Friday, March 2, 2018

Saving Today

In the climactic scene of the movie Wonder Woman, a plane filled with deadly gas is about to be unleashed on London.  Thousands of innocent civilians will die unless someone acts heroically.  The only way to stop it is to get onboard and pilot the aircraft to a high altitude where it could be safely detonated.  There was clearly no coming back from this mission.  Captain Steve Trevor knows this; he volunteers anyway.

Steve was the pilot and spy who crash-landed his plan on Themyscira—the hidden island of the Amazons—thereby setting the plot of the movie in motion. At one point earlier in the film, he said, “My father told me once, he said, ‘If you see something wrong happening in the world, you can either do nothing, or you can do something’. And I already tried nothing.”  Steve was tired of doing nothing.  This was his moment to do something—and he wasn’t going to miss it.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women] to do nothing.Edmund Burke

Steve Trevor is an inspiration to me because he shows what I wish I was more often.  I look at the news headlines and quickly get overwhelmed by all that is going “wrong” in our world.  I struggle to know where exactly God would have me act. I long to do something—anything—that would make a difference. But too often, I become frozen in fear of “doing the wrong thing”. My “not knowing exactly what to do” becomes a convenient excuse for me to do nothing.  Indecisiveness is to me the same as mud is to a car.  My wheels are spinning furiously but I can't seem to move forward or backward.  I'm stuck!

At the same time, Steve is planning his final mission, Diana (a.k.a., Wonder Woman) is busy battling the individual she thought was the war-God Ares, whom she assumes was responsible for starting the war.  When she finds out about Steve’s plan, however, she wants to take his place.  After all, she’s the “super hero”; Zeus created the Amazon women to protect mankind.  Oh, and Diana also happens to have fallen in love with this particular man during the movie.  
“Steve, whatever it is, let ME do it!”
“No, it has to be me.”
“I can save TODAY.  You can save the WORLD.”
Steve’s final line to Diana contains wisdom for us all as we struggle to know where exactly we should act. Sometimes the feeling that we can’t save the whole world leads us to hunker down and wait for a “super hero” to fly in and make things right, or to rescue us and take us away to a better place. However, this scene reminds us that the heroes we wait for are already here.

Yes, Jesus is the “super hero” of God’s Story.  He’s the one that has saved, is saving, and will save the world.  But “everyday heroes” like you and me are the ones that “save today”.  The things we do now count toward the eternal future God is building.  When it comes to service, today is the only time we can act.  We can’t change the past and we can’t know with certainty what the future will bring—but we can act today.  

Each time we act to serve, stand up for justice, or enrich the beauty in this world, and each time we share God’s love with others, we move a little closer to the mark.  For Christians, our mark is Jesus.  Colossians 1:15 calls Jesus the image of the invisible God, and 1 John 4:8 describes God’s very essence as love.  So, another way of saying it, is that our mark is love. 

At the very end of Wonder Woman as Diana reflects on her experience she says, “…Now I know. Only love can save this world. So, I stay. I fight, and I give... for the world I know can be. This is my mission, now. Forever.”   

Christians have a similar mission—or calling.  We believe there is a world God is making, and that we take part in its construction.  Our prayers, our dreams, and our actions help create it. When I sing the chorus of “A Million Dreams” from The Greatest Showman, I often sing:
I think of what this world can be.
When God’s vision becomes reality.
A million prayers are what it’s gonna take.
A million dreams for the world we help create.
This world in which we live is more than our eyes can see.  We live in the now as we anticipate the not yet.  Every act of love we do today helps to make that invisible Kingdom of God (i.e., the range of God’s influence) spread a bit further and become more solid and real in our world.  We know that, as a favorite praise song puts it, “When it's all been said and done, all my treasures will mean nothing.  Only what I've done for love's reward will stand the test of time.”  That’s why we love; that’s why we serve; that’s why we give—and yes, that’s why we die whether metaphorically or literally, if that’s what it takes.  This is our mission now.  Forever.

So, where does God call you to “save today”?  

What gets in the way of you responding to that call? What has you stuck—unable to move forward or back?  What holds you back from loving more, serving more, giving more of yourself for others?  Do you fear what it would cost you to do something?  Is it just easier to do nothing?

Lent is a good time to contemplate these kinds of deeper questions. Ask God to help you strip away obstacles that block you from drawing closer to God and to others.  Perhaps it’s a good topic to discuss with a trusted friend, or a small group.  Maybe you can hold each other accountable to taking some concrete action(s) during Lent to do your part to help “save today”.  After all, doing something—anything—is always better than doing nothing.

We cannot save the world Lord—that’s your job, but we can—and we must—our part to save today.  Part of how the world is saved is through the actions of ordinary heroes, ordinary disciples of Christ faithfully and sacrificially serving you day after day over countless years.  Help us each find the place you call us to serve, where our great passion and the world’s great needs meet.  Forgive us where we have been reluctant to follow your call for fear of what it might cost.  You model sacrificial service when you kneeled to wash the feet of your disciples. Make us willing to follow your example, to surrender ourselves for the greater good of the world, knowing that the greatest love is the one that lays its life down for friends.  We thank you for your goodness and your grace.  We praise you and give thanks for all you are.  In the names of the Trinity.  AMEN

Friday, February 16, 2018

When Ashes and Love Mingle

This year, Ash Wednesday on the liturgical calendar coincided with Valentine’s Day on the secular calendar.  On the surface of things, the two days don't seem like they should go together.  But the rare convergence of chronos and kairos time that caused hearts and ashes to mingle this year provides an opportunity to contemplate the connection between these two observances a bit more.   I think, as we do, we discover that both observances celebrate love, each in a very different way.

When Ashes and Love Mingle
Valentine's Day is an in-your-face celebration of romantic love (eros), as we shower the one we love with gifts to prove to them just how much we love him or her.  It's sort of hard to miss because our culture clobbers us over the head with cards, flowers, chocolates, and all matter of other creative gifts for February 14.  In fact, the holiday is difficult for people who don't have that "special someone" in their life.   I remember when I was single, it wasn't my favorite day of the year.  When you were young, it was okay for your mom to give you Valentine's Cards; when one gets older, that's a bit more awkward.  When you were in elementary school they typically forced you to give a card to everyone in class, so you were sure to get some cards.  But at a certain age, the "artificial sources" of cards tend to dry up and you are on your own to find elusive eros.  I found myself on the outside looking in for many years until I met my wife. (Thank you e-Harmony!)   I must say I'm grateful I no longer have to navigate the world of dating. 

The kind of love displayed on Ash Wednesday isn't as obvious to the world—but I would argue it’s more real.   People see a bunch of people walking around with ashes on their forehead at the grocery store, or wherever, and wonder what the heck it means. Sometimes they see what the person is doing while they have the ashes imposed, and sense that something doesn't add up.  In general, the Ash Wednesday services we hold don't tend to draw near the attendance as the Easter Sunday services.  The focus of Ash Wednesday tends to be on our human mortality, and some find it a bit depressing and dark to think about death of themselves and those they love. I assure you that Hallmark doesn't do booming business selling cards that say: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

As we look to understand the type of love shown on Ash Wednesday, remember that Jesus once said to his disciples, "Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one's life for one's friend." In the same discourse, Jesus explains that he does not view his disciples as servants, but as friends—see John 15:12-17.  The broader context for this discussion is the Upper Room, where just hours earlier, Jesus showed his friends what he is now telling them as he kneeled and washed the feet of each disciple—even Judas's, whom he knows is about to betray him to the authorities—see John 13.  And not long after this, Jesus will go on to make the ultimate sacrifice for his friends in that room—and for all that have ever called, or will ever call, him friend.

Remember that you are dust.. and to dust you shall return.
The common practice on Ash Wednesday is to symbolically "put to death" or "reduce to ashes" something that we feel stands between us and a deeper walk with God.   We could say that the ashes symbolize purging away any love interest that gets in the way of our first love: God.  In essence, what Christians do on Ash Wednesday is to recommit to loving God above all else—even if it requires sacrificing something we cherish to do it.  Over time our love might grow lukewarm, and Lent is a season to light the fire of our first love again.  We're talking about more than giving up chocolate for 40 days here.  This is supposed to something that truly costs us to go without.  It's a sacrifice we make because we love Someone.

Although the liturgical season of Lent lasts for just six weeks prior to Easter, for followers of Jesus, Lent should be more than just a season—it's should be a lifestyle.  

So, whereas Valentine's Day celebrates eros, we can say that Ash Wednesday celebrates agape, the kind of love that is willing to die for a friend, if that's what it takes.  On Ash Wednesday Christians contemplate our own mortality, and the fact that every person we love will eventually die.  But we don't do it to depress ourselves but rather because, somehow, through letting a part of ourselves die, we are drawn closer to the heart of God.  We worship a God that, crazy as it seems at times, allowed Himself to die.   Jesus came to us as God in the flesh.   He was the image of God (Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3) whose nature is love (1 John 4:8), and he modeled that love for the world in every way, up to and including the way he died.   The Cross is the ultimate example of God's sacrificial love—of letting nothing stand in the way of Jesus's friends receiving God's love.  It turned out to be a love so strong that apparently even death could not stand against it—but that's getting ahead of the story.  We must first face the darkness to appreciate the light.  

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Dreaming God's Dream, Part III: Reclaiming the Dream—Baptismal Renewal

Did you know that God was a passionate dreamer too?  Here’s a good synopsis of God’s dream:

The aim of God in human history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons with God himself at the very center of the community as its prime Sustainer and most glorious Inhabitant—see Ephesians 2:19-22; 3:10.[1]

While God’s dream of walking with humanity dates all the way back to the creation stories of Genesis 1–2, and continues all the way to the new heaven and new Earth described in Revelation 21, the incarnation marks a specific manifestation that dream.  God has always wanted to be with God’s people.  Previous attempts have fallen short of what God dreamed of achieving, so God takes a dramatic step.  Through the birth of Jesus, God literally becomes one of us. God, the Author, becomes part of the Story. And God does so in a most unexpected way: as a helpless baby born in a manger.   The Creator experiences what it is like to be one of the created and is fully dependent on humans for his upbringing.  Through this experience, God gains full solidarity with humanity—and with all of creation. 

Jesus continues the dream of his Father.  He dreamed of a world where God was King, where what God desires becomes reality.  He dreamed of a world “put to rights”, one where original glory of creation is restored.  Such a world didn’t exist when Jesus lived, but he had a vision of what could be that motivated everything he said and did while he was alive.  Jesus inspired others to dream with him; they followed him and shared his dream with others as they went.  Eventually God’s vision came into conflict with Rome’s vision of reality.  After all, if God is King, then that means Caesar isn’t.  And in that conflict, there was never much doubt who would "win".  Ultimately Jesus was willing to die on a cross so that God’s dream might live on.

Baptism became an outward symbol for someone to publicly acknowledge that they too dreamed God’s dream.  John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, and down through the centuries, those who follow Jesus have been baptized.       

The world doesn't like dreamers all that much; they inconvenience and threaten the comfortable status quo.  (Rulers and authorities tend to rely on that status quo remaining in place.)  Just as they did with Barnum and King, the world will challenge and question dreamers every chance they get.  And if you are audacious enough to claim you dream God's dream, the world will really rage against you, calling you names and doing whatever it takes to silence you.  (Ask any Prophet about that one—including Jesus himself.) 

We remember our baptism, and we are thankful.
We reaffirm God's dream at work within us.
Perhaps this is why, every year, typically during the second week of January, many Christians reaffirm our dream with a liturgy of baptismal renewal.   It is an acknowledgment that while we need not be re-baptized again each year, we do need frequent renewal to sustain our continuing—sometimes grueling—spiritual and physical journey.  We are invited to come to the fountain, and dip our thirsty selves in its refreshing waters, and remind ourselves of the dream that is already alive in us: the dream of God’s Kingdom coming on Earth as it is in heaven.  

So we come full-circle, returning to where this series of posts began.  I came up with a modified lyric to "A Million Dreams" that I thought summarizes well what we reaffirm or reclaim in baptismal renewal.  Maybe we could call it our Dreamer's Declaration...

They can say, they can say that we are crazy.
They can say, they can say we’ve lost our mind.
We don’t care, we don’t care if they say we're crazy.
Come and pray for a world we help design.

Cause every night and every day.
The Word of God shows us the Way.
The dream of God is keeping us awake.

We think of how this world will be.
When the vision becomes reality.
A million prayers is what its gonna take.
Each dreaming dreams of the world God’s gonna make.

[1] From the Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible.