For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘Jesus

Today was miserably chilly and pouring rain all day. The thunderstorm blew in around 4:00 a.m., and we saw whitecaps on the Sea of Galilee when we looked out the window in the morning. I was surprised by my own reaction to the weather. I expected to feel disappointed that we could not see the sweeping vistas, or catch a glimpse of Mount Tabor, or take pictures of the ruins. That would normally be my response. On this journey, however, I feel like everything is such a gift. Every moment, every site, every experience is pure gift, so I am not complaining about what isn’t there. In addition, we have been hearing so much about the water crisis in the region that I have begun to celebrate every raindrop, like the locals do.

Gray skies looking down on modern Zippori.

In the morning, we drove through Cana and before visiting Sepphoris. In Cana and Nazareth, the holy sites are in the midst of thriving modern cities, but Sepphoris is only ruins of the ancient Roman city built in the first century. The modern Zippori is set down the hill. In Sepphoris, we saw amazing mosaics preserved for 2000 years, the Roman cardo (colonnaded street), a Crusader citadel, and a theater. We also got very wet.

A beautiful mosaic on the floor of a former Roman villa. She is called the precursor of the Mona Lisa.

The very wet Roman cardo. If you look closely, you can see the wheel ruts in the stones.

Our next stop was Nazareth, home to the Church of the Annunciation. The Church of the Annunciation is built atop the traditional (since Byzantine times) site of Mary’s grotto, the cave home in which she would have received the announcement from the angel Gabriel that she was about to bear God’s son, while yet a virgin. I have long struggled with this story, wrestling with a host of theological and sociological questions. I still have more questions than answers about Mary, her virginity, God’s paternity, and what the whole thing says about womanhood and women’s sexuality. I am uninspired by the angelic, weepy images of Mary I usually see. So I did not expect to like or connect with a church dedicated to enshrining that story as though it were historical fact, rather than faithful storytelling.

The Church of the Annunciation

The Mary I met at the Church of the Annunciation was a Mary I could understand and admire. Before we went inside the church to see Mary’s grotto, we toured the excavated cave area outside the church. We saw a typical cave home in Nazareth around the time of Jesus. It was tiny, but had several smaller spaces within it—an upper area for sleeping, a back area for the animals at night, and a front area for cooking.

A cave home in the town of Nazareth. (The pillars are not original, they were added for support.)

Peasant life in the first century would have been tough. Nazareth was a tiny town, no more than 400 residents. Mary’s daily life would have involved making trips to the town well (now a mosque, closed to non-Muslims) to tote water, cooking over an open fire, caring for animals, making clothing and raising children. Seeing that cave house, so primitive and humble, replaced my image of the watery-eyed waif in the blue gossamer gown with a hearty, muscular peasant woman who lived among the harsh realities of life and tried to make a way for herself and for her family.

Looking up into the dome of the Church of the Annunciation.

The current Church of the Annunciation was built in 1969, atop the ruins of a smaller Franciscan church, a Crusader church and a Byzantine church. The Roman Catholic church, in the building process, solicited donations of art (and money) from around the world. Countries around the globe sent their own artistic renderings of Mary to display at this holy site. Inside the sanctuary and all along the outside wall enclosing the church campus are beautiful, colorful portraits of Mary showing the traditions and devotions of her followers of every race and nation.

Mary from Brazil

I was moved by the ways Mary had travelled, and how her story had clearly moved the hearts of women and men around the world—not just in this era, but for centuries. In the mosaics and other artwork around the Church of the Assumption, Mary did not look at all like she does in European Renaissance art. She looked like members of every race and tribe on the planet. She looked Japanese, and African, and Filipino, and Portuguese, and Indian, and Mexican, and many, many more. I came to understand the cult of Mary in a new way. Jesus as Christ was too remote, to removed from humanity for us to relate to him. Mary is like us, human and fragile, yet faithful and strong. She is our best selves, the part of us that says “yes” to whatever God asks us, the part that ponders things in her heart, the part that preaches the justice of the Magnificat, the part that weeps at the violence of the world.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, from Mexico

Of all the images of Mary, the one that drew me into a place of prayer was the one from the United States. Others in our group did not care for her shiny face and harsh edges, and dubbed her “The Iron Maiden.” But I loved the Iron Maiden because she looked like no Mary I’d ever seen. She was powerful and radiant, moving out of the flat picture we want to paint of her. Her strength and determination and fierceness moved me to worship. My relationship with Mary will never be the same.

"The Iron Maiden." This picture does not do justice to the power of this portrait.

Banias Waterfall, one of three sources of the Jordan River

Today has left me feeling overwhelmed—not just with the Spirit, which has been spilling over in me every day, but with new information and insights about this place and its people, both ancient and modern. In the spirit of this blog as my place for pondering rather than reporting, I will not try to recount everything I saw and learned today. Instead, I’ll focus on a few questions and ideas that I want to process more deeply. I will throw in a few extra pictures to share more of our day.

The long and winding path down to the waterfall. You can only see about half of the steps in the photo.

Our focus scripture for the day came from Mark 8:27-30. Jesus and his disciples had ventured into the territory of Caesarea Philippi, which is the same territory we ventured into for the day. In that region, Jesus turns to the disciples and asks them: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds with the first confession of Jesus as Messiah: “You are the Christ.” We were invited to ponder: Who is Jesus? Who do you say that Jesus is, to you and for you and in your ministry?

Waters headed into the Jordan River at Banias, the town known as Caesarea Philippi in Jesus' day.

That question took on new meaning when we laid eyes on the ruins of Caesarea Philippi, which housed more than 20 temples to Roman gods. Many of the ruins we saw were built in the decades after Jesus, but the spirit of the first century city came clear. Palestine in the Roman era was not a monotheistic culture, and Caesarea Philippi was an amalgam of Roman, Hellenistic and Jewish worship. When Jesus posed the question to his disciples, it was not a question about where he stood in relationship to the One True God, or about how his ministry related to Temple Judaism. That question from Jesus invited the disciples to contemplate how his teaching and his path might be unique among all the multitude of competing cults in their world. With all this diverse religious worship, where did Jesus fit in?

The grottoes are all that remain of the Greco-Roman temples at Caesarea Philippi. Was Jesus asking for a grotto like these? Clearly not.

Rather than contemplate the answer to the question, I have been more interested in the source of the question. Why did Jesus ask the question in the first place? Was he setting them up for a test of faith? I doubt it. Was he in need of an ego boost, someone to tell him he was great and his ministry was important? I doubt that even more. Was he taking the temperature of his followers, to assess their level of understanding and commitment? Maybe a little bit, but probably that wasn’t all.

The grottoes of Caesarea Philippi. The large cave once stood behind the Roman Temple of Pan.

All of us, from time to time, ask our friends and family and even strangers to tell us who they think we are. We all do it, but why? We have an image about ourselves, who we are and what matters most to us and how we present ourselves. Yet we wonder if the world sees us the same way that we see ourselves. We need those around us to reflect back to us what they see, to correct our misperceptions, our blind spots, our sins. Honest feedback is the source of truth about our identity, not just as we perceive ourselves but as the world perceives us.

Collecting water from the source of the Jordan River, to bring back home for baptisms.

I did it myself this afternoon. I didn’t connect it to Jesus’ question until I started this writing, but the two belong together. My roommate is a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as a pastor, and this afternoon during a break we started talking about the Enneagram. She uses it frequently in her work, and we began together to figure out my type. She made a guess, and I probed her with questions about what that type said about who I am. Because I was resisting her characterization, she produced an application on her Ipad to let me take the official test. In the end, the test proved her right, and I spent the rest of the afternoon peppering her with questions about what that type said about who I am.

Our group atop Tel Hazor, the site of an ancient Canaanite city and a city of Solomon's kingdom.

Who do you say that I am? I asked over and over again, in different ways and with various nuances, to her and to the test. What did I want to know? I wanted to know if their perceptions matched up to my self-perceptions. I wanted (especially from the Enneagram) to gain insights into my strengths and challenges. I wanted to hear affirmation of the deep longings of my heart. I wanted appreciation for how I think and how my heart moves. I wanted confirmation that the faults I wrestle with are indeed the faults I need to wrestle with. I wanted to be seen and known rightly.

Perhaps that is all that Jesus longed for as well—to be seen and known aright.

The remains of the city gate at Hazor, "Solomon's Gate," where all who entered the city were required to state who they were and why they were there.

According to scripture, Peter is the only one who answers the question, and I always imagine his answer arriving in an outburst that surprises everyone, including himself: “You are the Christ!” It is a confessional moment, when he calls out the truth as he sees it. As with all true confession, it startles everyone with its boldness, even as everyone who hears it knows its power.

At Tel Hazor, the discovery of an ancient tunnel to get water from the source at a spring outside the city gates. In times of siege, they went through the underground tunnel to collect water from the source. Constructed in the time of Ahab, approx. 900 years before Christ.

We continued to process the question as a group tonight: who do you say that Jesus is? One member of the group responded like Peter, with a confessional outpouring: “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior!” He spoke with confidence and assurance. Others spoke with hesitation and doubt. Theirs too was a confession, an admission of their struggles to know who Jesus is in their lives. It was more like the confession of a father whose son received healing: “I believe, O Lord! Help my unbelief!” Many in our group spoke about how their understandings of Jesus had changed throughout their lives, with some ideas and identities taking on prominence as others receded or were even rejected. Things got a little tense, as Christologies tangled with one another, with doubters doubting and proclaimers proclaiming.

We had to wind down and down to get to the source of the water underground.

For me, right now, the confession comes easily. Not quite as easily as Peter’s, and I might meddle with the exact word choices, but I can confess my faith with joy. At other times in my life, doubt held greater sway, and I might not have been able to confess faith, only questions. Even though I can confess easily now, questions remain.

Entering the tunnel, with the modern steps paralleling the ancient ones.

Why did it matter so much? Why such passion and tension in our amiable group? Because who we confess Christ to be is who we confess ourselves striving to be. At the cornerstone of all orthodox theology is the belief that our identity as human beings is dependent upon God. Several members of the group referred to their catechism: “I profess Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” The Heidelberg Catechism (from our UCC tradition, although held loosely) begins with the absolute connection between our identity and Jesus’:

What is thy only comfort in life and death?

That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

Who Jesus is determines who we are. Confession—You are the Christ! My Lord and Savior!—is only the beginning. From that moment on, our answer to the question of who Jesus is becomes the answer to who we are. When we confess ourselves as followers of him, we vow to be “sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.” If Jesus is a teacher, we are learners and teachers ourselves. If Jesus is a friend, we are friends to others. If Jesus is an advocate for social justice, we too are builders of peace and justice for all. If Jesus is a healer, we are healed and healers too. The source of our identity is found in Jesus.

At last, at the bottom of the dark tunnel, the water source.

For me, faith is far more about living with the question than knowing the answer. Who do you say that I am? I want to leave that question open, both about me and about Jesus. I follow a God of mystery and surprise, who is always revealing to me new understandings of Jesus and of myself. As I practice my faith and grow into the person God has created me to be, I will need to revisit the question over and over again. What does it mean for Jesus to be my Lord today? What is Jesus saving me from right now? What is Jesus saving me for in this moment, or the next? Who is Jesus to me today? What is Jesus asking of me today? How can I “live unto him?”

Praise be to God, for questions and confessions, for doubts and decisions, for tensions and resolutions, for growth and change, for the source of our life and who we are.

A flower on the mountain over Banias Waterfall, in the Golan Heights.

Self-portrait on the Sea of Galilee

Today’s excursions had a spirit of exploration and adventure. We first visited the archeological site at Bethsaida, followed by a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and visit to a museum housing a first-century boat.

Bethsaida sits atop an ancient tell (human-made mound), and was a fortified city back to the time of the Hebrew Bible. It held a strategic location where the Jordan River empties into the Sea of Galilee, although the Sea has since receded 1.5 kilometers from Bethsaida’s hilltop. Bethsaida translates as “House of Fishermen,” and it completed our tour of the towns in the Galilee where most of Jesus’ ministry took place. “House of Fisherman” proved an accurate name, since they uncovered a home or compound that showed evidence of all sorts of fishing implements. We could walk through what was once the courtyard (where fish were cleaned and processed), kitchen and residences. There was also a winegrower’s house, complete with a wine cellar originally full of wine jars and pruning hooks.

Ruins of the Fisherman's House. Front room is courtyard, behind that is residence. Where the people are is the kitchen.

The ancient wine cellar

The most fascinating part of the ruins, however, was the ancient city gate, which was only unearthed in the last year. Only town residents were allowed inside the gate, but the area immediately outside was the spot for all public meeting. We saw where the market would have been held, trades would have been negotiated, and judgments rendered in crimes and civil disputes. Atop the gate itself was a memorial to a Roman cult, and an image of an armed bull sent the message that the town was strong and protected. In Jesus’ day, the Via Maris (the major road to Damascus) would have passed by the city gates, and there was a stone manger with water for animals outside the gates. No synagogue has yet been discovered in Bethsaida, but much of the town remains buried under layers of rock and dirt.

The ancient city gate at Bethsaida

Symbol at the gate, warning people that the town is defended. Below it is a stone manger, a watering/feeding trough for animals passing by on the Via Maris.

The major outing of the day was our boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. We met the boat at Kibbutz Ginosar, just south of the site of ancient Magdala. Everyone in the group was excited by the ride, even though the day was chilly and damp and some feared seasickness. Those fears were not unfounded. The first 20 minutes of the ride were quite bouncy, as the waves close to the shore rocked the boat from side to side. Once we got out, though, things calmed down. We all kept turning to one another and laughing, “Can you believe it? We’re on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee!”

Our boat, the Almagor.

My roommate Nina and I, and another colleague Myung.

From the boat, we could see all the sites we had visited: the Cliff of Arbel, Tiberias, Magdala, Tabgha, Capernaum, Mount of the Beatitudes, Capernaum, even the Pilgerhaus where we are staying. I was amazed to observe how close together they all are. None is more than a half-day’s walk from the other. It’s no surprise that people from across the region were able to hear Jesus’ message, and seek him out no matter which town or hillside he wandered into. With praise, we sang rounds in Hebrew and a rousing version of “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore!”

One of the best parts of the trip is making new friends with such wonderful fellow pastors.

Looking to shore. On the left is the Cliff of Arbel, where we were yesterday. (See picture of me on the edge of a cliff in the previous post.)

On the boat, we gathered to read the scriptures about Jesus calming the storm at sea and walking on the water. As I was listening, I followed my old habit, closing my eyes to imagine the story in my mind. After a few seconds, I realized: “Open your eyes! You’re here! Picture it happening right in front of you!” Being in the place where Jesus walked has taught me to imagine with my eyes open. Today I pictured Jesus walking across the sea to us, or arguing with the town leaders at the city gate in Bethsaida. I have imagined him delivering the Sermon on the Mount, or dining at Peter’s house, or praying at the synagogue in Capernaum.

Reading scripture on the boat

But imagining with my eyes open is more than that—it is imagining Jesus’ story living on 2000 years later in those of us who follow him. I imagine with my eyes open when I see the connection between Jesus feeding the 5000 and our church feeding the hungry in our community. I imagine with my eyes open when I envision myself living out the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount in my life, and try to follow that vision. I imagine with my eyes open when I see the hardworking people fishing and farming today in the Galilee or back home in Indiana, and imagine how Jesus would connect his message of love to their stories and their labors. I hope, when I return home, I will not close my eyes, but will keep on imagining with my eyes open, and picture Jesus happening right there.

Connected to the boat docks, also on Kibbutz Ginosar, is a museum containing the only first-century boat ever discovered by archeologists. We heard the story of its preservation from the sea, and all that archeologists have learned from it. The boat itself is made of 12 different kinds of trees, showing how much it was patched and re-patched over the years of use.

The "Jesus Boat," a first-century vessel found below the Sea of Galilee

A model of what the boat probably looked like, based on art from the period.

This site was our first exposure to the tacky aspects of the tourist trade here in the Holy Land, as we browsed the museum gift shop. (You can browse too at www.jesusboat.com.) I actually find cheesy tourist shops highly entertaining, and I found a treasure today. I did not buy it, but I did take a picture for all of you to enjoy.

"Don't Worry, Be Jewish." On a shot glass.

We saw some children’s art projects, organized by the kibbutz every summer to bring together Muslim, Jewish and Christian children in the region with art as the common language. Then, we adjourned to a local roadside stop (not a typical tour bus destination) for my first falafel since I’ve been here. As a big fan of falafel, I was eager to eat it in Israel, and I was not disappointed. Yum!

Mosaic at Kibbutz Ginosar, created by Muslim, Christian and Jewish children.

After nearly 11 years in ministry, I am having my first sabbatical. I am away from my church and ministry responsibilities from the day after Christmas until the beginning of Lent. My plans are quiet and simple: travels to Virginia to see family at the holidays; time at home to read, write and reflect; travels to the Holy Land with the Macedonian Ministries program; followed by a little more time at home. This blog will be home to my written reflections on sabbatical, including a travel journal, reflections on ministry, personal spiritual reflections, and (hopefully lots of) book reviews.

I am already 10 days into sabbatical, and this is the first opportunity I have had for writing. Traveling to visit family was wonderful, but it did not offer the kind of space and peace I am craving. That is only now just beginning.

This has me reflecting on the difference between chronos time and kairos time. Wikipedia says describes the difference succinctly:

The ancient Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. While the former refers to chronological or sequential time, the latter signifies a time in between, a moment of indeterminate time in which something special happens. What the special something is depends on who is using the word. While chronos is quantitative, kairos has a qualitative nature.

Chronos looks like this...

or this...

or this.

Kairos is more like this. A moment when the clouds roll back and God's light shines through.

Wikipedia goes on to describe its use in Christianity as “the appointed time in the purpose of God.” We don’t detect the difference in English translation, but kairos appears regularly in the New Testament. It’s usually translated simply as “time,” but sometimes it is “due time” or “opportune time” or “season.” Jesus frequently uses kairos instead of chronos in his apocalyptic teachings and in the parables. I always remember Mark 1:15 when I think of kairos. Jesus emerges from his baptism to go into the wilderness. He returns from 40 days apart to announce his mission: “The time (kairos) is near, the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.” It’s one of my favorite verses in all the gospel, because it indicates that the time and place of God’s realm are not far away (a linear distance, off into the future). God’s realm is at hand, where we can reach out and touch it. God’s realm is now, and we can glimpse it in this moment if we are willing to set aside the relentless march of chronos time and simply be present to kairos.

It is my prayer that this sabbatical will more closely attune me to kairos time. The demands of chronos time keep me in constant motion most days. One of the things I have already learned on this sabbatical is how many of those demands are not related to my church and ministry responsibilities. Our week in Virginia was piled high with commitments and visits to family and old friends. Nearby friends that I rarely have time to see are all hoping for a get-together during sabbatical. I still have to get up every morning, and share the responsibility with J for getting breakfast for B, driving him to school and picking him up, feeding him supper and putting him to bed. In the last week, we have had a broken toilet, burned out exterior light, broken ceiling fan and malfunctioning carbon monoxide detector, all of which required a trip to the hardware store and time to repair.  There have been kairos moments in all those times so far, but chronos time still governs, even on sabbatical.

I think my mental image of sabbatical was more like Jesus in the wilderness: wandering and praying, not even thinking about his next meal, much less dealing with broken toilets. But Jesus didn’t have indoor plumbing, or even a house, much less an intense and talkative preschooler.

Then again, when Jesus returned from the wilderness, he proclaimed that kairos time was near, that the place of God was right at hand. He did not call people into the wilderness to follow him. Instead, he talked about kairos time in stories about vineyards and fig trees and harvests–the things of earth and daily labor. There is hope yet.

Dear God, the chronos time of my sabbatical seems so fleeting and full of interruptions and distractions—even though there is still so much time left. Break through to me in kairos time, O God. I would repent and believe in the Gospel. Forgive me for letting the busyness take over and putting time with you last on my list. Quiet my rushing around and restlessness.  Set free my mind and attune me to your presence in all things, both sacred and mundane. Reveal the nearness of your time, reach my hand to touch your kingdom. And, while you’re at it, please keep more dumb stuff at the house from breaking. Thank you. Amen.

My friend Rachel Small at Occupy Wall Street.

If Jesus were here today, it seems obvious he would be sympathetic to the Occupy movement. The Gospels detail his life’s work speaking out against the unjust economic systems and unfair distribution of wealth; railing against the burden of oppressive debt, taxation and extortion from the lower classes to line the pockets of the rich; attending to healing and building a new model of community; trying to change the same old conversation with subversive tactics of protest; revealing the collusion between wealth, power and violence; and taking sides with the poor, outcast and rejected. Among my progressive clergy friends, there have been multiple postings of a graphic saying, “Jesus is with the 100%.” While Jesus loved both rich and poor, he refused to comfort or coddle those who made exorbitant profits by oppressing the poor.  As my friend Rachel’s sign points out, Jesus’ own prayer aligns itself clearly with the stated hopes of the Occupy movement.

Jesus’ life and ministry was most fundamentally about inaugurating a new way of life. It was about building the kingdom of God here, “on earth, as it is in heaven.” Early Jesus followers were simply known as “The Way,” because they lived a way of life caring for the poor, forming new community and trying to do things differently. Beyond the notion that Jesus would have supported the Occupy protesters, this idea of “The Way” is the stronger connection between the Occupy movement and the heart of Christianity.  Occupy is not a Christian movement, but it is a movement about a way of life. The daily General Assemblies, shared leadership and direct democracy, sharing of goods and managing of community needs are all about incarnating in practice the ideas and visions of the community of protesters. They do not just carry signs and march down streets to encourage people to their cause—they are embodying the community they want to build by practicing a new way of doing things and being together. That’s an awful lot like our Savior and his followers.

I spent some time at our local Occupy movement, downtown in our city bordering on the south and midwest. I discovered that the experience shared even more parallels to the church—including some of its struggles. Ours was a small group, about 20 in all. When I arrived, they were in a meeting. The small, handwritten sign at the center of the circle indicated that this was an education session, which lasted every day from 1:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., with the General Assembly at 7:00 p.m. I stood at the edge of the circle for nearly 30 minutes, and felt completely lost. No one spoke to me, no one invited me to sit with them on a blanket (the ground was muddy), no one even acknowledged I was there. There were words I didn’t understand and strange hand gestures that left me puzzled. Everyone else clearly knew one another very well. The entire time I was there, I imagined that this is exactly the experience that many of these people would have if they walked into our churches for Sunday worship. It was humbling.

When at last someone stepped away from the circle (I couldn’t interrupt, didn’t know the proper hand gesture to be recognized to speak, and couldn’t wait five hours for a break in the action), I followed him and introduced myself. I chose not to start with my clergy title (after all, I did not come representing my congregation), but just my name and my interest in offering support—food, blankets, supplies, whatever was needed. He seemed displeased that I had bothered him, and said they had everything they needed. He did at least take my card when it was offered. I had planned to stay longer, but I felt so uncomfortable that my nerves took over and I left. I’ve been trying to renew my courage to return. Again, a humbling experience.

So, as Jesus-followers today, where do we fit in with the Occupy movement? When I first started writing this post two weeks ago (it’s taken me a long time to sort through my thoughts), there was little or no church presence at the Occupy movement, here or anywhere else. Many of the Occupy participants were (are) openly hostile to religion, especially Christianity, because they associate it with the harm of the radical, prosperity gospel, anti-sex, anti-body, anti-intellectual right wing version of our faith. In this short time, some of that has begun to change. In other cities, the progressive Christian community has rallied to organize itself in support of the Occupy movement, offering spiritual support, communion services, even processing a giant golden calf as a religious symbol of condemnation. (In the interest of full disclosure, many of these folks are my friends, and the links are from their own Facebook posts.) This clergy support work has been welcomed by Occupiers in Boston, New York, San Francisco and many other places.

The question still remains: what is our role as faith communities and Christians in the Occupy movement? I think part of our confusion stems from the fact that we are not at the center of this movement. For the last 200 years in the United States, churches have been the nurseries of movements for social change—abolition, women’s rights, civil rights, fair labor practices, temperance, education reform, on and on. Clergy have been on the front lines of shaping, inspiring and leading movements for social justice. I am a veteran of many protests, and as a clergy person I am used to being on display up front to add moral authority to the cause. Yet the Occupy Wall Street movement happened without us. This is new territory, and, like me hovering outside the Occupy meeting’s circle, we aren’t sure what to do with ourselves. We might even be dealing with a bit of a bruised ego over the whole thing—I showed up to offer my help, but no one wanted it. In order to connect, we must be willing to be outsiders instead of insiders, to be uncomfortable and take time to learn how things go.

There is an old joke about the radical French intellectual that hears the people marching in the streets and responds: “There go my people! I must find out where they are going so that I can lead them.” I am concerned that this will be the approach of the progressive church to the Occupy movement.  Many of us have years of experience in social movements, and it will be tempting to show up and offer ourselves as experts and leaders. I admit that one of my desires after my visit to the local Occupy site was to offer advice to them—about how to welcome newcomers, about how to respond to offers of assistance, about how to incorporate outsiders. I’m still not sure what to do with that impulse. I believe that wisdom might be helpful to the cause, but I also believe it is arrogant of me to step in as a newcomer and offer unsolicited advice about how to do things.

One of the great dangers facing the Occupy movement is whether or not it will be co-opted and assimilated by big money players like unions, the Democratic party, Move On, and others—or whether it can hold its own and do things a new way. One of the great successes of the movement so far has been its ability to change the conversation, to break open the dialogue in a way that those well-established players have not been able (or willing) to do.

While we aren’t as big a player as we’d like to be, I think that Christians may try to co-opt the movement in the same way. We should avoid the temptation to say to the Occupy folks, “Yes, you’re saying just what we’ve been saying all along, what Jesus has been saying for 2,000 years.” What usually swiftly follows this is an invitation to worship, or to join in something we’ve already planned that might interest them. We might even be tempted to think that this movement might be a way to connect with progressive young people and engage them in church. I’m not sure that is a bad thing—I do believe in evangelism!—but I also see an arrogance in it. It is definitely a good thing to show up and demonstrate that Jesus and his followers are not necessarily who you think they are, that Christians stand with the poor and the protesters, and that our faith motivates us to action against oppressive empire. It would definitely be a bad thing to believe that our churches are keepers of the vision protesters have been seeking all along, that going to church is a way of engaging the movement, or that we might hope to sign people up for our next progressive Christian rally.

In other words, I believe we should show up to listen far more than speak, to learn far more than teach, to support far more than guide. We can, and should, simply be one of the 99%.  What it means to be followers of Jesus is to do what’s right, without caring about whether or not we’re recognized for doing it. “The Way” we follow is about incarnating love, justice and peace—not promoting the church’s voice or even promoting  Jesus.   Brian McLaren wrote a similar thought this week in a piece entitled “Why I’m Joining the Occupation.”

I’d especially encourage Christian leaders to do so . . . not as a representative of your church or denomination, but as a human being . . . not to co-opt or control, but to contribute and to learn. As someone who’s had a lot of control (more than I realized) for a lot of years, I’m finding it a wonderful gift to simply be a participant, one voice among many, learning and listening and learning some more.

For this reason, I’ll be going back to Occupy again. Because it’s where Jesus would probably be hanging out today. Because it’s the right thing to do, not just as a Christian but as a human being. Because it’s good for me to know life as an outsider, and because I know that all human movements and institutions have their flaws. Most of all, though, I will go back because I am one of the 99%. I am also afflicted by and implicated in the unjust system the Occupiers call out, and I want this body of mine to be a part of incarnating a new way of being. My prayer remains Jesus’ prayer: “on earth, as it is in heaven.”

The Jesus of Suburbia: Have We Tamed the Son of God to Fit Our Lifestyle? by Mike Erre. W Publishing Group (Thomas Nelson), 2006, 202 pp.

I picked up this book for a couple of dollars during a quick pass through a discounted bookstore. I did not spend too much time examining it, because I was so excited to see the topic, especially from an evangelical perspective. I had hoped that it would be an analysis packed with anecdotal, textual and theological evidence of the ways Christian subculture reduces Jesus from a life-changing social radical to a feel-good, do-good cheerleader, critique of the evangelical fusion of Christianity and suburban values, and insights into undoing this version of Christianity in favor of a more compelling and challenging vision.

The book met some of those expectations and disappointed me in others, yet it was still a good read. Stylistically, it read more like a sermon or spiritual growth book than a cultural analysis. Think more John Ortberg and less Stephen Prothero. Once I got over what I thought it would be and started appreciating it for what it actually was, I thought it was a very good read. Theologically, it was definitely far more evangelical than I am, but my disagreements over his theologies of scripture and sexuality made my agreements with him about the nature of Jesus far more profound and striking.

Throughout the book, Erre draws sharp distinctions between Christianity and following Christ. American Christianity generally makes us more aligned with the American dream, our middle class compatriots and their attendant cultural values. Following Christ should make us fomenters of revolution, in conflict with the forces of empire all around us. In spite of his role as a preacher in a church, Erre even calls out religion as a major part of the problem. He defines religion as “any system of rules and rituals designed to bring us into relationship with God. It is the idea that somehow we can win God’s blessing through our efforts to do good and avoid bad.” (45) I take issue with Erre’s conflation of those two ideas. Religion is a collection of stories, rituals and rules that have been a path to God for those who have gone before and those walking within them today. It is often true that religious people believe their acts control God’s blessing, but it is not a necessary result of religious practice or belief. Erre sees Pharisees everywhere, and I agree that “Jesus didn’t come to change our behavior; he came to change our hearts,”(49) but I don’t think that necessarily means “Jesus came to abolish religion.” (46)

As the book unfolded, Erre espoused countless ideas that are right in line with progressive mainline Christians like me:

  • Jesus’ message was about welcoming the stranger, the outcast, the rejected, the unclean, “whoever.” Grace means that God’s love, not our actions, are the key to salvation. (Chapter 4: The Scandal of Grace.)
  • Faith is not about a system of belief, it is about faithfulness to the way of Jesus, dedicating our lives to following Christ’s will. (Chapter 5: The Danger of Theology)
  • Living in a created world means that there is no separation between sacred and secular, for everything in this world belongs to God and can be redeemed for God’s good purpose. (Chapter 6: All Things Are Spiritual)
  • Too much religious practice and teaching aims to explain God, rather than proclaim and stand in awe at God’s mystery and majesty. (Chapter 7: Mystery and Paradox)
  • The church is to be a continuation of the Jesus movement today, not an institution to preserve truth. (Chapter 8: The Church As Subversive Community)
  • The Jesus movement claims truth wherever it finds it, in all aspects of culture, not just those labeled “Christian.” (Chapter 9: The Redemption of Culture)
  • We cannot convert people by words and arguments—we must show them God’s love and grace by practicing it and living it out in the world. (Chapter 10: Show and Tell)

The Jesus of Suburbia was a fascinating point of connection for me with an evangelical perspective. Erre and I share many similar concerns over the face of Christianity in America today. While we also have fundamental disagreements on social issues and probably about the way in which the Bible is authoritative, we both understand that Jesus makes radical, life-changing demands upon his followers. We agree that Christ’s followers should always live with a degree of unease in our relationships with the world around us, particularly with anything that resembles the wealth or power of empire. However we understand the peculiarities of theology, all of Christianity is endangered if we accept a diminished, non-threatening, easy-going understanding of Jesus Christ.

(Also, for the record, the book makes no reference or any connection with Green Day’s epic song “Jesus of Suburbia” from American Idiot.)

The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, HarperCollins, 2006, 238 pp.

While I should have read this book earlier in Lent, to have it undergird my preparations for Holy Week services, it became my Holy Week practice to read a chapter every day, each corresponding to that day of Holy Week. The authors undertake a thorough examination of Jesus’ activities from Palm Sunday through Easter, focusing on the Gospel of Mark but often holding up other accounts to explore the differences. The book aims to provide serious and scholarly reflection on the stories of Holy Week so that those of us who celebrate them in Christian worship might move beyond centuries-old layers of theological interpretation and examine Jesus’ Passion with an eye toward what Jesus was passionate about.

The first passion of Jesus was the kingdom of God, namely, to incarnate the justice of God by demanding a fair share of a world belonging to and ruled by the covenantal God of Israel… We focus on “what Jesus was passionate about” as a way of understanding why his life ended in the passion of Good Friday. (from the Preface)

I have read enough Borg and Crossan before to recognize similar themes between this book and their other works. Jesus’ passion is about non-violent resistance to the Roman empire, about peasants and villagers who are unjustly treated by the empire and its collaborators, about an alternative vision of the world that is not based on violence and domination, but love, radical hospitality and economic justice. Thanks to Borg and Crossan, along with Walter Brueggemann, Walter Wink and Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, that is how I have come to understand Jesus as well.

This book was incredibly helpful in connecting that understanding of Jesus’ life and mission with the events of Holy Week, which are surrounded by so much baggage of atonement theology, pietism and oversimplification—not to mention the baggage that comes from things like The Passion of the Christ or even Jesus Christ Superstar. As a preacher who tells and retells and interprets this story every year, I felt grounded and refreshed by reading this book. It helped me immerse myself more fully in Holy Week, (more on that here) while keeping me from lapsing into sentimentalism. While I did not ever cite the book directly, it certainly inspired and directed my preaching for the week. I highly recommend it for preachers, teachers and small groups who want to go deeper with the story of Jesus’ last week.

A picture of me on my ordination day.

Today is Good Friday. It is also the 10th anniversary of my ordination into Christian ministry. Every year during Holy Week, I give thanks with all my heart to be a part of this pastoral life.

It was March of 1989, and I was 15 years old when I first got caught up in Holy Week. I don’t remember how it started, but I was swept away by the emotional roller coaster between Palm Sunday and Easter.  I felt like I was right there on the streets of Jerusalem, bearing witness to Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. I wrote about it at length in my journal, which I dug out tonight from inside the trunk, under the pile of laundry. On Good Friday that year, I wrote with great youthful earnestness:

I was with Christ in Spirit throughout today. I learned that I have the wonderful ability to withdraw from this world and put myself in another. … Thank you, Jesus.  I am just beginning to understand Your love for me.

My journal from 1989, when I was 15.

Every year since that discovery, I have tried to recreate it—to step outside of the ordinary during Holy Week and get swept up in the ancient story. I don’t think of it as “another world” anymore, nor do I invest much energy in imagining myself in the streets of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. However, I still love to get absorbed in it, to experience its meaning anew, and to forget all other concerns. Some years there are more distractions than others, but the act of walking through the stories and services every year never fails to transport me to a holy place, with deep conversations with God and exhausting emotions.

Because of my life in ministry, I not only can throw all my energy and focus into meditating and understanding and retelling the story of Jesus’ betrayal, death and resurrection, I must. During Holy Week, with all the writing and preparation, I spend all day every day praying and thinking and writing about the story of Jesus. I abandon all other church work, give up on housecleaning, let J take the role of lead parent, and just live into the story. There is no negotiation about whether or not to attend services on Thursday or Friday or both, because I have to be there for all of it. There is no conflict over soccer games or meetings with the boss or anything else—everyone knows that, during Holy Week, the pastor has no more important task than preparing for services through prayer, meditation and writing. If I am wrought with emotions and wracked by the Holy Spirit throughout, so much the better for my preaching. What a privilege.

So today, Good Friday, I celebrate 10 years of ordained ministry. Ten years of throwing myself into Holy Week with all my heart and soul, and having no one think it strange. Did I know in my 15-year-old self where that blessed Holy Week would lead? Could I have imagined the opportunity not only to let myself get lost in Jesus’ story every year, but to devote my life’s work to getting other people caught up in the story as well? There is no better time to celebrate my call, to give thanks to God for this pastoral life, than during Holy Week. Thanks be to God. Soli Deo Gloria.

The phone message my mom wrote about the accident, and the memory ribbon we wore for weeks. Both were tucked inside my journal.

Postscript: There is another connection between the spring of 1989 and my ordination date that cannot go unmentioned. Just a few pages after my passionate account of Holy Week in my journal, the April 22 entry shares the news of a car accident that took the life of one of my dear friends, and injured several others. It was another pivotal moment in my faith journey. When I scheduled my ordination years ago, I recognized the confluence, but still cannot impart a meaning to it. Still, this year, all three converge–that transformative Holy Week in 1989; my friend’s death on April 22, 1989 (both 22 years ago); the 10th anniversary of my ordination on April 22, 2001; and Good Friday. The day feels deep, rich and complex. God sees the web of connections, and perhaps even their meaning. I, as yet, do not.

The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, by Shane Claiborne, Zondervan, 2006, 367 pp.

I need to read books like this on a regular basis, even though they trouble me. I actually finished reading this book over a week ago, but I have had trouble writing about it, because it challenges me to wrestle with serious life questions. This post is less a review of the book, and more an account of my personal journey with the book.

Shane Claiborne is noted as one of the leaders of the “new monasticism,” Christ-followers who take seriously Jesus’ call to sell all you have and give it to the poor. He is one of the founders of The Simple Way, a community in Philadelphia that lives among the poor and works to practice love and hope in the way of Jesus.

Claiborne shares his spiritual journey from mega-church evangelicalism into The Simple Way. He is radicalized by the love and example of Jesus–especially the story of the rich young ruler, which serves as a guiding light throughout his journey. He camps out with homeless people in Philadelphia, journeys to work with Mother Teresa, and returns to find a way to “do small things with great love.” His indictments of Christianity are powerful and convicting, as he critiques Christianity as entertainment and support for the (particularly economic) status quo.

I agree with Claiborne about the radical nature of Jesus’ call, about the demand that the church be a way to redistribute wealth from rich to poor, about the way that a relationship with Jesus should impact the daily living of our lives in ways large and small, about the way following Jesus should set us apart in a dramatic way from the predominant culture of empire and accumulation, about living in relationship with our neighbors. And yet, I do not live up to those beliefs on a daily basis. I need to read these kinds of books on a regular basis to challenge and convict me again with the radical love and radical demands of Jesus. Reading Claiborne’s story reminded me of all the ways in which my own practice of faith has grown lazy and indulgent, and challenges me to get back on course again.

For my whole life, I have felt the pull of a monastic or missionary life, which Claiborne and his community combine in The Simple Way. In college and after, I seriously considered limiting my possessions to a few suitcases and traveling around the world in service. Instead, I moved back home to be near my family as my grandparents were aging, thinking that I would take up a missionary life after I had helped them. God had other plans.  I met my husband and we got married. J does not share my missionary zeal (or even my Christian faith), so our life together took a different shape. Four years ago, we had a child, forever ending my plans to become like Mother Teresa.

Having prayed deeply over both of those decisions (and in consideration of that monastic pull both times), I know that God is in them. J and B are the best things that have ever happened to me. My love for my husband and child far exceed any love I have ever known or experienced. I would sacrifice anything for my child. That fierce love I feel has taught me so much about the fierceness and sacrifice of God’s love for us, a depth I doubt I would have known if my life had taken a different path. However, I still feel the pull sometimes for that other way, especially when I read books like this one. Is my lifestyle (home ownership, car payment, eating out at restaurants) really what Jesus wants, or am I fooling myself? Am I doing enough to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?

I look over the Gospels for help, and remember that not everyone was called to be a disciple who drops everything, carries nothing but the clothes on your back and follows Jesus. Some are called to provide shelter and food for those disciples. Elders are left behind by Paul to guide the newly-forming churches. Wealth (not that we are wealthy by American standards, but by Jesus standards we are) can be used for the building up of Christ’s way. Yet the story of the rich young ruler, which pervades Claiborne’s book, haunts over me–“sell all that you have and give it to the poor.”

I live with that tension all the time. And I should. We all should. Especially we who call ourselves Christians yet live in the privileged American way. We should all, always be examining our lives, our choices, our habits, our budgets to determine if they are following the way of Jesus. Claiborne’s book and his example puts that tension right before us, and demands we make an account of our lives before God.

Thankfully, there is grace. The spirit that pervades Claiborne’s book is one of love–experiencing God as lover, falling in love with God, pursuing the love of our neighbors. I concluded the book not simply convicted, guilty and wrought with sin, but confident of God’s grace and abounding love, and ready to try again to follow more faithfully. The title is “The Irresistible Revolution,” because it is God’s love that draws us in, a love that will not let us go.

Highlighted Passage: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Matthew 4:1-11

“Call a fast… call a fast… call a fast…”

Over the last few months, these words have come as a whisper to me in quiet moments of prayer and harried hours. They have been a summons and an invitation, a demand and a relief.

I recognized their source in scripture immediately, from the traditional Ash Wednesday reading in the book of Joel:

Return to me with all your heart… blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.

After busy and exciting 150th anniversary year, culminating in a climactic Foundations capital campaign in the Epiphany season, our church has been changing, acting, growing, giving, sacrificing, leading, learning, doing, working and serving God at an almost frenetic pace. It’s time to call a fast.

Not because we’ve lost our way, or been pursuing the wrong things, or because we have lapsed into sin and indulgence. Not because God demands that we deprive ourselves in order to prove our love to God. It’s time to call a fast because we have been faithful, and we are tired. We have followed the vision God put before us, and we have experienced great things and amazing transformation. It’s time to call a fast so that we remember our success is not due to our own efforts, but to God’s grace. We know that there is more work to be done, more sacrifices to be made, more change and growth to undertake. But it’s time to remember that we are God’s, that this church is God’s, and that it’s not all about us. It’s time to call a fast.

Fasting traditionally refers to going without food. Catholics fast from meat on Fridays during Lent. Muslims fast from sunup to sundown during the month of Ramadan. Jews fast from sunup to sundown on Yom Kippur. Many Christians “give up” something for Lent—usually an indulgence, like chocolate or beer or sweets or fast food. But fasting does not need to be limited to food. I have several friends this year who are fasting from Facebook, and a church member who shared via Facebook that she is fasting from elevators.

This kind of a fast has its place—it is a nice reminder of the holiness of Lent, it can correct bad habits and indulgences, it is a daily practice of giving something up for God. But I think the fast we need, the fast my heart yearns for, is deeper and more significant than putting down a favorite luxury only to pick it up again after Easter. I am hungry for God. I am lonely for the luxury of spending time with the Holy One. Ignoring my craving for chocolate will not satisfy my craving for connection with God. Making more room in the waistline of my clothes will not necessarily make more room in my life for God.

Joel says, “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” I need grace and mercy. I need to slow my own anger, and return my love to abundant proportions. I have not relented from punishing myself and others. I have not shown grace to them or to myself. It is time to fast from busyness, from judgment, from complaining, from worry, from harried hours, from control. It is time to spend time with the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.

Fasting is making room for God. We say “no” to the things that bind us to ourselves and this world, so that we can make room to say “yes” to God. It’s time to call a fast.

Watch this beautiful, moving version of the story of Jesus’ fast and temptation in the wilderness. Think about the ways Jesus says “no.” (Hint: It’s not just to the Tempter). Notice the ways Jesus says “yes” as well—the way time alone with God is joy as well as struggle.

“For my thirtieth birthday,” it begins, “I gave myself some time away from it all.” Saying “no” to companionship, to food, to work, to the comforts of home, Jesus in the wilderness discovers the joy of playing with pigeons, frolicking with foxes, gazing at the moon, and watching a flower grow. Jesus embraces weakness, as his skin grows ragged and his body thinner, so that he comes to know the strength of God. He experiences fear and anguish over his own life and death as the vultures circle. He confronts his pride in the presence of the Tempter, which in this depiction appears as simply a stronger version of Jesus himself, urging him to say yes to strength and power again. The Tempter urges him to rely on his own powers, judgment, control, certainty–instead of placing his life in the hands of God. When he refuses his own strength, he knows the presence of angels, who minister to him, who lift him up and carry him back home again. “And now,” he says at the end, “I’m back.”

My friends, for the coming 40 days of Lent, I’m joining the prophet Joel in calling a fast. I want time in the wilderness with Jesus. Will you join me? Will you wrestle with saying “no” to a stronger, more competent and productive you, in order to make room for the strength of God to carry you? Will you slow down, let go, give up, forego in order that you might be blessed by the birds, moved by the moon, enamored of the spring flowers? Will you show your weakness, let go of your busyness, give up some control, that you might come to know the ministrations of angels? “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” Come, let us enter the fast together.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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