Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Doubting Thomas / Faithful Christ

This past Sunday was the first Sunday after Easter, and since the lectionary is in John this year for the season, we got to hear the tale of "doubting Thomas" found in John 20. I actually hate that phrase, because I think it misses the point of the story, but I'll say more about that in a minute. It was also "recovery Sunday" at my church, so we had some folks who were in the recovery process from alcohol and other addictions speaking and reading the Psalms for us, which was pretty cool. Although at a glance this story, in which Jesus appears to his disciple Thomas, who then demands proof that Jesus is truly who he says he is, doesn't necessarily tie with recovery, I thought it was particularly appropriate.

First of all, Thomas gets a really bad rap. Unlike Peter, who denied Jesus three times, at least Thomas had the gall to be straight forward about his feelings. But think about the situation. Thomas has spent the last three years following Jesus around, putting all his energy into learning from this radical guy who is talking about bringing about a new kingdom and the like, and then his teacher and friend is put to death. His life is kind of a mess. He's just spent three years on a job hiatus putting all his eggs into the Jesus basket which is now buried six feet under, or so it seems. Not to mention everything Jesus was preaching about can't be true if he's dead, so now what does Thomas have to believe in? He's probably in a pretty bad place emotionally.

This is kind of the position that addicts get to be in. They're at the end of their rope. Things aren't working out and they don't know what to do or how to go forward. But that's not just the story of addicts, but also maybe our story after a major disappointment like a job loss or a failed marriage, or maybe it's the pieces of your life after an unexpected illness has claimed your health and mobility, or even a death. We often find ourselves in this place of despair, where our lives feel so shattered that we're not even sure where to start looking for all the pieces, let alone picking them up and putting them back together. If we think about it, we've all got a bit of Thomas in us from time to time.

After Jesus has been crucified and raised from the dead, he appears to the disciples in a locked room, except poor Thomas isn't with everybody else. Maybe he's drowning his sorrows in wine or maybe he's looking for work, but he's not with them. Later they bump into him and tell him what has happened, but he can't believe it. And why should he? He just spent the last three years misplacing his faith in a dead guy, so why should he cling to what's gone? He is trying to put his life back together and get on with things. Thomas tells his buddies that unless he touches the wounds in Jesus' hands and feet from where he was hung on the cross, he won't believe it. He's still friends with the disciples, though, and so a week later they're all together and Jesus appears again. This time after greeting them with peace he walks right up to Thomas and offers his hands as proof of who he is. Thomas is awe struck and professes that this is God. Jesus says: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe."

And thus Thomas is ever thereafter identified not by his three years of committment to the gospel but by his moment of weakness and disbelief. Except, Thomas is never identified that way by Jesus. He's identified that way by us, and that's how we do things, isn't it? We often identify ourselves and others by their weaknesses: that's an addict, that's a victim, that's a criminal. It's never 'that's a person who recovered, that's a person who survived, that's a person who reformed.' Jesus doesn't meet Thomas with accusations, but with outstretched hands saying 'okay, you don't believe? Then let me help you.' His response to Thomas' failure to trust in God's word of promise is not a silly moniker or chiding but an invitation to taste and see the reality of the risen Christ standing in his living room. He never says 'shame on you for not believing' but merely points out that he believed because he saw, and others will be blessed because they may believe without having the opportunity to see for themselves.

This says two things to me. First, it means that whatever the broken remains of your life, Jesus is reaching out a hand in the midst of it to offer an encounter that will change your heart, open your eyes, or heal you. Christ meets our failure, disaster, sin, addiction, injury, and illness with the open arms of love. Therefore we shouldn't be identifying others, or ourselves, with the wrong we have done but with the good Jesus offers. Are you a sinner, addict, victim, or criminal? No, you are beloved. We have an amazing God who identifies us not by our worst but with Jesus' best! Secondly, this tells me that you are blessed. You are blessed in your doubt and unbelief and failure, because although you can't see him, you have been given an opportunity to encounter God. The apostle Paul is all about being made strong through our weakness, and that's exactly what happened for Thomas: he was offered Christ not in spite of but because of his doubt! It's through the ashes of a fallow field that a new crop grows. In other words, Jesus takes your worst and transforms it into an opportunity for faith and an encounter with the sacred.

The point isn't that Thomas was a doubter, but that Jesus is a savior who is present and loves us enough to meet us where we are, not demand we get to someplace higher in order to be worthy. We're all sifting through the ashes of our burned out lives in one way or another, whether it be an eating disorder, a broken relationship, or just a sense of apathy about our neighbors and world in need, and Jesus doesn't tell us to get out of the ashes, but hops in and starts digging with us until we can put it all back together. That's the power of God who becomes one of us; it's so that through his weakness, we can be made strong, and through his death, we can be brought to life because he's standing right beside us with open, nail-scarred hands offering faith, hope, and a new future in the middle of the worst life has to throw at us.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Warm Days and New Life

Today was the first warm day in a long, long time. It got up to the mid-70s for the first time in what feels like ever, but in reality was probably just about six months ago. It had been a long winter! In fact, here in Minnesota it's been a record breaking one--the harshest, most persistently cold winter in 35 years. We had several weeks of nothing above zero, and during those days when we wore two layers of long underwear, wool socks, snow boots, multiple sweaters, scarves, hats, gloves, and still felt cold, it seemed like the end would never come. Actually, the worst days were probably in March when it seemed so tantalizingly close, and those of up who grew up in warmer climates started to get really, really fed up with the continued drizzly-snowy 20s-30s. When the weather is that bad for that long, our moods start to reflect it. "How are you?" somebody would ask. "Cold. Tired. Depressed. Ugh."

But today was perfect, and not just because of the glorious, breezy mid-70s weather. For me, it started out with a quick warm up followed by two amazingly awesome Easter services. It probably sounds funny to describe a church service as "awesome" but it was. Despite being buried under a robe that I'm pretty sure heated up all those who wore them to about the point of combustion, and despite standing on sore feet for prayer after prayer and hymn after hymn, and despite the crowds, the exhaustion of holy week, and all that's wrong in the world, somehow, for me, it lightened everything. The same way that the warm weather finally melted the last, stubborn bits of snow, Easter services where we sang lots of high notes and heard a great sermon and sat together with friends to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, today somehow melted away for me a lot of what's wrong in the world and my life. It melted away a lot of uncertainty, for what the future might hold once I graduate from seminary in a couple months, and it melted away the anxiety, at least for a little while, of the situation in Ukraine. Today served as a reminder that, as Jason Gray writes in one of his wonderful songs: "Winter can make it seem like spring was never true, but every winter breaks upon the easter lily's bloom." In other words, the lily opens, the snow melts, we figure out who we are and what we're doing in our lives, and bad political situations do get resolved. Tragedies are grieved, and new life comes from them. That's what this day is all about. It was a perfect little snatch of the paradise we are promised in God's future. It's here, or at least it was today, for me.

My perfect day is not everybody's. Families in South Korea are currently grieving for the loss of possibly as many as two hundred or more lost in the ferry accident, and residents in the cities in eastern Ukraine are trying to go about their lives while armed men hold down their government buildings, and depression is real, and grief is real, and frustration is real, and that may have been today for you. But the thing is, even though it seems like the last time you had a perfect day was far away, it was there, as Jesus stood outside his own empty tomb, it was there. And at the same time, those lovely days, those good and beautiful days are promised to us. Jesus is with you in your winter, and Jesus will bring you to Easter again. As sure as he stood there before his puzzled disciples who touched the wounds on his hands and feet, you will also feel warmth on your face and a sense of love and well being in your heart. Happy Easter to you. Know that wherever you are in this journey of your life, Christ is leading you to Easter right now in your day to day grind, and in the life to come. Winter can never remain because Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Monday, April 14, 2014

What is lent, holy week, and easter?

For Christians around the world, the six weeks beginning with Ash Wednesday and leading up to Easter Sunday is a tradition and ritual that we know well. However, a friend of mine told me about the guy he had been seeing, how after Ash Wednesday this fellow laughed at my friend's ashes on his forehead. I think probably this person didn't mean any disrespect, but having heard even a lifelong Christian friend admit she didn't really understand the symbology of the ashes, I thought maybe I should write up a post on the whole shebang explaining it all. Christmas has the benefit of being a huge commercial holiday that's celebrated almost universally these days in some form or another, so the basic idea of the story ("Jesus is the reason for the season") has at least been circulated. I think people are less familiar with the significance of this season, so let me try to summarize the major features as briefly as possible.

The season of lent, which comes directly after the season of epiphany, kicks off with Ash Wednesday. Most people have probably heard of it mostly in relation to Mardi Gras or "Fat Tuesday" ("Shrove Tuesday," to some), which is the celebration before people start giving things up.

Ash Wednesday

This day marks the official start of the lenten season. To understand it, you have to know that the next six weeks (or 40 days, which excludes some days in case you figured out that the math doesn't work) is all about a journey toward Jesus' death on the cross. In order to sort of prepare our hearts for this long remembrance, we have a service where ashes are imposed in the shape of a cross on people's foreheads while saying "you are dust, and to dust you shall return." The point is to acknowledge our mortality. We know we're part of a fallen creation and understand that the result of that brokenness is death, for us, for those we love, and for the world. It's really easy to get caught up in life and forget about why we are Christians at all, and this is a reminder of why we need Jesus, why we need the cross, and most importantly why we need resurrection.


As I said, lent is the whole six week season. In this season, we journey toward the cross, recalling the life of Jesus through various stories like the raising of Lazarus and healing narratives. Traditionally, people will give up an indulgence for lent like coffee, chocolate, or even meat, while others will pick up a spiritual discipline like prayer or devotions. Personally, I don't think quitting coffee is going to bring me closer to Jesus. I attend mid-week services and stay engaged with my usual study. It's different for everybody. A lot of churches will have a Wednesday evening service which is meditative.

Palm/Passion Sunday

Palm Sunday, now also known as Passion Sunday is the Sunday right before Easter. In the story of Jesus, right before the passover, Jesus returns to Jerusalem knowing what is going to happen. People have heard of him and greet him like a king or prophet, waving palms and laying down their coats on the ground. This very kingly treatment is ironic for two reasons: first, the plot to kill him is already in motion, and second, because Jesus is really not the kind of king they expected! My understanding is that Palm Sunday used to stand alone but it became "Passion Sunday" because people weren't really attending the holy week services as much, so they kind of mashed up the whole story of the passover, betrayal, and crucifixion into one day.

Maundy Thursday

This is the celebration of the passover, where Jesus has the "last supper" with his friends/disciples. At this dinner, Jesus humbles himself to wash the feet of his disciples, something that is considered below his station as their teacher, but which symbolizes his humbling himself for the world. Jesus also institutes the words of the last supper (Eucharist or Communion): "This is my body, given for you; this is my blood, shed for you, do this in remembrance of me." Finally, during this Thursday service, we recall the betrayal of Christ which leads to his arrest. The service usually ends with the church alter being "stripped" and laid bare as Christ was. There is no benediction at the end of this service because it is seen not as an ending, but as the first part of a story which will end Easter Sunday.

Good Friday

Good Friday is the day of Christ's crucifixion. This is the most solemn service of the church year, and is often variable between traditions. One feature is a reading of the crucifixion story. Some churches do a "stations of the cross" where they lead meditations on each of the different things that happened during the crucifixion like the people casting lots for his clothes and the carrying of the cross to the hill Calvary where he dies. There is no communion at this service and usually the altar and cross are covered in black cloth. There is no benediction.

Vigil of Easter

The Easter Vigil is one of the coolest services out there. Historically, this was literally a vigil--people would come to church on Friday and then keep vigil in the church all night through Easter morning in prayer and meditation. Now this turns out to be a rather long (2-3 hour) church service where certain traditional readings are given. These readings include creation, the flood, the exodus, exile, a Romans passage, and a gospel passage, among others. The idea was to recount the whole life of God's people while awaiting the fulfillment of the promises God made way back to Abraham. This service often includes baptism, and is technically the conclusion of the other services and the beginning of Easter, so it generally ends with a celebration. A lot of churches have totally dropped this service even if they do the others, but if you ever have a chance to go I highly, highly recommend it!

Easter Sunday

The reason the other services didn't have a benediction is because as Christians we know that the end of the story is NOT death, but Christ defeating death and through that defeat raising us all up to life. The color of this service is white, the signifier of life and newness, and usually the church is filled to the brim with flowers! This is probably the most celebratory service that anybody will ever experience in a church, because this is what we're all about. This is the central profession of the church--that although we walk in the shadow of death, although we all submit to the grave, that the reality of power over the weak, of sin, of illness, of hatred and pain is NOT the reality that we will always live in. Instead, we look forward to our own resurrection with Jesus, the healing of all things. We celebrate Easter because we know that we are ultimately not subject to death anymore, and so we can look forward even in the midst of all our struggles with hope, because the God who made us and cares for us is for us, with us, and among us, raising us up every day.

So that, my friends, is what this season and its church services are all about. Personally, Easter is my favorite holiday! I love getting gifts and eating tasty food as much as the next person but for me, nothing beats the joy of waking up on Easter morning and singing "Jesus Christ is risen today!" knowing that I, along with millions of Christians around the world, truly believe that life is more powerful than death. Blessed holy week and happy Easter to you all! He is risen!

Easter is coming.

Somebody in the comments pointed out that this could be seen as putting words in people's mouths, but I just want to say that knowing the writer of this (and the narrator!) that I'm sure that was not the intent. I see the 'forward' reading as a rendition of the way it seems our reality is: futile and hopeless, and the reversal to be the gospel which "is foolishness to those who are perishing." Blessed holy week!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Sixty-nine years ago today (April 9th), thirty-nine year old Dietrich Bonhoeffer walked up to the gallows and was hanged for the role he played in the plot to kill Hitler. Though his life was cut tragically short, Bonhoeffer has written some of the most compelling and convicting words of any theologian. Despite the very different time he lived in, his words still ring true today. Let the martyrdom of this great Christian be a reminder to all of us that our faith, as Soren Kierkegaard said, is a restless thing, and that we should be ever on the move toward God's imagined future, which means fighting against injustice where we find it and loving this world back to life. As Bonhoeffer wrote: "Being a Christan is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God's will.” Where will your faith take you today?