Receiving Hope

When Naomi saw that [Ruth] was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. (Ruth 1:18)

What was Naomi feeling after hearing her daughter-in-law’s speech (vv.16-17)?

RuthAndNaomi_HiRes216x288.jpgI’m more and more convinced Naomi was hushed because she didn’t think she deserved the love Ruth lavished upon her. Naomi’s experience in this opening chapter is one of heartache. First, she’s forced to leave her homeland as a refugee in search of food. Then once they settled in a reviled neighboring country, her husband died.

After that, some hope: her sons got married to a couple of local women. But of course, her sons die too.

She’s left in a rival land with daughters-in-law who are also of rival descent.

So when she hears a glimmer of hope in the rumors of abundant food in Judah, her home, she is resolved to go back. But she’s resolved to go back alone.

She doesn’t have any more sons for Ruth and Orpah to marry and bring security (as was the necessity in that time.) She thinks she’s too old to marry a new man and have new kids. The time it would take is too long anyway, they’d find other men and she’d still be left alone. Better to be left alone now.

A woman with a low view of herself and her situation, Naomi is a woman in need of redemption. Though she needs it, she doesn’t feel like she’s capable of being hopeful again.

I think we’re more like Naomi than we would like to admit. While your situation might not be as dark as hers, there are times in all of our lives we feel we aren’t in the realm of hope. Maybe we don’t feel we deserve love. Maybe we feel like God’s face has turned against us.

We might be tempted to tell Naomi to “look at the bright side,” or “focus on the positive,” or even “it’s time to buck up” as if Naomi could overcome her guilt, shame, and sadness all by her lonesome. We might give her a self-help book, or recommend the newest craze in self-actualization. But that would still be leaving it up for Naomi do it herself. God helps those who help themselves right?

The good news for Naomi is her redemption doesn’t come from within but from one who shows her unmerited grace and mercy: Ruth. Even though she felt like she didn’t deserve it, Naomi was still given hope. johannes-plenio-572924-unsplash.jpg

Even if we don’t feel like we deserve it, one of Ruth’s descendants (Matthew 1:5) died so we would be forgiven and was raised so we would be called righteous by God. We find grace and hope in an apple that didn’t fall too far from the tree.

You don’t have to try harder. You don’t have to pray harder. You don’t have to work harder. It is a gift we accept, just as Naomi stopped arguing and accepted her new life with Ruth.

Advertisements

Yearning for Something

When Jesus turned and saw them [the two disciples] following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38a)

When I was working in Texas, I got the opportunity to buy some used bibles. They were the Student Edition of the New Revised Standard Version, one of my two preferred translations (the other being the Common English Bible,) so I jumped at the chance.

I think Amazon would have rated them “good” as far as used books go. One of the reasons they weren’t “excellent” was because a good number of them had writing on the backside of the front hardcover.

It was uniform, so either some mischevious kids got together to be a little snarky (always possible) or one of the leaders of their ministry had them write it in. I won’t soon forget what was written: “If this is the answer, what was the question?”

7j15tXU.jpg

I’m 100% sure teenager Will would have been like, “Woah, that’s deep.”

Maybe the church I purchased the bibles from were full of teenager Wills (though I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.)

Either way, that question sounds a whole lot like Jesus in this short introductory scene in John, “what are you looking for?”

If I wouldn’t sound too much like a purveyor of cynicism, I’d like to ask that question to the visitors who happen to darken the door of First Christian on any given Sunday. In lieu of that, we often ask “what brought you here?” Much more accessible.

We hear a lot of different things: “I’m so and so’s cousin twice removed” or “I used to go here 30 thousand moons ago and remembered y’all still meet” or even “The lackey in the cubicle next to me was droning on and on about it, so I thought I’d check it out.”

None of these reasons answer Jesus’ question though. They are simply an explanation of how they found out about FCC. I’m much more interested the impetus behind the idea of even joining ANY church for worship. “What are you REALLY doing here, like what do you hope to find/gain/see?”

krissana-porto-445840-unsplash.jpg

I’m convinced everybody has a yearning for something deeper, something beyond themselves, the transcendent. People fill that yearning with any number of different things: SoulCycle, St. Louis Cardinals, alcohol, sex, etc. If you can think of it, it’s been tried.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of searching. I’m tired of trying the newest fad which promises to bring me peace. I’m tired of being told to pray more, work more, sleep more, read more, serve more, eat more kale (yuck.) All I hear is the word “more.” And it’s exhausting. All it sounds like is another thing to do, and I’ve got enough of those.

Christ doesn’t give us another to do list but instead gave himself so we might find grace, hope, peace, and love.

And so I end the day with this prayer from St. Augustine, “Say to my soul, I am your salvation. Say it so that I can hear it. My heart is listening, Lord; open the ears of my heart and say to my soul, I am your salvation.” And I sometimes add this ending, “say to my soul, I am your rest.”

Humblebragging and Grace

I am what I am by God’s grace, and God’s grace hasn’t been for nothing. In fact, I have worked harder than all the others—that is, it wasn’t me but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Cor. 15:10, CEB)

I once wrote a paper on a passage from one of Paul the Apostle’s letters (I don’t remember which, but it wasn’t this one.) It was a fantastic paper which I’m sure I received high marks, but what I remember about what I wrote had nothing to do with the actual argument I was making. No, it was one of the footnotes I happened to include.

See, while the main text of my papers was generally straight-laced, prim and proper, I would go out on a bit of a ledge and insert humor into my footnotes. In this particular paper, I wrote something like: “Obviously, Paul was the original humblebrag.”

4745170906_5f42b829d1_b.jpg

“St. Paul” image by Fr. Lawrence, via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

If you don’t know, a humblebrag is one who makes seemingly self-deprecating remarks if only to highlight the good in him or herself. “It’s really weird to be recognized for all this charity work I’ve been doing” is one. Or, “I don’t think I’m all that great, it’s so nice to win this award…”

Paul is great at this. He’s just gotten done calling himself “the least of all apostles.”

The lowest. He’s the bottom rung of the ladder. He’s on par with the worms.

Yeah…the lowest apostle who started a whole bunch of churches, including the one to whom he is pastoring, offering advice, admonishing, and encouraging within the words of this letter.

Of course, Paul is not without his redeeming qualities. He acknowledges God’s grace in his formation. He gives credit where credit is due. Though he does work hard (and he will make sure you know he does), he knows that without Grace he wouldn’t be in this position he’s in.

If left to his own devices, Paul would still be rounding up Christians for punishment, torture, and even death.

But, he’s not. That’s not the life he lives anymore.

He doesn’t attribute it to himself. He didn’t seek out a guru to teach him a special way to act in the world. He didn’t check out the newest self-help book and re-form his life. He didn’t try the new fad promising a new life if he just did these 3 things.

No. That would be self-justification.

Instead, Paul acknowledges the true nature of his change – he was rectified, saved, and changed through Christ’s grace. “I am what I am through God’s grace.”

5387006546_e7a28f311f_b.jpg

“The Conversion of St. Paul” image by Fr. Lawrence, via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Jesus is the actor in Paul’s story, just as he is the actor in all our stories, creating him into something he could not have been otherwise.

Christ does the same for you (even if you humblebrag from time to time.) God through Christ redeems you and recreates you into what you were always meant to be: a beloved child of God.

Thanks be to God for this good news.

Resurrecting Failures

So they [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:8, NRSV)

On Easter, we want majesty; we want victory; we want triumph. What we get in Mark’s version of the resurrection looks less like what we’ve come to expect and more like failure. Instead of heeding the angel’s words, the women run away muted by terror.

16845811877_f1fb867c60_z.jpg

“He is not here for He has Risen” image by Fr. Lawrence, via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The silence of failure rings loudly when we expect the chimes of triumph to sound powerfully.

This isn’t what we expect or want, but it is something we are well acquainted with, for failure is a common thing which runs throughout all our lives. If you’re anything like me, you don’t really remember those glorious moments, but those moments you would rather have a do-over, the “would-of, could-of, should-of” moments where you failed to say the word of love, you failed to hold your tongue, you failed to treat the homeless person with dignity, you failed to see the driver in front of you as a fellow fallen human, you failed to…you fill in the blank.

There’s something we ought to remember though, God uses failures. God has used failures from the very beginning of our shared story: Abraham – an old cheating failure used to start a holy people. Joseph, a loudmouthed failure used to preserve the people. Moses, a murderous failure who lead the people to freedom. The people themselves, failures in following the covenant. Peter, a prototypical failure who helped build the church. Mary, Mary, and Salome, silent failures who eventually spread the news which leads to us, failures all.

God is in the business of using our failures, of turning our failures upside down.

bruno-van-der-kraan-596107-unsplash.jpgThat’s what the resurrection does, it turns failure upside down. The resurrection turns the massive failure in the Crucifixion we helped institute on Good Friday on its head and into Good News.

God in Christ subverts our expectations of how things are supposed to go, resurrecting us from our own failures. Christ frees us from the burden of making sure everything is just so, just right. The resurrection frees us to become who we already are: spirit empowered disciples who rest in the trust that God’s grace is enough to cover our failures.

God is in the business of using failures, of resurrecting us, completing the story left unwritten.

It’s not all up to you, you do not carry the burden. God in Christ was raised to new life that we might be raised from the Death-dealing power of Sin and the grips of our own failures.

And that, my friends, is good news every day. For Christ is risen – He is risen indeed!

Reflecting Back

His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. (John 12:16)

It was only after Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension (the three-fold event behind the author of John’s use of “glorified”), the Disciples were able to see what was really going on. Just like the rest of us, clarity came only upon reflection.

scott-van-daalen-202643-unsplash.jpgThe saying “hindsight is 20/20” is almost ubiquitous in our present culture. I mean, I should have known the #1 overall seed of the NCAA Basketball tournament, Virginia, was going to lose in the first round to the University of Maryland – Baltimore County. Who wouldn’t have guessed that? I should have known the Cubs weren’t going to win the World Series in 2017, what with the hoopla and over-exertion the year before. It’s not just sports though, whether it’s as macro as an election or as micro as interactions with kids, the idea of “we ought to have known…” creeps into the back of our head.

As much as we think we’ve advanced past those simpletons of yesteryear, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, and very rarely do we even notice the meaning of what is happening right in front of our eyes. And when the outcome is less than stellar, we beat ourselves up for not knowing any better (I should have known not having my kids go to bed before 10:30 will result in them waking up late for school…)

But we’re no better than Christ’s disciples. They didn’t understand much of what Jesus did throughout his ministry, let alone this most Holy Week: his counter-cultural parade into Jerusalem laden with Palms, his servanthood typified by washing their feet; his being handed over, tried, and crucified. Only by the power of the Spirit were they able to catch a glimpse of what was going on.

25351473924_efbaae2208_k.jpg

“Night had Fallen” image by Fr. Lawrence, via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

So we are in good company this Holy Week. It’s not up to us to understand all that is going on. We don’t have to comprehend every particular thing. All we have to do is show up and take it in; be open to the Spirit doing something new.

Clarity will come in time, but it might not be in the way you think. It certainly didn’t for Christ’s disciples.

When it Looks Like a Failure

So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” (John 19:5, NRSV)

What happens when your expectations don’t live up to reality?

Surely you know the pangs of disappointment. It’s when you don’t get hired for the job you hoped for; when he says he no longer loves you; when the pregnancy test comes back negative again; when the letter from your top school choice starts out “I’m sorry to inform you…”nathan-dumlao-572049-unsplash.jpg

Disappointment seeps into the bones and sinks its claws into your skin.

If you’re anything like me the worst feeling growing up wasn’t when I was grounded, it wasn’t when I was yelled at, it wasn’t when I was forced to do hard labor. The worst feeling I had was when my parents said, “We’re not mad, we’re just disappointed…”

Ouch.

Disappointing could be a word used to describe the scene in which King Jesus is presented to the world. Even though the author of John makes it plain who Jesus was throughout the Gospel, the image of the Eternal God, disappointment still rules the day.

Though we know this is just a stop on the road, it is a scene of heightened disappointment. If we’re to imagine Jesus as King, we would imagine him clothed in glory with a coronet laden with jewels, not a makeshift cape and thorny crown. We would imagine him the ruler of the situation, not a passive agent letting things happen to him. We would imagine his throne as a gold-leafed seat emitting the glory of God, not a splintered place of execution seen in the distance. We’re disappointed the shame our Lord endured here and in the scenes to come.

lightstock_309176_jpg_sara.jpgLike I said, surely you know the pangs of disappointment.

“Here is the man!” Pilate exclaims, and we’re left wanting.

We’re not alone of course. No one expects a ruler to look like Jesus looks now, and certainly, no one expected the Son of God to be crucified, as Jesus will be in a little over a week.

But as Paul the Apostle says, God chose what was foolish and weak in the world to shame the wise and strong. God has always been countercultural, moving in ways contrary to how we would expect things to go.

But this is the gospel, the good news. That through Christ’s death, new life comes. That “[Christ] was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised to life for our justification.” (Romans 4:25). Forgiveness and salvation come in a way we would least expect.

What seems like a moment disappointment is actually a moment of hope for you and for me. Thanks be to God we don’t have to understand it all, just trust.

Loaded Questions

The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” (John 18:17, NRSV)

Back in college, friends of mine played a game called “Loaded Questions.” The basic premise of the game is questions are asked and one tries to match who wrote what as their answer. Of course, when you’re in college and think your funny, outlandish answers were a dime a dozen. evan-dennis-75563-unsplash.jpg

Peter’s answer to the loaded question posited by the unnamed female courtyard guard isn’t too outlandish though. In fact, Peter is written so we would expect this to happen. It’s in his character. If Peter was in my circle of friends in college, I probably would have guessed he would be the one to say “I am not,” and moved that much closer to winning.

We probably shouldn’t be too hard on Peter, because he’s often the stand-in for the disciples, including us. Throughout this Gospel, Jesus says, “I am…” We love those statements: I am the Vine; I am the Good Shepherd; I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Peter makes it plain there is a vast gap between us and Jesus. While Jesus says, “I am,” Peter says the opposite, “I am not.”

We timidly listen to Peter, hoping we don’t see ourselves in his words, but the thought creeps into the back of our mind, “Am I a disciple? Would I choose to display the same boldness as Christ or slouch into the background while lying simply to avoid confrontation?”

joshua-newton-275881-unsplash.jpg

As Pastor Dave said, it’s all too easy to take on Peter’s self-preservation and narrowmindedness when confronted with opportunities to display faith in everyday circumstances. It’s even easier when you’re put on the spot with a loaded question. I know I’ve taken the comfortable path, protecting myself. It’s effortless to find yourself with Peter in the courtyard, all you need to do is look inward at your navel.

Of course, Peter’s story doesn’t end here. Later, after the crucifixion, he finds himself around another fire. After he takes up the sword, after he says “I am not” three times, after he leaves Jesus’ burial to someone else, he finds redemption has found him. All he has to do is say yes.

A Funky Invitation

Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” (John 13:8, NRSV)

I don’t like wearing socks all that much. Though they tend to regulate the temperature of my feet and can at times be fashionable (Polka Dots!), as soon as weather allows it I throw them into the back of my sock drawer and only pull them out when I absolutely have too. I’ve even been caught going sockless from time to time in winter, frostbite be damned.

felix-russell-saw-112533-unsplash.jpgIt’s safe to say my feet aren’t the most pretty feet in the world because of this. While not as rough as if I was wandering around the desert in only sandals at best, they aren’t as if they are pedicured every week (though I do splurge myself from time to time in such things.) Because of my predisposition towards socklessness, my feet have a certain funk.

All of this is to say, I’m eternally grateful for my wife who puts up with them. Not only puts up with them but sometimes even gives me foot rubs! And there’s something special about a foot rub, the intimacy involved is palpable for one is allowing themselves to be served by another in a way which belies common understandings.

This intimacy is shown in Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet. Though he is their Lord and Teacher, he also is their Servant, the one who gets down on his own hands and knees and invites his friends into an intimate relationship with him.

Peter, the stand-in for us all, of course, objects. “Never,” he says. “Nope. Not me. Move along.” He would rather keep Jesus on a pedestal, safely above the grime of servanthood, but also at least an arm’s length away.

33977669216_9294b5942c_z.jpg

“Maundy Thursday I – Christ Washes Peter’s Feet” image by Fr. Lawrence Lew, via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

But Jesus refuses to play by Peter’s rules. He instead gives Peter an ultimatum, “either you let me do this, or you can’t be with me anymore.” Gail O’Day tells us “Jesus asks nothing of the disciples other than that they place themselves completely in his hands, that they discard their images of who he is and how one comes to God…” (O’Day, NIBC, “John,” 619.)

Jesus invites us into a deep and intimate relationship with him, but asks we give up our pride. He asks we give up our graven images of who God is. He asks we give up ourselves. He asks we give him our dirty feet so they might be made clean, and ready to love as he loved us.

 

Promises of Life

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die… (John 11:25-26a)

My wife and I tend to cycle through sitcoms on Netflix. Watching one at a time, we’ve been through “Friends” “How I Met Your Mother” “The Office” and “The New Girl” at least twice each. They are the place we turn to for a quick laugh or the answer to the ever-present question of “what do you want to do tonight?”sven-scheuermeier-106767-unsplash.jpg

We just started the 90s sitcom “Frasier,” following the radio-psychologist of the same name’s escapades after returning to his hometown of Seattle.

In one of most recent episodes we watched, Frasier found out a doctor about his same age died suddenly of a heart attack. It throws Frasier into a tailspin of manic behavior trying to gain control of the rising anxiety he feels contemplating his own eventual death. It’s safe to say, shenanigans ensue. It is a sitcom after all.

I think Frasier’s feelings about death, and his attempts to control it, are a mirror to our own cultural subconscious. We are anxious about death; it makes us squirm even thinking about it. Fleming Rutledge says that while the taboo subject, the one that wasn’t talked about, during the Victorian times was sex, right now it’s death. We keep it hidden away, locked in the dank dark closets, so we don’t have to think about it.

While not sectioned off like a patient quarantined for everyone else’s protection, death was no more welcomed in the author of John’s time than in ours. Tom Long tells us that, Death with a capital “D” was and is seen as the enemy of the flourishing God wills for the good creation including us. Everywhere you look and see hate overcoming love, blasphemy absorbing hope, vines of distrust choking out the sprouts community, and despair blanketing confidence you can find the remnants of Death.

yuriy-garnaev-378771-unsplash.jpgThat’s why the promise made by Jesus is so radical, it reaches farther than any promise he’s made in this gospel. Jesus’ words “offer a vision of life to the believer in which his or her days do not need to be reckoned by the inevitable power of death, but instead by the irrevocable promise of life with God” (Gail O’Day, NIBC: John, 590).

We are free to live lives rid of the anxiety of death because, in Jesus, God made and kept the promise of life now. Unlike Frasier, we don’t have to manically run around searching for things to get rid of our existential angst. The promise was already made and it is always being kept.

Thanks be to God.