Night is coming

Games of Thrones logo

I am a Game of Thrones fan.  I’ll admit I’ve not read the George R. R. Martin books, and, thus, purists might question the credentials of my fandom.  But I have watched every episode of the HBO series, and I wait with bated breath for the next season.  Game of Thrones satisfies me in numerous ways.  Much of the first season was filmed on Malta, that tiny island nation with which I am obsessed.  The map of Westeros intentionally mirrors the map of Great Britain, and its rival families hearken to Britain’s colorful history, with which I am also obsessed.  Game of Thrones includes intrigue, dragons, wisps of magic, and medieval set piece battles.  What’s not to like?

The best part of Game of Thrones, however, is only hinted at through most of the series.  It is the motto of House Stark of Winterfell, the great noble family of the north.  It is also the title of the series’ very first episode, first spoken from the mouth of the doomed Lord Eddard Stark, played brilliantly by Sean Bean.  The motto, which hangs over the series like a shroud, is “Winter is coming.”

“Winter is coming.”  The tone is ominous.  It brings to mind the shortening of sunlight and the clouding of days.  It refers to a dread, the timing of which cannot be chosen and the coming of which cannot be avoided, to that which is crouching but unseen, ready to strike at any moment.  The Stark family motto is often uttered in response to someone who is oblivious to what’s really going on, one who misinterprets what he’s seeing, who tells himself a false narrative in the attempt to explain reality.  The motto is mentioned as a caution to rethink things and prepare, so that when the wind whips and the clouds gather, one can react.  One way to characterize the entire Game of Thrones series is as a dawning recognition by all those in Westeros that the words spoken by Eddard Stark in the first episode are, after all, true: Winter is coming.

George R. R. Martin himself has acknowledged that winter in Game of Thrones is more than meteorological.  Yes, it refers to a literal coming blizzard, but it refers equally to those stark and difficult periods that befall each character in turn.[i]  In their lives, winter can come in any season.

Winter is coming

In today’s Gospel, Jesus and the disciples come across a blind man.  According to the disciples’ understanding of God and the world, someone must be at fault for the man’s disability. But they’re wrong (as I’ll discuss in a moment), and in response to their misperception of reality, Jesus says—sounding something like Eddard Stark—“Night is coming.”

Jesus is surely foreshadowing the actual event of his Passion.  But Jesus is also referring to the shadows that at times befall each of us, when sunlight shortens and days cloud, when something crouching in the darkness strikes at us unaware.  It can be anything.  Just this past week, a minivan carrying some of Jill’s cousins was hit head on while traveling for spring break, causing massive injury and casting the lives of an entire family in shadow.  And, there is disability; there is depression; there is addiction; there is malice; there is abuse.  Any of these can occur in our personal lives; when we consider our communities, our nation, and our world, the shadows lengthen even further.  Night is coming.  It affects all of us, sooner or later.

As have people in every age, the disciples want to make sense of it, to explain why.  So, using the man born blind as a foil, they ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”  The disciples are searching for a reason for the man’s condition, for its meaning, and in the absence of an obvious explanation they impute to the man’s blindness God’s punishment for sin.

We seek meaning in the inexplicable, too, and when purpose eludes us, we are just as likely as the disciples to presume God as the source of our darkness.  The most tragic version I come across is when a child dies, and in the midst of such sorrow and pain someone well-intentioned who desperately seeks meaning in the event offers explanations to the family like, “God needed another angel in heaven.”

What kind of God is God

What kind of god is that?  You see, this Gospel story is about much more than a miraculous healing.  It asks, “What kind of god is God, and is God the source of the darkness in our lives?”  And it answers these questions.

It is a misunderstanding of the character of God, Jesus says, to make God complicit in the darkness of our lives.  God doesn’t punish sin with blindness any more than God wills the death of children.  But where, then, is the meaning in the darkness to be found?

Consider again what Jesus does.  He approaches the blind man, lays hands upon him, and grants him sight.  Rather than cast blame on the man or his parents, or otherwise participate in the disciples’ attempt to make tidy and clear what is, in fact, opaque and random, Jesus acts to redeem something lost, to bring light where there was darkness.

And, Jesus is more than a faith healer.  He is the incarnation of God, and Jesus expresses God’s hopes and passions for the world.  Both the disciples and the people in the latter half of today’s story have defined God as a God of punishment and the source of the darkness that sometimes plagues us.  But the reality of God is startlingly different from people’s expectations and prejudices.  In his response to the blind man, Jesus reveals that it is not God’s wish, not ever, for us to be in darkness.  God always desires for us to live in light, and God will act to push back the night and usher in the dawn.

candle in darkness

Today’s Gospel reveals two additional things of note.  First, notice that Jesus initiates today’s healing by grafting us into his act.  Jesus says, before healing the blind man, “We [that means all those who follow Jesus] must do the work of the one who sent me.”  Today no less than then, we must all be bearers of the light.  For once, John Calvin got it right when he said, “Christ still irradiates the world; but he works now just as hard now through the ministry of his people as he did through his ministry of the flesh.”[ii]

And second, in a dramatic grammatical twist diluted in our English biblical translations, when the formerly blind man is asked his identity by the skeptical onlookers, he responds by saying, “I am,” which is the same provocative way in which Jesus identifies himself as the bearer of God’s grace throughout John’s Gospel.  In other words, having received light from Jesus, the man becomes part of Jesus, and through him Jesus’ own light is then further extended in a darkened world.

Do you see what this means for us?  We don’t merely come here as supplicants seeking forgiveness or the damaged seeking healing.  We receive both, but we also receive the light that shines in the darkness.  That’s how we prepare for the night that is coming.  The light lives in us, and we go back into this world carrying its flame.

We live in Houston, and the metaphor of winter is easily lost on us.  Some years—this one included—we don’t experience much winter at all.  But we know darkness as well as anyone.  Night is coming.  Sooner or later, it always does.  Recall that ancient proverb, attributed variously from China to Celtic Ireland: “I choose to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.”  Gospel wisdom.  God does not cause the darkness, but God does send the Christ light that makes darkness flee.  And we are part of Christ, healed and grafted to him, made to shine.

[i] http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Winter_is_Coming_(motto)

[ii] Bruner, Frederick Dale.  The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 573.

The Devil

A Houstonian dies and goes to hell. While down there the devil notices that the Houstonian doesn’t seem to be suffering like the rest of the inhabitants. The devil checks the gauges and sees that it is 95 degrees with 80% humidity in hell. So, the devil asks the Houstonian why he is so content. The Houstonian replies, “I like it here. The temperature is just like Houston in June.”

Well, the Devil isn’t happy with that response, so he turns the temperature to 100 degrees and the humidity to 90%.  And yet, the only change in the Houstonian’s manner is that he unbuttons his shirt collar.  Otherwise, he’s as happy as before. The Devil quizzes the Houstonian again, and the man responds, “This is even better. It’s like Houston in July.”

The devil, now visibly upset, decides to make the Houstonian really suffer. He jacks the thermostat up to 105 degrees and the humidity to 100%. But he finds the Houstonian sitting in a lounge chair with his shirt off, no less content than before.  “I feel right at home,” the man says, “Like Houston in August”.

Finally, the devil realizes he’s been going about his work all wrong.  He returns to the thermostat and turns the temperature down to a sub-freezing 25 degrees.  The devil, himself shivering, can see his own breath.  Snow begins to fall, and icicles appear all around.  Hell freezes over. “Let’s see what the Houstonian has to say about this!” the devil thinks to himself.  But just then the Houstonian comes running up to the devil, jumping up and down for joy, yelling, “The Texans have finally won the Super Bowl!”

Seattle Seahawks v Houston Texans

What does the devil look like to you? Do you think of the devil at all, either literally or metaphorically?  If not, give yourself permission to do so this morning.  What does the devil look like to you?

In medieval religious art, the devil is a personified demon, complete with horns, a pointed tale, and flaming weaponry with which to poke and prod sinners into the bowels of hell.  He is the Halloween devil of our childhood nightmares, with red eyes and pointed teeth.

For St. Antony of the Desert, who lived in the third and fourth century A.D., the devil appears as a sensual woman dressed in gauzy, flowing red robes.  She is almost unbelievably beautiful.  She is the epitome of desire, and she distracts Antony, shall we say, from his prayers.

In the 1987 American gothic film “Angel Heart,” the devil is Robert DeNiro, in a three-piece suit with a well-manicured beard.  He is a businessman who manipulates people’s actions behind the scenes until they perform the most atrocious acts, all so that he can, in the end, take possession of their souls.

In Genesis this morning, according to Christian tradition, the devil is depicted as the slithering serpent who silently approaches Eve, the serpent who has inspired literary characters from Kaa in Disney’s Jungle Book to the forked-tongue members of Slytherin House in the Harry Potter series.

devil-images

The demon, the seductress, the manipulator, the snake.  All common images of the devil.  But what does the devil look like to you?

I will say, to me the devil looks like no one.  Oh, I believe in the devil, have no doubt.  It’s difficult to do the work of a priest for very long and not sense that there is some active presence in this world attempting to thwart the good purposes of God.  But I have no visual sense of what the devil might look like.  I am left disappointed by devilish depictions in art, literature, or film, because they always seem to me a bit cartoonish.  Putting a face on the devil seems, somehow, dangerously to underestimate that power whose very mission is to draw us away from God.

Notice today that Matthew’s Gospel does not describe the devil’s appearance at all.  Matthew cares not, apparently, for how the devil looks.  He focuses only and entirely on what the devil does.  And I know of no better description of how the devil operates than the one offered by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia over seventy-five years ago.  La Guardia said, “The Devil is easy to identify. He appears when you’re terribly tired and makes a very reasonable request which you know you shouldn’t grant.”

Now, pause again and think about the devil.  Forget the demon, the seductress, the manipulator, the snake.  Set aside our sophisticated, modern perspective that says our understanding of the universe leaves no room for devils.  Instead, ask yourself this question: When has it been that you moved away from the good that you feel, deep in your soul, God desires for you?  When have you foolishly stepped off the precipice into existential danger?  When have you justified to yourself a decision that you know you shouldn’t make, or an action you know you shouldn’t take?  When have you convinced yourself that you were entitled to something that, in a moment of greater and more honest clarity, you knew was not for you?  When have I?

If you can stand to bear that pit in your stomach for a moment more, consider those instances alongside La Guardia’s description of the devil: “The Devil is easy to identify. He appears when you’re terribly tired and makes a very reasonable request which you know you shouldn’t grant.”

The snake slithers up to Eve and suggests to her that God’s counsel is unreliable.  God only restricts Adam and Eve from eating the fruit, the serpent claims, to prevent them from becoming Gods.  The fruit is good for them, the serpent says.

eve-and-the-serpent

And Eve, who has never had reason to doubt God’s good for her, who knows she shouldn’t listen to the serpent’s forked tongue, entertains the serpent’s request and eats the fruit.  Oh, the eyes of the proverbial first humans are opened to the reality of evil.  But to their horror, they realize that now they also can choose evil over good, and they find that the voice of the serpent returns whenever they are tired and vulnerable, encouraging them to do just that.  It is the universal human story.  We are Adam and Eve, everyday.

Jesus own encounter with the devil in Matthew today follows La Guardia’s pattern exactly, and Jesus’ response is the only healthful model for our own.  Jesus is 1.) hungry, 2.) physically vulnerable, and 3.) achingly alone, and the devil makes reasonable suggestions to alleviate all three maladies.  In his fatigue, Jesus could, as we often do, lean on the devil’s reasonable requests.  But Jesus leans the other way, on the hope that God has for him.  He believes that God’s love for him runs deeper than his fatigue, and he trusts that God’s love sustains him even when that sustenance isn’t obvious.  Jesus leans toward God in his moment of greatest vulnerability, away from the devil’s whispers, and when the devil subsides, the angels charge in to minister to him.

We have entered the season of Lent, and it is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, Lent is a time in which observant Christians seek to engage in self-reflection and examination, to renew our spiritual lives and cleave more closely to God.  On the other hand, our Lenten observance often by design includes denying ourselves those very things that, in other seasons of the year, buoy our sense of well-being and comfort.  Consequently, in Lent we can find ourselves more vulnerable than usual, more tired.  And “the devil appears when you’re terribly tired and makes a very reasonable request which you know you shouldn’t grant.” In those moments, our sustenance and salvation is to draw our model and our strength from Jesus, and to lean toward God, who desires only the good for us, and whose watchful angels hover nearby.

Kindness

In Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, a young man called only “the Kid” falls in with the notorious Glanton Gang as it marauds across the West under the pretension of protecting settlers from the Comanche.  In truth, the Glanton Gang rob, rape, and murder whomever they please, including the very settlers they are paid by the Mexican government to protect.  For the most part, the Kid refrains from participating in the Glantons’ worst atrocities, as they slaughter with abandon.  Like St. Paul before his conversion, the Kid holds the proverbial coats of the others, but he throws few stones himself.

Cormac McCarthy’s style of storytelling offers no pause for reflection.  We don’t know the Kid’s thoughts.  We’re not aware of whatever, if any, internal moral struggle he experiences in the midst of so much blood.  Although, using our own lives as analogy we can imagine that the Kid rationalizes and justifies as he goes along acquiescently with the gang.

blood-meridian

Towards the very end of the novel, years after the Glanton Gang have broken up (and mostly been killed), the Kid (now fully grown to manhood) still lives in the hardscrabble West.  One day as he rides alone, a sect of Christians passes by him carrying a wooden cross into the wilderness.  The following day he comes upon their corpses, slaughtered in the desert sand by someone unknown.  Their cross lies on the ground, broken.

As the Kid investigates the grisly scene, he notices an old Mexican woman sitting tucked into a niche in the surrounding cliff face.  Her eyes are downcast.  And the Kid, strangely and unexpectedly moved, speaks to her.  Here is what Cormac McCarthy tells us:

[The Kid] spoke to her in a low voice.  He told her that he was an American and that he was a long way from the country of his birth and that he had no family and that he had traveled much and seen many things and had been at war and endured hardships.  He told her that he would convey her to a safe place, some party of her countrypeople who would welcome her and that she should join him for he could not leave her in this place or she would surely die.

He knelt on one knee, resting the rifle before him like a staff.  Abuelita, he said.  [Can you not hear me?][1]

After such a relentlessly brutal story, this tender interaction serves as an unexpected confession of sorts, a desperate redemption-seeking action by the Kid.  But McCarthy goes on:

[The Kid] reached into the little cove and touched her arm.  She moved slightly, her whole body, light and rigid.  She weighed nothing.  She was just a dried shell and she had been dead in that place for years.[2]

In Cormac McCarthy’s bleak narrative, the woman symbolizes the Kid’s life.  For the Kid, it is too late.  The book of his life has been written.  The Kid has been formed unwittingly into a certain kind of person, and here, near the end, his late and feeble attempt at kindness meets only a hollow shell, like a cicada’s carapace clung to tree bark, ready to crumble into dust.

blood-meridian-2

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  It is on this day that begins the season of Lent that God grants us what Cormac McCarthy does not: a time to pause, reflect upon, and ponder the book of life we are writing.  On Ash Wednesday, when we are reminded that we are dust, the question is begged whether even now there is nothing but dust left of us, whether we are already a hollow shell merely waiting to crumble.  Have we already written the ending to the book of our lives?

No question could be more crucial.  How can we answer it?  Perhaps by asking: When was the last time you—or I—extended kindness?  I don’t mean here superficial nicety.  We define our days by that, and we know deep down the difference between nicety and kindness.  Nicety smiles at another and then immediately turns and mumbles a curse under our breath.  Nicety extends a tentative helping hand and then begrudges when it is grasped.  Nicety preserves decorum even when it witnesses pain or horror.  Nicety is the mask that denies our own sorrow.

Kindness, by contrast, walks into the desert of another’s life, where the cross that is borne may have become so heavy as to have fallen and broken, and offers to take up that cross.  Kindness kneels before the one who is tucked in fear between the rocks and offers to walk side-by-side to the safe place. Kindness refuses to hold the coats of the bullies and the thieves, both those as obvious as the Glanton Gang and as subtle as those who hide behind their social nicety.

All this is to say, kindness includes the solidarity that comes through empathy, which means that kindness experiences—rather than denies—loss and sorrow.

The poet Naomi Nye says,

 

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.[3]

 

It was too late for the Kid, because he never experienced sorrow.  Early on, he inured himself to violence and pain.  He allowed himself to believe that the horrors perpetrated around him were part and parcel of a lawless world.  He grew accustomed to holding the coats of those who abuse.  Ironically, the literally desolate landscape never looked so to him.  He could not extend kindness, because he did not recognize loss.

ash-wednesday-2016

But blessedly, our landscape is not so bleak, and the finality of fiction is not so in real life.  Scripture promises that it is never too late for us!  Until our dying breath, when we truly return to dust and ashes, the book of our life is not fully written.  What remainder of us may appear as a hollow shell, God can fill with life.  C.S. Lewis says that so long as there is a mere spark under all those ashes, God can give it breath until the flame shines brightly again.[4]  If we will notice and experience loss; if we will grieve when the world around us and the lives around us crumble to dust; if we will live through kindness, God will, the Prophet Isaiah says, “satisfy your parched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.”[5]

It is so much easier not to feel.  It is so much easier to smile nicely and hold the coats.  Kindness is hard work.  It can be the discipline of Lent, and it can begin on this day when we are reminded that we, too, are dust.

[1] McCarthy, Cormac.  Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, 315.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Nye, Naomi Shihab. “Kindness.”

[4] Lewis, C.S.  The Great Divorce, 74.

[5] Isaiah 58:11.

Wide right

Are you ready for some football?  This afternoon eighty thousand fans will pack NRG Stadium specially expanded to accommodate the Super Bowl LI crowd.  Beyond that, an estimated two million visitors have come to Houston this past week, increasing by half the population of our fair city (as you may have noticed if you attempted to drive anywhere).[i]  In scarcely a week’s time, we’ll see an estimated $500 million infusion into our economy.[ii]  Whether or not you like football, you’re bound to like that!

Well, I do like football.  A whole lot.  And while the occupational hazard of working on Sunday has prevented me from paying much attention to professional football for many years, I have some great NFL memories from earlier in my life.  Growing up, I was both a Cowboys and an Oilers fan.  I realize that’s anathema to native Texans, but in Arkansas we were blissfully unaware of the Houston-Dallas family dysfunction, and in our ignorance we could love both Earl Campbell and Tony Dorsett.

The best Super Bowl I ever watched was during my senior year of high school: Super Bowl XXV, pitting the Buffalo Bills against the New York Giants.  The Bills were the NFL’s most prolific offense that year, scoring more points than any other team.  The Giants, by contrast, had the NFL’s stingiest defense—led by the fearsome Lawrence Taylor, after all—and gave up the fewest points in the league.  The two teams had met in a cross-conference game earlier in the season, with the Bills squeaking out a 17-13 victory.  Super Bowl XXV had all the promise of a game for the ages.

super-bowl-xxv

It did not disappoint.  At the half, Buffalo led 12-10.  Both star running backs, Ottis Anderson and Thurman Thomas, ran for over 100 yards.  Jim Kelly’s throwing arm was absurdly accurate.  Right until the end, the only thing to mar an otherwise sublime football game was the halftime show, performed by the odious boy band “New Kids on the Block.”  (You can’t have everything.)

Right until the end.  With two minutes, sixteen seconds remaining, and down 20-19, Buffalo received the ball at their own ten yard line and quickly drove the ball down the field into field goal range.  With eight seconds left, Bills placekicker Scott Norwood walked onto the field to seal a two-point victory.  The snap was good; Norwood’s foot connected solidly with the ball…and the football sailed wide right of the upright.  Norwood missed.  The Giants won, and Scott Norwood became the only kicker in Super Bowl history to lose the championship off his toe.

Overnight, Scott Norwood became infamous.  He was the talk of sports radio and television.  Reporter Scott Pitoniak reminds us, “The following season [Norwood] was bombarded with the same inquiries. Over and over and over again. Each kick prompted references to The Miss. The jokes became callous and pervasive. Talk show callers referred to him as Scott NorWIDE.”  Norwood himself said, “I’d be at a restaurant and I’d hear people say things like, ‘If Scott Norwood walked in here, I’d punch him in the face.’”[iii]

But the attention wasn’t merely local.  In 1994, Jim Carrey’s movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective parodied Norwood.  In 1998, the film Buffalo ’66 went further with a plot line in which a disgruntled fan tries to murder a Bills kicker for missing a Super Bowl-winning field goal.

scott-norwood

Wide right

Scott Norwood played one more season for the Bills, until he was cut from the roster and intentionally receded from public view.   For years after his career ended, he avoided Buffalo and the Bills organization.  In a 1997 interview, he spoke poignantly about the awkwardness and disappointment of being distanced from a team to which he’d given his talent and his heart.[iv]  And it is true: Scott Norwood became defined by his lowest moment, by his worst self.

______________

In today’s Gospel, Jesus has just finished reciting the Beatitudes.  He has, in one breath, shared with those who would follow him where bliss is to be found: not in material things, or in the approval of the world, or, it might be said, in the revelry of a football game.  Rather, bliss is found in a life that allows the desires of God to be its compass and its motivation.

In the very next breath, Jesus says, using a rare Greek subject form that is so pointed as to be pushy[v], ‘You—not someone else, not the person sitting next to you, not my theoretical follower, and not at some point in the future—but you, right here, right now are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.  You are the one to live these Beatitudes, or else no one will.  If you are not salt, then the world will lose its saltiness.  Its compassion will become weak and bland.  If you are not light, then dusk and twilight will become the way of things.  It is up to you.”

And, of course, the “you” is us.  The Gospel travels effortlessly across space and time, so that Jesus speaks to a room of Houston Episcopalians on Super Bowl Sunday just as pointedly as he speaks to a hillside of Palestinian Jews two thousand years ago.

Jesus is equally clear about where the danger lies.  In his telling, no one can leach the salt from us.  No one can snuff our light.  No one, that is, except us.  And the way we hide our light under a bushel, the way we silence our voices from speaking words of grace, is by defining ourselves by our lowest moments, by our worst self.

lamp-under-a-bushel

We are all susceptible.  Whether our worst self is publicly known, due to an indiscretion, a mistake, a failure, or a opinion loudly voiced and then revealed to be foolish; or whether our worst self consists of passions, grudges, doubts, and prejudices hidden within and known only to ourselves, it is the commonest thing in creation to define ourselves by that low, and then to ask ourselves, “Who am I to speak?  Who am I to take a risk and act in love?  I am the failure.  I am the mistake.  I am the missed opportunity.  I am the let down in the clutch moment, wide right in life.  I have no seasoning to offer, no light to shine.”

In his brilliant little book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes a parade of ghosts who travel from hell to the grassy plain that is the forecourt to heaven.  Every ghost is invited into heaven, but few accept.  In every case, the decision turns on how the ghosts define themselves.  Again and again, they describe themselves and the world around them in terms of their lowest moments, their most negative self-understanding.  Again and again, they are surprised and confused when the angels counter.  God, say the celestials, defines you by your very best self.  God sees you as your very best self.  You, right here, right now, are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.

For a few ghosts, admittedly, that best self was little more than a singular moment in a virtual lifetime of error, a solitary act of grace or word of kindness amidst years marked by grudges and mistakes.  But that is gracious plenty with which the God of love can work!  The smallest pinch of salt can season the whole. A single flicker of flame can light the room.  With only that, God can redeem each one of us.  We can begin to see ourselves as God has always seen us, through our best moments and not our worst.  And through that vision, life can go from hell to heaven, if we will allow it.

Scott Norwood was a Pro Bowl kicker.  For years, he held the record as the all-time leading scorer for the Buffalo Bills franchise.  The season after Super Bowl XXV, he never missed a kick in the post season and made the clinching field goal against the Denver Broncos to win the AFC championship game.  More importantly, after leaving the NFL, Norwood became a substitute teacher, tutored kids who hoped to be kickers, spoke to church youth groups, and started a family with his wife.[vi]   Others attempted to define Scott by his lowest moment, but he would not.  He is not Wide Right.  He is salt, and he is light.

God sees us as our very best moment, and God invites us to remove the bushel and let our light shine. God asks us to season the world with love and grace, and he claims us as just the people to do so.  The world surely needs our seasoning.  It needs our light.  Blessed are those…  May we shine.

____________________

[i] http://www.forbes.com/sites/roberttuchman/2017/01/18/is-houston-the-nfls-best-super-bowl-host-city/#463a383594b1

[ii] http://www.bizjournals.com/houston/morning_call/2016/02/heres-how-much-the-super-bowl-could-bring-houston.html

[iii] http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19971214&slug=2577936

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Brunner, Federick Dale.  The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, 187.

[vi] http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19971214&slug=2577936

Fish for people

It was one of those great spring days in the South, when the sky is clear and the breeze is light, but before the sun has become so scorching hot as to make outdoor activity nearly unbearable.  I was seventeen and a junior in high school.  My friends and I on the Ridgrecrest High School track team lounged in the middle of the football field at Harmon Playfield, picking grass, occasionally wrestling, and doing our best to outdo each other with bawdy jokes. We were there, and not in school, because that day was the elementary school’s Track & Field Day.  Very soon kids from kindergarten to fifth grade poured into the stadium to run races, throw Frisbees, jump around in burlap potato sacks, and toss softballs.  The high school track team ran the events and timed the races.  It was essentially a day out of school for us, a day free from math, chemistry, and English literature, and it felt like heaven.

track-and-field-day

Here’s a photo of Track and Field Day years earlier, when I was in the 5th grade.  That’s me on the left, racing in… an Izod shirt.  

At midday the events suspended and all the elementary school kids moved into the bleachers and opened sack lunches.  Coach Carter let us, the track team, walk across the street for lunch at Osey’s Barbeque.  We filled most of the stools at the counter and ordered the kind of jumbo sized pulled-pork-and-coleslaw sandwiches that only seventeen year old boys can fully appreciate.  We were halfway through our lunch break when an elderly man sitting next to me at the end of the counter (who had gotten increasingly sullen the longer we were there) spoke up.

He glared at us and challenged, “Why aren’t you boys in school?”

One of us explained to him what we were doing, but to the man—a Mr. Oates, I came to find out—our reason was insufficient.  We were, to him, vagrants.  Our joking and the noisy volume of our high school conversation suggested to him that we were lost souls.  And he began to evangelize.  Big time.

“The road to hell!” he cried out to us with his jaw set in stone.  He clearly intended this phrase to be the predicate of an unspoken subject, such as, “The heinous way you boys are acting while enjoying your Sloppy Joes is the road to hell.”

Mr. Oates spoke of our need to repent.  He expressed to us the urgency that we believe in Jesus Christ as our personal lord and savior.  Some of us meekly tried to speak up and tell him that we were members of churches, but he preempted us by firing back, “Denominations!  Not churches, denominations!  Not Jesus’ churches; not Jesus’ churches!”

Well, we finished our sandwiches with markedly less enthusiasm than we’d begun them, and we slunk out of Osey’s Barbeque.  As we walked back to the stadium, two things struck me.  The first was, perhaps obviously, that I felt I’d been verbally and spiritually manhandled.  Mr. Oates’ tongue lashing hurt, almost the way physical blows would have hurt.  But the second was oddly more positive.  It also struck me that by evangelizing to us, Mr. Oates was doing something he felt absolutely convicted to do.  I don’t imagine that an elderly old man relished confronting a line of high school boys much stronger and more impertinent than himself.  Who knows how we might have reacted?  But he did not hold back.  He spoke a word that he truly believed needed to be spoken.  And even in my hurt, there was something awesome about that.

Two years later I was a sophomore in college.  My freshman year had been much like the freshmen years that so many college students experience, and by the following fall I was feeling a striking need to kneel in church!  On a Tuesday night I wandered into St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Conway, Arkansas, and within the first five minutes of that service, I experienced a number of irrevocably life-changing things.  It would be self-indulgent and take too much time to go into all of them, but the one thing I must mention is the priest.  A female priest.  The first I’d ever seen.  Her name was Peggy Hays.  She was probably sixty-five and had that dignified air of someone like Anne Bancroft in her later years.  Peggy moved slowly through the liturgy, being quietly intentional about every motion.  Her respect for the prayers and the altar spoke more volumes that any words could.

Rev. Peggy Hays

The Reverend Peggy Hays

When the service ended, Peggy was interested in me.  She was interested in hearing why I was there.  And when I was reticent to go into many details, she was respectful.  But she made a point to say she hoped I’d come back, and I felt as though she meant it.  After shaking her hand, I walked to the door but waited there for a few moments to watch Peggy engage the other few people who’d attended the Tuesday night service.  She was present to each of them.  Some approached her with looks of concern on their faces, and as they interacted I could see the muscles and lines in those faces relax.  It was remarkable.

I did go back, again and again.  And each time I was nourished and fed.  I cannot recall any single conversation that I ever had with Peggy in the same detail as I recall the only conversation I ever had with Mr. Oates, but I can tell you that each conversation with Peggy was infinitely more important to my soul.

I have no doubt that both Mr. Oates and Peggy Hays had studied today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew.  In fact, I would bet that for each of them this very passage served as a primary motivating factor in their lives, as central to who they were.  And yet, they read this passage in two very different ways.

In this fourth chapter of Matthew, Jesus calls Simon and Andrew from their work on the boat.  In his calling, he gives them the formula for the new life of grace which he offers.  He says, “Repent; follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  The first two elements in this formula are clearly vocative, but the third is less obvious in its meaning:  I will make you fish for people.  What is “fish” here?  The question is important, and the answer makes all the difference in how we follow Jesus.  Will Jesus make us fish for people?  Or will Jesus make us fish for people?  Is “fish” a verb or a noun?

For Mr. Oates at Osey’s Barbeque that spring day in 1990, fish was clearly a verb.  For Jesus to make him fish for people meant for him to evangelize with power and courage, to speak a word that might lead me and the other members of the Ridgecrest track team to repentance and belief.  His fidelity to Jesus’ call meant that he proclaimed this message with a prophetic fervor that would not allow him to listen to us or entertain that we might also have something to share with him.  In him, there was urgency; there was conviction…  And not a word he said transformed us.  He fished, but his nets came back empty.

Somehow Peggy Hays relayed the same vital formula of repentance and belief to those around her, but she did so without the vitriol and bluster of Mr. Oates.  In her demeanor, we saw someone who was clearly at peace with God, someone who had repented.  In her actions, we saw someone who truly, deeply, and palpably believed in the grace and love of Jesus.  And in our contact with her person, we experienced nourishment.  She became that through which Christ conveyed himself.  She became fish for us.  Fish the noun, not the verb.  This reading of Jesus’ words in Matthew is in concert with the larger image of fish in the Gospels.  Throughout, a meal of fish often serves as the medium through which the risen Jesus communicates grace: after walking the road to Emmaus in Luke; on the banks of the Sea of Galilee in John.

calling-the-disicples-mosaic

I will make you fish for people.

Now, do not misunderstand.  This doesn’t mean that Peggy failed to verbalize her faith, and neither can we.  But the ears around her were rendered able to listen to her words because her life first so transparently embodied them.  The Gospel she spoke was first incarnate in the lived relationship with grace that was expressed through her very being.  Before any words were spoken, she became fish for us.

Jesus’ calling is clear.  If we are to experience the life of grace, we must repent, and we must follow.  But how will this look in our lives?  In what way will we follow Jesus, like Mr. Oates or Peggy Hays?  Is fish a verb or a noun?  If we are to transform our own lives and the world for the Gospel, then the way we read Matthew’s tale may make all the difference.

Fractured and bleeding with light

Last May I traveled to what is, by far, the most desolate and inhospitable place I’ve ever encountered.  Twenty minutes east of Jerusalem, it is among the lowest and driest places on earth.  It is the area spoken of throughout the Holy Scripture as merely “the Wilderness.”

The climate and topography of Israel are varied.  In Galilee, the land is fertile, the climate is mild, and in the mountains there is annual snowfall.  In Jerusalem, further south, annual rainfall is actually roughly equivalent to that of London.  But just a few miles east of Jerusalem, in the Wilderness, moisture evaporates, vegetation disappears, and life becomes tenuous.  The Wilderness is a true desert.

The Judean Wilderness serves as the Bible’s badlands.  It is there that those sinful and irredeemable cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were located.  It is there to which young David fled for his life from the angry King Saul.  It is there, on the old Jericho Road, where the man in Jesus’ parable was set upon by bandits and was saved from the ditch by the Good Samaritan.  In the sacred story, if someone is seeking to hide, or escape, or do himself harm, the Wilderness is the setting.  Everything about the Wilderness is bleak.  And it is in this setting that John the Baptist decides to preach and baptize.

judean-wilderness

The Judean Wilderness

I began my ordained career as a church planter, and I can tell you that it’s all about location, location, location.  In order to have the best chance of having one’s message heard and of building a congregation, one needs to find an attractive and easily accessible place, near a major thoroughfare, and in a high-growth area.  John the Baptist seems willfully to have ignored each of these principles.  To get to the stretch of the Jordan River at which John preached and baptized in the first century, one had to leave the well-beaten path and risk scorching heat, desperate thirst, and ever-present bandits.  And yet, Matthew tells us just before today’s reading that “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan.”

John was attracting a crowd of people, and it wasn’t the refreshments at coffee hour that was drawing them.  What, then, was it?  To understand, we first must grasp the role of the River Jordan in the mythic understanding of Israel.  The Jordan, though a narrow stream then as now, appears on ancient maps as huge, wide as the Mississippi and deep as the Congo.  Rather than a thin crack in the earth, it appears as a chasm.  The ancient mapmakers weren’t simple or dumb.  They knew that their representations didn’t correspond to geography.  But that wasn’t the point.  The Jordan wasn’t just a river; it was the river.  It was the boundary the Jews’ ancestors had first crossed into God’s land of promise. Moving through its waters symbolized the end of one world and the beginning of another.  And so the Jordan has continued to be in our religious imagination.  In the spirituals of nineteenth century African-American slaves, crossing the Jordan symbolizes escape to freedom.  In Christian hymns—like “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah”—it refers to the passage from our earthly to our heavenly lives.  The Jordan is a crack between worlds.

John is preaching that baptism in the waters of the Jordan can, for those present, do what the river crossing did for the ancient Hebrews.  It can be a new beginning, freedom, a different life.  It can spell the end of whatever world one wants to shed and the start of a new world, in which the cracks in one’s old life are washed clean and away.

And so you see, those who travel from the safety of town through the wild danger of the wilderness are not on a pleasant Sunday outing.  They aren’t headed to a garden party on a grass-lined bank, and they haven’t come for casual conversation.  The wilderness through which they walk symbolizes the wilderness in their lives.  They are not solid, well put together people.  They are people whose lives have cracked at the seams.  They are broken, and they are willing to do anything—even confront the desert, both geographically and existentially—for the chance to have their cracks and fissures fixed and made whole.

john-baptizing-jesus

And Jesus is among them.  Theologians, commentators, and even the Evangelists don’t really know what to make of that.  Jesus’ life surely isn’t cracked at the seams, is it?  Well, we would say that Jesus is without sin, but we also say that Jesus is fully human, and humanity includes the cracks and fissures.  To be human is, often, to be aimless, or confused, or anxious, or even regretful, and it is thoroughly orthodox to allow that Jesus, like so many others, walked through the Wilderness in hope that the Jordan could allow him, too, to leave an old life behind, to cross its existential threshold into something new.

But notice:  With Jesus, it doesn’t work quite like expected.  When Jesus is baptized, the sky above the river cracks in mirror image.  And through that new fracture, Jesus encounters God.  For the first of only two times in the Gospels, God speaks directly, and without requirement or condition God says of the young man in the river, who has come with doubts and anxieties known only to himself, “This is my priceless son. I am deeply pleased with him.”[i]

By cracking open the heavens, the divine response to Jesus’ yearning to be renewed, to be whole, is not a decrease in the cracks and fissures, but an increase.  I think this is crucial.  I think it is the very wisdom the dove of God imparts to Jesus.  Let me explain with a more contemporary story.

Several years ago, the sculptor Paige Bradley found herself at a standstill.  Her style wasn’t en vogue with critics.  Galleries declined to show her work.  In frustration one day, Paige says, “I took a perfectly good wax sculpture—a piece I had sculpted with precision over several months—an image of a woman meditating in the lotus position, and just dropped it on the floor.  I destroyed what I had made.  It shattered into so many pieces.  [I thought] ‘What have I done?’”[ii]

But as she stared at the broken sculpture, Paige saw a truth that was hidden in the whole.  She picked up the pieces and reassembled them, but she didn’t try to mend the fractures or fill the cracks.  Instead, she placed a lantern within the sculpture and turned it on.  The result is stunning.  Blazing light shines through every fissure.  One critic describes the woman as “fractured [but] bleeding with light.”[iii]  Paige Bradley’s career took off because she began to see the light through brokenness rather than seeking perfection.  The sculpture, entitled “Expansion,” is now known worldwide and shows in London, California, and New York.

The great lyricist Leonard Cohen, who died last year, said, “Forget your perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”[iv]  It’s also how the light gets out.

expansion-by-paige-bradley

“Expansion,” by Paige Bradley

That is the truth God conveys to Jesus at his own baptism.  Not by doing away with whatever fractures Jesus carries, but by saying, without condition, cracks and all, that Jesus is priceless and pleasing does God give Jesus strength and direction.  It is only after this experience of complete acceptance that Jesus is able to match wits with the devil, preach grace, heal others, and find the courage to undergo the Passion.

More than anything else, that truth is what distinguishes Jesus’ ministry from, for instance, that of the Pharisees.  They require perfection; he knows perfection is impossible.  They expect to see a veneer of spit and polish; he can see that deep inside we’re a mess.  They want every crack sealed; he knows that it’s only through the cracks, and not solid armor, that we experience light.  And Jesus came to know this truth on his own baptismal day, when he entered the waters of the Jordan, when the very heavens cracked open above, and when he was told by the Creator of all things that he is priceless.

We’ve entered Epiphany.  It is the season of surprises, gifts from unexpected places, transfigurations on mountaintops, and most importantly of God’s spirit entering through the fractures in our lives.  Our New Year’s resolutions are always about getting a bit closer to perfect.  What if, instead, we made an Epiphany resolution, to be open to the ways God will meet us as we are, to the ways God may redeem rather than fix us, allowing even our fissures to stream with light?

We don’t know what burdens all comers carried to John at the Jordan all those centuries ago.  We don’t know their particular regrets, or failures, or anxieties.  But we each know our own, and we understand what it feels like for the soul to be trekking through the wilderness and parched in the desert.  We, too, want to cross a boundary that will allow us to be renewed.  The epiphany is that we can, that the God of grace wants us to.  But God will not “fix” us.  The epiphany is that even while we are fractured and imperfect, we are priceless, and that there is no crack God cannot infuse with light.

[i] This translation is Frederick Dale Bruner’s in his commentary, The Christbook, Matthew 1-12, pg. 111.

[ii] http://mymodernmet.com/riveting-story-behind-that/

[iii] http://mymodernmet.com/striking-sculpture-reflects

[iv] http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/leonardcohen/anthem.html

God is not dead, nor does God sleep

Even two thousand years removed, the image effortlessly captures our imagination.  There is a desperate family, far from home.  There are no friendly faces, few helping hands.  The closest thing to shelter the family has been able to find is a stable behind an inn, a rough-hewn thing suitable only for animals.  We like to envision those animals as doe-eyed Disney cartoons, but in reality they, and the darkness, and the dirt mock this vulnerable family in their most vulnerable moment.  She is young, and she is scared, because the baby is coming.  He is frustrated and panicked, because he cannot figure out how to make things safe and right.  Events have outpaced the couple’s ability to manage them.  Things are happening to them now, and all they can do is allow these things to transpire.

_______________

What an ugly year we’ve just lived:

  • One of the worst years on record for worldwide natural disasters[i], including earthquakes in Taiwan, Burma, New Zealand, and Italy, as well as devastating floods just to the east of us in Louisiana, where thirteen people were killed and thousands lost their homes.
  • Acts of terror is such locations as Nice in the south of France, which intends to be a place of unguarded rest, and, just this week, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Square in Berlin, which exists as a monument to the very futility of violence.
  • An election cycle that brought out the very worst in us.
truck-attack-nice-france

Aftermath of the terror attack in Nice, France, July 14, 2016

Perhaps the Nativity story still so captures us because its anxiety, frustration, and panic are emotions with which we can relate.  We’re having trouble figuring out how to make things safe and right.  Events have outpaced our ability to manage them.  Things are happening to us, and we can’t seem to do anything but allow them to transpire.

_______________

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is, perhaps, America’s greatest poet.[ii]  He was born in 1807 of solid colonial stock and to means that allowed him to travel the world before adulthood.  He studied languages and taught first at Bowdoin College and then Harvard.  Through his work, Longfellow was celebrated and enjoyed both fame and great monetary reward.  And then in 1861, as happened to all Americans, events outpaced the ability to manage them.  The Civil War erupted from the nation’s cauldron of sectional resentment.  Then, two months after the firing on Fort Sumter, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife and the mother of his six children struck a match that accidentally caught her dress on fire.  Despite Longfellow’s attempts to put out the flames with his own body, his wife died.  His own face was so scarred with burns that he wore a heavy beard for the rest of his life.

Less than two years later, Longfellow’s eldest son, Charles, volunteered to join the Union Army.  Charles was commissioned a Second Lieutenant, and in late November he was shot through the shoulder, with the bullet skimming his spine.  Charles was very nearly paralyzed. Henry Longfellow tended to his son during a long and difficult recuperation.  For the second time in as many years, Longfellow was frustrated and panicked, because he could not figure out how to make things safe and right for those he loved.  Things were happening to them, and all Longfellow could seem to do was allow those things to transpire.

longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

And then, on the morning of that December 25, in the midst of his uncertainty and despair, Longfellow heard the sound of Cambridge’s church bells ringing sharply into the air of Christmas Day.  Their peal was clear.  It pierced through the gloom of grief and wound and war to proclaim that something else, some counterbalance, was at work in the world.  Longfellow moved swiftly to his writing desk, and he penned in that moment the beloved poem:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

The poem begins with joy, but its power endures one hundred-fifty years later because unlike so many other Christmas poems and songs, it is not syrupy or maudlin.  Longfellow does not use the Nativity as a gauzy screen to mask the difficulties of life.  Almost as soon as he begins, the gloom resettles.  The poem goes on:

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Existentially and emotionally, Henry Longfellow has taken us back to Bethlehem, to the stable, to the moments in the midst of Mary’s labor when so much can go so horribly wrong, just as everything else has gone wrong for her and for Joseph on that day.

nativity-caravaggio

The Nativity, by Caravaggio (1609)

But then, the child emerges.  He is born, and with him something enters the world as clear and true as the Cambridge bells in the morning air.  The baby cries, as babies do.  The heavens open, and the angels sing to the shepherds, who are struggling with their own nightmares.  In this most unassuming of ways, in this common miracle made cosmically uncommon, God enters our world, alive and awake.

Back in Cambridge, the second peal of the bells scatters Longfellow’s desperate haze.  Almost by surprise, hope is born anew in him.  He doesn’t understand it, but he cannot but proclaim it:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 
“God is not dead; nor doth [God] sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Here, at the end of 2016, a year we would just as soon forget, we don’t understand it.  But here, in the wee hours of this morning, hope is born anew in us.  The peal is clear.  It may appear that events in the world are merely transpiring, but in truth God is not dead, nor does God sleep.  God is born into this world.  Hope lives!  Peace on earth, dear friends, good will to all.  And Merry Christmas.

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[i] http://www.aol.com/article/weather/2016/12/09/the-worst-natural-disasters-of-2016/21623406/

[ii] For more details of the story that follows, see Ace Collins’ Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2001) and https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2014/12/21/the-story-of-pain-and-hope-behind-i-heard-the-bells-on-christmas-day/.