Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dispensing with Approval

As He went a little farther, He saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately He called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. (Mark 1.19-20)

Over the Moon

If you’re a devotee of American musicals, you know the pivotal number the instant you hear it. It’s the ebullient reckoning, the bone-rattling tune that bursts out of nowhere when the lead character—or sometimes the entire cast—figures out things are about to change. In West Side Story, Tony sings, “Something’s coming. I don’t know what it is, but it is gonna be great.” In Sweet Charity, Charity lets loose with, “There’s gotta be something better than this.” In Rent, the performance artist, Maureen, invites the cast to welcome change as they sing, “Only thing to do is jump over the moon.”

To a one, Sunday’s readings seem poised for a pivotal number. In Jonah, God is primed to destroy Nineveh; but seeing the city’s repentance turns God around. In Psalm 62, the poet reminds us there’s no benefit in trusting human promises, realizing “power belongs to God.” (v11) In 1 Corinthians 7.29-31, Paul concludes, “the present form of this world is passing away.” Don’t hang on to anything, he writes—not spouses, sorrows, joys, possessions, or businesses—because there’s no time dawdle on things that may not survive the change. Wow. That’s Paul at his most overwrought, drama-queen finest, spoken with all the conviction of a man without notable family or business ties. We’re fine with turning him down a few notches--until we open Sunday’s Gospel, Mark1.14-20, where see what Paul describes in theory play out—not once, but twice.

Jesus walks along the Sea of Galilee, spots two sibling fishermen, Simon (later called Peter) and Andrew. “Follow Me and I will make you fish for people,” He says. Without hesitation, they quit and follow Him. Maybe they hate their jobs so much that anything would be better. Maybe they sense something’s coming. Scripture doesn’t say why they drop everything and sign on with Jesus. They obviously have no idea Who He is. He’s not from around there, isn’t a fisherman, and has no following of any kind. (They’ll be His first disciples.) Yet something compels them to leave what they know to “fish for people” (whatever that means). And we could write off them as kooks, except the scene repeats within minutes, when Jesus spots another set of brothers, James and John. Mark doesn’t even bother quoting Jesus’s offer this time around. They drop their nets—leaving their father and the family business behind—to go with Jesus. “Leap of fate,” Maureen sings in Rent, “only thing to do is jump over the moon.” Which is one way to describe what Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John do. They jump over the moon.

What’s the Point?

If Sunday’s drop-everything passages make you queasy, get in line. I confess to high levels of discomfort with texts that equate following Christ with severing all ties to family and livelihood. I also admit to being highly suspicious of those who advocate the sorts of whimsical moon jumping we witness in the texts, because more often than not, people who get all fired up about such dramatic turnarounds just so happen to be in the people-fishing business. Radical conversions keep them fed. Finally, I have a hard time squaring a God Who insists we sacrifice everything with One Who uses total loss to demonstrate divine love and power to restore what’s lost.

For those of us who struggle with the all-or-nothing terms in Sunday’s Gospel, there’s something else we might want to consider. Reading further along, we discover the disciples really don’t leave everything behind. They hang onto their boats and nets throughout their time with Jesus, keeping His ministry afloat with supplementary income. They stay in touch with their families, some of whom eventually join Jesus’s band of followers. So it turns out this moment may not be as dramatic as the abandon-everything romantics like to paint it. It may not deserve a big number like “Something’s Coming” or “There’s Gotta Be Something Better than This” or “Over the Moon”. It may be as simple as trying a new thing to see how it works out. And if that’s all we’re looking at, what’s the point?

Opportunity to Be Changed

Often what Scripture doesn’t say distinguishes it from run-of-the-mill self-help manuals and cautionary fables that come prepackaged with explanations. Its sketchiness becomes its most illuminating strength, as it draws us into the narratives, where we discover truth in absentia. So we ask what’s missing from this story? What don’t the newly minted disciples do that you or I wouldn’t conceive of neglecting before we quit our jobs and left our families to follow a Stranger we’ve never met?

They dispense with approval. Simon and Andrew don’t ask for a few minutes to discuss the proposition. They don’t pause to puzzle out how discipleship will impact their family and business. James and John don’t turn to Zebedee and say, “Hey, Dad, what do you think?” Jesus says, “Follow Me,” and they do it. We can’t imagine anyone who watches them drop their nets and head off with Christ possibly feeling at ease. We can hear Zebedee, other family members, and business partners call after them, “What are you doing? Where do you think you’re going? You don’t know this Guy!” The disciples don’t know what they’re doing. They have no clue where Jesus is leading them. But this they know: Christ’s voice calls to them and passing their opportunity to be changed for life because others don’t approve is a sacrifice they can’t afford to make. Immediately leaving their nets liberates them from inhibitions tangled up with seeking approval. When they return to their families and livelihoods, they are better, more productive, and freer for having followed Jesus without hesitation.

Dispensing with approval is the first step in discipleship. And for those of us who don’t see that in the disciples, Paul comes right out with it in 1 Corinthians. “From now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none," he writes, "and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.” Something's coming. African-American slaves, whose very lives depended on their captors’ approval, put it like this: “My heart is fixed, my mind’s made up. Nobody’s gonna turn me around.” Following Jesus is a matter of saying yes to His call and letting go anyone or anything that might discourage us or disapprove of our decision. Drop your nets. Quit the boat. Follow the Keeper of your heart. Don’t sacrifice your opportunity to be changed for life. Jump over the moon.

Jesus, we hear You call us to follow You. We’re not always sure where You come from or what “fishing for people” means. But Your voice calls to a place in us where none but You can reach. Quicken us to dispense with our need for approval. May we drop our nets, knowing we’ll return to what we’ve left better, more productive, and freer than we’d ever be by remaining behind. Amen.

Dispensing with approval frees us to follow Christ; passing the opportunity to be changed for life is a sacrifice we can’t afford to make.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Because You Are Precious

I have called you by My name, you are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. Because you are precious in My sight, and honored, and I love you. (Isaiah 43.1-2,4)

Deep Trouble

Little Shop of Horrors—the 1960 sci-fi classic later remade as a musical—is the parable of a nerdy florist who stumbles on an exotic plant and decides to nurture it. Though he does everything he can to keep it healthy, it shrivels up and nearly dies. Because it’s not a plant. It’s an alien life form in leafy get-up. One day, the florist cuts his finger and a drop of blood instantly revives the plant. As it grows, its bottomless thirst bleeds the florist dry and he resorts to murder to keep it alive. He bargains with his conscience by limiting his victims to Skid Row regulars—banking on the twisted idea he’s doing society a favor while serving the plant’s needs. At first, we can’t figure out why he doesn’t toss the thing into the alley and forget it. But gradually we realize his compulsion to satisfy the plant’s cravings stems from his craving for acclaim. Discovering a new species will elevate him from mundane florist to botanist extraordinaire. And he's so sure that the plant holds his key to happiness he’s unaware it’s devouring him and his dream. Moral: When we allow our problems to control us, we’re in deep trouble.

That’s why we take all our burdens to God; we don’t know which of them will seek to control us. Every trial and temptation, whether agonizing or annoying, contains seeds of monstrous cravings. More sad stories than we can count open with, “It seemed like such a little thing at first…” So, if we must, we choose our poisons. But let us be warned: not one is sufficiently labeled, nor are we adequately qualified, to predict how we’ll react to it. Experience alone teaches what we can and can’t handle. And too often it’s a lesson learned too late.

How Can We?

When watching others bridle impulses and situations we can’t master, we dust off that golden oldie, “If They Can Do It, Why Can’t I”, forgetting the reason they can do it—whatever “it” may be—is because they’re strong where we’re weak. In other settings, the tables turn: we’re strong where they’re weak. It’s not a hard idea to grasp. But it can be very difficult to accept. I want to think my strengths give me an edge over yours. You want to believe my weaknesses make yours look like a day at the beach. Yet in the final analysis, all we can confidently say about one another is neither of us is so strong to escape struggle.

Since we’re all in the same boat, why bother God with our problems? After all, God helps those who help themselves. (There’s another oldie we need to pitch.) If we try hard enough, we should be able to handle it on our own. But how can we, if we can’t handle admitting what controls us has bled us dry, driven us to the unthinkable, and mocked us when we tried to justify our actions? How can we handle problems if they’re not what they seem? How long can we feed monsters that keep our pipe dreams alive, even as they devour our lives and dreams?

Once weakness grips us, handling it on our own is no longer feasible. We’re in deep trouble. We need God. And whether or not that business about God and self-help is true, this we know: God helps those who can’t help themselves. In Isaiah 43.2, God tells us when there’s no bridge we can cross, God will help us reach the other side. When we’re in over our heads, God will lift us. When we’re thrown into the fire, God will see we survive it unscathed. God doesn’t spare us from problems that seek to control us. God faces them with us to prove we can overcome weaknesses with God’s help.

Two Statements

This promise is first spoken to Israel. And though it sounds simplistic, it’s not wrong to summarize the Old Testament as the story of people who can’t break free of problems because they won’t confess their need for God. Over and over, Israel lets the same weaknesses drive it to the brink of ruin. What it lacks in vision it more than makes up in selective memory. As soon as they hit a dry patch in the desert, the Israelites groan with nostalgia for Egypt. When Babylon destroys Jerusalem and takes thousands hostage, they sit down beside the Tigris and sing about the good old days—never mind that they spent most of them fighting off enemies. When times are good, they persistently submit to self-destructive impulses. They feed monstrous cravings to keep their dreams of freedom and respect alive, never realizing that they’ve surrendered both to what controls them. Through it all, God keeps saying, “Let Me help you. You need Me.” But Israel is so sure of itself it puts God on hold until it’s overwhelmed. Then, like a disobedient toddler, it hands God its mess and says, “Please don’t be mad. We promise never to do it again.”

So why does God stick with Israel? Why does God stick with us? We’re no better at letting God help us than they. The answer rests in two statements that frame God’s promises to be with us through flood and fire. In verse 1, God says, “I have called you by My name. You are Mine,” while verse 4 declares, “Because you are precious in My sight, and honored, and I love you.” That’s the lever to pry us from problems and weaknesses that captivate us. They may grip us, but they’ll never hold us, because we belong to God. Although they try to diminish us, they’ll fail in the end, because we are precious to God. While they mock us, God honors us. While they abuse us, God loves us.

When we think of the cravings beneath our cravings—the weaknesses exploited by problems that control us—God speaks comfort to our souls. Why do we surrender to harmful obsessions? We want to be known. God says, “I have called you by My name.” We want to belong. God says, “You are Mine.” We want to matter. God says, “You are precious in My sight.” We want to be respected. God says, “You are honored.” And we crave love. God says, “I love you.” Problems that control us conjure crazy dreams that we chase but never catch. They’re merely distractions to prevent us from detecting the real nightmare of being eaten alive. Our God is a Creator, not a dream weaver—a Life Giver, not a bloodsucker. What God says is true, because God alone has the power to make it true. So we say to harms that seek our destruction, “Not this time, not ever again, because we know who we are and to Whom we belong. We are precious to God, honored, and God loves us.”

Awaken us, O God, from our oblivion. Quiet our spirits to hear You speak comfort to deep cravings that make us vulnerable to self-destructive obsessions. Forgive us of haughty delusions that ignore our need for You. You promise to be with us always. We ask You now to stay. Amen.

When we surrender control to problems and habits, we feed cravings that don’t satisfy and chase dreams we can’t catch. So we say to them, “Not this time. Not ever again.”

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Come and See

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him Whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” (John 1.45-46)

Out of Nowhere

How we Americans love yarns about people who rise to greatness from lowly beginnings! Indeed, when it comes to winning our hearts and respect, privilege can be a curse—a phenomenon sure to play out in sharp relief when GOP nominee apparent, Mitt Romney, goes head-to-head with Barack Obama. Deservedly or not, Romney epitomizes the rich kid whose cushy upbringing and lifestyle thwart his ability to identify with ordinary citizens. Meanwhile, President Obama is the postmodern Lincoln, the unlikely hero who surmounted impossible odds to clear our nation’s highest hurdle. And while this isn’t the year for a character referendum, for many, it will come down to a classic American dilemma: Go with a guy who had everything handed to him—or one who fought hard to get where he is? Should the candidates’ backgrounds become a decisive factor, Romney hasn’t a chance.

First-century residents of Palestine would predict differently. They couldn’t imagine a scenario ending in Romney’s defeat. Where they live, nobody comes out of nowhere and rises to greatness. Case in point: in Sunday’s Gospel (John 1.43-51), after Philip first encounters Jesus of Nazareth and tells Nathanael that he’s found the Messiah, Nathanael’s asks, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” It’s a baffled, maybe even scornful, reaction—a polite way of saying, “That’s crazy talk!”

Red Flags

Nathanael can’t conceive any good coming from Nazareth because there’s nothing good about it. It’s an out-of-the-way town without distinction. Having found nothing more than a cluster of simple homes where ancient Nazareth stood, archaeologists estimate its population at less than 400. It’s a farming community comprised of a few close-knit families who—based on discovery of a large pit comparable to a fall-out shelter—seem mainly concerned with surviving unstable times. And it appears they aren’t overly optimistic, as we find no signs of public architecture built to last—no marketplace, synagogue, or other common space. Instead, they rely on nearby Sepphoris for their social, consumer, and religious needs. About an hour’s walk from Nazareth, the city is a booming metropolis steeped in Greco-Roman culture and reputed to be a hotbed of social activism. Nathanael’s low opinion of Nazareth probably reflects its insignificance as a rural outpost, as well as its close proximity to an urban center that welcomes diversity and harbors non-conformists. And he may be shocked that none of this raises red flags to Philip.

Apart from concerns specific to Nazareth, Nathanael’s dismissal would be the same if Jesus hailed from any nondescript village—even his and Philip’s hometown of Bethsaida, a fishing hamlet near Capernaum, another alleged cauldron of dissent. Nothing substantial comes out of these places, because no one of substance lives there. Hearing Jesus is a Nazarene tells Nathanael He’s gravely unsuited for Messianic office. His family obviously has no major wealth or connections. If He’s had any formal education, it can’t be very good. Other than joining holiday caravans to Jerusalem, it’s likely He’s traveled no farther than Sepphoris; so He’s got no experience or sophistication to speak of.

Then, add to Jesus’s personal deficits the toll of small-town life. Spots like Nazareth are notoriously insular, intolerant, and often in-bred. Living where everybody’s your uncle never turns out good. What are backwater villages known for? Rushing to judgment about issues they don’t understand and attacking anyone who bucks a system they hate, but don’t have the nerve to change. Naturally, Nathanael shrugs Philip off. In their world, nobody important—least of all, the Messiah—comes from out of nowhere, especially a great big nowhere like Nazareth. But Philip doesn’t take offense at his friend’s cynicism. He doesn’t defend his convictions or dispute Nathanael’s reasoning. All Philip says is, “Come and see.”

Christ’s Offer

What we witness in Philip happens repeatedly in the Gospels. People meet Jesus and rush to tell friends and family, “Come and see!” Have we not felt the same impulse? A true encounter with Christ is unlike any other. In finding Jesus, we are found. When we follow His ways, lesser paths lose their appeal. We become aware of our place in the world and our fit in God’s plan. How can we not rush to tell those we love, “Come and see!” That’s when we find out how many Nathanaels we know. “What good can come from this?” they ask. Whether big-city skeptics or small-minded villagers, their assumptions about Jesus don’t jibe with the Savior we know. Lest their scorn twists us into knots, we avoid pointless bickering when we echo Philip’s gentle reply. Come and see.

With discipleship comes expectation we’ll spread the Word and make disciples—a dicey proposition if we’re enamored with competition and proving points. Christ’s offer of new life begs no defense and wins nothing from debate. We’re not called to recruit converts to our team; we’re privileged to invite others to discover what we’ve found. Nathanael agrees to check out Philip’s Messiah only to learn Jesus has already checked him out. As he approaches, Jesus says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1.47) Nathanael’s stunned. Christ’s acknowledgement of Nathanael’s integrity turns him around. His doubts fall away, enabling him to discover that Jesus is God’s Son.

A marvelous epilogue turns up in Early Church chronicles. Nathanael (whom the other Gospels call Bartholomew) travels the farthest of any Apostle to extend Christ's offer of new life. In fact, he’s the only disciple known to cross Roman borders, when his calling ultimately lands him in India. Because of Philip’s modest reply, Nathanael achieves legendary status as Christianity’s first missionary to Asia—a feat he can’t possibly anticipate when he decides to go and see what Philip’s raving about. Inviting those who question our faith to meet Christ for themselves asks nothing of us. We don’t have to defend our belief. We don’t have to trump their reasons why following Jesus isn’t such a good idea. All we have to say is, “Come and see.” And if they take our offer to heart, they too will discover that following Jesus opens up amazing possibilities. You want to know what good can come from Nazareth? Ask Nathanael.

Gentle Savior, like Nathanael, we’re stunned that You saw worthiness in us—even when we doubted You were worth seeing. Stamp “come and see” in our hearts. Keep it in our mouths, so we may lead others to what we’ve found. Fix our eyes on far horizons and open our minds to amazing possibilities. Amen.

Christ’s offer of new life begs no defense and wins nothing from debate. We answer questions about our faith with a modest suggestion: Come and see.

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