Thursday, August 17, 2017
Shalom: wholeness, completeness.
It's a word that is intertwined with another Jewish word shelemut or perfection.
Shalom is more than the absence of war, quarrel or strife. Shalom is a biblical notion of a manifestation of divine grace. The Hebrew root word for grace means to "pitch a tent" or "set up camp." It's used when Isaac departed and "pitched his tent in the valley of Gerar and dwelt there" (Genesis 26:17). What I love about that image is that God's grace pitches a tent or sets up camp within us. When the Israelites set up camp, they pitched their tents in a large circle as a way of creating a wall or separation from the world around them. Imagine the grace of God as a wall around us. Shalom as refuge and strength. Psalm 29:11 says, "The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace."
As I watch so much upheaval, hostility, violence, oppression, discrimination, bigotry, hatred, and distrust growing between races, religions, and nationalities, I cannot help but meditate on Shalom and our world's desperate lack. When I watch the news, I grow disheartened and downcast at what I see, not as a breakdown of race in this country, but the ugly racism that underlies so much of our history rearing its head so boldly. We cannot heal what we do not face and until we do, there will be no Shalom. So I come to this word, reflecting on its deeper meanings than the mere use of "peace" that we so often speak of. Part of this mediation comes from my spending the end of this year studying the Beatitudes more closely and applying it to my daily life. Certainly current events are a cold reminder that there needs to be more "peacemakers" in our culture, communities, nations and world. Those who embrace with their very lives the ideal of "Shalom" or wholeness, of completeness. Those who understand that this is not only a personal state but one that we are meant to live out in the world. Shalom is a standing against that which would attempt to shatter and fracture wholeness: injustice, racism, oppression, poverty and our obsession with nationalism and war.
Two of the greatest modern peacemakers (Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr) both drew their strength and belief in working for Shalom in a nonviolent way because of their using Christ as a role model for living out peace in the midst of strife, antagonism, discrimination, extreme violence and brutality. Both men lived out this belief to the very cost of their lives. Shalom was something important enough to give one's life for just as Jesus did. They grasped that it is only those who are willing to take "Blessed are the peacemakers" literally and not as mere platitude who Jesus says, "Shall be called the sons and daughters of God."
Patriarch Bartholomew wrote, "Unless our actions are founded on love, rather than on fear, they will never be able to overcome fanaticism or fundamentalism . . . Only those who know - deep inside the heart - that they are loved can be true peacemakers. Our peacemaking ultimately stems from and relates to love for all of God's creation, both human and environmental. In this form, peacemaking is a radical response to policies of violence and the politics of power."
How many of us are willing to step up, to the very risk of our lives, and become "Shalom-makers?" One that we saw recently was Heather Heyer, who died expressing exactly what Christ, Gandhi and Martin Luther King did. And it cost her her very life. Yet that life cut short speaks loud volumes in a world that is so often obsessed with self and self-interests. So often we ask ourselves, "What would I have done had I lived during the time of the Nazis?" or "What would I have done during the Civil Rights Movement?" During such a time as we are in now, the answer is: Exactly what you are doing in this very moment. If you are not speaking out and standing up against such bigotry and hatred, then you would have been silent then.
"Peace," Martin Luther King, Jr, once said, "is not merely a goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal." Peace. Shalom is a daily way of living and approaching others, especially those who are different from ourselves (whether that be race, religion, gender, sexuality, nationality).
During the time of Christ, it was customary for men to address each other with, "Shalom! Shalom!" (Peace! Peace!). Yet when Jesus speaks of Shalom, he is not referencing a salutation but a spiritual state of being. In the gospel of John, Christ tells his disciples, "Shalom (Peace) I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." He is about to leave them and his words are meant to more than comfort his followers, they are meant to be reminders when the world is hostile, violent, and they feel overwhelmed and defeated by the hatred and opposition they encounter.
The Shalom Christ speaks of is not only a sense of spiritual well-being (inner peace) but a desire to work towards Shalom in the world around them. It is a working towards ending injustice. As Dr. King wisely said, "Without justice there can be no peace. He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it." From the time of the prophets of the Old Testament to the ministry of Christ, the kingdom of heaven was never meant just as some future, heavenly place of perfection and peace, but was meant to spur us on to work towards that in our daily lives, in our workplaces, our communities, in the world that God has set us in. Shalom-making was a persistent and driving force to end oppression, end poverty, end inequality, end injustice, end persecution, end slavery, end social and economic inequality, and end any wall or barrier that we would place between ourselves and someone else. Cain once asked God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" and, unfortunately, too many now continue to ask that very same question; despite Christ's having answered it emphatically, "YES!" Love your neighbor as yourself. Who is your neighbor? Everyone.
Unless we are willing to work and, possibly lay down our lives, for Shalom, then we cannot under any circumstances begin to refer to ourselves as "the children of God." Christ said otherwise. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God." If we are silent, if we are complacent, if we are too busy pursuing our own self-interests, then we are hypocrites who claim something we have no spiritual right to claim: being a son or daughter of God. How can we claim to truly have the peace of God if we are not willing to face the suffering of others and work to end that suffering?
James 3:16-18 states, "For where ency and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil work will be there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace."
We cannot claim righteousness if we are not sowing peace, making peace in a world that has so little of it. As followers of Christ, we are called and impelled to pursue Shalom. What Charlottesville has shown us is that the Church has too often failed to do so.
The Apostle Paul wrote, "Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace..." (Romans 14:9). Pursue is active. It requires action from us, not just verbal or mental agreement. Pursuing peace means we have to get up and get out into the very world that needs us to be peacemakers.
The Church should be at the forefront of ending racial hatred, inequality, injustice, and poverty. We should not be content to stay within our own walls speaking and preaching and teaching of personal holiness while ignoring what the prophet Isaiah called, "preach(ing) the gospel of peace"bring(ing) glad tidings of good things?" Are we? Are we bringing "good things" to a world that is broken and hurting. Hurt so often turns to fear and fear often expresses itself through violence. Are we showing them the wholeness, the completeness of turning away from violence of any kind and walking in the very Shalom of Christ that changes and transforms those who are bound up in hatred and fear?
To work towards peace means we have to die to self, to let go of our sense of entitlement and self-preservation. The pursuit of peace is the only way to reconciliation of any kind. As the Psalmist says, "Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it!" The question is, are we really and truly pursuing Shalom? Are we sowing peace? In our homes and our communities? If we are not willing to step up, speak out and do so, then how can we honestly expect there to be anything but what we are witnessing in the news? We cannot afford to live in the falsehood of our safe and secure versions of Christianity with its focus solely on personal salvation. No, we are called to be peacemakers, but will we ignore Christ's call?
Friday, August 11, 2017
When Christ tells his disciples, "You will always have the poor with you," as he did in Matthew 26:11, I don't think this was a matter-of-fact statement but a warning. Throughout the Bible, we see God's love and identification with the poor. His prophets are constantly reminding the nation of Israel not to neglect the poor.
Years ago, when I worked in management for a drugstore chain, I was managing one in what was considered the bad parts of town. On a daily basis, I interacted with drug addicts, homeless people, prostitutes, shoplifters and the poor. I got to know some of them better and began to realize that behind all of their situations were stories, many involving poor choices but also a lot of heartache, tragedy, and often abuse or neglect or poverty in their own childhoods. These were not statistics but people. I often took time out of my day to speak to them and just listen, even taking one homeless man (who had a college degree in art history) out for a Thanksgiving meal at one of he few restaurants that was open back then (a buffet).
My time getting to know some of these people changed my attitude about the poor and shed some of my misconceptions or stereotypes as to who they were and why they were in their circumstances. Reading Matthew Desmond's Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City does that as well and for the same reason. Desmond focuses on the stories of people who are trapped in substandard and low-income housing (one is described as having "maggots sprouting from unwashed dishes in the sink" as well as being infested with rats and roaches). He brilliantly allows those who are caught in this cycle of poverty to speak for themselves, to tell about their own lives. Many of them are not shiftless, lazy, and irresponsible.
Evicted tells stories, often disturbing ones, of how the people who live in these low-incoming housing often have to pay exorbitant costs for rent (often anywhere from 50-80% of their income, leaving inadequate amounts for their other needs: such as medicine and food). There are over 10 million people who are struggling to pay rent and utilities, as well as landlords who take advantage of their status by not repairing walls, sinks, broken windows because it's cheaper to evict a family than it is to do the needed fixes to the apartments or homes. The problems that come with these evictions are that the force children to change schools and often cost the adults their jobs; all of which undermine neighborhoods and inflict deep emotional and physical scars on those who suffer from being kicked out of their homes. All the while, they long for normalcy and a clean home. One of those written about is 13-year old Ruby Hinston, who takes refuge in the local library where she spends time on a computer creating her "dream home." And what does it look like? Not some mansion, but simply a house with "clean, light-reflecting floors, a bed with sheets and pillowcases, and a desk for doing schoolwork."
Matthew Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, breaks the book down into three parts: Rent, Out and After. As he tells the stories of those involved, he warns us, "Every year in this country, families are evicted out of their homes not by the tens of thousands or even the hundreds of thousands, but by the millions." Yet how many of us are unaware of even stop for a moment to think about or consider this fact of life in one of the wealthiest countries in the world but where there is such disparity between the haves and the have-nots? A country that spends great sums of money to subsidize housing for people who are well-off while the poorest of the poor are completely left out. Only one in four of low-income households that qualify for assistance actually receives it.
The people who inhabit this book are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty in a country that is filled with such privilege. He follows the lives of eight families in deindustrialized Milwaukee. He presents the brutal truth of poverty in America but is never preachy or heavy-handed. Desmond simply lets their heart-breaking stories unfold before the reader. This book is eye-opening and heart-breaking. While it's not an easy read, it's an extremely necessary one.
What haunts me is some of the very last lines of the book:
Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering - by no American value is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.
No, indeed, there isn't. As I read those words, I couldn't help but hear Christ warning, "Woe to you . . ." and I wondered if we would ever truly listen?
Matthew Desmond's official website:
Tuesday, August 8, 2017
When Jen Hatmaker wrote Of Mess and Moxie, I (a white male edging nearer to 50 than I am comfortable with) am not her target demographic. No, she did not write this book for me (and even says so in the book trailer - though not mentioning me by name - but saying that this one's for the girls, echoing one of her favorite songs by Martina McBride). So I go into her latest work with this in mind, just as I did her last, For The Love.
I first encountered Jen Hatmaker when I read her book Interrupted, which came at just the right time because I, too, was at the place where she was in writing that book. I had been challenged deeply by Shane Caliborne's The Irresistible Revolution with its stressing the gospel of social justice. Since then, I have read her other works and have watched a shift in her focus. Her writing is hilarious, honest and inclusive with an "all is welcome to the table" approach. It's that last one that has upset many conservative Evangelicals who disagreed with her changing her stance on same-sex marriage and the LGBTQ community in the Church.
Of Mess and Moxie is written in the same conversational, between-us-girls, tone that she blogs, posts on Facebook and wrote For the Love and has garnered her such a huge following on social media. She draws the reader in using the same style of two close friends sitting down to have an open, funny and honest dialogue with. It's the life is messy but let's get through this together attitude and it has won her both her admirers and her detractors (the latter often commenting on Hatmaker's using less biblical references and more on pop culture: such as binge watching shows on Netflix). It's unfair to review her latest with that mindset because she wasn't setting out to wrestle with theology so much as to encourage women of all ages that they've got this, that they can do it, and to exhort them while making them laugh and cry and come away wishing they were neighbors with her.
"I am not afraid of storms," Louisa May Alcott wrote in her classic Little Women, "for I am learning how to sail my ship." It's a wonderful and apropos quote for this book about navigating the day-to-day lives of family, friendships, and faith.
The first essay entitled "Unbranded" tends to take a light-hearted dig at her earlier, more overly-earnest and religious books (including Interrupted and 7) and repeats the idea that "You don't have to be who you were." She deftly moves from a self-deprecating humor to encouragement, "You are far more than your worst day, your worst experience, your worst season, dear one. You are more than the sorriest decision you ever made, You are more than the darkest sorrow you've ever endured." It's not an easy transition to make but she manages to do so deftly. She is willing to write of her insecurities and issues and struggles without cynicism but with a generous spirit towards herself and others going through those same struggles.
Of Mess and Moxie about the shifting, shaping of self that goes on throughout all seasons of life and how those are bumpy, messy, frustrating, funny, and filled with both triumphs and tragedies. She connects because she writes of the tensions between caring about Syrian refugees and Gilmore Girls. It's not either or. One does not have to give up joy to balance community, church and the world Christ's called us to love. A person can enjoy pool parties and be concerned about human trafficking. She hits home with so many readers because she candidly talks about how demoralizing comparing ourselves to others can be, how she wrestles with enjoying the beauty God created along with reaching out to take care of the poor and the oppressed; that there are times for feast as well as fasting.
Many of the essays that comprise this book are witty, honest and relatable. I would imagine it's the relatability of her her writing that has garnered such loyal followers and put Jen Hatmaker on the bestseller list (where I'm sure this book will also find itself). Yet it was the chapters where she lets her guard down and opens her heart that were the ones I responded the most to. One of my favorite chapters is also the most honest. In "We Live," Hatmaker writes of heartache and healing, of the importance of counseling. I love the line "nothing in your life is too dead for resurrection." As someone who has struggled with depression and knows first-hand the reality of the line from the Psalm 139:8, "Even if I make my bed in the depths of hell, you are there," I get what she's writing about in this chapter.
Another that impacted me most deeply was Chapter 12, entitled "Sanctuary." It's here that Jen Hatmaker writes of her struggles with the Church; but it's not an angry rant or a malicious, harshly-critical one, but one that springs from the heart of someone who deeply loves this flawed corporate body that's meant to reflect Christ to the world around her. The Church is to be a sanctuary and Jen takes the word at its very meaning: a sacred place where fugitives were entitled to immunity from arrest." This means a safe place for all: whether they be "the guilty, the outcast, the refugee, the criminal, the desperate." Christ was just such a safe place to all who came to him. It's clear from this chapter that Hatmaker wants a Church whose doors are open to everyone and that each person is welcome to the table. "... all are safe, equally valued, everyone ministered to and included." It's this last part that have caused many in the Church to accuse the author of abandoning orthodoxy in favor of what they consider to be political correctness or an embracing of the cultural and social norms over biblical truth. What I read, however, in her writing, is someone who loves and wants to love others as they are, where they are just as Jesus did.
Jen Hatmaker wants to set up a bigger table. She asks, "Who is unseen? Who is left out? Who is marginalized? Whose voice is silenced? Whose story is outside the lines?" I love this because it makes me see Christ because those were the places where he was always found and it always, always upset the religious establishment who were more concerned about piety, purity and law than they were about love. Hatmaker's prose shines when she writes about a Church that is less homogeneous and more vibrant with the stories of all who are a part of it and where every voice is heard, including women in the pulpits.
She promotes a Church that embodies Christ in his ability to listen to the heart-stories of others who had gone unseen and unheard, so that he could embrace them (no matter how far they were outside of Jewish culture and religion). A welcoming Church. But loving so openly, so unconditionally is not easy and will anger a great many. As Frederick Buechner wrote, "(Christ's) life speaks loud of how, in a world where there is little love, love is always lonely." I'm sure Jen Hatmaker got a taste of this loneliness for wanting to welcome the "banned" and make them see they are "God's beloved."
In her poem "The Summer Day," Mary Oliver asked: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Jen Hatmaker seems to answer Oliver's question when she writes, "...this is your one life, and fear, approval, and self-preservation are terrible reasons to stay silent, stay put, stay sidelined." That is the message that underlies Of Mess and Moxie and, while this book may not have been written for me, I, for one, am glad that I ignored the book's focused marketing demographic and embraced the generous, open and loving heart of Jen Hatmaker.
Official book trailer:
Jen Hatmaker's official website:
Friday, August 4, 2017
I read this passage today in Finding God in All Things: A Marquette Prayer Book by Farther Pedro Arrupe, S.J. and thought I'd share it:
"Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything."
Saturday, July 29, 2017
Having grown up in many toxic churches where religion was used not to grow a person's faith but as a way for the pastor to control his congregants, it's amazing to me that I even believe in any form of Christianity or go to church at all. For me, religion is what happens when people replace faith, which is nourishing and healthy, with fear. Religion has caused a great many people to be done with not only the Church but with Christ. It definitely makes me think of Gandhi saying, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." How many others have either left the Church or Christianity for the exact same reason? Statistics show that people are leaving both in droves, opting to believe in nothing rather than the hypocrisy they see.
Zach Hoag should have been one of them.
In The Light is Winning, Hoag writes what is part memoir and part assessment of the modern "spiritual but not religious" trend. It's both a deconstruction of the statistics as well as his own journey within the Church itself. He starts from his childhood and growing up in a Pentecostal apocalyptic cult that dealt on the militant doom of eschatology. Not a healthy baseline to begin with, as an adult, Zach Hoag also suffered through his failed attempts at church planting. Struggling with the institutionalized abuse of religion, the spiritual trauma that comes from it, as well as wrestling with conservative theologies (particularly Calvinism) until coming to a more progressive form of Christianity. So much of his past could have easily disillusioned Hoag enough to be one of the "nones" or "dones" and yet he attempts to reconcile himself within the walls of the Church.
How many of us have had a dark night of the soul because of the Church and find ourselves tender to any harshness that might come from well-meaning believers who are attempting to bring us back in the fold without an understanding of what makes us want to leave it in the first place? Zach Hoag's book avoids platitudes and rhetoric and speaks directly to those who are still in that wilderness.
The Light is Winning is written in a compassionate, humorous and honest way. While it too often leans on cultural pop references (Breaking Bad, True Detective, The Walking Dead, Mad Men), I appreciate Hoag's writing about a real spiritual problem without trying to give quick cultural fixes. His is a call to go deeper, to move beyond the Church's embrace of empire and prosperity and what Richard Rohr calls "easy ego consolations" to a faith that is richer, more honest and more Christ-like.
While it is, at times, an unevenly written book, what draws me in is that it is a book that genuinely wrestles with the unfortunate weaknesses of the Church (such authoritarianism) but does so out of a love for the Church and, in the end, offers hope. For Hoag, the light truly is winning.
Zach Hoag's official website:
Sunday, July 23, 2017
Lately, I find myself refocusing and reconsidering the Parable of the Prodigal Son, as it's incorrectly named. Like so much of what Christ taught and said and did, this parable must have been deeply shocking and troubling to his listeners. To begin a parable with a younger son going to his father, the center of their patriarchal society, and telling him, "Father, give me my share of property that is coming to me." Essentially, the younger son is saying, "Father, you are as dead to me. I want what is coming to me now." This meant that the Father had to sell of half of his property and his livestock (both of which determined his standing in society, so by selling half meant that he was lowering himself in the community). The reverence that was usually accorded to a Father in that culture was being challenged.
Putting myself into the crowd of those who heard this parable, I can only imagine how upsetting it was to hear this opening and how angry it would have made me. "How dare this younger son be so callous and cold! Why didn't the Father berate and chastise his younger son for being so indifferent and selfish? How could the Father just give in to his younger son's wishes?"
I also thought of a time in my own youth where, in a fit of anger, I yelled at my own father, "I hate you!" The expression of pain on his face at my words still haunt me today.
What was the expression of the Father as his younger son said these cold, hard words to him? His heart must have broken. In this culture, he had every right to respond in anger, to cast out his son, to react with, "How dare you? Do you know who I am? Do you know what you're asking of me and what that would do to my standing in this community? Do you not grasp how others would look at me if I granted such a request?"
Yet the Father did. The Father granted his son's wishes, despite the audacity and coldness of it.
And the younger son gathered all he now had and journeyed off to a far country. First, he distances himself from his Father by wishing him as dead and now he is physically distancing himself from him. As if that weren't enough, the younger son then squanders all that his Father has given him on reckless and debauched living. The term "prodigal" literally means "wasteful." It comes from the Latin roots that mean forth and to drive, which means he went forth to squander and waste all that he had. In his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen wrote, "I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found."
How many of us have gone a far way off from our Father (God) in search of love in places and people and possessions that will never ever be able to fill our needs for unconditional love and acceptance? Even when we marry, we so often choose a spouse who reminds us of our parents and, at the same time, we want them to correct the mistakes that our parents made. It's an unfair burden to place on the one we marry and yet we often expect them to become our world and to make us their world. When cracks begin to happen and difficulties arise, many look at the person they married and wonder just who they really are? No one person or even many people can fill all the needs we have from all the unseen hurts and wounds that have occurred over our lives.
Many people turn to alcohol, drugs, parties, an active social life, or even becoming involved in causes in the hopes that such things will take away that deep seated feeling of loneliness, loss, insecurity, fear, and the sense that we are nothing more than a fraud and that if anyone saw behind the mask, they would not and could not love us. We flee ourselves in the desire to find someone that truly accepts and loves us, which they cannot because we cannot.
Such is the prodigal son. Despite the love his Father has for him, he flees to another country. A misspent youth. We like to focus on this son because it is easier to condemn his sins. His being an extravagant profligate, who probably spent his money trying to gain friends and loves. I think of F. Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby, the focus of this masterpiece, is a man who cannot move on from the rejection of Daisy Buchanan because he was a "poor boy." To change that and earn her love, Gatsby sets out to become wealthy and desirable. When he achieves success, wealth, and has a grand mansion, he begins to through lavish parties in the hopes that Daisy will attend one and see all that he has amounted and who he has become and fall in love with him. It's all success and excess - and emptiness. Fitzgerald expresses it best when he wrote, "There's a loneliness that only exists in one's mind. The loneliest moment in someone's life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart and all they can do is stare blankly." This describes accurately not only the characters of this book, but the prodigal son as his money runs out.
Luke writes that a sever famine arose in the country. The younger son is broke and starving with nowhere to turn. Those friends he had caroused and celebrated with are now gone. There is no more pleasure to be bought to hide from the pain. What does he do? He hires himself out and, to the horror of every Jew listening to this story unfold, is tending to pigs. How could a Jew get any lower? The son is feeding and taking care one of the most dirty and unclean of animals in their law. He has sunk as low as one could be. And it doesn't stop there, for Christ adds that the son begins to long to eat the food of that swine. Were there audible gasps from the crowd at different points throughout this narrative? How many of them were horrified that Jesus would even tell such a tale?
In the midst of his starving, the prodigal doesn't come to his senses so much as give in to his basic needs of survival. He realizes that the servants of his Father live better than he does, so he takes it in his mind to return and ask to become on of his Father's hired men. He is giving up claim to son-ship for servant-hood.
The next part of the parable is among the most beautiful in all of scripture and, yet, how must it have offended the listeners hearing it? The Father, who has been waiting with longing, has been keeping watch day after day after day, scanning the horizon in the hopes his prodigal son will return to him. What? No male within this culture would understand the Father's reasoning here. And to add insult to injury, when the Father sees his son a long way off, he runs to him. Excuse me? A Father run to a son? That is unheard of. And to run to this son who has shamed his Father in the community? But Jesus says that the Father felt "compassion" for his son. Compassion is something that comes from deep within someone. the Jews believed that compassion came from the bowels. It was that primal and affected the human body that much. And the Father runs to this son and embraces him. A son who is spiritually, ritually, legally and physically unclean. This is a son who has slept with prostitutes, who has touched and fed pigs and is covered in their muck. He is as filthy and smelly as the worst of homeless people. His stench must have reeked so that his Father smelled him long before he ever embraced him. And, yet, his love overcomes all. He embraces and kisses his son. This shows an unconditional love beyond anything anyone who heard this parable could comprehend.
Those listening must have been furious and disgusted at the notion of a Father debasing himself even further for this child who, by all accounts, is no longer a son and should never, ever be welcomed back into the Father's home or life or even within his Father's sight. He should have been stoned to death. His sins warranted death and the Father choose life. He gave him back his rights as his son. He calls for the best robe (which would have been the Father's robe) to be brought and placed on this child and for a ring to be put on his hand. For the fatted calf to be killed and prepared for a feast to celebrate this son's return. A child who thought himself fit only to be a servant, is now reconciled to the Father as his son.
Henri Nouwen writes, "The immense joy in welcoming back the lost son hides the immense sorrow that has gone before . . . our brokenness may not appear beautiful, but our brokenness has no other beauty that comes from the compassion that surrounds it."
But the parable does not end with a "Happily ever after" kind of ending. Jesus wasn't done yet. Now he moves on to the elder son. The older son was in the field. He was hard at work supervising the field hands. He is sweaty doing his duty as an elder son. He is responsible. What we now hear is that the elder son starts to come back towards the house when he hears the music, the celebration and sees the dancing (Had no one even thought to call him in?). The elder brother calls over a servant and asks what's going on. After the servant tells him, the elder brother is seized with anger, with all of the bitter dutifulness of the days he has served his Father faithfully and discovers that his younger brother, who has offended and hurt their Father, is being celebrated for coming back after wasting his inheritance?
I would imagine that most listening, including myself now, can relate to the elder brother's feelings. This seems unfair. The elder brother's anger is such that he will not go back into his Father's house to join in any of the festivities. I can only picture and hear the muttering and cursing and complaining and fury that this brother expressed, alone, outside. The violence that must have risen up in him.
Once again, to the shock of those listening, Christ says, "His father came out and entreated him . . ."
A Father come out to a son? A Father entreat and not simply demand his son's obedience? "I am your Father and you will do what I tell you to do! Get in that house, now!"
The Father entreated the elder son. Entreated in Hebrew means to supplicate. The Father is begging his son to come inside. A Father is begging a son. This was so alien and foreign to that culture that it must have offended every sensibility that wasn't already offended by every other part of this story. This was all counter-cultural. This was all contrary to the law and their concept of fatherhood, patriarchy and the very structure of their entire cultural, political and religious system.
The elder brother's response? Indignation. He bitterly recounts his faithfulness, his obedience. His jealousy and anger lashes out at his Father. He, essentially, is questioning how his Father is running things. "You're unfair! You're unjust!" He is hardened and bitter and resentful - but not just of his younger brother - but more so at his Father.
Once again, we are given a Father who is abused and mistreated by his son. We are also given a portrait of pure unadulterated grace, as the Father replies, "Son, you are always with me..." What a line. It brings tears to my eyes to think of a Father saying this with such tenderness and compassion and love. The Father continues, "... and all that is mine is yours." Even in the midst of his son's tirade, the Father is reminding his son, "You're mine. I love you and will give all to you. Everything that is mine will be yours." He doesn't berate the son. He doesn't criticize the son. He doesn't get offended and ask, "Who do you think you are?" No, he reminds him of whose he is. "You are my son."
The parable ends with the Father's words, "It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found."
I love how Henri Nouwen describes this parable as how we are all of us, at one time, the prodigal younger brother and, at other times, the self-righteous elder brother but that we are all called to be like the Father. And what a call that is.
To be reconciled to the Father, we must be willing to let the Father be the Father. To love us unconditionally, that we can be healed, restored and renewed. It's all the Father. He runs to us when we're prodigals. He entreats us when we are the bitter elder brother. But, in both cases, he welcomes and loves us and wants most desperately and unashamedly to have us in his family. And this is the very God who created us. He created us for this fellowship, to be a part of his family and He will has debased his worthiness of worship to make us worthy to be called "Beloved," to be called His "son" or His "daughter." He wants only to embrace us, as we are and where we are. This is overwhelming grace. This is all gift and not deserved. The call of the Father is simply, "Welcome home. I love you. You are Mine."
Thursday, July 20, 2017
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled," Christ announces in what we call the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:6). If you don't read this, or any of the Sermon on the Mount, and see it as counter-cultural, then you will miss that this is not some ethereal, other-worldly kingdom Christ is speaking of, but the sweat and soil of the here and now. For Christ, spirituality is always rooted in humanity, in community. This was not some teaching for a future time and some far off kingdom, but was meant to be lived out in the place where each and every one of his hearers were. This is a sermon for who you are and where you are, not for some by and by heavenly future kingdom.
Christ was teaching predominantly Jews. Oppressed Jews under Roman rule. These were dire and poor people, who were taxed 90% of what they made (not only by Rome but by the Temple). They were desperate and hungry, literally. They barely had enough to eat. Much of them followed Jesus in the hopes that he would multiply loaves and fishes because they were starving.
Even among the Jews, they were spiritually diverse: Historians said that there were five sects in Judaism: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and Sicarii. And even among those five sects there were at least two dozen competing belief systems during the first century when Jesus taught. So among his listeners were people caught up among these competing belief systems. Each one was coming to Christ with a different take on even what Judaism was. How much of what Jesus taught was filtered through these belief systems?
Certainly, they would have been shocked by the Beatitudes, which upended the construct of how their religious and cultural life was structured. Even within our seemingly modern world, his words do not resonate with reality but challenge our idea of what reality and how things should work.
How many of them thought the knew and understood Yahweh only to have Christ telling them, "You have heard it said" or "You have been taught this about God, but I tell you" and find that their belief system is skewed and that they don't understand the character and nature of their Creator. How many of them understood law, but not love? How many of them were, unknowingly, starving and thirsting for grace and an unconditional love that never ends?
Were they shocked? Were they offended? Were they somewhere in-between? Did they struggle to fit this in with the religion they believed and held dear? In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard wrote, "The Beatitudes simply cannot be 'good news' if they are understood as a set of 'how-to's' for achieving blessedness. They would then only amount to a new legalism. They would not serve to throw open the kingdom - anything but. They would impose a new brand of Phariseeism." How did those who stood or sat there on the mount, could not work these words into the fabric of their faith? Could they hear what Christ was telling them or did they ascribe this into exactly what Dallas Willard is calling a "new brand of Phariseeism?" Were these words setting them free or simply baffling and confusing them?
The Emperor Constantine I made Christianity legal, though many falsely believe he made it the official religion. Constantine, whose mother was a Christian, understood that he could not be emperor and run an empire if he truly followed the teachings of Christ, specifically the Sermon on the Mount. He, himself, would not convert until he was on his deathbed. It was only decades after Constantine's death that Emperor Theodosis I make Christianity the official religion of Rome. But that's how serious Constantine viewed the Sermon on the Mount.
How many people who would refer to themselves as "Christian" honestly believe the Beatitudes enough to even begin attempting to live them out in daily life? I must admit that, in my own life, at times, any assemblance of a spiritual life is sporadic and a real struggle. During these periods there is definitely not a hungering or thirsting for anything remotely righteous. There are days when I don't pray, don't even have a fleeting wish to pick up my Bible and read it. It is in those times when I cannot even grasp, "You're blessed when you've worked up a good appetite for God. He's food and drink in the best meal you'll ever eat" (The Message).
Were there those in that crowd who were like me and these words fell on deaf ears? Were they thinking, "Jesus, we are literally hungering and thirsting because we don't have anything to eat and yet you offer us no bread, no fish but only words. We get enough platitudes from our religious leaders. Our empty bellies don't need more words, more religion." Did they walk away? As Gandhi once said, "There are people in the world so hungry, God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread."
Jesus was not a people pleaser. Though he drew large crowds, he was not interested in keeping them (clearly from what he so often taught and did). How many left after each of the beatitudes he offered them? How many could not fathom this kingdom and the topsy-turvy way it worked?
How many were angry? "We want Rome gone! We want Israel to be a great nation again. We want a messiah who will rise up, overthrow our oppressors, and make us into what we once were under King David."
Hunger in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek means "famine, dire hunger" So when Jesus says, "Blessed are those who hunger" he is not just saying, "Blessed are those who are hungry for a meal, whose stomachs are grumbling." He is drawing a portrait of someone who is going to die without this hunger being met, or this thirst being quenched. His metaphors paint a stark, bleak one that people in that crowd knew and understood just what real hunger truly was. Many of them were at the bottom of the political and economic ladder and were marginalized not only by the Romans but also by the religious leaders. They were not feeling "blessed" for they did not know abundance, except in sorrows, pains and trials. If I were among them, would I have stayed to listen or walked off in disgust?
The Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran wrote this verse as, "Blessed are they who hunger after truth and beauty, for their hunger shall bring bread, and their thirst cool water."I love the poetics of this translation. Gibran connects "truth and beauty" for the truth that Christ is proclaiming in the Beatitudes is beautiful in that he is telling those who are feeling left out, marginalized, forgotten, and oppressed that you are not unseen, you are not unheard, you are not forgotten. You are the kingdom of God.
In her book the Very Good Gospel, Lisa Sharon Harper writes, "If this news would not lead my oppressed ancestors to shout with joy, then maybe it's not good news at all - or at least it's not good enough." Would this gospel, would this Sermon on the Mount, be heard as good news to those who were enslaved in this country? Or how about to the indigenous people who were brutalized, butchered and had everything from their land to their language to their culture taken away from them? Would they hear the Beatitudes and find what Jesus had to say as good? Would they hunger and thirst for these words? Would they hear truth as beautiful? Would they hear these teachings as what Frederick Dale Bruner called "God-bless-you's to people in God-awful situations?"
So I ask myself: Do I hunger and thirst after righteousness?
And what did Christ even mean by righteousness? Was he referring to holiness?
Righteousness in Hebrew is sedeq and is not some abstract idea relating to virtues, but is connected to community and a right standing within it. Righteousness is right standing within a court system, in which one has found favor. Do we view righteousness as our right standing before God because we have found favor with Him? Too often, I think we view righteousness as a kind of self-righteousness best portrayed by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live as the busy-body, Church Lady. Do we see righteousness through the lens of God's grace and love poured out on us through Christ Jesus? Righteousness means to be in covenant with, that we are justified and vindicated. Righteousness or right-standing is bestowed upon us.
In the kingdom Christ is speaking of, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness because they will be filled. Just as one is filled after a great and sumptuous meal (of how we eat at the holidays), so too one can be filled by the desire to seek after right-standing with God, in community. This also means that we seek after the right-standing and justice of all. It means we put ourselves in solidarity with those who are poor, oppressed, marginalized, and suffering injustice. John Dear writes in his powerful book The Beatitudes of Peace, "Most translations use the word righteousness as in 'doing what is right before God,' but that usually is seen as referring solely to one's personal integrity. Instead, the word speaks of the pursuit of universal social, economic, racial and political 'justice' that God demands of us."
But do I hunger and thirst after such things in my own life or do I go along with the status quo, even within the Church?
Am I awakened by the Beatitudes so much that I cannot slumber or rest until I am filled? Do I attempt to fill myself with other things? Comfort? Possessions? Popularity? The approval of others? What am I hungering and thirsting for?
Or do I, as John Dear wrote, pursue a righteousness of self that does not concern itself with community? If so, then I am not truly working towards what Christ is calling me to here with "as on earth as it is in heaven." As I wrote in the beginning of this post, Jesus is not interested in merely some philosophical or metaphysical argument, but in practical day-to-day, lived out practice that does not neglect the least of these or those who are trapped within their socio-economic situations of dire poverty, human trafficking, modern day slavery, or the racial bias that goes on within our own political and justice systems.
"Whatever you've done for the least of these," Jesus reminds us. If we attempt to disconnect "hunger and thirsting after righteousness" within the context of our world, then we are not honestly living out the gospel of Christ but merely our own personal religious doctrines that satisfy our safety, comfort and self-interests (none of which is where Christ said he would be found).
So, as I reflect and meditate on Matthew 5:6, I find myself, once again, challenged by Christ. I find myself condemned, not by him, but by my own lethargy and neglect to actually live out what I proclaim to follow. That is why I so desperately need the Beatitudes to remind and awaken me to the call of Christ to be poor in spirit, a mourner, meek, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness because all of these things make me more like him and, in my reflecting him, living out the gospel to those who most need good news in a manner that honestly makes this news good because it does transform the community around me.
This is why I pray that I will hear and heed the words of Jesus and that I hunger and thirst to live them out for all, without regard to race, creed, social or economic standing. That I align myself with those who are poor, broken, hurting, oppressed, marginalized and the least of these because it is there and there alone that I will find the Christ who sat down on the mountain and began, "Blessed are those . . ."
Lord, help me to be one of those who are, indeed, blessed because others (no matter who I am with or where I am) can see you in me. That is my hunger. That is what I thirst for. At least today.