Thursday, March 29, 2018

We Sing: A Holy Week Manifesto

The sun is shining this morning and the harbingers of spring are singing from the trees. There is no evidence of budding leaves, but there is plenty of proof that winter is being pushed back. 

It’s curious to me that I spied my first robin of the season nearly two weeks ago, long before the snow had disappeared from the ground. Yet, there he was, redbreast and sure, sitting in the bare branches of our front yard tree. 

From somewhere inside, beating from the heart of instinct, the birds know to return north at the appointed time. Migration isn’t dependent upon the external assurances that spring has arrived. Birds don’t fly north when the grass is visible, the flower buds have sprung, and trees are about to burst. Before there is tangible documentation that winter has receded, robins are here showing up and singing on a sunny Thursday morning in Holy Week.

I was reading about Jesus’ last week on earth. He rides a donkey on Sunday to proclaim the kind of kingdom of which he was king. He turns over tables on Monday to show he's serious about this new kingdom. And then, for the next few days of Holy Week, until the table is set in an upper room, we are given a interesting collection of parables and conversations Jesus had.

In Matthew 21, Jesus encountered the religious leaders twice after calling them out in the temple courtyard on Monday. In both conversations, we are told that the religious leaders refrained from doing or saying certain things because they feared the crowd. 

The word for fear, in both places, is “phobeo”, a Greek root from which we get the English word phobia. It means to “be afraid, seized with alarm, startled by stranger sights and occurrences.” 

People who play a political game will always be playing a political game. Pharisees and Saducees seemed to have long forgotten whatever fledging faith compelled them in their early ministry. Somewhere within the walls of the temple, serving God had become a power play. A strategy that entailed keeping control and a semblance of peace instead of speaking for God regardless of consequences.

The religious leaders had become experts at reading the field and strategizing the next best move so that they remained firmly in control, not God. 

The problem with that kind of existence, one where you always vie for power and strive to keep a peace that keeps you in control, is that fear is the motivator. Moves in the political game of cat and mouse are compelled by “phobia”  even when the moves are offensive ones. 

Fear is not rational.

Which is why I am particularly struck by the robin’s song this spring. Long before it makes sense for them to arrive, they have come and have begun their melody. Long before it would seem logical, the birds have taken to the air, flown north, and built a nest that will hold new life. They are a feathered promise to us, and they are not hindered by fear. 

Spring is not ushered in by nature’s analysis regarding whether the weather is already laying witness. If there is any proof of spring, it’s the testimonial tune that is completely unaffected by a sense of startle. 

I guess what I am trying to say is that birds aren’t afraid to signal the season change, even if the weather refuses to corroborate their witness. 

They sing anyway.

I believe the kingdom of God is an actual reality that can be experienced, in part, right here on earth. I believe that God, in infinite wisdom, understands what true life looks like. I believe that God desires everyone to experience real life, in its fullest and best. I believe that the kingdom is when people are living as God longs for us to live. I believe fear is the greatest single barrier to this kind of living.

St. Ignatius said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”

The second we allow fear to elbow it’s way into that picture, is the moment we forfeit living fully alive, and therefore surrender the right to show God as God is meant to be seen.

Long before there is peace on earth, I believe God is calling people to show up and work toward it anyway. Long before there is substantial proof that the kingdom of God can be an actual reality, we are to show up and signal a change is coming. Not might come. Not hope will come. IS coming.

The hardened ground of sexism may show no sign of thaw,
but we sing anyway.

The bloodied history of racism may hold little evidence of healing, 
but we sing anyway.

The chaotic din of the gun conversation may seem impenetrable, 
but we sing anyway.

The fight to end human trafficking may seem like a losing one, 
but we sing anyway.

As long as the color of our skin alters our opportunities afforded us,
as long as women are considered second class citizens, 
as long as sexual orientation means only hate and ostracization,
as long as sexual abuse is embedded as normalized male behavior, 
as long as American schools are not safe,
as long as children are sold into slavery, 
as long as there are still Trayvon Martins,
as long as Flint still lacks clean water, 
and Haitian families are starving, 
and Syrian refugees are fleeing, 
we sing.

And our song will become the confirmation of change.

Fear will not silence us. We will not succumb to the temptation of keeping a peace so we can keep our place. 

The religious leaders had traded their song for fear, and they caved to political advantage and grew content with power and privilege. So when they came face to face with Jesus, they stayed silent because the were “afraid of the crowd.”

That can not be us. 

We are to be robins.

We are to perch 
in the branches, 
long before 
the snow has left, 
and sing.

We are to push 
aside the fear 
and sing.

Our song authenticates 
the changing of the season, 
not the other way around.

The ground 
may be hard.
The trees 
may be bare.
Winter may still appear
to be here,
but we sing.

We are a feathered promise 
A proclamation
that the kingdom 
that rode in on a donkey
and turned tables in the temple
is a reality.

We are robins.

So we sing.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Inertia Interrupted (Holy Monday)

If you know me well, you know I am not a science buff. I held my nose through formaldehyde-scented biology. I sludged through chemistry and passed physics with dual college credit because the grace of God is a real thing. 

With that said, I am about to talk about a scientific concept, probably inadequately, so patience please.

Inertia is defined as “a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.”

In eleventh grade, Mr. McKim droned on about it in these more familiar terms, “an object in motion tends to stay in motion…unless acted upon by an outside force.”

In Matthew 21:12-13, we are privy to the actions of Jesus on the Monday after he entered Jerusalem on a donkey. 24 hours after the crowd was shouting Hosanna, we find Jesus in the temple with harsh words and an unmistakeable act of protest regarding the current state of the church (aka temple worship).

“Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there.” (v. 12a)

The word translated as “drove out” is a Greek word that has a number of definitions, many of which we have come to associate with this event - Jesus cast out, sent out, expelled, rejected. The most interesting definition to me, however, was this one: “with implication of force overcoming opposite force.”

All of a sudden, white-wigged Isaac Newton was showing up in my bible reading. In scientific terms, Jesus’ actions in the temple were the same as an external force acting upon an object in motion.

By natural laws, an object in motion will remain in motion unless changed by an external force. That Newtonian law is true for systems and organizations too.

The Jewish temple in the first century was the center of worship. It was the place where God became accessible. It was sacred space because God’s presence was there and it was where Jews came to be forgiven of their sins.

In that day, sins were forgiven through animal sacrifice. Jews were expected to travel to Jerusalem at the Passover Festival and present an animal for sacrifice at the temple. It was accepted that a person’s sins would be transferred to the animal and then the animal would die, thereby taking the punishment instead of the people. Regardless of your thoughts on that primitive ritual, it was earnestly believed and practiced by sincere Jews whose greatest desire was to be close to the God they loved.

Like with so many things, however, there was someone looking for ways to make a buck, and in this case, the religious leaders were the opportunists. Jerusalem as Passover was like Louisville, KY at Derby time or (apparently) Sturgis, SD during the summer motorcycle rally…teeming with people. 

Jews from all over would travel to the holy city to worship God and to seek forgiveness through their animal offering. They would bring the best lamb, the choice goat, the finest doves with the anticipation that God’s forgiveness was near.

And then they would enter the temple courtyard. 

The crowded outer courts of the temple would be shoulder to shoulder people. The throngs would create a constant hum of noise, that would only seem to be interrupted by the bleating of animals, as they waited for their time to present their sacrifice.

But a sacrifice had to be approved by temple workers. A lamb, no matter how spotless you may think it is, had to pass inspection at the temple. And guess who was in charge of stamping the approval on animal sacrifices? You got it. The very people who were cutting deals with the moneychangers and sellers one table over from the inspection tent.

The outer courtyard of the holiest space to the Jews had been turned into a vendor hall where weary pilgrims were at the mercy of the greedy teachers who masqueraded as righteous. Every essential for worship was available for purchase, as long as you could afford it. Ease, convenience, and exorbitant prices. Imagine a captive audience paying $7 for a hot dog at Fenway Park or $20 for a light-up wand in Magic Kingdom. You get the idea.  Having to buy your animal on-site was price gouging at it’s cruelest because these inflated prices and ridiculous taxes were being asked of those who couldn’t afford it. As a result, those who came to worship and experience forgiveness were prevented entrance into the one place they believed God to be.

The priests and religious leaders were the ones who were to bridge the gap between God and people. They were to find ways to bring the people to God and God to the people. They were to pave the way for reconciliation between people and the God who loved them. Instead, they had become the biggest obstacle that stood in the way of the people finding God. The ones charged with the responsibility to shepherd the hearts of people toward God were the very ones who were making it nearly impossible to do just that. Wolves in sheep’s clothing. Fangs disguised in prayer shawls and phylacteries.

And that was the way of the temple. The place where God was to be found, yet God had become off limits. Admittance denied. Forgiveness denied. Peace denied. 

Religion was an object in motion, moving in the direction of greed, callousness, arrogance, at the expense of people under the care of those who knew better.

An object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by an external force.

And Jesus “drove out…” Jesus acted with an opposing force. Jesus disrupted the inertia of the religious system. Jesus was unwilling to allow the temple to continue to be run this way. Jesus drove out the buyers and sellers.

Jesus was literally and figuratively removing the barriers that had kept worshippers out. Jesus was an opposing force acting upon what had seemed to be an unstoppable, unchangeable, crooked and rigged system.

Bernadette Lopez

I imagine the courtyard was quiet at the sound of tables hitting the ground. As the coins clinked on the temple floor and echoed through the crowd, every single person knew Jesus was calling BS on a system that was broken and corrupt. This act of protest was Jesus refusing to allow this scheme to go undisturbed for one more nanosecond. Jesus was calling the religious leadership, with their poorly disguised depravity, on the carpet. He refused to let them off the hook. Amidst scattered money and bleating lambs, for just a moment, the libertine leaders had to stand there and face those they had been oppressively taking advantage of.

For a moment, there was deliverance as Jesus stood up for those who had been powerless and without a voice. For a brief moment, on Holy Monday, the rejected worshippers were offered a glimpse of hope from the abusive religious system. As if Jesus was proclaiming justice for all and an end to the tyranny of power wielded in the name of God.

You see, an object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.

There are still oppressive systems today; some within the church and some without. Either way, they impede someone’s ability to experience the freedom and hope God desires for all people. 

Where do you see oppression and injustice? Where is there abuse of power? What unprincipled systems in our culture have inertia that need to be acted upon with an opposing force? Where are these things happening in the name of God?

During this holy week, it seems an appropriate time to ask these questions. During this holy week, it seems a perfect time to allow honest answers to surface.

What Newton knew to be true of matter is also true of systems and organizations.

An object in motion tends to stay in motion.

And some motion should be stopped. 

Jesus knew that, and on Holy Monday He interrupted inertia.

May we be just as brave.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Heat Rises (On Magical Moments and Suffocating Pain)

There are moments that are pure magic. 

Moments in life that had you held the sovereign power to paint the canvas of that memory exactly as you would want, you wouldn’t change a detail. A moment where an unexpected experience shows up perfectly and takes your breath away. 

Such was a moment last week when my family and I found ourselves perfectly positioned to see this…

two dozen floating lanterns set aflame and launched on a backdrop of dusky, sunset blue. 

It was my 42nd birthday. 

We spent the day together as a family. We had no agenda; except to be together and to make sure I didn’t cook all day. We slept in, kept the school books on the shelf, picked up birthday donuts at a local bakery, did a little shopping, and took our first family walk in our new neighborhood. I also wanted to visit the falls. Just past the buildings of downtown is Falls Park, a destination that’s never disappointed me. It’s an oasis of rose quartzite and falling (sometimes frozen) water. Upon arrival, I decided we should head toward an overlook we’d never walked before. The kids ran on ahead while Paul and I followed slowly in the soft glow of a reasonably warm March evening.  

By the time we reached the railing of the overlook, our kids were wondering aloud about a group of people lined up on the bridge across the river from us. 

Enter magic.

A single flame appeared. Then a second. And a third. On and on until it was clear we were about to have front row seats to something special. As each lantern was released, heat lifted the flame up with it's illumination highlighted against an twilight, South Dakota sky. An unexpected, perfectly timed, and most beautiful birthday gift that took my breath away.

But here’s the thing…

Sometimes, in life, our breath is stolen for entirely different reasons. There are moments where magic fades and the crucible of pain ushers in an intensity so great that we can’t seem to inhale…or exhale. No breath to take or give.

These are the times when struggle, grief, and loss turn you topsy-turvy, and finding your way to right-side-up is a fire that sometimes rages and sometimes is a slow burn. Either way it’s consuming and to what end that consummation results is a mystery in the midst of the fire. The flames could be friend or foe, blessing or curse. The flames could refine us or burn us to a crisp; melt the wax facade of our soul or harden our heart to impenetrable stone. 

There’s an engulfing heat in battle that suffocates. A baptizing inferno that leaves nothing untouched as it rips the oxygen from your soul. In the middle of it all, when the mercury is rising, all you want is cool relief. Even the smallest breath of air could provide strength for the next moment…or preferably, permanent respite.

The irony is that without the fire, nothing would be truly altered. Transformation requires heat and heat always changes things. The unwanted truth might just be that to experience magical moments that take our breath away we must be willing to endure the moments that commandeer our air with its strong-arming pain. 

Fire - present in the magic and the struggle.

Heat - in floating luminaries and heavy burdens.

Heat burns, boils, rages. 

Heat also rises... 

and raises things. 

Like souls, 

and hope, 

42 year olds,

and orange embers in an inky blue, South Dakota sky.