Saturday, June 18, 2016

In the Streets and in Our Souls


That's the word for it.  It's Aramaic in origin, and given the semitic affinity for gutturals, you almost feel like you're coughing something up when you say it- which is fitting because the word means "fool" or more literally "empty one."  To call someone rhaka was a linguistic way of spitting in their face.  A rhaka is subhuman, someone whose life is void of meaning.  Simply to say the word is to reduce the other person's value and humanity.

I thought about that word this week as I received the news that 49 people had been shot and killed in Orlando, their lives treated as if they were nothing.  Then came their names, one by one.  Then came their faces and the images of people carrying bodies while the blue lights twirled all around them.  It was agonizing.

Anyone with so much as the moral conscience of a rock would be broken hearted at the loss of life in the largest mass shooting in US history.  Everyone knows this act was heinous, despicable, and vile.  The admonition against murder transcends religious traditions and cascades down the centuries.  It is a given.  But Jesus had a propensity for getting down into the heart of a thing rather than dancing around the periphery of it.  In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus says,

You have heard that the ancients were told, 'You shall not commit murder' and 'whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.'  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother shall be guilty before the court and whoever says to his brother, 'Rhaka' shall be guilty before the Sanhedrin.

In this text, Jesus seems less concerned about external behavior as about internal attitudes like anger and hatred (or rhaka) which give rise to murderous acts.  His focus is on the the things that act as the fuse of our violence, rather than concentrating on the effects of the bomb itself.  He is advocating for some introspection in the depths of our humanity rather than simply focusing on surface behaviors.  He's asking us to get at the root of things, rather than trying to find out who's to blame for the rotten fruit.  After all, taking a life with our hands is the natural and logical outgrowth of seeing someone as rhaka in our souls.  Dehumanization in our hearts leads to bodies in our streets, especially the kind that deals in categorical condemnations that refuse to see so much as one single human face or bother to listen to one single human story.  It's so very easy to marginalize an entire category of people when you don't even know one name on the roster.

If the images in Orlando impacted you this week and if you long for a different tomorrow, might I urge you to check the spirit of rhaka that lives in you.  Whom do you see as less than human?  What categories of people are you quick to dismiss and ignore?  LGBTQ?  Muslims?  Where is there unbounded anger, long-lasting disdain, or frigid indifference?

As Christians, we are called to be peacemakers and reconcilers of ALL people, which begins in the depths of our souls.  With this in mind, I'd like for the LGBTQ community in Central Arkansas to know that they have a friend in me.  I will laugh with them and cry with them.  I see them as beloved children of God who bear the image of their Father.  They have a place at my church.  I will oppose any effort to see them as lesser humans, objects of scorn and ridicule, or causes for mockery- especially of the theological and religious sort.   May the images of this week cause us to see the severity of crude and careless language, bombastic self-righteousness, and cold exclusion.

I want my Muslim friends in Central Arkansas to know that I stand in solidarity with them as they condemn the violent ones who would distort their faith.  The very word "Islam" is related to the Hebrew word shalom which means peace.  I support those who live into the true intent of their faith.  I also want local Muslims to know they have a friend in me.  I will laugh with them and cry with them. I hope they see in me the  One who is called the "Prince of Peace."  While I ask them to hold accountable those who distort their faith, I hope to do no less with my own.

For decades, many of us have decried the violence of our streets while harboring a spirit of rhaka in our souls.  We have created us/them dichotomies that were neither true nor faithful.  We have politely ignored the significant suffering around us until it spilled into the streets, and we had to take notice.  We have allowed oppression, mockery, disdain, repulsion, and sheer hatred in word and deed to go unchallenged.  We have protected the things which make for violence and ignored the things which make for peace.  We have dug into the trenches of our culture wars to the point that we no longer hear Jesus calling us to something far greater, better, and more transformative.  We have talked about taking Christ to the marginalized without realizing that it's amongst the marginalized that we most often meet Christ.  We have allowed politicized fear to overwhelm our faith, and we have shut doors in the name of the one who tore down walls.  A better tomorrow doesn't begin by focusing on others, but by doing the hard work of taking responsibility for the life in our own souls.

Every single one of us can name the despicable atrocity that occurred in Orlando on Sunday.  It was the work of one deeply disturbed gunman.  But while none of us are guilty, in a way, we are all responsible (response-able).  What I hope to do- and invite you to do with me- is some deep introspection.  I want to rid myself and my surroundings of anything that smacks of rhaka.  You might even call it repentance.  I want to think about the world that lives within me- within my church- within my culture.  Because sooner or later, the world that lives within us will spill over into the world without.  What we don't allow to take place in our hearts and minds, we won't have to worry about spilling into our streets.  May it be so with me...and all of us!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Rising From the Ashes

I typically don't think much about ashes except for this day every year:  Ash Wednesday.  Tonight, I will participate in a strange, ancient ritual in which I'll smear some ashes in the shape of a cross on peoples' foreheads and say something like, "Turn from your sins and follow Jesus" or "Remember you are dust and to dust you will return." Tonight, I'll leave the church marked by ashes on my head and hands.

The more I think about it, however, I think we could use some more ashes in our lives.  Traditionally, ashes have been a sign of penitence, humility, and mourning- although we don't have much use for these virtues in our day.  Much of the Christianity I encounter has very little penitence, humility, and mourning.  We come in contact with them about as often as we do ashes.

Yet, Jesus was acutely aware of the human propensity to see other peoples' sins so very clearly while being blind to one's own.  We see the splinter in other people's eyes while being blind to the 2x4 growing from our own.  We all have an amazing capacity to delude ourselves.  After all, the most difficult thing for my two eyes to see is my own face.  This is why we judge other people by their worst actions and ourselves by our best motivations.  This is true from a religious perspective as well.  We judge other religions by their worst adherents and our own by our highest exemplars.  The President learned this lesson the hard way last week with the fallout from the National Prayer Breakfast.  We don't want to think about our own sins.  Some people said it was because he was bringing up ancient history (although some of it wasn't very ancient), but I suggest that the fallout was because we want to believe in the superiority of our religion over others.  This is the mindset that keeps fires of conflict raging, and some people's identity stems solely from their conflicts.  They need a them in order to have an us.  These people have little use for contrition, introspection and confession because these virtues make for poor ammunition in the culture and religious wars.  We all want a religion that inflates our pride rather than one that challenges our ego.  We don't want to confess our sins because that would demand we actually see them!  

Likewise, we live in an age in which humility is hardly a virtue.  We rarely hear anyone say that they don't have all the answers.  In fact, one of the most threatening and dangerous things one can say in our religious milieu is, "I don't know," as if uncertainty is equated with unbelief.  We demonize anyone who dares to disagree with us on any issue.  Furthermore, we are frequently shocked that someone does in fact disagree with us because our news sources insulate us from anyone and everyone with a diverging viewpoint.  We are an age marked by pride and arrogance.  Rarely does anyone change their mind about anything of importance, and any new thought is quickly banished to the hinterland of heresy.  Oftentimes, our religious practices only serve to concretize our egos and confirm us in our beliefs.  And of course, the greatest pleasure of all is when we discover the Bible (and thereby God) shares our views!  Who needs repentance or humility when one is certain God sees it the same way we do?

And there doesn't seem to be much mourning in our Christianity either.  Worship has become little more than therapy for the saints, an emotional pep rally to charge the troops.  But when was the last time you confessed your sins before God in worship?  When was the last time your congregation intentionally made time and space for the broken people in the world or acknowledged the very real brokenness in our own lives?  When was the last time you experienced silence in worship, listening for that still, small voice of God?  When was the last time you left worship having experienced some visceral expression of pain?  Jesus said "Blessed are those who mourn," but you wouldn't know it from much Christian worship.

What if ashes are the antidote to this expression of faith?  I've heard that ashes are vital and essential for some life on this planet.  Forest fires often clear out the underbrush of the forests in the Great Northwest so that the giant redwoods have room enough to grow.  Some types of seeds only open due to the intense temperatures of fire.  Some weeds are only eradicated by fire.  The ashes contain the necessary nutrients for the soil, ready for decomposition.  In this way, the ashes are symbols of newness, carrying God's tomorrow in their very presence.  The ashes are the means by which the future arrives.

Perhaps, we could all take this season of Lent to allow the ashes to have their way with us.  Perhaps we could- in a spirit of introspection- take an honest look at our own lives.  Perhaps we could tame our pride, name all the other gods that have diverted our attention and claimed our allegiance, and identify the fear and ignorance which dehumanizes us and others.  Perhaps we could spend some time at the depths of our being, so that we can know the things that can't be known by thinking, but only by experiencing.  Perhaps we could make friends with someone who is other.  Perhaps we could remember our own frailty, so that we can easily distinguish between serving God and being God.  Perhaps we could remind ourselves that we now see through a glass darkly, so we dare not confuse God's Truth with our truths.  This is why- though faith, hope, and love remain- the greatest of these is love.

What would rise from those ashes would be a version of Christianity that is much more humble, gracious, and compassionate.  What would rise from those ashes would be a Christianity much more like Christ.

May it be so with us.

Monday, January 5, 2015

A New Year's Prayer

So one of my goals for 2015 is to blog more consistently.  I'm going to strive to post some prayers uttered in worship (I removed the names).  Here's one for the New Year.

Joyful, joyful we adore thee- God of Glory Lord of Love.  Our hearts unfold like flowers before thee opening to the sun above….Well…sort of, O Lord, but it’s been cloudy and dreary…and there are days when our joy vanishes…and we have days when our hearts are more likely to curl up and harden than to unfurl in the warmth of your love.

But we long to have our joy renewed.  We long to know the joy of walking with you, serving you, knowing you.  We long for the sort of joy that is not enslaved to circumstance.  Grant us the elation of basking in your good news so that we might dance our way into your Kingdom and sing our way through the valleys and shadows.  And we ask for your joy today on behalf of those we know and love who are hurting:  ___________________________________________.

And we do adore you.  Not because you give us all we have (although you do) but because you give us you.  In your love, you have not given up on us which is the only reason we haven’t given up on ourselves.  When we are lost, you find us.  When we come home, you receive us.  When we are wrong, you forgive us.  When our pride is strong, your grace is stronger.  When we feel weighed down by our pasts, you invite us into your liberating future.  There is none like you…and so we adore you. 

And in this new year, we invite you to open our hearts again and renew our love.  Stoke the embers of our love for you that have all but gone out.  Remove the apathy from our spirit and the sin from our lives.  Create in us a clean heart and restore to us the joy of your salvation.  Revive our love for our neighbor, whomever our neighbor might be in any given moment.  Help us to look with compassion upon this world for which you died and to look with mercy upon each of your creatures.  Open our hearts to beauty and the sacredness of things.  Rekindle a love for our enemy, so that the inexplicable wounds of irrational hate might be met with the inexplicable balm of your irrational love.  Enliven our love with your love, O Lord.

And so…joyful, joyful we adore thee- God of Glory, Lord of Love.  Our hearts unfold like flowers before thee opening to the sun above.  This has been our song this morning, but this is our prayer all year long.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever.

Friday, December 19, 2014

God Gives What We Need Most

          I wonder what the shepherds were talking about under that lone tree in the fields, as they watched their flocks that night.  You know they had to be talking.  What else could shepherds do as they watched their sheep sleep?  Perhaps one of them expressed worry about his son who was drinking his life away.  Perhaps one of them was worried about finances.  I imagine it was difficult to support a family on a night-shift shepherd salary.  Perhaps one was worried about his struggling marriage, which had grown cold after all those years.  The more he worked at it, the worse it became.  Or maybe they were pondering the recent census ordered by Quirinius and the heavy taxation soon to follow.
            I don’t know what the shepherds were talking about in the fields that night, but I know the sorts of discussions 2014 has placed on the table.  In this year, we’ve seen the rise of ISIS and the evil that can be inflicted by radical fundamentalists.  We’ve watched in horror as entire towns were held in their grasp and heads rolled.  We watched as conflicts in Syria and the Ukraine sent entire people groups running for their lives.  We watched as EBOLA spread and took lives.  We watched as racial conflicts destroyed the illusion of living in a post-racial society.  I don’t know what the shepherds were struggling with that night long ago, but I know the disturbing news which has sent us to our knees this year.
            Into the midst of their fears and anxieties, the heavens opened and angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest…and on earth, peace.”  Peace.
            It seems absurd to utter that word in our chaotic and fractured world today.  When there is animosity between the religions, tension between the races, division between the classes, and war between the nations how can we even think of peace?  To speak of peace in our day is either comical on the one hand or revolutionary on the other. 
            One neglected aspect of the Christmas story, at least in the way Luke tells it, is the Roman backdrop to this scene.  The whole story begins with the phrase, “In the days of Caesar Augustus.”  These were the days when Rome ruled the world.  Empire was having its way.  Might was making right.  And of course, Rome, like all empires, couched their control in the language of peace.  They called it the “Pax Romana” or “peace of Rome.”  But the peace of empire isn’t true peace.  It is subjugation and control, which only lasts as long as you are the big kid on the block.  It is not creation in the wyas of God, but politics in the ways of empire. 
            But when Jesus was born as a “Savior, Christ the Lord,” he was born as an alternative to the ways of Rome.  The peace from the angels that night was a different sort of peace from a different sort of Lord.  It wasn’t the peace that comes from subduing or killing your enemies, but the peace that comes from loving them and being reconciled to them.  It’s not the sort of peace that comes from controlling people by overt force and power, but the sort that comes from inspiring people with authentic love and service.  It’s not the sort of peace that comes from halls of power; it’s the sort of peace that shows up in mangers and fields.  It’s not the sort of peace that comes from silencing the other; but the sort of peace that comes from actually listening to them.  It’s not the sort of peace we achieve through military victory, but the sort of peace we receive through grace. 
            It is a pervasive peace, which begins deep in our own fractured and alien hearts and spreads from person to person, religion to religion, nation to nation.  It allows us to make peace with our own souls so that we live out of our true selves rather than our false selves.  We can be honest about ourselves and with ourselves.  This peace reconciles us to God, so that we need not keep looking for something else to worship or running from the One who can’t be escaped.  It brings us closer to people, even those with whom we disagree.  It unites and reconciles, bringing together shepherds and angels, heaven and earth, Rome and Bethlehem.

            So, as we reflect on this Christmas season and all that 2014 brought us, may we open ourselves to this peace.  It is this peace that that world longs to receive.  It is this peace which God longs to give.  It’s almost too good to be true…almost.  Glory to God in the highest, and on earth… peace!  PEACE!!!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

How He Comes To Us

A Palm Sunday prayer for worship:

How He Comes To Us

So this is how he came to us. 
He came to us riding a donkey. 
There was little pomp and circumstance. 
No trumpets blew. 
No armor clinked. 
No stallions marched. 
No enemies chained. 
Just Jesus on his donkey. 
As far as kings go, this isn’t what you would expect.  Yet, this is how he came to us.

This is how he came to us. 
Born in a stable. 
Laid in a donkey’s feed trough. 
His nursery was populated with sheep and goats. 
He came to us with stories and riddles. 
He came to us with preaching and teaching. 
He came to us with powerful healing and radical welcome. 
He came to us washing feet. 
He came to us embodying sacrifice and service. 
He came to us with holes in his hands and feet. 
As far as humans go, this isn’t what you would expect.  Yet, this is how he came to us.

And this is how he comes to us. 
He comes to us in the most unexpected ways. 
He comes to us in the embrace of children and the tales of the elderly. 
He comes to us in the ears of friends and the eyes of strangers. 
He comes to us in bread and wine, in sermon and song, in prayer and giving.  
He comes to us in small acts of love, genuine acts of hospitality, authentic acts of forgiveness. 
He comes to us in the least of these. 

He comes to us whenever we come to Him. 
He comes to us whenever we reach for peace instead of war, truth instead of ignorance, welcome rather than exclusion. 
He comes to us when we have no idea where we are going. 
He comes to us amidst our tears, our fears, our doubts. 
Over and over again, he comes to us. 
As far as gods go, this isn’t what you would expect.  Yet, this is how he comes to us.

He does not come to us in the shouts as much as in the whispers.  This is how he comes to us… TODAY… NOW…so listen…