Saturday, March 26, 2005

he descended into hell

The Apostles' Creed affirms that Jesus was "crucified, died and was buried" and then "he descended into hell". On this day, between Good Friday (his death) and Easter (his resurrection) we take a moment to imagine his descent into death and hell, and thus the depths of his love for us. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar writes, about the descent into hell, that "Christ disturbs the absolute loneliness striven for by the sinner: the sinner who wants to be damned, apart from God, finds God again in his loneliness, but God, in the absolute weakness of his love...enters into solidarity with those damning themselves".

We resist God. But God comes to us, descends to us, even in the very darkest places in our lives. The last words of Romans 8 (The Message) are helpful:

I'm absolutely convinced that nothing---
nothing living or dead,
angelic or demonic,
today or tomorrow,
high or low,
thinkable or unthinkable,
---absolutely nothing can get between us and God's love
because of the way that Jesus the Master has embraced us.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

love one another

It is the festival of the Passover, and clearly Jesus is the passover lamb to be slaughtered. In verse one of John 13, we see that he loved the disciples in the world, and that he loved them to the end, or, as the NIV has it, to the "full extent". His sacrifice is an expression of his love. He loved the disciples fully, completely.

How did Jesus express this love? He loved them so much that he would get up from the meal, take off his outer robe, and tie a towel around himself. Then he would pour water into a basin and wash the disciples' feet. The master washes the feet of the servants. The washing of feet in the Mediterranean world was either for personal hygiene or as an act of hospitality. Since this is the Passover meal, the purpose seems to be hospitality. But usually the master would have a servant to wash the feet of the guests, or the guests would wash their own feet. Jesus, in washing the feet of the disciples, combines the roles of the servant and the host.

For this reason Peter protests: "Lord, you will never wash our feet". And Jesus responds: "unless I wash you, you have no share with me". Or, as the Message translates it, "if I don't wash you, you can't be a part of what I'm doing". This is the key to Maundy Thursday. The washing of the disciples' feet is the way that Jesus demonstrates his love for them. He empties himself for them. He becomes like them. He becomes a servant to them. In Philippians 2, Paul confesses that Jesus was in the form of God, but did not count equality with God as something to be exploited (TNIV: taken advantage of), and so he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. Here Jesus is the host and master, but he does not claim status, he empties himself, takes the form of a servant through the washing of feet.

"If I do not wash your feet", Jesus says to us, "you have no share in me". To reject Jesus when he comes to wash our feet is to reject the intimate love that he, and only he, can give to us.

Receive it, Jesus says.
Receive me.
Then you will be cleansed.
The Greek word for cleansing, in John 13. 8 and 9 is the word kathoroi.
You will be purged, purified.
This is your catharsis.

We are cleansed, washed, cleaned. And then Jesus asks, "Do you know what I have done to you?" We know that something has happened. We are changed. And because the Lord, the Master, has been our servant, we are to serve one another, we are to wash one another's feet.

The action is interpreted in the teaching: I am giving you a new commandment. I have loved you; you should love one another. The act---the washing of feet---and the word come together to form a whole. This is what I have done for you, Jesus says.

The act of service, and the word about love, are set within a context of profound betrayal. Jesus is not in denial about this. But he stays at the table with the disciples. One will betray him. He says, "I love you". One will deny him. He says, "I will stay at the table with you". Love among the disciples is rooted in the reality that he first loved us, and gave himself for us. And in giving himself for us, he leaves an example: "Do you know what I have done to you?", he asks. "I have set an example for you....I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another". Why? "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another".

Monday, March 14, 2005

the resetting of broken bones

Thomas Merton wrote, "As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them. There are two things which we can do about the pain of disunion with one another. We can love or we can hate. Hatred recoils from the sacrifice and the sorrow that are the price of this resetting of broken bones. It refuses the pain of reunion...but love, by its acceptance of the pain of reunion, begins to heal all wounds" (Seeds of Contemplation).


Reflect on your most meaningful relationships.


Can you recall a particular time of difficulty in the healing of a relationship?

Merton speaks of the "sacrifice and the sorrow that are the price of this resetting of bones". Can you recall an experience of sacrifice that led to reconciliation and healing?


Your body was broken, O Lord,
that we might be restored to you.
As we offer ourselves to one another,
as we are healed in the presence of brokenness,
remind us of your love for us,
and lead us toward love for one another.


Thursday, March 10, 2005

i love country music

I have been in Nashville this week. The bulk of the time has been spent on the beginnings of a ministry study that the United Methodist Church has been undertaking. The remainder will be a board meeting related to higher education and ministry in our denomination. There is now a brief, middle of the week break. On the one evening when we completed our work at dinner, I went with a German friend (Halger, who is the Dean of a United Methodist seminary) to the Bluebird Cafe. We arrived at about twenty until nine (which is actually twenty until ten on the east coast) and were allowed in about thirty minutes later.

At the Bluebird Cafe, four singer-songwriters perform, in sequence, one after another, telling stories in the midst of it all about the artists who made the songs famous, the money they made or didn't make on a particular song, family life, etc. There were some recurring themes among the two hours of music: failed relationships, missed opportunities, the rapid pace in which children grow up, taking the good things in life for granted, the grind of ordinary work, broken hearts, the passage of time, etc. Good country music, without the embellishments; just the singers, the songs, and the people, pretty close together.

A couple of the songs did have to do with how quickly our kids grow up, and having an almost 19 year old and an almost 16 year old, I could connect with these. One, sung by Wendell Mobley, was entitled "There goes my life". The first verse is about the realization of a young man that he is going to be a father, that he is not going to get to be a bum on the coast--there goes my life, i.e., missed opportunity. The second verse is about the two year old daughter going up the stairs, and being put to bed. The young child has become his life. And the third verse is about the young adult woman/daughter driving away to the coast, to begin her own adult journey. There goes my life. Time passes.

I love country music. Not the slick stuff that is broadcast on commercial radio, but the simple narratives that I heard that night. Halgar seemed to appreciate it too, even though English is not his native language. His kids are 14 and 12, and the music seemed to have the same effect on him.

I love country music.

Friday, March 04, 2005

internet pornography

Yesterday I took part in a conversation with several other pastors on the subject of internet pornography. The conversation was led by a therapist, whose practice has included persons addicted to these materials. A number of comments were made: some feel they have an illusion of privacy; some feel that it is safe; others argue that no one is hurt. In some families, a wife may insist that the husband not engage in internet pornography in the home, and so it finds its way into the workplace. Most internet pornography, the therapist noted, is viewed between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm.

What does this mean? I am convinced that technology is neither positive nor negative; it is neutral. E-mail can be a very effective form of communication, or it can be used in a destructive way. Websites can be wonderful (some of my favorites are listed on this blog); they can also be harmful. Pornography, or the devaluing of a person through the means of sexuality, is nothing new.

What may be new is a "perfect storm" that has developed, in the marriage of internet and pornography. And the result can be very destructive: to individuals, who become more and more isolated from reality; to children, who are often victimized in this way; to persons who lose their livelihoods and families.

Several spoke of the difference between a "virtual" community and an "embodied" community. One is an ideal, a fantasy; the other is real, human, flesh and blood. At one point the conversation, as these often do when pastors are together, drifted into our own experiences: aren't most of us tempted to prefer a televised religious experience, when the music is perfect, the message is nuanced, the environment is polished, to an actual church composed of people who fall short, need forgiveness, ask us to serve, irritate us in some way?

I was also reminded of the challenge we have, as Christians, to desire the right things, and to desire them in the the right order. We do sometimes make idols of people and experiences as we imagine them. If internet pornography is an addiction....and I am persuaded that for many this is probably the case....we would do well to explore the root causes: the need for intimacy, the pervasive loneliness that is out there, and, in contrast, the tendency to withdraw from real relationships, because we are not in control of the outcomes. Christian communities, at their best, have been places where a deep sharing of life is possible. An embodied faith---an incarnate faith---is the alternative to destructive and addictive patterns of behavior. This faith holds us accountable, values us for who we are (persons created in God's image), and gives us wisdom: a way that leads to life, and not death.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

give us this day our daily bread

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he drew from the scriptures of his own tradition and people, and especially from the experience of Israel’s journey from slavery to the promised land. This journey took them through the wilderness, where they were forced to live in a daily dependence on God. God instructed the people to gather manna each day (Exodus 16. 4). When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are taught to recover this biblical principle: That God provides for us, each day, enough for that day. This is sufficient. As God reminded the apostle Paul, my grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12. 9). Again, God provides for us, each day, enough for that day. The grace of God is amazing. Today, I invite you to pray the Lord’s Prayer, and pause at this petition. It has a rich history, and yet it is as relevant as the dawning of this morning’s sunrise.

Give us this day our daily bread.