Saturday, March 31, 2012

Untying Colts

Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” (Mark 11.2-3)

Deleted Scenes

There is, in the Palm Sunday story, a wondrously mundane detail—a bit of logistics, if you will—that captivates my attention every time I revisit it. If we were making a feature film of the Triumphal Entry, chances are the second unit, the crew that collects the nature shots and transitional scenes with minimal dialogue, would be charged with shooting it. Two disciples, played by unknown actors, enter a non-descript village, find a young donkey, and begin to unknot its tether to a hitching post. The owner rushes out, yelling, “What do you think you’re doing? That’s my colt!” One of the disciples answers, “Jesus needs it.” “For what?” the owner asks. The disciples look at each other for a moment. “We don’t know,” they admit. “Jesus told us to come get it and to tell you we’ll bring it right back when He’s finished.”

The owner wants more information. “When He’s finished doing what?” he asks. The second disciple replies, “With whatever He plans to use it for.” His matter-of-fact tone irks the owner, yet also intrigues him. The year-old colt, whose master has not yet broken it, is remarkably—miraculously—docile. No braying, no bucking; it’s just standing there, as if it’s waiting to be ridden. The owner doesn’t know what to say. After a pause, he tells the disciples to take the colt. They thank him. “But bring it back!” he shouts as they saunter off. They nod and disappear over the ridge of the first low-slung hill outside of town.

Cut to the establishing shot of the climactic sequence. Jesus sits atop the colt as it ambles toward Jerusalem without a hint of resistance or skittishness. Missing are two brief scenes deleted from the original script. There’s the tense, slightly comic moment when Jesus first approaches the donkey. Everyone stands back, expecting the colt to rebel violently. When it allows the Lord to mount it, there’s amazement all around. Jesus doesn’t make a big deal of it. He rolls His eyes at everyone’s consternation and says, “Let’s go!”

The second deleted scene catches the two disciples en route to retrieve the colt.


Should we be doing this?


What do you mean? Jesus told us to do it.


But we're stealing the colt. How is this not stealing?


We're borrowing, not stealing. Jesus specifically said, "If anyone says, 'Why are you doing this?' to tell them, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back immediately.'"


What if nobody asks? What if nobody's around? What if nobody says anything, but they see us do it? Besides, how does Jesus even know about this alleged colt? What makes Him think the owner will let us have it? I don't get a good feeling about this.


I hear you. But what else can we do? Jesus told us to get the colt. Obviously, He needs it for something. He said it would be there waiting, and He told us what to say if somebody questions us. Are you ready to go back to Jesus and say, "You know, Lord, we thought this out and it's not such a good idea. Why can't You do like always and walk into town today?" Are you ready to do that?

They pause momentarily while DISCIPLE ONE thinks things over.


We should take the colt. Whatever happens, Jesus can handle it.

Vital Roles in the Redemptive Narrative

In the midst of the Palm Sunday hoopla—the fronds and Hosannas and excitement of high praise—we might consider stepping into the two disciples’ shoes for a moment, to ponder what Jesus asks of us, to contemplate the logistics of living by faith, and to question our reluctance to do as Jesus asks. None of the Gospels bothers with detailing how Jesus knows about the colt or why He’s confident the owner will lend it to two strangers. Is it just another of those clairvoyant things Jesus is apt to do—something akin to Him telling Peter he’ll find money to pay taxes in a fish’s mouth or instructing the disciples how to net an entire school of fish by throwing their nets off the opposite side of their boat? Has Jesus noticed the colt during His travels to and from Jerusalem, perhaps even met its owner, and suspects he’ll release it to the disciples’ care? Is the colt so necessary to Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem that He’s comfortable sending the disciples to take it, knowing it will be returned before the day’s out? We don’t know. And that’s the point. Had Jesus asked two disciples to take a big risk for His sake and they reneged, the Triumphal Entry very well might have been something far less triumphant.

We know why Jesus needs the colt. He’s provoking the religious authorities who seek to destroy Him by staging a Messianic moment foretold in Zechariah 9.9-10: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Jesus’s arrival atop an untried beast is a political challenge to the powers that be, the first in a one-two blow that will knock their socks off when He dismounts the colt and turns the Temple courtyard upside down. Whatever minor drama may result from procuring the colt is secondary to a greater drama taking shape—one that Jesus instigates to honor God’s purpose for His life.

To the disciples’ credit, they set aside their doubts to play vital roles in the redemption narrative. They sacrifice logical and personal concerns in deference to Christ’s instruction. And we can trace Easter’s triumphal exit from the tomb—and hence our own resurrections—back to their faithfulness. No trust in Jesus, no obedience; no obedience, no colt; no colt, no challenge to the establishment; no challenge, no reprisal, no execution, and no victory over death. Though it sounds exaggerated to say so, it’s true: without the two unnamed disciples, it’s possible the events we’ll rehearse during Holy Week would not have transpired. Without them, the rejoicing of Palm Sunday and Easter might not exist.

The Little Things

The disciples’ compliance echoes a much earlier episode in which ordinary people ignore logic and attend to a logistical detail that sets Jesus’s career in motion. At Cana, we hear Mary tell the host’s servants, “Do whatever He tells you to do.” (John 2.5) Filling six huge jars with water, as Jesus tells them, puts the servants at risk of making a fool of their employer. They have no idea what Jesus is up to; no one’s ever turned water into wine. It’s ludicrous to imagine they’ll pour out a magnificent vintage from water jugs. Yet they do as Jesus asks and their faith sets the standard for everyone who comes to know Christ’s miraculous power by obeying His illogical directions: the blind man whose sight is restored by washing mud from his eyes; the child who offers his meager lunch to feed a multitude; Peter, who becomes the only human other than Jesus to walk on water by following Christ’s instruction to leave the boat.

The little things that Jesus asks of us matter the most. And that’s because they inevitably tap into our biggest fears. The littlest things place us at greatest risk. Loving neighbors risks loss of power and pride. Welcoming strangers risks inviting trouble into our lives. Forgiving those who’ve injured us risks getting hurt again. Giving without hesitation risks hardship. Untying colts that Jesus needs risks being misunderstood and mislabeled as dishonest or presumptuous. Yet nothing Jesus ever asks of us is without reason. In doing the little things—in facing our fears and proceeding despite them—we assume pivotal roles in greater dramas than those we imagine will result if our obedience goes awry.

“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments,” Jesus tells the disciples during the Last Supper. (John 14.15) He could have pointed to the two disciples who procured the colt as a perfect example of what He’s talking about—a love that dares to believe without fear of consequences. This is the very same kind of love and faith that Jesus describes in His parable of the talents, when the master of trusting servants rewards them, saying, “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25.21)

Untying colts results in triumph. Amid this weekend's palm waving and outcries of “Hosanna!” may we breathe a prayer of gratitude for two disciples who dared to do what Jesus asked. Had they resisted, we might have nothing to celebrate. And in blessing them, may we also pray for similar courage, faith, and love to do as Christ asks.

Procuring the colt for Jesus’s Triumphal Entry seems like a little thing. But it constitutes a tremendous act of faithfulness on the part of the two disciples charged with the task. (James Tissot: The Foal of Bethpage; ca. 1886.)

Podcast link:

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Power to All

He came to what was His own, and His own people did not accept Him. But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God. (John 1.11-12)

Mountaintops and Thin Places

Yesterday found me with way too many kettles on the stove. In addition to my “real world” responsibilities, I’d taken on all sorts of activities that frustrated me. Some were noble, others trivial. But they all left me with the sense that I was banging my head against the wall. And since I’m not a big fan of “rules for living”—all those truisms that make the short lists in self-help books—I offer the following less as a rule for living than an observation: If you’re mad at the world and enjoying your crankiness, don’t attend a Bible study. Because nothing puts the kibosh on holding a grudge against humanity like discussing God’s promises with people of faith.

Heading off to my weekly study group last evening, I was in full-blown lather. I nursed my churlishness down every block between my apartment and the church. Arriving a few minutes late, I took the first seat I could find at one of the tables, and asked, “What are we talking about?” The young lady beside me pointed to Question One on the evening’s discussion guide: “Some people call them ‘mountaintop’ experiences. Others call them ‘thin places.’ Share about a time when you experienced the presence of God.” I had to rejigger my head. After a day like I’d had, mountaintops and thin places couldn’t have been farther from mind.

Something Greater Than Us

The question drew us to consider that we all—at seemingly random moments—experience God’s presence. It may come in the company of others, in watching unforeseen blessings fall into place, in quiet appreciation of nature, or in a passing comment, sometimes from a stranger, that reminds us God is ineffably with us. And the bigger point behind the exercise was setting aside presumptions that God’s presence is made known to us because of us. No one group or person can corner the market on God’s presence. Christians are no more apt than anyone else to discover God’s presence in unexpected ways. Nor for that matter are people of faith—any faith—exclusively entitled to these experiences.

Whether or not we believe, God becomes known to us in ways, and at times, when we need God. We don’t have to call it “God” for it to be God. We may call it serenity, an epiphany, good luck, or what have you. But in every human life there are inexplicable moments when something greater than us announces its presence with us. In Philippians 4.7, Paul calls this “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.” Try as we might to explain it, rationalize it, and limit God’s presence to some rather than all, Paul essentially admonishes us not to bother with trying. It’s more basic than not getting it, he says. We’ll never get it.

God's Vision Statement

Since Paul is a Christian writing to Christians, he adds that this amazing peace of God “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Belief in Christ heightens our sensitivity to God’s presence in our lives. That’s all there is to it, which is why Paul finds awareness of God’s presence a no-brainer. We find what mystifies him about God’s interaction with humanity in Ephesians 1.9-11: “God has made known to us the mystery of God’s will, according to God’s good pleasure that God set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in God, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of God Who accomplishes all things according to God’s counsel and will.” (Emphasis added.) The mystery of God’s will is the unity of all things, a desire that puts an end to selectivity, labeling, and religious and social exclusion. We have also obtained an inheritance, Paul explains, inferring what we find in Christ isn't unique to us.

And we should note that Paul’s fascination with this prospect—which he addresses consistently in his letters—is not unique to him. It was the Early Church’s driving principle and sustaining hope. First-century believers lived every day for the day when God’s abiding presence would be enough—when the love and power embodied in Christ would explode and encompass all of humanity, when being called a Christian, a Jew, a Greek, a monotheist, a polytheist, and so on would no longer be relevant. The thesis statement John presents in his Gospel’s opening chapter verifies this: “He came to what was His own, and His own people did not accept Him. But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God.” (v11-12)

In this text, “He” is “The Word,” God’s vision statement, spoken before the dawn of time, without bias based on our ability to understand, accept, or agree with it. Indeed, John—taking a jab at Jewish leaders, who ousted early Christians from their religious community—says The Word, made manifest in Jesus, was distinctly misunderstood, rejected, and defied. Those who received and believed The Word, however, were given power to become children of God. Not merely to become “Christians.” Not even “people of faith.” This vast diversity of backgrounds, ethnicities, orientations, and religious heritages would come together as children of God. “A plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in God, things in heaven and things on earth,” Paul says.

The Way

Jesus “didn’t come to start a new religion,” Rob Bell asserts in Love Wins, and we’re hard-pressed, I think, to dispute him. When Jesus sanctions “the Church” in Matthew 16.18, He uses the word ecclesia—i.e., a gathering of people around a common purpose, both to perpetuate it as well as deliberate its meaning and function. If anything, the Church was meant to blow the doors off of religion. That’s why its earliest members avoided religious identification. According to Acts 11.26, “Christian” was a term invented by non-believers to label Jesus’s followers. Within their ranks, they used terms like “disciples,” “believers,” and familial handles to denote their unity. And they called their purpose “The Way”—not, “God’s Way,” “Our Way,” “The Only Way,” or “The Best Way.” Just, “The Way.”

Lent’s affirmation of The Way leads us to the cross. But if we’re to grasp Calvary’s meaning to the fullest, I believe it’s vital that we divest it of all religious connotations. Jesus did not submit to a criminal’s crucifixion for the sake of branding the Church or its people with a members-only trademark. The cross is a milepost in God’s plan to gather up all things—and all people—in God. It’s where God’s presence at large in the world is boldly displayed, the moment when God irrevocably blows the doors off religion. It’s the entry point for God’s incomprehensible peace to enter our respective stories. Wrangling, as always, with this mind-bending mystery, Paul writes in Roman 5.8: “God proves God’s love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us.” That’s The Way—power to all, opportunity for everyone to become and be seen as children of God, as proved by God’s great, gathering love.

Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion. Nor was the cross intended to brand the Church or its people with a members-only trademark. To fully grasp the mystery of God’s love, we must divest Calvary of all religious connotations.

Podcast link:

Postscript: New Questions

What must we overcome to open ourselves to the expansive, all-encompassing nature of God’s love?

When we divest the cross of its religious—specifically “Christian”—connotations, what do we see?

How does seeing the cross as a milepost in God’s gathering plan, rather than a symbol of our faith, alter how we view our faith?

Many would charge that Christianity has lost its way as “The Way”. If this is so, how do we return, as individuals and a church/ecclesia, to The Way?

Monday, March 26, 2012

God Uses Women

Musings Occasioned by the Feast of the Annunciation

God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David. His name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name, Mary. Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her: “Good morning! You’re beautiful with God’s beauty, beautiful inside and out! God be with you.” (Luke 1.26-28; The Message)

I would be dishonest to pretend I have any idea where what follows is going. Usually the posts begin with a destination in mind and get built in reverse. But this one starts with a calendar entry and a question, “What can we say about this?”

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Roman Church and many mainstream Protestant denominations observe Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will bring the Living God into the world. And, for reasons I trust will become clearer as we go, that sets my mind spinning.

So, as I said, I have no idea where this is headed, how long it will go, and what will surface along the way. For all of these reasons, it feels best to ditch the usual format and proceed in free form. I beg your indulgence for what may turn out to be stream-of-consciousness ramblings that may, but just as well may not, hang together as all of a piece.


Opening observation: the Feast’s date on the liturgical calendar slights the Annunciation’s magnitude. For obvious reasons, it’s set nine months to the day ahead of Christmas. This year we mark it on March 26, as the 25th fell on a Sunday, which puts it at cross-purposes with Lent’s progress to Calvary and the empty tomb. And that’s my point. At this stage in our Lenten pilgrimage, our heads are so tightly wrapped around Jesus’s last days on earth that it jars us to reflect on the mystery surrounding His entrance into our story. Just when we’re primed for next Sunday’s palms, and Holy Week’s dirges, and Easter’s anthems, the calendar grabs us by the collar and says, “Look!” We’re bolted out of Jerusalem’s aborning madness to land in Nazareth’s uneventful calm—which is about to be shattered in the wee hours of a non-descript morning, when an angel will surprise a teenaged maiden with the best news ever to fall on human ears.

And yet… Yes, the Annunciation’s intrusion on Lent’s sacrificial season—its dogged determination to dig hope out of the desert’s fallow ground—seems ineffably right. It rounds out the circle of God’s redemptive narrative: life-death-life; faith-despair-faith; miracle-mourning-miracle. With the Annunciation, the whole story falls into place. God’s promise of a Savior comes to fruition and Christ’s promise of resurrection meld into one sweeping movement of divine grace that changes the course of history and opens the door for every human to access the transformative power of true life. And whom does God choose to usher in both of these staggering realizations? God uses women.


God uses women. All of these centuries later, despite the progress we’ve made to rectify gender inequality, many of us are still taken aback that God ordains two women—two Marys—one a country girl of no notable means or education, the other a city woman whose battle with unholy spirits brought her to Jesus—to witness the greatest moments in human history. Where are the men—the prophets and priests, politicians and militarists, teachers and historians, power brokers and intellectuals, the fathers and sons, brothers and uncles—at the Annunciation and Resurrection? They’re nowhere to be found. Gabriel visits Mary of Nazareth in her solitude. When Mary Magdalene learns that Jesus is alive, depending on which Gospel we read, she’s either alone or in the company of other women. When we account for the lowly estate of women in first-century Palestine, that God entrusts God’s plan to two women should shake us to the core. It is a revolutionary decision of unparalleled proportions—a revelation we can’t possibly ignore—a proclamation about gender that cannot go unheeded.


There’s no disputing that Mary of Nazareth is Christianity’s first believer. When Gabriel tells her that God has chosen her to bear the Christ Child, she first confesses her doubts: “How can this be?” (Luke 1.34) Once the angel explains God’s plan—a design that contravenes every law of nature—Mary, blessed with childlike faith and humility, believes. “Here am I,” she says, “the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (v38) In that moment, she epitomizes the believer’s experience. First she doubts. Then she believes. And finally, she agrees to fulfill God’s purpose for her life.

There’s no disputing that Mary Magdalene is Christianity’s first messenger. It is she who delivers the promise of the Risen Christ to the disciples. And her experience in many ways replicates Mary of Nazareth’s. She comes to the tomb, discovers Jesus isn’t there, and immediately questions how this can be. “They have taken away my Lord,” she weeps, “and I do not know where they have laid Him.” (John 20.14) Unaware that she’s speaking to Jesus at first, she believes, despite its utter impossibility, when He tells her He’s alive. Then she agrees to do as Jesus asks. She declares His Resurrection to the others.


So we must ask ourselves, what does this mean? Does God’s decision to favor two women with carrying out the most significant events in our faith indicate God prefers women to men? Can it be that God places greater trust in one sex over another? And if this is so, does that get us any closer to eradicating gender inequality and the harms it precipitates? How does reversing the scheme—assigning women the dominant role—change anything?

It doesn’t. But I don’t think God’s decision to use women was ever meant as a statement about the superiority of either gender. Instead, I believe it was the exact opposite. God’s insistence that women undertake key roles in the redemption narrative underscores God’s belief that gender is irrelevant. One’s ability to question, believe in, and agree to honor God’s purpose is the deciding factor. God uses women. God uses men. But the incontrovertible proof that God uses women at the Annunciation and Resurrection opens our understanding that God uses all of us, as God wills, according to our willingness to say yes to God.


And so we ask ourselves again, what does this mean? What does this say to us today?

Of late, I’ve grown increasingly troubled about recent turns our culture has taken regarding women. In the US, political and religious discourse has become perilously misogynistic—and we’ll get to that momentarily. Of equal alarm to me, however, are the not-so-subtle demeaning images and messaging that are starting to resurface in advertising and entertainment. Take a look at these two commercials currently in heavy rotation:

Both show no shame in depicting women as “the other”—in one case, explicitly touting Dr. Pepper Ten as “not for women” and the other confining bikini-clad women to the sidelines, while the “hero” drives the car. The Kia ad positions itself as a “dream”—a coy defense against charges of chauvinism—but both are crafted to feed the fantasy of male superiority. Without turning this into a Master’s thesis on sexism in advertising, I’d encourage us to watch carefully for how many TV commercials give little thought to reassigning women to “little lady” status. With increasing regularity, we see women sitting by while their husbands do all the talking. And when women do speak up, they’re often abrasive and mistrusting—shrews, basically, who belittle their men.

While The Hunger Games recently opened to much praise for “empowering” its teenaged heroine, it isn’t fully absolved of sexist leanings, as Katniss triumphs in a masculine-skewed arena. The whole point is that she’s tougher, and tougher minded, than her male adversaries, as well as her male ally. She doesn’t find a better way that defeats a hateful system; she’s just better at beating the system. Inasmuch as we can find her reflection in Scripture, she’s not modeled on the two Marys; she’s closer to the David who defeats Goliath and the Samson who summons his last ounce of strength to destroy the Philistine temple. Katniss is the exception that proves the rule: men are stronger, more resourceful, and entitled to dominate. The sad truth beneath her story is she’s a fluke—a mystical figure on par with Joan of Arc, a young woman inexplicably endowed with the courage and ingenuity to beat men at their own game.

And not for a minute do I believe that that’s God’s intention in using Mary of Nazareth or Mary Magdalene. The point in casting them in lead roles isn’t to prove they’re better than men. It’s to teach us God sees them no differently than men. They’re availability to God is what vaults them to—for lack of a better word—stardom. They rise to prominence on the same faith that raises their male counterparts in Scripture.


In this, the two Marys are not alone. The Bible places them in a long line of women whom God uses to stunning effect. And in every case, the woman is empowered to act through her own agency. The “Marion model” applies across the board: she questions, believes, and agrees to be used by God. Sarah laughs, trusts, and honors God’s plan to birth a people through her. Moses’s mother fears, releases her anxieties, and humbles herself to serve as her son’s nursemaid. Hannah does something very similar with Samuel. Rahab, Naomi, Ruth, Esther, Deborah, Elizabeth—the pantheon of great women who overcome profound questions, believe in God’s purpose for them, and act in agreement to God’s plan is a testament to the courage of their faith in a God Who uses all of us as God wills. They don’t view themselves as second best—as Plan B’s that God resorts to when suitable men can’t be found. They trust God’s judgment in choosing them and, in turn, choose to do what God asks of them. Only inasmuch as human nature and society place them in “female” roles do they fulfill God’s will as mothers and queens, wives and lovers. Their calling itself isn’t gender specific.


This truth—that God uses women to demonstrate inclusion, not distinction—causes much grief when we hear and see politicians and prelates abuse the Christian faith as a means of oppressing women. To deny women equal rights in society and the Church is nothing short of blatantly defying God’s expressed will for humanity. When we hear Rick Santorum denigrate birth control (and, with it, the health benefits it offers) as a license to engage in a sexual lifestyle that is not “how things are supposed to be,” we hear a man stripping women of their God-given agency. Mary of Nazareth’s role in bearing the Christ Child is sealed by her agreement. “Let it be,” she says. What if fear or pragmatism, both of which she had good reason to exhibit, had resulted in her demurral? What if she’d told the angel, “Find someone else”? Would God have forced her to conceive and give birth to Jesus? One shudders to consider that possibility. Yet today, many Christians and denominations crush a woman’s right to say “yes” to God’s will by denying her right to say “no.” And they do this in the most nefarious way imaginable. They demonize anyone who supports a woman’s right to choose as sexually irresponsible—defying “how things are supposed to be”—never once considering that the mother of God, the first person to believe in Jesus and hence of the mother of all believers, answered God’s calling by choice.

Then there's the brazen contradiction that the issue prompting Mr. Santorum’s comment—borne on the uproar of conservative Christians opposed to women’s agency in childbearing—came after years of ignoring how the provision of health coverage for men provided them free access to sexual enhancement products. To put it bluntly, enabling male sexual performance past its prime appears to pose no threat to “how things are supposed to be,” even though many partners to men who take sexual enhancements would furiously argue otherwise.

In the gay community alone, studies and anecdotal evidence demonstrate that ready access to male sex hormones and erectile dysfunction treatments has taken its toll in heightened spread of STD’s, infidelity, and no end of secondary harms. So, on one hand, one supposes this validates religious concerns about access to sex-related medication and treatments. But it also proves the misogyny seething beneath conservative Christianity’s surface, in that it would connect inappropriate sexual behavior to women’s access to birth control, while ignoring the male side of the equation. Furthermore, this gives slip to the lie that bypassing religious organizations’ obligation to provide free birth control to women by making it a matter of choice settled with insurers is a violation of religious freedom. Based solely on the Annunciation’s example, denying women the agency of choice constitutes religious bondage.


So we must ask again, what does this mean? What do we see at the Annunciation and empty tomb—and how should what we see in them open our eyes to see the world as God would have us see it?

God uses women. God chooses women. God uses men. God chooses men. But there’s a second part to the story that can’t go unnoticed. In return, women choose to be used by God. Men choose to be used by God. And therein lies the beauty of God’s will, as well as the miracles that God begets in us when we agree to participate in God’s plan. We confront our doubts and choose to believe. We believe and choose to act. And everything comes full circle: life-death-life; faith-despair-faith; miracle-mourning-miracle.

I so love that Gabriel greets Mary by saying, “You’re beautiful with God’s beauty, beautiful inside and out! God be with you.” (Luke 1.28; The Message) With that, the angel confirms that we all are blessed with God’s beauty—that God’s beauty can be found in each of us, inside and out! Though we may doubt it, we must believe it. And with our belief, we must be willing to act upon our faith, to enwomb the Christ Child like Mary of Nazareth and to declare the power of the Risen Christ like Mary Magdalene.

Choose to be used.

The Annunciation, as well as the empty tomb, is where God demonstrates gender is irrelevant.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Best Friends Forever

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband. (Jeremiah 31.31-32)


It was one of those minor spats that flare up out of nowhere and sputter out quickly. Except this one didn’t. Evidently both Walt and I had been keeping close score of the other’s negligence, while ignoring our own. It began as typically silly tit-for-tat—“How hard can it be to rinse off a plate and put it in the dishwasher?” “About as hard as picking up your shoes and putting them back in the closet.” But it soon turned into scathing renditions of painful incidents left unaddressed. In no time, years of happiness shattered into a pile of resentment and reproach. We were finished. We took to opposite ends of the apartment, mulling over the realization that what we believed was true love had actually been a delusion. We hated ourselves for getting suckered by a decade of sweet talk and surface romance, when nothing of the sort was happening underneath.

An hour or so passed and Walt came out to the living room. “I don’t want to argue anymore,” he announced. “But I have to say this. If we break up, I’m going to need a best friend to help me get through it. And that’s gonna be a big problem for me, since you’re the best friend I’ve ever had.” That’s all it took. Crying and laughing, we fell into one another’s arms and promised we would remain best friends for life for the sake of our love, and we would remain lovers for life for the sake of our friendship. It was a new promise—one that we’d never have made early on, as we had no idea how important our friendship would be in holding us together. And it taught us a lesson we’ve never forgot: our relationship depends on trust in one another’s friendship. I need to be free to tell my best friend, “Walt’s out of line,” and Walt needs to be able to tell his best friend, “Tim’s not treating me right.”

More Than a Lover

Scripture initially frames God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants as a family matter. The promise of nationhood is treated as a closely guarded secret, a hidden legacy that will come to fruition in due time. That changes once God ordains Moses to speak to Israel on God’s behalf. When Israel leaves Egypt as a people, the union between the nation and its Maker assumes the nature of a love affair. True, the desert experience is no honeymoon. Yet the interaction between God and Israel smacks of a young couple learning to live together. When times are good, they couldn’t be happier. But let something go wrong and the whining and recriminations and acting out start. There’s a whole lot of “Why won’t you do as I ask?” (God) and “What have You done for us lately?” (Israel) and “See what a mess you’ve made!” (both) in the desert.

Though God loves Israel supremely and Israel loves God more than anything, they’re not the best of friends. And that puts Moses in the awkward position of go-between. As Israel’s first national prophet, he’s the template for every prophet who follows. When God wants to confide in best-friend Israel about lover-Israel’s faults, God speaks through its prophets. The problem is Israel’s not very good at detecting when God is talking Friend-to-friend. It tends to dismiss God’s frustrations—as if God’s a cranky mate picking another fight. Then, when God does come down hard on Israel’s unfaithfulness, the people sink into helpless despair. They’re finished. God has abandoned them. It’s all turned into rubble.

This goes on for centuries, to the point that few offices in Israel are as thankless as the prophet’s. By the time Jeremiah takes the position around 626 BCE, the prophet’s role more closely resembles a couples’ counselor than divine oracle. In fact, we call Jeremiah “the weeping prophet” simply because most of his time is spent mourning Israel’s infidelity and the suffering it brings to God and God’s people. The relationship obviously isn’t working and Jeremiah doesn’t know how to persuade Israel that God is more than a Lover. God is its Best Friend for life.

Fortunately—and out of necessity—God comes to Jeremiah’s rescue in chapter 31 by offering to forge a new relationship with Israel. “The days are coming when I will make a new covenant,” God says, bitterly noting that Israel failed to honor the old one, “though I was their husband.” (v31-32) Under the new covenant, God will remove the hindrances that blocked Israel’s attentiveness to God’s wishes and desires. “I will put My law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people,” God promises. “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest… for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Essentially, God vows to take it upon God’s Self to ensure that a mutual, enduring friendship evolves to stabilize and nourish what’s proven to be a tempestuous, often one-sided love affair.

A New and Right Spirit

While this is a radically new promise—coming from a law-obsessed God to a rebellious people, no less—it’s not a particularly novel idea. Indeed, the Old Testament runs rampant with repentant figures who plead with God to find a better way to make this relationship work. In Psalm 51, written in the wake of his disastrous decision to steal Bathsheba by having her husband killed, David confesses he’s a failure in God’s eyes. “For my transgressions, and my sin are ever before me. Against You, You alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight,” he cries. As his poem goes on, however, we sense a tonal shift that suggests David has turned from talking to God as a guilty lover and he now beseeches God Friend-to-friend. “Teach me wisdom in my secret heart,” he prays in verse 6, slowly building up to verse 10: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” In terms of David’s relationship with his Maker, it’s the ultimate cry for help. He seeks more than a lover’s forgiveness. He asks God to be his Friend. And God responds, not only to David, not only to Israel, but also to us, promising, “I will write My law on your heart. You won’t need anyone to tell you how to love and honor Me. You’ll want to do it because we will be lovers and friends.”

A new and right spirit is more than a longing for reconciliation that we rekindle when we fall short in our faithfulness. It is God’s promise to us, spoken from God’s own mouth and written in our hearts by God’s own hand. It’s the promise we reach for when rushes to judgment overtake us. It’s the pledge we rely on when unhealthy desires and tendencies catch us off-guard. It’s the covenant that cannot be broken when our brokenness threatens to break God and us apart. When we can’t find it in our hearts to forgive ourselves, we look to the promise of love and forgiveness God eternally etched in the wells of our beings. We stand on its assurance that this relationship will work and it will last. God and us: best friends forever and lovers for life.

God’s new covenant in Jeremiah salvages the broken relationship with our Maker by inscribing the terms of an enduring, mutual friendship in our hearts.

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