Heretical Christianity

Just Trying to Find Some Grace

Lent: Jesus Dies

“When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

John 19:30 (NRSV) 

It doesn’t happen very often, but from time to time, you’ll get that call.

“So-and-so” didn’t make it.

If you have been doing youth ministry for any extended period of time, you’ll come across this. This person died in a car crash. That person took their life. Sometimes, it’s a kid in your group. Sometimes, it just someone somebody knows from school.

But given time, an adolescent’s death is something you’ll come across.

And it’s in those moments where you wonder.

The first year I was on staff at a church was the second year my little brother was in high school. I was a couple thousand miles away from him, but I got the call that a friend of his had passed away. 

He was sobbing on the other end of the line. I knew that there was nothing I could say. But I struggled to articulate something. While it all sounded hollow and trite in my head, through the fog and buzz of that moment, I think all my brother heard was, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry … ”

You can’t help but wonder about God’s sovereignty in those moments. Ideally, you will feel the freedom to cry out to God and follow the example set by some of the psalms or lamentations. And hopefully, your community will come alongside you with the reminder that God mourns death too.  But there is something altogether unique about the blessing that comes with Holy week, where we are offered the gift that comes from sitting with the death of Jesus.

In our better moments, we sit with this image. We don’t rush to resurrection. We don’t make our way towards good news by dismissing Jesus’ death. We see Jesus’ body broken - not just hanging on a cross, but lying in a tomb.

We see his fingers and feet curl as rigor mortis settles in.  

We see the blankness of his eyes.

We see the paleness of this battered skin.

We see a dead Christ.

In the days that followed the cross, this would have been the image the disciples carried. And while I want to proclaim that Jesus rises, that death is defeated, that we will rise on the last day, it is not Easter yet. Good news hasn’t been declared. Mary hasn’t told the disciples that Jesus rose from the dead.

However, there is still so much we can learn from His death.

There are a lot of thoughts surrounding what happens at the moment (or the atonement) Jesus dies. Some of it is helpful, some of it isn’t. Most of it is a mystery. But what we do know is that Jesus didn’t want to die.

Jesus asks the Father to “take this cup from” him. In the next moment, Jesus is obedient: “not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22: 42, NIV). After his death, Peter says He preached good news “to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3: 19, NRSV). And the Apostles’ Creed picks up this line of thought by saying “He descended to the dead.” Some theologians go so far as to say Jesus descends to hell.

It is in this sequence of events (Jesus’ resistance to death, His obedience to the Father’s will, Jesus’ descent into hell) where I’ve learned what God is willing to endure for our sake. The Father does more than will His Son on a cross. The unity between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is somehow pushed to its furthest limit as Jesus goes to hell and enters into a place that is utterly separated from the love of the Father.

And despite the fact that every couple of years, death brushes by, I no longer wonder about God’s will or sovereignty. The fullness of God’s sovereignty, for me, is defined by what God was willing to do so that a sinner like me could be reconciled to the Maker of all.

The only thing I’m left to wonder is if I am responding to these tragedies well.  It’s true that I say less now and practice being present more. Like our Jewish brothers and sisters, I’ve embraced sitting shiva. Like our midwestern brothers and sisters, I bring a hot dish to mourning families. I’ve been taught that there is a blessing for those who mourn with others and I have received it time and time again.

But good news is on the horizon. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit will be reunited through resurrection. The last day is fast approaching. And we will be able to declare that Jesus lives soon enough.

Witness to Healing

A Reflection on Sirach 38:1-8, first published on Episcopal Commons.

Whenever a church hires a new pastor, there’s a buzz that generates across the congregation. Questions like, “Will he be like so-and-so?” or “Will she preach better than you-know-who?” captivate the thoughts of parishioners. Sometimes a person in a congregation will have an image of who you are as a minister, or who you will be for them, before you even get a chance to know their names. And that’s how I met Jason.

Jason was a musician within the church. He was young, single, and a genuinely nice guy. But the first time I met him, it was clear that he was one of those people who knew exactly who I would be for him. He introduced himself by saying, “Hi, I’m Jason, and I have cancer.”

Apparently, I was going to be his guy: the guy he talked to, prayed with, who would walk with him through treatments and procedures. I wasn’t his sole support; he had a lot of people who loved and cared for him during that time, but I was privileged to be close enough to him to witness something amazing.

Within a month or two of meeting him, the church found out that the doctors were worried that his cancer was spreading, and they had to test the lymph nodes along his spine. This required a significant surgery; the surgeon would have to make an incision from his sternum to his pelvis, place the majority of his internal organs on the operating table (outside of his body), and begin to unwrap each lymph node from the nervous system. I was told that it would be a nine-hour surgery.

But prior to the surgery, my boss stepped into the story in a dramatic way. He began to coach Jason, and help his mind and spirit see the scalpel as a healing instrument. Rather than seeing this surgery as a traumatic event and doing all the things it does to fight off an intruder (i.e., bleed), my boss walked Jason through a series of meditations aimed to prepare his body for what was to come.

And so, Jason meditated on the scalpel day and night for the weeks prior to the surgery. It was a part of his morning meditation, his evening prayer, and his other musings. The morning of his surgery, I got to pray with him, anoint him with oil, and in the back of my mind, I thought of the Sirach 38.

Sirach 38 is a passage that points us to God’s work through a physician. We draw on this passage consciously, or subconsciously, whenever we pray for the hands of a surgeon or the mind of a doctor.

As I watched Jason go into pre-op, I thought about what were to be his next steps. He was supposed to be unconscious for a few days, wouldn’t start walking until the end of the week, and would be home a week later. But early the next morning, I received a phone call.

It was from Jason’s phone.

Panic is too strong a word to describe my initial thoughts. My fears crept into my mind; optimism pushed back, and suggested it was just his father keeping me up to date on what was going on. But nothing prepared me for what I heard next.

A stoned-sounding voice called through my receiver saying, “Duuuuuude. It’s Jaaassoon. I’m just calling to make sure you didn’t worry…”

Jason was supposed to be unconscious a few more days. But what else could I do except go back to the hospital and check what happened?

I never got a chance to talk to the doctor, but his father told me that Jason was cancer free, was responding incredibly well, and lost no blood during surgery. By the next day Jason was walking, and he was home within a few days of the operation.

Of course, we could chalk it up to a great surgeon, or the power of the body, or any number of things. Stranger things have happened. But Jesus raised people from the dead, Paul and Peter healed the sick, and the Holy Spirit really can’t be contained by anything.

There was something holy about what happened to Jason, and I’m grateful I had a chance to witness it. With today’s reflection pointing us to Sirach 38, I can’t help but think that there is more to a physician’s hand than education or skill or luck. I pray that’s God’s hand will be over the sick and those who care for them.

At Your Right Hand

A Reflection on Mark 10:35-45, first published on Episcopal Commons.

I have a confession to make. I think there are a lot parts of the Bible that are hilarious and sometimes I get in trouble for laughing at bits of scripture when other people feel like it’s inappropriate. There are lots of examples of this, but today’s meditation happens to be one of those passages.

In one version of the story, James and John go up to Jesus and ask to sit at his left and right hands. In another, their mom asks for them. There’s a lot of culture stuff to unpack, but here’s how my imagination makes this story unfold.

I imagine Jesus, the twelve, and few others were making their way down to Jerusalem when James and John started bickering.

“John, you go ask him. You’re his favorite.”

“I won’t be his favorite for long if I go, will I, James?!”

I imagine that they went on like this for some time before their mother felt compelled to intervene.

“Jesus, my dear Messiah, the person who made both of my sons something every mother dreams of, sweet bubala … will you resolve something for me? Will you put a mother’s heart at peace? Will you put John, your favorite disciple, and his brother, who’s working really hard at being your other favorite, on your left and right hand?”

I imagine that when James and John actually heard her say these words out loud, it would have struck a chord with them, unifying their response of “MOM!”

Then, I envision Jesus looking at John, then to James, and then back to John, with an expression of being dumbfounded … well, as dumbfounded as the Son of God can get.

And then, after taking a deep breath, and perhaps with a bit of pity in his eyes, Jesus would have said these words, “You do not know what you are asking.”

To their credit, they really didn’t know what they were asking. They didn’t know that baptism was about death and then resurrection or that the bread had to be broken or the wine would have to be spilt. They didn’t know that Jesus was walking into his death. They didn’t know that James would become a martyr or that John would be imprisoned or any of the things we know now that turns this humorous interaction into a something prophetic and agonizing.

But rather than fixating on the cost of what Jesus was about to do, the other disciples enter the story and they are pissed. Just like brutes fighting over the last piece of chicken, eagerly trying to win the affection of their teacher, they lose sight of what Jesus was saying, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave to all.”

And even now, as the weight of His words settles in, have we really gotten it? Do we really know what we are asking for when we lift up our prayers?

Far too often, we simply respond to what we think we need in the moment and far too often that response is selfish or harmful or naive or ungracious or just rude. Sometimes, the very act of asking for our own sake can be so unloving because it can grate on this call for us to be last, to serve.

In my better moments, I remember not to laugh and miss out on what Jesus is saying.  But when I do, I find that confession grounds me in the humility I hope will one day be grafted into my very essence. And with humility, I hope wisdom will one day come.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father: We have sinned against you, through our own fault, in thought, and word, and deed, and in what we have left undone. For the sake if your Son our Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us all our offenses; and grant that we may serve you in newness of life, to the glory of your name. Amen.

A Good and Joyful Thing

First Published on Episcopal Commons:

While we know that this “Jesus” would eventually change the world, the scandal that would have risen from the baby bump Mary would soon carry would have been devastating.  This tiding of great joy could only have been seen as greatly troubling for at the very least Mary would have been pushed to the margins of her community and at the worst stoned.

But this is how God works.

God stepped into the life of a poor girl, was turned away from every respectable inns,  was finally brought into something slightly better than a cave, and was born in a feeding trough.

What kind of God is this that the first people to hear that He was born were people who smelled so badly that others would avoid them like the plague?  What kind of God is this where over and over again the people we would aspire to be are pushed away as unworthy?

This is a God who goes into the broken places and makes things right.

This is a God who steps into scandal.

From the very moment of his birth to his death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus challenges everything we know to be true.  He verbally abuses everyone we would have been culturally conditioned to respect and honor.  He keeps company with people we would have been embarrassed to be associated with.  He saying things like, “The first shall be last” and “If you want to save your life, you must lose it” and “This is my blood shed for you.”   This Jesus is messy.  Moreover, this Jesus asks things of us that are uncomfortable and awkward and against what we would call our better judgment.  The thing called the Christian life could not rationally be called joyful.  And yet, it is.

It is a good and joyful thing to be caught up in the scandal of it all: to risk, to step into the broken places, to call for peace and reconciliation, to boldly follow the light the Virgin Mary brings into the world.

And perhaps this is the great scandal of Advent, that we wait for this God to wade into our mess, our drama, our chaos and transform it from being something ugly and painful into something lovely.  After all, the good news offered to the Virgin Mary ended up being the best news ever heard, even if it would have been scandalous, even if she was greatly troubled by it.  This message from an angel put things in motion that would make things right again.

Collect Of the Incarnation
O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen (Book of Common Prayer, page 252)

Struggling Towards Peace

First Published on Episcopal Commons:

During the season of Advent, we anticipate peace.  Anticipate because we know peace is still just out of reach.  That’s the tension of the Christian life.  We are in between God’s kingdom and our own.  We look around and we don’t see God’s will being done.  God’s kingdom hasn’t come.  When we look beyond our status updates and twitter pics, we see starvation and despair, basic needs being overlooked and isolation run amok.  We see too many reasons to be afraid and too many things to fear.  Peace can’t possibly be here on earth.

And yet, even before David can imagine what the Messiah might be, he’s able to utter these words before us today, from Psalm 27:1:

The Lord is my light and my salvation—
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid?

I don’t know why he’s able to say what he does.  I don’t know what sparks his confidence or trust.  But I know sometimes I struggle to.

Sometimes it is hard to confess “I’m not afraid” or “I have nothing to fear” because sometimes I don’t see the light.  Sometimes, I can’t taste salvation.  Sometimes, I feel like I’ve lost sight of the thing that’s supposed to be my stronghold.  I don’t know what David looked to, but in moments my uncertainty takes hold of my imagination, I know I need to look to the manger.

I need to look to the manger because Jesus too was helpless and poor and unable to do it on his own.  Jesus cried out to his mother in the hope that she would feed him and change him and rock him back to sleep.  In her arms, he would have felt safe and secure.  Despite the smell of the shepherds or the prodding of the wise men, Jesus would have been comforted.  Jesus would have felt peace.

It would years before Jesus would be mocked or ridiculed, beaten or hung on a cross, but maybe it’s the kind of peace Jesus would have experienced as child that he leaves with us.  Maybe it’s the peace that comes with bearing our humanity, the knowledge that comes with having been there, having done that.  Maybe it’s the peace that comes with the wisdom that God’s kingdom really will come, God’s will really will be done.  Maybe it’s the peace that comes in knowing that God’s children have a part to play in restoring creation back to what God intended from the beginning.

There are some moments where my “maybes” feel more certain than others.  But as long as we are struggling towards peace, I know I need more of it.  And so I pray, “Peace be with you.”

A Collect for Peace
Most holy God, the source of all good desires, all right judgements, all just works: Give to us, your servants, that peace which the world cannot give, so that our minds may be fixed on the doing of your will, and that we, being delivered from the fear of all enemies, may live in peace and quietness; through the mercies of Christ Jesus our Savior. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, Evening Prayer, page 123)

Progress at the UNCSW”

First Published on Episcopal Leadership Institute for Young Adults.

“Why are they sending you?”

My mother’s question poked with an edge of suspicion. Undoubtedly, she was still reeling from the GOP’s decision to deny women from testifying before congress and allowing five MEN to compromise, I mean, comprise the panel designed to talk about women’s health issues.

Fortunately for me, the United Nations identified male engagement in gender equality as an emerging topic – which is the short answer to the question above. But her question has been following me for weeks and was very much on my mind during the days were the Episcopal delegates were trying to make a difference.

To be honest, I’m not sure I can articulate what we did or what will come from our presence at the United Nations. I know that I had great highs and significant lows. I know that I was pushed to the brink of my emotional spectrum. I was grateful when older, wiser women welcomed me into the conversation. I was discouraged when other women said I didn’t belong. I was inspired to hear incredible stories of women overcoming cultural boundaries in gender reconciliation. I was devastated to hear that men were not doing nearly enough to treat women with the basic decency and respect the Christian life demands of us. I was beyond frustrated when I heard some women replacing one form of sexism for another.

The sad truth is that we are not there yet. Violations against women are vast and growing. Sex trafficking is on the rise. People still don’t have enough food to eat or clean water drink. People don’t have access to basic health care or education. The world is not in a good place.

But I was able to sneak into an under 18 meeting hosted The Working Group on Girls. To my surprise, there were a notable percentage of boys in the room. True to the name of the event, it really was a dialogue between girls and boys. At the event, a panel of people, all under the age of 17, spoke about their efforts to embrace their talents and not let traditional gender roles define their dreams and desires.

They also released two documents for the CSW: one from the girls and the other from the boys. The girls document clearly identified some of the crucial issues: decrease violence against women, “educate men and boy on the value of girls,” and delaying the legal age for girls to be married. The “Girl’s Statement” was clearly geared towards governments and political powers. But the “Statement of the Young Men” was geared toward the CSW itself. It said:

As young men, we demand to be included in the discussion and advancement of women and girl’s rights internationally. As much as men are part of the problem, we are also part of the solution. We need to reframe the discussion from a women’s issue to a human issue, where men and women, boys and girls can collaborate constructively to solve the obvious injustice that is inequality. As youth, we have a fresh and unique voice that provides creative and new solutions, as witnessed in the Arab Spring.

While the voices of the next generation are far from perfect, and the abbreviations and acronyms used as common rhetoric make me cringe, I can’t help but be encouraged by the voices rising behind my generation. Even if it does take another 50 councils to address the issues surrounding the status of women, I know that we have indeed made progress, we have changed minds, we have caste a new vision for what gender equality looks like for the future, and we will continue to until the CSW is no longer needed.