Who Do You See?

“Do you see this woman?”

Of course he saw her. He couldn’t have been more than six, eight feet away from her. In fact, a snide thought had just run through his mind about both the woman and the guy who asked, “Do you see her?” He figured the guy asking the question was the one who needed to really take a look at the woman making a such a disgusting public display of affection. Everyone knew what a mess of a human being she was, what kind of a woman she was. The whole town knew. Or, so they thought.

Jesus was having dinner with one of the bigwigs in town, one of the “good,” church-going folks, when a _________ walked in. Fill in the blank with any derogatory label you want. The scripture just says “a woman with a sinful past.” Whatever marred her life, we don’t know; but the dinner host knew. He’d heard all the stories. Even if he hadn’t, he would have been able to tell what kind of a woman she was by the way she looked, the clothes she wore, her hair, her make-up, her teeth. Everyone knew. You could tell with one glance everything you needed to know. And there she was, crashing the dinner party, sniveling at Jesus’ feet. “Do you see this woman?” Of course, how could you miss her?

When I came across this story again in Luke a little while ago, I troubled over the question Jesus asked. The woman had broken open a clay pot of extremely expensive perfume and poured it on Jesus’ feet. Somewhere along the line she started weeping – tears big enough that they splashed on Jesus’ feet and mixed with the perfume to make a sopping mess. She had no towel to soak up the puddle, so she tried to wipe it all up with her hair. Hardly inconspicuous behavior. Jesus knows that the host sees this uncouth spectacle and even knows the snide thought that ran through the host’s mind. Further, the scripture tells us that Jesus was actually looking at the woman when he was questioning the host, directing the host’s gaze to the same person he beheld. So why did Jesus ask, “Do you see this woman?”

The answer that comes to mind sounded too froofy when I first thought it; and, it was quickly followed by a flashback to an episode of “Parenthood” when old-school Zeke goes to couples therapy with Camille and learns to respond to his wife, “I SEE ya, and I HEAR ya.” The idea of trying to truly see someone sounds too much like a contemporary counseling fad to attribute a similar concept to a story from 2,000 years ago; but I really do believe that something along these lines is what Jesus was after. The host did not see the woman. He saw a type, a kind. Jesus saw the human being created in the image of God. He saw the sinful past; and, he saw the present broken heart. He saw the child she had been and the child of God within. And I think she wept because she knew she had not only been truly seen by God, but that she had been embraced by God’s love and forgiveness. Jesus even makes sure that everyone at the party knows that this is what had taken place. As he looks in her eyes, he proclaims out loud for all to hear, “Your sins are forgiven … Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

I will be honest and admit that all too often these days I don’t see the person behind the type. I see a kind, not the actual human being. It consumes far less time, and energy, to take a quick glance at a person and fit them into categories I have crafted in my mind. As an introvert, especially, it draws energy out of me to deliberately see the person I am looking at, to consciously disconnect the pathways in my mind that connect physical data to mental constructs and try to start fresh. And, frankly, most of the time I have to turn to God for help to do so. Years ago, when I just started out learning how to be a pastor, someone told me that when I’m in a conversation with someone, in my role as pastor, I should picture Jesus between me and the person with whom I’m talking. It may sound a bit gimmicky, but it has often been remarkably transforming. I realize now, however, that seeing anyone, at any time, through the eyes of Christ would go a long way toward seeing the child of God they truly are.

Every human being, without exception, has been created in the image of God. How much violence, against both bodies and spirits, might be quelled if instead of seeing types, or kinds, we saw the children of God they truly are? I think it’s much more difficult to break the bones or break the hearts of those we recognize as human beings, than those we see as a type or a kind. Every individual human being has their own story, their own history, their own reasons, their own dreams. We know this for ourselves. Would that we might see this in every human being we ever encounter.

It’s Personal

Opening disclosure: this is not about politics!

I know that by making that statement up front I have now lost a few folks trolling for a fight. Still, I wanted to reassure my faithful audience, the two or three of you who read this blog on a regular basis, that you can relax for this one.

At various times in my writing, and especially of late, I have most definitely been caught up in the flurry of voices sharing – shouting – opinions about the ills of society. I make no apologies for my blithering, other than its general ignorance. There is a long, shameful history in the U.S. of white clergy not speaking out about injustice. Given that history, I would rather err on the side of being too vocal, than not vocal enough. However, two lines of thought that occurred to me, recently, led this piece away from politics. One of those thoughts was a realization that I had particularly well-honed skills at diagnosing and condemning problems while at the same time not having equally well-honed skills for offering solutions. The other thought reminded me of the reason I started writing in the first place.

Just after Easter, I reread the story of Thomas in John’s Gospel. The poor guy gets a very bad rap as the “doubting” one who wasn’t fortunate enough to have been around when the risen Jesus showed up to the male disciples the first time. In response to the stories he heard from the other guys, Thomas adamantly refused to believe that Jesus was alive unless he got to see him with his own eyes, maybe even poked him a few times with his finger. A week later when Jesus shows up a second time, Thomas is with the group, sees Jesus, maybe pokes him, maybe not, but either way the doubting “one” believes! Great. Good story. Yet, what really struck me was what the other guys were doing BOTH times just before Jesus showed up. Both times they were hiding behind locked doors.

The first time is totally understandable. The tomb had only been discovered empty that morning. Some of the women disciples had seen Jesus, even talked with him. But guys being guys, the witness of the women wasn’t enough to convince them. The male disciples huddled behind locked doors for fear that the authorities who had killed Jesus, would kill them also. As I said, under such circumstances, hiding behind locked doors seems pretty reasonable.

The second time, however, John writes, “They gathered again behind locked doors; and Jesus reappeared. This time Thomas was with them.” Wait a minute. Go back. “The gathered again behind locked doors.” Hadn’t they already experienced the presence of their risen Lord and Savior? Why then the locked doors? You’d think that maybe having had such a spectacular interaction with Jesus the week before, they would have been emboldened to say and do whatever they wanted, without fear of the consequences.

But, I think they were still afraid. Sure, they had seen Jesus alive; they caught a glimpse of something astonishingly strange, hopeful, powerful. But just a few days prior to that encounter they had also seen that same man, Jesus, pegged to a wooden beam, hanging in the desert sun, bleeding, broken, humiliated. The same authorities that had nailed Jesus to a post could do the same to them; and, as far as they knew, the authorities wanted to do so, and would. I can see the hesitancy to unlock the doors lingering for quite some time.

The wild thing is, somehow over the next several weeks, something dramatically changed in the hearts and minds of these same disciples. They did unlock the doors; and not only left the room, they went out into the streets and started telling anyone who would listen that no one had to hide behind locked doors anymore. They had good news for all those who were afraid, who were bound in whatever manner. They began working for a better world for everyone; and, they did so openly, as followers of Jesus. Their experience of the presence of the risen Christ, filled their souls with such joy and hope that they broke free of the fear, the grief and the despair that had bound them and they wanted that same freedom for others.

Over thirty years ago I experienced this sense of release and relief in the living presence of Christ. Fear didn’t bind my soul so much as loneliness and despair. I had spent years trying to hold darkness at bay and trying to fill the emptiness I felt within myself. Then one weekend in the middle of my sophomore year of college, at a retreat, Jesus was there, with me. Not in any sort of physical manifestation, but as a real presence nonetheless. I can describe it in no other way. Up to that moment, I had heard of Jesus, I had read bits and pieces of the stories about him. Then, in a very specific moment, I knew he was real and present with me. In that same moment, a burden lifted off of my spirit that honestly felt like a physical weight being lifted off of my back. I understood to the core of my being that Jesus was the one for whom I had been looking, that God loved me, and that Christ would never leave me.

The very next thought that popped into my brain was, “I want to be a pastor.” However, I felt very sheepish about that idea. I figured everyone who has such a distinct, dramatic experience of “conversion,” especially in their post-teen years, must want to be a pastor (Writing this just now, makes me realize, even more than I had before, what a stupid assumption that was!). It took a few years, and a particularly intense one in China, for me to realize that not everyone dreams of being a pastor. I also realized that my greatest desire was to help other lonely, fearful, grieving people find love, hope, even joy as I had. That was what I wanted to spend my life doing.

And that is why I spend my life doing what I am doing. I don’t write this blog, ultimately, to try and influence the outcome of the presidential election in the United States of America. I don’t write this blog to try to get particular legislation passed or change a particular social bias. I write this blog because there are still people hiding behind locked doors out of fear. I write this blog because there are still people struggling to keep darkness at bay, feeling empty inside and feeling alone through it all. I write this blog because in Christ I have found love, hope, beauty and even joy amidst the darkness. I write this blog on the faint chance that what I say, or share, might in some tiny way help even one person unlock the door and find freedom from what binds their hearts and minds; that it might help even one person experience the real presence of love, or hope, or beauty or joy in life. Sometimes I wander off the path a bit. I focus on the election or legislation or social biases, because they impact our sense of hope profoundly. But ultimately what I seek for myself and for others is not political. It’s personal.

 

 

Trumped

Are there dots to be connected? Sunday, January 24, “the Donald” walked into the First Presbyterian Church of Muscatine, Iowa and heard Scripture readings and a sermon focused on humility. Just over a week later, he came in second at the Iowa caucuses after having been first in the polls right up to election day. Though many people would consider second place a triumph (see Rand Paul, Chris Christie, et al.), for “the Donald,” second place is for losers. Even on that Sunday in church before the defeat, after hearing 1 Corinthians 12:21 read specifically, “the Donald” himself pondered if there might be a bigger picture to be seen: “I don’t know if that was aimed at me. Perhaps.” Of course, “the Donald,” in his self-centeredness, wondered if the message that Sunday might have been altered by the church folks themselves, because of his presence. And, after hearing the words of 1 Corinthians 12:21, it does sound a little suspicious:  “Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, “Get lost; I don’t need you”? Or, Head telling Foot, “You’re fired; your job has been phased out”?

Are there dots to be connected? No, and yes. No, neither the human, nor the divine, agents involved in the worship service the morning of Jan. 24, altered their message to speak directly to Donald Trump because he happened to be present. The passages of Scripture read that morning had been selected years in advance, literally years. The readings were part of the Revised Common Lectionary used by numerous Protestant congregations around the world. The words from 1 Corinthians 12 that sound so astonishingly appropriate for “the Donald,” are a straight reading of that verse from Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible, “The Message.” And, though I do not know the Rev. Dr. Pamela Saturnia personally, I would be shocked if she would not have given the same message about Jesus’ love for “outsiders,” including her references to Syrian refugees and Mexican migrants, even if Donald Trump had not been in attendance. In fact, Donald Trump could have disguised himself (all it would probably take would be to comb his hair in some sort of human form), walked into any one of thousands of other Presbyterian churches, or Lutheran, or Episcopalian, or Methodist … and he would have heard the same exact Scripture readings (in various translations) and a sermon with a very similar message. There was no conspiring to speak to “the Donald,” specifically.

At the same time, there are dots to be connected; but they are to be connected by any one of us who heard those particular scriptures read on that specific Sunday. Trump’s experience merely highlighted the effect intended by the church universal in centering our worship around God’s Word, Sunday after Sunday, even day by day. We are all part of a bigger picture. The world does not revolve around any one of us. We have been given this world, we have been given life as a gift. Sunday after Sunday, we gather to be reminded of the truth that we have been loved abundantly and are called to love in return. Love God, love one another. We are frequently reminded as well that most of us broken and messed up human beings don’t do this very well. We tend to take care of ourselves and our own and leave others to fend for themselves. In fact, we can’t even be trusted to reliably read the Bible. We tend to choose the parts we like, that affirm who we are, not who we can become. Therefore, centuries ago, some very wise people decided that a schedule for Scripture reading should be set up; in order that, over the course of a few years, the whole breadth, height and depth of the big picture will be revealed and we will know our place within it. It is this framework into which “the Donald” walked, unwittingly, on Sunday, January 24, at the First Presbyterian Church of Muscatine. It is the framework into which many of us walk, wittingly, every Sunday, to be reminded of what we all need to hear, “the Donald,” “the Douglas,” all of us:

You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts – limbs, organs, cells – but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain – his Spirit – where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves – labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free – are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive. I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it. But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster. What we have is one body with many parts, each its proper size and in its proper place. No part is important on its own. Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, “Get lost; I don’t need you”? Or, Head telling Foot, “You’re fired; your job has been phased out”? … The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church … You are Christ’s body – that’s who you are! You must never forget this. Only as you accept your part of that body does your “part” mean anything. (1 Cor. 12:12-27, The Message)

Here’s to making the connections.

Of Genocide and Jerry Falwell Jr.

As a child, stories of the Holocaust, slavery and lynchings, stories of the genocide of Native Americans saddened and perplexed me. I felt deeply the wrongness of treating human beings in these ways. At the same time, I couldn’t understand how it could happen. My juvenile brain cried out, “Why didn’t someone stop them?”

As I grew older, my horror of such cruel hatred turned inward somewhat. I began to contemplate what I would have done if I had grown up as a Gentile, German male in the early 20th century, or a white male in the South in the 19th century, or a white male, European immigrant to North America in the 18th century. Of course, my knee-jerk reaction was always that I would have been one of the heroes who stood up and fought against evil and fought for those who were being unjustly murdered. But, in all honesty, I also feared that I would have merely gone along with the crowd.

Well, for any of us who have ever troubled over where we would have stood in such horrific situations we now, sadly, are being presented with the circumstances in which to find out. As Rachel Held Evans, in her insightfully prophetic way has pointed out in two recent Facebook posts (Sunday, Dec. 6 & Monday, Dec. 7), the anti-Muslim rhetoric of Donald Trump, Jerry Falwell Jr., and numerous others, is exactly the type of de-humanizing fear-mongering that prepares the way for genocide. As a society, we have still not even faced up to the horrors we have already committed against Native-Americans and African-Americans; for the love of God, let us at least stand up to those who would perpetuate the same gross destruction of human lives on an entirely new people group. Now is the time for those of us who see the prejudice, ignorance, fear and evil for what it is to challenge every wrongful act of word and deed we witness.

As a follower of Christ, I most specifically cannot abide the grotesque distortion of discipleship to Jesus that was recently vomited from the mouth of Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the misnamed “Liberty” University. Representing the leadership of a school that claims to represent the teachings of Jesus Christ, Falwell proclaimed to the entire student body, as reported by the Washington Post:

I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in,’ he says, the rest of his sentence drowned out by loud applause while he said, ‘and killed them.’

‘I just wanted to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course,’ he said. ‘Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.’

There is absolutely no way at all to claim that such malicious, hateful language in any way represents Jesus Christ or the rightful beliefs of someone trying to follow the way of Christ. It is impossible to reconcile with any integrity at all the words of Falwell with the words of Jesus himself:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’                                               (as recorded by Matthew, Ch.5:38-39, 43-45)

Or how about the following:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘What is written in the Law?’ Jesus replied, ‘How do you read it?’ He answered: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and, Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’ But the man wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’  (as recorded by Luke, Ch.10:25-29)

If this conversation took place in the U.S. today, I believe that for far too many people the question would be, “Who is it okay to shoot?” Jesus sees the attempt by the man to disqualify some people from being considered “neighbors.” So Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, which in our current circumstances could easily be retitled, the Good Muslim. By the end of the story, Jesus has essentially condemned the whole concept of trying to discriminate who is a neighbor and, instead, has made the point that the right thing to do is care for anyone we can.

I am quite aware that Facebook posts and internet blogs generally have very little impact on changing the behavior or thoughts of those who disagree with the premise in the first place. Still, it is at least one way to proclaim your beliefs. And I will not stand by and allow the lies, misrepresentations and hate-filled, violent rhetoric I am hearing and reading in this country go unchallenged. Genocide can happen again. In our country. In our time. Now is the time to stand up for what is right and true.

Beast Mode Discipleship

I don’t think anyone who saw it happen live, whether at the stadium or on TV, will ever forget the moment:

January 8, 2011. The Seattle Seahawks were hosting a playoff game against the New Orleans Saints. No one thought the Seahawks even deserved to be in the playoffs, let alone hosting a game. But such are the vagaries of the NFL system. The New Orleans Saints were the defending Super Bowl Champions, had an 11-5 regular season record: but, had finished second in their division and were thus a wild-card entry. The Seahawks had the good fortune of being in the pathetic NFC West and won their division with a 7-9 record. Yes, you read that correctly. They had a losing record, yet they got to host the playoff game.

Surprisingly, the Seahawks entered half-time with a 24-20 lead. At one point in the 3rd Quarter the Seahawks had built their lead to two touchdowns, 34-20. Yet the Saints stormed back and cut the lead to 34-30 with 4:30 minutes left in the 4th Quarter. Anxiety soaked the entire Pacific Northwest like heavy rain.

And then it happened. With 3:38 left in the game, the Seahawks faced a 2nd and 10 at their own 33-yard line. Russell Wilson handed the ball off to Marshawn Lynch and Lynch ran smack dab into a mass of humanity at the line of scrimmage. It looked like the Seahawks would be facing 3rd and long, but Lynch hadn’t given up. He kept churning his legs and bulling his way through 300 lb. linemen. All of a sudden, he breaks through. Two Saints dive for his legs, Lynch high steps his way through. He’s in open field now. A Saint defender chases him down from behind and wraps Lynch’s upper body in a bear hug. Lynch sheds the defender like a flea-ridden blanket. Lynch veers for the sideline but has another defender coming at him with a perfect angle. It looks for certain that Lynch will be either tackled or at least pushed out of bounds. Lynch plants his right foot, stiff-arms the defender into the turf, stumbles a bit from all the forces at work, then keeps going. One final New Orleans defender at his own 5-yard line has a shot to bring Lynch down. Lynch blows right through the guy. Touchdown!

The crowd goes absolutely maniacal! People are stamping, screaming, high-fiving, grown men weeping for joy! The news comes out the next day, the crowd had gone so crazy that their reaction shook the ground underneath the stadium enough to register as a tremor on a nearby seismograph! That moment will live forever in the annals of Seattle history, not just Seahawk history, as “The Beast Quake.”

Though that one particular run will stand alone forever, those of us who watch Seattle Seahawk football on a regular basis know that the astonishing thing about Marshawn Lynch is that he runs with that same effort every time he gets the ball. I have him seen him single-handedly push a pile of five, six defenders backward two or three yards. These are NFL D-linemen and linebackers that he pushes around. Men 250 – 300 pounds. Honestly, for sheer effort and astonishment, some of his two yard gains are as impressive as the Beast Quake run. I have never witnessed anyone work as hard as Marshawn Lynch play after play.

When talking about Marshawn Lynch, however, one thing often gets lost. There is far more to the man than just his athletic ability. His mother raised him on her own in an extremely rough, violent neighborhood of Oakland. They lived in housing projects, were on food stamps, sometimes went without food. He sometimes had to wear the same clothes for days at a time. Still, he overcame all of that to earn a football scholarship to UC-Berkley. And yes, for those entering Cal on a football scholarship, the standards can be lower than a regular admit. Yet, there are still standards, which Lynch met. Further, in order to continue to play football, he had to go to class and get grades high enough to remain eligible. Which he did. For several years. At Cal!

Surviving his neighborhood, getting into, and through, Cal and making it in the NFL would be enough to set Lynch apart as a remarkable man. Yet I believe that even more worth noting is that Lynch goes back to his neighborhood in Oakland every offseason. He does so in order to help kids like himself. He knows, personally, the difficulty of finding hope amidst the harsh conditions they face. Hearing him talk about his motivation for helping others reveals a person who is very aware of, and grateful to, his mom, especially, for how hard she worked to help him get to where he is now. Particularly because of her, he wants to return the good. As a side note, the largest tattoo he has spans his upper back and reads, “Mama’s Boy.”

I actually feel quite fortunate to know all these details about Marshawn Lynch. As most of the nation knows, Lynch rarely, almost never really, speaks to the media. Friends believe part of the reticence comes from his upbringing. Lynch is generally suspicious of people he doesn’t know and doesn’t like to open up to almost anyone. Self-servingly, I think Lynch is extremely introverted. One time, however, he did grant a one-on-one interview with a reporter from ESPN. They recorded the piece after season of the Beast Quake run. Hearing Lynch reflect on his life revealed to me someone intensely thoughtful. In fact, at one point in the interview, Lynch uses the Beast Quake run as an analogy for his life in such a profound way, I went over it several times and wrote it down word for word. I find his analogy both insightful and inspiring:

Growin’ up, bein’ from where I’m from, a lot of people don’t see the light. I didn’t see the light in that play. Goin’ forward. Ran into some trouble. Bein’ on food stamps. Livin’ in the projects. Runnin’ head first into linebackers. Startin’ to play football and things opened up for me a little bit. Breakin’ a couple more tackles. Goin’ to jail. Gettin’ in trouble. Comin’ out a that – touchdown!

The other day, as I was studying for a sermon I was going to be giving, I kept thinking of Marshawn Lynch and this analogy he gave of his own life. The passage I was preaching on was from Paul’s letter to the Phillipians, chapter three, verses 12-14:

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

For me, Marshawn Lynch embodies in his life and work the idea Paul is getting at in this passage about “pressing on.”

Just before the verses above, Paul had been writing about the goal of his life, and by inference the goal for all disciple’s of Christ: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” In his commentary on this letter, Gordon Fee notes, “Everything in Paul’s present life is drawn to a future in which Christ is finally and fully known.” Such is the goal for all Christians – living a fully resurrected life in the full presence of God.

Yet, Paul admits that he is not there, writing, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal … ” and, “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it … ” This is the Apostle Paul who admits these shortcomings. John Calvin sees the larger point for us: “Paul thinks of nothing but Christ – knows nothing else – desires nothing else – is occupied with no other subject of meditation. Therefore, there is much weight in what he now adds, that he himself, while he had given up all hindrances had nevertheless not attained the object of aim.” But he doesn’t give up. Instead, ” … one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Paul presses on.

I believe this is good news for all of the rest of us seeking to follow Christ. If even Paul admits that he has not yet attained the end goal of full resurrection life, we need not pretend that we are anywhere close. None of us experience the life God calls us to live, fully. Sometimes, when we become aware of this truth, doubts creep in, discouragement, even despair. Further, we live in a broken world that brings turmoil and suffering. Sometimes grief, depression, anxiety can be so oppressive it is physically hard to move. Sometimes the weight of what is wrong in our lives, what is wrong in the world weighs so heavily on us that living is not a matter of “day-to-day” but moment-to-moment, literally.

Into this darkness comes Paul’s voice, “Press on.” And we do so not because we have hope in our own strength, but because our ultimate hope for achieving our goal lies in God and God’s strength. Paul proclaims that he does his part in struggling towards his end goal, pressing on, but more importantly, he does not press on alone: “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” We are not on our own pushing against the mass of forces trying to drag us down. Christ Jesus has a hold of us and pulls us forward with his strength. In commenting on Paul’s experience, Tom Wright comments on our experience as well: “All Paul’s efforts after holiness, after the work of the gospel, after the goal of resurrection; are not a matter of his unaided effort to do something that will make God pleased with him. They take place within the context of God’s grace: King Jesus has grasped hold of him, and all that Paul now does is a matter of responding in love to that firm hand on the shoulder.” Into the midst of our own struggles we hear the voice of Christ, “Press on. Press on because I have a hold of you and will bring you into the fullness of life.”

This is good news for me. I am no Marshawn Lynch. Physically, I’m maybe 2/3 the man he is. I honestly believe that if I got hit with the full force of an NFL player blasting me the way Lynch gets hit multiple times every game, it would kill me. My ribs would probably be crushed into my internal organs and I would be done. Even in terms of his fortitude as a human being, though, I am no Marshawn Lynch. I don’t know if I could even have survived the conditions he had to endure growing up. He not only survived, in very significant ways he has succeeded in life.

I can only thank God that I don’t have to have the strength of Mr. Lynch to one day know resurrection life. My hope, our hope, is secure because of the strength of God’s grace. As Hosea put it:

Let us acknowledge the Lord;
let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
God will appear;
God will come to us like the winter rains,
like the spring rains that water the earth.

God will raise us to new life.

In the mean time, there will be moments when it seems there is no way we can make it through. There will be moments when we see no light. And it is in moments like those, that for me, Marshawn Lynch can actually be a powerful inspiration. As he has done so many times in his life, we need to keep going. As he does every time he is given the ball to run, so too must we press on. One day we will break free.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

I remember riding the bus to Goodman Middle School in Gig Harbor on Monday mornings at this time of year, gazing out the window in either giddy delight, or borderline despair. My view of the world then depended entirely upon whether the Seattle Seahawks had won or lost the day before. And the mood would last not just through the day, but the entire week. I so identified with Jim Zorn, Steve Largent and the rest of the boys that a win boosted my own self-esteem; but, I considered a loss a personal affront.

Based on the number of jerseys and other Seahawk swag sported in the Seattle area on any given weekend the “Hawks” are playing, I am not the only one who has such issues. In fact, I think there is a general human tendency to filter our worldview through lenses that reduce our perspective to a more regional view, maybe even a concentration on our own city or neighborhood. What happens to these places, in some measure, happens to us. I once worked in a lumber town that had lost its mill as an employer. Depression blanketed the whole area. And it’s not simply a matter of geography.  For some of us, the lenses through which we evaluate our world may include our relationships, our income, our health. If our child is hurting, if we have lost our job, if the migraines just won’t go away, the world seems more cruel and bleak. It’s rare to come across people who aren’t effected almost exclusively by their immediate circumstances.

However, I recently came across a story about one such person that proved inspirational in its own right. Even better, it reminded me of another profound example that I hadn’t thought about in years. The story of the original person came from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Phillipi. Paul wrote the letter from a jail cell. He awaited a trial that left his future in this life completely uncertain. He had already received numerous, brutal beatings for preaching about Jesus; and he’d been run out of towns and threatened with death several other times. His message morally challenged the positions of power and privilege throughout the Mediterranean world and those who held them, especially the Roman Emperor, in whose jail Paul found himself chained. Adding a little salt to the wound, while Paul was imprisoned, various opportunists used his incarceration to undermine his authority over the new churches in the region (while promoting their own authority of course). In spite of all this, Paul writes the following words to the Phillipians:

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear. It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. (1:12-18)

Somehow, Paul sees beyond his immediate circumstances to the much bigger picture of the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ.

As I wrote above, as encouraging as it was to read this story of Paul; even better, it reminded me of the story of another person whose ability to look beyond his immediate circumstances I find even more inspiring, significantly so. I first encountered this story as a play at the Intiman Theater in 2010. Created by a team of artistic director, Kate Whoriskey, associate producer / director, Andrew Russell and writer, Sonya Schneider, “The Thin Place” took the true stories of ten separate individuals first interviewed by KUOW reporter Marcie Stillman and wove them into a tapestry thematically held together by the impact a crisis in their lives had on their faith. Of all the stories that the actor, Gbenga Akinnagbe, revivified in his solo performance, the one that brought a lump to my throat was the story of a Cambodian man who became a POW in North Vietnam after the war that tore apart that entire region.

Imprisoned in a pitch-dark cell, 3’x3’x6′, the only time the man saw any light, or had contact with any other human beings, occurred once each day when the guards opened the cell door to put in a cup of water and a cup of rice gruel. That was it. Terms like “day” and “night” lost any meaning. Neither did he have any idea how long his living nightmare would go on.

Certainly the man had enmity toward his captors, however, he acknowledged that the person he hated most was God. The man had once believed that he had been called, by God, to be a minister. Yet, now his contact with any human beings had been virtually eliminated. He furiously questioned “Why?”

At some point, for some reason that I don’t know if I will ever be able to grasp, his vision of his life broadened to encompass the breadth of the kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of so often in the gospels. From that moment on, everything changed. Every time the guards opened the door to leave his water and gruel, the man would stand and smile at them.

After a number of times witnessing this bizarre behavior on the part of their prisoner, the guards finally asked him what the hell he thought he was doing. The man responded, “If I tell you, do you promise not to beat me?” The guards considered his request. They came back with a counter-offer, “If we like what you say, we will leave you alone. If we don’t, we will beat you.” The man decided to share the following explanation:

I stand and smile for three reasons. First, it’s dark in here, as dark as night. The only time I see light is when you open the door. That’s the first reason, I see light. Second, in my faith I believe that God made all human beings in the image of God. So, when you open the door, I see the image of God. That’s second. And third, I am an Asian man, like you. When you open the door, I see faces that look like mine; I see my brothers. That’s third. That’s why I smile.

They closed the door and walked away. The man in the cell thought, “At least they didn’t beat me! That’s good!” Later the door opened and the guards returned his glasses to him. They told him, “Ask us for whatever you need. We will try to make it happen for you.”

As I wrote earlier, I don’t know that I will ever understand, let alone have, the depth of faith that allowed this man to see the kingdom of God from the midst of his prison. Yet, knowing his story gives me hope that someday, somehow, my own vision might encompass more of God’s kingdom than I currently see.

Do Not Resuscitate the Church

As our society slowly shifts toward openly discussing end-of-life issues for human beings, maybe we in the church ought to be more open to discussing “end-of-life” issues for our institutions. A few months ago, Pew Research released its latest poll on religion in the United States and dramatic headlines fretting, or celebrating, the end of Christianity immediately popped up on cyber and print media outlets across the country. As a mainline Protestant pastor, my plea to all my bothers and sisters frightened by the latest polling results would be, “Fine, bemoan the (possible) loss. But, please, do not make any heroic attempts to resuscitate the Church.”

Before any of my more eager evangelical bothers or sisters respond by denouncing me as “exactly what is wrong with the mainline Church,” (at least for the position I take above), let me add, I believe that the poll results released in May actually have almost nothing to say about the health of Christianity in the United States. So, the self- identified “Christian percentage of the population” fell by 8% (from 78.4% to 70.6%)? 70% still claim to be Christian! Seventy percent! But even about that number, let’s be real – do any of us honestly believe that 70% of the human beings in the United States of America believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Anointed One of God and have changed something major in their lives to try to follow the path he commanded us to follow? Or, that 78.4% of the population used to? If that were true, I don’t believe we would be creating tax breaks for large corporations while cutting funding for social services.

I live and work as a pastor in a part of the country that long ago stopped pretending that going to church is an essential part of the lives of 70% of the population; for that matter, we’ve stopped pretending that it’s an essential part of the lives of even a majority of people. There is absolutely no social incentive for claiming to be a Christian in our culture here in Seattle. None! So people don’t do it.  And though some Sundays, for pride and ego mostly, I feel like maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if just a few dozen more could pretend for a little while and do it by attending our church services; still, as a whole, I believe that the Christian community in Seattle and perhaps even the wider culture are healthier for it. We have much smaller numbers than in many parts of the country, but I have found that the disciples here bring a tenacious commitment to their faith that results in profound service to their neighbors and neighborhoods.

I believe the American Church has squandered, and continues to squander, countless resources trying to prop up the edifice of institutional religion at the expense of caring, to the fullness of our abilities, for our neighbors and one another. We have fallen for the falsehood that greater numbers equate to greater health, no matter what. We have sometimes subtly, sometimes brazenly, sacrificed authentic community for attendance numbers, in the name of “church growth.” Therefore, anytime the numbers decrease we believe the church is dying.

Regardless of the veracity of the headlines concerning the Pew Poll numbers, the survey results can serve as a prompt to face the question, “So what if the church dies?” Does that mean that God has died? Does that mean that the Holy Spirit no longer breathes new life into individuals and communities? Does that mean the Jesus has left the building? Since when has a building, or for that matter a denomination, been able to contain God? The history of the institutional church has been a history of hindering God at least as much as helping, if not more. In the time that I have been in the Seattle Presbytery we have closed and shuttered maybe a dozen church buildings and bade farewell to the official congregations they held. At the same time, new congregations of people following Christ have gathered all across the city and wider region. Some have even done so under the identifying name of “Presbyterian”, but many others have taken on other identifying names. The Holy Spirit still broods over the dark chaos calling out new forms of life.

In our congregation, we have been looking at the Apostles Creed this summer, Sunday by Sunday. This past Sunday, July 26, we came to the phrase, “I believe in…the Holy catholic Church.” For a little congregation like ours, recognizing this reality, that we are a part of something much greater than ourselves, frees us up to rejoice, come what may. If we limit our understanding of the health of the Church to the numbers associated with our distinct congregation, every sign of life becomes vital, and every sign of death becomes frightful. When we remember our place in the Body of Christ, when we remember that we have brothers and sisters in Christ gathering for worship at Queen Anne United Methodist two blocks away, and St. Anne’s Catholic a couple blocks farther on, and St. Paul’s Episcopal down by the Seattle Center, and… and… across the world! The fortunes of our congregation, our building, our denomination don’t seem quite so vital. We are one part of the Body of Christ. Just as some cells of a growing human body die off and make way for new, living cells, so too do congregations and even denominations within the Body of Christ. Our “heroic” attempts to resuscitate what is truly dying in the Church merely distract us from attending to what is truly living and growing. Let us have the courage to let go what is passing and welcome what is being born.

I Can’t Understand

I can’t understand the evil that dwells in the soul of a human being that can sit within a circle of other human beings for an hour, a circle of human beings who opened their lives to him even though he was a complete stranger; then — after listening to them speak of the Anointed One who gave his life for sinful, broken human beings — stand, pull out a gun, point it at one in this circle, see the terror in the face of that person, take enough time to talk to that person, to hear their trembling plea to not do what the murderer is about to do, and still, after all of that to pull the trigger of the gun that strikes the bullet that fires from the chamber and rips through the beating heart of one who is of the same race – the human race, watch the life bleed out of the victim; and then, repeat this same horrifying act again… then again… then again… then again… then again… then again… then again… then again. Simply because the color of their skin was darker than his own. I can’t understand this.

Neither can I understand the blinding, hateful venom spit out by other human beings speaking on radio talk shows, or the blithe, venomous outright lies that are, knowingly, spit out of the mouths of human beings on television “news” programs, at NRA conferences, or Tea Party rallies, venomous words that seep through the ears and enter the souls of human beings who have access to the antidote of truth; but who also have access to weapons designed for no other purpose than to violently rip apart the bodies of other human beings.

But, maybe I can understand. To say that I “can’t understand” risks making it sound as if those who choose murderous weapons and murderous words instead of the truth are so other than I that they don’t even understand the choices they have. To say that is to let them out of the responsibility they have for the decisions they make. And the reality that there are those among the human race whose brains are ill and who may choose to take hateful words to their logical, murderous conclusion, makes those who spit out lies and who provide easy access to weapons for killing all the MORE responsible for the actions of those with less ability to understand their choices. So, after all, in my own brokenness and sinfulness, sadly I may be able to understand more than I like to admit.

Maybe what I can’t understand is the depth and breadth of love and sheer grace that gives the daughter of one of the murder victims the strength to be able to say to the human being who shot and killed her mother, “I forgive you.” The daughter of Ethel Lance prefaced those tremendous words with other words that acknowledged the irrevocable loss and suffering the murderer inflicted on her — “I will never talk to [my mother] ever again. I will never be able to hold her ever again.” And yet, she was still able to say to the man who killed her mother, “I forgive you.”

The nine human beings shot and killed in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday, June 17, were killed inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. They were women and men gathered to learn more about the one who they had chosen to follow in life, Jesus. They were gathered together not merely to learn more about Christ, but to experience his presence with them, that they might become more like him. It is not too hard to imagine that many of the surviving relatives of those killed at Emanuel Church, those surviving relatives who spoke such staggering words of forgiveness, are also seeking to follow Jesus. The same Jesus who when he was nailed to a cross, being killed for nothing he had done, prayed for those killing him, “Father, forgive them. They don’t realize what they are doing.” This ability to forgive such horrific evil, this is what I can’t understand. I know where it comes from, Lord. But I don’t know if I could live it. I thank you, God, that there are at least others, better than I, who can.

A Beautiful Answer

In my previous post, I lamented that it seems as if no one in the corporate world is questioning the all-out pursuit of profits. The question that anguished my soul was, “Profits! Fine. But, to what end?” Today I read the story of a self-identified capitalist CEO who did ask that question of himself, and came up with the most compassionate and gracious answer a bleeding heart liberal like I could ever wish for. If this was the way capitalism was practiced by everyone, I would sign-up to carry a card.

I am embedding the link to the story in this post, rather than summarizing the details, because I think it is such a profoundly significant example of justice in economic practice, that I would love for it to be as widely read as possible. In fact, I think it should be required reading for anyone establishing a business, renewing a business license, even founding a church or becoming a pastor! However, my technological skills being slightly above that of “cave-dweller,” in case it doesn’t work, Bing (I’m a hometown boy; Google if you must) Dan Price, CEO of Gravity, New York Times. My thanks to Jeff Keuss, a professor at Seattle Pacific University, for posting this story on Facebook. Mr. Price is an alumnus of SPU, which to me seems far more causal than coincidental.

Sharing the story of Dan Price’s counter-cultural act, fulfills the main purpose for which I took up writing “Hints & Guesses” in the first place. His act of compassion, grace and sacrifice reveals, at least to me, the life that God calls us to and offers us in the Easter life of Christ, here and now. For me, it hints of the Kingdom of God in the kingdom of this world.

On Starbucks, Boeing and God

For better and worse, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, has been drawing a lot of attention of late. Schultz hasn’t been running his company in the typical style of most American, mega-corporations. Schultz has increasingly moved Starbucks toward the borderlands between capitalism and politics. In February, TIME magazine featured Schultz on its cover and ran a story that went so far as to ask whether he had any aspirations for political office. However, as mentioned above, not all the attention has been for the “better.” At the annual shareholder’s meeting, held Wednesday, March 18, corporate officers had to spend at least part of their time defending the most recent social campaign, which had baristas writing “Race Together” on to-go cups. Ironically, the story on this misguided message appeared in the hometown, Seattle Times, just days after a fairly complimentary article on Schultz’s seemingly sure-handed guidance of Starbucks into the discussion of these types of corporately dangerous social issues. In that article, “Citizen Starbucks,” (by Angel González, Seattle Times, Monday, March 16) Schultz receives recognition for being one of the most significant leaders of a trend by some corporations towards “standing for something more than profits.” Yet, just near the end of the story, we hear the reality that makes these socio-political forays possible: “above par results.”

Starbucks shares have outperformed the S&P 500 Index by a factor of six since early 2009. Wall Street so far seems to accept that an investment in Starbucks comes with a dose of political agitation. ‘Everyone knows Howard Schultz has a view on a lot of things,’ says Andy Barish, an analyst with Jefferies… ‘The company has been doing well,.. and at the end of the day that’s the most important part.”

Yes, that is the most important part to many, but why?

I find the current obsession with the endless pursuit of profits disturbing and profoundly shallow. No one seems to be asking, “To what end?” I’m not entirely naïve. I lived in mainland China in the mid-80’s. I experienced, first-hand, the detrimental effects of leaving no room for rewarding hard work, effort, and personal investment. Most human beings want to feel that they can take care of themselves and those they love, at least in part by being rewarded for their own efforts. In the capitalism of the US in the mid-80’s, many of us still believed that was possible, at least generally. Personally, I no longer believe that is true. Even with the recent turmoil of the Great Recession, US corporations are sitting on the largest amount of capital reserves in US history, while millions remain unemployed. Many CEO’s receive obscene bonuses, supposedly based on performance, related almost solely to profits, while the average worker has seen their wages stagnate for two decades. As one grotesque example, on Saturday, March 14, the Seattle Times reported the 2014 compensation and bonus amounts for the Boeing Company. Amidst the myriad numbers, a few will suffice for this example. In 2014, Boeing accrued a net profit (net, not gross) of $5.4 billion. From 2012-2014, their regulatory filing reports a “cumulative economic profit” of $8.332 billion versus a target of $5.701 billion. Based on these numbers, CEO James McNerney, and other executives, received the maximum bonuses allowed at twice the target amount. Bully for them, eh? However, at the same time, in the same company, with the same numbers, as Dominic Gates reports:  

The rank and file employees’ bonuses were down from the previous year because they failed to ‘far exceed’ financial performance targets set at the beginning of the year. Though the company exceeded those preset targets by 30 percent, that was not enough to trigger the maximum bonuses, equal to twice the target bonuses.”

Hmm, McNerney and executives yes, average worker no. Putting this in actual dollar amounts, McNerney received an annual bonus of $4.4 million (plus an additional $10 million three year performance bonus) while, “salaried non-management staff, including engineers, in Washington state received annual bonuses averaging just over $4,500” (a 24 percent drop from 2013). That story by itself might only rate an assessment of “outrageous.” What moves it into the “grotesque” category for me relates to an entirely different story that came out in the same paper, that same day. The headline reveals the basic message of the story, “Even In Better Times, Food Bank Visits Are Up.” Again, some numbers from the article by Janet I. Tu, help illuminate the reality:  “At the 27 food pantries in the Seattle Food Committee coalition, the number of visits (including delivery of food to homes) went up from 928,656 in 2007 to 1.1 million in 2009 and to nearly 1.4 million last year [2014].” In Seattle! Which is not typically considered a struggling economy. As if to set me up for this blog, these two different stories began on the front page, and continued side-by-side on a later page.

I will readily admit that I lack any expertise in relation to numbers associated with corporate profits and annual bonuses. However, when it comes to the numbers of people without enough food to eat, my colleagues in both the social services and ministry, and I, have been profoundly saddened by both the numbers of people we work with, and work for, who need help, and the addition of whole new demographics that find themselves asking for help they never dreamed they would ever need.

So I repeat the question that led me into this blog: “Profits!” Fine. But to what end?

Contrast the general corporate trend with the way of God. In fact, “consider the lilies of the fields.” Not because they “do not labor or spin” and yet God clothes them and cares for them. Consider as well the fact that wildflowers flourish across the continents, frequently in meadows that no human eye will ever even glimpse. Why go to the bother? Where is the profit in that? Consider the staggering expanse of the universe, the myriad numbers of stars and galaxies; and, as far as we know at this point, we are the only tiny rock in this magnificent universe with life, with creatures who know the Creator of this universe. A universe that has been given to us (given to, not earned by!). As Ian Pitt-Watson once questioned in a sermon along these lines, “Why this waste?” Could not God have been a bit more, or a phenomenal amount more, efficient? Where is the profit? Or, consider the vast stretch of time that has preceded our tiny run in history. Why the waste? What was the use? What was the point? To what end? Even day by day we are showered with the generosity of God – “God causes the sun to rise on evil and good alike. God causes the rain to water the fields of the righteous and the sinners.” (Mt.5:45) Why? I believe that God lavishes us with more of everything than we will ever need, in order that ALL might prosper, that ALL might at least have the opportunity to take what is given by God, given to all, and use it for good. Not a single executive in this world would have ANYTHING without the abundance of good stuff that God has provided first. So, why not share the wealth? Literally.

“Profits!” Fine. But, to what end?