Courage and Voting

Today’s blog post is two days in the making. I have been pondering what it means to be a Christian in an age where political differences in the United States are resulting in violence. Bombs are being mailed to opponents of the president and Republicans have been threatened at one particular early voting site in North Carolina. The world seems to be more and more violent the closer we get to November’s election.

I am wondering how we should reply to these situations. Scripture tells us to pray for the lands where we find ourselves. Even if some Christians do not appreciate the idea of Christians being a people living in exile, the thrust of Jeremiah 29 still points us to ponder how we relate to the “city where we are sent.”

Of course, none of this is easy. To be honest, in some circles, asking people to take Romans 13 seriously is a dangerous proposition. Calls by Paul to the Romans to be subject to governmental authorities are seen as less than applicable in some contexts, especially when we disagree with those authorities. A person who might quote Paul as sharing the gospel truth in one letter might chafe at considering his words in another. It is natural that we rejoice when governmental powers agree with us. Unfortunately, it seems increasingly common to call for their damnation when they disagree. Calls to respect people of different opinions in Romans 14 and 15 are seen as equally ludicrous at times.

It is difficult to live in such times. Whether you are a democrat, republican, or neither, these days are difficult days. As election day draws closer, there is a real sense of dread building in some circles. Will there be violence if one party loses favor or if another gains favor? Will there be violence if something changes or will there be violence if nothing changes? Heaven knows how many families are dreading Thanksgiving and those often turbulent conversations around the dinner table.

To be honest, I half expect to hear more stories about threats and potential bombings to increase as election day draws nearer. I am not seeking to be a pessimist. I find myself watching a pattern and pondering the outcome. In truth, my own days of believing in the myth of American exceptionalism in terms of believing in a political process that might be free of intimidation and gerrymandering are pretty much at an end. Perhaps I am simply choosing to save my idealism for my life of faith or perhaps I am simply worn thin by the matters of this world.

You may be asking what any of this has to do with being a pastor or spirituality. My simple answer is to say that it relates because these are the days where we need to have courage. Yes, the news is full of stories of challenges and those stories will increase. Yes, the President has warned there will be violence if his party loses the election next month, although it is strange he warns that the violence he seems to fear would be from the party that might gain political power. An honest appraisal might say that violence might occur regardless of who wins. Yes, the world might become a dark place after this election. Yes, these are days that require courage regardless of political party.

Then again, maybe these days are not as dire as it seems. Things might go poorly, but they also might go well. In a sense, these days are like every single day of our lives. Even in the best of times, all of us live with only one day. We all live in today. Yesterday has gone by. Tomorrow is a dream. Today is the only day that any of us has to live within. Since you cannot control the future and cannot change the past, today is like every day of your life. To borrow from the ancient philosopher Heraclitus, you can only step in the same river once.

The world is always changing and the natural uncertainty requires courage. It takes courage to live in a world which might change in a moment due to a blood clot, a missed stop sign, or an unexpected illness. It takes courage to live in a world where someone might leave tomorrow, where you might lose your job at the end of your shift, and where a loose dog might catch you while you wait for the school bus. It takes courage to live in this life and while the future might seem stressful, today is really the only day that any of us have ever had to live within.

I hate to bring in ancient monastics again, but I do enjoy them. There is an applicable gem in my often quoted copy of Benedicta Ward’s “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection.” That gem is a quote from Abba Serinus. The quote goes: “Abba Serinus said, ‘I have spent my time in harvesting, sewing, and weaving, and in all these employments if the hand of God has not sustained me, I should not have been fed.’”

If you would prefer a biblical approach to the concept that life is a bit more transitory than some of us expect, Luke 12:13-21 contains a parable where Jesus warns people about the folly of building up riches on earth. A rich man has a bumper crop, plans to tear down his barns, and intends to build bigger barns to hold his massive crop. He plans to live out his days with wealth! Jesus shares that his folly is to plan to live out long days with his massive wealth. The rich man will die that very night. All of the crops from his wonderful harvest will not keep him from his own mortality.

Whether you approach the subject from the Abba’s viewpoint that all of life has led to this moment because God has provided or whether you hear Jesus’ warning about the uncertainty of tomorrow, in my opinion one thing is clear. We all have this one moment. We can respond with gratitude, make assumptions about the future, or even follow the advice of Ecclesiastes 5:18 (“This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot.”). Regardless of how we spend our days, these days are the days we have.

So, how will we spend them? If today is the day you have to live, what will you do? Will you live in fear? Will you decide to ponder what comes in every package, worry about every group of people near every polling place, or will you step forward to take your place in history? If God has brought you to this time and place, is it not your responsibility to live in this moment?

 

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I invite you to participate…

Let us Look: Jesus is helped by Simon

Today’s blog post is a continuation of the series on the Stations of the Cross crafted by artist Timothy Schmaltz which is located outside the Malvern Retreat House where my cohort of the Academy for Spiritual Formation meets for our sessions. The series is predicated on the concept that Jesus’ crucifixion is pivotal both in the story of the life of Jesus Christ and in the stories of those who follow Jesus. Romans 6:3 states that everyone who was baptized into Christ’s life were also baptized into Christ’s death. Jesus’ passion narrative has become part of the narrative of our own salvation.

The format which I have been using to contemplate these stations is to show up to the contemplation, slow down into the contemplation, stay still with the contemplation, and finally stay with the contemplation as I go out into the world. Showing up involves not only taking the time to contemplate the imagery but also taking time to center upon contemplation in that moment. Slowing down with the image means lingering into the contemplation past the initial things that are noticeable. Staying still involves pondering the deeper questions that arise, which may or not be comfortable to sit win in the moment.

By my very nature, part of my showing up to a scripture is going through the steps of analyzing the subject. I cannot focus on contemplation until I spend some time going through my preconceptions. As such, a bit of scriptural analysis is the first bit of preparation that I do before going deeper into contemplation.

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“Jesus is helped by Simon” by Timothy Schmaltz

Today’s contemplation takes place within the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John actually states that Jesus carried the cross by himself in John 19:17. To be fair, the gospel of John does not mention Jesus falling either.

In the earliest gospel, Mark 15:21 says that a passer-by named Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus, is compelled to carry cross in the verse directly after Jesus is led forth to be crucified. There is no mention of Jesus falling or struggling. Matthew’s description is likewise spartan. Jesus neither falls nor struggles before the soldiers compel a man from Cyrene named Simon to carry the cross in Matthew 27:32. Luke does not describe Jesus as falling before the description of Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry the cross behind Jesus in Luke 23:26.

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“Jesus is helped by Simon” by Timothy Schmaltz

In fact, Jesus is not described as falling in any of the canonical gospels. Simon is simply compelled to carry the cross, which presumably happens because Jesus is struggling. One of the challenges that Protestants often have with the stations of the cross is that there are large portions of the stations which are not described in the scriptures. The stories which are passed down from generation to generation often are not seen as binding or authoritative as the canonical scriptures.

This place of struggle with what is canonical and what is inspired by oral tradition is where I find myself as I show up to this station. I did not mention that neither of the previous stations were outside of canonical scriptures for the past two weeks, but that has been weighing on my mind. As I slow down in this moment, I find myself drawn to contemplation around both the idea of what is canonical and what is important to know as we seek after Christ’s face.

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“Jesus is helped by Simon” by Timothy Schmaltz

Pondering these three images of this station of the cross, I find myself drawn to the imagery. Simon of Cyrene is compelled to help Jesus, but Simon does not seem angry about this task in Mr. Schmaltz’s depiction. Simon seems willing to help a man who is already about to collapse. He seems willing to use his strength, which is a good thing as all of the gospels depict that Jesus has already been through a lot on this journey. He appears bent over by the weight of the cross and it is a minor miracle Jesus does not fall every other step with the robe that Mr. Schmaltz has placed upon Jesus. He ’s bent over by the weight of things.

We are often obsessed with the canonical story as Protestants. We are a people born of a strange time in the history of the church. We are a bit sensitive about these matters, but some of these stories make sense. If Jesus really is fully human, would it not make sense that he would fall after what he has been through? If Jesus really is fully human, would it not make sense that he would need a hand? I was taught in seminary that Jesus died fairly quickly as some crucifixions could last days. The evidence of time shown in the scriptures shows that Jesus was already in a fairly dicey condition.

As I stay in this moment, I am drawn to contemplate the reality of things. Jesus taught his disciples to do for other people what we would like them to do for us. Jesus has a moment here in his passion narrative where the great teacher has his teaching lived out in his own experience. Who wouldn’t want a hand in a moment like the one Jesus is experiencing? Who wouldn’t be grateful for the gift offered by the man of Cyrene named Simon?

I think that is perhaps what will stay with me as I leave behind this period of contemplation. We are taught to do for others what we would like them to do for us. Simon of Cyrene blesses Jesus by doing something that Jesus is unable to do. He offers Jesus a treasure of a gift, even if it might have been compelled.

Perhaps our role as grateful Christians is to pay forward the kindness of Simon of Cyrene. I wonder what burdens people are collapsing under in the lives around me. How could I be a blessing like Simon of Cyrene in my community, in my family, and in my world? How can I use my strength to do for others what I wish someone would do for me if I were in their shoes?

 

Let us Look: Jesus Meets His Mother

For the past few weeks I have been posting reflections on the work of the artist Timothy Schmaltz which is found outside the Malvern Retreat House. The Malvern Retreat House is where my cohort of the Academy for Spiritual Formation meets every three months.

The point of the reflections have been to go deeper into the passion narrative. I have been following a pattern through these contemplations. I seek to show up, slow down, stay still, and stay with each image. Each area of contemplation has led me deeper into each image, so I have been careful to attempt to do all four steps with every meditation.

As I show up with the image, I take the time to be aware of who I am as a person. My own perspective will change the way that I see the station, so I seek to find out where I am in relation to this image as I arrive in this place of contemplation.

The first thing I am aware of in my own life is my tendency to rush past these contemplations. I believe this is partially because I want to move forward quickly, but I am also aware of my own tendencies to always rush past these types of moments. As a self-identified Protestant, I have found myself willing to rush past the passion into the resurrection. I cannot say every Protestant rushes through the passion narrative, but I have the tendency to rush.

The time that I have personally spent with the cross has been time spent either pushing a theological agenda or marching through to Easter. In my earlier days, I would describe the cross as a bridge. I would stand on one side of a giant chasm, eternal life would stand on the other, and I would describe the gap as the place where sin leads to death. A cross would be placed between the two and there would be a bridge. Theologically, I still believe that there is a lot of truth in this illustration, but I would rush over the bridge both in my own description and in my own reality. I do not enjoy time thinking about Jesus’ suffering and I do not want to ruminate on thoughts of Jesus’ suffering, even if I know that such ruminations may bear fruit.

The cross is uncomfortable as it was the place where Jesus suffered. The cross continues as a symbol of a place of sorrow and a place of pain. In today’s contemplation I find myself drawn to an understanding that I am not the only one who sees the sorrow in this moment in time. The station today is entitled “Jesus Meets His Mother.”

“Jesus meets His Mother” by Timothy Schmaltz

“Jesus meets His Mother” by Timothy Schmaltz

As I slow down with this image, I find myself drawn into the imagery. There’s a real sorrow in this station. Jesus has been held for generations of Christians as being fully human and fully divine. Jesus had a mother and today’s image has her clinging to her son’s chest in sorrow. Jesus, as her son, reaches down to hold her as well. Although Jesus holds her, I wonder if he thought of the times she had held him in his infancy and childhood. I wonder if Mary thought of the times she kept Jesus safe by holding him in her arms.

Mary can no longer protect Jesus. Jesus cannot avoid the path that he must tread. There’s a profound sorrow in this image that strikes me deeply. As I stay still with this image I find myself thinking about my own children and my own mother. Could I honestly imagine what it would be like to hold my daughter as she went to her death? The sentence has been announced and Mary will lose her son at the end of his journey. He is going to die.

Even if she has a hope in his resurrection, nobody would want to watch their son go through this kind of pain. In my own contemplation I am drawn back to my younger daughter Joy at the hospital around a year ago. She went into surgery for a tonsillectomy without any real concept of what pain she would be going through in the next few days. She thought her immunization shots were awful. I remember her cries of pain after the surgery. I remember holding her close to my chest as she wept in pain. I remember the feeling of absolute helplessness that I felt while I held her tight and wished the pain away.

Was Mary having such memories of the first time Jesus stubbed his toe, got picked on by a neighbor, or had a rough day? Did she feel the hot bruises on his body? Did she see the blood pouring from her son’s forehead? Can you imagine the sorrow she must have felt? I could not wish this fate on any parent.

As I think about what will stay with me about this contemplation, I think it is a deep appreciation for what Mary went through as a parent. I will hug my kids extra tight tonight as they go to bed. I will think about what Mary went through and I will mourn the sorrow of her pain. Thank God that Easter happens, but can you imagine dwelling in that loss for three days?

Let us Look: Jesus falls for the first time

One of the blessings of the Academy for Spiritual Formation is that the session I am attending is located at the Malvern Retreat House. The Academy is located in some fairly beautiful scenery. For the past few weeks I have been journeying into the concept of contemplation by spending time with the Stations of the Cross located near the Retreat House. In particular, I have been trying to explore how the statues in that particular set of stations lead me to go deeper into the scriptural narratives of the passion narratives of the four gospels.

This week I am spending time with the third station on the journey. I have previously blogged about the first station which depicts the condemnation of Jesus. I have also blogged about Jesus taking up his cross for the first time. This third station on the journey was also created by the artist Timothy Schmaltz. I will admit that I think this particular statue is a bit…cartoony in the depiction of Jesus’ fall. I continue to be unable to see how it would be possible to fall in the particular method depicted. This week there are two angles we can use to ponder the image.

Statue by Timothy Schmaltz outside of Malvern Retreat House

Statue by Timothy Schmaltz outside of Malvern Retreat House

As previously stated, the four stages of contemplation that I am using for this particular exercise are as follows:

  1. Show up
  2. Slow down
  3. Stay still
  4. Stay with

As I show up with this meditation, I find myself drawn in memory to a conversation with a friend I made at the last session of the Academy. We had conversed about how the statue did seem a bit humorous. Jesus is flying through the air in this statue. The cross has struck him right in the gut.

I am struck by the power and influence of memory upon contemplation. There is absolutely no way that I could contemplate this image without acknowledging the laughter and joy that came out of the conversations revolving around this statue. There certainly is a point where laughing at a depiction of aa serious event like this seems sacriligeous, but the laughter comes from a place of joy and connection. Acknowledging the distraction is part of showing up in this moment. It is also important to realize that when you try to avoid thinking about something, it invariably is the only thing you can think of in the moment.

Distractions are a regular part of my devotional life in general. In my devotions I copy out the scripture of the day by hand into a journal to make sure I am being mindful of all of the words before returning to read the passage aloud. In copying scripture I often find myself thinking about other things, much like I am thinking about how it is possible to fall in the way Jesus is portrayed in this statue. I learned to acknowledge my distraction, make a note if needed, and then set it aside. Distractions come in a life of faith. What is important is how we deal with them when they arrive.

I am still drawn to the humor as I slow down into contemplation, but my focus changes. How could such a thin cross cause such an effect? How could it throw Jesus in such a manner? Perhaps Jesus is thrown so violently as this is the moment when the weight of what is coming to pass finally falls. There will be no avoiding the effect of this journey—Jesus’ strength will fail and Jesus will die at the end of this journey.

Perhaps the person who should be struck in the gut hardest by this moment is the person who views this statue. As light as the cross appears, to fly through the air and land on one’s back is a pain most of us have experienced. Most of us know how it feels to be absolutely out of control, flying through the air with no idea how we will land. These are the things that Jesus went through in those hours. Jesus had events go out of his control. The cross would force him to the earth three times.

I stay still with this idea of helplessness. As spectators, we can no more control what Christ went through than the Jesus who is flying through the air. The God of the Universe comes down to earth, enters into creation, lives into adulthood, and ultimately is brought to a place where the creation God loves looks on while loading Jesus with uncontrollable and ultimately uncarryable burdens.

This helplessness comes about at God’s own choice. God’s love for creation and for me was so great that Jesus underwent this helplessness to fulfill all righteousness. The great high priest of Hebrews brings the sacrifice and the sacrifice is personal, costly, and painful. Although Jesus will come to sit down with the job completed at the end of this journey, at this moment Jesus, who prayed for this cup to pass, is helpless as much before God’s love as the weight of this cross.

Perhaps the cross is so thin because it is not really the cross that is the heavy burden Jesus must carry. God’s love demands that Jesus give all in this moment. What heavier burden is there in this life than to lay down one’s life for the very people looking on with anger because you love them?

As I consider what will stay with me this day, I think the thing that will stay deeply and closely with me will be the very idea that God’s love is what bore Jesus to the ground. As much as I sometimes get caught up in the world around me, I find myself hoping that I am not the one who sits on the edges of the crowd. Are my frailities and faults part of what bear Jesus to the ground? What greater love is there than the fact that God loves me enough to not only forgive my weakness but to welcome me home?

Let us be Grateful: The Epiphany at Denny’s

Two words are circling through my mind this morning. I am thinking about connectedness and gratitude. I was (and still am) sitting in a Denny’s with a hot cup of coffee thinking about Annual Conference when my server came up to my table. She’s been the ideal server. She substituted a cup of yogurt for my fruit because I am allergic to melon, has made certain that my cup of coffee is full, and has not called me “Hon” once (pet-peeve of mine—I am my wife’s hon and her’s alone).

I was thinking about the people I saw yesterday and smiled at this nice server. She walked away but stopped. I looked up and I saw her rubbing the back of her neck with the look of someone who has worked too many hours in a row. I wondered how long she’d been standing in those black shoes and hoped they were comfortable. She was standing with that slight tilt related to back pain that my physical therapist has scolded me about in the past. I was moved to pray for this nice person.

She reminded me about the reading I was doing for the Academy for Spiritual Formation yesterday. I was reading through “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame.” It is a good book by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au. I was telling Polly at the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School table that the spiritual density of this book caused me twice as many headaches as the books her faculty had assigned me to read in seminary. The density that led to distraction yesterday was the following quote about the story of the Bent-Over Woman in Luke 13:10-13: (pg. 103)

“This woman symbolizes all of us, both men and women, when we feel unable to stand tall and face life head-on. Some of us are crippled by shame, the dreadful feeling that we are defective and unworthy of love. Some are handicapped by emotional wounds from childhood. And some are diminished by the oppression of prejudice and discrimination, and unjustly denied equal access to educational and work opportunities. The burdens of life can at time be so heavy that it is not difficult to identify with this bent-over woman.

Jesus’ awareness of this crippled woman’s hardship and his care for her is a story of consolation. Made whole by Jesus, she becomes a symbol of hope, reminding us that the risen Jesus responds to our suffering in the same compassionate way.”

I can see where the authors are coming from when they think about this story. If you don’t remember the original story, Jesus was teaching in the synagogue when a woman who had been struggling with what the scriptures called a “crippling spirit” for 18 years came into view. He was busy teaching in that synagogue but compassion overrode his busyness. Jesus was pulled by his compassion into action. He spoke, he healed, and she was finally free.

I am reminded of the fact that not everyone is bent over, but we’re all in the same boat when it comes to needing to know a compassionate and loving Jesus. The authors state this clearly when they say that we are all in need of a consoling and compassionate Christ.

I was reminded of this strongly by yesterday’s Annual Conference session. I was reminded of this in my life while sitting alone at lunch missing my own family who stayed home to be in school this year and the best friend who never let me sit alone in all of our years together at Annual Conference. I was reminded of this as I sat with my friend’s widow and our mutual friend Harold at the Memorial Dinner. I was reminded of this when the Bishop unexpectedly sat down at our table for dinner but was so busy running in and out with Conference business that I asked a District Superintendent if he knew any way that we could guilt him into sitting still and eating dinner as an act of self-care. I was reminded of this when I saw old friends from across the connection who were excited to reconnect with me as a part of their past and as a part of their future. I was reminded of this when I talked with someone who was a new minister last year and was wondering about the challenges of the ordination process ahead of him. There are so many places where I saw people in need of this compassionate love of Jesus. I see the reasons that this story of a consoling Jesus gives hope because we are a people continually in need of hope.

I am reminded of this compassion as Annual Conference begins today. I am reminded how everyone we stand across from on any issue or debate is still a sister or brother in God. I am reminded of the connectedness that we all share in our need to know a compassionate God and to share that compassion with both each other and with all of our neighbors. We are all interconnected in our love and in our need to be a people following the compassionate Christ. This is good news and I am grateful to be connected with my sisters and brothers as we begin another day together.

Worship begins in an hour, my coffee cup is empty, and I have a good tip to leave for my server. See you all in session!

Today’s post is dedicated to my sisters and brothers at Annual Conference and to one awesome server who is currently waiting on 60 Amish folks from a tour bus. God bless her…