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.