Saturday, April 18, 2009

Rock Candy

If my people would but listen to me… you would be fed with the finest wheat; with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.

                        Psalm 81.13, 16

Gone Good

“Honey from the rock” is a seldom mentioned, yet potent Biblical symbol linked directly to Jacob. Of all Old Testament legends, he holds unquestionable title of Bad Boy Gone Good. Nothing he’s taught by his grandfather, Abraham, and his father, Isaac, sinks in. As a young man, he’s a manipulative liar and con artist. He scams his twin brother, Esau, out of his birthright as primary heir. But in his rush to steal Isaac’s wealth, Jacob also inherits the role of Israel’s patriarch. God doesn’t press the matter. He leaves Jacob to his own devices, knowing he’ll eventually meet his come-uppance, which is exactly what happens. He looks up one day to find Esau coming after him. While he waits to pay for his recklessness, God appears in angelic form and wrestles Jacob into obedience to His will. His brother arrives to discover a changed man.

In Deuteronomy, Moses sings a ballad with a lengthy segment about Jacob: “In a desert land he [God] found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye… He made him ride on the heights of the land and fed him with the fruits of the fields. He nourished him with honey from the rock.” (Deuteronomy 10, 12) A message weaves through this imagery. When we yield to God’s purpose, He takes care of us. Not only does He see to our needs and protection. He provides sweetness in places where none naturally exists.

If Only

Psalm 81 picks up this thread, as God mourns Israel’s rebellion against His plan. Once again, it’s strayed from His ways and become fascinated with idols. God doesn’t temper His words here—He’s obviously exasperated and unhappy. “I rescued you from slave labor,” He reminds Israel. “Any time you got into trouble, I came to your aid.” He wants them to hear His warning about putting other gods where He belongs. “If only you would listen to Me,” He says, “I’d take care of your problems.” Instead of cringing at His anger, they’d enjoy His promise to feed them with the finest wheat and satisfy them with honey from the rock. Again, just mentioning honey from a rock clarifies His message. God wants Israel to realize it’s headed in the wrong direction, chasing the wrong things like its ancestor, Jacob, did. He wants His people to turn back to Him.

A Candy Shop

Relentless advertising encourages us to picture the world as a candy shop, a warehouse of endless goodies to grab. The blitz is so seductive many develop insatiable cravings for things they can’t afford, financially, emotionally, and spiritually. Once they have them, though, the high vanishes and before they know it, another confection calls. If just one thing stole their desire to please God—a house or car, a job or companion, say—they might realign their priorities more easily. But some grow so obsessed with acquiring things—lots of them—it evolves into worship. They meditate on wish lists. They sacrifice everything to scheme and manipulate and even destroy others to amass fortunes they’re not meant to have. They’re like Jacob, oblivious to God’s plan and unaware they’re headed to a reckoning where they’ll wrestle with Him. (We’ve seen plenty of these matches lately.)

If only we stopped fantasizing about sweets in shiny wrappers. If only we realized we’re here to serve God and one another, not to act like greedy brats. If only we pierced the world’s candy-store illusions to realize where we really are—in a desert land, a barren and howling waste. God longs to take care of us. When we relinquish cravings for manmade treats, He reveals sweetness where we think none exists. God’s rock candy is loaded with fulfilling nutrients. “If you’ll listen to me,” He tells us, “I’ll feed you the finest wheat. I’ll nourish you with honey from the rock that satisfies.”

Why get fat on worldly sweets when we can splurge on nutritious honey from the rock?

(Tomorrow: Silent)

Postscript: New Weekend Feature

If you’re a regular here, you know my passion for black gospel music. While I identify with it more strongly than most, I love it too much not share with those I love and respect—i.e., you. Each weekend, either Friday or Saturday, I’ll post a song that speaks to me with some background on the artist. Take a few minutes to give it a look. On Sunday, we can all enjoy our “high church” hymns and anthems. But I know nothing better than celebrating the weekend with a terrific gospel tune!

“Thank You” – Rev. Walter Hawkins & The Love Center Choir

Might as well start with the best. Walter Hawkins has no equal among today's gospel songwriters. Love Center, which he founded and pastors in Oakland, boasts the best gospel church choir there is—period. (For Boomers: His brother and minister of music, Edwin, recorded the 1969 Top Ten hit, “O Happy Day.”) “Thank You” is over 10 years old, but it could have been written yesterday. Listening to Walter’s impassioned legato introduction—he’s in full voice as singer and preacher—is like reading the newspaper. Then the choir’s up-tempo praise dissipates the darkness. One final bit: the lead singer, Yvette Flunder, formerly Love Center’s associate pastor, now shepherds City of Refuge, a thriving GLBT congregation in San Francisco.

video

Friday, April 17, 2009

Engineering Disasters

Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.

                        Matthew 7.24

Site Planning

When I was in junior high, various clubs in our area sponsored “after-dinner speaking” competitions. They were a godsend for someone like me, whose athletic skills couldn’t fill a thimble. Our English teacher coached us about what makes a good speech. “Choose a topic your audience will find relevant and make your key points in interesting ways. Most of all,” she said, “be sure to end with a quick story they won’t forget.” Not long ago, reading the Sermon on the Mount in one sitting, I realized Jesus follows her direction to the tee. His subject is basic theology, which He explains with intriguing analogies: light and salt and vision, etc. Finally, He caps it off with a story about site planning. He keeps it brief—four verses—yet He gives us just enough to fill in the blanks.

Two very different men build very different houses in very different locations. One constructs his home on a rocky plateau. The work is arduous and time-consuming. The house sits off the beaten path, out of sight for pedestrians to admire its solid architecture and the labor required to build it. For the other guy, location is everything. He selects a riverfront site, where it’s easier and faster to raise his showplace on a sandy foundation. Then, the seasons change. Rain and wind pound their houses; the river rises. The house on the rock stands firm. The house on the sand crashes into a pile of rubble. “If you hear My words and do as I say, you’ll be like the wise man who built on the rock,” Jesus says. “If you ignore what I say, you’re like the fool who built on the sand.”

Underneath

Jesus’s point is well taken. In constructing our lives, what’s underneath—the principles we build upon—matters more than how quickly we rise or what others see. Plans to make our work easier invite engineering disasters when times get hard. Carving a life out of the bedrock of Christ’s teaching demands rigor and fortitude. Fundamental though His message is, it’s difficult to practice, constantly asking more of us than we expect. “Sure,” we say, “I want to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.” What sounds so simple, however, proves surprisingly complicated when we discover it means choosing what pleases our Maker over what pleases us. “Of course,” we say, “I want to love my neighbor as myself,” until we’re staring into eyes of deceit and hatred.

Building on the solid foundation of Jesus’s words is hard work. Furthermore, it’s far from glamorous. We don’t build showcase lives to win attention. We construct sturdy structures to house God’s presence, withstand storms, and offer shelter to others. This leads us off the beaten path, out of the sight of everyday passers-by. So it can also turn into a lonely task—just us, forging a foundation out of hard rock, wrestling with the material we’ve been given. Friends and family may not understand why we work so hard or why our work calls us away from unsound activities and aspirations. When the rains and wind come and the rivers flood, though, many of the same people who told us to take it easy are the first to knock on our doors. Underneath it all, they know our house stands secure.

What Did Jesus Say?

Not long ago, a marketing craze seized Christian consumers, particularly the Fundie crowd. Some well-intentioned soul came up with the tag line, “What Would Jesus Do?” Almost immediately it was condensed to “WWJD” and slapped on t-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, and every other imaginable trinket. But the question makes no sense, as Jesus was the most perplexing, unpredictable person of all time. If everything pointed right, He went left. When signs led forward, He backed up. Two quick examples: He and the disciples set sail one day. The weather turns bad, the men panic, but Jesus sleeps. And when they wake Him up, begging Him to do something, He’s clearly annoyed. “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” He scolds them. (Matthew 8.26) Much later—during the week of His crucifixion, when He should lay low and avoid further upsetting His enemies—He walks into the temple court, sees it buzzing with commerce, and flies into a rage. “’My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’” He says, quoting Isaiah 56.7, “But you have made it ‘a den of robbers’,” citing Jeremiah 7.11, a highly inflammatory condemnation.

If we really want to construct solid lives, we’d be smart to replace WWJD with a new slogan: What did Jesus say? While His actions often puzzle, His words remain transparent. To the end, He stresses practicing His principles—not His behavior. He tells us in John 13.17: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” In a dust-up with religious thinkers, He says, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” (Matthew 22.29) And during The Last Supper, He assures His disciples: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” (John 15.7) We’ve all witnessed foolishly constructed lives leveled by stormy seasons. We can escape similar engineering disasters by hearing what Jesus says and practicing what He preaches. It’s the only wise thing to do.

Wise builder/Foolish builder

(Tomorrow: Rock Candy)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Stay Close

But as for me, it is good to be near God.

                        Psalm 73.28

Surrounded by Contradiction

The anonymous writer of the gospel classic, “Farther Along,” began the hymn with this: “Tempted and tried, we’re oft made to wonder/Why it should be thus all the day long/While there are others living about us/Never molested, though in the wrong.” Asaph, the composer of Psalm 73, expresses a similar sentiment. After acknowledging God’s goodness, in verses 2 and 3, he confesses: “But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”

More often than we’d like, we’re surrounded by contradiction. We follow Christ to the best of our ability, yet we observe others who don’t honor—in some cases, altogether ignore—His principles prospering and progressing more rapidly than we. From what we see, their lives are wrinkle-free, while we’re constantly trying to iron out complications we didn’t anticipate or weren’t of our doing. We’re oft made to wonder. In fact, sometimes the contrast between their good fortune and our problems is so severe, we’re apt to ask, “What’s the use? This faith thing isn’t working like it’s supposed to.” We’re like Asaph, who can’t understand why the wicked “have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills.” (v4-5) We feel our feet slipping; we nearly lose our foothold.

Before It Gets Better

Many times it gets worse before it gets better. While we hang on, striving to love God and our neighbors, those living for their own pleasure shove their health, wealth, and success in our faces. Some go so far as thinking their position entitles them to belittle us. “Pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence,” Asaph says. “They scoff, and speak with malice; in their arrogance they threaten oppression.” (v6, 8) Haven’t we all been there? While clinging to hope, the smug counsel of non-believers is not what we need. In Psalm 35.15 and 17, David describes how it feels to be surrounded by people without faith during stressful times: “When I stumbled, they gathered in glee; attackers gathered against me when I was unaware. They slandered me without ceasing. O Lord, how long will you look on?” And haven’t we all been there too?

Opposition during times of doubt isn’t confined to non-believers, either. When our faith is under fire, fellow Christians who dispute our godly inheritance and condemn us for not conforming to their beliefs may also turn up. They insist our troubles prove we’re wrong. But the Bible says the opposite in Psalm 34.19: “A righteous man may have many troubles, but the LORD delivers him from the all.” The Philadelphia church faced the same problem. While it soldiered through hardship, some believers challenged its legitimacy. Yet Christ instructs John of Patmos to write this to them: “Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.” (Revelation 3.11) When non-believers or doubting Christians surround us, claiming superiority based on their success, that’s the message we need to hear. We hold on to what we have. We give our crown to no one.

Sanctuary

Is it not crazy to think we’ll profit by entertaining doubters in troubled times? Their cynical condescension only adds to our confusion, making it harder still to comprehend why they flourish as we languish. Asaph writes, “When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.” (Psalm 73.16-17) Hardship is not the time to compare our situation with others presently better off, nor is it the moment for exposing ourselves to undue criticism. It’s time to hide—to seek sanctuary in God’s presence, rejuvenate our confidence in His purpose, and wait for His direction. “For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle,” Psalm 27.5 reads.

Looking around us and listening to faithless advice are wastes of time. They encourage discouraging questions: Has God forgot us? Has He ceased to care? Though we know neither is true, needless influence leads to such conclusions. It pushes us away from God—our only help—when we should scramble near Him. Asaph finally gets this. “Yet I am always with you,” verse 23 says. “You hold me by your right hand.” After using others’ success to benchmark his situation, he lands on the best solution he—and we—will ever find. He lets God deal with everyone else. “But as for me, it is good to be near God.” When trials befall us, we quit looking at people to start looking for God. And once we find He's there, as always, holding us in His hand, we stay close.

Rather than watch how everyone else is doing, it’s best to see God is close to us—closer than He may appear—and stay close to Him.

(Tomorrow: Engineering Disasters)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Watch What You Eat

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

                        1 Corinthians 8.1

Crowd Control and Self-Control

Would we know who Paul was had he arrived after various Councils regulated Christian doctrine and behavior? Even in today’s relaxed climate, it’s tough to imagine many pulpits welcoming him. He’s a devout believer, brilliant theologian, and also a fiercely independent thinker—a true iconoclast, which makes him as troublesome now as in his own day. He typically opens a topic with a preview of where it will end. Yet he often reaches his orthodox conclusions via startlingly unorthodox routes. For Paul, understanding why supersedes knowing what.

While his contemporaries cite apostolic authority to declare, “Do this” and “Don’t do that,” Paul applies a unique perspective. He’s the only apostle directly called away from Judaic legalism, and he glories in total freedom through Christ’s love and power. There are no rules, as he sees it. At the same time, he insists liberty isn’t synonymous with unaccountability. It’s the opposite. Rules (“crowd control”) are replaced by responsibility (“self-control”). “’Everything is permissible for me’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible to me’—but I will not be mastered by anything,” he writes in 1 Corinthians 6.12. Two chapters later, he gives a sterling example of this, saying Christians can eat whatever they like, a huge departure from Jewish dietary restrictions. However, having the right doesn’t always make it right. “Watch what you eat,” he admonishes, and we understand why once he explains what he means.

A Big Beef

The Early Church’s first crisis involves identity. Is it a Jewish sect bound by Mosaic Law or a new faith with its own creed and conventions? Both sides have strong opinions, with Peter leading the Judaic schism and Paul advocating a total break with tradition. While their relationship is prickly on its best days, both agree Christ’s grace is open to all nationalities. This sets off several controversies—if Christian men, Jew or Gentile, must be circumcised, for example. In European cities like Corinth, where temples sell meat used in pagan sacrifice, eating food offered to idols becomes a big beef. Church leaders meet in Jerusalem to settle these issues and James suggests writing to Gentile churches, “telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” (Acts 15.20)

Paul sees this as a regression into legalism. Yet keeping the Church unified is more essential than splitting hairs. So, as only he can, Paul defends the Jerusalem edict by first disputing its legitimacy before appealing to the Corinthians to embrace it for the greater good. Basically, he writes, food sacrificed to idols is no different than other food since pagan gods don’t exist. It can’t be “polluted” by deities having no power. “But not everyone knows this,” he says. (1 Corinthians 8.7) He describes such believers as “so accustomed to idols… their conscience is weak.” They believe the food is defiled. In contrast, the strong-minded know food doesn’t affect their faith. Then he cautions in verse 9: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”

Love Builds Up

Paul poses this scenario. A weaker believer sees a stronger one engaged in activities he/she considers sinful. Instead of realizing the stronger Christian’s freedom comes from deeper knowledge of the faith, the weaker one boldly overrides personal conscience to indulge in similar practices. “So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ,” verses 11 and 12 read. In terms of food offered idols, then, eating it isn’t sinful. But a stronger believer exercising the right to eat anything without considering confusion it may bring to weaker Christians is wrong. “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak,” 1 Corinthians 9.22 says. “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”

Confidence in Christ’s acceptance should never be taken as carte blanche to flout the limitations of those not strong enough to believe with like certainty. It’s not about knowing our rights. “We all possess knowledge,” 1 Corinthians 8.1 reminds us. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” To the weak, we become weak, lest we mislead them into behaviors they don’t sufficiently understand. Romans 15.1 says, “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.” Pleasure gained by what we know can destroy brothers and sisters who know less. And Jude 20 encourages, “Dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith.” Sometimes building up a weaker believer requires us to take things down a peg. As it’s said, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.” That’s why, when those around us can’t digest freedoms we relish, it’s just better for all concerned, them and us, to watch what we eat.

Liberty to eat anything doesn’t free us from responsibility to watch what we eat.

(Tomorrow: Stay Close)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Be Happy

He who despises his neighbor sins; But he who has mercy on the poor, happy is he.

                        Proverbs 14.21 (NKJV)

Poor Things

Years back a young woman from South Carolina named Audrey spent the summer with relatives who attended a church where I served as minister of music. We hit it off immediately and hung out together nearly every day of her visit. We lost touch after she returned home, but Audrey’s memory today is as vividly delightful as ever. She was one of the happiest people I’ve known—always up for adventure, yet also content to while away an afternoon over coffee. A gifted talker, she peppered her conversation with a wealth of catch phrases. When I think of her, though, one especially comes to mind: “Poor thing.”

I first noticed it when I took her to Hollywood. As we looked for parking near Mann’s Chinese Theater, Audrey spotted a homeless man no more than 40, slouched unconscious against a wall, apparently unaware he’d relieved himself. “Poor thing,” she said, and before we looked at star footprints, she insisted we leave him some money. I soon learned “poor thing” was how Audrey conveyed empathy, not sympathy. The impatient driver honking angrily in a traffic jam was a “poor thing.” The sullen box-office attendant was a “poor thing.” Teenagers hassling their waitress were “poor things.” Behaviors others despised Audrey viewed as shortcomings, often adding, “They just don’t know any better.”

Submitting to Sadness

In contrast, when another, older Southerner I knew saw similar situations, she invariably said either, “Ain’t that a shame!” or, “There ought to be a law!” She also had terrific senses of humor and adventure, yet as she aged, it grew increasingly obvious deep down she was miserable. Proverbs 14.21 explains the difference between one’s joy and the other’s moroseness. Audrey related to the sorrow behind bad attitudes, and mercy she extended—often in passing, out of hearing—nourished her happiness. The other, however, never perfected the art of looking past her personal worldview to see the frailties and ignorance driving actions that affronted her. By not tolerating others’ failures, she inadvertently submitted to sadness. Yes, it was a shame. And, as it turns out, there was a law—not one lost in the fine print of Deuteronomy, either, but a basic rule Christ taught over and over.

Judgment is Blind

In Matthew 7.2, Jesus says, “In the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” He enlarges on this by defining eagerness to condemn as lack of self-knowledge. “You get all worked up about a speck of sawdust in your neighbor’s eye,” He says, “while paying no attention to the plank in your own eye.” It’s not a matter of denying our faults are more serious and debilitating than those we find in others. It boils down to ignoring them—or worse yet thinking we justify them by leveraging intolerance and shame on others. We say Justice is blind; it disregards surface differences to uphold universal principles. But judgment is blind also. It flails against problems it can’t see plainly or completely because bigger, darker blind spots impede its sight. “You hypocrite,” Jesus says. “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

We can’t see, let alone address, sadness in others with untreated sadness in our own lives. This presents a dilemma only resolved by turning logic on its head. Not fully seeing sadness in offenses against us, we know—actually, assume—it’s there. We stop judging to practice justice, ignoring appearances to love our neighbors as ourselves. We empathize, showing mercy before fully perceiving its merits. By judging, we submit to sadness, further blurring our vision. Forgiveness dissolves sadness from our eyes. “He who despises his neighbor sins,” Proverbs 14.21 tells us. “But he who has mercy on the poor, happy is he.” To be happy is to be merciful, sight unseen.

Poor things. When we stop judging and show mercy, we see enormous sadness behind their hateful actions.

(Tomorrow: Watch What You Eat)

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Tiny Cloud

The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” So Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, ‘Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.’”

                        1 Kings 18.44 

Elijah the Pariah

Elijah spends much of his life feeling he’s born out of time, a man of backbone tossed into a world of spinelessness. His career as a prophet takes shape under King Ahab, a weak-willed monarch under the thumb of his pagan wife, Jezebel. She’s as charismatic as she is conniving and before long, she convinces Israel to forsake God for her idol, a fertility god named Baal. While other prophets and priests scoot into the shadows to escape Jezebel’s wrath, Elijah courageously condemns the nation’s backsliding, which puts him top of the queen’s Most Wanted list. Elijah the Prophet becomes Elijah the Pariah. Even those who share his devotion to Israel’s One True God want nothing to do with him.

For a while, Baal appears to reward Israel’s worship. Its fields flourish. Its soil has never been richer. But ground-level wealth can’t be sustained without blessings from above, which Israel eventually learns. The clouds evaporate and the fertile land quickly turns sterile. Baal’s prophets are staging a sort of supernatural bailout ceremony, which they hope will end the famine. Elijah boldly marches into Ahab to propose a showdown. He’ll build an altar next to theirs. If Baal answers, Israel follows him. If God answers, Israel returns to Him. In better times, the maneuver would get Elijah killed. But the savvy prophet knows Ahab needs all the help he can get. Elijah lives to face his enemies.

Swift Answer, Slow Results

The Battle of the Gods goes exactly as Elijah expects. Baal is a no-show and God shows off, definitively confirming He’s in charge. Yet after fire descends from Heaven to lap up everything on Elijah’s altar, not one drop of rain follows. Ahab sees the cloudless sky and looks at Elijah. The prophet tells the king to relax. “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” (1 Kings 18.41) Elijah’s buying time. And he’s rattled. He obviously never anticipated God’s swift answer at the altar would bring such slow results. The Bible says he went back to the altar, “bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.” (v42)

While he waits, Elijah sends a servant to look for signs of rain on the horizon. “Nothing,” the servant says after he returns. Elijah tells him to go look again. He comes back with the same report. Elijah keeps sending him, again and again, until finally, after the seventh trip, the servant says, “There’s a tiny cloud in the distance, no bigger than a man’s hand.” That’s good enough for the prophet. He dispatches the servant to tell Ahab to get a move on before the rain comes. The sky blackens and the wind picks up. The king mounts his chariot for a nearby town, Jezreel, as the story ends with a startling image: “The power of the LORD came upon Elijah and… he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.” (v46)

Running Ahead

Total trust isn’t for the timid. Belief takes backbone. We live in a spineless age, when people are more apt to bow to idols of prosperity, conformity, or popularity than serve God and one another. Those who live by faith are forced to the fringes and any believer refusing to be marginalized risks becoming a pariah. This is especially true for gay Christians and other unorthodox faith refugees. Religious communities reject our right to believe and secular communities reject us because we believe. Yet, as we see daily, spineless doctrines of success, legalism, and social acceptance create growth and security they can’t sustain. Clouds are leaving the sky. Self-serving ideas, attitudes, and practices are drying up. Favor we took for granted is more vital than we believed.

With conclusive speed, God is confirming He’s in charge. He’s bringing disciples of materialism to their knees, exposing those who abuse religion to promote fear and compliance, and dismantling the machinery of popular coercion. Like Elijah, many of us asked God to move in these areas. Yet the sudden force of His reply doesn’t ensure fast results. Changes we hope will rise from our prayers may not appear on the horizon for some time. But if we can’t see them, by faith we can hear them. There is the sound of a heavy rain. Ours is to return to the altar and wait. Isaiah 40.31 says, “Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on the wings of eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.” What starts as a tiny cloud will expand until even those who opposed us can’t escape it. As they rush out of the way, we’ll be where God wants us—running ahead, our strength renewed and our stamina restored.

Sweeping change starts as a tiny cloud.

(Tomorrow: Be Happy)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Teacher!

Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

                        John 20.16

The 13th Disciple

Abiding myth and popular culture pictures Jesus as a wandering preacher traveling in the company of 12 men, much like Robin Hood roamed around Sherwood Forest with his boys. But Scripture doesn’t support this. While a handful of male disciples—Peter, James, John, and Judas—take predominant share of the spotlight, numerous women also receive mention by name. The most prominent among them, of course, is Mary Magdalene, whom regrettably has yet to get a fair shake from church leaders and Christians in general.

Mary poses a problem, because her importance to Jesus and His mission directly swims against later policies confining ministerial leadership to men. In what is undoubtedly the most egregious smear campaign hatched by church politicians, Mary has been labeled as a former prostitute and/or the adulterous woman the Pharisees bring to Jesus. Modern artists from Nikos Kazantzakis, author of The Last Temptation of Christ, to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, creators of Jesus Christ Superstar, to Mel Gibson in The Passion of the Christ have mindlessly promulgated this legend. It’s patently untrue. In fact, Luke 8.2 directly contradicts it, identifying Mary as a woman Christ freed from seven evil spirits. And repeated New Testament sightings—especially at the crucifixion and tomb—encourage us to redefine our image of Mary. Rather than attempt to “sex up” the story by casting her as a corruptive influence hanging on the fringes, nursing a crush on Jesus, we’d do well to judge her relationship with Him by the nature of their interaction after His resurrection. Her presence at the graveside, her response to the risen Christ, and His instructions to her settle any and all questions about her status. Mary Magdalene was the thirteenth disciple.

Slight Variations

The four Gospels feature slight variations of the tomb episode, including who’s there. Matthew places Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary”—presumably Lazarus’s sister—at the grave. Mark has Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James (i.e., Jesus’s mother or aunt), and someone called Salome. Luke simply mentions “the women.” John says Mary Magdalene goes to the grave alone, sees the open tomb, thinks someone stole Christ’s body, and hurries back to get Peter and “the other disciple” (John). While the differences raise questions about the others, Mary Magdalene is the only person all four writers agree is there. They likewise agree she’s the first disciple to meet and speak with Jesus.

According to John, she visits the tomb before sunrise. Mark and Luke say it’s “early morning;” Matthew is mute. John’s timing makes the best sense, though. First, it’s urgent she get to the grave with ointments to preserve Christ’s body. He dies at three p.m. on Friday. Allowing time to remove Him from the cross and arrange His burial, Sabbath’s sundown arrival makes properly treating His corpse unlikely. (Matthew reports Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy disciple, asks for Jesus’s body “as evening approached,” wraps it in clean linen, and lays it in his own tomb.) One suspects Mary Magdalene impatiently waits for Sunday, when she can anoint Jesus’s body in customary respect for the dead. Second, going to the tomb in darkness protects her anonymity. At this point, the disciples’ safety is far from assured. While the Romans respect the Sabbath—if only to keep Jewish leaders at bay—Sunday could bring a rash of arrests for Jesus’s followers. Very possibly, Mary plans to get in and out of the cemetery before His enemies stir.

True Discipleship

John’s account reinforces suspicions the disciples fear for their lives. After Peter and John see the empty tomb, they head back home, leading us to believe they want to avoid being caught graveside. But Mary stays, weeping inconsolably. Having lost Jesus in life, losing Him in death is unbearable. Being discovered and arrested no longer matters. Two angels ask why she weeps. “They’ve taken my Lord,” she answers, fearlessly identifying with Jesus. She turns to find Jesus, whom she mistakes for the gardener, asking the same question. “If you’ve moved Him,” Mary says, “tell me where and I’ll get Him.” Jesus calls her name: “Mary.” She instantly recognizes Him and cries, “Teacher!”—not “Jesus,” or “Savior,” or “Master,” or “Lord”—“Teacher!” Maliciously fabricated doubts about Mary’s character and credibility don’t surface beside the tomb. Jesus charges Mary with the greatest task ever assigned to a disciple: “Tell my brothers I’m alive.”

The resurrection indubitably takes precedence as the Easter headline. Yet Mary’s story provides a fascinating sidebar exemplifying true discipleship. In following Christ, we reach a point where nothing else matters. “Safety concerns” vanish. We risk all to find Him. It’s then He calls us by name and we know Him by the sound of His voice. Our first response is “Teacher!” It defines our relationship with Him. In Matthew 11.29, Jesus beckons us, saying, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Today we rejoice in the risen Christ. But there’s also a prayer tucked inside the Easter story. “Teach us. Teach me.”

Easter blessings to all, as we follow—and learn from—the risen Christ together.

(Based on a sermon by Dr. Alma Crawford, co-pastor, Church of the Open Door, Chicago.)

“Teacher!”

(Tomorrow: A Tiny Cloud)