Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Sandwiched

The term  sandwich generation refers to people who have young children with active lives at the same time they have aging parents.  I am one of those who live my life in the “sandwich” and particularly after the last couple of weeks, I understand why the term is used to describe us.  In early April, my family had a wicked stomach bug pass through.  While I never succumbed to the illness, I had to help my family through it, losing some work hours along the way.  Then, about a week later, my dad was taken by ambulance the hospital with dizziness and chest pains. For now, at least, he has escaped needing major surgery, which is a relief.  Nevertheless, it made for a stressful few days travelling back and forth to hospitals to visit him and coordinating with my brother to make sure my mom had adequate care. All the while, life went on around us. Events happened in the broader world and in our daily lives. There was still work for both my wife and me, school for the kids, church activities, baseball for my son, and dance rehearsal for my daughter, and more.  We had to balance it all as best we could. 
"Sandwiched" by life.

I feel smack-dab in the middle of the “sandwich” right now, surrounded on all sides by the “bread” of life.  It’s not exactly a comfortable place.

We were at dinner at our favorite Chinese place when I found out about my dad.  Becca was at a sleepover with a friend but Brady was with us.  Upon hearing the news that his pop was ill and we would need to go visit him in the hospital, his first question was: Can we finish eating? (Clearly, he is his father’s son.)  

A humorous story, yes, but also illustrative of our lives.  We’re busy living our life and all of a sudden, something unexpected happens; suddenly we are find ourselves in a crisis and must decide how to respond.  Life typically doesn’t stop to accommodate us in these moments.  We still have to eat and take care of ourselves so we can function and do what is needed in our particular situation. It’s easier said than done though; it can feel like “just one more thing” to fit into our already ├╝ber-busy lives. I know I have felt more stressed and tired than usual the past few weeks.

When we found out my dad was ill, whatever plans we had that night and in the days that followed had to go “out the window”.  We had to rearrange our schedule to make time for hospital visits and so forth—not exactly what we planned to do with those days, but it’s what you do in these situations if you have even an ounce of compassion for others in need.   Even when I managed to do something “normal” during that time, like work for a few hours or go to the gym, my mind was occupied with thoughts of him.  

Times of crisis of have a way of putting what we say we believe about God to the test.  We like to speak of a God who walks with us—but it’s when the rubber of our faith makes contact with the hardscrabble road of life that we find out what we actually believe.

Particularly during times of crisis, I find that plans for tomorrow have to be “written in pencil”. Hard as it for me to do sometimes being a strong Meyers–Brigg “J” personality, I have had to learn to be flexible, to take it day-by-day, and to wait on God and see what tomorrow brings—Psalm 27:14.   When Jesus taught the disciples to pray, he told them to say: Give us [today] our daily breadMatthew 6:11—and not to worry about tomorrow.  Tomorrow will like have its own laundry-list of problems and God already knows about them—Matthew 6:31-34. Many times the past couple weeks my wife and I just prayed for God to, “give us what we needed for today” and, as always, God has been faithful to provide.                                                                                                                     

"Sandwiched" between Easter and Pentecost
We’re also in a “liturgical sandwich” right now.  We’ve come through Easter with the celebration of the remarkable news of the empty tomb and we await the “birthday of the Church” with the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Jesus ascends into heaven after 40 days and then the Holy Spirit comes 10 days later on the day of Pentecost.  If we attend church, we know this story well; we repeat it every year in our liturgy. 

But travel back in time with me to before the invention of liturgical calendars; place yourself in the sandals of Jesus’ first followers as they process the remarkable reality of the empty tomb for the first time.  They don’t know yet that the Ascension “comes next”, followed by Pentecost.  They have to take things day-by-day—they have to take it on faith, which is no doubt frayed by recent events.  Scholars might say they are living in liminal space—a place where the old familiar reality they knew is gone and a new one is emerging, but is not yet fully formed.  Passage through such space is usually not easy or comfortable.

To say it another way, these disciples are no longer who they were before Easter, but they have not yet become who they will be after Pentecost.  They are in an uncomfortable place; the “sandwich” is closing in around them but the only “way out” is to “pass through” it. 

I think Mark’s Gospel does the best job conveying the liminal space between the empty tomb and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Mark’s original ending[1] contains none of the post-resurrection stories that have become familiar to us: no walk to Emmaus, no Great Commission, no doubting Thomas, no restoration of Peter.  All we know from Mark’s account is that the woman that had come to finish burying Jesus are told by a mysterious figure clad in white that Jesus is not here, he is risen and going ahead of them to Galilee.  After that they, went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraidMark 16:8.

I’m not surprised by the women’s’ reaction; I think they are suddenly sandwiched between two realities.  They came expecting to bury the dead that morning and now they hear that Jesus is not here—he is risen.  Whatever plans they had must now be completely changed and reoriented.   I think I would be confused and afraid and reluctant to talk about what I didn’t understand too. It takes them a while to process what is going on and adjust to the new reality.  Now from the other accounts of the story, and even the extended ending of Mark, it’s clear that the women do “adjust” fairly quickly and share the remarkable story with the other disciples. 

All the disciples needed time to absorb the implications what the women proclaimed to them, and what they subsequently witnessed for themselves.  Clearly, that change happens—eventually.  Consider the case of Peter, who goes from a fearful denier of Jesus at the end of the Gospels to a forceful proclaimer of the Word on Pentecost—Acts 2. In fact, as we read Acts, we see that similar transformations happened to the other Apostles—including Paul’s later transformation after encountering the Risen Lord on the Damascus Road.

But in order for that change to “take root” all these individuals had to spend time in liminal space, “sandwiched” between an old reality that no longer fit them and a new one that had not yet completely emerged for them.  

I wonder if the weeks between Easter and Pentecost on our liturgical calendar could be seen as symbolizing liminal space which, while uncomfortable to pass through, is so essential to our spiritual growth?

If so, then perhaps there is hope for me—and for any of us who feel “sandwiched” by life right now.  Perhaps God is using our passage through liminal space to do important work in us as he did with those first followers more than 2000 years ago. Who knows, he might even be setting us up to change the world.  




[1] It is generally agreed that Mark 16:9–20 were not originally part of the narrative. It’s almost as if the original ending that sort of left us hanging about “what happens next” was unsatisfactory to some, so they “tacked on” these 11 verses that seem to summarize the post-resurrection stories from the other Gospels.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Doing What Must Be Done…


This is a creative account of the arrest of Jesus.  It is an amalgamation of events described in Matthew 27:47-56Luke 22:47-53Mark 14:43-51, and John 18:1-11.



“They are headed out of the city. Now is your chance to get him while he is away from the crowd! I can take you to them. But hurry, we’ve got to move fast!”

I came breathless to the entrance of the Temple. I knew if I was going to do this I needed to act fast.  The guards standing watch drew their weapons. I couldn’t really blame them for being nervous.  Things get a little crazy this time of year in Jerusalem with all these extra people here for the Passover festival. And then here I come running toward them like a crazed Zealot.

After what seemed like an eternity, the man leading the soldiers ordered them to stand down.  My heart raced and my insides churned within me as I caught my breath.

Malchus, attendant to High Priest Caiaphas, had been expecting me. You see, this wasn’t my first visit to the Temple. I had come here a few nights earlier and had a secret meeting with the ruling Council to put this plan in motion. I was convinced that Jesus had to be stopped, but now that it was actually happening I wondered if I would have the stomach to see it through.  

Do what must be done.

Malchus turned to one of the Temple guards, “Go to the High Priest’s house.  Inform the Council that Iscariot is here. We should have Jesus in custody soon.” 

As the soldier scurried off following orders, the others shifted nervously while they waited for their “friend” to return.  Soldier wasn’t really the right word to describe them.  They weren’t seasoned military men like the Roman Centurions, some of whom were stationed in Jerusalem.  No, these were more like mercenaries, local conscripts hired by the Temple authorities for crowd control.  Their job was to “keep the peace”—which would in turn keep the Romans from interfering in the day-to-day operation of the Temple.  Frankly, as nervous as they looked, I wondered if some of them had ever actually seen combat before.

Malchus looked at me and smiled.  “You were right to come to us Iscariot. You and I both know that your teacher is stirring up trouble and must be stopped.  The High Priest and I commend you for your action.”

“If I’m so right, then why do I feel like the dirtiest garbage in Gehenna tonight?!”

Betrayed.  For 30 pieces of silver...
“This should make you feel better.” Malchus tossed me a pouch; I heard coins jangling.  “Per our agreement, thirty pieces of silver… and the knowledge that you are helping protect the peace of the city.”  I caught it and attached it to my belt.

Peace!” I spat, “My friends think I am buying supplies for the Passover Meal or giving alms to the poor right now!   If they had any idea…”

Do what must be done I closed my eyes tightly.  “Look! Let’s just get on with this.”

Malchus shrugged.  “Fine with me. Oh, just one more question. How will I know which one to arrest?” 

“I don’t know. I guess I’ll greet him the way we normally do—I’ll give him a kiss.”

*****     *****     *****     *****     *****
I led the detachment of mercenary–soldiers, priests, and Pharisees away from the walls of Jerusalem.  A winding narrow way led from the city across the rugged Kidron Valley.  We ascended in elevation until we reached the Mount of Olives.  Jesus would bring us out here often when he wanted to escape the crowds in the city or withdraw for quiet contemplation. One of Jesus’ followers owned an olive grove and press that served as a “safehouse” for us.  It was the kind of place that you probably wouldn’t find easily—unless of course you had a “guide” who knew exactly where it was located.

On the night before Passover so the full moon should have been shining brightly.  However, on this night even the heavens themselves seemed obscured.   The only light came was from the flickering torches that some in our group carried.

I was reasonably sure where we would find them in the grove.  There was a small clearing near the olive press where we often made camp. We wanted to keep the element of surprise, so we extinguished our torches and inched our way over the final few hundred feet of our journey in the darkness.  We stood right on the edge of the clearing and could see light emanating from a charcoal fire ahead of us.   Several shadowy silhouettes sat around the fire. We stood close enough that I could even recognize the individual voices of my friends. I was supposed to be with them right now, but instead I was sneaking up on them like a thief in the night.

*****     *****     *****     *****     *****
The plan was that I would approach Jesus first and identify him, then Malchus and the others could move in for the arrest.  As we stood there in the dark, my heart pounded like a drum. There now seemed to be an inevitability about it all however.  The voice that had led me to this point now propelled me forward into my ultimate act of betrayal. Do what must be done!

“Greetings friends.”

Peter looked up from the fire as I stepped into the clearing.  “What took you so long, Judas?” He turned back to the fire, and resumed his conversation with John and James. 

Betrayed. With a kiss.
Jesus rose to greet me the way we had so many times before.  Only this time my kiss might as well have been laced with the venom of an asp.

As we embraced, Jesus pulled me close to him: “Friend, do what you came for.” 

Our eyes met and his gaze seemed to sear my soul.  If I had any doubt back in the Upper Room, it was completely erased now.  Jesus knew—everything

Just a few seconds later, Malchus and the others stepped out from the encroaching shadows of the olive trees into the clearing.  “Jesus of Nazareth, by order of High Priest Caiaphas, I am here to place you under arrest.”

As Jesus turned to face Malchus he let me go.  “So it comes to this… the Son of Man betrayed with a kiss.”  He sighed. “I suppose this is how Scripture said it would be.”

A couple of the soldiers started to move toward Jesus. 

“Not so fast Judas!”  A couple of the disciples had realized what was going on, and weren’t going to sit idly and watch their Teacher and friend betrayed.  Of course, Peter was leading the charge. Is that a sword he has!?  I hadn’t expected armed resistance at all so it caught the Temple guards flatfooted.  Before they could react, Peter swung wildly at Malchus and through some miracle, the big fishermen from Galilee actually connected, chopping off a piece of the lieutenant’s ear.

Sometimes it seemed even Jesus couldn’t predict what Peter would do.  “Peter! Where did you get a weapon?! No more of this nonsense! Don’t you understand after all this time together that we’re not about war and violent conquest?  No, I have to drink the cup that the Father has given me to drink. I could say the word and my Father would strike them down—but then we would be just like everyone else.”

Jesus walked over to where Malchus was standing, blood pouring from the place where his ear had been cut. He stooped over and picked something up off the ground and touched it to the side of Malchus’ head, and in an instant the bleeding stopped, and he seemed to be healed.”

Malchus stood in stunned amazement feeling where his injury had been. The very man sent to arrest Jesus now fell to his knees. “Th… thank you.  Praise God!” Several of the local soldiers fell to their knees at this sight.  Others seemed less impressed.

"Am I leading a rebellion, that you felt the need to come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the Temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.” 

Despite the miracle healing of Malchus, he still had a job to do.  The Temple authorities moved in to arrest Jesus.  Surprisingly, he put up no resistance.  One by one all of his friends fled into the night, leaving Jesus alone to face his fate.  One follower even fled away naked, having run so fast he lost his cloak along the way.   

*****     *****     *****     *****     *****
Isaiah 53:7
I stood there in the company of the Temple authorities and watched this whole scene unfold. Jesus was like a sheep before the shearer, standing silent and stoic as the hired soldiers moved in, bound his wrists as if he were some brutally violent criminal. 

I once again heard the all too familiar voice in my head: You did what must be done.

I had become so convinced that this was the only way, that this was what must be done, that I hadn’t stopped to consider the human cost.  Now, as I watched what I had set in motion unfold it began to dawn on me just what I had done.  I saw the Temple authorities take pleasure in roughing up my friend.  They slapped him, spat on him, and called him vulgar names.  And not only had my betrayal made it possible—I added insult to injury by doing nothing to stop it.

Suddenly the 30 pieces of silver in my belt pouch felt like a millstone around my waist dragging me down into an abyss of my own making.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Discipleship: A Lifetime Journey of Transformation

Discipleship is more than turning over a new leaf.  It is more fitful and disorderly than gradual moral formation.  Nothing less than daily, often painful, lifelong death will do.  William Willimon

Laurie and I sometimes watch the show Extreme Weight Loss with Chris Powell.  Each week Chris Powell invites someone to embark on the “transformation of a lifetime”.  As the name of the show implies, the surface goal is weight loss, but most of the time, the weight doesn't really come off—and stay off—until the participant deals with a “deeper” issue.  He or she has to face an “old wound” in their lives that is still holding power over the individual, which they compensate for with compulsive overeating. 
 
Extreme Weight Loss participants are offered
the "transformation of a lifetime".
Chris has to bring the participants to the breaking point (usually via a very difficult workout, particularly for individuals that are so badly out of shape).  It’s a moment of choosing between fight or flight.  This is an important part of the process of transformation because it forces the participant to face up to the fundamental question: Do you really want to change or are you just playing at this?  

Occasionally the participant answers, “No”, and Chris has to accept that.  He can’t force a person to transform if they aren’t ready to do so.  Not every weight loss story ends happily.  For every happy ending we see on TV I’m sure there are many more that fail.  Honestly, the average person would probably choose flight when pushed to the breaking point. (I sometimes wonder what I would do if pushed to that point.)  This level of change is more than most of us are willing to bear.

It’s the rare individual that can reach down and say, “Yes.  I want this!  I want this so much I will push past all my excuse-making and commit to doing whatever it takes to change—not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually as well.  I will push on toward total transformation of my life.” 

The final scenes of a typical Extreme Weight Loss episode are a celebration as the participant reveals their “new look” to astonished friends and family.  There is a level of joy that comes not just from shedding a significant amount of weight but also from shedding the “weight” of old habits and old wounds we have been carrying and replacing them with something better.

This is the kind of change we’re aiming for as individual followers of Jesus and as worshipping communities. Like Chris Powell, Jesus is all about total transformation of our lives. Our life in Christ will be a lifetime journey of transformation.

Jesus comes to us and says come follow me—100%.  Take up your cross—in other words, expect it to be demanding.  Leave behind the ways you once knew and I will show you a new Way that offers the potential to usher in a new world. 

Body and mind are usually the first things we change. The Extreme Weight Loss participants usually begin losing weight before they are ready to confront the “deeper” issues.  Ultimately, however, changing our body and even our mind is not enough.  These changes are external; change that endures (total transformation) comes only as we change internally—as we “renovate” our heart. Our heart is the control center of all that we are—Proverbs 4:23. Heart change is deep and fundamental—and worthy of our best effort.  If the heart changes, our mind and body generally follow suite.  

On the whole, change is hard for human beings.  Sometimes our motivation to “want to change” only comes when circumstances in our life conspire to make not changing more uncomfortable than changing. 

Sometimes it takes being desperate to see things with clarity.  We finally glimpse a vision of a “better” life that is compelling enough to (at least temporarily) overcome the strong inertia of excuse-making.  We are now willing to do whatever it takes to make our vision a reality—pursuing whatever means are necessary to make it so. 

Participants in Extreme Weight Loss often find themselves in such a place.  They reach out for help from Chris Powell because they have, frankly, run out of options.  They realize that if they don’t make a radical change—and soon—there are likely to be severe consequences to their health. 

Just as Extreme Weight Loss is about more than just shedding physical weight, spiritual transformation is about much more than “giving up something for Lent”. 

“What are you giving up for Lent?” It’s a question a lot of people will get these next few days. If you want to change your body, perhaps alcohol and candy is the way to go. But if you want to change your heart, a harder fast is needed. This narrow road is gritty, but it isn’t sterile. It will make room in ourselves to experience a love that can make us whole and set us free.  Time Magazine Article

A word cloud image for Lent and Holy Week
Image creditWhere the Wild Rose Grows.
This is not to say we shouldn't do the time-honored Lenten practice of self-denial as much as to suggest that the true work of Lent goes far deeper.  If we merely “give something up for Lent” (say, chocolate, soda, or social media) but then rush to pick it up again as soon as the season is done, we are kind of missing the point.  We are like the people on Extreme Weight Loss who lose the weight initially but never confront the deeper issues that they used food to cover up and caused them to gain weight in the first place—and thus struggle to keep the pounds off over the long haul.  Without a commitment to total transformation, the “old habit” we gave up is likely to come right back afterwards—maybe worse than before.

For the follower of Jesus, discipleship is not just a six-week exercise in self-denial but rather a commitment to a lifetime journey of transformation, following a spiraling path that leads ever closer to the heart of God.

If we sense God revealing an area that “weighs us down” and holds us back from taking the “next step” toward the deeper relationship with God we desire, Lent is certainly a good opportunity to begin to make a change.  We would be in the company of many saints that have walked the ancient Threefold Way of illumination, purgation, and contemplation (union) during this season.

If we are doing it right we make progress on our spiritual journey not just during Lent but at all times.  John Wesley would say we are always “moving on toward perfection”.  During Lent, however, we  intentionally focus on drawing closer to God in the days leading up to Holy Week.  The idea is that we arrive at Palm Sunday and "enter Jerusalem" with our soul less encumbered by the ”weight” of our “stuff”—our sin.  This should allow us to enter more fully into Jesus’ suffering and death during Holy Week—and then, precisely because of the 40-day intentional journey we took to the Cross before arriving at the Empty Tomb, our experience of the Resurrection should be all the more meaningful.

May it be so for all of us...