Saturday, March 30, 2013

Six Monologues from John's Passion: #6

"A Secret Disciple"

I have a confession to make.  I am a follower of Jesus.  You think that's an odd confession?  It's dangerous to be a follower of Jesus.  Not very many people know that I am.  You see, I am a respectable person.  I have my reputation to protect, my standing in the community.  So I try to help, in small ways, and in secret ways.  I try to live by the things that Jesus taught.  "Love one another as I have loved you," he said.  "Servants are not greater than their master," he said.  "Go and bear fruit," he said.  "Unless  a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life."

That last statement haunts me.  I have tried to live by Jesus' teachings.  I want to honor him.  Not many disciples have the means to provide a tomb.  So I did.  I wanted to honor him and his life.  It seemed like the least I could do.  But as I thought about it, it seemed like the safe thing to do.  I'm glad I gave him a place to be buried.  He was too important, to... holy... to be buried in a pauper's grave, to be buried with all of the other criminals.  But as I sealed the tomb, I thought, just for a moment -- we're save now.  We're safe from those teachings of his -- so compelling, but so difficult.  Can you imagine?  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life keep it?  If I am honest with myself, that's me.  I love my life.  That's why I'm a secret disciple.  And my my heart knows that what Jesus teaches is true, and life-giving.  But I am afraid.  I am afraid to lose my life, my reputation.  I'm afraid of what will happen if I tell people that I believe in Jesus.  Will they laugh at me?  Will they stop inviting me to their banquets?  Will I be an outcast?

When I sealed the tomb, for a moment I thought -- this is the end.  And I grieved the thought of never hearing his voice again, of never seeing him again, of never being healed again.  But then I thought, what did I think I was sealing up?  Didn't he say, "If  grain of wheat, it bears much fruit?"  This is not the end.  You can try to seal Jesus in the tomb, but he won't stay there.  You can try to make his teachings respectable, but he'll keep meeting you, and telling you to come out of the darkness, and come into the light.  You can try to be a secret disciple, but he'll keep messing you up.

That's how it was with me.  I sealed up the tomb, to provide a respectable burial.  And I vowed to honor his memory with my life.  But as it turns out, Jesus doesn't want me to "honor his memory."  He wants me to join him in a new life.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Six Monologues from John's Passion: #5

"One of the Women"

I don't know why we stayed.  It was hard to stay.  It would have been easier to leave, and not to witness the pain, and not to hear the laughter, and not to see the shame.  Almost everyone had left.  There were still a few soldiers, gambling for his clothes.  But there were no crowds any more.  There were no crowds cheering for him -- and there were not crowds jeering at him, either.  Not any more.   But we stayed, even though it was hard.  Sometimes you have to do the hard thing for someone you love.  And we loved him.

Speaking for myself,  I still didn't want to give up on him.  I didn't want to believe that everything was over.  He had given me dignity.  He had given me hope.  He had healed me.  He had given me freedom.  How could that end?  I didn't want to think that I had believed in the wrong things, trusted the wrong person.

But crucifixion means only one thing, and that is death.  There could be no other ending.  There was no hope.  He was our hope, and he was on the cross.  I suppose that's why everyone else went home.  They knew how it would end.  But we stayed, because we didn't want to believe it -- not yet.  And we wanted to be near him.

Yes, that's right.  We wanted to be near him until the end.  That's what you do for someone you love, and we loved him.  He had given us so much, and now we wanted to give him something.  We weren't even sure he knew if we were there, but he did.  Because even then, he was giving us something.

He gave us one another.  He said, "Here is your son."  and "here is your mother" just as if he knew that we needed each other as much as we needed him.  He made us a family.

We have been a family ever since that day.  Something was born on that cross.  I know that seems strange to say.  And I don't mean just Jesus' mother and his disciples were his family.  No -- we are all connected to one another, brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers.  Because of the cross.  Because of what he did.  We live differently now.  We care for one another.  We make sure each of us has food and clothing -- and hope.  We stay with each other, even in hard times.  I don't mean to say that we have suddenly become perfect.  We haven't.  But like I said -- he gave us to each other on the cross, just like he gave himself to us.

Sometimes you have to do the hard thing for someone you love.

*image is by Patt LaPorte

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Six Monologues from John's Passion: #4

"The Governor"

I don't know what I was trying to accomplish, when I sent Jesus out to the crowd.  He was still wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe the soldiers had put on him.  They meant it to make fun of him.  May I thought when the people saw him, they would feel sorry for him, think that he had bee punished enough.  He had leaned his lesson.  But that's not what happened.  Instead, they were like people who had tasted blood, and who wanted more.  "Crucify him!  Crucify him!"  they shouted.  Everything I did just made it worse.  And honestly, for one of the first times in my life, I was afraid.

I am in charge here.  My job is to keep the peace -- the Roman peace.  And I am good at it.  I'm good at it because I don't let personal feelings introduce on my judgments.  I can't afford to feel sorry for any prisoner that comes to me.  I can't afford to second-guess my decisions.  I need to act decisively, without emotion, on the basis of what is right for the Roman Empire.  I also need to act justly -- at least based on how the Roman Empire determines justice.  So I didn't feel sorry for the prisoner that day.  I don't feel sorry for anyone.  That's not the reason I wanted to let Jesus go.  I did not find a case against him.  That's what I said.  There really wasn't a case against him.

"Here is the man," I said to them, without passion.  And everyone started shouting.  I stayed calm, though, and explained to them that there was no reason for the Roman Empire to kill him.  He told me, "My kingdom is not of this world."  So he was no threat to me.  Then why did he make me feel afraid? That's what I felt when I saw him -- fear.  But he didn't fear me.  He stood right in front of me -- and I have the power to light him go or to order him crucified -- he stood right in front of me and said I wouldn't have any power over him unless Someone Else hadn't given me permission.  He didn't recognize my power.  You can't keep the peace with people like him around -- people who recognize a higher power than the Emperor.

They were right.  He had to die.  He was dangerous.  But still -- I was afraid.  I tried to release him.  I wanted him to go away.  But that's not what they wanted.  And that's not what he wanted either.  He didn't want me to release him.  What he really wanted was for me to look at him -- really look at him -- and know that he was a king -- with a power greater than my own.

I tried to get him to go away.  But he will never go away.  I don't feel sorry for him.  I'm still afraid of him.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Six Monologues from John's Passion: #3

"A Bystander"

I'm one of the people who shouted, "We want Barabbas!"  And I'm glad I did.  Oh, it's true, the religious leaders go us all worked up.  That's one of the reasons we all shouted.  Then Barabbas got all the votes.  Jesus didn't get any.  But looking back, it was already beginning to be clear that he was a loser, even then.  And I wanted to be on the winning side.  Barabbas seems to be the kind of a man who gets things done.  We can count on Barabbas to go out there and fight for us.  They say that he was a bandit, but what was Jesus?  All talk.  When push came to shove, did he have a mighty army tucked away so that he could stand up to the Romand and so that we could take our country back?

Some people were saying that Jesus was the Messiah, but I didn't believe it for a minute.  Even when he was popular, I didn't really believe he was the Messiah.  Oh, he had me going there for a minute, but I got over it.  After all, the Messiah is going to be a military leader, and he is going to be our king.  Some king Jesus turned out to be.  But Barabbas -- I could see him as a king someday.  He's a man of action.  He's the kind of man you can follow.

Jesus was a troublemaker, that's what he was.  He set impossible standards for people to follow him!  "Sell everything you have, leave you family, and follow me."  That's what he said.  The funny thing is, I almost did it.  I almost walked away from my whole family, and my business.  To follow Jesus!  To eat and drink with sinners, never to know where I was staying night after night!  My family has a prosperous business!  I don't know what possessed me, but then I thought better about it and I stayed home.  I didn't follow Jesus.  And now.... now it's clear that I made the right decision.

I know what is important.  Financial security, that's one.  And strength, that's another one.  I stayed home and I'm taking care of the family business.  And I'm doing very well, thank you.  Sometimes I worry, just like everyone else, about whether there is more to life than money.  And sometimes I worry about keeping what I have.  That's where security comes in.  that's where someone like Barabbas comes in.  Mybe someone like him can help us get our country back, and have more security.  Then I don't have to worry so much about the corrupt tax collectors coming and skimming off the top of my wealth.

I'm glad I didn't follow Jesus.  I'm sure I made the right decision.

Didn't I?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Six Monologues from John's Passion: Monologue #2

The High Priest

Caiaphas was right.  He told us, right after that man Lazarus was raised from the dead.  "It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed."  We doubted his wisdom then, but now I am coming to see that he was right.  The more I talked to this man Jesus, the more I saw that he had to be dealt with.  He didn't submit to authority.  He stood right in front of me.  I asked him questions that ought to make him hang his head in shame.  I asked him serious questions right back in my face.  He acted as if he knew the whole thing was a set up.  We already knew the answers.  We had been there every day, hearing him teach.  We saw him do signs, and how the people hung on his every word and action.  The truth is, he saw right through us.  That's how I know that Caiaphas was right.  He had to die.  It was the only way to protect the people from him.

You don't realize what a difficult job we have.  The Romans have given us permission to practice our religion.  We exist by their good will.  That means that we have to keep our devotion in check at times. We can worship God, but not too fervently.  If we become too fervent, the Romans will worry, and we could be destroyed.  So we have to convince them that we are not a threat, our nation is not a threat.  Some people believe that we have compromised our faith, that we only read the parts of the Bible that are convenient for us, that we bend over too far for the sake of the Emperor.  But they don't understand.  The Roman Empire can be our friend, if only we understand our relationship.  It's for Israel's sake that we do what we do.

This Jesus didn't understand that.  He was one of those radicals who believed that we had sold out.  He said, "My kingdom is not of this world," but in the meantime, he was turning our world upside down.  He healed on the sabbath.  He multiplied loaves of bread and then said that HE was the bread of life.  He dared to suggest that we did not understand our own scriptures.  He told us that we were slaves and said that the truth could set us free!  How dare he!  We are children of Abraham and we have never been slaves to anyone!

Caiaphas was right.  Killing Jesus was the only way to protect the people from him.  They would have followed him anywhere.  It's a good thing they were open to other suggestions.  Ha!

Lately I have heard disturbing rumors, though... Rumors that he isn't dead any more.  I know it can't be true.  But if it is... how can we protect the people from him now?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

6 Monologues from John's Passion: #1

"A Disciple"

I have never felt so close to Jesus as I did on that night.  It was a calm and peaceful evening, full of prayer and singing, full of light and teaching.  Jesus told us many things that evening, while we ate and after dinner.  He even prayed for us.  I remember that he prayed for our protection, and he prayed that we would be united with one another.  I remember that he also told us always to abide in his love -- to love one another.  I remember later thinking it was so strange, how he prayed for us.  We should have been praying for him!  Of course, we never would have thought of that.  We left our dinner with a warm glow in our hearts, but also with some uneasiness.  It was a beautiful, clear evening as we crossed the Kidron Valley.  Then I saw him.  Judas.  And he had with him soldier and police officers from the chief priests.  Their torches lit up the night.

Looking back, you would think that Judas, walking with all those soldier, would have been the strong one, and Jesus the weaker.  But that has never been my impression.  Even when he was arrested, Jesus seemed to be in charge.  And Judas just keeps getting smaller and smaller whenever I remember him.  It didn't take courage to betray Jesus.  It was really an act of a coward -- someone who saw where everything was headed and wanted to cash in early.  He was afraid of what following Jesus really meant, and decided to follow something else.

But we were all afraid of following Jesus at one time or another.  We just didn't take such drastic measures as Judas did.  Some disciples fell away early.  Something Jesus said or did offended them, and they just stopped listening.  Others hung around, but kept their distance.  But Jesus still saw something in us, something worth protecting, something worth saving.  I'll never forget his words that evening, when the soldiers and the police came.  We were all so frightened, wondering what would happen to us.  We we all be arrested, and beaten or killed?  We weren't sure about the intentions of the soldiers.  Then Jesus said, "If you are looking for me, let these men go."  We were free!  We would not be put on trial -- only Jesus would.

Now I hear them saying about Jesus, that he died for me, that he is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.  I know just one thing for sure -- he died for me.  His word set me free.  That's how I felt that night.  And later on, when he returned, he told us that us that we still had a job to do -- to set other people free as well.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

My Lenten Fast From Chanting

So we decided not to chant the communion liturgy this year during Lent, thinking it would be simple and a bit austere, and that, like "Alleluia", we might miss it and long for its return.  It's not a total fast, as we still chant the "Kyrie", although that's usually the choir, not me or the senior pastor.  And of course, at the second service, which is more contemporary, we have less liturgy, and we don't chant anything, although we've had some nice sung responses at the beginning of the service.

So, I'll confess:  I do miss chanting.  I miss chanting The Great Thanksgiving, with its back and forth echoes, but even more, I miss chanting the Preface, with its poetic words and phrases.  I still speak the words, and there is something that makes me sort of pause, because I am speaking words I usually intone.  For me, the chanter, the words sound richer, rounder, with layers underneath them, when I chant them.

I wonder, though, if anyone else is missing it the way I am.  After all, chanting is sort of an unusual activity, something it's hard for us to relate to in our Ordinary Lives.  You don't really have chanting in a worship service with a Praise Band, for example.  For example, the Assemblies of God congregation, which meets in the middle school right behind our church, has a younger crowd at worship than we do, and no chanting, I'll bet.

I think though that a dislike (or at least puzzlement) for chanting is intergenerational. At least, one older member of our congregation once told me that though she prefers traditional worship, we could get rid of the chanting, and it wouldn't bother her one little bit.

Maybe we don't know what chanting is for; everything has to have a use, after all.  I heard that priests began chanting the liturgy in the old cathedrals long ago because it was easier to understand a sung tone than a spoken one.  But we don't need chanting for that reason any more.

Everything has to have a use, after all.  Or does it?

On Easter morning, I will put on the gold chasuble, and I will chant the Great Thanksgiving, and the Easter Preface, and remind the congregation that when we sing God's great Alleluia, we will be singing with Peter and Mary Magdalene, with all the witnesses of the resurrection, with angels and archangels, and with the earth and all its creatures.  And for me, it will be like indulging in a piece of expensive chocolate after a long fast, or like seeing a friend I love but haven't seen in a long time, or like looking into a package and discovering that there was another layer under the tissue paper, something you never saw was there before.

But, I wonder what everyone else will think.  Will they be glad to welcome chanting back into worship?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Watching Home Movies With My Dad

So, Monday was my dad's 84th birthday.  Sunday night my brother and my mom got him out of the nursing home where he lives so that we could have a nice birthday dinner at their home:  turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy, corn, salad, and cherry pie for dessert.

My dad thought it was possibly Christmas.

He was pretty good:  sometimes, it takes almost the whole visit before he will join the party, and talk.  Last Thanksgiving he kept falling asleep until just before we took him back to the nursing home.  But Sunday afternoon he got in a few comments.  I thought he was going to start telling "Knock Knock" jokes.  He didn't, but when my brother and I started imitating the old "Axel" character from past local children's program, he knew right away it was Clellan Card.

After dinner and before the cherry pie, my mom had a special event planned.  We were going to watch old home movies.  One of our old friends had taken some of our old home movies and put them on a DVD, so that we could watch them again.  We hadn't seen those movies for a long time, but I remember sometimes, long ago, that we would have fun putting up the movie screen and pulling out the movie projector and watching a bunch of those 8 millimeter family shows.  Most of them were various Christmases, with a few camping experiences thrown in.  We used to love to run the Christmas ones backwards, so that we could see everyone re-wrapping up their presents.  Simple pleasures, you know.

So there we were, all sitting together in the little family room, my dad in his wheelchair, right in the middle of all of us.  One of the unique features of this DVD is that there is background music, and you can choose which sound track you'd like: classical, country, or folk.  Another unique feature of the DVD is that the movies are arranged in no particular order.  So one moment we might all be visiting the farm and it's before my parents were even married, and the next moment, all three of us kids are sitting under a tinsel-laden Christmas tree, and then the next moment it is another Christmas, but I'm the only one around, and I'm a baby (I'm the oldest.)

So we're watching all these little episodes, all out of order, and shouting out to one another and to my Dad, "Look!  There's uncle Dick!  There's Norma!"  I still remember the first time my brother appeared on the screen, shaking my dad's arm and saying, "There's your son!  That's David."

The one thing my mom kept saying:  "You took these pictures.  Do you remember?"

My dad isn't in any of the movies.  He was taking them all.

From a professional standpoint, my dad was not an excellent filmmaker.  He tended to cut off people's heads, for one thing.  We were teasing him about that.  He didn't have a great instinct for "the scene", but he loved us and he wanted to record a bit of our lives.

For us, we just wanted to say, "thank you."  Thank you for not being in the movies, but taking the movies.  Thank you for recording our lives, in little bits and episodes.  In the movies, I can see through my dad's eyes, just a little, and I see how much he loved my mom, how much he loved us, even though he wasn't the type to say it much.

It's funny how much those few seconds of videotape can say -- how a few seconds of me chasing a kitten, or my little brother trying to blow out his first birthday candle, or his uncle hoisting all of us kids up in the air (except me, I was scared) brought back a flood of other memories and pictures.  And my father isn't in any of the pictures, preferring to take pictures of all of us, his family.

Happy birthday, Dad.  Thank you for taking the movies.  Thank you for helping us remember, even if you don't.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Few Misconceptions about Repentance

Because we heard the Parable Commonly Known As "The Prodigal Son" this weekend, I've been thinking about repentance more than I usually do.  Especially I've been thinking about the whole argument about whether the younger son was "repentant" or not, when he returned home.  So, I thought I'd clear up a few common misconceptions  about repentance.

1.  Repentance is primarily about how you feel.

Actually, the word repentance means "to change your mind."  It doesn't mean "to feel really sorry or guilty."  Certainly, we may experience a deep sorry associated with the act of repentance.  There also might be a deep joy about it.  But what's more important is change.  To repent is to change your mind, to change your direction, to turn around.  A lot of the conversation about whether the younger son "repented" or not has to do with whether he turned around and went home out of genuine sorrow, or if he was just hungry and thought he would get a better deal from dad.  Was the big speech he practiced the way he really felt, or was he just reciting a speech?

What if it's not that important how he felt?  What if what's most important is that he just went home?

2.  Repentance is a dramatic, life-changing event.

You know, it's the one moment, when your whole life turned around and you saw things differently and you were never the same again, ever, after that.  It's like conversion, similar to a conversion experience.

We like to think that life works that way.  It would be simple if there was one flash of insight, one moment where we turned around, and then, after that, everything was different, forever and ever.  amen.  But actually, repentance is a daily event, at least, in Lutheran terms.  Martin Luther, in the small catechism, called repentance a daily return to our baptism, a daily dying to sin and rising to new life.  Daily we turn away from sin, from our illusions that we can make it on our own, from our self-absorption.  Daily we rise to trust the promises of God, and the identity that God has given us.  If there is one moment, it is the moment that God claimed us, the moment God threw his arms around us, not the moment we saw the light.  Because the truth is, we need to see the light again, and again, and again.

So, it matters more what happens every day after the younger son returns home, and learns to live in his father's house than what happened in that one moment.  Every day does he return to that moment when his father embraced him?

3.  You have to repent in order to get forgiven.

If this statement were true, the relationship between God and us would be a transaction.  If you repent, then you will be forgiven.  Those are the rules.

Instead, the opposite is true.  We repent because we have been forgiven.  When we hear God's words of forgiveness, and new life, we turn toward that promise, and at the same time turn away from the old life.  God has already promised to set us free, to give us life, to feed us, to heal us, to never let us go.  Again and again we turn toward this promise.

I'm thinking about the two sons again:  the prodigal and his bitter older brother.  We know the prodigal returned home, whether he "felt sorry" or not.  He went in to the party prepared for him, where day after day he would experience the presence of his father.  If the older son did, finally, decide to take his father's invitation and come to the party, maybe he would come in grudgingly.  Maybe he would come in to the party with a chip on his shoulder, saying, "dad always liked you best."  But still, he would be in his father's presence, and maybe that's the point.

Maybe it is really true, after all, that we are being changed, from one degree of glory into another.  We are turning, and turning around, daily astonished by the love of God, happy and sad and amazed all at the same time.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Faith and (Non)Fiction

For the past several years, I have held a monthly book study at my congregation, called "Faith and Fiction."  I'm an English major, and the book club title came from my conviction that inside every really good story is a faith story of some kind, either overt or subliminal.  Great literature covers all of the theological questions:  redemption, epiphanies, sin, suffering and brokenness, forgiveness -- you name it.

Rarely have we ventured outside of the fiction genres (although we have read a handful of memoirs).  We've read some classics, children's books and a couple of mysteries as well.  But this month we read a piece of science writing:  The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks.

To be fair, "Henrietta" is not just science writing -- it's also the story of Henrietta Lacks, her history and her family.  But, also to be fair, it's not fiction, either.  And though the book came highly recommended, it met with mixed reviews.  Some people thought that the science writing was dry; they were interested in the story of Henrietta's family, didn't find some other parts of the story awfully compelling.  Others were fascinated by the science, the history and the family's story.  Some considered the book a window to racism and poverty as well as the development of scientific breakthroughs.

Near the close of the conversation, one woman held up her book and said, "What does this have to do with 'Faith and Fiction'?  It was a fair question, given that we had gone off-genre, so to speak; we weren't anywhere near fiction.  But what about faith?

The author is pretty open about her lack of religious faith; we all thought that by the end of the book, she at least grew to appreciate the faith that sustained the Lacks family.  And we admitted that faith played a large role in the book, especially in how the family made peace with what had happened to their mother, and that somehow, God had used her cells for a greater purpose, to heal people and to save lives.  They were able to let go of their anger and see a wider purpose in Henrietta's life, and in their lives.  Especially, Henrietta's daughter Deborah, when she died, seemed to have found a peace which came both from finding out more about her mother, and also from finding out about the good that her mother's cells had done.

As for me, there is one more part of this book, not overtly connected to faith, that gave me pause, and made me think about faith.  And that is the story of the author of the book, Rebecca Skloot.  She chronicles not only the story of Henrietta's cells, and the story of Henrietta's life, but she also her own journey to get to know the Lacks family.  I caught myself several times thinking about the patience she had to have in order to get this story, to get to know and interview the family, to gain their trust.  The Lacks family did not trust people;  but Rebecca Skloot did not give up.  She was tenacious.  And she did gain the trust of the Lacks family.  Maybe they could see that she really did care about them, and was not just interested in using them.

I caught myself thinking about the patience and tenacity of God in search of us; about our ongoing lack of trust in God's purposes (sometimes justifiable, I'll admit).  I caught myself thinking as well about the mission of the church.  What is missing from most evangelism efforts, I think, is not a better method or strategy.  What is missing is tenacity, the patience necessary to gain people's trust, the conviction that what we have to share is really that life-giving that we need to share it.

What is missing, at least most of the time, is that kind of love.

So, I'll remember not only Henrietta Lacks, but also Rebecca Skloot, who wanted the world to hear this story, and who loved Henrietta's family.