The ever-returning God

Fr. Mychal JudgeTo this day, I can’t take my eyes off that photograph.  When I see it, I find myself mesmerized.  It shows the limp and lifeless body of a priest being carried over a mound of dust and rubble by five other men: a police officer, two firemen, an office worker, and an emergency responder.  The gritty looks on their faces match the grit that billows all around them.

I can’t take my eyes off that photograph.  You’ve likely seen it.  It was taken by a Reuters News photographer in the mid-morning of September 11, 2001.  The cleric is Fr. Mychal Judge, chaplain to the New York City Fire Department.  When the planes were flown into the World Trade Center, Fr. Judge rushed to the scene and began offering Last Rites to those he found near death along the sidewalks.  As the conflagration blazed above his head, Fr. Judge moved ever closer to the epicenter.  He ultimately found himself all the way in the lobby of the North Tower of the Trade Center when the South Tower collapsed.  A wave of concrete and steel came crashing from the one building into the other, and as he prayed with victims Fr. Judge became a victim himself.

There were twenty-four minutes between the collapse of the first and second towers.  It was in that momentary interlude between hells that the five men retrieved Mychal Judge.  They had just witnessed the apocalyptic crumbling of the first tower, and they could look above their heads and see the second tower smoldering.  Yet, despite what they’d seen, they returned.  I don’t know what ultimately happened to those five.  I don’t know whether they survived the day or survive still.  Chances are as good as not that they didn’t.  What I do know with great surety is that they, like Fr. Judge, kept going back into the dust, rubble, and smoke.  They knew that the number of those who desperately needed their life-saving assistance was staggering.  They knew that unless they returned to that dangerous, confusing, disorienting scene, others would be lost.  And they did return, again and again.

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In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is at pains to explain to his followers what his father’s kingdom is like.  Just before this passage, a rich young man and then the disciples themselves have come to Jesus attempting to justify their place in the kingdom of heaven.  Each can recite the hard work he has done or the things he has given up for the sake of God.  In response, Jesus tells a parable.World Trade Center Collapse1

The kingdom of heaven, he says, is like a landowner who goes to the marketplace at daybreak to hire laborers for his vineyard.  He promises his workers the wage necessary to sustain them, and then he sends them into the vineyard.  But then the landowner returns at 9 a.m…. at noon…at 3 p.m….and again just an hour before dusk.  Each time he hires whoever he finds in the marketplace and sends them into the vineyard.  At the end of the day, he calls all the workers back to him.  To those he’d hired only an hour before, the landowner pays a full day’s wage.  Those who have worked all day begin to think they will surely receive some greater reward.  But when their turn comes, they receive no more than the sustenance that was originally promised them, and they grumble at the landowner’s generosity toward the others.  Either the latecomers should receive less than a full day’s wage, they believe, or else those who worked from dawn ‘til dusk should receive a bonus!

The rich young man and the disciples, who have so recently approached Jesus, can certainly sympathize.  They’re ones who have labored in so many ways, and they want to be rewarded appropriately.  We can sympathize, too, I think.  We consider ourselves industrious, hard-working people, and we expect to receive our due for our labor.  If we’re honest we’ll admit that those who skirt by—the rule-breakers, the latecomers, the bystanders, and the lazy—irritate us, even if our irritation goes unspoken.

But then our focus is the disciples’ focus, and the entire reason Jesus tells this parable in just this way is to point out that we direct our attention to the wrong place.  The kingdom of heaven, he says, is not one in which reward is doled out according to those who perceive themselves to work the hardest or be the most committed and pure.  That’s not the storyline at all.  The kingdom’s story is about a landowner who keeps returning to that place where the aimless and the desperate are to be found.  In the morning light, in the heat of the day, when time is almost up he keeps returning, offering a place in his vineyard to any who will respond.  There is no indication that he needs more people.  Rather, he returns because there are ever more people who need the place and sustenance he has to offer.  In other words, the people don’t exist for the good of the vineyard.  The vineyard exists for the salvation of the people.

Parable of the Vineyard WorkersAnd so, as Craig Kocher says, “the story is about a God who wants everyone inside the vineyard, who will not stop rushing out into the marketplace until all have been rounded up, who will not rest until the outsiders, the forgotten, and the lonely have been included alongside the skilled, the timely, and the hardworking, even if it costs God everything.”[1]

Thank God the kingdom of heaven isn’t one in which the reward we receive is contingent upon our commitment and labor!  Because our indignation begins to break down when we realize what real commitment to the kingdom looks like.  It is defined by the God who will return again and again, come what may, to rescue and restore the forgotten and the hurting.  It is by that model that our Christian lives and labor are judged, and by that model, how do we fare?  What does our work for the kingdom look like?  In the world—and in the church—about what do we worry and fret?  How proper we are?  Theology?  Politics?  Who’s right and who’s wrong?  Compared to these things, how much of our love, energy, and resources do we expend for those who are lonely and lost, without thought of payback in any way?

It turns out we aren’t those who have labored to spread God’s grace since daybreak.  We’re more like those who barely show up at quitting time, and oftentimes not at all.  And yet, to us God-in-Christ returns again and again.  To us he offers a hand and an invitation, to live in and for him in the vineyard of his love and grace.  No matter how late in the day we respond, God returns for us.

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One of my closest friends in ministry used to serve a parish in Lafayette, Louisiana.  In the week after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, a group of local Lafayette clergy of which my friend was part gathered to discuss the tragedy that had befallen New Orleans scarcely two hours away.  Various priests and pastors spoke up.  Most talked of raising money.  Many wrung their hands at the hopelessness of the situation.  A few spoke the likely sentiments of a few others and argued that those who were stranded in the city should have evacuated when they had the chance.  A deacon walked into the meeting late, his shirt dirty and his face beaded with sweat.  He listened to the conversation briefly, and then he got up to leave.  “Have you nothing to share, brother?” asked the convener of the meeting.

“I’m sorry, I don’t,” said the deacon, and he continued to make his exit.

“But what would you suggest we do about New Orleans?” the convener asked again.

The deacon paused for just a moment and said, “Well, you can come with me.  I’ve spent the last two days trolling my boat up and down the streets of New Orleans, ferrying forgotten people out of the city as I’ve been able.  I came to the meeting today to see who else might help, but there isn’t time for so much talk.  I’m going back to save those I can.”

With that, the deacon left the parish hall to return to his boat and those in need.

Hurricane Katrina boatTwo true but extreme stories: the rescuers on 9/11 and a solitary deacon in the aftermath of a hurricane.  In the midst of each of these horrific events, we find kingdom parables of those who return again and again, offering grace to those in need.  No time is spent weighing merit or parceling out different rewards.  Instead, what is offered is the same to all and is nothing less than salvation.

What is the kingdom of God like?  It is a dusty firefighter or a sweaty deacon, tirelessly returning to a burning building, a flooded street, a marketplace, the recesses of our hearts.  God pays no attention to the time of day.  It does not matter if it is early morning or the moment before nightfall.  He cares only that we take his hand and accept his invitation into the vineyard of his grace.  And once we do, we are called to become the firefighter, the deacon, the teacher, the feeder, the disciple—whoever we need to be for whomever has need of love.

For most of us, most of the time, the task before us won’t be as momentous as 9/11 or Katrina, but it may be no less daunting.  We live in a world in which every impulse is to react and respond like the laborers who have put in a day’s work, exalting ourselves and judging others by artificial standards that don’t matter in a world so full of despondency and pain..  But Jesus the Christ gives us a better storyline by which to live.  It is the story of the God who rushes in with arms outstretched in grace, again and again.

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[1] Kocher, Craig.  “Living by the Word,” in The Christian Century, September 9, 2008, page 23.

The Answer

?????????????????????????????I’ve always asked a lot of questions.  In school, I was that kid whose hand shot up in class every time the teacher paused to breathe.  Even when the teacher would offer an answer, I responded with yet another question.  “But what about…” or “If that’s true, then…” were phrases always on the tip of my tongue.  So many things were opaque to me.  Granted, that may have had to do with an inherent dimwittedness, but it also seemed that the number of questions to be asked was infinite, and I considered that a challenge I would try to meet.

Of course, we now live in the Google age.  Any inquiry is only a mouse click away.  I still remember the moment I realized how revolutionary this is.  I was in the car several years ago with my friend Scott Perkins, headed to a Duke University football game.  We’d just stopped for a snack at a quick mart, and once we were on the road again we began to debate when the modern supermarket came into being.  That is, when the model shifted from the type of grocer like Nels Oleson in “Little House on the Prairie,” who takes your grocery list and gathers the items for you, to the HEB or Kroger model in which there are rows of “help yourself” stacked shelves.  Scott and I sat there wondering in ignorance until I realized that the new Blackberry smartphone in my pocket could find the answer for us in a matter of seconds.  (The answer, by the way, is Piggly Wiggly, first opened in Memphis in 1916.)

Piggly Wiggly, the first self-service grocery store, opened in Memphis in 1916.

Piggly Wiggly, the first self-service grocery store, opened in Memphis in 1916.

Last week TIME magazine upped the ante by publishing a double-sized issue entitled, “The Answers Issue.”  It is one hundred twelve pages of bullet-point enlightenment.  Or so it seems at first.  Many of the questions TIME poses are frivolous: What is the line dancing capital of America?; Where do designer dogs (like the Yorkiepoo and Dalmadoodle) come from?; and What is the most patriotic color?

As I read, I began to sense a conspiracy.  Author Thomas Pynchon said, after, all, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.”[i]  Lull people into convincing themselves that superficiality is substance, and you can manipulate them into anything.

But elsewhere TIME was spot-on.  In the table of contents, I found a section entitled, “What defines us.”   That is, in a phrase, the question posed by the Apostle Paul in the Letter to the Romans from which we read today and have been reading throughout the Pentecost season.  The question of what defines us is how Paul opens his letter.  In its very first chapter Paul wonders if we will be defined by the frivolous idols that punctuate the creation or else by the God who creates us.  Midway through, in Romans’ sweeping eighth chapter, Paul first explores what it means for the Holy Spirit who lives within us to define us.  And today Paul gives us the capstone, the punch line, the full-stop period at the end of his theological argument.  “What defines us?” he asks one final time.

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TIME answers issueOn page seventy-four in TIME magazine’s “Answers Issue,” one finds the 21st Century response to the question of what defines us.  TIME’s answer is in four parts.  No frivolity here, no designer dogs or line dancing.  The answers are, unfortunately, accurate and sobering.

First, TIME says, we are defined by “how we fight.”  TIME reminds us that we have thus far spent $6 trillion (that’s twelve zeroes) on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Even after decades of nuclear arms control, the land area covered by U.S. nuclear weapon bases and facilities is over fifteen thousand square miles.  We are a people armed to the teeth, and we have shown a ready willingness to use those arms.  As columnist Peggy Noonan recently wrote, “What do armies in peacetime do?  Make plans to kill each other just in case.”[ii]

Second, and no more uplifting, TIME says we are defined by “how we punish.”  Though the United States has only five percent of the world’s population, we have twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners.  We love to lock people away.  It is both our first and least creative response to crime, and it will eventually bankrupt us (if something else doesn’t do so first).  And this is before any consideration of the troubling correlation between incarceration and race.

Though the United States has only five percent of the world’s population, we have twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners.

Though the United States has only five percent of the world’s population, we have twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners.

Third, TIME says, we are defined by “how we live.”  The magazine explores what drives us to the urban center and what pushes us to the suburbs.  For those of us living in Greater Houston, it is of particular note that between 1985 and 2010, forty-one million acres of rural America were gobbled up by urban sprawl.

By this time in my reading, I was exhausted and depressed.  Could it be, I asked myself, that in our deepest selves, in the marrow of us, we are primarily defined by violence, and by our impulse to lock one another away, and by our love-hate relationship with the concrete jungle?  Is that the answer?

But then I flipped one more page, and there it was: the final answer, the response that makes the ultimate difference, the one that leavens all the others.  What defines us, TIME says, is “how we love.”  I was stunned both by love’s inclusion in TIME’s laundry list of Google-esque bullet points and by the magazine’s wisdom in holding love back for last.  A smile crept across my face as I focused my eyes to read.

Love as commodityThe smile was short-lived.  What is love to TIME magazine?  Turns out love is the number of days of stubble women find most attractive on a man.  It is the average number of times a married couple has intercourse in a given year.  It is information about the habits and likes of adult film stars.

We can’t fault TIME magazine.  TIME doesn’t invent the answers; it simply reports them.  And, indeed, in our culture this is what traffics as love.  Love is about physical gratification, or at least emotional gratification.  Love is the line “You complete me!” in Hollywood romantic comedies.  Love is, at the end of the day, a commodity.  It is something we buy or sell, that we use and use up and cast off in favor of whatever titillates us next.  It is more superficial than a designer dog.

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In the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul approaches the question of what defines us from several different angles, all of which are vitally important.  And today he comes to the same conclusion as TIME magazine: We are defined, ultimately, by how we love.  And yet, Paul’s rendering of love could not be more different than the love peddled by contemporary culture.  Paul’s love is radically different, which underscores that Christianity is a radically different way of being in the world.

Love, Paul says, is not a commodity.  Love is not about self-fulfillment.  Love is not about carnal gratification.  Love is, rather, the completion of the law, which is to say, love is the summation of God’s hope for us.  What does that look like?  Paul says, “All the commandments are summed upon in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  For the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  We owe no one anything, except to love one another.”

We mustn’t skim this passage in haste.  Our contemporary misunderstanding of love runs so deep that we risk misreading it entirely.  Love here is not about warm feelings or emotional connection or “being in love.”  Love is about modeling our lives on the character of God.

According to St. Paul, love is about modeling our lives on the character of God.

According to St. Paul, love is about modeling our lives on the character of God.

 

Our experience of God—the God attested in Scripture and the God we meet in Jesus—is of one who is not self-indulgent or self-gratifying.  Neither is God’s love of the schmaltzy, romantic kind.  God’s love stands for justice, not human justice through violence or a desire to lock flawed and broken people up and throw away the key, but by recognizing that we are all broken—the cracks and shards of some are simply more visible than those of others—and God seeks to make us all whole.  God’s love seeks the good of the neighbor, and Jesus goes to great lengths to define the neighbor not only as the person nearest us, but as the stranger, the one on the other side of the road, of whom we may be suspicious and wary.  Love, then, is not merely a private emotion or a relationship between two intimates.  Love affects how we live in the world, what people and causes we support, what we buy, what we raise our children to value.

In other words, modeling the character of God’s love is a finely-tempered, steely-eyed commitment not to consider the world as revolving around you, or me.  Love is the commitment to live for other than ourselves, and the commitment to keep that commitment even when it doesn’t emotionally fulfill or gratify us.  Love is fierce, and demanding, and counter-cultural, and perplexing to the world.  But living for love is also, Paul says, like waking from sleep, like sobering up from a bad drunk.  When we seek to embody the character of God—when we love as God understands love—the gauzy haze is dispelled.  Daylight shines.  As Jean val Jean reminds us in Les Miserables, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”  When we do so, salvation is nearer to us than we can scarcely imagine.

As individuals, and as Houston’s Cathedral, how do we love?  Our answer to that question, the only question that ultimately matters, is what defines us as Christians, as people of God.  How do we love?

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[i] From his novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

[ii] In her August 9-10, 2014 Wall Street Journal column, “The World the Great War Swept Away.”

God is in the midst of the city

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After a half decade of blogging, I’ve decided to change the name of my blog from the rather pedestrian “Dean’s Page” to something new.  The new title comes from Psalm 46:5:

God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.

“God is in the midst of the city.”  For those of us who make Houston our home, this simple yet profound conviction is both a promise and a comfort.  Whether we experience joy or sorrow, anxiety or peace, God is with us providing strength, comfort, and guidance.

God is, indeed, in the midst of our city, and Christ Church Cathedral serves as God’s icon in the heart of Houston.  Each hour, the bell in our majestic bell tower tolls as a reminder that God resides not only in Sunday worship, but also in the midst of our entire lives. God has something to say about how we do business, how we treat our citizens, and how we care for those who are hurting. God lays claim to all of us, and all of life is holy. Christ Church Cathedral bears the blessed responsibility for reminding the city of this truth, and that responsibility is a challenge, an opportunity and a sacred privilege.

I hope you’ll keep reading!