilderness when God shows up to the one that was cast out.  God still treasures, hears, and speaks with the young girl that was thrown out as a bad idea.  I wonder who we’re leaving behind, forcing out, and have left labeled as a bad idea?  Would we find seek out Hagar in our communities and apologize for how she’s been treated and offer her the support and care she needs to experience the fullness of the promise of God, or is God left to clean up our bad ideas and make the connections and promises that we’re too busy and too afraid to make on our own?

Go therefore…

…and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.  Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of the present age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)  I used to be scared of this verse.  At the very least, I was annoyed.  Whenever I head it preached, studied, published, or flashed up on the screen, I knew I had a weekend of looking forward to awkward door-knocking conversations or handfuls of tracts to hand out and leave in “strategic” locations.  I heard words like “saved”, “born again”, and “testimony” and I would feel a sense of dread spreading through my gut.  Evangelism was a buzzword for “get ready to be annoying and feel persecuted.”  If someone was receptive, awesome!  If someone slammed their door in your face or cursed you out, even better.  Jesus likes that too!  Oh, the memories…

The crowning jewel of my evangelistic upbringing was the $20 bill tract and the fake money tracts.

 20bucks2-1023x477dollar evangelism

dollarPrepare To Meet God Money Tract

It was this particular proclamation tool that poisoned any real sense that God was looking down and smiling upon any of this.  Half of the tract looks like a twenty-dollar bill.  The other half is a mocking revelation that you’re not actually lucky, but probably damned for all eternity.  Cagey for sure, but Christ?  Sure, it had a sinner’s prayer on the bottom, but who could read it once the recipient burned it or tore it apart in a frustrated rant that Christians can be real tools?

Evangelism had become synonymous with guilt, shame, fear, and awkwardness.  When one friend of mine didn’t go down to the altar one night, a youth worker asked him, “don’t you want to live forever with Jesus rather than going to hell?”  That’s like asking cake or death! An evangelistic approach that pushes others towards God using the lowest of human emotions denies a God who draws all things to himself through complete love and grace.

So what does healthy evangelism look like?  I imagine it looks most like Jesus.  The attraction of knocking of doors and handing out tracts is that it doesn’t require a relationship.  In fact, it doesn’t even involve a name or a story.  All stories are the same, and names are not important.  Jesus sat with people though, he heard their stories, met their needs, healed their hurts, called them by name, and demonstrated the complete love of God instantly in their lives.  There is an assurance that we matter and are individually significant.  God knows our name and speaks life into our stories. With Jesus, there wasn’t only a quick prayer attached to a vague promise of eternal love and acceptance in the future kingdom of God.  Rather, a deep and abiding love was fully realized in that very moment coupled with an answer to their heavy and honest prayers.

What’s so shocking about the Great Commission is that most Christians I know can quote it and recall it at will; however, the promise of Jesus’ presence is forgotten, edited for length, or dismissed.  He, himself, will be with us every day until the end of the age.  We seem to structure our evangelism programs on one of two models.  Either we’re doing evangelism because Jesus commanded us to make disciples when he left and we have to do it while he’s gone, or we don’t do anything and leave it completely up to God and we trust him to make disciples independently.  I don’t see a faithful Church in either model.  As with most things when it comes to the Gospel, to the Good News, it’s done purely when it’s done in relationship.  It’s done when we don’t have all the answers and we’re willing to take risks and allow the gospel to come alive in new and crazy ways for others and for us again.  The Church needs to look like it’s message.  It’s time to start our discipleship and evangelism with a risky commitment to share our lives with others and become a people of stories and names, not tracts and shame.

Nets

I’m constantly amazed at how people measure their tasks and achievements differently.  When talking with soldiers about their PT routines, I might hear them describe the distance that they ran on a particular morning.  Others might talk about how much weight they lifted or even how long their workout session lasted.  Time, distance, weight, and change in appearance all seem to be measures of success, but they only tell a small portion of the story.  A focused view on success neglects the passion, the purpose, and the limits that so often define a larger commitment to wellness, capability, and faithfulness to God and ourselves.  Take some of Jesus’ disciples, Simon, Andrew, James, and John for instance.  Fisherman who seem to be quite successful in their family fishing businesses suddenly dropping their nets to follow a Rabbi down the beach.  As of that morning, these fishermen might have measured their success in a day or a year upon how many fish they caught, how many men it took to haul up a particularly heavy load, or maybe the size of the largest fish caught, knowing it would catch the highest price.  Their success was tied directly to what they could pull in with their nets and their hands.  Putting their nets down was more than just a rest or a short break, it was a life decision to pursue something more important…or at the least, mysterious.  All of a sudden their lives didn’t rely on their catch of fish.  Their livelihood wasn’t dependent upon making repairs to the nets and patching up the boats.

This seems to be the point in the story that I struggle over and I am sure that many others might hiccup as well.  There is something uncomfortable and disconcerting about a man who will walk away from his work before it’s done.  There is something scandalous and disappointing about a pair of sons that will walk away from their father and leave the employees under their care without direction, assistance, or an explanation.  They just walk away.  From the four young men’s perspective, they can measure their steps following after Jesus.  There might be an excitement, a curiosity, or even a stirring within their soul, but for those who are left in the boats or on the beach, I wonder if those measured steps stir feelings of abandonment, uncertainty, fear, or resentment at having to carry on through the day while shouldering more than their share of the work.

If we take these four fishermen and measure the rest of their lives in fish.  Following Jesus was a complete failure.  They’re quitters and they can’t cut it.  Even after Jesus has died and is buried, they need him to rise from the dead and yell from the shore about where to throw their nets before they catch anything of any significance.  However, if we measure their lives in faith, these four men don’t abandon their lives; rather, they finally begin uncovering their deep potential and priorities.  They being to learn to be fishers of people.  They lay down their nets to take up the larger and more meaningful nets of Christ.  They were caught up, drawn out, and prepared to become nets themselves– cast out into the world not to trap or capture souls, but to heal, comfort, and speak life into a world drowning in hopelessness, anonymity, and profound discouragement.  They begin to measure their lives in faithfulness and sharing their lives with others.  Questions about quantity, quality, and distance become less about fish and more about faith.  How much of my life am I willing to give?  What areas of my life are holding me back?  How far down this beach am I willing to follow?

I wonder if that’s a measure of discipleship.  Are we becoming a net for those who need the unconditional regard of God or are we back on the beach, too caught up already in our own nets?