Saturday, May 19, 2012

Our Place in This World

I am not asking You to take them out of the world, but I ask You to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. (John 17.15-17)

Where Does This Leave Us?

Sunday marks one of those strange partings, when liturgical congregations split according to which lectionary they follow—standard or revised. Some of us will focus on the Ascension (Acts 1.1-11; Luke 24.44-53), while others contemplate Jesus’s parting prayer for His disciples (John 17.6-19). And while each passage’s nuances will invite varying observations, I believe both lead to one question that the disciples surely wrestle with: “Where does this leave us?” For all practical purposes, Jesus has become their world and with Him gone, they have no idea where and how they fit. Once they absorb the blow of this sudden—though not unanticipated—goodbye, they must recalibrate their place in this world. It will be no easy task.

Approximating how the disciples feel is key to navigating these passages. Since none of us has experienced anything remotely like either event, we might compare them to the end of a concert. We’ve just spent an extended period of time in the presence of an artist whose words and music found us where we were, spoke to us in very real and meaningful ways, and challenged us to see ourselves differently. From the first note, the concert has steadily built to its climax—the most beloved song in the artist’s repertoire—followed by an encore that extends her/his stay. We’re grateful beyond measure for these extra few minutes, even though they’re filled with poignant awareness that all of this will end soon. The artist says goodnight, exits the stage, and the house lights come up. Our eyes remind us the outside world awaits us. It’s a hard thing, accepting it’s time to move on. But the artist is gone. Our time with him/her is passed. High-flown emotions are dissipating, replaced by implacable, workaday realities.

More than “Goodbye—we’ll meet again” is going on here. The disciples who overhear Jesus pray on their behalf and see Him ascend into Heaven have internalized His teachings. Every word He said is stamped in memory, not as text, but as spoken. As they relive their time with Jesus, they hear His voice—the tone, phrasing, and cadence of His actual speech. They associate certain statements with events that bring back all the emotions and personal significance. It’s every bit like the way that we tie songs and conversations to major moments in our lives. The disciples have relied on Jesus’s voice to enlighten, comfort, and guide them. His physical presence and the music of His speech have rooted their beings. Now Jesus is being taken from them. The silence must be crushing. More than that, their sudden sense of disconnectedness surely terrifies them. Where does this leave us?

Not Easy

Turning to Jesus’s prayer  in John 17, it’s all too evident that the Lord recognizes how jarring His departure will be. “Now I am no longer in the world,” He prays to God. “But they are in the world, and I am coming to You. Holy Father, protect them in Your name that You have given Me, so that they may be one, as We are one. While I was with them, I protected them... I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost [i.e., Judas Iscariot].” (v11-12) The concern that Jesus expresses is overwhelming. He’s keenly aware of how dependent the disciples are on Him. As He prays, He’s mindful of all the instances when their faithfulness to Him placed them in jeopardy—times when standing with Jesus exposed them to hostility and ridicule. “I protected them… I guarded them,” He reminds God. Yet, at the same time, Jesus is no fool. He knows that He’s leaving the disciples in a dicey spot and they’ll need God’s protection once He’s gone.

As David Lose points out in “The Other Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus knows that things haven’t been easy for the disciples. “The world has hated them because they do not belong to the world,” He says. His acknowledgment primes us to expect He’ll beseech God to fix things in their favor, to lighten their load—especially in the coming days, when dealing with His absence will be plenty to handle, let alone coping with His (and now their) enemies. But Jesus doesn’t ask God to lighten the disciples’ load. “What does He pray for?” Lose writes. “Not that it will be easy. He knows it won’t. This world is captive to a spirit alien to God’s spirit. It is animated by a sense of scarcity instead of abundance, fear instead of courage, and selfishness instead of sacrificial love…. So Jesus doesn’t pray that it will be easy, but rather that God will support the disciples amid their challenges and that they will be one in fellowship with each other and with Jesus and [God] through the Spirit.” Returning to our concert analogy, Jesus is all too aware He’s filled the disciples’ hearts and minds with unpopular music that puts them at odds with the world’s same old gimme-gimme song. Before He leaves, He’s going to charge them with singing His new song with all they’ve got. It’s a song the world most definitely does not want to hear.


Sunday’s reading stops short of the truly revelatory moment in all of this. In verses 20-21, Jesus expands His prayer, saying, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one.” Here Jesus confesses two amazing articles of faith. As He looks ahead, He sees you and me. He recognizes us as people who will sing His new song. He trusts we will be there. Furthermore, He believes that the disciples will withstand the hardships of their world to teach His new song to those of us who’ve not heard it first-hand. Finally, He prays that we “may all be one.”

Thus we find our place in this world—not as lonely outcasts sentenced to the fringes of society, or as dissonant voices in a culture that doesn’t like our music. We are called to be a harmonious, united band of believers whose song of love and hope magnifies Christ’s presence beyond our borders. After the Ascension, two angels appear beside Jesus’s followers and ask, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, Who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.” (Acts 1.11) Jesus may have left the stage. The house lights may have come up. But the concert is not over. While we await Christ’s reappearance, our place in this world is out in the world—not hanging around, staring up at the stage, and wondering when Jesus will return. Christ has given us a new song to give the world. It’s not “Won’t You Stay Just a Little Bit Longer”. Not “Just You and I”. It’s “Takin’ It to the Streets”.

Jesus may have left the stage, but the concert’s not over. While we await His reappearance, we take His new song of love and hope to the world.

Podcast link:

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Singing Lesson

Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy. For the LORD, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth. (Psalm 47.1-2)

Still Here

It’s a quarter of seven in the morning and I’m at my desk, not altogether happy about an early conference call due to begin on the hour. I’m hoping the coffee kicks in for me to (at least) sound awake while my brain catches up. I click through the overnight emails. Only two interest me: The New York Times and the Daily Lectionary. Since I can’t guarantee the morning’s news will buoy my spirits, I open the lectionary. The morning psalm is 47, which opens with a real bang: “Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy. For the LORD, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth.” Clap your hands. Shout to God. Sing loud songs. I groan. Yeah, like that’s gonna happen…

The meeting host is late. While we wait for him to activate the call, we’re treated to chipper jazz—the sort of innocuous melody making whose sole purpose is confirming the line hasn’t gone dead. It’s soulless music, so intent on not offending anyone’s tastes that it has no taste at all. And I think to myself, “This is not the kind of singing the psalmists call for.” Psalm 47 is attributed to the sons of Korah, the Temple’s poets in residence, whose liturgical influence witnesses the power of redemption. The sons of Korah are descendants of a priest who led a rebellion against Moses (Numbers 16) and his name means “baldness,” denoting the empty place that remained after he and other rebel priests who sided with him were razed from Israel’s worship leadership.

So Psalm 47 is the exact opposite of the bland, on-hold Muzak that annoys me. Yet, in many ways, its purpose is the same. The sons of Korah are a noisy bunch. They like hand-clapping and shouting and loud singing because it’s a profoundly moving self-affirmation that tells Israel, “We’re still here!” And Israel follows their lead for the same reason. Its enemies watch and wait for this ungainly nation—essentially a loosely tied federation of 12 nomadic tribes—to implode and disappear, returning the land God gave them to its original tenants. Thus every time Israel unites in worship, the singing and music ring with praise for its existence and survival, its marvel at the beautiful country God has given it, and its gratitude for the land’s bounty. The same awe that brings forth raucous rejoicing is limned with defiance not unlike that of the veteran trouper in Sondheim’s Follies: “Good times and bum times, I’ve seen ‘em all, and I’m here. I’m still here!” When Israel celebrates with song, it declares to itself and its neighbors that the line hasn’t gone dead. The people and their God are actively engaged. They have a standing appointment—an ongoing call, if you will—when God and the nation discuss their lives and future together. Singing rehearses their shared history and points to what’s next. It’s not the style that makes their songs sacred; it’s what their music means and what it achieves. It’s an emotion-packed narrative device.

Necessary Soul Work

Singing and music are elemental to the believer's life, not only for specific thoughts and emotions they convey, but also as a primal, constant reminder we’re still here. When we sing or listen to song, we proclaim that our faith still holds, God remains faithful to us, and we share a common history and vision with God. As our pastor pointed out last Sunday, drawing from Psalm 98 (“Sing to the Lord a new song”), music is one of very few human activities that unite both sides of our brain—cognitive and emotional—in a singular pursuit. “But the psalmists didn’t know that,” she said. “They just knew that singing and praising God was necessary soul work.” All that we know music to be, everything it accomplishes—the feelings it mines, the truths it conveys—is God’s way of reaffirming divine presence in our lives and our existence in the world. The line between God and us isn’t dead. It’s open and alive and full of wonder and gratitude and endless possibilities for love and joy and, yes, even reckoning with God, others, and us.

We learn to sing and keep at it because singing is a perpetual life lesson. That’s why sacred songs never grow old. It’s why they creep up on us and get into our heads with feelings and messages that moor us during tumultuous times. They give voice to confessions of faith we might not articulate on our own. Notice Psalm 47’s second verse: “For the LORD, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth.” We are still here. But more than that, we are most assuredly not alone in our mortal endeavor. Our awesome God, Monarch of the universe and Captain of our souls, is with us, loving us, guiding us, and moving on our behalf. How can we not sing?

Just Sing

The Carpenters had a big 70s hit with a little ditty that housed a powerful lyric: “Don’t worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear. Just sing.” Performance quality doesn’t matter. From the greatest vocalist to the person who can’t carry a tune in a bucket, singing is an essential we can’t overlook. In Ephesians 5.18-20, we’re admonished to “be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We may not have what it takes to fill concert arenas. We may not know the difference between middle C and high F. Our songs may not be pleasing to anyone’s ears—not even or our own. But we've been given us this great gift of music. God wants us to sing. And especially for those of us who’ve been told we have no song—who’ve been lied to and all but convinced we don’t belong here—it’s our God-given duty to sing. As with the children of Israel, it is God Who brought us here and here we’ll remain, clapping our hands, shouting, and singing to the tops of our voices. That’s the real singing lesson. Don’t worry if you’re not “good enough” for anyone else to hear. Just sing.

When we sing or listen to song, we proclaim that our faith still holds, our God remains faithful to us, and we share a common history and vision with God.

Postscript: “Why We Sing”

Kirk Franklin’s elegant song captures the essence of why we sing. Take this with you as an inspiration to sing and keep at it. You’re still here. Your God wants you to sing.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Love! Love! Love!

You did not choose Me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in My name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (John 15.16-17)

Crawling Out

Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.” The quote resurfaced—seemingly out of nowhere—while I read this Sunday’s Gospel, John 15.9-17. If you don’t know the text, or it’s been a while since you’ve taken time to sit with it, I heartily urge seeking it out. It is, in my opinion, Scripture’s most glorious “crawling out” passage, the signal moment when Jesus bares His soul to His disciples. It comes during the Last Supper, a private setting charged with urgency that creates a very specific kind of intimacy between them. Although the disciples don’t know it at the time, Jesus is telling them goodbye. Much of the conversation is devoted to preparing them for what’s about to happen, as Jesus assures them the terror about to befall them is meant to be and instructs them to continue in His absence.

Nearly halfway into the discussion, Jesus switches gears and reflects on the deep love that has grown up during their time together. He compares Himself to a vine and calls the disciples “branches,” essentially saying they are attached to Him in an eternal bond. The tenderness is breathtaking. He goes on to say, “As the Father has loved Me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” (v9) The proof of their love will be shown in keeping His commandments, He tells them, adding in confidence, “I have said these things to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Most of all, Jesus wants the disciples to savor their shared affection’s extraordinary nature. All they’ve experienced, learned, and shared together has altered their relationship. They’ve moved far beyond the standard rabbinical dynamic in which servile respect places a wedge between teacher and student. Being grafted together draws them close to the point of inseparability, if not physically, most surely emotionally and spiritually.

In verse 15, Jesus tells the disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from My father.” We have no secrets, Jesus says, describing the sort of intimate trust that can only exist among caring friends. The incomparable love Jesus has for the disciples calls to His soul and makes it crawl out of its hiding. Of all the astonishing moments recorded in the Gospels, this one finds me most envious of the disciples. I can’t imagine how it felt to hear Jesus speak these words of love. I have no idea how I would have responded had I been seated at the table.

Seeds of Greatness

It is, of course, a love so true that it feels too good to be true. It’s the kind of incredible love that makes one wonder how and why it came about. To put a rather coarse point on it, it’s the sort of love that mystifies the troll when the beautiful princess tells him he’s loved above all others. If I were one of the disciples, I’d be so taken aback by Jesus’s declaration I’d question what He said. Perhaps I read too much into it. Perhaps I was projecting my longing to be loved so intensely onto His words. Perhaps the wine had gone to my head, magnifying what I wanted to hear to the degree it distorted what Jesus actually said. Jesus, being human and divine, apparently senses the disciples might later discount His expression of love as an overstatement to bolster them once He’s gone. So He removes all doubt that His love for them is real. “You did not choose Me, but I chose you,” He reminds them. (v16) It’s as if He’s fondly reminiscing about their initial encounters when He called them away from their homes and occupations, and the awkward period of getting to know one another that followed. Their history implicitly plays out in His comment: “I chose you. You accepted. And ever since, we’ve grown together in love, trust, and purpose.”

The vine analogy resurfaces when Jesus stresses, “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask Him in My name.” This unanticipated torrent of emotion washes away any misgivings the disciples have about why Jesus chose them. From the first, He saw seeds of greatness in them—tiny germs of spectacular possibility hidden in their lowliness, their averageness, as fishermen and bureaucrats and deceptively ordinary people. For three-and-a-half years, Jesus has cultivated their character and opened their minds to carry on His mission. He has transformed them from dormant seeds into thriving plants capable of bearing fruit that will last. And He’s provided for their growth, granting them access to God, so whatever they need to yield lasting fruit is there for them. 

But Jesus also knows plants mature at their own pace in different ways. Some disciples will bloom earlier than others, possibly causing strife that may endanger their survival. So He ends this part of their conversation with a somewhat stern reminder: “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (v17) Whatever happens among them, love must remain their binding force. And in verse 13 He’s already made it clear what kind of love He’s talking about: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

So Great Is His Love

Abide in My love. Love one another. Love with such passion and generosity that you’ll give your very life in love. These are such overwhelming directives that we may dismiss them as impractical impossibilities. And many times when we greet challenges that can only be resolved by love, we’re tempted to go into hiding. If we can just disappear for a while—inconspicuously exit stage right until the unwieldy drama we’ve got strung up in works itself out—the chances are good that we won’t have to risk loving with the intensity and selflessness that Jesus expects.

In attempting to evade love’s demands, however, we forget one crucial fact. We did not choose Christ; Christ chose us. There are in all of us—ordinary though we be—tiny seeds of enormous potential. And Christ has invested His unconditional, incomparable love in cultivating our ability to bear lasting fruit. So great is His love that He laid down His life for us and opened our access to God so that we’re given all we need to produce sustaining nourishment in our lives and the lives that surround us. So great is His love that it makes our souls crawl out of hiding, into God’s marvelous light, where, although we may mature at different rates in different ways, the love that binds us together makes everything possible.

And here we cue the Beatles classic that, purposefully or not, rings out the Gospel’s greatest, most enduring promise: “Love! Love! Love! Love is all you need.”

No caption necessary…

Podcast link: