Only the Lonely

I wonder if Jesus would have tweeted or updated his status when he faced the certainty of his pending ordeal. To whom would he have reached out? From whom might he have expected a reply? Who would have responded?

In spite of social media–or in some cases because of it?–there seem to be plenty of lonely people in today’s world. Ever notice how many of your friends post a status on Facebook to which no one responds; and the only way to deal with it is to post more desperate, meaningless details of the day, or even the life? Or have you taken note of the people truly lost in the crowd, walking with a mob yet by themselves, with no conversation partner? Or the ones who almost never venture out any longer for fear of so many things, such as non-acceptance, isolating ridicule (almost always less real than imagined), the pain of watching so many others having the enjoyment of companions, or even the fear of losing the one piece of identity they are sure of–that they are lonely. The Beatles’ song from long ago haunted me even then:

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby
Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window
Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie
Writing the words of a sermon that no-one will hear
No-one comes near
Look at him working
Darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there
What does he care?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby
Died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie
Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No-one was saved

All the lonely people (Ah, look at all the lonely people)
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people (Ah, look at all the lonely people)
Where do they all belong?
Lyrics from eLyrics.net

The Eleanor Rigbys and Father McKenzies are all around. Whether the original lyrics intended to mock the faith or not, they apply to many in ministry, who die in the church and dig the graves with no one coming. Jesus knows them all by name. Jesus knows them all by experience because he was willing to become one of them.

Early in his public ministry Jesus submitted to the baptism of John, a baptism of identification with humanity in all its faults and frailties. By doing so he was declaring, “I’m with them.” In referring later to the baptism he would yet undergo, that identification was made complete as he suffered humiliation, abandonment, misunderstanding, injustice, physical pain–and loneliness. No one came, no one got it, no one sat with him, no one prayed with him.

Because of the things he suffered, he is able to come to the aid of those who suffer, as the writer to the Hebrews declared. It is difficult to imagine the intensity of the loneliness, the isolation that the fully human Jesus experienced, so that he might come to the aid of those who find themselves outside the fold of any meaningful human interaction. Perhaps only the lonely ones can begin to grasp how much it matters that the Lord knows; and in spite of the lyrics above, he does come.

The Unimaginable God?

I am frequently asked by students how best to talk about God with atheist friends. Atheists, of course, come in all shapes and sizes, and from every direction. Some have not thought seriously about what the claims of Christian faith really are, and are happy to dismiss them as insufficiently sophisticated for people as bright as they; some have given a more serious hearing to the real claims, but have difficulty connecting the god they hear about with the unpleasantness of the real world. Some simply do not want there to be a god, thereby removing the daunting presence of one who might judge their attitudes and conduct. One of my customary responses to the question is suggest asking the atheist to tell them about the god in whom they do not believe; almost without fail, the answer can then be given: I don’t believe in that god either; let me tell you about the I do believe in.

But where would you begin with that descriptive task? It’s a question theologians/apologists have debated for a very long time: where does God-talk begin. Sometimes it’s with the philosophical arguments that appeal to the mind, hoping to demonstrate that God is the only sufficient explanation for why there is something rather than nothing. At other times one might point experiences which only an all-wise, all-powerful, yet loving God could possibly have arranged. While these may have their time and place, along with other approaches, the Passion of Christ suggests something else.

On two occasions during that holy week, Jesus invited people to interpret God on the basis of what they saw in him. The first time (John 12:44-46) was to those wavering between intellectual assent and life investment into the claims of Jesus. “When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me.” Later, in the privacy of his small group of close friends, he declared again, “anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). So what is it someone sees when looking at Jesus? What does that glance do when one asks who God really is?

I would suggest that what is recorded between these two statements of Jesus has much to do with the answer. And it is related to yesterday’s post about the centrality of Holy Week for grasping authentic Christian faith. After his more public description of his relation to God, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, announces the betrayal he will soon experience, and then humbles the boastful Peter with the unthinkable idea that he, too, will deny his Lord. As the next few days would unfold, the glance at Jesus would be enough to turn the heads of virtually anyone in any other direction; it would be too ugly to behold. Do you want to know who God really is? Look at Jesus. Here. Now. Stooping. Washing. Accepting betrayal. Then dying.

It is often suggested in today’s world that while the idea of God is useful to us, in grounding morality, in providing some measure of hope and purpose, the supposed truth is that every construction of what God is really like is nothing more than God made in our image. We imagined Him as we would like to think He is, or so it is alleged. And it would be difficult to deny that there are ways we prefer to think about God, all of which are irrelevant to who he truly is. But it is very difficult to pretend that any of us would imagine the God revealed by looking at Jesus, particularly the Jesus portrayed in the climax of every gospel account. And when we find ourselves among the betrayers, as all of us must at times, we’d rather turn our heads, as Isaiah predicted centuries earlier. Maybe we don’t pay as much attention to Holy Week because we don’t want to have to look at this suffering God. To think that this is “the real” is, well, unimaginable.

Holy . . . What?

It started yesterday. And it ended yesterday for all too many Christians and non-believers alike. It started with an impromptu parade and will end with a tepid celebration of an event many people believe didn’t really occur. To an extent that last point is understandable, given the hidden nature of the most significant moment in human history. But I’m getting ahead of myself, which is just what today’s pep rally Christians tend to do so easily.

If we cannot find it within ourselves to observe the approximately six weeks of Lent, one might hope that surely we could be more aware of what once went by the name of Holy Week, that period throughout which our attention is to be keenly focused on the identity of Jesus with virtually every form of human suffering, whether emotional, mental, psychological, or physical. Even spiritual. When we fail to so focus we are in danger of losing our story, and the story loses its grip on us. What I sometimes dreaded as a child and even into teen years I now recall as a significant shaping of how to see the world. We called it Holy Week.

It wasn’t just a name in that small country church where faith was formed after its generation from my parents. We would observe the special week by having worship every night through Good Friday, each night recalling something about the Passion of our Lord. I don’t recall a single sermon, though I heard many. What I recall is our community of faith gathering to be reminded of who we are and what God in Christ did about it. By the time Thursday evening and Holy Communion came, it was a meaningful observance because of the honesty with which we could see our need and God’s sacrificial provision. By Friday folks were broken at he sight of the cross. By Sunday we were ready to celebrate life. Really ready.

It’s not just about nostalgia for a by-gone tradition. When one looks at the gospels recorded in the New Testament, one should be struck by the amount of space each of the writers devotes to the events between the Sundays of Jesus’s final week among the disciples. Matthew has 28 chapters, 8 of which describe events beginning with Palm Sunday; Mark has 16 chapter, with the final week beginning in chapter 11; Luke begins the Triumphal Entry in chapter 19 of his 24. John is more concentrated than any of the so-called synoptic gospels, with chapters 12-21 occurring on or after Palm Sunday. Even if one were to argue that some of the events and sayings, if they occurred at all, were relocated from their true chronology and placed into this week by the writer, one would have to conclude that doing so only reveals an authorial strategy that intends for the reader to see all of what is described in the light of this week.

There are some implications of this heavy emphasis on what happened in one week of history. Obviously, the movement of those events toward the cross cannot be ignored. This alone argues against any interpretation of the Christian faith that by-passes the crucifixion. Perhaps we betray our discomfort with the necessity of the cross when we skip the climax of Jesus’ life and ministry in order to say the nicer, more hopeful aspects of his teaching. But are they really as hopeful if they are not seen as the teachings of the crucified one?

I’m interested in responses to a couple of questions raised here. For one, are there reasons for which the Holy Week traditions have been largely abandoned? Should they be renewed, perhaps in different fashion? What sort might you suggest? Do you think our telling of the story is compromised by not acting out liturgically, in some fashion what that story really is?

Missing the Point? Lent Post.

There’s a theory in the philosophy of science that at first seems unduly skeptical. It says that scientific discovery is determined less by the truth about the physical world than it is by what we are looking for. In other words, we define what we expect to see, and by doing so we also place limits both on what we will find and how we will describe what we find. Could it also be that we face the same issue when we look at the Bible?

John 5:36-47
36 But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, 38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. 39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. 41 I do not receive glory from people. 42 But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. 43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. 44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? 45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”

Jesus had some very interesting exchanges with the people the gospel writer simply refers to as “the Jews.” The particular Jews in view, of course, are the spokesmen for the religious life of the Hebrew people, including a significant number of the teachers of the Law–the biblical scholars of the day. One might reasonably assume that they were good at what they did–dissect the received writings to uncover every detail and nuance of the text that might provide clues for what it is that God requires. Over time this endeavor turned into a way of maintaining a grip on the people whose spiritual lives rested in following the conclusions at which they arrived. The text became the data out of which their science of law discovery would operate. They “saw” what they were looking for. Their expectations of the text were met and satisfied. And as success in this endeavor continued, the guarding and revering of this text continued apace.

In my more skeptical moments, I wonder how different some of our Christian approaches to the Bible really are from those of these soon-to-be miffed “Jews.” Is it possible that we, like they, are prone to see only what we want to see when reading the inspired Word? The difficulty of standing back from previous interpretations, previous purposes for which to study yet again, previous conclusions is a decidedly difficult task. Conservative believers are especially vulnerable to the danger of thinking that it is the text that gives life, proving a kinship with the Jews and a similar susceptibility to rebuff for missing the point the Bible really makes: Jesus, the Christ. If we argue our interpretations more than we value Him, we’re guilty.

During Lent Christians are encouraged by the Great Tradition to reflect on the sufferings of Christ, and to examine their own lives in light of those sufferings being born for us and necessitated by our sinfulness. We then are called to repent, to turn away from the particular sins we have contributed to his agony. As we do so, our thoughts must always be less on the descriptions than on the person of that Suffering Servant. The Bible points to Him, or it has no value at all. And it is on him that we should focus our meditations, him that we hide in our hearts, to use the phrase from the Psalmist, that we might not sin against Him. The written word cannot save us any more than it could save “the Jews”; the Living Word, crucified, risen, and ascended can and will do so.

Now About This Judging Problem. Lent Post.

How careless we can be. It happens in just about every facet of human experience. We pay attention too little to the things that most matter and much attention to the details we think we are capable of handling. And before we know it, we’ve overlooked the obvious, complicated the simple, and forgotten the essential.

John 5:19-29
19 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. 21 For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. 22 The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, 23 that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. 27 And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.

Yes, of course, we all make mistakes. Most of us even admit it, albeit more grudgingly in some cases than in others. For some the recognition of mistakes strikes at the very core of their being, making it all the more difficult to deal with while still maintaining a sense of self-worth. We all know the reasons for which we make mistakes, and most of the time we are so good at rationalizing what we have done that by the time we have completed the process our actions turn out to have been noble, and not blameworthy at all.

All of which makes it even more curious that we as Christians sometimes attempt to usurp the authority expressly given to the Son of God? The Father, as the source of life, is also its only rightful judge; but He grants that life and that authority to the Son because He became one of us; and by granting Christ incarnate the authority to judge, God forever removes our most basic excuse: “you should try living in a world with so many rotten people before you judge me.” He did. And because he did he has the perfect position from which to know and judge all of us. And we don’t.

There are times at which we wish to make the pronouncements of God instead the proclamations of His grace. And they come more frequently than we care to admit, whether we are in the conservative or the liberal side of things; we pronounce judgments on different criteria, not from necessarily different hearts. But pronounce we do, whether by direct word or by clear, not-so-well hidden implication. I expect there will be surprises on the Day of Judgment, and they may not be pleasant surprises for those standing ready for God to confirm the judgments they have already made. He gives his life to whom he will; and contrary to some seriously flawed interpretations of grace, it does have something to do with our deeds. Jesus said that, not me; so take it up with him.

All judgment goes through Christ, who went through life and death. For all of us. May we repent of any attempt to take his authority for ourselves. It’s the one huge mistake we cannot afford to make.

Maybe Tebow got it right. Do we?

Just say no. A few years ago it was a simple phrase promoted as the appropriate response of kids when encountering invitations to any sort of drug use. It’s simple; it’s direct; it isn’t accompanied by any sort of apologetic. And it flattens out moral decision-making. Sometimes it’s appropriate; sometimes it isn’t.

John 5:2-18
2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. 3 In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5 One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” 7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” 9 And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.

Now that day was the Sabbath. 10 So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” 11 But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” 12 They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” 13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. 14 Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” 15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. 16 And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”
18 This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.

Christians have long been accused of being somewhat Pharisaic; that is, they are tied to a law of rather exacting standards on one hand, applying it to point out the short-comings of other, yet unable to fulfill that same law themselves on the other hand, opening themselves to justifiable ridicule. I am reminded of this when looking at something of an evangelical in-house controversy over a recent decision by football player Tim Tebow. It seems Mr. Tebow had agreed to speak at a church in Texas, something he has done many times in many places. But he later changed his mind, largely because of the rather direct and somewhat strident manner with which the church’s pastor made known his beliefs regarding homosexuality and hell. Albert Mohler, a prominent spokesman for conservative positions of many kinds, took Mr. Tebow to task for his change of heart. He concluded that Tebow had acquiesced to the demands of the unforgiving press, which complained about participating in hate speech.

I’m not personally acquainted with Tim Tebow. But I wonder if he did something that, while possibly misunderstood in the press, was the more Christ-like thing to do. Mohler’s complaint, available online through Christianity Today, just might reveal an attitude closer to what critics have charged all along, one which puts too many Christians perilously close to the attitude of “the Jews” in today’s text. That is, they are more concerned about rules being observed than about the work of God in the transforming of lives bent and broken in this world. Jesus addressed the crippled man personally, not through a generalized call for everyone to stop doing bad things. It was “the Jews” who complained that healing broke the law and should not have happened! Imagine that if you can.

Unfortunately, we can imagine it. I think Tim Tebow just said no to the legalistic straight-jacket of many of his fellow conservative believers. We cannot be more concerned with pronouncing yet again what the standards are–they are known, after all–than we are with the individuals who have been broken and left by the wayside because of the sins they have committed, whatever they might be. And we must say no to a manner of proclaiming the truth which is antithetical to the One who IS Truth. “We beheld His glory, full of grace and truth.” Let our examination today be one which leads to repentance for losing sight of either of those characteristics.

Signs? Lent Posts continue.

We live in a skeptical age. We want to know that something adds up before we swallow it down. In many instances it serves us well. But in others, particularly those cases not especially open to empirical validation, we continue in disbelief far too beyond reason. The default setting seems to be stuck on the side skepticism.

John 4:46-54
46 So he came again to Cana in Galilee, where he had made the water wine. And at Capernaum there was an official whose son was ill. 47 When this man heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. 48 So Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” 49 The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” 50 Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way. 51 As he was going down, his servants met him and told him that his son was recovering. 52 So he asked them the hour when he began to get better, and they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” 53 The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” And he himself believed, and all his household. 54 This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee.

Sometimes I wonder what it might take for people today to believe that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God. That propostion—the divinity of Jesus—seems to be the content of what the official and his household came to believe. This fellow witnessed the miraculous healing of his own son; what more evidence would be needed, given that no one else had been able to rescue the boy, and that the healing coincided precisely with the time Jesus spoke the word that the boy would live. Rather convincing.

But we do not have opportunities like that today. Yes, divine healing does take place in the name of Jesus, but not with his physical presence. It seems instructive that Jesus lamented that such “signs and wonders” were necessary to engender belief. Is he, perhaps, suggesting that our minds themselves should be able to put the words he spoke together with the way life in the world actually presents itself to us to draw the conclusion? Does faith really come by hearing and considering, rather than by seeing something flashy, like water turned into wine, sick people raised?

Our age does not do well in reasoning; the world at large long ago decided, without sufficient objection or counter-argument, that faith and reason are separate domains, and that the latter should always trump the former. What we are left with, however, is not a more rational way, but a more gullible one. We fail to ask the same demonstration of proof for the claims of the secularists as they demand of believers; and at the same time we acquiesce to declarations based on bald assertions about what we believe.

What has this to do with Lent? Perhaps very little. But on the other hand, it is possible that it is time to repent of our unwillingness to believe without seeing something unusual, something spectacular, about which we would likely argue over alternative explanations anyway. Faith is, indeed, the substance–the stuff, the solid foundation—of what is hoped for, not the defiance of all sense. May we engage it well, particularly as we think about what the suffering of the incarnate Son, voluntarily, for us, might mean.

Opening Our Eyes. A Lent Post.

Is it possible to become so concerned with details and logistics that we lose sight of our overarching purpose? Just ask virtually anyone who works in a governmental bureaucracy. Or anyone in a denominational staff position. Or . . .. You get the picture. Consider the concluding portion of an among Jesus, his closest followers, and a group of second-class citizens known as Samaritans.

John 4:27-42
27 Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” 28 So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” 30 They went out of the town and were coming to him.

31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. 36 Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

39 Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”

Did you ever wonder why it took twelve guys to go and find some lunch for themselves and for Jesus? No one in the group was willing to stay with Jesus, sending the others to do the procurement. Were they afraid of “those people” whose territory they were passing through? Was strength in numbers the thought, in case of an encounter with a hard-nosed group of youths in this section usually avoided by upstanding Jews?

While twelve were off doing the leg-work, the behind-the-scenes things we assign to “go-fors” the real ministry was happening without their input. Jesus would describe it to them in terms of fields they didn’t plant, but nonetheless could assist in harvesting. While they were away looking for food, ministry–the spread of the word about Jesus, was going on without them. Jesus had encountered one of their own among the Samaritans, and through her personal accounting of the incident many were encouraged to come and find Jesus themselves. She, not the disciples, planted the seed. They were busy tending to the needs of the travel party.

It is always tempting to believe that it is by our planning, organizing, and executing well-developed, carefully considered strategies for building the kingdom, growing the church, “winning people to Christ” that the work of Christ is accomplished. In the meantime the hurting, abused woman under our noses is never considered as the place where our Lord is witnessed to. I wonder how many people the disciples passed by without acknowledging on their procurement mission? I know that we, each of us, pass by people every day, many of them needing our conversation to draw them to the possibility that there is hope for them and for their lives and loves ones. One woman with issues (and by the way, women did not initiate divorces in that time), and a whole town interested in hearing Jesus; twelve disciples and something for lunch so ministry could happen when they would arrive at a nicer place.

How well do you and I recognize harvests when we see them? Is it better plans that we need, or is it more sensitive spirits? Is it familiarity with the structure, or willingness to become familiar with the other that we truly need?

Today’s thoughts as we continue a season of repentance.

It’s Still Dark. A Thought for Lent

Does anyone like being found out? I never have. It’s painful and humiliating, and if we have a very tenuous grip on something called self-esteem to begin with, the fear of losing what little bit we may yet possess keeps us lingering in darker places where exposure of the real persons we know ourselves to be is less likely. Today’s text is among the most familiar in the Bible, and has much to say to us—and through us.

John 3:16-21
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

We do not, in fact, like exposure of our less than admirable deeds—our sinful attachments to patterns and attitudes, our indulgences of lust, greed, sensate pleasure at the expense of thoughtful devotion to the true, the good, the beautiful. On the other hand, there is a great freedom that accompanies the exposure if—and only if—we allow the light to not only show us for what we are, but to transform us into something better, something unafraid with nothing to hide and everything to live for. The truth—about ourselves and about God’s actual desires for us and willingness to make those desires happen—indeed sets us free. Free to be the creatures God intended for planet earth. Still, dark corners yet unexposed linger.

Dark corners linger in our own lives, even as we are called to bear the message and passion of God to a deliberately dark world. As mentioned a few days ago, as God sent His Son, so the Son sends us. Sometimes we forget the manner in which the Son was sent. We mistake the Word made flesh for a few words on the sacred page. Jesus was sent out of the Father’s love, not His anger. Sometimes I have said, in only a partially facetious way, that God didn’t send His Son into the world to condemn the world because the followers of the Son would take care of that chore. And so we have, on multiple occasions, in loud and angry voices, in aggrieved tones of the unfairness over how mistreated we have been. Is this tendency itself but an indicator of a darkness yet moving and controlling from one of those corners not yet fully exposed to the brightness of Christ’s light?

To the extent that we demand fair treatment, defend out rights as believers, we just might be demonstrating that our identifying with Christ, who gave himself on our behalf and on behalf of the whole world, is not yet complete. Have we love unequal to the task of suffering for the sake of those yet in darkness? May we allow his light to penetrate more deeply as the time of Lent progresses and moves toward its full victory, one we will not sufficiently appreciate while darkness lingers. Guilty as charge, says the writer.

Mulligans for Lent?

A mulligan. Golfers know it as a their term for a free “do-over,” the opportunity to replay an errant, unproductive stroke. It’s not allowed by the rules of the game, but it often used in friendly games, within agreed upon limits. The origins of the term are unclear; several versions have been offered, none with a sufficiently corroborated body of evidence. No matter. We use them on occasion. And we wish they were more generally available in life.

John 3:1-15
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

As I write this post I am listening to a rather strong wind making significant noise outside the window of my study. Where it came from and where it goes from here, as Jesus said to Nicodemus, are unknown to me. I could learn the direction easily enough; origin and destination, however, are other matters. “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” In what way?

Life in society requires some degree of predictability. There are patterns of behavior and action that we rely upon toward and from one another. We get to know where people are coming from and where they are going, what they are almost surely going to do because we know the starting point. Jesus suggests to his evening guest, however, that the way things are, the places, attitudes, assumptions, goals, aspirations, and expectations people live with are insufficient for their real purpose. A reorientation of mind and heart so radical that it can only be described as a new birth is what we need. We need one, big, all-encompassing mulligan—a decision to center the life in God’s version of the world and of ourselves as participants in it for His sake and not our own. It’s a decision that leaves others wondering where we came from, and unsure of what we will do next because the normal expectations may no longer apply.

Birth, however, implies growth and a maturing process. As with physical life, there are things that hinder and things that spur healthy development of life. Without a maturing process our big mulligan turns out to be less helpful to us in life; we’ll continue to take bad swings at the challenges before us, we’ll misread the direction the wind is blowing and watch our efforts sail out of bounds, into the hazards and places from which only penalty strokes can extricate us. As has been suggested in this series of Lenten reflections, we do need to think about our swing in life—we need to remember that the Teacher has given us a new way to approach the day and its inevitable encounters with all manner of people and unseen potential hazards in the form of decisions, attitudes, and hoped-for outcomes. That new way may well invite puzzlement and ridicule. And when we succumb to that pressure we’ll need a few more “do-overs” supplied by grace. Fortunately, the Pro is along with us—if we invite him.

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