Becoming Attention In a Distracted World

What does it mean to “give attention” to something or someone? What does that look like? What faculties are employed? What thoughts are necessary to hold the other in our gaze for moments that matter, anticipating their speech or attending with our hearing in a way that could change us in an instant?

In an inattentive world what does it truly mean to “give attention?”

Surely, it is more than “paying attention” as if the attention being given will be reduced to some sort of transaction in which I extract something from the other or they from me. To “pay attention” is to invest, to force the will and mind into lock step so that we are literally handing over the equity of our faculties to the other…but in hopes of what? As the word insinuates, paying attention implies that the attending we give will reap us reward. Such seems to be a fairly common understanding.

For example, we pay attention in class in order to pass the test. We pay attention to our work in order to continue getting recompensed for our time. We pay attention when we drive in order to avoid a wreck.

 As these examples illustrate, attention is given in order to gain, it is never truly given as gift of attendance, gift of presence, without ulterior motive. When attention is a concept to be paid, it is a concept that is only given when we gain, all other situations of attending being lesser, and less worthy, of our attendance since they do not seem to have a direct bearing on our well-being or future.

So again, what does it mean to give attention if it is not something to pay.

Have you ever been present with someone yet not attended to in that space? In other words, have you been with someone, sharing a moment, yet it is painfully obvious they are not “present” with you? They are in attendance, but they are not attending to the space with you. They may ask a question and then when you attempt to answer, it is as if they are not there. Worse, have you ever been in brief conversation only to be ignored mid-sentence by the next distraction?

Over the last year I have become mindful of the epidemic of inattentiveness in our culture. Of course, this is nothing new. We live in an age of short attention spans. Forms of digital media, games or otherwise, have become an additional narcotic with multiple studies citing negative health consequences for long-term exposure to short term stimulation. Further, fewer and fewer folks seem to be capable of pulling out that old codex (a book), and staring at non-animated graphics, (called words) for hours on end. We have become addicted to movement, our collective brains feeding on the next hit of dopamine, stimulated by our phones or tablets. It is grindingly laborious to give attention because everything, and everyone, is competing for it. Do we even possess the ability to attend anymore or have we lost that part of our humanity?

In an age of distraction, this question begs asking.

Ironically, it is in the inattentiveness that we seek out attention, something to momentarily captivate us. We seek to be held captive, and to also captivate, if for no other reason that we would be captive by the fact that we have been captivated.

This is the quest of/for attention: to give ourselves to that in which we can invest our gaze in order to find meaning, satisfaction, purpose. Attention is that which we do because life depends on it. One must give attention while crossing the road or the results could be unseemly. We are losing our lives as we have lost our attentive spirit. We will never find that which we seek because the mechanism of attention as gift, life to the giver and the receiver, has been misplaced. Perhaps it has been disabused beyond recognition.

So many things have our attention. But allow me to ask, does anyone feel as if they are being given attention by anyone, the modern family that sits in the same room all on a different device? Where is attendance? Why do we tend to something that will always demand more than we can give? Must we be lost in the abyss of an attention disseminated, if not deconstructed? Many have observed that we are connected in a plethora of ways, yet we are fantastically disconnected all the same.

Time would fail us to recount all the many broken relationships, broken homes, and broken dreams of people that exist because the person with whom they shared life did not give attention to them. There are people who wake up every day hoping for a kind word from their spouse, a hug from their son, a call from their estranged parents, someone to love them. These people wait in quiet anguish for attention from the ones they love. Not receiving attention, real human attention as gift, they live disconsolately silent, craving attention but being victims of the distraction of others. In a real sense, they are missing a part of their own humanity because they are not being named by the other, which begs the question: does our naming require one to name us? To give us attention? To attend, and hence give birth to this thing called life together? Is this not the intention of wanting to discover our authentic selves and then have such attended by others?

We can bristle at these questions, the blasphemy of such insinuations in our woken age of authenticity, but we must consider the following: what good is a name if there is no one to use it? How are we to be called if there is no one to call us? And without hearing our name how do we know we exist apart from the Cartesian hamster wheel of logic? Human constitution and attention seem to be intertwined.

Living lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau aptly noted, we have discovered that there is something worse than public speaking and something worse than death. If one would like to kill someone one, one needs only to ignore them, withhold attention. This is worse than being the subject of ridicule, the topic of slanderous accusations, or the bane of your enemy’s existence, for at least in all those instances we exist. We are. We have attention, even if it is the sort we’d rather not enjoy. But to ignore someone is to neglect them. To neglect them is to reduce their identity to nothing; it is to name them nothing worse than the something of nothing.

To ignore someone is to heap death upon them. Even being dead is preferred to living dead.

Of course, this topic of attention goes to the heart of what it means to be human, to live together, and to be observant (which itself implies some attention). As for inattentiveness, our inability to give attention, we have now come to a time in which we have moved past theology and philosophy, not to mention psychology, as viable frameworks that can offer responses to our postmodern sin of distraction. One needs not God for that; the pharmacy already has the prescription waiting for our arrival.

I am afraid that this issue of attention is a knotty one, one that I am not talented enough to solve. But its thinking has me wondering, what if attention is not something we pay but something we are, something we become? What if our being is one of attendance without perpetual reminders that such attending requires a payment for something the other has and I need? What if attention is not something we pay, or something we give, but something we are in each moment, with each person, in each day?

How on earth do we become attention? How does our presence echo atten-dance to those with us? What might help us focus on the face before us and not become distracted by the device in our pocket or the person crossing behind our line of vision?

I am reminded of something Jesus said, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew:

Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me. Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You? Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me. (Matthew 25. 41-45)

Jesus can be called many things in the Gospels, but the very least he could be called is the One who gave attention. Jesus didn’t simply pay attention, or give his attention, he became attention to many people the world over in the Gospels. He was the attention many needed to be healed, restored, forgiven, included, loved, redeemed, named. His entire ministry, among many things, could be typified as one of great attention. We see in story after story, not a distracted Christ, but a Christ focused on the one before him, intently engaging, and hospitably extending himself even when he is clearly busy, clearly doing other things, clearly not planning on being attentive. But none of that mattered because Jesus was attention incarnate, God incarnate.

As people of faith, let me first suggest that we should become attention because we seek to be like Jesus: we seek to be sanctified for God’s attending work in the world, a work incarnate in Jesus. How can such a distracted people as we have become learn to be like Jesus when we miss a central aspect of his character: Attention? This divine attention is not marked by intention, but by the gift of presence, a pure gift in that it does not expect anything in return. Jesus is the gift of attention, as pure gift, grace incarnate as attention to those unattended.

Secondly, we give attention because in giving attention we are giving life. The attention that Jesus gave was life giving. Have you ever encountered a small child and given them attention? Allow me a fatherly example.

My daughter will often request that I play dolls with her in her room. She will tell me to be this doll or that doll and ask that I play with her for “just 5 minutes and then that’s enough.” Sometimes, after a long day at work, I will not hurriedly participate. She will come to me and berate me to play in the most loving way she knows how. If I do not succumb to her requests, she will go to her room alone, play alone, and sulk. Her daddy was not giving her attention. BUT, as soon as I come to my senses and step into her playroom, her eyes light up, her voice gets lighter, her feet move quicker, and she is animated once more. My attention gave her life.

This is an elementary example of how attention can change a person; it can breathe life into them. When we become attention, Godly attention, we are literally giving life to those who have been ignored, abused, neglected, or perhaps are simply friendless in a distracted world. There are myriads of people we rub elbows with every day that are depressed, anxious, uncertain, lost, confused. There are people who we think have their life figured out that will go home at night and wonder whether their life has any meaning. In a world full of people, there is a world of people missing a world until someone takes the time to be the bodily attention they need.

When we give attention, becoming attention in each small encounter, we are with our bodies affirming the other as an adored and valued part of creation, not only worthy of our attention but also worthy of God’s. When we fail to give attention, or we incarnate distraction, our attention becoming an equity to be placed where we can most benefit, we end up saying the opposite of our faith confession: you are fearfully and wonderfully made but not enough to matter to me. As believers, those whom Paul calls the body of Jesus (the corporal witness of Jesus on earth), our bodies are the presence of Christ toward others. When we withhold attention, we are, theologically speaking, withholding the sacrament of Christ’s presence to the world at large, to the face directly in front of us. May God help us.

Thirdly, we give attention because even as the body of Christ we need the face of the other in order to see Jesus, to learn Christ. As the Matthew passage suggests, “As you do to the least of these, you have done to me.” We give attention because Jesus is in the face and body of the other. We do this not out of some bizarre confusion of God’s metaphysical composition or out of fear of hell, but because we know that if we have not seen God in the face of the other than it is not God we see; we have become Narcissus.  In attending to others, we attend to God, and in attending to God, we become part of the new creation. We become what we are created to be, and we help the other accept their identity as beloved children of God, as brothers and sisters created in the imago dei.

Lastly, though not exhaustively, the Christian community is attended to by Christ each Sunday at the table of Jesus, the altar of God. We hear the perpetuity of these words, “on the night that he was betrayed, he took, he gave thanks, be blessed, and said, as often as you do this do this in re-membrance of me.” The table is the ritual of anamnetically recapitulating the event of attending to the table with Jesus and with his disciples. As re-membrance, it is attending to the event of communion, of attending to Jesus’ attendance with us. As witnesses of, and atten-dants in that continually rehearsed event, one of the chief means we bear witness of that event is by going and attending to the world. The world is not something we can attend in totality; it is that which we attend to in the encounter with the other. The world is not the other but the other is the world.

The closing proclamation of eucharistic celebration directly states such, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” How? The Lord is to be found in the face of the other. As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me. The proclamation could well also be “go in peace, to love and serve the Lord, being attentive to the least of these.” It is impossible to serve Jesus and not be attentive. Lord, forgive us for what we have done, and what we have left undone.

It is a difficult thing when we start to see the world with the attentiveness of Jesus. We see others being neglected. We see persons not being heard. We feel the pain of solitude. We see to the bottom of aching wells in the eyes of the other. We see our own interactions often fall victim to shallow words and distracted minds. When we learn to see the world with the attentiveness of Jesus, the Gospel becomes painfully difficult to imagine but surprisingly simple to perform: the goodnews is that God gives attention to us. God attends to us. As those in attendance with God, we feel in our bones the need to attend to others, and in so attending, invite the face of the other into holy attention with us, with God.

In the simple act of attending, we are admonishing, valuing, affirming, and loving the other, each other, one another. In giving and becoming attention, for a moment, we do not have to pretend what it might be like for Christ to be attentive to the other; We are allowing that same encounter to happen through us.

As we consider the ways and means in which we give attention, we should consider what it might mean to transform our understanding of attention from one of giving, or paying, to one of becoming. This is the process of sanctification: to slowly become that of which we partake in order to perform a unique task designated for holy purpose. Next time you find yourself in that mindless conversation, or in that brief moment of quiet desperation entrusted to you by a friend, colleague, family member, etc., consider what it might mean, if in that moment, attention became who you are rather than something you give. It might surprise you not only what you see, but more importantly, what you hear. May we be the Christ we want to see in the world.

Lord, may you quiet our hearts and steady our eyes as we see you in the moments we share with others. Sanctify us to be the incarnation of your son, in order that we may attend to one another as Christ has first attended to us. Amen.

“Daddy, Is it our Turn to do the Bread?”

“Daddy, is it our turn to do the bread yet?” my little girls asks, her big brown eyes gazing up at mine awaiting the point in the church service when she gets to “do the bread.”

I am often beside myself at how much truth comes from the mouths of babes, especially my own.

This past Sunday we were running slightly behind on our way to church. As we entered the church, we took our seats in the back to not disturb the service that had just begun. And it’s a good thing to because my little girl was super ready to do the bread that day, so much so that I felt like we were on a long car ride and I kept being repetitively asked, “are we there yet?”

After the opening hymn, “is it our turn yet?”

During the lessons, “is it our turn yet?”

During the passing of the peace, “is it our turn yet?”

Even during the Great Thanksgiving Prayer, “is it our turn yet?” To which I could finally say, “almost, it is almost our turn.”

The most striking part about this engagement is that my little girl knew what was important. Not that the entire service wasn’t important, but she knew there was something special coming to her, her coming to it, and she almost couldn’t wait for her turn. The part with the bread is unique, totally unlike the rest of the service. She knew that at the end of all the details there is a meeting that happens, at this time, in this way, and she was ready for that event.

Lord, grant that we all would be so excited to meet you.

I will resist the urge to discuss liturgy as pedagogy, but I can think of fewer things that teach children more than the rituals of the faith.

She has not been in the Episcopal Church long, but she has learned there is a special time when we get to eat in church, and for her, it’s the most exciting part of the morning.

My little girl is only four years old. Her and I have not had deep conversations about eucharistic theology or the finer nuances of real presence, grace, and holiness that is extended to us in this holy meal. We have not discussed the history of its institution or the drama that it portends each time bread is broken over the altar.  She has not fathomed to the consider the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John.

She does not understand as we adults consider understanding, but she understands in the doing. In the doing grace comes to her beyond her understanding. She doesn’t know what she is receiving, but she knows she is receiving something. And this something is all that matters.

It is a pleasant surprise to be reminded by one’s daughter of the Anselmian dictum, “Fides quaerens intellectum.

We had come to the “Prayers of the People” in the service and she incessantly kept asking if it were her turn. As I knelt, my arm around her and whispering for her to be a little quieter, her petitions reminded me of the Healing of the Paralytic in Luke 5.17-26.

The narrative of Luke 5 is fascinating, it being one of my favorite biblical images of a persistent faith.

The story places Jesus inside a building of some kind and the entrance to the house, presumably, is blocked by crowds. A paralytic, lying on a bed, was being carried to the place to meet Jesus.

As the men carrying the bed surveyed the situation, the crowds, the impossibility of getting through the door, they decide to improvise and lower the man, on his bed, into the house and place him directly in front of Jesus. This story has been creatively imagined by many artists and the text is silent on exactly how this worked, looked, or transpired, but it is the only account in scripture of a men being so persistent that they lower their friend through a roof to see Jesus.

I can see the face of Jesus. If his clairvoyance had kicked in, perhaps a grin comes over his face, knowing what is about to happen. Maybe he is praying over a child, teaching a lesson on scripture, writing on the floor to make his point when suddenly, into the top of his sight, he sees a shadow slowly interrupting the light in the room and a bed making its way into the noise and crowded space of the home. The crowd probably began to murmur louder as they stood astonished that someone would be so rude as to drop a bed in front of Jesus.

Afterall, these folks had skipped the line.

Jesus, one who often embraces such radical expressions of faith, gives the man on the bed his full and undivided attention. Jesus was there. Jesus was event. To have an event happen to the man on the bed the men knew they needed to get to where events take place: the presence of Jesus.

This is a faithful picture of what we often see in the Gospels: Jesus’ presence attracted crowds, large unmanageable crowds, and sometimes these gatherings occurred in the small spaces of ancient society. The presence of Jesus drew people to him. Many who would come to him probably couldn’t have picked Jesus out of a lineup prior to their meeting him. There were no pictures, newspapers, or internet mediums to communicate who he was. They didn’t know what would happen or what he would do. They just knew they needed to get there because of what they had heard. They didn’t understand everything that was going to happen, but they knew they needed a turn.

A turn to “do the bread.” A turn at life.

They didn’t need to know the answers.  They didn’t need to have a full-scale theology of miracles or understand how Jesus would do anything. They just knew they needed to get there.

So, they acted. They went where Jesus was. They experienced what it is to be in the presence of Jesus.

While our situation on Sunday was vastly different, the persistence of these friends to bring someone that needed Jesus into his presence was also embodied in the persistence of my little girl to get to the place she didn’t understand but knew was special.

She was ready to go, to move, to see Jesus, even though she might not be able to talk about it in that way. Her spirit and childlike intuitions were drawing her to this special place, the same place everyone else would be going as well. There are times on Sunday when the entrance seems obstructed, plenty of people going to meet Jesus, but if we wait, we know that our time will come. We will get through the roofs of life, and the busyness of the rail on Sunday, and Jesus will be there with us.

Our turn finally came. We stepped out of the aisle, her hand in mine, and I have the holy honor of walking my daughter to the place where Jesus is present. She is shy, so she bows her head as she makes her way to the altar, to not see anyone looking at her. We arrive at the stairs, slowly step up into the chancel, and are now closer. It’s our turn. I bow, take her to the left, and she kneels with me at the rail. She extends her tiny, wonder filled hands to the priest, and she receives the bread. She holds the hands of Jesus and Jesus holds hers.

The cup makes its way to us, she looks at me as if to get approval, I nod and tell her it is ok to dip her bread, she dips it. For a moment she stares at it, this odd thing we are doing, this bread now wet with a red tint, and she puts it near her mouth. Again, she looks at me and I tell her its ok to eat. She takes a bite, as if to try it first, just to make sure this is good. She looks at me with a piece of the wafer missing, reminiscent of the Psalmist suggestion that we should “taste and see that God is good.” Then, without hesitation, she puts the whole thing in her mouth, chews quickly, and then looks at me with a smile you could stretch across the heavens.

Her turn came. She was finally able to “do the bread.” We walked back to our seats and I couldn’t help but think if this is what it might have been like for all those that came to Jesus in the pages of scripture, coming to an event they didn’t quite understand but smiling after they met him because they knew that something had happened, even if they didn’t quite understand it.

“The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Matthew 19.13-15

Lord, that we would be as fervent and undeterred in our desire to meet you where you are and may we persist into the mystery of your presence, believing that in the end the holy smiles upon our faces are reflections of your good work in us. Amen.

Lent as Re-Membering: Reflections on Luke 4

Temptations_of_Christ_(San_Marco)

Luke 4 is the traditional text that comes to mind when we consider the beginning of Lent: the 40-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday (Sunday celebration days withstanding) in which we reflect upon the journey of Christ into the wilderness and the temptations he encounters while there. During the season of Lent, we Christians embody some form of practice that allows us, however weakly, to walk with Jesus into the wilderness. This takes the shape of denying ourselves of something significant in order to participate in the self-denial of Jesus during this wilderness period. We, as Jesus, must rely on God to sustain us, just as we must rely upon God to save us. Lent becomes the acting out of our finitude within the context of God’s infinite redemption revealed in Easter. Thus, this is a season in which we focus on Christ’s movement toward the events of Easter and we rely upon God to carry us through the parched arid land of the wilderness, to the pinnacle of Golgotha, and toward the tenebrosity of the grave.

The wilderness period of Luke 4 functions on many levels textually and canonically but two things should be immediately noted: it connects the ministry of Jesus with the wilderness wandering of the people of God for 40 years and, consequently, connects the ministry of Jesus as the one who exits the wilderness in order to redeem the world, bringing the world safely to harbor in the kingdom of God. This is the episode upon which the Gospel of Luke moves the readers from Jesus, the one born of God, called, baptized, and properly vetted in the wilderness, into the full-blown son of God, prophet, and harbinger of the Kingdom of God. Jesus exits the river and, after a brief genealogical postlude, heads straightway into the wilderness. The wilderness, in a sense, prepares him (and us) for the ministry ahead. Ultimately, it prepares us for the Paschal events.

The biblical account of the actual time in the wilderness is short, however. The text does not tell us what happened or of the trials encountered by Christ. We learn he was tempted, but we do not know what that means or by what means. Perhaps we are to imagine similar temptations encountered by Christ as were encountered by Israel as they wandered about a lifeless, foodless, waterless landscape in the Book of Exodus . Indeed, for such a significant moment in the life of Jesus, (which is also embodied in the liturgical time keeping of the church) precious little is made of the 40 days; it gets 2 verses in Luke. The text is abrupt,

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan [where he was baptized] and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended, He became hungry. And the devil said to him…”

The most salient feature of this text is the contention between Jesus and the devil. Luke himself gives this aspect of the story the most attention. In the process, however, readers often conflate these 3 final temptations with the sorts of temptations, or the very temptations, Jesus was encountering in the wilderness. The wilderness period itself is overlooked by Luke, either unavailable to him or simply unimportant for his story.

Clearly, Jesus experiences something in the wilderness that is unavailable to us, and he survives with flying colors this period of personal wandering, emulating the wandering of the ones to whom he has been given by God. At the end of the wilderness period, after he has survived this Spirit led sojourn into the jaws of the devil, the devil arrives one final time to take advantage of the vulnerability of Jesus’ humanity.
The devil comes to Jesus and tempts him to forget the perils he has been through in the wilderness, as if to attempt one last-ditch effort to derail the ministry of Jesus. Will Jesus be like the people of God, the ones who came to be delivered through the Reed Sea yet on the other side make a golden calf to worship? Will he buckle under the weight of wilderness exasperation?

Unlike a host of prior biblical characters (many of whom are in the genealogy of Jesus listed in 3.23-38), Jesus passes this test of the devil, quoting scripture in response to temptation and remaining resolute despite his human longings for food. Jesus does not fail this test. He lives into the reality of his baptism and is apparently strengthened by this tribulatory episode. He is now ready to pursue his calling and he doesn’t waste any time causing a stir in the synagogue on the sabbath further in Luke 4.

Whoever this one is who has come out of the wilderness victorious, he is something totally other than any character to yet emerge from the annals of Israel’s history. Of course, Luke wastes no time in identifying Jesus, if not as Christ, someone like Elijah that had been prophesied from the Isaiah Scroll. Jesus emerges from the unforgiving wilderness, surviving the devil, only to be threatened with death by his neighbors. If the devil can’t single-handedly take down Jesus, it seems the characters in the story are eager to pick up where the devil left off. See Luke 4.14-30.

The exegetical issues in this text are many. There is a myriad of ways in which the scholar can move around in the text in order to capture the full scope of what is being communicated in this strange wilderness text, with very few details, and the odd verbatim discussion between diametrically opposed forces: Jesus and the devil.

Admittedly, I read this text and often come away with as many questions as I do answers, yet I always leave this text feeling more comforted. When a season of life tempts me away from who I am, or who I was baptized to be, I read this story and I am reminded of what the writer of Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4.15). Luke 4 demands much of readers, and our imaginations, but it remains a classic example of overcoming temptation in the face of insurmountable need and desperate relief. Despite its brevity, it remains the classic Lenten text of initiation.

But what of these final 3 temptations, the ones that we often consider as happening in the wilderness to Jesus, when in fact these happen after Jesus has exited the wilderness? As if often the case, it seems we survive times of tribulation, and then once the pressure begins to subside, we let our guards down and are defeated by things that have no business defeating us. Why do we do that? We are people that can run 25 miles of the marathon, yet the last mile finds us failing, even with the ribbon in sight. To say it biblically, we can travel the wilderness for years, and remain faithful, and then as we near the promised land we find ourselves getting mad like Moses, succumbing to temptation, and being kept from the Promised Land indefinitely. One of the many morals of Luke 4 is: be like Jesus, not like Moses.

While there is much to be said about the contents of Luke 4,  I want to focus on the progression of these final words of the devil to Jesus. Temptation is rarely linear, or to say it in Lenten perspective, self-reliance is rarely linear, but it can progressively move to higher stakes. First, the temptations Jesus experiences happen because he has already rejected temptation. He already defeated what was trying to drag him down in the wilderness…yet it still hangs around, talking to him after the wilderness period! Would that the wilderness critters stay in the trees rather than follow us home! Jesus is hungry. The text says that “when they had ended…he became hungry…” “They” refer to the days in the wilderness. The wilderness is over, Jesus is emerging, done. Temptation is still near, that stray dog following close behind, brushing up against the heals of Jesus.

The first thing to notice, then, is that these 3 famous temptations come to Jesus only after he has proven himself. He has nothing left to demonstrate, yet it seems something larger was not yet decided in the wilderness. Secondly, we should note that the temptations have a progressive nature to them. Jesus exits the wilderness period hungry, because he had been fasting for 40 days. The devil comes to Jesus at this point of departure first, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus has already gone without food for 40 days, what’s one more afternoon? Jesus replies with the same wisdom he surely used in the wilderness fasting and he quotes Deuteronomy 8.3, a reflection upon the 40 years wandering in the wilderness by Israel, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Jesus being undaunted, having come through much worse, deflects the devil’s stupid suggestion and holds fast to being sustained by God.

Next, the devil raises the stakes. If Jesus cannot be tempted with a primal need, perhaps he can be tempted with a primal urge: power. The devil led Jesus “up” (perhaps suspending him in order to view. The text does not clarify the “up” from which the two looked together) and showed him the kingdoms of the world (political power) and offered him dominion of those powers if Jesus would worship him. Here, Jesus is tempted with power, admiration, and possessions, all things that most humans work their entire lives for! But one who would be led by the Spirit into a vast wilderness and was baptized by one who also lives in the wilderness, has little need for such things. If a hungry Jesus won’t even turn a stone into food (recall that Moses made water come out of one) there is little chance he’ll be enticed with power. The opportunity to worship the devil falls flat in the face of Jesus’ commitment to God, the Lord of Israel.

Finally, in an act of desperation, the devil decides to move away from primal urges and focuses on the last thing Jesus has left: his identity. If Jesus cannot be tempted to feed himself or with power, perhaps he can be tempted to prove he is as good as he thinks he is, perhaps he can be tempted to prove his identity! If the devil cannot tempt Jesus away from his ministry, perhaps he can immobilize Jesus by calling his being into question. Ironically, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem (the very symbol of God’s presence with the people) and gets right to it, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” The devil knew he needed to use scripture against Jesus because Jesus would use it against him, and surprise, Jesus returns the scriptural favor with Deuteronomy 6, “it is said, ‘you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Wilderness period of no avail, final temptations handily dismissed, the text says the devil then leaves Jesus until an opportune time. Jesus has withstood a personal assault by the devil and is now ready to boldly perform his ministry. The result of surviving satanic onslaught is a Jesus of whom the text says returns to “Galilee in the power of the Spirit.” The powerful thing about the wilderness is this: if we can survive…we come out stronger. Jesus survived. The same spirit that descended upon him in baptism was the catalytic power that would animate his ministry.

This wilderness episode is intriguing. It is cataloged in all 3 synoptic Gospels, with Matthew and Luke sharing the most similarity and Mark simply mentioning the event with 1 verse. Under the category of multiple attestation, it would seem that this is an event so thoroughly connected with the historical Jesus that it is highly likely Jesus did in fact receive baptism by John, and then, as if to make pilgrimage with the historical people of God, purposefully went into the wilderness to experience that same journey. The event must have been so well known among the early followers of Jesus that to omit from accounts of his life would have been likely impossible, and it must have been so formative for Jesus, that each Gospel author except John found it impossible to tell their story of Jesus without including it. Such universal inclusion and divine parallelism must indicate that this is an episode in the life of Jesus that should not only be read, but pondered, deliberated, and prayed over regardless of the brevity or absence of wilderness detail. For reasons we can deduct from the text, and also reasons lost in history, the wilderness retreat of Jesus prior to his ministry must have happened and was of necessity.

Let me suggest, however, that this pre-ministerial event in the life of Jesus, and our inaugural Lenten text, gets part of its primary importance because of its ability to re-member the story of God with the world, with his people, with us. One of Luke 4’s theological tasks is to re-member two realities in the life of Jesus, and so to the life of us. First, it puts back together the historical memory of Gods people; it recalls God’s initial saving activity from Egypt. Jesus is a part of that story, a continuation of it, that will find its denouement in Easter. Secondly, it puts back together the memory God has of us, collectively and individually. The temptations themselves are curious and major parts of the story, but it is the re-membering that happens in the wilderness that is of primary importance. Before Jesus can remake history, it must be re-membered by him, in him and through him.

Consequently, this is what Lent does: it re-members for us parts of the story that have been torn asunder, parts of the story that connect God to world, God to people, God to us, our story to Gods, creation’s story to it’s Creator. Our world has forgotten its stories; they are strained and fraying from connections barely visible yet still present. In lent, we re-member them; they come back together in order to remind us who we really are, who God is in Christ, and who we can be when we put those stories back together.
It is this re-membering that Jesus does in the wilderness. The temptations matter because, ultimately, the temptations of the devil are about dis-memberment; the temptations are the devils means of having us forget our story.

First, Jesus literally remembers the Exodus with his body. He experiences the first season of Lent, so to speak. What he did those 40 days is lost, but he did it, rehearsed it, and relived the arid landscape of those who he came to serve. Unlike Moses, he will go into the wilderness AND come out of it, entering the Promised Land of new creation. Thus, Jesus lives into a biblical liturgical calendar in order to place his ministry within the context of God’s call from the land of slavery, death, and futility.

Secondly, and less conspicuously, Jesus re-members his identity in the wilderness. The wilderness was a time of introspection, recollection, rehearsal and through those things a time of re-membering what led him to the river, what happened to him in the river, and where he was being called once emerging from the baptismal waters. This stop in the wilderness was the place Jesus surely found is identity in God, solidified it, and his mission became central. Through fasting in the wilderness, he learned to rely upon God for sustenance and learned to subdue his body. With each passing day, Jesus learned his body was Gods and surely wrestled with all his inner demons that tried to make him doubt his identity and mission. The temptations of the devil at his emergence from the wilderness is the icing on the cake of an already intense time of personal spiritual questing.

The final temptation Jesus faces in Luke, after having already survived parched soil, is the temptation to forget. The devil, not able to move Jesus with primal temptations, tries to get Jesus to forget who he is, even though who he is is precisely what he would have learned in the wilderness for 40 days! Jesus did not become who he wasn’t in the wilderness. The wilderness did not make Jesus Jesus; Jesus was “made” via his sending from above and called out in his baptism. The wilderness was the time of reminding, re-membering his identity in God and identification with God’s people. One could protest that Jesus needed no re-membering at this point in his ministry, that he needed nothing to re-purpose him.

True as that may be, there is nothing that will challenge a person’s faith as fasting from food, true removal from society in order to come face to face with one’s inner demons. When Jesus decided to experience what the people of God experienced, he agreed not only to do what they did, paralleling a Sinai experience, he also agreed to be subject to the same temptations that would have been distant thoughts emerging victoriously through the Reed Sea.

It is easy to be faithful to the God that is destroying our enemies; this God is easily worshiped as Egyptian chariots sink in freshly made mud. It is quite another thing to wander the wilderness for an indefinite period, apparently led there by God, placed there because of God’s victory, but given nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep, and no map for directions. A faithful people can become forgetful quite easily as a simple stroll through the Old Testament will easily attest.

Likewise, we are naive to assume that Jesus, emerging from the waters of redemption like his for-bearers, would not also be tempted in the wilderness on the other side of the water. Jesus did not become someone new in this experience; he became what he already was, God re-membering in Jesus what the human Jesus may have been tempted to forget…but a temptation he needed to experience before serving the children of those recalcitrant people. We hear silent foreshadowing echoed in the words of the Devil, “If you are…the son of God…”

It is in re-membering that we find the temptations of the devil most significant because it is precisely forced forgetting that is the goal of the devil. If you don’t like “devil” language, we can appropriate the Gospel of Matthew and call it “the tempter.” The wilderness is the place we are most likely to be tempted to forget who we are and who we are called to be (has anyone read Numbers lately??!). Ironically these temptations only come to us as people who have already experienced God’s living water of forgiveness/redemption. We cannot be tempted to leave something we have never had in our possession. We cannot be tempted to forget something we have never experienced or never been.

Enter Lent. If there is a time when we will lose our way, it is in the nothingness of nothing while relying on a God we cannot see for sustenance we never knew would be enough.

In other words, if we are going to forget who we are, it is during Lent; ironically, if we are going to find ourselves, it is also in Lent. Lent does not make us something we are not; it re-members what God always holds together in his own memory about us. Re-membering is the process of putting back together what God already knows about us, for us, and calls us to live into. Lent is the process whereby we allow the spirit to re-member in us God’s predestined naming of us.

In the wilderness Jesus re-membered; In Lent, we are called to re-member. The Devil tempts us to forget our names, our identity, our mission as those baptized, forgiven, called. In Lent, God helps us remember our identity in Christ; in Lent we discover our true selves even as we are tempted to forget.

Lent is a time of preparation because if we participate in it to the extent that Israel wandered in the Sinai, and Jesus wandered in the land beyond the Jordan, then we are doing the heavy soul searching that is necessary to come out of the desert alive. Not just anyone can survive the wilderness. The biblical narrative is full of persons, examples, that entered the wilderness never to return. If, however, we place our physical, emotional, and spiritual selves in the hands of the creator, we will discover not only our true self during Lent, but that our true self is never divorced from the identity God gives to us. “Let us make mankind in our image” writes the author of Genesis. God knows and re-members that image; Our identity is grounded in God. In Lent, we are invited to re-member our names.

 

Leaning Into Death: An Alternative Reading of Acts 2.42-47

buddha death

Preaching from Acts 2 this Eastertide, it dawned on me this familiar passage was saying something much simpler, yet more profound, than providing fodder for theological arguments between Pentecostals and, well, every other Christian.

The early portion of this chapter (tongues of fire, upper room, etc.), gets most of the attention in the chapter, and rightly so.  It’s bizarre, unusual, and produces a proclamation that had never happened before.

In Chapter 1, Jesus ascends into heaven and the disciples go to Jerusalem (to the Upper Room) to wait, for something unaware.  Chapter 2 continues the action answering the proverbial, “so what now?  If Jesus isn’t here, what happens and where are we going?”  The tongues of fire episode is the first part of the answer.

But the tongues of fire is the easiest part of the answer.

I mean, who doesn’t like a religious experience?  Plenty of people thrive on experience, feelings, euphoric highs that charge our life.  We have all been witness to the power of religious experience, perhaps even experiencing something religious ourselves.  The two fastest growing segments of Christianity in the world are the two that offer an experience, a doing, with God: Pentecostalism and Catholicism.

Ok, so you’re not religious and don’t like that analogy?  Do you like sex, the experience of sex?  Or is it better to think and talk about sex as opposed to having sex?

Do you enjoy the experience of cheering for your favorite sports team, cheering for your child, experiencing joy?  If you’d rather go to Disney World than talk about it, you prefer experience because participating in something powerful makes you feel.

Thus, we understand how powerful, and preferable, great experiences are.  You don’t have to be religious to appreciate that we humans LOVE to experience FEELINGS.

It is little wonder Acts 2 and an experience of the Holy Spirit gains the traction it does.  Its powerful, it’s refreshing, it’s renewing.

Yet, the early portion of Acts 2 is not the end game.  The end game begins when the experience of the first part of this chapter takes a form of life, a form of life in Acts 2.42-47 that is a daunting reminder/request.

Acts 2.42-47 is a troublesome text that offers a vignette of life in the early church while simultaneously making the rest of us nervous at the consequences.  It reads:

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

There’s just something about the implication that we should fellowship, commit ourselves to the teaching of the apostles, pray, break bread and praise God that seems like too much work.  And lest we get too comfortable, let’s not forget this idea of “holding all things in common and selling our possessions” in order to provide for those who have need that makes us spiritually wriggle and physically convulse.

While this list seems odd to us, it is not uncommon for Luke to give us these summary statements about life in the early church, brief portraitures of how they organized their communal living.  He does so in several places throughout Acts, such as chapters 4, 6 and 9.

In so doing, Luke is not only telling us how the early church lived, but he is gently nudging us to go and do likewise.

The trouble with these summaries, however, is that they are often lifted out of the chapters in which they occur.  These summaries, like Paul’s lists of “dos and don’ts” that keep people out of heaven, are summarily read and rehearsed with little regard to the stories preceding and following them.

While debates about religious experience and the political ideology of Acts 2 are intriguing, I have a different question: Why does this summary occur here, in this part of the Acts 2?  What larger narrative is at work behind this summary?  And why does the Lectionary ask us to read this text at this point in the Easter Season?

The problem with reading Acts chapter 2 is that it is read as two separate texts.  We have a 2.0 and a 2.1 version: a Pentecostal experience and a purview into life in the early church.  We preach an experience OR we preach a political obligation.  Rarely do we seek the coherence of this chapter.

Simply put, Acts 2.42-47 is impossible apart from Pentecost.  This is a way of life that cannot be lived apart from the Spirit.  The episodes of this chapter are episodes but they must remain a singular chapter, parts of a larger whole.  But let’s not stop there.

Acts 2.42-47 cannot happen apart from the Resurrection in Luke!  The Resurrection of Jesus in Luke, the Ascension of Jesus in Acts 1, and the Giving of the Spirit in Acts 2 are three stages of a singular event in which Jesus is glorified and given back to creation.

If Christ be not raised, then living in the kind of community discussed in Acts 2 is laughable.  If Christ be not ascended, then there is no giving of his presence to the Church.  If there is no giving of the Spirit, there are no tongues of fire, no empowered proclamation, and no Church.

Therefore Acts 2 is part of our Easter readings.  At first blush, one would surmise we should read Acts 2 during the season of Pentecost, but if we understand this larger movement we see that Acts 2 is not describing a Pentecostal community; it is describing an Easter community empowered through Pentecost.

It is because Jesus is raised, and the end of time marked by the outpouring of the Spirit, that those who believe on Jesus are compelled to live a life in which they sell their things, hold all things in common, break bread together, worship, and commit themselves to the apostles teaching.

Easter has empowered this early group of believers to not hold so tightly to life and empowered them to grasp more tightly to one another.

In a world without Easter, we cling to our life.  In a world with Easter, we grasp our death, and through death find life.

The early church knew how to grasp their death.  They understood it to such a degree that they lived their life toward death, leaning into it.  They leaned into to such a degree that they held loosely to all that was theirs and committed themselves to one another, anticipating that the end that had started in the Resurrection of Jesus, and been confirmed in the giving of the Holy Spirit, would overtake them all soon.

The early church took Joel 2.28 seriously,

“After this I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity; then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will have dreams, and your young men will see visions.”

Here is the kicker: only people who are convinced that in Jesus’ Resurrection the end has begun can live according to Acts 2.42-47.  Only people who have received tongues of fire to proclaim the ridiculous message that Jesus is raised and that we can share in his resurrection can live as Acts suggests.

Moving one step further, people who believe this, and have experienced the outpouring of the Spirit, can do no other than live as Acts 2 suggests because they understand they are living toward death, living toward the end that is God.  People who know the end is near have no time to be consumed with grasping to a life they will lose so they lose the life they have.  The Apostle Paul insinuated something similar when he proclaims, “I am crucified with Christ.”

In the debate between paradox or dialectic, in this instance, we side with paradox.

One may believe this end will come in the clouds with Christ, or believe it comes at the time of our own death, either way, we must lean in toward the end.  This is what the early church does and why Acts 2.42-47 is odd; it’s a way of life that doesn’t grasp life.

I call this a hermeneutic of loss, a hermeneutic grounded in the death of Jesus and the loss of the world.

As such, Acts 2.42-47 really functions as more of a reminder of what matters than a dictum to be followed.  The texts job isn’t to exacerbate our failings, but to remind us that this is how people live who live toward the end: People who believe the end is now in the Resurrection, Ascension and Coming Holy Spirit of Christ.  When we forget life is found in death, we live life for life-sake and when death comes we wish we’d lived toward death, because we will regret living as if the end wouldn’t happen.

But this reading shouldn’t come a surprise.

I have never known a hermeneutic of loss, or read scripture as texts toward death, until I lost my own father nearly 12 weeks ago.  After suddenly losing him, scripture has just as suddenly become a new land.  I see in it things hidden before; I feel in it things I never knew to feel.  Eerily, parts scripture make more sense now because it too was born out of a series of traumas that led to life in/through loss.

After my father’s death, all I wanted to do was do these things in Acts 2 with him.  I wanted to sit in his Sunday School class one more time, hearing the apostles teaching.  I wanted to eat with him again, break bread.  I wanted to fellowship more, visit his house after work.  I wanted to pray for him, with him, share in the simple pleasure of hearing him pray one more time before dinner.  I wanted to be thankful more, enjoy life more, not let the trivial things of life irritate me when I was around him.

When he died, he left behind all the things he loved and enjoyed.  His family, his hobbies, his business: it is all still here.  Yet, my father lived as one who never held too tightly to these things.  He left them behind, he knew he would, so he spent his days doing as much of Acts 2 as he could.  If you knew him, you lived Acts 2 with him as well.

Acts 2 reminds us that at the end of our days, either at the appearance of Christ in the Clouds, or in the face of death when it comes for us, we will not regret anything except that we had lived more like the picture given to us in Acts 2.42-47.

My suggestion?

Discover the resurrection of Jesus.  Discover death.  Lean into it.  Find life.  Find Freedom.

Death asks Questions. Ecclesiastes Answers.

ecclesiastes whats the point

Sudden, premature, Death is the great equalizer.   Both for those who die and those they leave behind.

For those who die, suddenly, everything they were, or weren’t, did, or didn’t do, is finished.  Their dreams, their opinions, their loves, their hates, their things and their family, all stay behind.  The prince and the pauper meet the same fate.  None is greater than the other and the earth swallows both. 

For those who live, suddenly, everything that meant something now means less.  The world stops.  Priorities change.  Things that didn’t mean so much, like small conversations, hugs, “I appreciate yous” or the game of golf you skipped for work…now take precedent over work, money, or any problem you thought mattered before your loved one passed away. 

Death makes us all equal and it equalizes all things.  It crudely displays the valueless nature of our system of values and the value of things we once took for granted.

Here, at the arrival of my father’s death, two main questions began to emerge. 

First, how can something this unjust happen to someone who didn’t deserve this fate now, given all the work he still had to do?  How can I process such an unjust death?  It simply isn’t just and there are no theological jumping jacks that can make it so. 

My dad had no vices, relatively healthy, in good shape, and no medical history of cardiac issues.  The very thing we never thought would kill him did, while people who abuse their bodies, cannot move due to obesity, and are walking diabetic laboratories get more time on earth. 

My father’s death is a miscarriage of cosmic justice.

Some people say it’s because God has timing that we can’t understand.  I heard this from many folks during the weeks following his death.

Me?  I call that stupid.  If it sounds stupid when you say it, it probably is. 

God had nothing to do with my dad dying.  He was human and had an unfortunate internal chemistry that led to a tragic event.  These other people that are alive and shouldn’t be?  These walking diabetic laboratories or people who have abused their bodies with vices for decades…these people?  They are just lucky.  Somehow, I don’t think God kills the good ones and leaves the negligent ones as if to reward their abuse of creation. 

And if God does do that?  Well, when I get to the pearly gates I’ll say “thanks but no thanks” because I couldn’t stand to be around a being that capricious for eternity.  When Ecclesiastes tells us that it rains on the just and the unjust that is simply what it is.  There is no reason for it.  Its life, even in a world created by God.

The second question I asked, however, was concerning meaning.  It is almost laughable how death turned me back toward those foundational questions of religion and philosophy: What is the meaning of life and what is my role in it?  Furthermore, how do I know my answer to these questions is true once given?

Before my dad passed, I thought I knew the meaning of life; I thought I could give someone a satisfactory answer to the question if they’d asked.  Afterward…immediately afterward?  I was left without a good answer.  What meaning is there?  Where is meaning to be found if in an instant death can rupture creation and render all meaning endowed with life meaningless?  We give the world meaning by what we invest in and love, yet all our investment and love can come to an abrupt end without warning!  In an instant, the meaning maker that is the human being can be made meaningless.

Through my father’s death I came face to face with the meaninglessness of meaning.  When he died, suddenly, the meaning I had endowed with work and the problems at work were whisked away. The meaning I had ascribed to my education, my fitness, my calling, my professional life, etc., all mattered no more than a pile of manure.  Human resource problems, customer complaints, goals for the new year, my to do list for the week, papers I wanted to write, pursuing my Doctorate of Ministry, reading any books, caring about ministry, having fun, etc., etc., it all disappeared and didn’t matter. 

Everything that I thought meant something…now, meant nothing, thus leaving me to ask, “Did it all mean anything to begin with then?”

I know, I know, some people will say this is grief, depression, the low water mark of dealing with loss.  To an extent, I agree. 

However, as I have now had nearly 8 weeks to contemplate the sudden death of my father, I have come to realize that it is not simply his sudden departure that makes me feel this way.  It’s not that my melancholy leads me to these conclusions.  Rather, it is the revelation that just as he died, so could I, and without notice, and in that moment, all the things I am doing become meaningless.  All my cares, worries, , loves and accomplishments can be just as suddenly buried…and within months or years my family will move on without me…living.  Within days, most of the general public will no longer care I am dead.  

To pass away is to be dead to the world, our terminal condition revealed for what it is.

This is what death is: it is the cessation of existence in time, the loss of consciousness, the death of what makes us an “I.”  To echo Robert Jenson here, to think otherwise is to cheat and think death as not death…in which case it isn’t really death we’re thinking and I’m not sure what we are thinking about death if we don’t truly think of it as being dead.

This is what makes the ant hill of human civilization and society meaningless: that all our striving and loving all ends the same and could do so without a warning. 

How does one get excited about anything knowing this Grim Reaper lingers so close, even closer than those of us in our youth care to imagine?  How can one invest time reading complex theory or engaging in banal political or theological discourse knowing that none of that can change the place we are all going?  How can we be stupidly consumed with sports and entertainment when it all mounts to nothing more than a distraction of our pending death?  It’s as if we are simply wasting our time to simply pass the time until it is our time.

As I have pondered both these questions (the injustice of my father’s death and the meaninglessness of life), I have found myself in Ecclesiastes.  Like the Psalter, prior to my father’s passing, Ecclesiastes was a book to be studied, something to be understood with the mind, not felt with the heart.  I could ascend to what the author says by simply knowing what the words and phrases meant…yet after this tragedy I now realize I didn’t know then what I know now.  Now, I get it. 

Myself and the Preacher are blood brothers. 

We all know the famous phrase the Preacher uses, “Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity.”  The message is simple:  one day we will die and all our toil is for naught.  Everything turns out to be as a vapor, here for a moment, and then gone.  Human life is no exception. 

There is no better time to read Ecclesiastes than after a tragic loss because the Preacher is saying what many of us our thinking, and thankfully, his piety doesn’t keep him from saying it or our forefathers from making it Scripture.  

Thus, as I revisited him I began to know for the first time what he was saying and I began asking him, “Then why do anything?  If all is vanity, why act at all?”

Then, I came to chapter 9.  He paints us this bleak picture:

For I have taken all this to my heart and explain it that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Man does not know whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him.2 It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead. 4 For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. 6 Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun.”

In this passage, the preacher and I are speaking the same language.  I get it.  This makes complete sense.  In the face of complete hopelessness there is simply more hopelessness, especially with death the fate of all, the fate of the one who tries their hardest and for the biggest slacker on the planet.  For the Holy man and the indulgent sinner.

What I find most amusing is that one of the most famous passage in Ecclesiastes, the kind of verse that make its way on desk ornamentations and in Pathway Bookstore pictures, Ecclesiastes 9:10, isn’t near as cute as it seems.  In an apparent betrayal of how it is used, however, we find the answer to complete meaninglessness and vanity.

9.10 reads, “Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might.”  This is usually where the verse stops and we like to use it as encouragement to do our best for God, you know, gird up that Protestant work ethic and work hard.  If God wants anything, it’s a hard worker.

In fact, when I had shared about how sudden death had made life purposeless and meaningless, I was told by one person, “well, that’s one way to look at it.  The other way is to see that life is given meaning by doing everything for God.”  I get it.  I understand the sentiment and why you need to tell yourself that…but that didn’t suffice for me.  It didn’t sit well with the Preacher of Ecclesiastes either.  I needed an earthier answer. 

Why should you do with all your might everything your hands find to do?

 The answer is in the second half of 9.10, “for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.” 

No wonder the whole verse isn’t sold at Pathway.  Verses 11-12 further impress the message:

I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all. 12 Moreover, man does not know his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net and birds trapped in a snare, so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil time when it suddenly falls on them.

When read in context, the flowery passage of doing with all your might what your hands find has a very dark connotation: You will one day die and then you can do nothing.  Further, even if you do heed the advice of 9.10 it really doesn’t matter, for the battle does not always go to the one who does it with all their might.  Life is fleeting.  Random evils overtake us all.  Use your hands while they can be used because your righteous life will end just an evil life.

My father did not know he was going to die.  I suspect he never knew what happened to him.  When he stood before God he was probably as shocked as anyone to find himself there.  He was hit so quickly by an unknown force he could do nothing to stop it.  Like Ecclesiastes says, “Man does not know his time…time and chance overtake them all.” 

The night my father died he was that fish caught in a net, unsuspecting, yet still caught.  Living life, swimming, yet death was lurking in the shadows.

Where is meaning in this?  Why care?  Why go on?  Why learn, why act, why be, when Ecclesiastes (and life itself!) teaches us that righteous men and evil men have the same fate…and the just are done unjustly while the unjust are dealt justice?

Why?  Ecclesiastes answers: Because to not live, to not do with all your might what your hands finds to do, is to already be dead.  We are alive.  We are creatures.  We must do with our bodies the most that we can because one day our bodies will do nothing.  We should live because we are alive.  There is plenty of time to do nothing when we are dead. 

Our doing is our protest against death.

Yes, we are stuck in a universe that is random.  We are blips on the universal screen, here only momentarily, yet we are here.  We are alive.  We are not uncreated but God thought it worthwhile to create even if every created thing also has a created end.  For only something alive can “fear God and keep his commandments.” (12.13)

Scripture says that death is the final foe; it is not a friend.  It is not something we should run toward but should deny as long as possible by engaging in life vigorously and unabashedly. 

I know many of us look for grandiose answers to our simple questions, but sometimes, the answer is just as simple: Live now for when you are dead there will be no activity.  Embrace life while you can embrace it.

There is no feeling like suddenly losing a loved one without any preparation.  It is a special kind of hell.  I never understood how a tragic event can suddenly render the world obsolete until now.

Ironically, however, in losing one world I have gained another.  I have been given a new love for my family.  I deeply hurt over the loss of my dad and I hate that he is not here.  I literally hate it.  I still go back and forth between acceptance and denial.  Waves of grief still hit when I think of all he’ll miss, of moments when I want to talk to him, of time I wish I had been a better son.  I hate that I did not get to say goodbye. 

But now, I cherish my family more.  I hug them more.  I kiss my kid’s goodnight more often (even though a couple are 11).  I let my 2-year-old girl drag me around the house and play silly games that I really don’t have time to play because I really don’t have the time to not play with her.  I am more kind to people.  For the few men in my life that are my best friends, we tell one another we love each more frequently.  I am not as angry and frustrated with work as I had been before his death even though work has now become more daunting.  I am reprioritizing my life around what I value the most when all values lose value.  I am making an effort to be more loving, more empathetic, more understanding.  With the help of God, I am trying to be an incarnation of love to those around me and I am trying to give myself to others, my friends and my family, because one day I will be dead.  I am trying to live as if tomorrow will not happen…and if it doesn’t I want to leave it all on the field, so to speak.

I am trying to do with all my might what my hands find to do because that is all I can do as a creature and as one that with each moment alive must tell death, “not yet.”

 

 

 

Gutless Grieving: Taking Lamentations Seriously

lamentations

Today, I have been fatherless for one month. 

 

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine my father dying of heart attack (no family history of them), suddenly leaving us without any opportunity to say “goodbye,” speak final words of love or simply say “thank you” for being a great father, a wonderful granddad to my kids. 

Just as I did not choose my father at birth, and I could not speak to him as the newborn he held, so he left this world with me unable to look him in the eye, hug him, and tell him I love him.  In birth, and in death, I had no choices with him.

 

His life was jerked out of ours without warning leaving a new, albeit strangely desolate creation, in its place. 

 

Being unprepared for his departure, I immediately felt a range of emotions which vacillated between anger, sorrow, disbelief, and regret to name a few.  I have felt things in my core I didn’t know was humanly possible and my entire body has ached from the loss, intellect being united with emotion and biology.  I have moaned, and wept, and shouted.  I have sat at my father’s desk, in his chair, and held my heart in my hands.  

 

Even a month after his death, standing in my mom’s kitchen Saturday night, I broke down as if it was February 27 all over again. 

 

I have entered lament.  Not by choice or by desire, but by accidental necessity.

 

For comfort, I turned to my faith.  I didn’t turn, however, to the book of Revelation that promises “streets of gold” or the Letters of Paul that reminds us “to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord.”  I didn’t turn there first because to do so is to not understand that death is death…and I am experiencing death.  When we skip to some “ever after” we neglect the reality that death is a cessation of brain activity and consciousness.  To be dead is to enter a state wherein the faculties that give us life have left us, hence, we are dead.  These faculties are not carried with us into some undead state; they die with us and what happens after that is up to God.

 

I am living death, sudden death, and to think death as “not really death” is a cop out. 

 

So I turned to the places where God’s people are honest: Pslams and Lamentations.

 

 I turned here because I knew in these books the people of God didn’t gloss over their anger, hurt, destruction, loss, or fear with promises of a better eternity.  In these pages, people are honest and they say things “good Christians” aren’t supposed to say. 

 

Can it get any more real than Lamentations 4.10?  “The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children; they became food for them because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.” 

 

Sure, the Lamenter blames this on the wrath induced disobedience of Zion, but does that really solve the problem that God almighty, who had power to stop this, allowed it to happen to teach his people a lesson?  God would rather his children cannibalize their children to teach them a moral lesson?  Really?

 

So we find honestly horrific things in Lamentations, confessions that became Inspired Scripture and were kept in our Bibles for a reason.

 

In turning to Psalms and Lamentations, however, I discovered that until I had felt loss to the core of my being, displacement from my world, a rupture of God’s goodness to me, that I had never understood the Psalter or Lamentations.  They didn’t read or sound the same after my father’s passing.  I was no longer reading them as an academic or a preacher that needed a sermon; I was reading them as one that felt their words.

 

The Psalms and Lamentations weren’t, and are not, simply informing me; They are praying for me when I am speechless.  They are speaking on my behalf the admixture of anger, complaint and praise that often live uncomfortably together. 

 

They allow me to be honest with God and myself…and they allow me to see death for what it is: death.

 

Only when we realize what deep crap we are in can we really lament as scripture does.  Seeing death as a not death cheapens tragedy and it cheapens the part of our Bibles when God’s people could do no other but sit on the earth under the covering of sackcloth and heap the ashes they would eventually become on their heads.  Their tears being consumed by the dust.

 

If we really think it’s going to turn out “ok” on the other side, then why even lament?  It’s just stupid and a waste of energy.  Lament comes from a place that is deeply human as we react to something that isn’t “ok,” that has taken creation and uncreated it. 

 

Until we have experienced uncreation we probably have no idea what it means to lament because the lament is not something we choose.  It chooses us.  

 

Therefore, many people refrain from seeing the honesty in the Psalter and perhaps ignore Lamentations and Ecclesiastes altogether.  Many simply cannot relate to the horror of its confessions.  Many people are raised to deny their human reactions and never question God.  They are taught to think God has a plan and every event of our lives is part of that plan; who are we to question the plan?  They are taught that while their salvation may not be predestined, their lives certainly are.

 

If I have heard it once this past month, I have heard it a thousand times, “we can’t understand God’s way.” 

 

This line of thinking is absurd because it implies that God’s ways are nonsense (or at least above our sense which is the same thing since sense is a human idea to begin with) and if I know anything about God it is that God is not in the business of nonsense.  The very bible we quote begins with a book called Genesis in which creation is the goal.  God is not an uncreative God.  You cannot call uncreation creation any more than you can call sin virtue.  To think that what we call bad, God calls good, or vice versa, is to enter the same complaint of St. Augustine “how then can we know anything of God at all if what is good is not good and what is bad is not bad?”  It renders our speech meaningless.

 

Such a faith doesn’t make any sense and I wonder why we open our mouths at all if that is the case.

 

Lamentations and the Psalter, however, do not fall into this trap.  They are expressive.  They are honest.  They pray deep groanings of the human spirit and they do so with the authority of inspiration.  They also authorize us to speak to God similarly.  We do not have to gloss our feelings or dismiss our hurt; a being by the very name “God” has the capacity to hear whatever we say and not feel threatened by such “impiety.” 

 

In a time in which I never knew I would need scripture to be so honest, Lamentations and the Psalter have been my comfort even as they rehearse my pain.  

 

I confess, however, the sudden loss of my father most likely is nothing compared to a foreign army killing my relatives, razing my home, raping my daughter and forcing my wife to boil our children out of hunger.  That is a level of hell I never want to experience…but in describing that hell the Lamentations have given me liberty to live in the one in which I find myself. 

 

In the process, it has taught me that some of us will  never find grief as the Lamenter.  Our losses will be normal.  We will say goodbye to loved ones in appropriate ways, we will leave behind homes via our choosing, our families will never be impacted by suicide, rape, murder, or the sudden death of a father, mother, child, we only just had lunch with. 

 

Some of us will never deal with these things…and perhaps, never need Lamentations. 

 

But for those of us who have felt our lives jerked out of our lives, our lives ruptured instantly and our bodies wanting to bend over and hurl uncontrollably…the good news of Lamentations is that you are not alone.  God has given us the prayers to speak the unspeakable, to carry our sorrow, to embody our grief.

 

God does not expect us to pretend death isn’t death and tragedy isn’t tragedy.  We are not doomed to gutless grieving, a grief that isn’t really a grief.  Rather, we are taught through scripture that there are moments in our lives when praise and thanks take a back seat to anger, complaint and lament. 

 

And that is ok…because when all we can do is lament at least we are still being honest with God.  And that is still a form of worship.

 

My Fathers Sermon on Peace

 

Dad and Leon

Two weeks ago, Feb 26th, was my father’s last Sunday alive.  In usual fashion, he found himself at church around 9:30am preparing to teach Sunday School.  I did not attend his Sunday School class that morning.  I missed his last lesson.  In retrospect, I wish I had not worked so much on the weekends, long Saturdays, and had had more strength to wake up and drag my troop to church for Sunday School regularly.  I’d have liked to sat in on a few more of his lessons, asked a few more questions, and sat more readily at the feet of the singularly most important man in my life. 

Today, is Sunday, March 12, 2017.  My father would have turned 66 in August, he just celebrated 38 years with my mother.  He was just at my daughters 2 year old Birthday party two weeks ago and tomorrow is my 36th birthday.  The first one I will spend without my father writing me a card, telling me he loves, wishing me a happy birthday.  I am not much worried about memorializing my birth this year.  In tribute to what my father did each Sunday, and would be doing today if he were here, I share with all of you a rare thing: One of his sermons.  He preached a handful of times and this is one of them.  It is on a topic he held dear to him: inner peace.

Below is a typed copy of the 4 page handwritten manuscript of my father’s sermon on peace. 

Peace was a central gospel theme for him: peace through trust in God, peace through salvation by faith, peace by knowing it is well with your soul, peace and harmony in relationship to one another as indicative of our love for God.  A Gospel absent the peace of God in Christ is no Gospel.  My father longed for, and lived, with peace and harmony with everyone.  I cannot recall a single person he ever spoke ill of or held in contempt.  Even if he was wronged, he may acknowledge the shadiness of the person but he would never gossip or speak ill publicly of them.  He wanted peace.  He had peace.  And he had it because he believed in God. 

My prayer this morning, is the prayer of Thomas: Lord, help me be like my father, help my disbelief.  In so doing, give me, and those around me, nothing more, or less, than peace.      

“Peace”   by Mitch Napier

Read John 16:33 : “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

Is there a secret to inner peace?  When you think about peace, what do you think the average person thinks about?  I believe they think of peace among nations on a global scale, generally speaking.  I believe people may also think about peace at home, at work.

One thing that seems definite is that after trouble more trouble follows.  (this is why inner peace is the key.  If we can attain inner peace all others would fall in HIM.  When peace does not abound, trouble is present).  Let’s reflect on the past for examples: WW 1, Depression, WW 2, Korean Conflict, Vietnam War, escalating fuel prices, unemployment on the rise, crime on the increase, the bible taken out of schools, Gulf War, Bosnian conflict, Abortion, and most recently 9/11 and the war on terrorism – and it goes on.  Look in your local paper daily, read about the troubles, again it only seems the thing we can count on is trouble after trouble. 

Yet the thing that keeps us going is the personal Quest for inner peace.  Someone writes a book about inner peace and people flock to it.  A man stands up and says he found the secret to peace, people flock to him.  People have a hunger for peace.  There is no natural peace that comes automatically after the storm has been weathered. 

Have you ever found something that in your heart when it was over you knew everything would be alright?  I have.  I was unemployed [with a family to take care of] for 10 months.  If only I could have found a job everything would be alright.  I got the job to late and lost the house.  If I only got that promotion…yet then would follow more debt.  If I get through this illness, then we have  medical bills.

An example of another family’s situation was Jane Welsh Carlisle, who was working on the 1st volume of the French Revolution.  During his writing, the tension and stress was great in his home (you ever experienced this?)  Finally, the manuscript was finished.  At last he had peace.  He turned it over to John Stewart Mill to read.  A few days passed and John Mill showed up at the Carlisle home with a nightmarish expression on his face.  Jane thought the worst and asked what was wrong.  Mr. Mill stated his maid accidentally burned the manuscript.  Trouble.

But Jesus said in the world you’ll have tribulation.

You see, trouble comes to mankind in all forms due to our freedom and sinfulness.  Most people look to the world and world leaders for peace.  It’s always someone else who can make it better!  But the truth is, we must start at home, with ourselves. 

There is a story about a family in California that put their house up for sale.  They wanted a better neighborhood, better neighbors, more room, a house with no trouble.  So they listed it with an agent.  Several weeks later they were going through a real estate guide looking for a home.  They finally came to a consensus on a home that sounded perfect!  They immediately called before someone else purchased it.  To their amazement, the home they thought sounded perfect was their own home.

Some will say peace is in nature, look at your surroundings and the animals.  Some peace may be in achievement.  Peace can be found through psychology: lack of love, trust, selfishness, etc., as obstacles.  But sooner or later we find that peace does not come by any rational process!  Paul said the peace of God passeth all understanding.  Peace sought for through the world is always temporary!  That promotion, the accomplishments we make, a new car, anew house, a new dress suit—BUT all these are temporary for sooner or later trouble is back and we are searching again! 

Peace comes to us by meeting certain conditions!

1.       We must have faith in God.  Without seeing we must believe on Jesus that he was sent by the Father and died for our sins on the cross and arose the Third Day victorious over sin!!  He overcame the world! & defeated sin!

2.       We must worship God.  Through daily living we let the trouble and trials of the world affect and irritate us!  That’s why worship is so important.  When we truly worship God our focus is on God and his Kingdom, on being a servant not being served.  Then, and only then, can God meet our inner needs!  Worship is vital to a peaceful existence!  We stop controlling things and allow God to control us!  Worship is the whole that includes the all!!

3.      We must be in Gods will.  Only by being in his will is their peace.  This is the most difficult – discerning his will for our life.  But I believe God reveals his will to each of us by his indwelling Spirit- for if we have accepted salvation (and the free gift of God) he dwells within us and directs us.  Does this mean we no longer make a wrong decision?  No- Jesus knows our weaknesses and will direct his spirit to lead and make correction to our deficiencies. We must be willing to listen and obey and grow.

If we do all this we truly are servants and Jesus promised in him we would have peace for he has overcome the world!!  What Jesus has promised he will deliver – we must believe and exercise our faith to have the peace that only Jesus gives! 

Inner peace comes as a result of obeying Christs greatest commandment that we love one another.  When we obey that commandment we are following his will and in his will is power!!

Do you want that peace?  Are your troubles weighing you down?  My troubles were Food Lion.  I wanted peace back.  I called upon Jesus to carry my burden and I claimed his promises that in him I’d have peace because he overcame the world!!  Hallelujah!! 

Jesus is calling on you.  If you have a need, if you need the peace that surpasseth all understanding, please come and let Jesus meet that need!!

*Sing Just as I Am!  But without one plea but that they blood was shed for me.

I Don’t Believe in Jesus

Magellan

This is the newest rage…and by people far less intelligent than Magellan.  (FTR, I support Magellan, Galileo and Copernicus)

Just go onto any social media outlet and you’ll find people clanging the cymbals of disbelief.  And not just disbelief in general (for which there may be justifiable cause) but disbelief in Jesus, his actual historical existence.  Magellan disagreed for sound reason.  Today, people disagree because they don’t WANT to agree…baseless disagreement and decisions abound.

Pseudo-intellectuals that want to sound smart and flex their post-modernism resound uniformly, “I Don’t believe in Jesus.”

Like this is the new popular belief that all the cool kid’s hold…cool kids who are not experts in history, Jesus or modes of belief…hell, people who hardly read a book or if they do its Richard Dawkins lite.

This very phrase was actually used in a recent conversation I had with someone that should know better.

After I spoke about my very historical trip to the Middle East and some of the reasons for going, out of nowhere this phrase comes flying in, as if from a resident twitter atheist, “I Don’t Believe in Jesus.”

I mean, what does that even mean?  What are you expressing when you say that?  Cause when I hear that, without any kind of qualification, I immediately ask myself, “which part of Jesus do you not believe in?”

And then things become drowned in the absurd.  The illogical leap is made from the presumed, “I don’t believe in the Divinity of Jesus,” (which I understand and am willing to discuss) and quickly devolve into the “I don’t believe he EVEN EXISTED?”

Seriously?

In our collective attempt to sound enlightened or flex our autonomy from the strictures of the Bible belt, let’s not look stupid.  We can be critical thinkers without being idiots.

Let’s be clear: those that deny that Jesus even existed are on shakier ground than those that believe all the dogma about Jesus ever contrived.  There is simply no warrant for disbelief in the historical personage of Jesus other than the ideological preference for his non-existence (and thus not having to deal with his historicity…I digress).

Like anything else, if we hear others say it, and we tell it to ourselves, we can eventually believe the most ridiculous things…things like saying Jesus wasn’t even born.  That he never walked the earth.  And that all the people who heard stories and read stories of this figment of our imagination were equally duped into retelling them.

Now, we can debate the nature OF his birth.  We can debate the PURPOSE of his life.  We can discuss his ROLE in the historical plane of the 1st century.  We can even debate his HUMANITY and its relation to God, but we cannot debate that he was born, had a purpose (we all do), had a role and he was a human that made sense of his life within the drama of God (if you don’t think about your life like that fine, but most 1st century Jews did…this part is called history for those of you wanting to make historical statements about Jesus not ever setting foot in history).

So how do we know?  What are our sources?

First, there is the Bible.  I know I know.  The Bible.  It’s a book ridden with fairy tales, myths and absurdities.  I agree.  It is.  But so is your life and mine.  Deal with it.

We cannot discount the Bible based on the logic that all literature therein is of a singular type.  The Bible is NOT A BOOK.  It is a compilation of many books.  Think of it as an anthology.  As such, it is comprised of many TYPES and KINDS of literature.  Some of this literature is poetic.  Some is mythological.  Some is historical.  Some is hyperbolic.  Some is biographical.  Some is personal, like letters.  Some is apocalyptic, etc.  Therefore, we cannot reduce the content of one type of writing in one part of the anthology because writing in other parts includes things like talking asses and floating ax heads, stories shaded as much by theological intent as by the event itself.   This means that the literary character of  Genesis 1-11 or parts of the loosely historical books can logically discount the content of the Gospels.

The Gospels are our primary source for information about Jesus especially that he existed.  The literary type that is the Gospels was basically brand new in the 1st century but its closest of literary ken was Greco-Roman Biographies.  These biographies included three elements usually: a birth narrative, a life with work and pivotal moments of significance and a narrative of death.  Greek biographies were not synonymous with “lies” or “myths.”  They addressed real historical people and attempted (with some literary freedom) to interpret that life for their audience.  T

This literary genre was in no way synonymous with what we today know as fiction.  Thus, the nature of the Gospels as writings indicate that the kernel with which they deal is real and historical and this not even mentioning the striking historical accuracy of geography and Jewish custom found in the Gospels.  In addition, there is diversity of witness about Jesus in the Gospels, yet in this diversity is a singularity of a historical personality: Jesus of Nazareth.

Further, there is an entire field of research that deals with issues pertaining to the “historical Jesus” and scholars that participate in that endeavor range from fervent believers in his divinity to fervent detractors of anything about Jesus that has to do with “saving” the world.

Yet, what they all agree on is that Jesus did EXIST and the Gospels offer us clues to the more or less accurate details of the life of Jesus.  The literature here is too dense to describe here in detail, but if you are so inclined a quick googleing of “historical Jesus” will bring up enough sources to remain occupied for a lifetime.  There you will find the criteria for why parts of the gospels may be more or less historical, how that criteria is judged, and the implications of this research.  I recommend, for a juxtaposed study, to begin with Dominic Cross and John Meier.  They disagree on everything, but they both believe as historians that Jesus existed.  One believes Jesus was resurrected; the other thinks he bodied decayed like all bodies but he lives on metaphorically in Christians…so you get the drift.

Secondly, we have the Apostle Paul.  I know I know.  He wrote the “Bible” so that makes his letters a bunch of lies and myths.  Humor me for a minute.  He didn’t write the Bible.  He wrote letters that came to comprise large portions of the New Testament.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we have the earliest extant Christian reference to the last supper.  Paul writes,

“ For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread;  and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”  In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”

This is important because Paul is writing about an event that presumably took place, historically, and the events of that night were passed on through oral tradition.  The Gospels have not been written yet when Paul writes this.  Paul says this in a letter.  Paul’s Letters, while theological, were not fictitious rehearsals of history.  We can debate Paul, his theology and anything else you want, but what cannot be debated is that Paul in a very personal letter to a real historical church mentions an event that was remembered to have happened with Jesus and his disciples even before that event was recorded in any Gospel.  Oral history does not equal fiction.  While this passage obviously carries some Christian dogma, the kernel of the event remains tucked inside.

This passage alone, and its authentically Pauline character, gives reason for most scholars to say that the Last Supper, along with Jesus’ Baptism and death, are THE three most historical moments in the life of Jesus that can be explored by the unbiased critical historian.

Secondly, we have extra-biblical sources that testify to his existence.

The most notable source is Josephus, a Jewish historian during the time of Jesus’ life that kept history for the Romans, traveled with their armies, and who never believed on Jesus or his teachings.  Josephus writes this,

“About this time arose Jesus, a wise man. He drew to himself many; and when Pilate, on the indictment of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at the first did not cease to do so, and even to this day the race of Christians, who are named from him, has not died out.” (Antiquities 18.63-64)

This is a reconstructed passage that takes out agreed upon Christian interpolations of Josephus’ writings.  In fact, there has been a lot of ink and keyboards spilled on scholarly opinion regarding Josephus’ statement about Jesus but the central idea that Jesus lived, was killed and had followers, is virtually agreed upon by all scholars as authentically Josephus.

Josephus has no reason to play into the make believe fantasies of Christians.  He has no reason to reinforce the idea that Jesus lived.  While his writings are not free of historical error, he is widely held as an authoritative voice in Roman history and his work, especially writings free of ideological content as the above.  Josephus, at this point in his work, simply mentions “Jesus” as one who was also killed by the Roman empire at this time and that people who followed him are still called Christians.

That is history.  That is an event of some kind.  That is a real historical person whether you like it or not.

Josephus, however, is not the only extra-biblical source that confirms that Jesus existed.  Roman historian and Senator, Tacitus, also mentions Jesus aka “Christ” in his writing.

He notes

“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”  (Annals Book 15).

Tacitus was not alive during the time of Jesus (Born in 55AD) but he was also not known for perpetuating falsehoods.  As a Roman historian and Senator he would have taken his work seriously and would have only recorded what he knew was of definitive importance and accurate.  Tacitus’ mention of Jesus, or his posthumous personage “Christ”, demonstrates the existence of one Jesus and his followers.

I could continue to offer other Roman authorities or very early Christian sources that would also continue to provide these historical centralities: that Jesus was born, lived, was killed by the Roman Empire and continues to have followers.  Time would fail me and this blog would bore you more than it has already.

We can say many things about Jesus.  We can debate a lot about him.  We can disagree on his nature or if Christianity is a total waste of time.  But what cannot be debated is that Jesus was a real person.  He lived.  He existed.  He taught people.  And he was executed.  Just because you don’t want to follow him doesn’t mean you should make yourself look foolish by denying his existence.  The former can be a respectable choice; the latter, a childish outburst to deal with your daddy issues.

You don’t have to believe what the church says about him but church dogma and historical existence are two different things.

So when you say, “I don’t believe in Jesus, “ at least think about which Jesus you don’t believe in because the historical Jesus is one that you disbelieve at your own discretion and at the display of your own ignorance.

Heaven Doesn’t Matter

Yellow (gold) Brick Road, heaven doesn't have one of these, but I'm sure you'll need the high heels to dress for the occassion

Yellow (gold) Brick Road, heaven doesn’t have one of these, but I’m sure you’ll need the high heels to dress for the occassion

I mean who does care about heaven?

We care so much about heaven we speak of it as often as we speak about hell. (see my previous post Why the Hell does Hell Matter? wherein I describe the banality of this idea more academically than my approach here to heaven)

Equally we spend as much time trying to keep people out of hell as we do get them into heaven…makes me wonder if we really believe in either one. We spend precious little time doing either.

At least I’m honest about this. Why keep giving attention to irrelevant concepts that don’t help me love, live and embrace beauty around me?

These are theological buzz words that define your camp. They are not words that mean a damn thing for any of us when we start each morning.

Heaven, and its corollary hell, are nice ideas in church on Sunday, but when I’m running my business, playing with my kids, talking with my wife or hanging out with my band of brothers, heaven and hell might as well be the man on the moon. Is he there and if he is do any of us care?

A friend of mine likes to say that most Christians are practical atheists and Christian only by confession. I think he’s right. Heaven and Hell are ideas we feel the need to acknowledge but nothing that constitutes our attention daily.

By practical atheism he means that we do not really embrace, or incarnate, a theocentric worldview, one that would rely on the deity for our very sustenance.

To the contrary, most of us live very secular lives for very secular reasons. We just participate in religion because we are scared of the man upstairs. We are scared of the opposite of heaven…and because there is a “hell to shun, there is a heaven to gain.”

Yet this idea of shun and gain, has little import on how our worldviews are constructed or how we attempt to orchestrate divine responses from the heavens.

We no longer NEED it.

We know God doesn’t really supply our food. Dirt, water and agro-manipulation allow us to eat. God doesn’t shelter us from the heavens. Our air conditioned and heated homes do that. God doesn’t bring the rain. Weather patterns of the globe bring us rain. Etc.

I could continue the list, but generally speaking we are all practical atheists because we can be, and when our atheism runs dry or hits a space of unknown geography, our God comes in handy. We then give him control by saying he’s in control, but in reality, we will practically live into tomorrow as we have lived into today: very independently, ideologically and self-sufficiently.

We believe in Moses and manna from above, but not that much.

Our lives are NOT centered on these grandiose eschatological schemes any more than our lives are centered on other solar systems. They simply do not matter. And neither does heaven or hell.

Just because we think we have to believe in something, doesn’t make believing in that something a constitutional priority over how we regulate our daily activities.

If this were the case, then all the Christians who are consequently good capitalists would quit their jobs and invest in “eternal” matters because the “matter” of matter really doesn’t matter. Right?

At least until Monday morning when heaven doesn’t matter and the material world is more valuable than any hymn we hypocritically sung the previous Sunday morning.

Heaven doesn’t matter, and neither does hell, at least not as much as we think it does.
But they do matter as much as we act upon them, which means never.

As the psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Zizek is quick to point out, we are not the sum total of our beliefs. We are the sum total of our actions because our actions embody what we really believe, even if you want the preacher and fellow cultural Christians to think otherwise.

Heaven doesn’t matter because it doesn’t matter, affect, how we live in the world. Maybe we can be good Platonists, or Neo-Platonists, and adopt a bizarre dualism that history challenges with each passing day, but otherwise, heaven doesn’t matter.

(And if it did matter, even a little, I bet it matters to you for wholly different reasons than it mattered to Jesus.  Jesus wasn’t worried about what happened to him.  He was crucified.  Us?  We like our bodies and our souls a little too much than to volunteer them for a cross or the great unknown of the grave.  Buncha Christian narcissists confusing heaven with ideal ego.  I digress.)

But we should take heart. We can be honest about this and not fret the hell fire of a God that lives to be right. We need not worry about a God that longs to be holy and can’t wait to tempt us with neat little things such as trees and gardens, all the while knowing what we will do, so that he can then provide a way of redemption for us, you know, so God can feel good about being God. A prearranged ideal foreordained for the faithful. We need not worry about this or that heaven doesn’t matter.

Why?

Well, because the Bible doesn’t seem to care a whole lot about heaven either.

Heaven is not the reason Jesus came. The coming of God into creation was the reason Jesus came. This seems to be at least a little what Jesus might have meant about the Kingdom of God arriving with him, in him, through him, and remaining after him.

Jesus didn’t spend any time talking about heaven the way preachers today talk about heaven. Sure, go read the Gospels. There are some cryptic sayings one might deduce to be the heaven we all know and love, the same heaven that matters very little on a daily basis, but that is only because we are reading the Gospels through the Book of Revelation.

Guess what? Jesus never read the Book of Revelation and his view of heaven was not redacted with images of Johns Revelation.

Jesus’ idea of heaven was not hijacked by the scariest book of the Bible, one so scary that not even the scariest of Reformation theologians, John Calvin, could write a commentary on it.

Jesus used Jewish eschatological concepts in his preaching and there is very little Jewish theology that would look anything like disembodied spirits floating at the feet of Jesus.

I think of this and I’m reminded of that scene in the Little Mermaid with all the damned souls floating in Ursella’s abyss…only our idea of heaven is the opposite. That’s just weird and if your Christianity makes you believe something like that, go right ahead but it’s not what Jesus came preaching and it’s not consistent with St. Paul either.

But it would make you a good heretic in the early church and that’s pretty cool.

And check this, not only did Jesus not read Revelation for a clue about heaven but Revelation isn’t even about going to heaven!

Seriously, it’s not.

Revelation is about God restoring justice in the world and bringing redemption to the nations. That’s why in this apocalyptic letter the New Jerusalem (the place where God is) comes to us and dwells with us.

We don’t go to it.

Sound familiar? Well it is. Jesus. Incarnation. Gospel of John. Jesus came and dwelt among us.

Revelation is not interested in a literal picture of heaven anymore than heaven matters to us on any given day. Revelation is using metaphor, simile and symbolism to create an apocalyptic vision of what the dwelling of God looks like through the lens of a finite creation.

The Streets are not literal Gold. The gates do not have real gems. The measurement of heaven is not an exact geometric line with plane and circumference.

That’s why phrases such as, “And I saw something LIKE…” or “and it APPEARED AS…” I mean come on people! We get this all the time in movies and books and never take it literal, but when these words are used for the Bible they becomes EXACT?!?

All of these things are simply portrayals of the place where God is and how fantastic that place is when all that is good comes into the realm of all that is wrong, God taking up permanent residence with us in this vision.

John in the Book of Revelation is not interested in talking to us about heaven and hell or the devil or Rosemary’s Baby.

John is interested in giving us the story of God via a unique apocalyptic literary genre that employs Old Testament imagery to tell the story of God in Christ as such unfolds in the face of Empire and anti-christological forces.

Therefore, it is not a map, a literal description or a future prediction. It is a letter to Christians that lived 2000 years ago and needed a good word from their preacher. Revelation is that letter.

I’m sorry you’re reading someone else’s mail and misunderstanding it.

No, I’m not surprised.

So heaven doesn’t matter for us. If it doesn’t help us organize and structure our daily lives or cast us into the world unabated by financial necessities, than it doesn’t matter. It’s a belief we hold out of obligation and guilt, not one we hold because it matters one iota.

If it doesn’t matter for Jesus, at least not the way we like to think of it as evangelicals, than the idea of heaven we hold certainly doesn’t matter because it didn’t even matter to Jesus.

And it doesn’t matter to the writer of the Book of Revelation, chapter 21 being the chapter that tells us EXACTLY what heaven is like. If even the chapter on heaven doesn’t think heaven literally matters…then I guess we are in good company.

It’s OK to be practical atheists and have a faith that doesn’t shape how we live, at least its eschatological contours and end doesn’t enjoin us to act as if it did.

It’s OK to continue living like practical atheists when it comes to heaven. We are in good company. Neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor the Book of Revelation seems to care much about either.

That’s an abbreviated reason I don’t believe in heaven. The Bible doesn’t ask me to believe it and it wouldn’t matter even if it did because it’s never a matter that mattered anyhow.

I actually like that heaven, and hell, doesn’t matter because now I can be Christian for a plethora of reasons that doesn’t involve saving my own soulish ass.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Ridley Scott and the Red Sea you think you know

exodus-gods-kings red sea

 

Let’s turn to Ridley Scott.

What did he say that has biblical literalists in a tizzy?

I quote, “the parting of the Red Sea will be F*#!ing Huge.” Ok, so people are not so concerned about the F Bomb, but clearly the fact that he would use an F Bomb means his entire movie can be discredited.

The main issue, apparently, is that Ridley doesn’t express biblical fidelity to Red Sea incident.

In this scene, from what I have read, Ridley doesn’t have God “doing” the parting of the Sea at the hands of Moses; he has an earthquake make the magic happen. Ridley opts for a different natural cause than the one the Bible uses: Wind.

BOOM! Unbiblical alert!  Entire message may now be discounted.

How can Ridley be so obtuse? The Bible clearly has Moses raising his hands above the water and then God’s giant mega hand coming out of heaven and parting the sea with a divine comb like I part my kid’s hair in preparation for school each day. The Wind, of course, being interpreted as the hand of God.

Ridley confesses that he learned a lot about Moses as he re-read the texts (can I even get an “amen”! a Hollywood producer is reading the Bible and LEARNING!! And fundies are still protesting) and found the Moses story extremely inspiring! I quote, “it [the story of Moses] has to be one of the greatest adventures and spiritual experiences that have ever been.”

Man, Ridley totally hates the Bible and wants to destroy the narrative. He even confesses he attended Sunday School as a boy and apparently didn’t pay attention (boo/hiss!).Shame on him for trying to make the biblical narrative a totally awesome cinematic experience. Shame on him for perhaps gaining a greater appreciation for this story via its production than via his Sunday School teachers.

As for the parting of the Red Sea, none of us were there. The writers of the text were not there.

The actual verse itself, Exodus 14.21, states, “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and the Lord swept (or caused to go) the sea back BY a strong East WIND ALL NIGHT and turned the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided.
Later in 14.29-30 the text states, “the sons of Israel walked on dry land through the midst of the sea and the waters were LIKE a wall to them on their right hand and on their left…thus the Lord saved Israel.”

This entire episode is tricky because the text itself indicates that parting the Red Sea was work, it took time, and it was not an instantaneous event like Charlton Heston would have us believe. The text says the wind took all night to accomplish this.

So this is an event that required some interpretation, some ability to look at the natural world around it and come up with an explanation that would continue to resonate with earlier Hebrew themes of God creating a way of salvation when there seemed to be no way of salvation. The Hebrew editors perhaps taking the same sorts of liberty to make sense of the event as Ridley does in his movie.

The point is not “how” the sea was parted; the point is that God harnessed the natural elements and delivered his people. So technically, just as the Hebrew editors, via oral tradition, found ways to talk about this event when there was no way to talk about this event, so Ridley stands in the tradition of continual interpretation that doesn’t change the outcome, just makes use of another possible means.

The biblical message remains in tact.

Thus, one of the texts main points is not that God literally historically parted a sea (even though a way was made through a “sea”), but that God has continued to harness nature (and in case you were wondering, nature Gods were a big deal in ancient Egypt but are apparently helpless here), a theme that will also remain consistent throughout the rest of scripture even into the story of Jesus.
God has not only harnessed nature to preserve his people, but the impassible sea, where death awaits all who enter, is passed at the willing of God.

Get out a bible dictionary or Theology of the Old Testament and look up how important the metaphor of sea is for ancient people; it’s a theologically and sociologically loaded theme. God hovers over it, sea monsters live in it, no one can cross it, people are saved through it, pigs drown in it and Jesus walks on it and in Revelation God destroys it.

The sea is bad ass in the bible.

But the kicker: God is more bad ass.

In addition to this significance of detail, a few other minor details must be noted that allow Ridley some directorial freedom when creating this event.

Biblical literalists please put down your King James Version and take note.

reed-sea

First, the Bible does not literally say in the Hebrew language (what the OT was written in) that they crossed the Red Sea. It says they crossed the REED SEA.

Scandalous!  Definitely doesn’t have the same biblical sex appeal does it?

The Hebrew yam sup, most likely refers to a sea of “weeds, rushes, reeds, papyrus plants.” Translators have messed this up and in the process confused a lot of people. This is not surprising though, since this language occurs nearly 20 times in the Hebrew Bible and at times refers to the Gulf of Aqabah, Gulf of Suez and also the sea of the Exodus event (all 3 distinct geographical areas).

The Red Sea is a HUGE body of water that separates Arabia from Africa, but it is FAR south of where the Hebrew People most likely crossed. The REED SEA is more north, a marshy area filled with shallow waters and REEDS that are an extension of the Nile River Delta. Most scholarly research, even from scholars who grant a lot of historical veracity to the Exodus Event (in other words scholars who believe it literally happened), believe the most likely passage based on text and archaeology was in this northern region, at the mouth of the Nile Delta around the Ballah Lakes region.

This is important because if we care about what the Bible LITERALLY says we can start by revising what we think about the Red Sea and actually change all of our Bibles to REED SEA as it should be. Translators have taken liberty to deviate from the plain simple meaning of the text, and instead, embellish it with a more grandiose picture of divine action that will captivate the imaginations of readers that God is in the business of violating every physical and metaphysical law in the universe when it comes to HIS “will.”

So let’s give Ridley a break. We give the Bible a break by not learning the original languages. So Let’s give Ridley a break.

If you want things literally how they are in the Bible, better start learning the literal bible we have, not the one translated in your lap.

And who wants to watch Wind? Did you ever watch the movie Twister in 1996?

Definitely not Oscar material.

Ridley’s going take a little liberty and let an earthquake split the sea. Isn’t it more fun to see an earthquake recreated than to watch wind blow around on the big screen? That’s a far lesser crime than actually mistranslating the Bible and confusing a whole generation of people that think God is a cosmic “magician” (to use Pope Francis’ recent word) that builds walls of water 2 miles high as 2 million people walk across dry land in one day, while also believing this is not enough time for Egyptians to catch up to them.

I mean seriously? Have we even thought if this is logistically possible simply given the details of the biblical account? Maybe God has Star Trek “beam me over” powers. SMH.

I’ll save that for another post.

So Ridley will take some liberty, just as biblical translators have done. Big deal. It doesn’t bother us that our bibles have been tampered with, why should a movie bother us?

Secondly, and lastly, the Exodus account is an INTERPRETATION of an event.

It’s an attempt to understand HOW God delivered and what sorts of obstacles GOD overcame WITH the people to deliver them.

Many of the categorizations of the event, either in biblical description, or in commentary on the Hebrew Bible in Talmud, are attempts to ascribe meaning and make sense of an event that people believe is being guided BY GOD. There is no literal proof that God harnessed winds and made a way through the Sea of Reeds. There is no literal proof that God was busy unscrewing the bolts with his divine hands in order to make the Egyptian chariot wheels wobbly. But wobbly chariots do make sense if they are trying to ride through a marshy muddy plain while the Hebrew fugitives move by foot.

Those declarations in the Bible are declarations of FAITH that God is at work. It’s an interpretation of their history through their theology.

Case in point.

If I apply myself, find a good job, make good money, and alleviate my financial stresses, then I would consider that a blessing from God. God did it. God helped me. God delivered. I interpret my personal history through my theology. The reality is: I applied myself, worked hard, was productive, another human felt I was worth paying, and I took care of my creditors. God is not involved at all, literally, BUT spiritually I believe that, just as I believe all good things come from God.

When we are reading stories in the Old Testament it is important to remember that these are INTERPRETATIONS of events through a particular theological worldview. These people see their history through God, but the same history could easily be seen from another perspective.

Another curious fact is that it is now widely accepted in scholarly circles is that the Old Testament was most likely finally edited and compiled when Israel was in Babylonian Exile!In other words, the oral traditions of Exodus, the prophets, those great vacation bible school stories in Exodus…they all take final form in a written text when GODS people need to be delivered and are lost, far removed from a sense of identity and deliverance.

They need a sense of hope and purpose, a perspective on the God they serve, where they have been, who they are and where they are going. And what do their preachers do? They preach stories that empower, unite, define and provide hope. A lot like your pastor does each Sunday.

The Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible), which includes the Book of Exodus, is part of this purpose.

The Exodus event is arguably THE MOST important event for the shaping of the people of Israel, even more primal in purpose than anything that comes in Genesis. The Exodus event casts a very large shadow over these people, as does the personage of Moses, and this event as described in the Bible reflects the seminal importance in its retelling and interpretation for a community of folks who need to know if God is still in the business of overcoming the odds, doing the impossible and fulfilling promises.

The Exodus telling has an agenda. It is not an objective history, just as none of the rest of the Old Testaent is free of ideology, but that doesn’t mean it’s not inspired and that it doesn’t also carry the word of God in its very finite human telling and writing.

The proof of it’s inspiration being that the Holy Spirit continues to use it. My compliments to Karl Barth. Barth says it. I believe it. That settles it.

So when we consider the buzz that will be happening around this Movie over the next few months, give the directors and actors a break. They are trying to bring to life what has been lost in the dustbin of history as Bible reading has fallen out of favor with the vast majority of the world.
And they really aren’t doing anything to the biblical story, that hasn’t either been done already by the biblical authors themselves or by our imaginations of these events through the lens of our faith traditions.

*Source used in this blog: Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday: New York, 1992), Volume 5.