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07 April 2012

The Fifth Word on the Cross: Longing to belong

There once was a man who set out to find the end of the world. The man was a philosopher. Philosophers are never happy here. Now is not their time, and here is not their space. They always live somewhere else.

So the philosopher left his family - his children, wife and parents - and began his quest to find the end of the world. He passed many mountains and many seas. It was a very long journey, and many times he thought he had arrived. This often happened when he was tired from his journey.

Then he would deceive himself for a while, but only until he got restless again, and his old idea would take over: this is not the end, it's still the middle. And he would commence his journey again.

On his way he passed many temples. He met many teachers, people who were convinced that they had arrived. They said they had found the end of the world, and where was he going anyway! For a time he would believe them, but sooner or later he told himself that the teachers and temples were only symbols pointing to the limitations of humanity. The end was not here; he needed to go on.

It is reported that after a long, long time our philosopher finally came to a place that looked like the end. This time he was not tired; this time he was not exhausted; this time he was not deceiving himself in any way. There were no temples, and no teachers; he was absolutely alone.

The horizon had disappeared, and there were no further destinations for his journey. Even if he wanted to continue, there was nowhere to go. There was even a sign saying: THIS IS THE END OF THE WORLD. Someone who had gotten there ahead of him had been kind of enough to leave a sign.

Our philosopher was standing on the very edge of the world, a great cliff beyond which there was nothing but chaos, nothingness and emptiness. All of a sudden he became frightened, very frightened.  He had not expected this.

There was no God and no paradise; in fact there was just chaos, utter chaos and emptiness.  You can just imagine him standing there at the edge of the cliff, trembling and shaking like a leaf, as the sweat trickled down and a knot built in his stomach. He could not take this!

The philosopher became so frightened that he turned back on his heel. He ran back in the direction he had come from.

Because he ran so fast, he never got the chance to notice that the sign board had another message. On one side was written, THIS IS THE END OF THE WORLD. On the other side it said, THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF THE OTHER.

The philosopher only knew that he was very frightened, and so he ran and never looked back on his quest. He returned into the world and lost himself in it. The more he played the games of the world, his memory of his journey faded. He banished the dangerous cliff from his dreams and with it his dream of finding the end of the world.

The story I just told you describes two attitudes we all know well, control and faith. The philosopher was all about control, and when he came to the end of what could be known, he didn't have the faith to make the leap into nothingness.

There are those, like my philosopher, who have trouble giving up control and therefore never really believe or trust in anyone. But today we have come together to think about the One who was not afraid, but embraced the end.

Jesus took the plunge down that cliff. He didn't need to run back into the world when chaos gaped, for he had figured out for himself that being in the world should never be the same as being of the world. He took the plunge and emptied himself in the process.

The act of emptying himself (kenosis in Greek) is self-surrender in complete humility and trust. The word kenosis describes a person who is willing to leave his head behind and follows his heart, who stops being attached to the things of this world, who replaces worries with trust, and who knows that letting go of everything will actually result in receiving everything.

If absolute control is one extreme -- represented by the philosopher --, the other extreme is absolute faith -- represented by Christ's self-emptying.  

Jesus' self-emptying to the extent of dying on the cross, that is the highest form of self-denial, yet, also the highest form of love. Jesus is the Love of God in flesh, who embodies God's Love in action, a love which is absolute and unconditional – yet as we see in the fifth word, this love is also raw and realistic and gritty: <28> After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty."

If there is a particularly enigmatic and mysterious word among Jesus’ last seven words from the cross, this is it.  This is the Second Person of the Trinity speaking! How can this be?  This is the same One who told the woman at the well that He Himself was the sort of water she needed to drink only once, that she would never thirst again.

Matthias Grünewald: Cruxifixion

That the Son of God could be thirsty is a painful thought. One of the strategies to deal with that pain is to avoid it; one of the members of my last full-time church told me, “I never go to church on Good Friday – it’s too sad!”  A more sophisticated strategy of avoidance goes all the way back to the first century, and it’s called Docetism. It’s the belief that Jesus' physical body was an illusion, as was his crucifixion. Where Docetism is taught, the cross becomes an object lesson that God is teaching us about how bad we are, how much we’re loved, how bad the Romans are, and more such things. But none of these attempts (which are alive and well up to this present day) has been able to do justice to what we see happening there. For what we see is intense physical suffering and agony.

It is approaching the 9th hour (3 p.m.). Jesus has been hanging on the cross for 6 hours. The combination of Jesus' loss of blood, his exhaustion, his nervous tension and his exposure to the weather has generated a raging thirst. Jesus' cry "I thirst" was not a polite and quiet request for a glass of water. No, it was a cry of agony. Jesus' thirst while hanging on the cross in our place showed the reality and intensity of his physical suffering. His thirst consummated his physical suffering and thus enabled Jesus to know that all was now completed. And so, in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled he cried out "I thirst" asking for and then receiving a drink of wine vinegar from a sponge held up to his mouth on a stalk of hyssop.

But in spite of the reality and intensity and significance of Jesus' physical thirst, I am convinced that something deeper is being expressed by this 5th word. Underlying his physical thirst is another kind of thirst that Jesus experienced in a deeper, more profound way on the cross --spiritual thirst. The Greek verb for "thirst" or "be thirsty", διψάω, is found five times in the gospel of John in addition to our text here in John 19. All five refer to spiritual thirst. In John Chapter 7 Jesus declared, If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from him. John helps us understand what Jesus meant by adding in the next verse: By this he (Jesus) meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.

This thirst that Jesus was speaking about is a spiritual craving for God, a longing that operates deep within the heart of every human being created in the image of God. According to John's gospel this universal spiritual thirst can be quenched and satisfied only by the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised to give to all who will believe in him, and who will give to the believer eternal life. And it is this kind of thirst, spiritual thirst, that Jesus experienced on the cross.

The man who hung there was the eternal Son of God. Jesus of Nazareth was the Word of God who became flesh. He had existed from all eternity in the most intimate, in the closest fellowship imaginable with the Father. Even when he voluntarily left heaven's glory and emptied himself of all divine dignity and authority to become a man, he still maintained throughout his life sweet communion and deep intimacy with his heavenly father, until …

Until, that is, he hung on the cross. There, as he took upon himself the sins of all his people, Jesus Christ experienced, for the first time in all eternity, the horror of separation from God. The Father turned his back on the Son while he hung there on the cross, in our place. Jesus had known the joy of intimate fellowship with his father, and now during this time of separation, Jesus wanted it back; he longed for it; he thirsted after God. On the cross Jesus was the supreme fulfillment of Psalm 63:1: O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

This then, at the deepest level, is the thirst Jesus experienced on the cross. He was physically thirsty to be sure. His physical thirst consummated his physical suffering. But his physical thirst was only the tip of the iceberg. Jesus' deepest, most profound thirst was spiritual, thirsting after his father, from who he was separated as he hung on the cross. Jesus longed to belong.

Our deepest thirst is our longing to belong.

Johnny was one of my patients in the Pediatric ER. He was brought in from school, by NYPD, in hand cuffs, and the cops told us that he had practically demolished the principal’s office in response to being reprimanded.  He was such an angry little boy when he was walked into the ER.

After we asked the cops to take off the hand cuffs, Johnny allowed our psychiatry team to speak to him, but for an hour he just stared at us without saying a single word. Then, tears flowed, and Johnny spoke.  He told us that in the seven years he spent on this planet, he had already been in nine foster homes.  In some of those he was treated well, in some he was sexually abused, and in most he was physically abused. When you are used to being shoved around and mistreated, you become very weary of people who ask you to trust them. 

Johnny longed to belong, and had longed for a long time. In the various foster homes he had been told to belong, yet almost never felt safe. Johnny was spiritually thirsty, and his thirst had not been quenched. 

Because Johnny couldn’t stand his newest foster mother and categorically refused to consider going back to her house, it became necessary for us to call ACS, requesting their help. As the usual wrangling between ACS and the foster agency took its course, a few days passed. During those days, Johnny had to stay with us, right in the same spot, on his stretcher right in the noisy ER, filled with screaming kids and stressed nurses and doctors.  But these few days gave us a chance to get to know him, and a chance for him to get to trust us.

The transformation we saw was incredible.  Over the course of a few days, Johnny’s angry smirks more and more looked like happy grins.  What had been a dying little flower just days ago turned out to be a flower in new bloom.  Where the nurses had been used to hearing angry growls from his corner of the ER, now they heard the sounds of laughter.  Johnny became the favorite patient of each staff member.

And on the last day of his stay in the ER, when he finally was allowed to put his street clothes back on and leave with an ACS worker, he flew into my arms and drew me into a huge hug. During those few days in the ER, Johnny made some small steps toward learning how to trust, and he got a bit closer to what he longed for: to belong.

All of us are constantly moving back and forth somewhere between the need to control everything (as in the philosopher) and the willingness to risk truly lived faith (as in Jesus). In fact, most of us are pretty much in the same spot where little Johnny was when he came to my ER: We long to belong, but because our trusting others has ended in disappointment and heartache a couple of times, we have become weary.  Even though we long to belong, we are afraid of getting hurt again.

When the philosopher got to the cliff and found nothing but nothingness and chaos, he ran away in great terror.  When Jesus got to the point where he felt like God had turned his back on him, he said, “I thirst”, and even in that one lone phrase (dipso in Greek, sitio in Latin, ani tsema in Aramaic), he said what he needed.  Perhaps he was just saying the word “Water!” with the last bit of power in his voice, but he expressed his longing for his God. As he hung there alone and apparently God-forsaken, he made that great leap of faith, that great leap into nothingness that is required to truly leave this world. He made that leap for you and for me, for he knows our weary lives, and our fear of letting go.  He knows.  Our longing to belong came from his lips when he said, “I thirst”.

THIS IS THE END OF THE WORLD, said one side of the sign in my story. But the other side of the sign said, THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF THE OTHER.  The philosopher in my story stands for the many among us who connect themselves so firmly to this world that they cannot imagine the existence of another.  Their ego simply will not allow them to think outside the box; it won’t let them take the leap because without the trappings of this world our ego is useless. 

Jesus, on the other side, let go of his ego and its temptations.  He taught that whoever wants to save his life here will lose the life that counts, and that only those who are willing to lose their life here will gain Life Eternal.

When we sing "I'll Fly Away", it is not just a bit of pretty music we use to comfort ourselves with at sad funerals. The hymn indicates where the philosopher got it all wrong; it shows the way for us to have the same courage Jesus had. 

You and I, we are invited to jump down the cliff, to embrace that nothingness that comes when someone is literally at their wit’s end. This is the end of the world; it’s the beginning of the other.  Come, take that leap of faith. You can do it! 

Jesus, in thy thirst and pain, While thy wounds thy lifeblood drain, / Thirsting more our love to gain: Hear us, holy Jesus. Thirst for us in mercy still; All thy holy work fulfill; / Satisfy thy loving will: Hear us, holy Jesus. May we thirst thy love to know; Lead us in our sin and woe / Where the healing waters flow: Hear us, holy Jesus. Amen.
John 19: 28-29

25 March 2012

Judica: The Death of Trayvon Martin (1995-2012)

(My own paraphrase of Psalm 43)

"Vindicate me, O God!" prayed our mothers and fathers. As we bring before you our pain about the death of Trayvon Martin, we are disturbed once again at how severely this nation is afflicted with the cancer of racism.

"Deliver me from deceitful and evil men, for you are the God who shelters me", they prayed. Like our mothers and fathers, we walk around ...mourning because oppression is alive and well.

O God, our mothers and fathers prayed that your light and your faithfulness would escort them "back to your holy hill, and to the place where you live".

A child has been murdered. We are still depressed and upset because many of our questions remain unanswered. We pray, O God, for your saving intervention, that justice will be done, and that in all communities we will learn to root out the fear of others.

We long to say like our mothers and fathers, "Then I will go to the altar of God, to the God who gives me ecstatic joy, so that I express my thanks to you, O God, my God, with a harp."

15 March 2012

Okuli: Passionate Love Cleans the Temple

Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII, was a colorful character -- he rode the New York City fire trucks, took entire orphanages to baseball games and, when the New York newspapers went on strike, he got on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids.

One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served one of the poorest areas of New York City. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia. “Sir, my daughter's husband deserted her, my daughter is sick, there is no money coming in, and my two grandchildren are starving.” But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges.

“It's a real bad neighborhood, Your Honor,” the man told the mayor. “She's got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.” LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I've got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions. Ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous hat, saying, “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore, for living in a town where a person has to  steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat, I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”

The following day, New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered man who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren. Fifty cents of that amount was  contributed by the grocery store owner himself, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.

The story of Jesus' Cleansing of the Temple does not strike many people as one about compassion. In fact, it is a story that many Christians avoid because Jesus acts so forcefully. While all four gospels have this story, only John uses such emotionally charged language, so full of fury and aggression. In the Gospel of Matthew and Luke the story happens on Palm Sunday, immediately after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. In the Gospel of John, however, this event is so important and symbolic that it is portrayed as one of the first things done by Jesus in his ministry.

That many of us are uncomfortable with the story has its roots in how the church dealt with it for centuries. Over and over, the church has tried to prove that Jesus is a dove, a symbol of peace, -- and a whip in his hands, that just wouldn't be in tune with that image. Scholars tell us that the sort of whip in Jesus' hand was a flagellum, a lash made of ox hide cords, and customarily used to whip horses, slaves and criminals. Surely, for this man of peace to be so angry, so enraged, there could only be two explanations: that John misunderstood the story, or that Jesus got stressed out and lost his temper.

It must have been terribly disconcerting for the disciples to witness Jesus wielding a whip, throwing furniture, screaming at the top of his lungs, and flinging money into the air. Perhaps they ran for cover along with the crowd. Afterwards, did they look him in the eyes or shuffle their feet, stare at the ground, and make small talk? It is likely that the other three evangelists were a bit embarrassed with Jesus' behavior and that their versions are so short and factual for just that reason.

But rather than join the disciples and the synoptics and much of the official church in being shocked and embarrassed, let us see what John intended with the story and why he placed it so early in his Gospel. John groups a number of signs together, signs that indicated that Jesus was bringing radical change, a new beginning: Just before the cleansing of the temple, we have the wedding at Cana when Jesus turned water in to wine, the point of which was that the wine of the Kingdom of God had now replaced the water used for ritual washing which had been stored in those same water jars: the old Jewish rite of purification to make oneself acceptable to God was no longer relevant because he was now among them, the Messiah had come. -- A similar new beginning, literally being born again, is the point of the discussion with Nicodemus which follows the cleansing of the temple. -- Then comes the conversation with the woman at the well, signifying a new set of relationships which prominently included women, marking a new kind of worship of God 'in spirit and in truth' that would replace the old worship in the temple.

The Cleansing of the Temple is presented by John within a group of Jesus stories that show that something new is taking the place of the old. What is new about Jesus' cleansing of the temple? It has to do with the replacement of the old way of relating to God. The old way of offering sacrifices in the temple was to be replaced by celebration of new life in a new fellowship. The old temple was to be replaced by a new temple which was Christ himself. God was now to be present among people in a new way, which was open to all. 

Open to all. Jesus took a whip and drove business men, traders and animals out of the temple because he realized that a lot of people were squeezed out and turned away by the temple economy of his days. The temple was not open to all any longer, and Jesus was passionate about this fact. Scholars help us understand just how the temple worked. The Jewish people would come to Jerusalem during the Passover festival as religious pilgrims. They had saved up their money during the year (which was not easy for the poor people of Palestine to do), and would use this money to pay their temple dues or tax. They would also use their money to buy animals (such as doves or lambs) to be sacrificed at the altar. The temple dues and sacrifices were essential to the Jewish religious system of that day. The Jewish people were taught by their religious elders and traditions that in order to be in a right relationship with God, they would have to pay the temple dues, and participate in the temple sacrifice.

But ... in order to participate in this temple sacrifice and tithing system, the pilgrims where required to go to the money changers in front of the temple. For a large fee, the money changers, changed their money from the Roman Coins (which could not be used in the temple, because they had the image of the Roman Emperor on them), into temple tokens that could be used to pay and purchase in the temple.

While this temple economy of buying and selling and coin changing was central to the operation of the temple, the witness of history tells us that it was a thoroughly corrupt system. The money changers and the temple priests, took a cut of the money. They became rich through the fees charged to the pilgrims when the pilgrims entered and participated in the temple worship. In Mark Chapter 12, Jesus accuses the scribes and Pharisees of “devouring the widow’s houses” through their practices in the temple. So, here is the central issue for Jesus, the one that makes him lash out, and literally so: Because of the fees and high cost of the sacrifices, the reality was that many, if not most, people could not participate in temple worship.

Most did not have enough money. If you were poor, you could not buy the proper sacrifice or pay the temple dues, and that meant you couldn't right your relationship with God. Jesus realized that the house of his father had become what the Greek called an emporium, a house of business, a market place; people dear to his heart were being attacked, and his passion for them was stirred. He saw the injustice of the system set up by the religious authorities; he felt for those who were excluded and had compassion. Passion and compassion set him afire.

While the priests and the business people all escaped outside shouting, “This man has gone mad!”, some of the people pushed away by the temple system understood that someone had just stood up for them. John tells us that the disciples, some time later on finally understood Jesus' passion and compassion. The words passion and compassion are both derived from the Greek word for “suffering”, pascho. For a person to become passionate or compassionate, he or she must first witness something that gives them pause and makes them suffer, and then makes them act to right the wrong. What Mayor LaGuardia did in 1935, and what Jesus did in the gospel has one prerequisite. You cannot become passionate or compassionate without feeling love first.

I struggled with that prerequisite, love, when I was asked last year to present a young pastor before a committee that was to review her skills as a hospital chaplain. After receiving a thick envelope with her materials, I began reading, and the more I read the more I disliked what I saw.  Her writing made me think that she was closed off and had trouble communicating.  She had a tendency to impatiently dismiss the input of others and preferred doing her ministry by herself, apart from her team.  Yet, the most troubling aspect was that she seemed convinced that she was one of the best chaplains that ever lived.  I was troubled.

How could I feel passionate or compassionate about this chaplain when I couldn't feel any love for her? That night I remembered how lonely I had been in my first parish when I felt that nobody was pulling with me, and how somehow everybody knew better and yet nobody helped when I needed it. Little by little I found myself in this chaplain's shoes.  I recognized her suffering as I remembered my own.  I knew she was afraid because I had been as well.  So when I wrote my report, my main question for her session the next morning was, "What are you afraid of?" 

The next morning came, and when the chaplain read my question, she answered that she was not afraid of anything and complained at great length that somehow I had misunderstood her. Over and over she repeated that she was perfectly fine, and stated, "It seems as though you should have understood me from my paperwork.  It should have clear to you that I couldn't be better. I am fine.  I really am!"

For a half hour I and the rest of the committee tried to tell her that being afraid was nothing to be ashamed of and that we wanted to be there for her.  She politely declined and kept up a face that betrayed absolutely nothing. When we were almost done with the 45 minute session, I looked at her and said, "I have spent all this time trying to love you, but you have pushed me away." All of a sudden, her face dropped and so did her voice.  In the voice of a lonely little girl she said, "I am so sorry".  Her epiphany and ours lasted but thirty seconds.  Then the chaplain resumed her defensive posture.  I knew, however, that I had gotten through to her, and that my passion and compassion had not been in vain.

Christ's compassion for each of us can profoundly change us; it can set us right with God and with ourselves; it can make us whole.  A Christian mystic of the first century named Symeon the Theologian wrote this:

We awaken in Christ’s body as Christ awakens ours, and my poor hand is Christ, He enters my foot, and is infinitely me.  I move my hand, and wonderfully my hand becomes Christ, becomes all Christ – for God is indivisibly whole, seamless in Godhood. I move my foot, and at once God appears like a flash of lightning.  Do my words seem blasphemous?  Then open your heart to God and let yourself receive the One who is opening to you so deeply.  For if we genuinely love God, we wake up inside Christ’s body where all our body, all over, every most hidden part of it, is realized in joy as Christ, making us utterly real, And everything that is hurt, everything that seemed to us dark, harsh shameful, maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged, is in God transformed and recognized as whole, as lovely, and radiant in God’s light. As we awaken as the Beloved in every last part of our body.

John 2: 13-22

04 March 2012

Reminiscere: Longing for Wholeness

One day something happened in Psychiatry Morning Rounds. Morning Rounds is where the staff of the Psychiatric Emergency Room gathers around the table to discuss all the patients, and especially those who have come in during the previous night. On this morning, one of the residents introduced the case of a new patient, rattling off the findings of his evaluation including all the laboratory results.

Until this point, I had been yawning and holding on to my coffee cup, desperately trying to shake off my sleep. Then the resident continued and said, “This woman has this bizarre delusion of a bleeding savior.” Now I was wide awake. I looked around to see whether anybody had caught the words, “a bizarre delusion of a bleeding savior”. Indeed, there were some stirrings. One staff member said nervously, “Well, it’s something in the Bible, you know.”

Nobody seemed to hear her. When it looked as though the resident was going to remain unchallenged, I became a bit hot under my collar, and felt as though as the resident theologian I had to speak. I said, “Excuse me, but in the church we are in the season of Lent. That’s when Christians think of their bleeding savior. It’s one central image Christians use to make sense of their lives. Some staff members looked grateful; the resident looked puzzled but said he appreciated the input.

Rounds went on, and soon the incident became just one of many during a long day. I, however, couldn’t get rid of the idea that the image of the bleeding savior had been called a bizarre delusion.

Well, and here we are … a bunch of Christians, attempting to make sense of our lives with the help of a bleeding savior. Of course, we know better than that inexperienced psychiatric resident, since we do this every year during Lent. We believe the image of a bleeding savior to be important, … and yet, come to think
of it, perhaps that resident got it right when he said the image is “bizarre”. Perhaps we Christians would do well to look at the familiar image of a bleeding savior with the eyes of an inexperienced psychiatric resident. All too often the terror and horror experienced by those who heard the words of Scripture when they were first spoken has gotten lost for us; we are used to the words; they don’t hurt any more.

Well, and hurt they should, especially these days. You and I live in a deeply broken world. We used to be a nation with an official illusion of wholeness. Until September 11, 2001 we thought of ourselves as whole  somehow, even though our city streets were littered by the bodies of the homeless and a fifth of our children went to bed hungry. Armed to our teeth we thought that we had it together, even though our real enemies were within: poverty, racism, injustice and oppression.

The illusion has died, and fear is all around. A couple of years ago, Newsday had a two page photo spread entitled, “Postcards from the Edge”, displaying our usual vacation pictures populated with jet fighters, attack helicopters and soldiers wearing automatic rifles and gas masks. A bizarre world, a deeply broken world indeed. Now that the illusion of wholeness is gone, how do we find wholeness? When the Israelites went onto their desert journey, in a way Moses walked them out of an illusion of wholeness. Egypt had been everything but wholeness, yet they had arranged themselves with it for a long time. Now walking into nowhere, they had trouble seeing where they were going; they were afraid. They growled and complained against Moses and his God; they wanted back what they had had. A German children song says the Israelites longed for their garlic and onions that they left behind in Egypt. Even though they had been enslaved by the Egyptians, they preferred the safety of slavery to the terrors of the journey.

They set out from Mount Hor along the Red Sea Road, a detour around the land of Edom. The people became irritable and cross as they traveled. They spoke out against God and Moses: "Why did you drag us out of Egypt to die in this godforsaken country? No decent food; no water—we can't stomach this stuff any longer." (Numbers 21:4-5)

Not wanting to leave what we know because the journey is too scary is nostalgia. Well, when the Israelites started having second thoughts, this is what happened: “God sent poisonous snakes among the people; they bit them and many in Israel died.” And God commanded Moses to make a copper or bronze image of a serpent. People who looked upon this image of terror didn’t die, but lived. The theme of the serpent on the pole is picked up in this morning’s Gospel Lesson.

As you can imagine, commentators of Scripture have struggled with the bizarre image. One of the better explanations I have read comes from old rabbinic tradition. According to that tradition, God implanted into every human being a mysterious force named yetzer ha-ra (יצר הרע‎). This force is sometimes translated as “evil urge” but more precisely means a drive that combines features of ambition, greed and sexual desire.

There is a legend in the Talmud that tells the story of how the Jewish sages,  shortly after the Babylonian Captivity, were determined to put an end to this formidable threat. Encouraged by their recent success at eradicating the "urge" to worship idols, these sages now felt (understandably) that they were "on a roll." So they decided to seize the opportunity to capture and destroy the "yetzer ha-ra" beast itself. And, so goes the legend, they were successful. They caught the beast and bound it in chains, eagerly awaiting the moment when they would remove it from the world for all time. But soon strange reports started arriving: Nobody was showing up at work anymore. No one wanted to marry or raise families. The chickens were not laying eggs! The world was out of order.

The story ends as the sages are forced to let the yetzer ha-ra go free, so life can continue in an orderly fashion. They come to realize that they have misunderstood the nature of this “evil urge”. They learn that the urge for power, riches and sexuality is not “evil” in an absolute sense, but only when it is allowed to trespass beyond its legitimate sphere of influence. This sounds almost like modern theological ethics. Sexuality is a wonderful gift when invested in a loving relationship, but can be perverted into a force for hatred and abuse. And ambition can be an admirable quality when it is channeled towards spiritual creativity and service of humanity, but is a fiery scourge when it is twisted into covetousness and greed. Perhaps the serpent in the Garden of Eden is about this failure to set limits to the "yetzer ha-ra". This made the serpent a suitable instrument of divine punishment--but also of healing.

When the Israelites looked upon the serpent image, perhaps they were reminded of their holiness, i.e. their wholeness in the eyes of God. God, as a loving parent, wants nothing more than the happiness of his creatures. The serpent on the pole reminded the Israelites of this basic truth, that holiness will be achieved through living your humanity with responsibility, not by denying it or seeking to transcend it.

The conclusion from all this is that our role as human beings is not to eliminate the "serpent," the yetzer ha-ra, but to keep it under control and direct it to a productive course. Jews believe that this is best done by following the values and way of life set down in the Torah. Christians try to achieve it through their faith in Jesus.

Disillusioned, deprived of our national illusions of wholeness, what do we do to find wholeness? We are called to rely on bizarre images. On the image of a serpent that is every bit as frightening as the bites it is capable of. On the image of a bleeding savior carrying his cross, an image that early on made Christians the laughing stock of Rome. Scripture suggests that we find wholeness when we embrace our brokenness and let it be; we find it when we become responsible human beings; we find it once we know that our humanity is sufficient to God. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus answers Nicodemus’ question about being born again. He says being born from the Spirit means the acknowledgment of a basic truth: that God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son, not to condemn the world for its sin, but so those who believe might have life in him. This is, of course, the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a nutshell.

In terms of wholeness, we could say that wholeness is in the eye of the beholder. Jesus calls Nicodemus und us to see ourselves the way God does: as whole and complete beings who need not worry how to get it right with God. Ephesians says it like this: By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God … For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works …

Because wholeness is there if we know where to look for it, for all its horrors, the world is not ultimately a horror show. As Jesus told his disciples throughout his ministry, the world has the kingdom buried in it like a treasure buried in a field, like leaven working in dough, like a seed germinating in the earth, like whatever it was in the heart of the Prodigal Son that finally brought him home.

The question is, How can we get closer to that buried kingdom, how can we unbury it, how can we one day become it? How can we do this in a world as bizarre as ours? So often we are fragmented, in pieces, disjointed and all over the place; we see the world in pieces, full of doom and gloom one moment, and full of light the next.

I believe that we can see another way of being human in this world in Jesus and in the people whose lives have been deeply touched by Jesus, and at those moments when we also are deeply touched by him, in ourselves as well. I believe we will be able to glimpse the kingdom as we learn to love the way God loves: with compassion, forgiveness, pardon and mercy, in giving away what is most dear to us, in not hanging on to what’s wrong, but on to what’s working.

The other day one of Malcolm X daughter’s came to visit the hospital; when the time came for asking questions, one man with a very angry face asked the daughter of Malcolm X, “Why aren’t you more angry, given everything you’ve been through?” And his question really was rhetorical one, as he seemed to be accusing her of not being angry enough. She answered, “I don’t know about you, Sir, but my parents taught me to let go of the things that get you down, and hold on to the things that lift you up.” This is how God loves, this is how we are to love: holding on to things that lift us up.

When the Book of Genesis says that we are made in the image of God, and when Saint Paul says the deepest undercurrent of all creation is moving toward what he calls mature humanhood, it seems clear what Scripture suggests: that all human beings carry inside a vision of wholeness. When the twin towers were blown to fragments before our eyes, who didn’t long for the absence of fragmentation. When those fragments flew through the morning air, who didn’t long for an end to all destruction! Wholeness is our true home, and it beckons to us.

Wholeness is our true home, and the bizarre image of a bleeding savior shows the way home. What wondrous love indeed!

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul.
When I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul.
To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing;
While millions join the theme, I will sing.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And through eternity, I’ll sing on. Amen.

Mark 8: 31-38

27 February 2012

Invocavit: What is the Source of Your Power?

One fine January a couple of years ago I received a note from Gisela, one of my many aunts in Germany. I had not heard from her for Christmas, so I opened the envelope with some expectation. In true Northern German aloofness, she crisply began, “I would have liked to thank you for your Christmas card,” and went on, “but I am unable to do so because your card contains no Christmas joy whatsoever. It has no manger, no wise men and not even one shepherd!” What had I done to poor Aunt Gisela? How had my card upset her so?

My card was my translation of a text by German poet Jochen Klepper, a Lutheran pastor of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany. The joy Pastor Klepper talks of is not as bright and as loud as people are used to from traditional Christmas Cards; it points away from the manger, away from the wise men and the shepherds; it points to the center of the Jesus story. It points to cross and resurrection.

Oh child, we cannot help but see these holy days your agony, which in this night so late we wrought, by our own guilt upon you brought. Lord, have mercy.
This day the world sounds rapture's cry yet in a lowly barn you lie. Your sentence has long been prepared, the cross is ready, for you reared. Lord, have mercy.
Did her irritated note make me doubt Aunt Gisela’s credentials as a good Lutheran? No, I just think she is a good example of how all of us like to hang on to the comforts of what we know. Aunt Gisela is an example of nostalgia. Instead of allowing her to sit back, I stirred her into thinking, and it seems as though she didn’t like it too much.  Thinking about cross and resurrection is not as easy as thinking about Christmas.  The lightness and joy of Christmas and Epiphany is behind us, and sorrow is looming on the horizon. 

Jesus is hungry, and he is tired.  Just before his forty day retreat he has been baptized by John the Baptist.  Both, the ritual and the retreat have exhausted his energies.   At this point, Jesus has a peculiar experience.  “The tempter came”, says Matthew. It seems as if he gets into an argument with some kind of a voice — and that voice is identified as the devil.

The Negev Wilderness
Jesus is in the wilderness, and whenever wilderness shows up in Scripture, danger is ahead; the wilderness is considered to be the domain of demons. The 40 days and nights of Jesus' ordeal correspond to the period that the Israelites wandered into the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land. Matthew mentions the 40 nights to draw a closer comparison to Moses' fast during the period he received the Ten Commandments. The role of Satan has changed from the time of Job from being God's tester to being the slanderer, a malignant force opposed to the Almighty. The three temptations which Satan presents to Jesus portray the nature of his spiritual struggle throughout his ministry.

You see, Jesus is at a point where he has to decide what to do with his life.  After his rather dramatic and promising birth he has been a normal young man for the last thirty years, reared and loved by his parents, Joseph and Mary. Now, at age thirty, just after his baptism in the river Jordan, he has to decide what to do with his life. Of course, he could become a carpenter like his father, but then again ... people have told him that he is someone special. John the Baptist has been the last person who told him so. 

It feels good to be told you are special.  Everybody wants that, to have power and influence; and everybody wants enough money so they can do more than just getting by. Jesus is dreaming, and projecting, and longing like every young man thirty years of age.  But first of all, he is hungry. His eyes fall on the rocks around him, and there is Satan's voice, coming out of nowhere.

If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.
Satan is saying, “So, young man, don't they all tell you that you have special powers?  Why can’t you make some bread out of these ugly rocks?  Could that be so hard?” To Jesus, it doesn't seem right to do that.  He realizes that (even should he be able to) he doesn't want to make a living out of performing miracles.  Jesus dreams about the future have told him that there is more to life than filling one's belly, and that sometimes an empty belly is better than being dependent on the source of food.   “Man does not live from bread alone, but from God's Word" are the words that Matthew reports as Jesus’ answer.

Having come this far, having fought the voice that has suggested a little private miracle, having preserved his vision of life, Jesus finds himself in greater trouble.

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.' "

“What if,” says that Satanic voice, “what if, Jesus?” “What if you could delegate your care for yourself to that magnificent power people say you command? Why don't you test it!  Pick a spectacular site, jump down and enjoy the protection you surely will receive. Come on, there’s nothing to lose, Jesus! Do as I say, you’ll thank me for it later on!”

Jesus senses that it isn't right to give up his responsibility for himself, and, more importantly, he doesn't want to use his God-given power to play. Thus he says,  “You shall not tempt your God.”  But now Jesus has to face the most formidable challenge.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me."

Satan shows him the whole world in a flash (like a satellite picture of our majestic blue planet) and says,  “Come on, Jesus, take all the power you can get, it's yours, take it, you will love it, and you will want more and more and more, and all your longings and dreams and ambitions will be satisfied.”

This is the most crucial attack, the most terrible danger, for the devil goes where Jesus is most vulnerable, to his ambitions and dreams.  It’s what we call a person’s “Achilles Heel”. If I recall correctly, in Greek mythology Achilles was dipped head first into the River Styx, which made him immortal and invulnerable, except for the heel by which he was held, which was not immersed. He later suffered a mortal wound to that very spot, his vulnerable spot. Satan is quick to notice Jesus’ Achilles heel where he stoops for attack. Satan adds with a smile, “There is just that one little matter to deal with, Junior — acknowledge that I am the one to be adored and honored — fall down and worship me.”

"Get out, Satan," says Jesus, and quotes from his Bible, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only".   This summarizes all the other answers Jesus has given the devil; it summarizes what makes him stand out.  What makes Jesus stand out is his ability to resist temptation.

Jesus knows himself, and so he knows how tempting it is to think of oneself as financially secure, well-protected and powerful. But Jesus also has looked around and he has seen what the greed for more and more power can do to people.  All he has to do is go out to the gate of the next town, and look at the greedy little man in the tax booth.  At one time the tax collectors have had dreams, too. But those dreams and visions have been crushed by the power of greed.   As Jesus looks at these well-off, well-protected and powerful men, who have no dreams or visions for their lives, he realizes power for power’s sake is not for him.

Jesus recognizes that all our dreams and visions come with a built-in trap.   That trap is that for power people will do almost anything. 

Dignity, integrity, dreams, visions, all is eaten up when people give in to the temptation of power.   Jesus has watched what power does to people.  Absolute power, as we all learned in school, corrupts absolutely.  It took the Jerusalem authorities two years to silence this dangerous man, this rebel-rouser who told people not to trust the powers that be.  When they finally killed him, he had given many people a lot to think about.

It seems to be part of human nature that we search for power.  It was that way with Jesus.  He was thrilled (believe you me) by the prospect of being all-powerful.   But being someone who had eaten the Word of God like other folks eat bread, he had something to measure himself against.  He knew that he would lose big time if he focused on his own power and his influence.  He knew that he would lose his independence and become the devil's creature as soon as he lost sight of what really matters. "What is the Source of Your Power?” 

When I had my first full time congregation in Queens, members kept coming to me … not, as you might think, for spiritual advice but to use me to get more power in the church. The men came and said, “Don’t you think the women’s’ group has too much influence around here?”; the women came and said, “You must help us to keep the men of the church in check.” The custodian had some beef with the president, and the organist didn’t see eye to eye with the church secretary. Day-in and day-out, Sunday after Sunday I was being pulled into some power game or another, sometimes right before service, in those couple of minutes I need to meditate and get ready.

Finally, I got sick of it all and told the congregation I was convinced they would be better off as a club.  I suggested that they change the sign on their fine lawn, eliminating the word “church” and replacing it with the word “country club”. I told them, “The question is whether or not you want this to be a church; from the way you are fighting for power, I think it ought to be called a country club”. They were so angry that if looks could kill, I’d have been dead a few hundred times the morning of that sermon.

Satan is rejoicing every time we lose sight of what matters for our souls.  It is time we stop worrying about who is strong and who is weak in the church, and how we can add to our power. It is time that we worry in whose name we work together.  It is time that we cry out with Jesus and say, "Away with you, Satan.  For it is written, Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him."

Churches will see conflict; that’s normal. People will disagree with each other; that’s normal. But conflicts in church get dangerous when in all the disagreements people lose track of what the church is all about. 

Do you know what happens in churches where people have forgotten what they are all about?  They think it’s about the members.  And then pews and hymnals and mailings and a thousand other things are the only thing church councils concern themselves with. They fight and they fight and they fight, and little by little they start living by what is “pretty” and “appropriate” and “nice”. Common sense and majority decision rule; slowly the ten commandments become rules to measure your neighbor by, and the catechism is for kids, and sermons are for those who need them.

The temptation of Jesus is ours as well: getting lost in the games and losing sight of the only power that matters.  The only power that matters is expressed very simply in the oldest creed known to the Church.  It’s not the Apostles’ Creed or the Athanasian Creed. It’s straight from the New Testament, and it’s just four words.  JESUS CHRIST IS LORD.

As we venture into the wilderness of Lent, let us remember what is the source of our power.  It's our gracious God, whose power is love and joy and forgiveness.  Choose God and you shall live!

Matthew 4: 1-11

01 February 2012

"A Treasure in Earthen Vessels": In Memoriam Henny Baden (February 1, 1927 - January 29, 2012)


It started when God said, "Light up the darkness!" and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful. (2 Corinthians 4:6)

For most people today personal identity and fulfillment depend upon being well-known not unknown, visible and not invisible, acknowledged rather than ignored, important instead of insignificant, and in demand rather than out of commission.  We all have some sense that those who make the most noise in this world often have nothing to say, yet society makes us look up when the noisy ones talk and talk and talk about ... nothing.

Most of us live hidden and unheralded lives, lives that are unknown and invisible, largely ignored and by many considered insignificant. Newspapers and television are not following most of us, and the papparazzi are not following us wherever we go. Does that mean our lives are meaningless? Not so.  The text from 2 Corinthians goes on:

7 If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That's to prevent anyone from confusing God's incomparable power with us. 8 As it is, there's not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we're not much to look at. We've been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we're not demoralized; we're not sure what to do, 9 but we know that God knows what to do; we've been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn't left our side; we've been thrown down, but we haven't broken. 10 What they did to Jesus, they do to us-- trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us-- he lives! 11 Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus 'sake, which makes Jesus' life all the more evident in us. 12 While we're going through the worst, you're getting in on the best!

There are those quiet individuals who live and work powerful and meaningful lives without being seen or known, because their ego doesn't require the glamor and endless publicity so prized in this street theater they call "the world". People like my friend Henny Baden, a long-time member of Zion St. Mark's German Church downtown, who went home to real life -- Life -- this past Sunday.

Henny was born as the oldest daughter of a farmer in Selsingen near Bremervörde in Germany. She often talked of her strict father who would send the children out to weed among the beds of carrots and lettuce and potatoes and strawberries and beans and cabbage and Lord knows what else, even as their friends laughed at them and asked them to defy their father and come play instead.

When the family decided to send 25 year old Henny to New York, she knew nothing but hard work. After a year and a half in her uncle's deli out in Massepequa Park on Long Island, she had learned enough English to go to work for "rich people on Park Avenue".

For over fourty years Henny ran their households, fed them, kept them clean and watched after their children. When she was told to buy groceries, she was often told to get only enough for the family, so she would prepare food for them but go hungry herself. Yet throughout her almost eighty-five years in deep obscurity (she would have been 85 on February 1), Henny developed a spiritual life that was rich and powerful. 

When I saw Henny for the last time at "Brandywine Senior Living at The Savoy" in Little Neck, her face lit up as soon as I spoke in our Muttersprache (mother's tongue), and at once it was as though the whole room was lit up by her presence. "Die haben mich hier eingesperrt," she said with a conspiratorial smile: "They locked me up in here".

Henny was physically "locked up" to make sure she wouldn't walk out on one of those days when she was confused and wanted to walk back into her apartment on the Upper East Side Yet even though she was physically constrained by both her deteriorating health and the nursing home's need to make sure she wouldn't walk out on them, spiritually she was freer than most people ever hope to be.

Henny's life shone without needing glamour. Henny spoke with great clarity without ever needing a microphone. Henny was full of wisdom without ever having to use big fancy words. Henny didn't need to give gifts; she was the gift. None of Henny's years were lost to God. He sees and knows; He loves and cares.  She knew that, and she would often say, "Ich brauch' nicht viel" -- "I don't need much".

Many folks on the nursing home staff thought of her as "content" and "sweet", but that was just the outside of it.  Her contentment was deep and real. Sometimes I asked what she had for dinner, and she'd say with a mock smile, "Probably chicken" -- only to change the subject to ask about people at Zion St. Mark's or to ask for prayer. Henny was a wise woman; when it came to distinguishing the important stuff from the rest, she was literally someone "in the know". She could look at you and know you, just like that. 

Speaking with Henny was like opening a little window into the real world, the wide world of God.  "Surrounded and battered by troubles", she was not demoralized; no matter what came, she knew that God hadn't "left our side"; she had fallen many times, but she was never broken. "Our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful" -- that was our Henny.

As we say goodbye from Henny, for now, we may know that none of our years are lost to God, whether or not we feel like those "unadorned clay pots" of which St. Paul writes. God does not ask us to lament or transcend our invisibility to the world. However hidden and obscure our lives might feel, either literally or figuratively, whether voluntary or involuntary, in that very hiddenness, God is redemptively present.

God, you call us into being in this world, and then, when our time has come, you call us home. We come before you and pray for our sister Henny and all of us:  Show us your mercy in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Moved by grief and gratefulness, we know that Henny lived with and trusted your promise of eternal life. We thank you as we trace your blessings throughout her life.  We thank you for the love and friendship she gave away so freely, and for the patience and grace that were all her own.  We bring to you those things that burdened her, and those that burden us, and ask that you may unite us with her in the gift of your redemption. Grant us the comfort and certainty to know that love is stronger than death, forever and ever. Amen.

 2 Corinthians 4: 6-11 (Message Translation)

22 January 2012

Discipleship, Surrender and the False Prophets of "Positive Thinking"

A story is told of a young man from China who went to Bible study for a couple of months and found the Lord. When the time came for him to become a member in his church, he went to a store to have a t-shirt made that he wanted to wear to celebrate his being born again. He didn't speak English and walked into the store; they asked what wording he desired, and because he didn't want to look foolish, he pointed to the first sign on the wall he could see. He paid, ordered his t-shirt, picked it up, put it on and came to church. When he went up to the altar in his freshly pressed new t-shirt, the congregation read the words emblazoned on this chest:

Why do you what you do? Who are you? It's really important to know why we do the things we do; knowing that will tell you whether it comes from you, or whether it comes from people outside of you. Another question goes with it: Who are you? Are you who you want to be, or are you who others want you to be? To ask these questions is even more important today than it was before capitalism begun to undermine our identities. Being ourselves is very hard these days. We are made to believe that who we are can be altered, bought and sold. We are told that indeed our identities can be molded and bent, as if we are made of the same plastic as the many credit cards we are supposed to carry in order to feel free. We are constantly offered new ways of getting an "extreme makeover," and with every new offer there comes more pressure to “better ourselves”, to choose a better identity.

In the culture in which Jesus issued his call to Simon and Andrew, James and John, identity was not something you were striving for, it was what you were. These fishermen didn't spend years considering their vocation. Vocation was who they were, who their fathers were; they were born to it. They identified with it like they did with their village and their family. It was their life. Nobody had questions about it.

And then Jesus broke into their contentment. In the Gospel Mark the Evangelist begins his story of Jesus with a stunning announcement. "After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God." In Mark's account these are the very first words spoken by Jesus:

"The time (kairos) is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.” 

When these words came out of Jesus' mouth, he will have turned heads. That is because when he said “time”, he didn't say the word people around him expected. That would have been chronos, the word from which we derive the fancy word for a watch: chronometer. The word chronos describes normal or everyday “clock time”. Instead, Jesus used the word kairos. This is a most powerful word because it means change, a critical juncture, a divine appointment or intervention. So, when Jesus spoke the word kairos, people listened up. The word kairos provokes a radical response, an urgent choice, or a fundamental reorientation. A radical response, an urgent choice, a fundamental reorientation – all of these are true for what happened to the four fishermen in our story.

Jesus' ministry has just begun. He defines the shape of his mission as he identifies the coming of God's reign with his  own person. Once that is done, he immediately goes to work to find some staff for his work. He calls Simon Peter and his brother Andrew into service. His simple words hit the mark:

"Follow me and I will make you fish for people." 
To these four men who have never questioned their place in life, Jesus offered a new identity, one that had nothing do with their geographic or social location.  Instead, it would be about movement, a willingness to take a journey, to begin a pilgrimage, to walk with Jesus.  The story doesn't ask what they were working for, or for whom, at their nets. Only a stranger would have asked such a dumb question. They did the work that would feed them and their families. They were part of the local economy, waking early, following the patterns of fish, and selling at market.  It was an identity thatn offered sources of happiness as reliable as any they knew -- family and friends in the village, children to carry their names and care for them should they be fortunate enough to reach old age ...

In contrast to this tried-and-true way of life, Jesus offered another path to these fishermen. What Jesus offered to them was truly a radical makeover. And a radical makeover means both, excitement and a high cost.  In following Jesus, they would break the chains of doing things the way they were always done, and they would have a chance to form a new community. But all this comes at a high cost. In following Jesus, they were to leave behind all the comfort and security. The price of admission was no less than their lives, or at least their lives as they knew it and as their friends and families recognized it; they lost their very identities: as sons of their fathers, members of their village communities, as fishers in the market.

In this critical kairos moment he called these fishermen to follow him; by doing so, Jesus changed more than their lives as individuals. Much like a modern sociologist, he revealed that the identities they had were constructed for them by the people around them and their expectations. The roles they fishermen had played until then were not the bedrock upon which everything depended. Jesus revealed that their identities were more than their current roles; he showed them that their identities were fluid and flexible instead. Yes, their identities allowed them a place, a location, a source of power and knowledge, but Jesus said, "Follow me", and invited them to give up their identity; he asked them to do surrender.

Surrender means to give up the comfort and familiarity of your old life; at the same time it is the chance to put behind you the things you won't miss: the expectations of others, and any fear and shame connected with following them rather than your heart. Surrender means a completely new beginning. Those four first disciples were able to follow Jesus' call immediately because they suspended the incessant talk of their minds and allowed their hearts to lead them. They surrendered.


This is the point where some of us take flight. Their egos tremble, and they run; the idea of surrender is anathema to them. Surrender makes them think "weakness" and "helplessness" and "powerlessness". They run and run and run in great fear and in search for someone, anyone, who will allow them to be disciples without giving up control. Usually they run into the wide open arms of certain false prophets that come under the name of "Positive Thinking".

In contemporary America these false prophets are named something like Suze Orman and Oprah Winfrey and Robert Schuller and Joel Osteen. In the not-so-far past, three of these false prophets were Dale Carnegie ("How to Win Friends and Influence People"), Napoleon Hill ("Think and Grow Rich") and Norman Vincent Peale ("The Power of Positive Thinking").

Advocates of positive thinking claim that your attitude will shape your destiny and that if you think positive thoughts, positive results will occur. The strategy you use is to force yourself into thinking the "best" of any situation. if you wake up in the morning and feel sick, tired and achy, one of the positive thinking tricks would have you force yourself to think something like, "Boy, I feel great today. Isn't it fabulous to feel alive?" Or, they instruct you to say something like, "I really ffeel sick. I think it's just wonderful that I feel sick, because good things always come from these kind of situations. What a wonderful learning opportunity."

Positive thinking is self-manipulation. Of course, we can all pretend that everything is positive, but saying so doesn't make it so. Real life doesn't work that way. Humanity's great works of literature and art and music would never have come into being if life was all beautiful; who would even know that we are in the light if there was no dark?

If the power of their thinking could have made them so influential, rich and happy, why do so many of their followers look so miserable?  But ah, they got an answer for that too:  you just didn't have enough faith in the power of your thinking!  Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (2009), was stunned when after her cancer diagnosis she was told repeatedly that her cancer was not a problem or an illness, but a gift. But, she says: sugar-coating illnesses can exact a dreadful cost. People who knew they couldn't afford to buy a house bought one because their pastors told them that "God wants you to have it" -- only to find that when the banks foreclosed on them, their pastors turned their backs and told them that they had failed in their faith.

Psychiatrist R.C. Murphy had some rather scathing things to say about Norman Vincent Peale and his book:
With saccharine terrorism, Mr. Peale refuses to allow his followers to hear, speak or see any evil. For him real human suffering does not exist; there is no such thing as murderous rage, suicidal despair, cruelty, lust, greed, mass poverty, or illiteracy. All these things he would dismiss as trivial mental processes which will evaporate if thoughts are simply turned into more cheerful channels. This attitude is so unpleasant it bears some search for its real meaning. It is clearly not a genuine denial of evil but rather a horror of it. A person turns his eyes away from human bestiality and the suffering it evokes only if he cannot stand to look at it. By doing so he affirms the evil to be absolute, he looks away only when he feels that nothing can be done about it ... Mr Peale's book is not only inadequate for our needs but even undertakes to drown out the fragile inner voice which is the spur to inner growth.
Much like the serpent in Genesis Chapter Three said to Eve, “Surely you will not die, for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will open and you will be like divine beings who know good and evil", the false prophets say you can be a disciple AND still be in control.  They tempt your ego and promise it a long life, if only you will do as they say. The cost is enormous: in exchange your inner voice is stilled. Now that's saccharine terrorism!

It's not that our problems are over when we choose to surrender our ego instead: we have to let go of things we have known and loved, but ... on the other side of that journey, we will find freedom. It's a freedom that cannot be grasped with our heads and the mind that is so celebrated by the false prophets. Let your heart lead you to surrender!

The freedom of God's Kingdom is not doing as you please. It's a journey on which we bind ourselves to our loving God, and, paradoxically, as we are binding ourselves firmly to God and God's Kingdom, we find freedom beyond all freedom. It's a journey of identity in which we move from understanding ourselves as unimportant and marginal, to perceiving that God wants to make us his own people.

The paths we have inherited do not count any more. The paths other people chose for us and told us to go do not count any more. The rules and roles of the past serve us no longer. Some folks in my family are still growling at the fact that I haven't stuck to the one career they decreed to be mine. I am not merely my vocation, be it a fisherman or a pastor, or teacher or musician or social worker; first and foremost I am a child of God, and so are you.

After surrender, there is a wonderful freedom to know that above all else, we are owned by God, and as such we are Children of God. Once we shift our self-understanding that way, our hearts are open. We realize we are not merely sinners, people who mess up and are fundamentally disordered and flawed; instead, we are human beings, made in God's image and glorious in God's eyes. As Irenaeus the Church Father put it, The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.

Until we surrender, we cannot be fully alive: we are anxious and nervous, and the expectations of others can paralyze and sadden us. We ache because we know we are not who we can be. But as soon as we surrender to the Lord and his Kingdom, we have no need to please the powers around us any more. We don't live to please others any more; we live for our owner, God, and His Kingdom.

Our repentance and our journey begin when we understand that God has come for us. When we follow our hearts and realize God wants to provide our deepest identity and our deepest freedom: God's love that makes us one with God, the universe and with one another. And when your reasons for being come from the inside, you will be truly free. Once you are truly free as a Child of God, it will be easy to answer the question: Why are you here?

UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT. It's the perfect way to describe someone who has been born again as a Child of God, one who is truly free because he surrendered! To surrender is following your heart to that deep freedom that can only be had when we become Children of God. Let go, my sister and my brother, let go and let God. Nothing will stay the same in your life:

Your complaints will turn into wonderment; your growls will turn into praises; your tears will turn into joy; your sadness will turn into dancing; your self-loathing will turn into self-love; your fears will turn to love and more and more love. And none of this will have happened because you followed the hogwash of "Positive Thinking"; it will have happened because you surrendered your ego.

All to Jesus I surrender, All to Him I freely give; I will ever love and trust Him, In His presence daily live. I surrender all,  I surrender all. All to Thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all.

Nothing, nothing, nothing will stay the same once you open your heart and surrender to God and God's loving will for you.

Mark 1:14-20