Get to Work

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you…” (John 20: 21)

Recently I got a call from one of the residential drug and alcohol treatment centers that dot the region where I live in Florida. They are tragic signs of the times, I suppose. The call was from a social worker who I know pretty well; he asked me to come to the center and talk with a young man there who had just lost his mom. The social worker confided that the young man was having a tough time dealing with his grief.

Whenever I get a call like that, I feel humbled. Who am I to be a part of a person’s life in such a privileged way; in such a sacred place. It’s not only humbling; it’s frightening! I don’t know what to say or what to do; there’s no playbook for encounters like this.

I met the young man in the Social worker’s office; it was a dark room with no natural lighting. The person I met that day was thin; he had a beard, and he seemed like a nice kid. He was probably about 25 years old, and he sat slumped in the chair across from me. Everything about his body language shouted out that he was closed in by grief and shame and sadness. His mom, who lived in the Midwest, was diagnosed not long ago with stage 4 stomach cancer and he knew that she had been suffering terribly. He didn’t have a great relationship with God, but he did pray. He asked, “Lord, either save her or take her, but end her suffering.”

Because of the mistakes that he had made in his life, he wasn’t able to be with her at the end, and nothing could change that. Aside from his mother he had no one else in the world. She was his only family except for a half-brother, whom he hadn’t spoken to in years. In years. So there he sat, slumped, sad, ashamed, and alone in a dark room, locked in his being.

On the first Easter morning, Jesus’ disciples started their day similarly to the way this young man started his. It was the Sunday after their friend, their teacher, their Lord, their hope, had died in a brutal and humiliating manner. They were afraid for their lives because if Jesus’ enemies struck the shepherd, would they also try to harm the sheep?

But there’s more going on. Jesus’ fair weather friends fled when Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified. The women stayed close to Jesus during his passion, and so did the beloved disciple traditionally believed to be John. But the rest of them took off to save their skins. They weren’t there when he died, and there’s no way they could change that fact, so there’s an overlay in guilt in their hearts as they huddled together at night in a locked room fearing their enemies.

In John’s Gospel night is also symbolic of the inner state of a person’s life. They are in spiritual darkness. They are in the dark. And as they sit there with the walls and the locks and the darkness of their spirits and the darkness of the day, they begin to hear strange stories; things that are incredible. Mary comes from the tomb early in the morning saying he’s not there. A couple of them go out to investigate, Peter and, we presume, John. They found it just as Mary had said: “He wasn’t there.”

The tomb was empty. Dead men don’t rise. They don’t understand. Even John, who the evangelist came to believe when he saw the empty tomb, we don’t know what he came to believe except that maybe God was at work doing something good out of something bad. Then they hear from Mary Magdalen who tells them that she has seen the Lord. They think she’s nuts, delusional. They don’t know what to believe, so they’re confused, ashamed, and afraid.

Then all of a sudden, through the locked door, through the walls Jesus stands in their presence, alive and resplendent. “Peace be with you,” he says right off the bat. “Shalom.”

He’s not talking about the absence of conflict because the real battle is just beginning. They know that. He knows it. And looking back over the years since then, we are aware of it too. The peace he’s giving them is the peace that comes from being in a relationship with God. It’s wholeness. It’s being so “together” that nothing can tear you apart. It’s the conviction, born of our relationship with Christ that God is with us and nothing can harm us because he is sovereign.

The next thing he does is say: “Look. Here are my hands, here’s my side. It’s me!” By this gesture, Jesus proves to them that the risen one who they see before their eyes is the same person they saw crucified only days earlier. Jesus will always be Christ crucified. The marks in his hands are now emblematic of the glory of God, and the wisdom of God and the salvation of God poured out through Jesus’ blood on the cross. The marks of shame have become badges of honor.

He says again, “Peace be with you.”

Whenever you see anything repeated in the Gospel, listen to it. It’s what Jesus wanted his disciples to know, but it’s also what he wants you and I to know. As he spoke to them in the upper room, he now speaks to us through John’s Gospel.

“Peace,” he says, “Live in peace. Have peace. Know that whatever you struggle with, I am sovereign and you’re going to be okay.”

Then He breathes on them.

Breath, his important stuff. When God created Adam (as we read in Genesis), He breathed the breath of life into him. Then, and only then, Adam becomes a living being. Flash forward to Ezekiel. The Lord brings the Prophet Ezekiel in a vision to the valley of the dry bones. There, before this image of death and corruption, the Lord says to the prophet, “I will breathe the breath of life into these dry bones, and they will come and live.”

Now in the upper room, Jesus breathes INTO these spiritually and emotionally dead people. He breathes a life of the Spirit. He gives them the gift that’s perfected at Pentecost but begins at this very moment. “Receive the holy spirit.” Receive the holy spirit because you’re going to need the holy spirit. You have work to do; you can’t stay in this room forever. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Christianity is not a religion of pew potatoes. Every Christian has work do to; God-given work. Listen to your calling: “As the Father has sent me,” Jesus says, “so I send you.”

We need to understand Jesus’ mission to understand our own; His mission reveals our divine calling.

Jesus is sent to bring the good news of repentance and forgiveness to every corner of this sinful, broken world. Jesus went to everyone the world thinks is worthless. He went to little creep, Zacchaeus, in the sycamore tree, and to the Samaritan woman at the well, a woman who isn’t even liked by the Samaritans. He went to blind beggars and a woman with a hemorrhage who was ritually unclean. He went to kids who are possessed by devils. He went to everybody that the world ignored.

Who wants to look at suffering and pain? Or to be with outcasts and losers?

Jesus did, that’s who. Jesus did. Jesus went to everybody the world despised, to he gave them hope, not simply with His words, but with an abundance of real love.

What would our world be like if all of us treated others like that; if we showed everyone we met (Jerks included) an abundance of real love? Overflowing, over-the-top amazing love?

We don’t do that because we’re so buttoned down. We’re afraid of what people will think of us. But Jesus in that upper room says, “Forget the locks, forget the walls. Get out of the building. Stop being afraid. I give you God’s own peace, now, get moving. Let your love flow into the lives of the people around you. Be creative about it.”

“As the Father sent me, so I send you.”I was at the mayor’s prayer breakfast in Fort Lauderdale recently, and there was a fellow named Bob there, he was an attorney of all things, from San Diego. He was telling a story about having a neighbor who was diagnosed with cancer and living her last days. She loved life and wanted to “LIVE” every last day of it. Bob, “Every New Years we have a parade on our block. There are five houses there, but it’s a lovely little event.” Bob went on, “This year we had that parade go right up to her house and knock on her windows so she could see everyone coming by waving and wishing her well.” She died the next day, but she died knowing she was loved because her neighbors weren’t afraid to go over the top and express their love for her.

I was at the mayor’s prayer breakfast in Fort Lauderdale recently, and there was a fellow named Bob there, he was an attorney of all things, from San Diego. He was telling a story about having a neighbor who was diagnosed with cancer and living her last days. She loved life and wanted to “LIVE” every last day of it. Bob, “Every New Years we have a parade on our block. There are five houses there, but it’s a lovely little event.” Bob went on, “This year we had that parade go right up to her house and knock on her windows so she could see everyone coming by waving and wishing her well.” She died the next day, but she died knowing she was loved because her neighbors weren’t afraid to go over the top and express their love for her.

Can we be creative like that? Can we find ways to show the people in our life that we love them and that they’re special? They don’t have to do anything for it. Look at the disciples in this upper room. What do they do? They were doing nothing but being afraid, and Jesus came to them.

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Get to work. Or, maybe work is the wrong word. Enjoy loving as Jesus loves. Enjoy being a blessing people’s lives. Enjoy letting your life follow into somebody else’s life in a positive, beautiful way. That’s what Jesus did for Bartimaeus and the woman at the well, and so many others. That’s what he does for us, and that’s what he asks us to do and be for each other.

And then he says, “Receive the holy spirit. If you forgive the sins of others, they’re forgiven. If you retain those sins, they’re retained.”

Jesus wants us to go out there and start forgiving! Forgive people who need forgiveness. Forgive people who don’t know they need forgiveness. Forgive people that just need to hear a word of kindness from you. Forgive people, and don’t make a big show of it. Don’t call them and say, “I forgive you,” because they’ll hang up on you. But they won’t hang up on you if you say, “It’s been a long time since we got together. How about lunch?” Or maybe just send a note that says, “Thinking about you. How are you doing? Love you.” That says, “I forgive you,” without saying “I forgive you” which is probably the only way we can graciously forgive people.

If you fail to forgive, Jesus warns, “The failure of forgiveness will mean that the sin remains and plagues us.” Our problem as a Christian people is we don’t forgive enough. We hold onto old grudges, especially if we’re Irish. You know what they call Irish Alzheimer’s, don’t you? Irish Alzheimer’s is a condition where you forget everything but the grudges.

We hold onto stuff when we should let go. We stay angry, and the anger consumes us. Just let go and don’t give that grudge another thought. Think of all that you need forgiveness for yourself! Forgive the way you’d like to others, and God, to forgive you. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Make those more than words repeated by rote. It is part of the Lord’s prayer for us.

Our mission as disciples is to be sin forgivers. There’s a lot of people out there who need a lot of forgiveness, so there’s a lot of work to do.

“Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven them.”

Thomas wasn’t with the others when the Lord appeared to them on the evening of the first day of the week. Thomas is a practical man. He comes back, hears his friends saying the same thing Mary said to the rest of them earlier in the day and reacts to them the same way they earlier responded to Mary: “You guys are nuts. What have you been smoking while I’ve been at the store? I will not believe what you’re telling me unless I see him with my own eyes, touch him with my own hands, and feel his wounds. But none of that’s going to happen because dead men stay dead; always have, always will.”

A week later Jesus again, through the walls through the closed doors, stands there and says, “Peace. Peace. Thomas, you missed the message. Let me give it to you again, peace. I want you to have wholeness. I want you to have a joy that the world can’t give you.” He said, “If you need to touch me, touch.”

Jesus doesn’t scold him, doesn’t browbeat him, doesn’t shame him. Jesus comes to him right where he is and addresses his needs just the way Thomas has spoken them. “If you need to touch me, Thomas, touch me. But don’t persist in your unbelief. Believe.”

In John’s Gospel, belief is not the assent of the mind to stuff; it is the knowledge born of a living, vibrant relationship with Jesus. It is being Jesus’ friend, living with him and letting him be a part of our lives. Jesus is saying: “Thomas, don’t persist in being apart from me. Be one with me. Be in a relationship with me. Abide with me.”

“Doubting” Thomas then makes what is perhaps the most sweeping profession of faith in the fourth Gospel. He says: “My Lord and my God.”

All rests on the foundation of our relationship with Jesus and, through him, our relationship with the Father.

“Thomas, you believed because you’ve seen how blessed and happy are those who have not seen and yet, believe. ” How blessed are we, who have never seen the Lord physically, but still have a relationship with Him through the Holy Spirit.

The challenge of this Gospel two-fold.

First, we must recognize that all of us, from time to time, get locked in a dark place where we feel desperately alone and helpless; sad and perhaps guilt-ridden. The good news of this Gospel is we may think that our lock is pretty darn good and that our walls are impenetrable. But I guarantee you that every time we are in a place like that the Lord has already appeared in it and is speaking to us if we just listen to him.

He’s saying “Peace be with you. Peace be with you.”

We are never alone in our suffering, in our fear, in our grief, or in our shame or any other prison we construct for ourselves. We are always keeping company with the one who says “Peace be with you.”

And then, he tells us, “Believe in me. I want to be in a relationship with you. I want to love you like I love Peter and Andrew and James and John and Philip and Bartholomew and that doubting Thomas. I love them all, and I love you too. So have peace, and know that as the Father has sent me, so I send you. Get out there and go to work; forgive sins, receive the Holy Spirit, and know that in doing all of that you are doing the work of the one who has been sent and the one who sends.”

Back to my friend closed in the office and locked in his spirit.

Sitting there and I said to him, “Could you tell me something about your mom. Could you let me know who she was?” He said, “She was always kind and loving; she played the piano at church and was always looking for ways to help people.”

As he spoke, he begins to come out of his prison a little bit. We started talking about how much his mom loved him and how proud she must have been that he was doing so well in his recovery from addiction. He realized that he was her legacy because she had given him to the world. A light went on. He understood that his greatest gift to his mother might be to return to her faith and live in it and try to make a difference the same way she had tried to make a difference in others’ lives.

He started sitting up. When he left the office, he was alive again. It was nothing I did because I’m not that smart. It was something that God did because two of his beloved children were present to each other in a moment of grace.

That’s the type of miracle that occurs every day. That’ the work of his kingdom; the work all of us are sent to do. And so as the Father has sent Jesus, so he sends us.

Get to work.

Blessed are …

The concept behind “blessing” is to be in that place and have that posture from which we can receive a life-giving gift.

Garth Callahan lives with his wife and daughter, Emma, in Glen Allen Virginia, little town outside of Richmond. About ten years ago, when Emma started kindergarten, Garth assumed the daily duty of packing Emma’s lunch for school.  So into Emma’s lunchbox went a sandwich, cookies, an apple, a juice box or drink of some sort, and Garth always packed a napkin.

The napkins got to be special, though, because Garth thought he’d have fun with them. Every day, on Emma’s napkin, he wrote her a little message. They were simple, fun, and meant to lift her spirits. Messages like: “Honey, I believe in you, believe in yourself!  Love, Dad.” When Emma opened up her lunch, along with food for her body, she found a little food for her soul.   

Every day, for years, Garth Callahan has been putting a napkin in his daughter’s lunch to say something encouraging or uplifting or fun or funny.  And the message behind all of the messages is “You have a father who loves you!”   

Emma is now in tenth grade.  Since about third grade she has saved every napkin her father sent her.  What a blessing for this young woman to have a symbol, a tangible symbol, of a father’s love.  What a tremendous blessing.

In the Gospels Jesus often speaks about blessings. His beatitudes are really a compilation of God’s own napkins in the lunchbox of his beloved children.  At the very beginning of Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount He speaks nine words of blessing:  Blessed are the poor in spirt, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Blessing upon blessing upon blessing.  Nine of them.  What does he mean by all that?  What does it mean to be blessed? 

If you want to do a little linguistic analysis with me, the word in Greek is μακάριος (makarios),  it is a slippery Greek word because it can mean a lot of things.  It can mean happy, joyful, blessed… It has a lot of meanings so it really doesn’t help us much as we try to drill down into what Jesus is really driving at in his beatitudes.  But if we look behind the Greek, to the Hebrew word for blessing that informs Jesus’ thinking, the word we find is בְּרָכָה (berakah). 

That still doesn’t help us much until you realize that the Hebrew language is concrete.  Every word and every concept in Hebrew can be driven down, if you work hard enough, to some concrete action or gesture.  And so where does berakah coming from? 

The first place we see it is Genesis 24:11.  Abraham is getting on in years and he wants his son to have a good wife, a girl that’s part of the family.  He’s doesn’t like any of the Canaanite girls where they’re living, so he sends one of his trusted servants back to the old country.  He has his most trusted servant swear an oath to go and bring back a girl suitable to be Isaac’s wife.  “Look”, Abraham says, “go to my family’s place in Aram and there find a good wife for my son.”

The servant is understandably hesitant: “What if I find a girl and she doesn’t come with me?”

“In that case,” Abraham concedes, “our deal is off and you’re released from your vow.”

So the servant sets off with ten camels and plenty of good things to find Isaac a good wife back in Mesopotamia. He goes across the desert with the camels and he’s saying to himself: “how the heck am I going to do this?  How am I going to find the right woman?  Geez Louise.  The old man gave me a tough job.” 

When he gets to an oasis in Aram the servant does what I would encourage all of us to do in a similar tight spot.  He prays.  And he says, “Lord, help me.  Help me to find the right girl.  I’m standing by this spring where the daughters of the village are coming to draw water. May it be that when I say to a girl ‘please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘drink, and I’ll water your camels too’ let her be the one You have chosen for your servant Isaac.” (Genesis 24: 14). 

The servant of Abraham hadn’t even finished praying yet and along comes Rebecca with her jar to get water from the spring.  She gets her water, comes up from the spring carrying it, and Abraham’s servant says, “Hey, I don’t suppose you could get me a drink could you?”

Rebecca, kindhearted as she was, says, “No, problem.  And I’ll give a drink to your camels too.” BINGO!

Earlier in the passage the servant of Abraham had the camels kneel (in Hebrew וַיַּבְרֵ֧ךְ) beside the well. The word to kneel is the root of berekah (blessing).  As we follow this thread we discover that the gesture at the root of “blessing”  is to kneel in order to receive what is life giving (water).   The camels can’t live without water,  and so the concept behind “blessing” is to be in that place and have that posture from which we can receive a life-giving gift. 

That’s what Jesus is driving at. 

So let’s go back to the Beatitudes.  Are they a cookbook for blessing?  “You want to be blessed, so go out and get poor;  mourn.  make peace …”  I don’t think so.  Jesus knows the people with whom he lives.  He lives in honor and shame society, and in this kind of culture being meek is no honor, strength is what they value;  being a peacemaker is no honor, victory is what they want.  Conquer, don’t make peace.  Mourning is no honor, you’re weak when you mourn, so keep a stiff upper lip. 

The first hearers of the Sermon on the Mount would have been struck by the incongruity. There is nothing blessed (happy) about the poor, the mournful, the persecuted, … What could Jesus’ mean by all this?

The first thing he’s saying to that entire crowd, everybody within earshot, is “you’re all blessed.  You’re blessed with life.  You’re blessed with God’s love.  You are children of God.” We are all God’s children, just as surely as Emma is a child of Garth Callahan.  You and I are children of God, and he loves us because he loves us.  He is constantly pouring love, grace, abundance, and favor into our lives whether we know it or not. God the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ is writing on our napkins every day.

So what about this meek and poor stuff?  What is Jesus driving at there? 

Isn’t He is saying that there are certain postures that put us in a position where we can more easily realize and accept the gifts God is giving us?  Like those camels kneeling to receive water, sometimes we need to kneel to receive the gift of life-giving love and salvation.  We can’t save ourselves.  We can’t rely on our wealth.  We can’t rely on how “together” we are.  We can’t rely on our relationships.  In the final analysis we can only rely on God. Who knows that better than the poor in spirit?  Who knows that better than those that are broken to pieces with grief and loss?  Who knows that better than the peacemakers or those who hunger and thirst to do God’s will instead of their own?

Jesus is saying you’re all blessed.  God blesses every bit of His creation, and he blesses it abundantly because God so loved the world He sent His only Son. And the love of God shows up in the most amazing and unexpected places. 

In the Jewish culture Jesus lived in, where they thought the poor, and the crushed, and the weak were being punished for their sin and were unworthy of God’s interest Jesus says God loves the smallest and least and most insignificant of his people. 

He loves us just the way we are.  He loves us in our sinfulness.  He loves us in our disgrace.  He loves us even though he sees all the stuff we don’t want the rest of the world to see. 

All of us have things about us that we don’t want the world to see.  We don’t want them to see our weakness, our insecurity, our sadness, our vulnerability.  But God sees all of it and He loves us right now.  He doesn’t say go get perfect and then I’ll think about you; He says I love you just the way you are, more certainly than Garth Callahan loves Emma.  He shows up in amazing places with unexpected people telling them and using them and loving them and calling them to be the building blocks of the kingdom of God. He doesn’t need the mighty to build the kingdom.  He needs and calls us.  He doesn’t say “let me get a squadron of billionaires with jets to fly around the world evangelizing.”  He says I send you.

Clara Harms, one of the high school students who comes to our church, told me the other day that she and some of the other girls at her school formed a group to go out and bring the love of God to the people on the beach in Fort Lauderdale.  They went out to give beachgoers bottles of water, to talk to them about the love of God, and to pray with them.  God used this young girl and her friends to bless others.  To change the lives of others. 

He sends us to be a blessing, and to share the Good News too. We may not have heard the call, but that doesn’t mean he’s not calling. 

Garth, about two years ago, learned that he has cancer.  He doesn’t know how much time he has left – at this writing he is doing okay.  And this loving dad wants to make sure his Emma gets a napkin with a love note in it every day until she’s out of high school.  Whether or not he’s here to write it on a daily basis. One day a year and a half ago he sat down and wrote out more than 800 napkins, just in case, because he wants his little girl to know that his love is even stronger than death. 

Isn’t that the message of the resurrection?  That the love of our father is stronger than death, so much stronger that death now has no power over us because Jesus risen is the lord of life; and he continually blesses us who hear his voice and know enough to get into the posture to receive the gift of life. 

That’s what blessing is.  It’s the gift of God’s loving kindness that none of us could ever earn.  All we have to do is humbly accept it – be in the place and posture where we can accept the gift of life. 

The challenge of the beatitudes is, in the first instance, to open our lunch boxes and read the love notes the Father sends us all the time.   

Then we have to accept what God tells us we are: His beloved children. God’s love is personal.  He doesn’t say, like Charlie Brown’s friend Lucy, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.”  He loves He loves us individually.  He loves us all by name.  He has written our names on the palm of His hand, like kids do when they have a crush in grade school.  That’s how much he loves us.   

Since her dad got cancer little Emma Callahan has been doing something special herself.  She now leaves napkins for him, telling him how much she loves him, her father. 

God never blesses us and says “sit on the blessing.  Take this to the bank.  Don’t tell a soul I’ve done this.”  He blesses us so that we in turn can be a blessing.  He blesses us so that we can go to the beach and hand out water bottles and bless people, and pray with them.  He wants us to go out and proclaim the blessing that we all receive as a gift from the Father that just adores us.

Now here’s the problem.  It’s a little frightening to do that?  You have to approach perfect strangers, or people you don’t know that well, or even friends that you may not be that sure of. You don’t know how they’re going to take it. Some are going to make fun of you; maybe even some of your friends or neighbors.  Some are going to resent you.  Some will even say bad things about you. 

“When that happens rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven.  This is the way they treated the prophets who went before you.” (Matthew 5:12)

Made in God’s Image

We are the very image of God – we are beloved of God; we are children of the Light!

I was recently asked to speak at a prayer service in support of the survivors of clerical sexual abuse that took place in Bowie, Maryland.  I was driving from my home in New York, and was about halfway there, about 153 miles from my destination, when one of he little screws in my eyeglass frames came undone and the right lens of my eyeglasses popped out. As you might imagine, this made driving significantly more challenging! 

All was not lost.  It was around 9:30 on a Saturday morning and I knew that optometrist offices must be open all over New Jersey, how hard could it be to find one? I pulled off the Turnpike at an exit where there seemed to be a lot of stores – I figured I’d only have to drive a few miles before I found a place to get those glasses fixed, then I’d be on my way!

Finding that optometrist wasn’t as easy as I thought. But I spotted a Walgreen’s drugstore, and pulled into it to see if they carried those little eyeglass fix-it kits.  They did, I bought it and immediately dumped out the contents of the case and began to try to repair the damage.

Of course when your glasses are broken it’s difficult to use those kits, with their tiny screws and the little screwdriver made for smaller hands than mine.  After 15 minutes of trying to get the lens and the frame back together, even with the kind help of  a good Samaritan clerk, I gave up. Then the clerk said “who don’t you try the optometrist’s office right across the street” Hmmm. If my glasses weren’t broken maybe I would have seen that office first, but still, my deliverance was at hand! 

Or so I thought

I carefully put my loose lenses back into the frame and  squeezed tight to keep it temporarily in place while I drove across the street – I had been using that same tactic during my last 10 or so miles on the Turnpike. But that strategy was a mistake!  When I turned to pull my car of its parking space, the lens again fell out the frame, and this time it dropped between the seats of my car and landed in a place where  I couldn’t reach it. Flying blind again, I drove to the optometrist’s parking lot, got out of my car , and went to work finding the lenses under my seat.  It was nowhere to be found! I looked and looked and looked – no lens.  To this day I have no idea where darned thing went.  I finally resigned myself to driving the rest of the way to Maryland with no glasses. 

My predicament  created numerous problems.  First, it’s tough to drive when the world looks like an impressionist painting .  Second I had an outline of my talk and all sorts of quotes bookmarked that I wanted to read from the Bible, but reading was now out of the question. I was flying blind in more ways than one. What a mess!

I rely on my glasses to see clearly, and I  need them to drive safely. But now I just didn’t have any other option, I had to drive without them and make the best of the situation, relying on the vision I still had, though it was flawed.  I had to rely on myself: I knew that I could still see well enough to navigate; I knew that I had to be someplace in a few hours, and I’d better be on my way or I’d be late;  and at the end of the journey I would find and be with people who I loved. 

Then I got to thinking about the meaning of my predicament: as we journey through life, we all like to have clarity – we like to know where we’re going and what the road ahead of us is like. The Church, for many of us, has been a lens that helped us see the road of life more clearly.  Sexual abuse by the clergy, and the institutional response of the Corporate church to that abuse, have been a lens-shattering experience. But when we lose focus we have fall back on the basics: we have to rely on our own selves, however flawed we may be, to find our way. 

The first question, then, is “who are we?”

All Scripture should be read in the context of Genesis 1:26 – 27. Their, in the space of two short versus, the sacred author reminds us three times that we are made in the image and likeness of God.  “Then God said, let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness. … So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God He created; male and female He created them.”

We are made in God’s image. Deeper, and more profoundly important than any of our sin, failure or brokenness is this reality – we are of the stuff God.

The theme is picked up in the beautiful prologue of St. John’s Gospel.  John speaks of the Word as being, from the very beginning, the creative energy of God. The Word is life and that life is our light. It is a light that dispels darkness. It is the light of the very life of God. And John writes in verse nine that the light is “the true light enlightens every person coming into the world.”

We are the light.

That light can be covered over, it can be  dimmed,   it can be disregarded, but it cannot be extinguished.

The great Irish teacher and mystic, Pelagius of Wales, taught that in every newborn child’s face we see the face of God. Each of us once radiated that magnificent innocents. Each of us is still in the depths of our being, light.

There is sin and there is evil. It has touched each of our lives. Some individuals are the victims of evil, and some do evil, they are its slaves. Even as great an institution as the church can forget its vocation. It can put its reputation, or its wealth, or its power, ahead of its mission. And when that happens, the lens cracks and falls from our eyes. The church is then unable to help us see clearly, and we must rely, faithfully, on the reality of our own nature, as God reveals us to be. We must rely on God’s presence within us, his image within us, his light within us, to help us find our way.

Who are we? We are the very image of God – we are beloved of God; we are children of the Light!

The next question, then, is “who is God?”

In 1944, a young man named Jurgen, was impressed into military service by his native Germany. He was only 18, and he was put to work in the antiaircraft batteries defending his home town of Hamburg, which was under heavy bombardment by the Allies. The bombing was relentless, bombs hit the battery where are Jurgen was stationed, killing the young man, only 16 years old, who stood next to him but leaving Jurgen himself unscratched.

As soon as he could, Jurgen went AWOL  and was promptly arrested by allied troops. He spent the next two years of his life as a prisoner of war.

Jurgen’s world had been destroyed. His hometown was in ashes, many of his friends were dead, and he was overcome with tremendous sadness. By chance, a  chaplain gave him a copy of the Bible. Jurgen was not a particularly religious person, nor did he come from a particularly religious family. But this was all he had to read, so he read it. In the Psalms of laments he began to take strange comfort. The psalmist seemed to resonate with his own pain. And then he read the account of the passion in St. Mark’s Gospel. At last, he thought, he had found a God who understood his suffering, a God who suffered with him. This is the God who could give Jurgen hope. The God who would change his life.

The cross of Jesus stands at the center of Christianity. It embarrassed the early Christians because it was a reminder of the painful, terrible, humiliating death of Jesus. Nonetheless, only 20 or so years after Jesus’ crucifixion, St. Paul could write: “God for bid that I should glory save in the cross of my Lord Jesus Christ.” What is the cross? What does it mean for us today?

I don’t believe for one instant that the cross was necessary to expiate for our sins – that it was required by a bloodthirsty god demanding that someone,  someone as innocent as Jesus, die before the sins of the guilty,  your sins and mine, could be forgiven. Quite the contrary,  the cross is a theophany: a revelation of the very nature of God.

On the cross, God, in Jesus, is one with everyone who ever suffered and everyone who ever will suffer. Jesus entered deeply into the painful reality of the human situation so that he could show us how much he loves us, how much God loves us. The cross reveals the essence of God’s being: God is love, self gift. The God revealed by Christ, the father/mother God, is the God who holds nothing back from us, and who is with us in our darkest, saddest, and most painful moments.   

Jesus last words, “O God, O God, why have you forsaken me?” show that Jesus even suffered the feeling of being God forsaken, and in doing so brings God’s presence to the God forsaken.

Jesus crucifixion, though, is inseparable from his resurrection. His resurrection is not merely a personal event, it is a communal event .  Jesus rises as the firstborn of many brothers and sisters.  He rises with God’s verdict that pain and suffering and death will not have the last word. 

So where is God in the pain of betrayal?  God is right there, suffering with us, healing us, restoring us, and making all things new. 

And our final question is “what does all this mean for us?”

In his cross, Jesus shows us the way.  Often, though, it’s hard for us to hear his call to follow him.  We would rather follow other paths that seem more certain or more clear.

The  third chapter of the Gospel of John  gives an interesting illustration.  We meet Nicodemus, and Nicodemus is an important guy.  He’s a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin: a leader of the people, a man who is well respected. He has heard of Jesus and the wonders he has worked. He believes that Jesus is from God, but he doesn’t yet understand who Jesus is or what his ministry means. Nicodemus is interested in seeing if Jesus shows the authentic way to God. 

So he goes to Jesus by night. This would seen  to be because this important community leader is  worried about what would happen to his reputation if it became known that he sought out Jesus.  But more importantly, in John’s Gospel, physical darkness is a symbol of an inner darkness; so John is  saying that Nicodemus comes to Jesus spiritually in the dark. 

Jesus tells Nicodemus that the solution to his quest for God is simple, he must be born again   To Nicodemus this makes no sense whatsoever. He doesn’t get it.  He asks the Lord how anyone be born again? 

And Jesus answers him with an enigmatic statement about to wind –  the wind is free to wind blows where it will, you don’t know where it’s coming from and you don’t know where it’s going.  Jesus is saying “Nicodemus what I want for you is absolute freedom, I want you to be as free as the wind.”

Nicodemus is still in the dark.

Finally Jesus says  “ just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert so must the son of man be lifted up that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” The serpent lifted up in the desert is a symbol and prefigurement of Jesus himself, lifted up on the Cross. 

Jesus is saying that the path to eternal life, and the path to true freedom, lies in our own willingness to undertake a lifestyle of self gift.  The cross is not only Jesus way, it’s our way too.  We are invited into a lifestyle of agapic love,  that love alone is life-giving.

Not long ago a young woman told me a terribly sad story – a story of hurt and betrayal. It was her life story, or at least part of it. 

When she was five, she came home from the park and found her father  packing to leave home.  She never saw him again.  Fast-forward 17 years.  This  same young woman is in a very serious relationship. Then she developed a physical problem. Her body begins to produce uterine cysts, big fibrous uterine cysts. Her physician told her that she may never be able to have children.  She went home to her boyfriend, explained the situation to him, and he left her. He just left her. She was heartbroken. 

Around the time she met somebody else. Their relationship started simply as a friendship, but in a few years it  began  to turn into more than that. The couple started dating – and in time they were getting very seriously involved.  Then the old problem with the  uterine cysts returned. One of her physician told her she would need yet another operation.  She was already scarred from the first operation, when we were talking she called herself “damaged goods.”  She wasn’t damaged, she was perfect.. But she didn’t know that.  She went to her new friend to tell him about the problem and she was sure he would leave her just like her last boyfriend did. Just like her father had left her.

But he didn’t  – he stayed with her and stood by her.  He was there with her in the hospital for the operation, and every day after her operation. When she told him that there was a strong possibility that she couldn’t have children, his response was,  “how you get the children isn’t all that important, what’s important is the love that you pour into their lies for 30-50 years after they’re there. We can always adopt.”

Simply by loving this woman and by being faithful to her the man who is now her husband went a long way towards healing the hurt of  a lifetime.

What was that young man doing?  He was walking in the light. He was being the light.  And he was honoring, in this wonderful young woman whom he loved, the image of God. 

It is our choice.  We can choose to live in darkness. We can revert to the patterns of evil that fill our lives with darkness.  We can choose bitterness over forgiveness; we can choose greed over generosity;    We can choose selfishness over self gift. 

The Lord invites us on a different way.  The way of freedom, the way of new life,  the way of new birth.  It is the way of the Cross!

It is in the love, the understanding, the kindness, and the honesty, of both the those who suffer and those who love them, that we find the presence of God, and with it healing and resurrection hope.

“In the end,” St. Paul says, “three things abide:  faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of them is love.”

Forgiveness and Fatih

According to the 20th Century philosopher Hannah Arendt, Jesus of Nazareth was the “discoverer of the importance of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs.”

My sister Barbara could hold a grudge with the best of them. Once when we argued (I forget what the argument was about, that’s how important it was) she must have thought I had gotten the better of her, so she called me at two o’clock in the morning to continue the quarrel; she had to win! Of course, she had to win because she was always right, to disagree with Barbara over any matter of substance didn’t merely become a question of opinion, but of right and wrong; and if you didn’t come quickly to her way of thinking there must be something wrong with you! The battle escalated to one of good versus evil. My sister was wonderful, but she could also be difficult. Continue reading “Forgiveness and Fatih”