Sunday, April 29, 2007

merlefest 2007

I am behind in postings to this blog. I have a couple of things I want to include here, including a sermon or two, and a piece i wrote for UM Nexus on "Earth Day", but that will all have to wait. I spent Friday and Saturday evening in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, attending Merlefest. This has almost become a spiritual practice for me, an essential pilgrimage that occurs between Easter and Pentecost. Merlefest is a four-day festival in memory of Merle Watson, the late son of the legendary guitarist Doc Watson from Deep Gap, North Carolina. This year's festival was the twentieth anniversary, and I have probably attended eight of them, I would guess. I have never stayed for the entire time, although some of my friends whose priorities are in order do this.

At any rate, the estimate is that 85,000 or so attended this year, and Saturday evening was as crowded as I can remember (the only comparable attendance being the spring after O Brother, Where Art Thou was released and Alison Krauss and her band were headliners). On Friday evening I went with my friends Steve and Moe, our second year of making the journey. The early evening began with a jam session that included Bela Fleck (regarded as the premiere banjo player in the world), Sam Bush (one of two premiere mandolin players, along with Chris Thile of Nickel Creek), and Jerry Douglas (the greatest dobro player on the planet). Their Strength in Numbers is the classic in improvisational roots/Americana music.

After their set, I wandered over to the Creekside Venue and caught a little of Jim Lauderdale's performance. Jim Lauderdale is an amazingly talented singer/songwriter, a native of Troutman, North Carolina and a graduate of the North Carolina School of The Arts. Back on the main stage, the Jerry Douglas Band performed, and they were followed by Elvis Costello, the British musician.

Some had wondered with surprise about the wisdom of Elvis Costello at Merlefest, but it has always been an eclectic gathering. He began with some of his standards ("Every Day I Write The Book" and "Alison", which Linda Ronstadt covered), and then he gradually brought out the heavy hitters----Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Jim Lauderdale, Byron House (bass), Stuart Duncan (fiddle) amazing group. The highlight of their show, for me, was a rendition of "Friend of The Devil", the Grateful Dead anthem. They were followed by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whose connection with Doc Watson goes back thirty years to the classic Will The Circle Be Unbroken?

The next night Jack (from Haiti) and I went, and my daughter Liz from Chapel Hill met us there. It was another incredible night of music: Donna The Buffalo, Darrell Scott (composer of "Long Time Gone" by the Dixie Chicks), Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Alison Krauss, Tony Rice, Crooked Still (a new band from New England), Pam Tillis, and members of the Duhks. And so, here is a brief recollection of the musical highlights from the two evenings.

Sam Bush Band, White Bird (the FM staple originally recorded by It's A Beautiful Day)
Sam Bush Band, Whole Lotta Love (yes, the Led Zeppelin standard)
Darrell Scott, Hank William's Ghost
Jerry Douglas, Futureman
Elvis Costello and Friends, Friend of The Devil
Jim Lauderdale, Timberline
Crooked Still, Orphan Girl
Doc Watson, Walk in Jerusalem Just Like John
Donna The Buffalo, all of it
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, You Aint Going Nowhere
Elvis Costello, Hidden Shame (his song, recorded by Johnny Cash)

Some other aspects of the experience: I ran into Graham Sharp, who plays the banjo with Steep Canyon Rangers. I was a pastor in his church as he grew up, and his band is doing very well, playing on the main stage. I also got to meet Darrell Scott, who is an amazingly gifted songwriter and musician, and who seemed to be a very humble, down to earth person. Liz met him as well. That is a part of what Merlefest is all about--the artists are very close to those who come to listen, and these kinds of encounters happen. You also get the sense that the artists are fans of the music as well; they are there not only to perform but also to listen and to enjoy.

Anyway, late last night it was "down from the mountain", and this morning was an amazing time for our church. But more about that later as well...

Friday, April 20, 2007

play ball

The Braves are off to a great start, 11-5, and they are presently leading in the National League East, one half game ahead of the Mets. By the way, they pounded the Mets this evening, winning 7-3. Brian McCann and Matt Diaz are both hitting above .300. Edgar Renteria is knocking on the door at .298, and Chipper and Andruw Jones and Jeff Francouer have hit ten home runs between them. The breaking news, however, is the strengthened bullpen, upgraded during the off-season with Mike Gonzales, Rafael Soriano, Bob Wickman and Chad Paronto. Tim Hudson and John Smoltz have given very strong starts thus far, and Smoltz will likely achieve his 200th win in the near future (he is now at 195, and he also has 154 saves). It looks to be a good year, which is something of a surprise. It is a long season, to be sure, but no one had them pegged to be doing this well.

A couple of ecclesial and cultural asides: Atlanta will never be able to host a United Methodist General Conference, because of the ban on Native American mascots (although Florida, which will host the GC in a few years, is home to the Florida State Seminoles, who have a vastly greater influence upon their state than do the Richmond Braves in Virginia...Am I missing something here?). And Jack from Haiti, who lives with us, loves the fact that so many major league baseball players are from Latin America and the Carribean. He knew nothing about baseball when he arrived (he is into soccer), but he has picked up on it quickly; he likes the banter between the announcers, and, of course, the Geico commercials ("So easy a caveman can do it!").

Interestingly, the number of African American baseball players is declining, while the latino and carribean representation is growing. And in addition, even though they share the island of Hispaniola, there are no baseball players from Haiti, while, on the other hand, its neighbor the Dominican Republic is well represented. As of opening day 2007 there were 443 players, and four managers from Dominican; among the managers is Felipe Alou, a former player with the Braves. Amazing!

questions for a dying culture and a fallen empire

1. What might NBC have done with the Cho tapes had they considered the feelings of the families of victims? Is it possible that they considered the possible responses, did a cost-benefit analysis, and chose to publicize them instead?

2. Of what constructive use in our society is the weapon employed by the killer of thirty-two people at VT this week? And does the logic that if someone else had possessed a similar weapon all would have been better make any sense?

3. If Paul Wolfowitz remains at the World Bank, after securing a sweetheart job for his girlfriend, can we conclude that he will no longer be traveling around the world speaking on the subject of governmental corruption?

4. Would those who are most in favor of the war in Iraq be willing to declare a moratorium on corportate profits by private contractors, with all profits instead going to 1) adequate provisions for our military on the ground and 2) more than adequate rehabilitation for the wounded who are returning home?

5. Isn't the silence of those who were so adament about the degradation of women in Don Imus' rant impressive when the topic shifts to rap music? Which "art form" is more consistently expressive of a perspective about the role of african-american women?

6. What does it mean that every reality show is in some way an exercise in eliminating people, humiliating them and finally excluding them?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

virginia tech

My prayers are with the VT community. I have known a number of VT alums over the years, and they are without exception remarkably gifted, grounded and generous people. Of course, there is the event---the shootings, coming surely from an irrational motive. There is next the media frenzy, tragedy communicated for corporate profit through emotional manipulation. There is the search for a narrative that hooks the culture: in this case, who is to blame? The head of security? The school president? And there are later the lingering questions: Why do some perish and others survive? And what could possibly have been the motive?

I find myself limiting my consumption of television coverage of the event to no more than a few minutes a day. I appreciate President Bush's presence in Blacksburg, and his comments, which I heard on radio. If you read this blog, you will know that I am not a fan of President Bush, but he really is at his best when he expresses compassion. Had he functioned in this way after Katrina, life would be very different in our country.
I have convictions about the manufacture of the weapons that were used in this incident, but now is not the time for this debate (again, the scary thing here is that I agree with President Bush). That time will come later.

I have tried to be in touch with a friend who lives in Blacksburg, whose son will begin school there next year. I encourage readers who wish to do so to send a financial gift to the Wesley Foundation at Virginia Tech (just google "Va Tech Wesley Foundation"), I plan to do this. It is an amazing campus ministry, and one that has endured across the years as a center of Christian fellowship, mission and spirituality. The Wesley Foundation will be integral to the healing of the community in months to come. I will continue to pray for the families whose children have been murdered. And I also pray that Asian-Americans will not experience prejudice because of the actions of one person. I pray for this violent world of ours, and in the midst I search for the peace that surpasses human understanding, and I claim the truth of Easter: there is no suffering that cannot be overcome.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

don imus

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I have been an occasional viewer of Imus In The Morning. What I have most enjoyed in my sporadic viewing has been his conversations with journalists, such as David Gregory, and the common taste we have in roots music (Levon Helm, formerly of the Band, for example). At times the humor crosses the line (this is usually carried on by one of his cohorts), and at that point I would typically either change the channel or get on with the day. Imus has been one of the most effective advocates for the veterans who are patients at Walter Reed, and his political sympathies lie somewhere near my own. At times I would watch Imus while running on the eliptical machine at the YMCA, or reading the morning paper. And finally, I have appreciated the work he and his wife do at a ranch in New Mexico for kids with cancer, and Dierdre's environmental efforts on behalf of children with autism.

This being said, the humor did often cross the line. I was in a period of not watching when his comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team were made, so I did not hear them in "real time". The first responses were the predictable talking heads who had clear objections, and it soon became apparent that there was no real counterpoint (unusual for the twenty-four hour news cycle). As everything settled, it became obvious that the remarks were inappropriate for our national discourse, even in a setting where serious news is blended with shock journalism. This says something good about our national discourse. It was telling that we did not move on to another subject. And then something interesting happened: we began to think about the Rutgers women themselves, who were the true victims here. And then a somewhat extended history of racial humor became public, with which I was unfamiliar, related to Gwen Ifill of PBS, among others, and it was clear that the comments were a part of a larger pattern. The free speech argument was made, weakly, but then free enterprise kicked in: the corporations began to ask exactly how they were going to benefit from sponsoring Imus. And then a two week suspension became a permanent decision. Some have wondered about the place of apology and forgiveness here, but the public seems to have wearied of celebrities who continually cross the line and then offer pleas for second or third chances, with no amendment of life.

Imus may end up somewhere in satellite radio, where subscribers will seek him out and then the burden of his offensiveness must be carried in part by those who choose to spend their money to be there. The women of Rutgers will be seen, I hope, as heroines and multi-dimensional students who have diverse gifts and aspirations. The corporations will find other vehicles for their advertising dollars. The journalists will get their messages across in different ways. There remains a place for an unpredictable conversation about politics, music and culture, with a healthy dose of humor and cynicism, and one that makes the world a better place in the process. I realize this was my own motivation for occasionally tuning in. Perhaps I hoped for the good and tended to tune out the bad. I regret that Imus' considerable social capital has been squandered by the use of commentary that is destructive to others and, to be sure, to himself as well.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

the living jesus (easter)

The women rose early in the morning. They were awakened, perhaps by grief, for it was still dark. So much had happened in the last few days. These very women had been present at the crucifixion and at the burial. They had made a plan to meet together, to complete the burial arrangements that had been interrupted by the Sabbath. They knew the place of the tomb. They had set aside the spices they would take to anoint the body. This was a simple gesture of honoring the dead, an act of duty, obligation, but also something they wanted to do, something they needed to do. They were not in the inner circle of the disciples, but when it came to the end, if it was going to get done, they were going to do it.

Early in the morning they set out for the tomb, with a simple plan: Jesus had died, he had been buried, and they would take care of his body.

At this place in the story we come to a turning point. When the women arrive they discover that the body of Jesus is missing. The stone covering the entrance to the tomb has been rolled away. There are two men present, dressed in dazzling clothes, and careful readers of the New Testament are reminded of Jesus’ transfiguration, in Luke 9, and of his ascension, in Acts 1, Something astonishing is happening here. It is as if we have gone from black and white to color (I realize that dates me…how many younger people have really ever seen a black and white television?)

The Bible contains a number of these experiences, ordinary people going about their lives: Moses tending sheep, Mary preparing for a wedding, Peter fishing alongside the seashore, men and women doing the next thing, and in the midst of the ordinary something extraordinary happens: a burning bush, a dream, a miraculous catch of fish.

The women arrive at the tomb, Jesus is missing, the two men who are there, dressed in dazzling clothes, and the women are overwhelmed by it all. Then the men ask,

Why do you seek the living among the dead?

He is not here. He is risen.

Here is the turning point in the story, because in a moment we have passed from death to life, exactly the reverse of our ordinary experience, which is life to death, but then God’s story is always one that reverses our expectations, and we remember this from the beatitudes of Jesus, and his parables, especially: the hungry will be filled, those who mourn shall be comforted, those who weep now will laugh…In Jesus Christ, God is always messing with the way we see and understand the world.

Why are you looking for the Living One in a cemetery?”, the Message translates the question. Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Well, they were not so sure that they were coming to find life, they were there to finish up funeral plans. And yes now they are face to face with the realization that what had seemed like an ending was actually a beginning.

Not the passage from life to death,

But the passage from death to life.

This is the gospel, the turning point in the story, in the experience of the women, and the witnesses placed there, by God, to interpret all of this for them. His is not here. He is risen. This is the Easter truth.

On Ash Wednesday, 40 days ago, not counting Sundays, I spoke of a culture of death---reflecting on Anna Nicole Smith, our obsession with her death, and the War, and our lack of interest, in comparison, with our fallen soldiers, and with the Iraqis themselves. Why are we so preoccupied with one death and not the others?

In the meantime we had a small controversy, one that never got much traction, about the discovery of a tomb. Could it be the tomb of Jesus? It had to be, right? The director of the Titanic had made a movie about it. The biblical scholars, Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical, who never agree on anything agreed that there was nothing to it; just a clever marketing strategy by the Discovery Channel. And then we entered into the passion of Christ at the conclusion of Palm Sunday, surveying the wondrous cross, holding Jesus’ cup of suffering in our own hands, for a moment, leaving quietly.

Later in the week there was the tragic death of two police officers in our city. The parade of Palm Sunday, with children waving their branches, was followed, twice, by parades, processionals through our city. With many of you I watched to see the cars come by, the long slow train of death, on Thursday and Friday. On Tuesday morning, I listened at a community prayer breakfast as the speaker called us to pray for these two families---we stood for a moment of silence---and then the speaker called us to pray for the accused and his family, and I thought of Jesus, on the cross, and one of his last words, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they do”.

And I thought, there is Jesus, messing with our way of seeing and understanding the world.

In the latter portions of Luke, read here on Friday evening, we rehearsed the betrayal of Judas and the denial of Peter, and then we witnessed Jesus, standing before Pilate and Herod, and then we gazed at the old rugged cross, so despised by the world, and we listened and watched as he breathed his last.

And it was dark. The darkness of death. And then that mysterious time, when, according to the tradition, he descended into hell.

The culture of death surrounded his disciples and surrounds us still, a world of terror and torture, a world of domestic violence, where the innocents suffer, where weeping endures for a night, the psalm reminds us, where people ask “My God, why have you forsaken me”, another psalm reminds us, and we listened to the witness of Elie Wiesel as he described the sights and smells of the concentration camps of the last century.

Were you there?, Linda Edwards Campbell sang on Thursday evening, and the answer is "yes", we were all there. That song has a starkness to it, for it reminds us that not only we were there, as spectators, we were there, as participants. We contribute to the culture of death by our sins of omission and commission, by our behavior and indifference. Someone commented recently, speaking of a certain style of recent Christian music:

“It seems that Christian lyricists these days appropriate the victory before they carry the Cross; or they will rejoice that Jesus bore the bitter wood for our sins, but do not consider that every one of our sins was a thorn upon his brow, or a jagged stone to cut his feet as he fought his slow way up to the Place of the Skull”.

Were you there? The women were there. We were there. A culture of death, name your place and time, first century Jerusalem, twenty-first century Charlotte. But in the midst of a culture of death there are signs of life.

Perhaps you and I arose early this morning. Maybe we were awakened by an alarm clock, playing our favorite music, or a somber report about the grim details of violence somewhere, or a chirpy voice wishing us a politically correct “happy holiday”. In our first conscious moments we remembered that it was Easter, and that it is spring. Maybe our difficulty with breathing yesterday’s pollen reinforced all of this. Or maybe it seemed cold, like February. Somebody forgot to order the warm weather for Easter!

It is good that Easter and spring have come. I am ready! Easter and spring conjure up the sense of renewal, and there are signs of life around us. The blooming of dogwoods. The sounds of chatter on baseball fields. The singing of birds. The planting of gardens. We have to look and listen for them, but the signs of life are all around us.

When you are in the midst of death, these signs of life are important. Why did the women take spices to care for a deceased body? Why do we place flowers at a graveside? Because death is so much with us, we look for the signs of life, and these signs are present. This was another turning point for me in the week. I saw a community come to a pause this week, standing beside the road, even at the corner of Providence and Sharon Lane, peering out of office windows, lifting children into the air so that they could see, wearing ribbons, planting flags, setting out flowers, holding up signs. For me it was a small turning point in our common story, a testament to our shared life and suffering, but also a witness to our hope and our humanity. For me it had a lot to do with that cross we planted on the evening prior to Ash Wednesday, the cross draped in purple.

And now all of a sudden, it is Easter.

Brothers and sisters, Easter is not the denial of death. Easter is life in the midst of death. Easter is the discovery of the empty tomb, the symbol of God’s victory over death. Easter is the presence of the risen Lord, the living Jesus. Luke Timothy Johnson, who teaches the New Testament at Emory, Johnson offers the following insight:

“It makes a big difference whether we think someone is dead or alive…The most important question concerning Jesus…is simply this: Do we think he is dead or alive? If Jesus is simply dead, there are a number of ways we can relate ourselves to his life and his accomplishments. And we might even, if some obscure bit of data should turn up, hope to learn more about him…

[But] If Jesus lives…it must be as life-giver….”.

“The…confession of Jesus as resurrected, as living within God’s own life, and as ruling as Lord of the church and world is what distinguishes the Christian view of Jesus from every other view. For everyone else, Jesus is another dead man; for Christians, he is the Living One. This confession is implicit in the very existence of a church gathered in Jesus’ name, in its celebration of the Lord’s Supper, in its healing in the name of Jesus, in its struggle against evil for the little ones with whom Jesus identifies himself” (Johnson, pages 2, 3, 4, 6).

In Lent, we considered the possibility that the temptations of Jesus were our temptations. On Palm Sunday, we imagined that the suffering of Jesus was our suffering. On Good Friday, we realized that the death of Jesus is our death. And on Easter, we know that his resurrection has become our resurrection, his life has become our life.

Listen to this parable”

“In a small village a young boy became ill, and died. His mother was inconsolable. Many tried to bring consolation to her, but she said that nothing would ease her grief until her son was brought back to life.

She went to a doctor, who told her this was impossible. She went to a wise woman with herbs, but she said it was beyond her powers. Finally she was directed to the hut of an old hermit who lived deep in the forest. She asked him if he could restore her son’s life.

Certainly”, said the monk. What do I have to do?, the woman cried in relief.

“Go back to your village”, the monk said, “and bring me a cup of milk from a house which has never known suffering, and I will restore your son to life”.

The woman set off thinking about all of her happy neighbors. But as she went from hut to hut even the liveliest of them had to tell that pain, suffering, and death had sometimes visited them, and though they were joyful now, it had not always been so. The woman came back to the monk with an empty cup.

“Could you not find one house without suffering to give a cup of milk?” he asked. “No”, she answered. Now I see that there is no life without suffering, and no suffering that cannot be overcome”. (Esther deWaal, 114-115)

In the forty days of Lent, and in the drama of Holy Week, in the events that have gripped our community, and maybe even within your own family experience this year, we are reminded that there is no life without suffering. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”, we read in the prophecy of Isaiah, and then the book was slammed shut.

But on Easter, we come face to face with the witness that there is no suffering that cannot be overcome. On Easter we are surprised by the good news that salvation is stronger than sin, that forgiveness is stronger than bitterness, and the signs of life can bring transformation and renewal to a culture of death.

Brothers and sisters, no matter where you are in this life’s journey, no matter the intensity of suffering, sin or death, there is good news: the stone has been rolled away. We are in the presence of a living Jesus!

Maybe you are here this morning because it is an obligation, or a duty, or you are honoring the wishes of someone in your family, or this is something you needed to do or something you wanted to do…it really doesn’t matter.

For the witness speaks just as clearly to you, and me, and says:

Why do you seek the living among the dead?

He is not here. He is risen.

Sources: Living Jesus by Luke Timothy Johnson; Living With Contradiction by Esther de Waal.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

a hymn for holy saturday

O love divine, what hast thou done?
The immortal God hath died for me!
The Father's co-eternal Son
bore all my sins upon the tree.
The immortal God for me hath died:
My Lord, my Love is crucified.

-Charles Wesley (1707-1788)

Friday, April 06, 2007

a prayer for good friday

O Holy and ever-blessed Jesus, who being the eternal Son of God and most high in the glory of the Father, did vouchsafe in love for us sinners to be born of a pure Virgin, and did humble thyself unto death, even the death of the cross: Deepen within us, we beseech thee, a due sense of thine infinite love; that adoring and believing in thee as our Lord and Saviour, we may trust in thine infinite merits, imitate thy holy example, obey thy commands, and finally enjoy thy promises; who with the Father and the Holy Ghost lives and reigns, one God, world without end. Amen.

–John Wesley (1703-1791)

With thanks to TitusOneNine.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

let this cup pass from me (palm sunday)

I had the good fortune to hear Elie Wiesel speak this week in Charlotte. Elie Wiesel is a survivor of the Holocaust, who went on to write a memoir, Night, that became one of the most significant books of the last century. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and continues to speak against indifference to human suffering bearing witness to the ordeal of his people, and its implications for all of us, and most recently for the people of Darfur.

I re-read Night in preparation of hearing him---it is a brief book. Night is the story of his family’s journey into the concentration camps at Auschwitz and then Buchenwald. He was separated from his mother and sister, whom he would never see again, and there he witnessed the death of his father, and, in some ways, the death of his faith. That is an open question.

The deaths of six million Jews are the wider landscape in which this intensely personal story is told. As I read his account, and of his journey deeper and deeper into the hell on earth that was the holocaust, I thought of one of his own ancestors. I thought of Jesus, at the mount of Olives, speaking to his own disciples: Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.

As I read Night, and listened to Elie Wiesel, I also reflected on where we are, in our journey with Jesus, at the beginning of this, the holiest of weeks. Jesus has shared the Passover feast with his friends. He had given them a commandment, to love one another, and he had listened to them argue about who would be the greatest. He had left the meal, and had gone out to the Mount of Olives, they followed him, he warned them about what would lie ahead for all of them, and then, Luke tells us, he withdrew from them.

The scholars see this withdrawal as Jesus’ intention to be alone in his suffering, and we understand that. There is an impulse, when suffering comes, when crisis comes, to withdraw. Maybe it is to gather one’s internal strength. Maybe it is to arrive at some clarity about what is happening. Maybe it is to receive some guidance about what is to come. Jesus withdraws, but only a short distance, a “stone’s throw away”, Luke says, and so they see him, and perhaps they hear him, the intensity of the words piercing the silence of the night.

Jesus withdraws. Then he kneels. The details in each of the gospels are interesting: Matthew tells us that Jesus falls on his face, Mark comments that Jesus falls to the earth. Luke simply reports that he kneels. It is a gesture of dependence, of reverence. There Jesus prays.

Prayer is a central theme in the gospel of Luke. Jesus prays at his baptism, before sending out the disciples, before the confession of Peter, while he is transfigures; he teaches the disciples about prayer, he insists that the Temple is to be a “house of prayer”, as he dies he is praying, and after the resurrection he is recognized on the road to Emmaus in the moment that he prays.

On this evening Jesus prays: Father, if it is your will, let this cup pass from me”. The cup was the cup of bitterness, the cup of his suffering. To those who wanted to be great in his movement, Jesus had asked them, “Are you able to drink from the cup that I drink, or be baptized with my baptism?”

The cup of suffering was his to drink, he had lifted this cup in the meal, the cup of salvation, he had called upon the name of the Lord, and then he had remarked, this is my blood poured out for you, this is my life given for you.

The cup of suffering was his fate, his destiny. And yet, in a moment of intense honesty with his Father, he could ask, he had to ask, “Father, if it is your will, let this cup pass from me”. Mark’s Gospel also overhears Jesus saying, “God, with you all things are possible”.

He is trying to make sense of the moment. Jesus was, the earliest creeds confessed, fully human. We try to make sense of the moment, whether you are Elizabeth Edwards or Tony Snow, and cancer has returned, or your son, a bright young student and mascot for the college basketball team, has died as the result of an automobile collision, or you are a single parent and you are homeless in Charlotte, or you have come home from the war and you are awaiting medical care in a VA hospital, or you are a couple who will travel several hours in a couple of weeks to seek medical help for your child in our clinic in Haiti. You are trying to make sense of the moment.

Jesus withdraws, he kneels, he speaks. If it is your will, let this cup pass from me. Jesus knew the story of Abraham, who was called to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham, who was faithful, and in just the moment when the sacrifice was to be required, another sacrifice came forth, and Isaac, his beloved son, was spared.

Could it happen again? Let this cup pass from me! Jesus speaks, but there is only silence. And in the silence, another thought emerges, one that Jesus will voice later, quoting Psalm 22: Where is God? Where is God?

This is question that runs throughout Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night. Where is God, this God who seemed so real to those who loved the law, who observed the festivals, who sang and danced, where is God? There is a moving scene in the story. Hangings were a common occurrence in the concentration camps, and yet one remained etched in Wiesel’s memory. One of the guards had a reputation for kindness toward his prisoners. Over seven hundred were under his command, and none were ever attacked or insulted by him.

It is discovered that this guard, actually a young boy had been helping the prisoners, and as the truth is traced back to him, he is taken and placed on the gallows. Because of his youth and his slight physical size his death is a slow and agonizing one, he is being tortured, and yet the young boy remains silent. Those in the concentration camps were often forced to witness hangings but this one seemed especially cruel. Where is our merciful God, where is he?”, someone behind Wiesel asks. Because the boy is so light he remains longer, lingering between life and death. For God’s sake”, someone else asks, “where is God?”

And then Wiesel writes----“from within me I heard a voice answer: Where is He? This is where—hanging here from the gallows…”. (64-65).

We ask these question in the darkness of night. Where is God? Is God real? Is God fair? Does God care about us? Will God intervene? The crisis of faith for many Christians comes when the faith and certainty of childhood is interrupted by the darkness of night, when no light is present to illumine, to guide. This is the dark night of the soul, when God seems absent.

There was a time when God seemed present, real, powerful. And yet there comes a time when we wonder. God, if you are real, if you are there, do something!

If you are willing, let this cup pass from me.

Yet, not my will but yours be done.

This is as basic as prayer gets. Within the honesty there is an offering of himself, the living sacrifice acceptable to God, there is a fundamental trust in the relationship. There is the statement of faith---all things are possible for you, spoken in prayer. There is an honest appeal---let this cup pass from me. There is a dedication of life---not what I want, but what you want.

And in response, there is an answer. God always answers our prayers. Yes, the answers are not always the ones we are seeking, but there is an answer. Luke tells us that the angels appear to him and give him strength (Luke 22. 43). I had never paid much attention to this one verse, and that is of course a part of our problem. I am not talking about angels with wings. I am speaking of those messengers who come, in a variety of forms, to bring some word, some touch, some guidance, some comfort from God. Elie Wiesel can be understood as a messenger who comes in the darkest hour of our most violent century, to speak a word of moral courage. But the angels, the messengers do not have to be prominent voices or well-known leaders. They can also come in the form of the stranger, the person who enters into our lives for a time, who gives us strength and hope.

Anne Lamott is one of our more honest interpreters of the Christian faith, and she speaks in a transparent way about the sufferings that have been a part of her journey, sufferings having to do with addiction and destructive relationships and self-doubt. As she has made her way through the darkness, she speaks of the necessity of developing “night vision”.

In one of the essays she recalls the advice of a spiritual director: in times of darkness, you need to develop night vision. If you look straight ahead in the dark, directly at things, you often see only looming shapes, and you’re likely to get blindsided. So you need to look at things out of the corners of your eyes---shapes, positions, objects in relief and in relationship to one another. You may still not see perfectly, but it will be enough to see by, and in time it will help you to know what is true”.

The angels appear to Jesus and give him strength. God does not provide the answer that Jesus is seeking, but God provides. On the Mount of Olives, Jesus is developing “night vision”. He withdraws, he kneels, he prays honestly, he listens, and there is strength.

There is here a model of our own praying and living. We all need our own places of withdrawal. We all need our own postures of reverence and dependence----the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services help us here. We all need to be honest before God. We all need to listen. We all need the strength that comes from unlikely sources.

And in times of darkness we all need to develop night vision, for there we pose the difficult questions, the ones that must be asked, there our faith is tested and tried, there we meet the God who is real.

Let this cup pass from me”. Jesus had to say it. This is really a sermon that needs no illustration, no story, for I would imagine that we have all held the cup in our hands, the cup of bitterness, the cup of suffering, and we have all made this appeal to Anyone who would listen. Let this cup pass from me”.

And then we have surely known, even amidst the complexity, after a long, dark night or the accumulation of many long, dark nights, that God is present, that God is faithful, that God will bring us safely through. And we have been put in touch with some strength that has come, at the most unlikely and yet the most appropriate moment.

Some of us have lived through the night. Some of us are living through the night. Although we do not see it perfectly, out of the corner of our eyes we sense something and we trust that beyond the night, there is the good news that morning has broken, and the tomb has been rolled away.

Let us stay awake. Let us listen and learn from Jesus in these days, let us cling to the Easter hope, and let us watch for the rising of the sun.

Sources: Elie Wiesel, Night. Anne Lamott, Grace (Eventually).

Monday, April 02, 2007

the temptation to be spectacular (luke 4)

The devil takes Jesus to the holy city and places him at the pinnacle of the temple. If you are the Son of God”, the devil says to Jesus, “throw yourself down from here…The angels will catch you…You won’t be harmed”.

This was the third temptation of Jesus: to be spectacular. In these messages we are trying to discover how the temptations of Jesus are our temptations. The writer of Hebrews says that we have a high priest who has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4. 15). The temptations of Jesus are our temptations.

This can be said another way: as we move through the temptations, we will discover an understanding of ourselves and an understanding of God.

There is the temptation to be relevant: turn stones into bread.

There is the temptation to be powerful: worship Satan and all of this can be yours. There is the temptation to be spectacular: throw yourself from the Temple, and allow the angels to catch you.

These temptations of Jesus are our temptations. And so this morning we reflect on the temptation to be spectacular, which is the temptation to seek after the applause and the adoration. A friend calls this the “people pleasing” syndrome: much of what we do in life is simply to please others. The action may be right or wrong, the motivation may be good or bad, we are simply seeking the approval of others.

If we are honest, there is something within all of us that craves approval, the applause of others. We see it in televised courtrooms, as judges and attorneys play to the camera. We see it in March Madness, as everyone wants to be on the Sports Center highlights, having lifted that last shot into the nets for the victory. But what we notice in others is also present within ourselves. There is something within us that wants to be the hero, the center of attention, the star, the celebrity, with adoring masses and rabid throngs of admirers all around.

This was the temptation of Jesus: to be liked, to be adored, to be applauded. And it can be our temptation as well. We can become people-pleasers. The difficulty that people pleasers encounter is that they attract, almost like a magnet, people pushers. People pushers can spot

people pleasers a mile away.

This is the voice of the tempter. Will you do this one thing for me, for us, for this cause? The danger with this request is that we can be distracted from our mission in life. Jesus did not come to throw himself down from the temple. As Henri Nouwen notes,

“Jesus refused to be a stunt man. He did not come to prove himself. He did not come to walk on hot coals, swallow fire, or put his hand in the lion’s mouth to demonstrate that he had something worthwhile to say” (p. 38).

Jesus came for another reason: to announce that the kingdom of God was here! His temptation in life was to become distracted from this mission, to announce and to be the good news. On one occasion he was asked:

Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?”(Luke 7. 20). The expected answer would have been: “Go and tell John what you see and hear: the armies grow, the weapons increase, forts are being built, the boundaries are expanding, and the enemy is in retreat”.

Are you the One who is to come? Jesus says, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor receive the good news.”(Luke 7. 22)

These were the signs of the kingdom. This is what Jesus came to do. This was the mission of Jesus. What is our mission in life? Are we tempted to be distracted from our mission? The mystic Meister Eckhardt once offered this insight:

“The devil has created a device called busyness,
by which he deceives Christians into thinking
they are doing the will of God”.

We are called to a life that pleases God. If you want to give up something for Lent, I invite you to give up the desire to please other people. We are called to resist the voice and charms of the Tempter. Jesus was a God-pleaser. We are called to be God-pleasers.

In this third temptation we learn something about ourselves: that we are prone to wander from our mission in life, tempted to please other people when God might choose another path for us. And so we learn something in this temptation about God as well: God reveals himself to us, not in the spectacular, but in the ordinary, everyday, mundane stuff of life. God is often hidden in plain sight. God reveals himself to us in human flesh.

A leap off the temple would be a miraculous sign, it would compel belief, but that is not how God chooses to operate. Jesus displays his ultimate faith in God by allowing God to be God. He does not blackmail God. He does not set out a fleece for God. He does not paint God into a corner. Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6. 16: Do not put the Lord your God to the test”.

A biblical scholar, Eduard Schweizer, has said it this way: “While Israel despaired of God because it did not experience a miracle, Jesus knows that faith holds even when miracles do not happen” (p. 63).

Or in the words of a country song of a few years ago: Sometimes we have to walk on faith and trust in love”.

Ultimately this temptation is about trust. Can I trust God to work in my life? Sometimes I place demands on God that God has not promised to fulfill. When I do this, am I walking on faith? Am I trusting in love? The issue is trust. I am reminded of an 18th century prayer from the Church of Scotland:

“Lord, I give myself to you,
and what I cannot give,
I invite you to take away”.

The understandings of ourselves and God come together in this temptation in a specific way: if our temptation is toward the applause and the adulation, and if our tendency is to see God in just the same way, as One who comes in extraordinary and spectacular ways, then the task for us this Lent is to resist the Tempter, to let go of our need to be people pleasers, and to believe and trust fully in the One who is worth pleasing.

The temptations of Jesus are our temptations: To be relevant—turn stones into bread; to be powerful—to have all of the kingdoms of the world; to be spectacular—to throw ourselves from the temple.

The temptations of Jesus come to us in many forms: to do the urgent rather than the important; to choose power without love over the power of God, which is love; to be people pleasers, rather than God pleasers.

And so we are left with questions: How do these temptations become real for you? As a parent? In your professional life? In your relationship to God? In your pull away from what you know to be your mission in life? Where do you experience the tensions in your own life having to do with urgency (this would be your schedule), power (this would be your relationships), and motivation (this would be your reasons for doing what you are doing)? If you sat for a moment and thought about it, do you feel those tensions within yourself? Can you hear the voice of the tempter? Can you hear another voice, perhaps the still small voice of God?

Here is the good news. If the temptations of Jesus are our temptations, the resources he used to battle temptation are ours as well. There are three resources: a baptismal identity, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the authority of the scriptures. A baptismal identity: Jesus was baptized, he was a child of God, he was claimed by God, and he had heard his Father’s voice say about him, “You are my beloved Son, I am pleased with You”. In resisting temptation we will need to remember that we have been baptized and claimed as children of God. The presence of the Holy Spirit: The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. He was full of the Holy Spirit. In the scriptures temptation and the presence of the Holy Spirit are always closely related. And when life is most difficult for us it will be helpful to remember that we are not alone. God’s spirit surrounds us, dwells within us, goes before us, a cloud by day, a fire by night. The authority of the Scriptures: Jesus was able to draw strength from the knowledge that God had always been with his people, to free them from bondage. This knowledge comes to us from the Word. When we are tempted to be relevant, powerful, spectacular, we will need something to ground us in the reality of who we are in God’s sight, and that is the Bible.

In Lent, as we walk with Jesus, we claim these resources that were a part of his faithfulness: a baptismal identity, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the authority of the Word. Lent is a time to face temptations, to ask those questions, to sort out those voices, to clarify not only what is right and wrong, but what is good and what is better, what is of God and what is not. It is the spiritual adventure of mapping out our lives and destinies, discovering who we really are and where we are going. It is the spiritual struggle from which none of us spared, but in which none of us is alone.

The good news is that we are not the first to set out on this spiritual journey. The writer of Hebrews reminds us:

We have a high priest, who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace in time of need” (Hebrews 4. 15-16).

Let us pray:

Lord, I give myself to you,
And what I cannot give,
I invite you to take away.


Sources: Kennon Callahan, for the interpretation of Luke 7; Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According To Matthew; Henri Nouwen, In The Name of Jesus.