Tuesday, March 22, 2011

When Our Models Don't Agree...


When you study the weather and how it works in detail as I have, you quickly realize that the atmosphere is a chaotic and constantly changing environment. The equations that describe its motion defy a simple solution. Many variables are changing all at once and predicting the weather turns out to be a very complex problem to solve—requiring the use of advanced mathematics I don’t think I ever fully understood. Now you know why I became a writer/editor!

Meteorologists reduce the complexity of the problem by making some simplifying assumptions about the behavior of the atmosphere. This constrains things a bit and allows us to come up with mathematical model of the atmosphere that we can use to predict tomorrow’s weather… and several days into the future. Every model is limited in its ability to predict the weather however—in many cases, precisely because of the assumptions made to simplify the problem.

Forecasters usually use several different models when they make a forecast. For example, when the National Weather Service makes a forecast, they run a whole group of these mathematical models together. Every day, a group of experienced forecasters get together and compare and contrast what the different models are saying to try and get the most complete picture of the real atmosphere possible before they issue a forecast. When the majority of the models are in close agreement about the evolution of the weather pattern, the forecasters can issue a forecast with more confidence than when the various models disagree. (You’ll often hear about these models whenever a snowstorm is the weather forecast. You may hear a forecaster make a statement like, “The models don’t agree…” or “The models are now in agreement.”)

Models are useful tools for helping to predict the behavior of the atmosphere, but the real atmosphere is more complex than any of the models—even the all the models combined fail to fully describe the real atmosphere.

Now, if the atmosphere is so complex to describe, then it only makes sense that the Creator of all that complexity is infinitely more complex to describe. On one hand it’s sort of silly to talk about “solving” God like we solve a math problem. As John Eldredge says it, “Life is not a problem to be solved it is an adventure to be lived.”

But on the other hand, I think drawing an analogy to meteorology has some merit. In both cases we try and take something extremely complex and simplify it so that we can make sense of it. Just like meteorologists model the atmosphere, theologians have likewise come up with various models that help us understand God. They represent our best attempts to make an infinite God more accessible and understandable to finite human beings.

Let’s consider a specific example. What purpose does the coming of Jesus serve in carrying out God’s plan for redeeming the world? Now, I’m sure we’ll all agree that’s a very complex problem, and then we’ll promptly disagree over the answer. Theologians have been disagreeing about this for centuries, so we are in good company. The fact is there are about as many answers out there as there are faith traditions.

We could call each answer a model of Jesus. Each model makes a starting assumption about the problem the human race faces, and provides an explanation how the “good news” of Jesus helps us solve that otherwise unsolvable problem.

In a sense, the theologians have done exactly what the weather forecast models do. By focusing on a single problem the human race faces, they have reduced a complex multi-faceted problem to one that is more tractable to solve. And in each case, Jesus is viewed as the solution to the problem.

The table below lists several of the most common models of Jesus. It comes from a book called A Generous Orthodoxy, where Brian McLaren shares the story of his own faith journey. In the book, McLaren explains that he was introduced to Jesus as a child, and outside of a brief “rebellious” period in his teen years, he has sought to follow Jesus his whole life. As he progressed on his journey he encountered the various faith traditions outlined below that helped him experience Jesus in new ways. Each tradition introduced him to a new model of Jesus. But McLaren didn’t feel that he had to reject the previous models to embrace the new one. Rather, he used each new model he learned about to get an increasingly more “complete” picture of the real Jesus.

Each new model of Jesus McLaren learned about filled in more and more “missing pieces” if you will, and answered “nagging questions” that remained. And I suspect if you asked McLaren, he would be the first to tell you that the quest to discover the real Jesus will continue for the rest of his life.

Type of Christian

(Name of Model)

Focus (Problem)

Good News (Solution)

Conservative Protestant

The human race is guilty of sin and wrongdoing.

Jesus’ death on the cross pays the full penalty for sin

Pentecostal

The human race is held down by disease and poverty.

Jesus teaches us how to receive miracles and healing from God through faith in God’s promises.

Roman Catholic

The human race is enslaved by death.

Jesus’ resurrection defeats death and liberates humanity.

Eastern Orthodox

The human race is spiritually sick and needs healing; it has dropped out of the dance of creation.

Jesus’ entry (or incarnation) into humanity and history brings healing to the human race and all of creation

Liberal Protestant

The human race suffers from ignorance of the teachings and ways of Christ.

Jesus’ example and teachings inspire us to work compassionately for social justice.

Anabaptist

The human race is divided and violent and needs to learn the ways of Christ in community.

Jesus convenes a learning community of disciples who seek to model lives of love and peace.

Liberation Theology

(non-violent)

Humanity is oppressed by corrupt powers, systems, and regimes.

Jesus commissions and leads bands of activists to confront unjust regimes and make room for the shalom of God.

Source: This Table is copied from A Generous Orthodoxy, Chapter 1, pp. 64-65.

When described this way, McLaren’s journey of faith sounds analogous to the process of making a weather forecast described previously. By using all these models McLaren gleans a ever-more complete (but never totally complete!) picture of the real Jesus. Likewise, the skilled forecaster is familiar with many models of the atmosphere and consults them all to gain the most complete picture possible of the real atmosphere before making his/her forecast.

What McLaren describes here has been dubbed a generous orthodoxy—hence the book title. It is a humble approach to faith that acknowledges that any human model of Jesus (or God) falls far short of describing the real Jesus (God) and we are best served by learning about and drawing from the strengths of each tradition.

I think we start to go astray when we assume any one model of Jesus is the only acceptable model. Sometimes, in our human arrogance, we come to a place where we think we’ve got God “solved” and we’re no longer open to learning about other models of Jesus. Before too long, we’re worshipping our particular model of God rather than the one, true, and living God. Anyone who doesn’t agree with our model is dismissed (sometimes literally!) as not worthy of consideration. We start calling them all kinds of nasty names—like heretic or some others I won’t repeat.

In my experience, it is a lot easier to demonize a total stranger than it is your friend. When we actually take the time to get to know people from different faith traditions who may think about and experience God in ways that are unfamiliar to us, we might find our experience of God enriched as a result.

Now, having said that, at the end of the day sometimes even good friends disagree; the issue is not so much that we disagree, but how we disagree. Yes, Jesus did pray that we’d be unified, but we’re human beings, not robots. I think it’s unrealistic to assume that Jesus assumed that being unified meant that we would all experience God exactly the same way and or all be together in one combined worship service.

If we are open to it, there is room for a wonderful diversity in the body of Christ. There are certain things that believers will generally agree on but there is a whole lot more that is up for debate. Again, God is more than all the models combined!

Because I respect my friend as a fellow follower of Jesus I am willing to give him/her the benefit of the doubt and assume that, like me, he/she is doing the very best they can as a finite creature to understand an infinite Creator. Even if I don’t share my friend’s perspective, there might be something God wants me to learn from them, so I had better not dismiss their point of view too quickly. And I certainly shouldn’t be presumptuous enough to condemn my friend to a place of eternal, conscious torment just because they disagree with me about whether such a place literally exists—or about any other “litmus test” we could list here that defines orthodox belief.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lent: Journeying to the "Dark Side" With Jesus

Lent calls us to journey to the “dark side” with Jesus and contemplate his suffering and death on the cross. Many choose to skip this journey, and focus almost exclusively on resurrection. But if we choose not to follow Jesus to the foot of the cross, how can we possibly grasp the full significance of the empty tomb on Easter Morning?

Lent is a season in our Christian calendar when we focus on the hardship, suffering, and death of Jesus—we might call it that “dark side” of Jesus. During this season, the lectionary scripture readings follow Jesus from the “bright light” of the Mount of Transfiguration as he descends to the “darkness” of cross of Calvary… and in due time… rises again on Easter morning.

Lent is certainly not as upbeat as Advent and Christmas. Most of us would probably rather skip directly from Christmas to Easter Sunday. In fact, many Christians take that quite literally—i.e., they attend church on Christmas and then don’t come back until Easter. There was a time when Lent was the season where new converts to Christianity were prepared for Baptism, but that isn’t so much the case anymore. (We usually do this on Easter or Pentecost Sunday since attendance is higher those weeks.)

In our modern Western individualistic, consumer-driven culture, it seems that entering into the Lenten journey is now seen as optional. (Until fairly recently, you would be hard pressed to find an Ash Wednesday service in most Protestant churches.) If you choose to do the whole sackcloth and ashes thing during Lent, that’s great, but it’s not required. But if we choose not to journey to the “dark side” with Jesus during Lent then I have to wonder just how meaningful his resurrection can possibly be to us?

In general, our modern world is a world of unbelievable personal comfort and convenience and we don’t like to spend too much time thinking about the “dark side” of life. We are apt to “change the subject” quickly and move on to more pleasant conversation. That may explain why churches are often packed to capacity on Easter Sunday, but not very crowded during Lent. It’s not all that difficult to understand really: Resurrection is simply more uplifting than hardship, suffering, and death!

Jesus experienced a bit of this during his ministry. Every time Jesus bought up the idea that the Messiah would have to suffer and die, his disciples really wanted to “change the subject” and talk about something else more pleasant. They certainly didn’t want to believe that their Messiah would have to die! How could he be the liberating king who would lead the Jews to freedom if he ended up getting arrested and killed by the very people who were holding the Jewish people in bondage? They just couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) allow themselves to comprehend that suffering and death were part of the package. Eventually they would learn… but not until well after the resurrection.

My wife and I have also lived this reality. Most know that we gave birth to twin girls in May 2008; Rebecca was healthy but Hope never breathed on her own and passed from life support to life eternal two days after her birth. Naturally the loss of our daughter had a tremendous impact on both of us and we really needed to be able to talk about it. But finding a safe place to do that was hard—at times it seemed all but impossible! It seemed like whenever we would bring up our grief, whether it be with our family or in our church, the subject was quickly changed and it became very clear that we were “expected” to talk about more pleasant things. Like the disciples who didn’t want to hear Jesus talking about his impending suffering and death, our friends and family didn’t seem to want to hear too many of the details of the “dark side” of our life. I’m quite sure that others could share similar experiences as they have lived through seasons of hardship, suffering, and death. I probably have done the same thing when faced with someone else’s grief. The fact is, when our journey takes us to the “darker side” of life it tends to be a lonely road for us to walk.

Lent is a time when we intentionally choose to journey to the “dark side” with Jesus. And I believe that until we stop viewing the “Lenten Journey” as optional—it wasn’t for Jesus and it’s not for us—we will never fully experience the full impact of the resurrection on Easter Sunday.

If we embark on the “Lenten Journey” with Christ from Caesarea–Philippi to Jerusalem that starts in the bright light of the transfiguration, and we stick with him all the way to the foot of the cross on Good Friday, we will inevitably be changed along the way[1]. Something happens to us when we are in the darkness that can happen in no other place. When we voluntarily choose to enter into hardship, suffering, and death—both our own and Jesus’—it forces us to move closer to God. We reach a place where we cannot pierce the darkness on our own. God must illuminate the path ahead and guide our every step. God must remove the obstacles that prevent us from “seeing” and experiencing the intimate relationship we were created to enjoy with our Creator. Only God can purge away those things that separate us from that union.

But of course we would prefer to skip over the darkness. As he did with his first followers, Jesus again and again asks us to stay with him there in the darkness, but at every turn we try and avoid it. The darkness may teach us lessons vitally important to our formation as followers of Christ, but it also tends to bring with pain and suffering, and none of us like that. We all would like to think that we will stick with Jesus no matter what happens, but it’s surprising what happens when we are put under pressure. That’s when the “rubber hits the road” and we see what’s really inside us. And sometimes, to be frank, it’s not pretty.

Consider the earliest followers of Jesus as an example. Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter denied Jesus, and every single one of his followers abandoned him in his darkest hour. But lest we be tempted to point fingers at them—When the darkness descends on our lives aren’t we all capable of betraying, denying, and abandoning Jesus?

As we follow Christ’s Lenten Journey to the end, it passes through dark places like the Upper Room, Gethsemane, and Golgotha. And if we would follow after Jesus, then we too must be willing to go to these kinds of places and stay there for however long is necessary. We must not expend all our energy trying to avoid the shadows, but rather allow them to do their work in our lives. The good news is we don’t have to make these dark journeys by ourselves. In Jesus, we have someone who has already been “there and back again” as it were; God promises to always be “with us” even in the darkest of places; and the Holy Spirit will serve as our guide. I pray that as we embark on the Lenten journey this year, you and I will be willing to go wherever it leads us, and drawn closer to God. I hope our journey opens us up to experience the reality of the risen Lord in our lives like never before.


[1] The “Lenten Journey” I reference is most clearly depicted in Mark’s Gospel—Chapters 8­–15. See The Last Week, Chapter 4, pp. 91-107.

Let the Ashes Linger

A repost from the "archives" but good for Ash Wednesday...

It is a tradition at many churches to mark the beginning of Lent with an Ash Wednesday service. Usually near the end of the service, participants are symbolically marked with the sign of the cross using ashes that are made from the withered palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. We are reminded that like those Palm Branches, “We are dust, and to dust we shall return.” We’re asked to confront and contemplate our own mortality and to remember the death of Jesus and what it means to us. That’s not easy for us. I for one hate thinking about my own mortality or that of others. I hate going to funeral homes; they make me feel creepy. I know death is a part of life, but I confess that I am still uneasy in that realm.

St. John of the Cross was a Carmelite monk who lived during the sixteenth century. He was one of the greatest poets of the Spanish Renaissance and a leading authority of Western mysticism. John’s writings focused the soul's journey toward God, and detailed the three stages of spiritual progress: purgation, illumination, and union. John essentially believed that the only way we can “go deeper” in our relationship with God is to first let God “burn away” ignorances and imperfections, habitual, natural, and spiritual, that separate us from God—purgation. Once we begin to remove those impediments to our progress, we can experience illumination and have “eyes to see” clearly who God is and move toward a deeper, more intimate relationship—union—with God.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I would just assume skip purgation, and jump right to illumination and union. Purgation (i.e., burning away) sounds messy and painful. I want to go deeper in my relationship with God; I want to be transformed into a new creation; but I want to do it on my terms; I want to take an easier road that doesn’t require much of me, that doesn’t cost anything, that pretty much lets me stay in control of the process.

I imagine John of the Cross knew we’d be tempted to skip the hard part of the process. He said, “The gate entering into these riches of wisdom [e.g., illumination and union] is the cross, which is narrow, and few desire to enter by it but many desire the delights obtained from entering there.

Personally, I fear that too often, the cross marked on my forehead on Ash Wednesday only goes skin deep. I quickly forget about it when I wash it off in an hour or two later. But the season of Lent should force us to linger on the cross and particularly, on the death of Christ. We need to remember that without Christ’s death on the cross, there is no resurrection; the two are inseparable. We have a tendency to want to rush to the celebration of Easter—it’s only natural to do this and avoid having to dwell on the unpleasantness of death—but I believe Easter Sunday will be all the more significant to us if we allow ourselves to fully experience the season of Lent, which includes somber services such as those on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Marcus Borg says it well.

“The Lenten journey, with its climax in Holy Week and Good Friday and Easter, is about participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Put somewhat abstractly, this means dying to an old identity—the identity conferred by culture, by tradition, by parents, perhaps—and being born into a new identity—an identity centered in the Spirit of God. It means dying to an old way of being, and being born into a new way of being, a way of being centered once again in God.”

Lent reminds us that there is no easy road to transformation. To experience change that goes more than skin deep, the cross has to be given time to penetrate into the very core of who we are, and that has to begin with purging away all that holds us back. It’s hard to come face-to-face with our mortality, with who we are right now, with all our sins and imperfections—and trust God to enter into that mess and transform it into something beautiful. It seems quite risky to let God have control. It’s hard to admit that we’ve looked to things other than God to define who we are, and to make a conscious choice to detach from those things so that we can connect to God. But we have no choice but to do this if we would have our eyes opened and our hearts illuminated and experience deeper union with God.

We must allow God to burn away everything that blocks us from having a deeper relationship with Him, and there’s no getting around the fact that the process might be difficult and messy. We’ll have to confront the good, the bad, and the ugly in our life, and there may be some pain involved in burning away the bad and the ugly in us. I think ultimately, what makes purgation hard for me, and I suspect for all of us, is to believe that when the process is done there is still something left worth redeeming. But I suppose that is where we must trust the wisdom of John of the Cross who no doubt spoke based on his own experience. God assures us that the flames will not consume the core of who we are, but will rather purge away the impurities so that what is left behind is the truest expression of who we really are—defined by a deeper loving union with our God. And I don’t know about you, but that’s what I long for; to me it’s worth the risk to be set free to become the person that God has created me to be.

So, as you receive the Ashes this year, I pray that you will let them linger and do their transforming work in your life. Don’t rush to “wash them away”; let them penetrate you to your core. Let God burn away all that is in you that is not of God, and open your eyes and illuminate your heart that you may know Him more intimately. Spend time pondering what it meant for Christ to die for us, and what it means to die to yourself during the season of Lent, so that come Easter morning you will experience the significance of the resurrection as you never have before.

· What’s your reaction to the idea of purgation, that God needs to burn away whatever prevents you from knowing him more intimately and that it might be a painful process? Do you avoid going deeper with God because of what it might “cost” you?

· How do you feel when you think about Christ’s death on the cross? Your own death? Why does death make us so uncomfortable? Is it possible to come to a point where death isn’t so scary?

· How does the idea of letting go apply in the context of the Body of Christ? How would things be different in church if we lived out not [our] will but yours be done Lord?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Eyewitnesses to the Extraordinary

“Peter. … Peter! Wake up Peter! The Master needs us. Time to rise and shine!”

Jolted from deep sleep, I said with a start, “What? Who? John?! What are you… What time is it?”

“What difference does that make, just get up. The Rabbi needs us… now!”

“Spoken like a true morning person. Remember John, some of us can’t just roll out of bed the way you and our Master can.”

“Nonsense, anybody can be a morning person if they want to. Come on, Jesus made it clear last night that he wants to get an early start. We don’t want to be late.”

Like my chipper friend John, our Master Jesus seemed to love the early morning hours. He was up before dawn almost every day, sometimes disappearing from camp for hours, and he had this way of expecting the rest of us to join him more often than I personally liked. John, on the other hand, loved it. Maybe that’s why John would later be known as the one Jesus loved… they had such similar personalities it could be scary sometimes.

I started to get out from under the blankets at this point, shaking off the chill of the early morning, and forcing myself to function at a ridiculously early hour. To John I said, “I’m coming. I’m coming.” All the while I grumbled inwardly. I was definitely not a morning person, but I especially hadn’t slept well after the disturbing conversation the Rabbi and I had yesterday in Caesarea–Philippi.

Yes, Caesarea–Philippi, capital city of Philip’s domain; a region far removed from our home in Capernaum near the Sea of Galilee. There, in the looming shadow of a huge rock formation dotted with current and former shrines to the Gentile gods, and in full view of various other temples and shrines past and present, I had proclaimed Jesus the Messiah. And Jesus commended me for my wisdom and proclaimed me, Peter, The Rock on which he would build his Church. He even went on to say that the very Gates of Hades would not prevail against me. But then, not more than a few minutes later, when I started questioning him about the details, he got very upset with me and said: “Get behind me Satan!” Can you imagine the shock I felt? Talk about emotional whiplash!

“Come on Peter. We have to get going!” John’s call shook me from my remembrances.

“I said I’m coming. What’s going on anyway? Where are we going? And why do we have to start so early?”

“I don’t know much more than you do. Just that he wants us ready now.”

“And of course you were more than willing, as always, to be the Rabbi’s messenger.” As John and I walked over to where Jesus was, I couldn’t help but notice that only one other person was standing with him—John’s brother James, the other half of the Sons of Thunder.

“I can’t help it if the Rabbi and I connect in ways that you don’t,” John continued. “Sometimes you just need to think before you speak. Like last night… what were you thinking rebuking the Master that way. I’m glad he set you straight.”

“Oh you just ate that up didn’t you, John! No doubt you took good notes to document my public humiliation. You know very well that I just vocalized what the rest of you were thinking but didn’t have the courage to say.”

At this point we made it over to the others. James looked up from where he was getting his gear together. “Are you two at it again?! I heard you a mile away. Can’t you all go five minutes without squabbling?”

“Top of the morning to you too James. I see you woke up in a lovely mood as always.”

“I’m impressed Peter. You’re upright and dressed before the Sun is up.”

“Look James, don’t you start too.”

“Gentlemen. Can we please not disturb the peacefulness of the morning with all this bickering?” At this point Jesus who had been kneeling tending the fire spoke up. “Are we all ready to go?” He stood up and offered me some bread and fish. “A little early for you I know Peter, but you’d better eat something as we have a long journey ahead of us today.”

“What about the others? Aren’t they coming?”

“Actually, no,” Jesus said glancing over where the other nine disciples were camped out. “They aren’t coming with us today. This journey is just for the four of us.”

As I stood there nibbling on a meager breakfast and still trying to wake up, I looked over my shoulder enviously at the nine that were still sleeping peacefully and halfway wished I was still with them. On the other hand, the Rabbi seemed to have formed a special bond with James, John, and myself, and I kind of liked that. This wasn’t the first time Jesus has taken just the three of us with him on a journey. “So, where are we going today?” I asked, stifling a yawn.

“Mountain climbing,” Jesus replied and motioning toward Mount Hermon looming in the distance, barely visible in the dim light of morning, whose summit was shrouded in fog.

“Come again?!” I said, almost choking on my water and fish. I sometimes glimpsed Hermon’s majestic peaks from afar on clear days while doing my work as a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee. I never dreamed I would get a chance to see them up close.

“You heard me right. I figured after the past week, we might enjoy a little time away for recreation and reflection.”

Well, that was an understatement; it had been quite a week for me—a physically demanding journey far away from our home to a totally foreign place that culminated in an emotional confrontation that called into question everything I thought I knew about my Master and our mission. So many questions raced through my mind as we set out for Mount Hermon that morning. Everything I thought I knew about who I was and who Jesus was seemed to be up for grabs. I hoped this trip up the mountain might help me gain some clarity.

***** ***** *****

Mountain climbing was certainly a new experience for all of us. Galilean fishermen aren’t noted for their mountaineering skills, though wouldn’t you know Jesus seemed a natural. I always enjoyed new challenges, though, especially physical ones. I had to admit it was a lot of fun. Even John, who was clearly not as much an outdoorsmen as I was, seemed to have a good time—though he still found time to journal at night. I shudder to think about what he might be recording about me.

The climb was pretty strenuous in places, however, and it seemed harder to breathe than it was at sea level where we had spent most of our lives. We put in long days and were exhausted come evening. All the rigorous physical activity was a good release and helped me to forget about all that had happened for a time; but after dark, when things got quiet around the campsite, my thoughts were inexorably drawn back to our exchange in Caesarea–Philippi and all the confusing questions that it had stirred up within me. I so much wanted a chance to talk to the Rabbi about what had happened, but it seemed like every time I tried, either I couldn't find the words or James or John would get talking to Jesus about some seemingly trivial matter.

It wasn’t until well into our expedition that I finally got my chance. We were camped out somewhere a good ways up the mountain. James and John were already sacked out for the evening and Jesus and I were sitting at the campfire as the embers began to fade. It was definitely chilly at this higher altitude. At certain times of year, the higher slopes of Hermon are covered with snow, but tonight’s weather was clear and crisp. The stars shown brightly above and the moon was full, basking the landscape in silvery luminescence.

“You’ve been wanting to say something to me, this whole trip, haven’t you Peter?”

Good grief. I hate it when he does that! I’d been trying to find a way to start this conversation for days, and he beats me to the punch. I should be used to it by now I guess. The Rabbi just had this way about him of knowing exactly what you were thinking at any given moment.

“Come on,” said Jesus, “You usually don’t hesitate to speak and I like that about you. Just tell me what you’re thinking.”

Glancing over, I confirmed that John and James were indeed fast asleep. I wanted this conversation to be off the meticulous official record that John kept for us. Seeing the telltale rise-and-fall of John’s snoring I felt more at ease to speak. “It’s just that, for once, I’m… I’m not sure what to say. I mean… it’s all a bit confusing.”

“You’re talking about what happened down in Caesarea–Philippi aren’t you?”

“Of course I am! Master, that whole day has a surreal quality to me. It was kind of like a dream that turned into a nightmare. I felt like I was exalted one minute and then humiliated the next. It just felt like you used me to teach a lesson… I… I have so many questions.” I picked up a stick and fiddled around trying to stoke the flickering flames. I couldn’t really bring myself to look at him directly.

Jesus did not rush to try and defend himself. He simply did what he always did when one of his students talked to him—he listened to us as if we were the most important person in the world. I knew it was safe to continue to speak frankly with my teacher and friend. “I’m just confused, Rabbi! I mean… I’ve wracked my brain over this the past week. If I was right the other day and you really are the Messiah—the liberating king we’ve been expecting for centuries—then I can’t reconcile how your death can be part of the plan? How can you liberate us if you yourself are killed? It just doesn’t make sense to me! I know you got upset when I questioned you, and I’m sorry for being so disrespectful to you in public, but I just don’t get it.”

“Peter you get it more than you realize, and more than most of the others. That’s why I chose you to come on this journey. You weren’t wrong about who I am and I wasn’t confused or conflicted when I named you The Rock.”

I was confused and agitated. “Then why did you call me Satan the other day?! I mean I have to tell you, that hurt. How can I be The Rock and Satan at the same time?”

“I know what I said sounded harsh, and I don’t like hurting your feelings. But I also knew that you have inner strength of character to get past your surface feelings and hear what I’m really saying to you. You see Peter, just as rocks grow stronger with time, God is still molding you, and there are some imperfections that need to be removed before you can fulfill your destiny. Right now you are still soft and pliable like the stone in those caves down below through which the waters flow. But just as rocks grow stronger when they are exposed to heat, the forge of life will strengthen you. In time you will be as strong as the bedrock that holds up this very mountain. Then, my words will be proven true—not even the Gates of Hades will prevail against you.”

I was still having trouble taking all this in, and Jesus could tell. He stood up and grabbed me by the shoulders looking me directly in the eyes. “Peter, you have such potential within you; I’ve seen it since the day I called you from your fishing nets along the Sea of Galilee to follow me and become a fisher of men. But you struggle to believe in me and in what God can do through you. You are still young, rash, and impulsive and you’ve got a lot of pre-conceived notions of who the Messiah should be that need to be purged before you’ll be able to see me as I really am. For now, all I’m asking of you is to be open to seeing things in a new way. Let me lead you where you need to go even if it’s not where you want to go. Don’t be afraid if the territory is different from what you’re used to; remember, I’m always with you on the journey. You’ve only seen glimpses of the Kingdom so far; you still have much to learn before you’re ready. Don’t rush to claim your glory; don’t try to force things. Walk in step with me and with God. Don’t grow impatient and try and take control and assume you know the story should end. Trust me, you can't imagine how this story ends. It’s beyond your wildest dreams.”

As I looked into Jesus’ eyes, those eyes that seemed like they pierced your very soul, I felt a sense of peace. I was still confused, but on a deeper level, I was feeling better. “Master, I’m glad you have such faith in me and I hope I will not disappoint you. It’s just so hard to understand all of this… I just wish I could get some sort of clarity about how all of this was going to play out…”

“It’s late, Peter, we should get some sleep. Maybe things will seem clearer by morning.”

As was typical when you talked with the Rabbi, our conversation ended as abruptly as it started, and I was left to ponder what Jesus said to me as I drifted off to sleep bathed in the light of the full moon above.

***** ***** *****

“Peter! Peter! Wake up! You definitely want to see this.”

Roused from sleep yet again I exclaimed, “Oh!! Not again! John... Will you please let me sleep a little longer for once?!”

“Peter! He’s right. I think you do need to see this.” Wait, James was standing there looming above me too? Experience tells me that while one could ignore one of the Sons of Thunder, it was almost impossible, and usually unwise, to ignore them both. As I rubbed the sleep from my eyes I found myself shielding from what seemed like noonday brightness. Gosh, had I slept that long?

And that’s when I saw what they both were talking about. There, not more than a hundred feet away was Jesus standing and conversing with two other people. I wasn’t sure who I was looking at, but John knew and he whispered to me. “The one with the long beard is Moses… and if I’m not mistaken the other wiry looking fellow is Elijah the Prophet.”

I rubbed my eyes to make sure I was seeing clearly. I even pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming but I was seeing all this with my waking eyes. As the three of us stood there dumbfounded, we all saw Jesus in a way we had never seen him before; it was as if he changed before our eyes. It became clear that the source of the bright light was not the Sun but Jesus himself. Bright light was pouring from his face and illuminating the entire area around us. The very clothes he wore became pure white.

I started to say something, but John cuffed my mouth. “Peter! Just be quiet for once and listen. I want to hear what they are saying.” He was sitting there, scroll and stylus in hand. Good grief! Did he sleep with that thing?! But even I had to admit it might be good to document this event, and John was nothing if not thorough.

We couldn’t hear everything that was said but heard enough to know that they were conversing about some major event that was going to take place in Jerusalem and Jesus was going to be involved. We heard them use the word exodus to describe it—which means departure. So Jesus was getting ready to depart some time soon? Where was he going…? Then, in an instant my mind flashed back to our conversations down at Caesarea–Philippi and then last night. I began to connect the dots and I was overwhelmed with emotion.

I couldn’t contain myself any longer; James and John tried to restrain me but there was no doing that at this point. I ran over to where the three men were. "Master, this is a great moment! I think I see what you meant now… well… kind of. What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah?"

Just then a cloud of light enveloped all of us and it was as if the very essence of who God is that traveled was with our people all throughout history rested upon us in that moment. And if that wasn’t enough, we heard a voice speak from within the cloud saying, "This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him."

You can imagine in that moment we are all terrified. (It’s funny how when God shows up, we mortals are often scared to death.) I hadn’t realized it, but the voice had startled me so much that I buried my face in the ground. But Jesus took me by the hand, helped me to my feet, and said, “Don’t be afraid Peter.” When I looked up, the other two men were gone and only Jesus was standing before me. His face still glowed with an otherworldly quality.

He hugged me close, and as he did he whispered in my ear, “Now, my friend, you have a glimpse of how the Story ends. But trust me, there’s much more that you need to see before you know the whole story.” He didn’t say anything more. He walked over to where James and John were huddled on the ground and said something to each of them no doubt assuaging their fears as well.

***** ***** *****

As we walked down off Mount Hermon together, we were all fairly quiet and introspective. Jesus told us, “There will come a time for you to proclaim to the whole world what you saw here today, but for now let’s keep it between us. You’ll know when the time is right.” We each pondered in our hearts what that night had meant to us and tried to make sense of what Jesus was telling us. I don’t think any of us fully understood the significance of what had happened until much later, after Jesus was raised from the dead—in a sense the end of the Story Jesus spoke of, but in another, just the beginning.

I for one still don't know quite what happened near the summit of Hermon that night. I would guess that the three of us would each describe the details of that night differently but I think we all agree that we were eyewitnesses to something extraordinary. In that moment heaven touched earth. I truly believe I saw Moses and Elijah with my own eyes, and I definitely saw Jesus in a new way up on that mountain. For the first time I knew beyond knowing that Jesus was in fact the Messiah—the Son of God. I had answered Jesus correctly down in the city, but before I answered with my head, and now I could answer with both my head and my heart. At the time, I don’t think I fully grasped how important that night was for our future. Looking back, however, it was a real turning point for us. From that day forward, we began to see Jesus for who he really was, rather than who we wanted him to be.

In time I came to realize that Jesus was indeed our liberating king, but he wouldn’t set us free by leading a military uprising against the Romans. Instead he would set us free by becoming a suffering servant for all of us—Jews and Gentiles alike. We began to realize that, like Jesus, we would have to endure suffering and hardship for the sake of our faith. It became clear to us in retrospect that Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him was meant to be more than just another political slogan; it needed to become a daily reality for those of us who followed Him. We realized that we cannot truly stand upon the mountain of God until we pass through the valley with Jesus.

After our journey to the mountain we would return to the other nine disciples and head back home to Galilee to continue our ministry. Soon enough we were immersed in healing the sick, feeding the hungry, seeking justice for the oppressed and poor, and so forth. The demands of our daily life were as hard as ever and I certainly had moments where I was reminded that I was still a work in progress—where I felt more like Satan than I did The Rock. We returned home to even more religious and political upheaval over our ministry that would eventually lead to our Master’s arrest and crucifixion by the Romans. But through it all, we had a renewed sense of purpose that sustained us and kept us going forward. We knew we were walking in the footsteps of our teacher and friend—Jesus—and that we each had an important role to play right now. I was committed to stick with Jesus to the end and to do all I could to embrace the essence of who God had made me to be. Though God was still shaping me every day, I was indeed The Rock just as Jesus had said, and along with the other disciples, I would help to spread the Gospel to Jerusalem, to Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Something is Trying to Be Born

Yesterday, my wife shared on Facebook that:

"Over three years ago, we underwent In Vitro Fertilization en route to getting pregnant with our twins. Three embryos remained after that cycle and were 'cryopreserved'. Four months ago, after much prayer, we donated those embryos to a couple who has been trying for a very long time to have a baby. Today, they will attempt to transfer one of them. We pray that the embryo takes hold and that a new life begins."

These embryos were created in September 2007 when our twins (Rebecca and Hope) were conceived. At that time Laurie and I decided to preserve them until we determined our future family plans. After much soul searching, we decided we didn’t want to use the remaining embryos ourselves. So the next question we had to answer was: If we’re not going to use them ourselves then what do we do with them? These embryos had sacred value to us and we did not want to simply discard them. We contemplated donating the embryos for scientific research, but as we prayed and sought the Lord’s guidance, we decided that what we really wanted to do was donate them to another couple.

There was a growing sense within us that we wanted to give another couple the gift of hope. Such a gift would be particularly fitting since the infant daughter we lost was named Hope.

Thus began a long quest to find a couple we felt would be suitable to receive our embryos. After several years, a couple of false hopes, and more than a few unpredicted twists and turns along the way, we donated them to Mike and Kathleen in Michigan. With that decision, our own fertility journey ended, but we enter into an exciting new possibility with this other couple. A friendship has already been formed and we are hoping and praying that the connection between our two families grows deeper over time.

In some ways we feel we’ve already done a very good thing just by giving these embryos away. We’ve given Mike and Kathleen hope that they did not have previously. But we also admit that we have the audacity to ask for more. We hope this is just the beginning of the goodness God has in store.

If our own fertility journey has taught us anything, it is that the outcome of all this rests not with us but with God. Nevertheless, we continue to pray and we ask you our friends and family to continue "bombard heaven with your prayers" that a child will result from the gift of these embryos. A new baby always brings with it hope and promise, but it would be especially meaningful in this specific case. It would be some real goodness coming out of the convergence of two difficult and, at times, painful journeys to forge a family.