Saturday, March 16, 2013

Most of All

I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the sharing of His sufferings by becoming like Him in His death. (Philippians 3.8)

Center of Everything

If our lives were bookshelves, where would the volume called My Faith be? Would it stand on such a tall shelf that retrieving it requires too much effort? Would it get tucked between other familiar titles—My Family, My Job, What I Do for Fun—where it competes for our attention and often is jostled out of the way as we reach for something else? Would it be somewhere in all of these stories of our lives, yet it would take some looking to find it? Would it be stacked nearby, in the pile of books we intend to thumb through when we find the time?

Or would My Faith rest at the center of everything, easily within reach, its covers barely able to contain pages swollen from overuse, the copy smeared from constant highlighting, the margins tattooed with notes and question marks and exclamation points? Would it be so vital to everything we do that it never makes it to the bookshelf at all? Is it the one book we carry with us at all times, no matter where we go or what we do?

Sunday’s New Testament selections (John 12.1-8; Philippians 3.4-14) portray two people whose editions of My Faith are veritable forces that propel their lives. In John, we see Mary, the sister of Jesus’s close friend, Lazarus, do something that seems utterly senseless, yet makes perfect sense. In Philippians, we hear Paul explain his approach to life. Again, what he says sounds illogical. But his reasoning is solid.

Most Peculiar

Mary’s story is remembered for several reasons: her extravagant behavior, which comes out of nowhere; Judas’s exaggerated outrage, which camouflages ulterior motives; and Jesus’s defense of Mary, which, if we misread it, is somewhat confusing. And the event’s drama is magnified by its setting, a dinner party. Jesus and the disciples are headed for Jerusalem, where—unbeknownst to everyone but Him—their travels will end. They stop at Bethany, a prosperous outlying village, to visit with Lazarus and his sisters. While Martha puts dinner on the table and Lazarus hosts his guests, Mary appears with a pound of nard, a costly perfume made from oil pressed out of the roots of spikenard, a flowering plant from the Valerian family. Nard is primarily used to anoint corpses, as its sedative properties (like those in today’s Valerian root extract) are said to enhance the deceased’s restfulness. Mary empties the nard onto Jesus’s feet and wipes off the excess with her hair. Her actions are alarming on many levels.

Most obvious, of course, is the expensiveness of her gesture—which is what angers Judas. He protests her wastefulness, saying she could have sold the perfume and fed poor people with the proceeds. (The writer of John is skeptical about his motives, however, saying that, as treasurer of Jesus’s ministry, he skimmed donations.) Furthermore, Mary’s behavior is totally inappropriate at a dinner party. Bringing nard to the table introduces an ominous air to a festive situation; its association with funerals cannot be overlooked. Then, anointing Jesus and wiping His feet with her hair crosses numerous social boundaries: male-female, life-death, intimate-public, leader-follower. Everything about this is most peculiar, unlike anything else we see in the Gospels.

So Judas’s shock is understandable, even if his motives are corrupt. No doubt everyone—other than Jesus and Mary—is appalled by her actions. Jesus’s reply to Judas’s complaint doesn’t ease the tension. “Leave her alone,” he says. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of My burial. You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.” (John 12.7-8) We can read His response any number of ways that miss His point. Is Jesus placing His personal comfort above the poor’s needs? Is He saying our commitment to end poverty is futile? Is He excusing what looks like conspicuous consumption? Why would Mary to bring augurs of His death to the table in the first place? Does she know something that no one else but Jesus realizes? Apparently, she does. In very short order, Jesus will be illegally arrested, tried, and executed.

It is vital for Mary to express her faithfulness to Him before He dies. She anoints His feet, because they are about to travel a rugged road that leads to Jerusalem and takes a sharp turn up Calvary’s hill. But why does she towel His feet with her hair? Jesus grasps the symbolism of her gesture. In physically reclaiming the excess, she shares in His death. It’s about more than staying with Jesus until the end; active faith emits intentions to remain with Christ always, in life, death, and life after death. That is, most certainly, a shocking confession.

The Story of Our Lives

Unfortunately, John doesn’t give Mary a chance to explain. If she could speak, she would echo Paul’s statement in Philippians 3.8: “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the sharing of His sufferings by becoming like Him in His death.” Once again, we see a disciple at Jesus’s feet, pouring out his soul, desiring to get so close to Jesus that he’s inseparable from Him. Like Mary, Paul recognizes that resurrection is a miraculous outcome that overthrows the brutality of earlier suffering and the finality of death. (We cannot rise from what we do not experience.) Paul opens this passage with startling bravado. “If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more,” he brags in verse 4. He lists all the ways he’s superior, concluding, “as to righteousness under the law, [I am] blameless.” (v6) For someone constantly urging his readers to stay humble, his swagger seems wildly inappropriate. Yet Paul redeems himself in the next verse: “Whatever gains I had, these I regard as loss because of Christ.”

In Mary and Paul, we see two individuals of notable means and privilege. Neither is born into poverty. Both come from strong families and enjoy the advantages of status. Neither really has anything to prove in society’s eyes. Still, both implicitly understand that faith matters most of all. It is so central to their lives that they keep it in handy reach, using it to frame everything they do and say. Do they realize this will alarm some and anger others? Of course, they do. But their longing to know Christ in every way—in suffering, death, and resurrection—surpasses any concerns about how they’re viewed. They count everything but their faith as a loss. They know that following Christ through sufferings and death will bring new life to every aspect of their existence.

Which brings us back to the bookshelf. When My Faith becomes the most important volume in our lives, other books obtain greater meaning and clarity. In our homes and families, at work and play, we experience resurrection power by proclaiming victory over suffering and death through faith. The world will continue to turn. There will always be poor people. There will always be rich ones. There will always be cruel people. There will always be kind ones. But we who cherish faith most of all are unshaken by any of this, because our lives hew to a different story that grasps the relationship between loss and resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul poeticizes this, using a seed as his metaphor. He says: “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.” (v42-43) That’s how faith seizes control of life’s sorrows and setbacks. That’s the story of our lives.

In anointing Jesus’s feet and wiping up the excess perfume with her hair, Mary shares in His death and resurrection. That is her story. And if we make faith central to our lives, it becomes our story, too.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Lived-in Love

Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us, and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5.1-2)

The saintly (and sainted) sixth-century pontiff, Gregory the Great, wrote:

The proof of love is in the works. Where love exists, it works great things. But when it ceases to act, it ceases to exist.

That’s a sermon all by itself. Love is much more than an emotion. It is the thing that prods us to extend ourselves to others, to make thoughtful sacrifices without a second thought. It cannot be passive, nor can it be held in reserve. Wherever love goes, love flows.

As Paul suggests to the Ephesians, love is the key to becoming more like our Maker, which is one of Lent’s most hopeful intentions. Thus, love becomes the litmus test for holiness in our lives. If the things we cherish lead to loving attitudes and behaviors, they are godly. If our thoughts and opinions move us to put love into action, then they are just.

Lest we get mired into the gooey shallows of sentimentality and romance, we need to disabuse ourselves of Hallmark notions about love. Both Paul and Gregory set high standards for love. Paul defines it by its epitome: the love of Christ, which reached its height in Jesus’s final breath. Gregory says love “works great things.” This is not the kind of love that settles for roses and chocolates. It’s more than kindness and generosity. This is gutsy love—sweaty love, the sort of love that cares more about what it can accomplish than the price of its demands.

The fragrance Paul describes isn’t the smell of flowers and potpourri. It’s the scent that rises from a sacrificial altar, a sweetness comingled with the stench of burning flesh and death. It is an odor that is pleasing to God, but not always pleasant to us. So real love’s purpose isn’t focused on making us happy. Its role is to spur us to self-sacrifice that creates change. It is the love of God displayed in human ways on a human scale that nonetheless reflects God’s epic patience, compassion, and forgiveness. It is decisive and courageous, all-inclusive and farsighted, willing to endure pain and turmoil in its tenacious pursuit of something greater than what presently exists. This is the passion Jesus describes in John 3.16: “God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

While true love doesn’t seek happiness, it miraculously makes those who truly love truly happy. They don’t need rose-colored glasses to see God’s love at work, because they live in it. Genuinely expressed love naturally gives rise to joy and wholeness. Lived-in love activates a life of rich experience. It turns every thought and deed into an act of worship that pleases God.

Gregory certainly understood this. He devoted his life to reforming worship to stress the nature of God’s love and was hailed as “the Father of Christian Worship.” He lent his name to the matchless Gregorian chant that captures the soul of sacredness. That’s why musicians and singers look to him as their patron saint.

To live in love is serious work. But despite its toil, it inevitably fills us with song.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

You Say It

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. (Matthew 17.20)

All of this Lenten off-loading and sorting-out has me surrounded by tall piles of junk. Here’s my short temper, and over there is my pride, and next to that, my knee-jerk negativity toward people who—in my unqualified estimation—have no clue about what’s going on in the world. Night before last I was at they gym, going through my treadmill paces, as one of those “Real Housewives” shows played on the overhead TV. I was listening to gospel music on my iPod and couldn’t hear a word they said. But just from the look of them, I decided I didn’t like these people. I automatically assumed they were silly and gauche and I thought, “If our paths crossed, I’d get away from them as fast as I could.” Just that quick, a voice in the recesses of my brain challenged me. “Really?” it asked. “You’ll go out of your way to talk to a homeless person, but you’re okay with sneering at nouveau riche folks? How can that be right?”

Lent will do that. It has a way of pulling us up short and highlighting idle assumptions that evidence how much further we have to go to be like the Lord. Jesus spent a lot of time with poor people. But He showed kindness and hospitality to wealthy and grandiose types, too. If the Samaritan woman at the well had been a Real Housewife (and she may have been), He wouldn’t have turned her away. Where do I get off imagining I can do differently? So there you go. Add unjust attitudes about the privileged few to my heaps.

After a while, it starts to feel like our shortcomings are closing in on us. Wherever we turn, there’s another mountain. Our Lenten progress reaches a standstill, because we can no longer scale the foolishness we pile up. Our first instinct is to appeal to God’s mercy (the right thing) and expect God to move our mountains for us (the wrong thing). We want God to serve our interests as a single-handed demolition crew, blow our weaknesses sky-high, and clear the way so we can get on with our lives. That’s not going to happen.

No sooner had I been chastened for my condescension than my iPod shuffled up a tune that spoke to my problem. It was a song I’d never really paid attention to, “That’s How the Lord Works,” by The Thomas Whitfield Singers. The soloist sang, “I asked God to move my mountains, but instead God increased my faith.” The choir answered, “That’s how the Lord works; that’s just like God.” I had to think about that for a minute.

The allusion, of course, is Jesus’s promise in Matthew 17.20 (repeated almost verbatim in Matthew 21.21): “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” We get all excited about the dramatic proportions of His imagery—a teeny tiny seed of faith can move impossibly huge mountains. But if we look at enormous piles of our junk, and then ask God to move them for us, are we truly following the principle Jesus lays out? “You”—not “God”—“will say to this mountain, ‘Move,’” He says.

Moving our mountains is our responsibility. God makes it possible the instant we confess belief they can be moved. The size of our faith doesn’t have to equal the scope of our problems. It just needs to plant confidence that moving mountains is not impossible. Speaking to them acknowledges that we see them for what they are. We can no longer cloak them in language of denial and justification. They are mountains. They need to move. “You say it,” Jesus promises, “and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Monday, March 11, 2013

Repression Obsessions

I acknowledged my sin to You, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and You forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32.5)

The hit musical The Book of Mormon is ostensibly about the comic—and cosmic—travails of a group of Latter Day Saint missionaries who have the bad luck of being assigned to a Ugandan outpost. But in short order, you gather it’s really about people of all walks who suffer from having their religion screwed on a little too tight. You know who I mean. They’re the folks who are terrified of God, terrified of temptation, terrified of Hell, and, most of all, terrified they’ll get caught doing something unseemly by people as terrified as they are. And the only way of managing the terror they’ve chosen to live with is to mask it with manufactured happiness. 

The show quickly dismantles its characters’ clean-cut, cockeyed (and cocky) optimism with “Turn It Off,” a hybrid show tune and Sunday school ditty that says:

When you start to get confused
Because of thoughts in your head,
Don’t feel those feelings!
Hold them in instead
Turn it off, like a light switch
Just go click!

With every conflict a missionary confesses, the answer is, “Turn it off!” Feeling guilty about not protecting your mother from domestic violence? Turn it off! Troubled because you left your dying sister’s bedside to get in line for a new iPhone? Turn it off! Worried about being attracted to your own sex? Turn it off! But what if these gnawing emotions don’t go away? “Then you only got yourself to blame. You didn’t pretend hard enough. Turn it off!" If repression obsessions were unique to Mormons, this cheeky little number would be lamentably tragic. But haven’t we all, at one point or another, been told by someone—parents, ministers, teachers, counselors, you name it—to turn it off?

Repression is no help when confronting confusion and weakness. It’s a defense mechanism against guilt of both varieties, deserved and undeserved, and it’s completely ineffective in overcoming either kind. Repression feeds on guilt. If we stop feeling guilty, the thing we’re trying to conceal has no reason to hide. As long as we keep it hidden, we won’t come to grips with what it actually is. It may be something sinful and unhealthy and offensive to our Maker and those around us. Yet it may also be something holy and life-giving and essential to our God-given identity and purpose. As long as we refuse to examine it, we’ll never see exactly what it is.

The only way we can figure out what’s behind our repression obsessions is by turning the light switch on so we can see what’s really there. We invite God in and say, “Take a look at this. Here’s what worries me about it. If it’s wrong, show me the right way. If it’s what You want for me, grant me the grace to accept it.”

Psalm 32 models this prayer: “I acknowledged my sin to You, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and You forgave the guilt of my sin.” Repression cannot lead to holiness. Pretending we aren’t struggling won’t open our eyes to truth. If what we’re struggling with is sinful, we need to see that and invite God to forgive our wrongdoing and remove the guilt it creates. If it’s something we’re afraid of, we need to overcome our fear and lead lives of dignity in keeping with God’s plan and purpose for us.

Lent is our great sifting season, when we search our hearts and lay all they contain before God. Whatever’s got us confused and feeling guilty is not to be hidden away in hopes it will go away. For repression to work, it needs the thing it wants to bury and it needs the guilt we carry because of what we’re hiding. None of that is constructive. None of it will improve our lives. “Turn it off” isn’t the answer. “Turn it on—like a light switch.” That’s the answer. If we can summon the courage to do that, we can boldly talk it over with our Maker and bravely heed God's direction for our lives.