For Amanda: Impressions of a Love Story

Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .

–C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

When I met my wife, she had curly hair, tamed only inasmuch as a lion is tamed.  Her hair was so big, per Mean Girls, because it was full of secrets.  Aren’t we all?  She wore long, flowing dresses or bell-bottom jeans with a flower design and flip-flops.  She had a small stud ring in her nose that was easy to forget about until it caught the light.  When we first spoke, we were in the green room of an outdoor amphitheater in the early spring of 2010.  We were doing the read-through for a Shakespeare review entitled Shakespeareance.  She was the stage manager and I was an actor.  I had worked at this theater for years, but this was her first show with the company.  So I sat down next to her and asked, “what are you doing here?”  It came out a bit harsher than I intended.  So I stumbled awkwardly into a correction, “I don’t mean like ‘what the hell are you doing here?’, just what are you doing with the show.”  She smiled at me the way you smile at a slightly daft child (she worked, I would find out later, in child care) or, come to think of it, the way a stage manager smiles at an actor.  Her eyes were an indefinable shade of hazel mixed with green.  It wasn’t love at first sight, but I liked her.  We bonded over a shared love of the band needtobreathe and with a similar sense of humor.  We kept finding ourselves together during the run of the show.  I’m not sure why.  Or maybe I am.

****

I think we found each other in our shared sadness.  That doesn’t make for a heartwarming or romantic story.  But there it is.  Neither of us had tragic circumstances; my life had been remarkably, unfairly lucky.  She was a child of divorce (albeit one that happened while she was in her late teens), but no great calamity haunted her.  Yet we felt in each other a mutual understanding of a nameless sadness, a haunting ache.  I would come to discover that she was only five years removed from an addiction to self-harm (safety pins, arms and legs), and later that year she invited me to celebrate the anniversary of Jesus saving her from its clutches.  Perhaps I knew I loved her even then.  I don’t know.  My name is Christopher, which means “Christ-bearer”, and her name is Amanda, which means “worthy of love”.  Neither of us felt that we lived up to our names, and maybe that is why we felt incomplete.  Everyone who does theater, who produces art of any kind, is looking for something.  Perhaps Amanda and I were just looking for each other.  She fell in love with my dark, dark brown eyes.  And I fell in love with the mystery of hers, with their colors that changed kaleidoscopically.  She always wondered how I knew that she was sad.  I saw it in her eyes.  I would ask how she was doing and she would say “wonderful” and I knew that bullshit because I’d spent my life peddling it.  I’m an actor, after all.  Just put on the damn mask and tell people you’re fine.  Nobody really cares.  But she did, and I did.  That’s the heart of every love story, I suppose.  Just finding someone who cares about you, the you that you don’t share with the world, and caring about them back.  When she would get emotional watching the scenes from Hamlet (a play about depression), I would rub her back.  I drove her home when her ankle was injured (her ankle was always injured).  And she listened to me as if what I had to say mattered.  There is no great narrative here, no sweeping love story.  Just two broken people sharing their brokenness.  When she cried, her eyes turned bright green.  And I would hold her head against my chest and close my eyes and wonder how shared sadness could feel so much like joy.

****

Two of the unsung joys of life, in my humble opinion, are being backstage during a show and laying on the ground looking at the stars.  At the amphitheater, you could do both.  Amanda and I would lay side-by-side and gaze at the sky, as the incomparable words of Shakespeare drifted over from the stage.  And we would talk about everything and nothing.  Something about looking at the sky, with cool night air and the grass tickling my ears, opened me.  We talked about how we felt stuck and scared; we talked about what we loved and what we hated; we talked about the silly and the trivial.  And sometimes we just lay there in a silence that words could not express.  Ironically, one of the scenes that often played as we communed was Romeo & Juliet.  It only seems romantic in retrospect.  Even at the time, though, it felt holy.  It is not too over-dramatic to say that those moments probably saved my life.  Not that I was suicidal — I just was dead inside.  I had grown thick and effective calluses.  Those cool spring nights chipped away at my defenses.  Amanda was assaulting the fortress of my misery with her kindness.  Dear reader, I am here to tell you not to underestimate kindness.  Despair, fear, hatred, even death itself cannot stand against it.  After the show was over and we had gone our separate ways, she sent me an email:  “Dear Christopher, I miss your nose.  The end.  –Amanda” (she has a thing for big noses, and my prominent proboscus certainly qualifies).  I missed her, too.  Dammit, how inconvenient.  I was not looking for a relationship.  But, as the old saying goes, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.  We would reunite for another show in the fall, and the rest, as they say, is history.

****

There are two pictures taken by a friend of ours at the same rehearsal.  One shows me looking at Amanda and the other vice-versa.  That we were already in love is patently obvious.  Yet we were oblivious.  I’m pretty sure our bodies knew before we did.  In early 2011, during the run of a show that she was not working, Amanda would come backstage to help make sure the suit I was wearing looked acceptable (I’m hopeless with costumes).  She would smooth the lapels of my jacket long after it was necessary, and I would touch her shoulder or back in thanks.  Other actors later told me that it looked like we couldn’t keep our hands off each other.  I guess we couldn’t.  To be clear, we weren’t dating and we hadn’t even kissed.  She was not far removed from breaking up with a long-term boyfriend and was “done with men”, and I hadn’t ever been in a serious relationship.  In almost exactly one year, we would be married.  I often tell people that God had to trick us into a relationship.  That is why this story is so impressionistic.  We officially got engaged that summer, but we knew that we would marry before that.  It just kind of happened.  When we announced our engagement, our friends were like “finally, you’re officially dat…wait, what now?”  I kissed her for the first time in the parking lot of the amphitheater after a rehearsal, then regretted it, then kissed her again.  Love is complicated.  They say that God draws straight with crooked lines.  Every love story is not a military march to the altar.  It is a dance, a dance that ebbs and flows and curlicues and pirouettes.  As I waited to enter the church on my wedding day, I felt a bit dizzy.  Little wonder.

****

How did I know that Amanda was “the one”?  I didn’t.  You never know, like you know that 2 + 2 = 4.  But there were moments.  I was reading the famous passage in Matthew 1 about Joseph’s dream.  In verse 20, I read “do not be afraid to take Amanda home as your wife”.  I slammed the Bible closed and took a deep breath.  My heartbeat felt loud enough to wake the neighbors.  I carefully opened the Bible and read it again: “do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife”.  My heartbeat began to slow, but the message had been sent.  On a family trip to Savannah, her face would not leave my mind, much as I often wanted it to.  I remember looking at the clock after one hour of talking with her on the phone and realizing that, in fact, three hours had passed. And once, when praying with Amanda to God for guidance, I heard clear as day “love Amanda”.  It was a word I would hear over and over again when I asked God for direction.  It’s still one of the few words from the Lord I feel confident about (later I would discover that she had heard the words “love Christopher”).  These words are as much a commandment in my life as any “thou shalt not” of scripture.

Of course, the command to love is not the command to marry.  So why get married?  Well, once I was engaged, I tried to answer that question with an essay (some things never change). Here is an excerpt:

It may seem to be unromantic to say I’m getting married because God told me to, but I really have no other explanation.  I was not planning on doing so as a little as a year ago.  But then I discovered that this beautiful, broken woman who I sometimes hung out with was my best friend.  I could talk to her about anything; I could not imagine my life without her.  She always seemed to show up just when I needed her and to say just what I needed to hear.  She actually wanted to pray with me.  And the people around me who I most love and trust loved her instinctively.  One day I realized, with a start, that I was really looking forward to spending eternity with her.  If that was the case, why shouldn’t I also spend time with her, too?  Increasingly, when I look into her eyes, I see Jesus looking back.  She brings me closer to God and challenges me to be a better man, to “live up to what I have already attained” (Philippians 3:16).  When I hug her, it feels like home.  The more I know about her, the more I want to know about her.  I want her, not just her body (though, yes, I want that, too, and how), but her.  She is just so there, so herself and no one else.  All of that doesn’t add up to a rational argument.  But there is more to life than reason….There is something about the way she looks at me, something about the way my heart leaps and my breath catches, a strange, warm feeling in my gut.  It’s a whisper from beyond the walls of this world.  No, more than a whisper, a chuckle.  It is the contented laughter of a God who is making all things new in the most unlikely ways.  After I got down on one knee and proposed, we prayed together and then lay down on the grass and laughed until we cried.  I could neither imagine nor contain such joy.  I don’t really know what happened that day, how God’s love broke through into this pain-stricken world.  But it is something worth battling to keep….Why am I getting married?  Because love is worth the fighting for.  Isn’t that reason enough?

****

We were married six years ago on Saturday.  Amanda’s hair is curly again, although it’s much shorter and, currently, blue.  I say “again” because pregnancy with our first child caused her hair to straighten completely.  It’s now artificially returned to its natural state.  Such changes define a marriage.  We have two kids now (ages 1 and 3) and live in a different city.  We are older and perhaps wiser or at least more battle-hardened.  If we lay on our backs next to each other now we will most likely fall asleep.  Our days are spent working, doing dishes, changing diapers, wiping noses.  Czech dissident (and later president) Vaclav Havel, who helped bring down communism in his country, once spoke of the difficulty of turning the poetry of revolution into the prose of everyday life.  That is the task of a marriage.  Now that may sound like drudgery, but it is quite the opposite.  Notre Dame Cathedral took almost 200 years to build — someone who broke ground on the building did not live to see it completed.  Anything of lasting value takes perseverance and patience.  My wife and I are building an edifice that will, I hope, outlast our lifetime.  To participate in the eternal, sacramental reality of marriage is joyous and holy, even if it can be maddening and exhausting.

The cliché goes that you love your spouse more and more each day, but that’s not quite right.  I love Amanda completely, with everything I am, just as I did on my wedding day.  But marriage has taught me how to love more deeply, in ways I never could have imagined.  I have learned to love by loving and by being loved in return.  Amanda has made me a better person simply by loving me (and not killing me — that’s also important).  Scripture says, “we love because [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19).  Marriage is similar: I love because my wife loves me because I love her because….  It’s a cycle in which the beginning is a mystery and the end is eternal life.  It’s the closest we come on this earth to understanding the mystery of God Himself, the Holy Trinity, the Three-in-One.  When I am away from my wife for too long, it feels as if a part of me is missing because, of course, it is.  I am now, in a holy mystery, only completely myself if she is with me.  Just before we were engaged, I remember thinking that I was so glad I got to spend eternity with this girl.  How blessed that I get to spend this mortal life with her, too.

****

Much has changed and will change, but so much remains the same.  Her eyes still blaze green when she cries.  She still wears those flowy, hippie dresses.  We still crack the same stupid inside jokes and then chuckle.  Her nose ring still catches me by surprise when the light hits it.  She is still the woman I married six years ago, and yet she is so much more.  She is compassionate and funny and creative and kind and fierce and stubborn and no bullshit and faithful and beautiful.  Nothing has changed; everything has changed.  She (if not her hair) is still full of secrets that I may never unlock.  But that is o.k.; it’s not my job to understand her.  It is my job to love her.  And, dear reader, I do love her, in all her profound, beautiful, maddening, sacred mystery.  The world is full of sadness and marriage is hard and it will break you.  But when we hold our sadness together it feels like joy and when we hold our brokenness together it looks like wholeness.  Thank you, O Lord, for the incomparable gift of this profound mystery.  And happy anniversary, my love.

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Revolution in the West: Part I — The Past

In the 21st century, there will be a revolution in the Western world.  This revolution will change our culture irrevocably and challenge the Church in ways it has never experienced.  This will require the Church to develop new ways to reach an increasingly hostile world with love while remaining true to the message of the gospel.  This may seem to be a bold statement, but it really isn’t.  In fact, there has been a similar revolution in each of the last seven centuries.  I think its important to understand where we’ve been in order to possibly map out where we are going as a culture.  Herewith, then, is a brief, oversimplified crash course in the revolutions that have rocked the Western world in the last seven hundred years.

Introduction — The Medieval Christian Order

Beginning with the Fall of Rome in the 6th century, Christians in the West tried to build what came to be called “Christendom”.  That is, the Church attempted to supplant the Western Roman Empire with a Christian political and social order.  And darn it if they didn’t succeed for a while.  Christendom reached its apex in the 12th and 13th centuries in what is now known as the High Middle Ages.  The Bishop of Rome (aka the Pope) was basically an emperor over all of Europe, with power over the eternal souls of the faithful to boot.  While political power was atomized by the feudal system, this spiritual unity had the salutary effect of creating a stable and flourishing order.  Universities were opened in Bologna (1088), Oxford (1096), and Paris (1150).  The forests of central and northern Europe were cleared for agriculture, creating the food supply for vibrant urban centers that began to spring up.  There was abundant art and particularly architecture, notably the great Gothic cathedrals like Chartres (completed in 1220).  This was no “dark age”.  Most importantly for our purposes, philosophers and theologians had begun to unite the wisdom of ancient philosophers (particularly Aristotle) with Biblical revelation in a new movement called Scholasticism.  The central figure here was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), whose Summa Theologica attempted a sort of theory of everything, uniting reason and revelation.  The spiritual and the temporal were seen as one and the same; to borrow from Gerard Manly Hopkins, the world was “charged with the grandeur of God”.  The hierarchical order of the Catholic Church was seen as divinely inspired, and this hierarchy, along with the sacramental life of the Church, gave meaning and structure to the life of even the lowliest peasant.  To live in Europe was to be a part of the Church and to see one’s life (and indeed all of creation) as a part of God’s design.

Now, I don’t want to make this sound like utopia, because it wasn’t.  Life was brutal, particularly for the lower classes and women.  Corruption and violence were facts of life, even (or especially) within the Church.  Indeed, the first crack in the foundation of Western Christendom came when the Church believed that it should advance by force of arms.  I speak, of course, of the Crusades, which failed miserably at their stated goal (retake the Holy Land) and finalized the split between the Eastern and Western Church (since the Crusaders made little distinction between Eastern Christians and Muslims).  The failure of the Crusades, and their great expense, drained both money and legitimacy from the Western Church and left it vulnerable to corruption and catastrophe.  By the end of the 13th century, the Church had reached close to absolute power in Western culture, for good and ill.  But it was a fragile order.  And then the world ended.

The 14th Century — Calamity

The first “revolution” was a series of disasters that rocked the foundation of Christendom to its core.  Most famously, the Black Death, an apocalyptic outbreak of bubonic plague, killed between 30% and 60% (!) of the population of Europe.  On top of that, The beginnings of the Little Ice Age made agriculture less reliable and the Great Famine of 1315-17 killed another 10% of the population.  These calamities caused incalculable harm to the social order.  The uneasy political order was shattered by war and invasion, particularly the ruinous Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453…116 years…eh, close enough) between England and France.  The Holy Roman Empire, which had held much of Europe together, fragmented.  Such unrest lead to populist revolts and the rise of pillaging mercenaries.  If people thought that looking to the pope for leadership would help, such hopes would be dashed.  From 1309 to 1376, the popes were located in Avignon, France and were essentially vassals of the French king.  This has become known as the “Babylonian captivity of the Church”.  Then, even more disturbingly, came the Papal Schism (1378 to 1417) in which there were two (and, briefly, three) competing popes.  Both claimed the authority to speak for Christ and each excommunicated the other.  It cannot be overstated how the Papal Schism rocked faith in the Church and in the entire Medieval Christian order.  National or local allegiances began to seem much more important than allegiance to the Church.  Philosophically, thinkers like William of Okham (1287-1347) began to doubt the idea of universals (this is called nominalism), and began to separate reason and faith.  The world, in short, became un-enchanted, and a millennium of Christian thought was overturned.  Into this chaos, many reformers tried to speak, but were silenced by an increasingly entrenched (and corrupt) Church hierarchy.  John Wycliffe (1330-1384) was banished from Oxford, while Jan Hus (1369-1415) was burned at the stake as a heretic.  The medieval order was in ashes, and in its place rose a new movement that would constitute our second revolution.

The 15th Century — Renaissance

With the discovery of many ancient Latin and Greek texts, the leaders of this new world order found a basis to organize society.  If the medieval world saw God as the center of the universe, the Renaissance put man in that position.  Humanism, developed from the Greek idea of the humanities, was the dominant philosophy.  Just look at perhaps the greatest sculpture of this period:  Michelangelo’s David. In what is ostensibly a religious work, man stands triumphant in all his glory (it’s 17 feet tall!).  Academic study became centered on empiricism, with practical and scientific study supplanting the medieval emphasis on theology.  Indeed, the development of the scientific method would challenge the Church as never before, particularly when Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543) postulated that the earth was not the center of the universe.  The great art of the period, using linear perspective, celebrated realism over mysticism, although much of it was still Christian.  Perhaps most importantly, Renaissance thinkers believed in the myth of progress, that humanity could be perfected.  The classic Christian ideal of a perfected order with God at the top was shattered.  In response, the Church did…well…not too much.  Embroiled in scandal, the papacy became even more corrupt while parish priests were frequently either grifters or dunces.  This new world cried out for a Church that could meet it head on.  A major reform was needed.  Enter Martin Luther.

The 16th Century — Reformation

Summarizing the Protestant Reformation briefly is almost impossible.  It began as a protest of specific corruptions, like selling salvation for money in the form of indulgences, and ballooned into a challenge to the entire structure of Western Catholicism.  The movement itself fractured almost immediately into factions, but a few basic principles can be summarized in the three great “solas”:  (1) sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) — only the Bible, not the Pope or Church councils, has authority over Christian life and teaching.  (2) sola fide (faith alone) — salvation comes by faith alone, no works or sacraments or offerings avail for eternal life.  (3) sola gratia (grace alone) —  we are saved by grace, and only God has the power to save, not the Pope or any other human institution, including the Church.  These teachings and their implications for Christian life and practice irrevocably fractured the Church.  If the individual Christian could be saved by faith and could interpret Scripture for themselves (with new vernacular translations that sprung up), what authority did the Church have left?  The Catholic Church responded to these new movements by doubling down on the medieval ideas of Christendom, which lead to a hardening of the divisions and an age of religious war.  Increasingly, nationalism came to define people’s lives as the power of the Church could no longer unite the continent.  Moreover, the discovery of the New World led to the conflation of colonial ambitions and missionary zeal.  The Protestant-Catholic conflict became a battle for world domination.  In such a fragmented world, people began to look for that which could unify.  Into the void strode a new method for understanding the universe.

The 17th Century — Scientific Revolution

This fourth revolution was a slow burn, but it reached its apex in the 1600s.  The philosophical underpinnings of science were provided by thinkers like Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who developed the inductive, empirical method that would lead to earth-shattering discoveries.  Building on Copernicus, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) proved that the Aristotelian/medieval vision of the cosmos did not match up with reality, subtly deligitimizing much of the Church’s other teachings (Galileo was declared a heretic by the Inquisition).  Isaac Newton (1642-1727) expanded on these findings to develop what we now know as the laws of physics.  Newton’s universe was governed not by an active God (though he believed in God), but by the clockwork of physics.  Discoveries in chemistry, medicine, electricity, and mathematics demystified the world, and it seemed that it was only a matter of time until man understood all of the inner workings of the universe.  Philosophically, God was permanently removed from the center of Western thought by mathematician Rene Descartes (1596-1650).  Descartes turned philosophy on its head.  To someone like Aquinas, the observable universe was objectively real and man had to conform to reality (and thus to God).  Descartes instead asserted that the only reality he could be sure of was his own thoughts (cogito, ergo sum — “I think, therefore I am) and thus a radical subjectivity was introduced into Western thought.  This radical individualism was reflected in the Church, which was exhausted by religious wars and, in the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, resigned itself to the rise of nationalism and the existence of denominations.  Church attendance became increasingly a matter of individual choice, and Church membership was no longer the central aspect of a person’s identity.  The Scientific Revolution put human reason on the throne, where it would reach the height of power in our fifth revolution.

The 18th Century — Enlightenment

The Enlightenment is a self-serving name for the rationalist philosophy of the 18th century that gave birth to the world you and I live in.  Enlightenment thinkers consciously rejected religious revelation in favor of pure reason.  Voltaire (1694-1778) was an archetypal figure who attacked the Church and pushed for the separation of Church and state and freedom of religion.  He and others like him viewed the political corruption of monarchy and the “backwardness” of religion as stemming from irrationality, and they thought both should be eliminated.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) believed that if we eliminated religion we could return to the state of nature, because man is innately good.  Similarly, John Locke (1632-1704), whose political philosophy greatly influenced America’s founding fathers, postulated that man is born with a tabula rasa (blank slate) and can write on it whatever he wishes (no room for original sin or the image of God here).  Both modern democracy and capitalism, born in the Enlightenment, depend upon the idea that reason can order the affairs of humanity.  Theologically, this led to the development of deism.  Deists believe in a God who created the world and then let it run (via Newton’s clockwork physics).  A deist God is not involved in our everyday life, and religion and the life of the Church are thus disposable.  The United States Constitution of 1787 makes religion a matter of private choice in the 1st Amendment, and removes religious tests for holding an office.  The French Revolution of 1789 proved an even more radical experiment in the rule of pure reason, which predictably devolved into bloodshed and the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Despite this failure, the French Revolution would prove the death knell of Christendom, as the established political order would be rocked again and again throughout the 19th century before it came crashing down for good in the cataclysm of World War I.  Perhaps the spirit of this age can best be summed up by Diederot’s Encyclopédie (1751-1772), which attempted to collect all human knowledge in one place.  Men had become gods.

19th Century — Industrial Revolution

The next revolution was not one of thought, but of the very way we live.  With the patenting of the first viable steam engine by James Watt in 1781, machines began to take over the world.  Suddenly, urban populations exploded as rural business (and many farmers) were forced to move to the cities to take work in factories.  The capitalism that was only theory during the Enlightenment became reality with industrialized technology.  Working at home and the centrality of family life became obsolete seemingly overnight.  Now, men frequently left their families at home to work in factories and offices to keep the corporate, industrial world running.  People seemed to be nothing more than cogs in a machine.  Indeed, the new scientific theory of  Darwinian evolution seemed to argue that man was no more than a beast struggling in an endless war of “survival of the fittest”.  Needless to say, this caused backlash.  First off, there were the Romantics, who revolted against capitalism and urbanization through the worship of nostalgia, rural life, emotion, and individual expression.  Romanticism was spiritual, but it certainly wasn’t religious, as submission to Christian orthodoxy would have stifled the romantic spirit.  Other thinkers, Karl Marx (1818-1883) most notably, railed against the alienation the people felt in industrial capitalism and called for a revolt against the system by the workers.  The Church responded to all this in many different ways.  It was an era of reform, in which Christians took the lead in the abolition of slavery and in working to alleviate the ills of industrialization through charity (e.g. the founding of the Salvation Army in 1865).  The evangelical movement, stemming from John Wesley’s (1703-1791) Methodist revival, attempted to keep the faith in a faithless time.  But overall, the Church continued to wane in influence, to the point that philosopher Frederick Nietzsche (1844-1900) could, at the end of the century, declare with conviction: “God is dead”.  Thus the epitaph on the tombstone of Christendom was written.

20th Century — Cultural and Sexual Revolutions

The 19th century order was destroyed on the Western Front of World War I (1914-18), while the stage was set for the new century by the Russian Revolution of 1917.  The 20th century was a literal battle of ideologies as the Western capitalist order conquered both Nazi Fascism (in World War II [1939-45]) and Soviet Communism (in the Cold War [1945-1989]).  Faithful Christians stood up against these twin horrors of collectivism with (for the most part) courage and conviction.  The Church did a much poorer job of standing up against the individualist heresy of Western capitalism and hedonism.  The thought of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), largely discredited by later psychologists, in many ways defined the century.  He disdained Christianity as a delusion and declared mankind a slave to subconscious desires.  The goal of psychoanalysis, then, was to uncover those desires and so find fulfillment in the self.  Truth is entirely based upon the subjective perception of the individual.  Thus was born existentialism and post-modernism, with their disdain for any claims of Truth.  This was the logical endpoint of the individualizing tendencies that began with the Renaissance.  In the post-World War II period, this manifested itself in two ways: materialistic hedonism and sexual license.  The meaning of life was found in pursuing wealth and sexual pleasure.  The sexual revolution was particularly damaging in that it attacked the final redoubt of the old order of Christendom: the family.  No-fault divorce, acceptance of extramarital and homosexual sex, and the genocide of abortion (60 million dead and counting) all resulted from the deification of sex.  Thus, the alienation of modern life, already a problem in capitalism, became that much worse.  Evangelicals, in America in particular, began to see politics as the solution to these spiritual problems because the Church seemed impotent.  But there is no sign that the revolutions of materialism and sexual license have been turned back, and the embrace of President Donald Trump by many evangelicals would seem to be a case of absolute surrender.  The Church looks very much like another cog in the capitalist machine, and the mainline denominations, which have capitulated to secular orthodoxies, are all but dead.  The Pentecostal and charismatic movements brought some life to the Church, but it felt a bit like a rear guard action in a losing battle.  The 20th century was, in many ways, as calamitous as the 14th and has left the Church with many unanswered questions.

Conclusion

I hope this overview of the last seven centuries has shown how quickly things can change for faithful Christians.  It is incumbent upon us to be ready for whatever comes next, for the eighth revolution.  One thing is for sure, those who think we can restore a Christian theocratic order in the West, that we can renew a sort of medieval Christendom, are deluding themselves.  Our task is different.  In my next post, I’ll be on much shakier ground, but I will try to map out some possible revolutions we may see or are already seeing.  I don’t have any solutions to offer, but I do think we should start asking the questions.

How Jesus (Doesn’t) Answer a Question

[Nicodemus] came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

John 3:2-3 (ESV)

If you read the gospels long enough, you begin to notice that the words “Jesus answered…” are rarely followed by an actual answer.  In fact, they are frequently followed by a question.  In the passage above, there isn’t even a question being asked.  And yet it says that Jesus gave an answer.  Nicodemus compliments Jesus and marvels at the miracles.  Jesus replies with a complete non-sequitur.  What in the world is going on here?

The previous verse tells us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee.  He had reached the pinnacle of Jewish life through years of toil and study of the Torah and oral tradition.  The Pharisees themselves were much revered by the people for both their wisdom and their holiness, making them the de facto power brokers in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council.  I think that a common Jew looked at someone like Nicodemus the way a faithful Catholic views someone like Cardinal Timothy Dolan.  He is seen as a holy and wise man, but also a man who has the common touch.  In the face of a hostile empire, Nicodemus and his fellow Pharisees kept the faith alive.  Ruled by Herod (a Roman puppet) and a succession of cruel (or indifferent) Roman governors, the Jews looked to the Pharisees for guidance and sense of identity.  The weight of such a responsibility must have been tremendous.  On top of all this, everyone was looking for a Messiah, a man who would throw off the Roman shackles and reassert the Davidic kingship over the Promised Land.  The Pharisees were responsible not only for identifying this king but for stamping out the many pretenders who would lead God’s people astray.  Into this world strides Jesus of Nazareth, a wonder-worker with teachings that have enthralled the masses and upset old orthodoxies.  Nicodemus watches what Jesus is doing and begins to wonder: could this be it?  Could this young man be the king we have been waiting for?  His position is a lonely one, for most of the rest of the Sanhedrin have already decided that Jesus is an impostor and must be stopped at all costs.  So he comes to Jesus at night, in secret, to get some answers.

How would you start a conversation with a man you believe to be the savior of the world and a king in disguise?  “Umm…so…hi.  How are things?  Lovely weather we’re having.  Umm…by the way…are you the Messiah?”  I haven’t the faintest clue what I would do in Nicodemus’s shoes (or sandals, I guess).  Smartly, Nicodemus decides to start with a compliment and a tentative statement of faith.  He says that Jesus must be a  rabbi, a teacher from God, because the miracles are undeniable.  This is a very clever question in disguise, a lawyer’s move if ever there was one.  If Jesus says, “oh no, I’m just some guy who got in way over my head”, Nicodemus can breathe a sigh of relief and move on.  If Jesus says, “I’m not just a teacher; I have come to save the Jewish people from the Romans”, Nicodemus is ready to be the greatest prophet since Samuel and crown the new David as king of the Jews.  Either way, even though Nicodemus seems to have requested the meeting, this puts the onus of the conversation on Jesus.  In some sense, He is trying to outsmart Jesus as he has no doubt outsmarted many others in his rise to the top.  Nicodemus never could have guessed that the response he would hear would turn his world, indeed all the world, upside down.

Jesus likes to answer a question with a question.  For example: “And the disciples said to him, ‘Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’” (Matthew 15:33-34).  Jesus then went on to feed 5,000 people with the few loaves and fish on offer.  Instead of explaining what he was going to do, he asked a leading question.  The disciples wonder where they will get the provision to fulfill their needs, and Jesus simply asks them to look at what they already have.  By asking a question, Jesus instructs more effectively than by giving a direct answer.  That is why he taught so often in parables.  He could try to explain the kingdom of God or he could tell a story about servants in a vineyard or a young man on a journey or a field with buried treasure.  Which method is more likely to be remembered?  And, more importantly, which method is more likely to lead the listener into meditation and self-reflection and prayer?  An analogy, a story, a question: all of these lead to greater discoveries than a simple answer.  The finality of prescriptive answers can kill curiosity and limit God’s Truth.  A question allows the listener to discover the truth for themselves, which is more rewarding and lasting.  My father (a Charismatic Episcopal priest) had a seminary professor in Austin, Texas who said that you had to preach so that the people in Dime Box, a tiny rural community outside Austin, could understand it.  This meant using no jargon or M.Div. thesis words or “Christian-eze” but speaking simply and clearly.  Jesus was preaching to farmers and shepherds and fishermen in Galilee, to the Jewish equivalent of Dime Box.  He made the truth of God intelligible to the uneducated because all are called to participate in God’s Kingdom.  And, as an added bonus, we all benefit from being able to understand (and meditate on) His simple yet profound teaching.

Anyway, in this story, Jesus is addressing one of the most educated men he would ever talk to.  There is no homespun parable to be found here.  Neither, interestingly, is there a direct question.  Remember that Nicodemus had asked a very loaded question without exactly phrasing it as a question.  In reply, Jesus seems to say, “o.k., two can play this game”.  Jesus asserts that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.  I like to imagine that there was a long silence after this statement, with no sound but the wind through the trees (it was probably a breezy night; see John 3:8).  Nicodemus is completely dumbfounded.  But this statement does not come out of nowhere.  It’s actually answering the real question that Nicodemus wants to ask.  Jesus is well aware of the rumors swirling around Him, and the desire of many to make Him king.  Jesus is asking Nicodemus: “How do you know I come from God by my signs?  Have you seen God?  Are you cocky enough to think you know what God looks like?  And what gives you the right to declare me a king?”  He is getting at the heart of the Pharisaical assumptions about what the Messiah and the Kingdom of God look like.  As he reveals in the rest of the chapter, the kingdom of God requires death to self and a new birth in the Spirit. 

You can see my previous post for a deeper look at this chapter in context.  In this meditation, I’m less interested in the teaching itself than in how Jesus deals with Nicodemus.  He doesn’t completely abandon the pedagogical methods he uses with the masses.  Indeed, later in the chapter, he uses an analogy (the wind) and asks two leading questions (““Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” and “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”).  But here we see Jesus doing what He does best: getting right to the heart of things.  This is why Jesus is so loath to answer a direct question with a direct answer.  He knows that there is no such thing as a direct question, that what people say often masks what they mean.  Often, we don’t even know the right questions to ask (Romans 8:26) or how to ask them.  So Jesus delves down to the heart.  This is how we know we are hearing the voice of God: when something hits us at the center of our very being and challenges or comforts or emboldens us.  We know in these moments, even though an audible voice is rarely heard, that God has spoken.  Frequently, the voice of God comes to us in the form of a question (e.g. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” –1 Kings 19:13).  Sometimes it is even more amorphous, just a feeling or sense of the way things are or a dim light illuminating the road ahead.  Sometimes, if we’re very lucky, it can be a statement like John 3:3 that recontextualizes our entire lives and points us toward our very salvation.  But it is always unexpected, and it very rarely answers the questions we were asking.

Perhaps I should end by telling a story on myself.  I have rarely heard the voice of God clearly in my life; it is a constant struggle to quiet myself enough to hear anything, much less that “still small voice”.  Once, I was on a retreat to Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in the appropriately named Moncks Corner, South Carolina.  It is a place bathed in prayer and silence.  Indeed, they have a 12-hour stretch each day called the Great Silence, only broken by the chanting of psalms and prayer.  Anyway, I was praying by myself in front of the Blessed Sacrament (the bread and wine in a box called the tabernacle), which was located in a side chapel off the main chapel.  I was a young man, either just about to enter college or new in it (I can’t remember) and I had many questions about both my present and my future.  I was bringing a laundry list to God and then waiting, somewhat impatiently, for answers.  Instead, I heard as clear as day a voice in my head that was not exactly a voice (it’s hard to describe) that I knew was the Lord.  He said, “you care too much what other people think of you”.  Well, that got right down to it.  The Lord was not interested in my list of questions/grievances; he wanted to deal with me.  How inconvenient.  Then he prompted me: “say it out loud”.  I would like to reiterate at this point that this was the chapel at a silent monastery.  But He kept insisting.  So I whispered “you care too much what other people think”.  “Louder,” the Lord prodded.  I repeated the phrase, muttering under my breath.  “Louder,” He insisted.  I said it just a little louder.  “Louder!”  Finally, at full voice I said, “I care too much what other people think!”  Immediately, I leapt up from my knees and raced into the main sanctuary to see if anyone had heard me.  Mercifully, the chapel was empty, infused with holy silence.  I returned to the pew and burst out laughing.  Jesus, as usual, had made His point.  I have forgotten what questions I asked that day.  But I will never forget the voice of God, and the lesson I learned.

Becoming Like a Little Child

And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 18:3 (NIV)

For Lent, I’ve been reading John chapter 3 in every edition I can find.  I have two children under the age of four, so we have a few versions of the Bible for them, including Paraclete Bible for Toddlers.  It actually has a version of  John 3.  The story goes as follows:

Jesus visited a man called Nicodemus.  He wanted to know more about God.  Jesus said, “You need new life from God!  You must become like a baby all over again.”  Nicodemus listened carefully.  But he found it difficult to understand.

That really boils it down to essentials, doesn’t it?  I love the picture in the book that accompanies the last two sentences of Nicodemus with his finger on his chin, completely befuddled.  And I must admit, Jesus’ words here are troubling.  It’s one thing to be told that we ought to be like children or even little children.  But a baby?  Who wants to be a baby all over again?  Nicodemus wanted to know more about God, and instead Jesus is insulting him by comparing him to a newborn.  But Jesus did say we must be “born again”, which means becoming like an infant.

In the book The Happiest Baby on the Block, Dr. Harvey Karp argues that human babies are born about three months too early compared to the relative gestation period of other mammals.  The reason for this is our large brains require big heads that make it impossible to fit through the birth canal after about 42 weeks (see Genesis 3:16 for the reason; isn’t it interesting that our brains, with their illicit knowledge of good and evil, are responsible for all this?).  Anyway, the upshot is that a newborn is essentially still fetal for the first three months.  This is why babies enjoy being swaddled and swayed and shushed — it reminds them of the womb.  Needless to say, they also nurse nearly non-stop during those early months.  And, as any exhausted new parent will tell you, they wake up every few hours needing something: milk, a diaper, or just to be held.  Holding a newborn is nerve-racking because they don’t have the neck muscles to support their massive heads and their skulls aren’t even one piece (I thought I’d broken my daughter when I felt her a piece of her skull move underneath my hand).  A symbol of the unformed nature of a newborn is the fontanel (or “soft spot”) on the top of their head which pulses to the beat of their heart.  Nothing in this world is so vulnerable as a newborn baby, which cannot move or speak and they can barely see.  They have total dependence on the loving care of their parents and their only way to communicate is with a heart-rending cry (“Here we have a baby.  It is composed of a  bald head and a pair of lungs” — Eugene Field).  Once cared for, however, they can sleep through almost anything, in the comforting arms of their mother or father.

So when Jesus says that we must be born again, he is calling us to utter dependence.  We like to believe that we have some control over our lives, that our competence and good sense will win the day.  But spiritually at least, we are still at least little children, if not infants.  We need the constant mothering care of our Father to even survive the day.  He is the source of sustenance (1 Peter 2:2), and the only person who can clean up the messes we leave behind, if you catch my drift.  We are as yet unformed; it will take a long time to turn us into the image of Christ (Ephesians 4:15).  Our only job as new Christians is to learn to call out to God in our time of need.  We can trust that, like a new parent, He will come running to give us everything we need.  And, unlike a new parent, He will never grow weary in the task.  He just wants us to rest in His arms, secure in His loving-kindness toward us.

But what about those of us who have been Christians for a while?  Are we still infants?  Well, God does call us to maturity (Hebrews 6:1) and we should hopefully be ready to graduate from milk to solid food (1 Corinthians 3:2).  However, let’s recall again the example of Mr. Rogers from the previous meditation.  Why did he appeal so much to young children?  Perhaps it was because he was so much like a little child himself.  He was fully present in the moment and filled with wonder at all of God’s creation.  He did not see people with “adult” prejudices regarding race or age or disability, but treated all as equals.  He had a playful imagination and did not let his adult responsibilities disrupt his joy.  Even his courage (demonstrated in his willingness to leave NBC for the uncertainty of public television) has a childlike quality of trust in God’s provision for him and his family.  Mr. Roger’s saintly example should remind us that being like a little child and maturing into Christ are not mutually exclusive.  In some ways, we will always be infants, needing the constant care of our Father.  Yet Scripture calls us to “no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:14-15).  God calls us to be babies, but He doesn’t want us to stay that way.  Christ sums it up best when he says, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16, ESV).  In the words of C.S. Lewis, “[Christ] wants a child’s heart, but a grown-up’s head.  He wants us to be simple, single-minded, affectionate, and teachable, as good children are; but He also wants every bit of intelligence we have to be alert at its job, and in first-class fighting trim” (Mere Christianity, p. 77).

Jesus said, “let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14).  Jesus in the Gospels was not known for being sentimental and nostalgic.  He was not asking us to unleash our “inner child” (ugh).  What he saw in children was an appreciation for life, the attitude He wanted to see in all those born again by the Spirit.  I have often said that I want to be as good a person as my children someday.  Yes, they can be willful and maddening and selfish and all the rest.  In a word, they are often childish.  But I admire their enthusiasm, their affection, their creativity, their compassion.  My children remind me every day of who I should be in Christ.  And, when one of them crawls into my lap, I get just a glimpse of the love that God has for us, his children.  Like Nicodemus, I sometimes find life befuddling and the words of Jesus either nonsensical or impossible.  But still He persists:  “You need new life from God!  You must become like a baby all over again.”  For, in the life of a child, every day is a new beginning.  So let us begin again.

Sainthood: A Case Study

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Matthew 22:36-39 (ESV)

What does it mean to be a saint?  There is a whole field of theological study, hagiography, devoted to this question.  In Scripture, the answer seems pretty clear: it’s anyone who follows the Lord.  The Psalms refer to the people of God as saints 13 times, while the apocalyptic literature in Daniel and Revelation speak of redeemed souls primarily as saints.  Paul began his letters by referring to the members of the churches as saints (e.g. “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi…” [Philippians 1:1]).  At the resurrection of Jesus, it says that “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Matthew 27:52).  But this doesn’t really answer the question.  How do we become a saint?  And why do some people seem to have that special glow about them, a Christ-likeness that is rendered in art with a literal halo?  There are plenty of examples from history to look at from Augustine of Hippo to Francis of Assisi to Teresa of Avila.  But I thought I’d study someone a little closer to our own time.  He’s someone who doesn’t show up on any canonical list of saints and yet exemplifies what it means to live as a saint in our time.  His name was Mr. Rogers.

Fred McFeely Rogers was born on March 20th, 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.  He grew up around musicians, including his maternal grandfather, with whom he played the piano.  He graduated from Rollins College in Florida in 1951 with his B.A. in music.  He married his wife Joanne a year later, a union that would produce two children and last 50 years.  The path of his life was set when he saw a television in his parent’s home and his mind was set alight with the possibilities of the medium.  He began working on musical children’s programs for NBC, but was turned off by their reliance on advertising and merchandising, and so he left.  In 1954, he joined a local Pittsburgh public t.v. station, working as a puppeteer.  It is said that he began to wear his iconic sneakers because they made less noise than work shoes on the set.  In his off hours, he began working on a seminary degree, and in 1963 he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister.  That same year, Canadian public television gave him his own show, which he took with him back to WQED in Pittsburgh.  Mister Rogers Neighborhood began distribution in 1968.  It would run for 31 seasons and become perhaps the most beloved and iconic children’s television program in history.  On the show, the comforting presence of Mr. Rogers would guide kids through exciting discoveries and difficult challenges with songs, puppets, and special guests.  The show was noted for its simple, unadorned style and deliberate pacing.  Rogers intended it as an antidote to the frenetic, marketing-driven fare usually peddled to children.  In its place, he offered kids gentle encouragement, thoughtful education, and a touch of whimsy.  In the tumultuous late-20th century, Mister Rogers Neighborhood stood out as a beacon of decency, kindness, and grace.  For a world riven by domestic strife, particularly divorces which robbed children of their fathers, Mr. Rogers provided a solid, paternal presence that reminded viewers of our shared humanity and (to risk a cliché) the power of love.  Fred Rogers was diagnosed with stomach cancer in late 2002, and he died of the disease on February 27, 2003.  Millions, myself included, mourned the passing of a man who felt like a member of their family.

To this day, reading about the life of Fred Rogers brings tears to my eyes.  But why?  The previous paragraph summarizes a life well lived, but what made Mr. Rogers such a transformative figure for so many?  In short, he lived his life fully present.  What do I mean by that?  Well, just watch an episode of his show.  He looks intently at the camera, gently inviting the children into his world.  He tells the kids that he loves them “just the way they are” (more on that in a moment).  He listens, really listens, to his guests and even to his puppet friends.  Mr. Rogers demanded our attention not through frenetic editing or crazy hijinks, but through giving us his full attention.  He respected everyone with whom he came into contact, and he seemed genuinely interested in what they had to say.  There are countless stories of him personally replying to the myriad of letters sent to him by kids.  He treated children as equals, not intellectually (for he was a terrific teacher), but morally, socially.  Rogers understood, in a way few people do, that the inner life of children was as rich and valuable as that of an adult.  That is why the “land of make-believe” was so important.  Mr. Rogers would send a trolley through a hole in his wall to a land of puppet creatures ruled by King Friday.  By doing this, Rogers validated the creative instinct in children and allowed them to use that instinct to deal with the harsh realities of the world.  It also subtly pointed to the fact that there is more to reality than what we see, that something mythic and spiritual lies just beyond the walls of everyday life.  Fred Rogers was a simple man, but he was no simpleton.  To the contrary, he was a wise and savvy communicator and innovator who used the medium of television to advance Christian values to the world.  If you need convincing of Mr. Rogers genius, watch this clip of him gaining $20 million dollars for PBS and turning a senator into jelly with simple decency, logic, and grace.  The senator, John Pastore, later said that the testimony gave him “goosebumps”.  Such statements are how you know you’re dealing with a saint.

Saints do not make their lives about themselves.  When people encounter a saint, they come away feeling that the world has brightened, that they understand themselves better, that they have been touched by something divine.  There are many stories of people coming into contact with Fred Rogers and leaving feeling hope in place of despair (here’s a beautiful story from Entertainment Weekly).  This, I think, is what it means to have the fruits of the spirit.  Mr. Rogers never talked about God or Jesus on his show and yet millions heard a message of love and grace and acceptance that did more to advance the kingdom than a fire-breathing sermon ever would.  Much of the preaching on television comes across as inauthentic because it is; the preachers are there for their own self-aggrandizement.  But Mr. Rogers made it a point to be the same person on-screen as off-screen.  In his words, “one of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away.”  What a great way to put it: he gave us the gift of his honest self.  Perhaps that’s as good a definition of a saint as any.

Mr. Rogers began every show by singing a song, asking us “would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?”  He always called his viewers (even in person) his “neighbors”.  I can’t think that this was a coincidence or just a case of branding his show.  He knew Jesus admonition to “love your neighbor as yourself”.  And instead of trying, like the disciples, to limit who counts as a “neighbor”, he asked all who met him to become his neighbor so that he could love them, too.  He would often conclude his episodes by looking into the camera and telling his viewers that he loved them “just the way they are”.  With the death of Billy Graham recently, we’ve all been reminded of the great hymn “Just As I Am”, for the message of this other modern saint was of God’s grace to sinners.  I can’t help but think that this is why Mr. Rogers is so beloved.  He reminded us of the Father’s unconditional love for each one of us.  He called out the goodness, the image of God, in each of us.  And he saw that image in everyone.  He had special needs children on his show in order to demonstrate that all are worthy of God’s love.  On one episode, he invited the singing cop of the neighborhood (Rogers never lost that love for music), Officer Clemmons, to cool his feet with him in a kiddie pool.  The year was 1969 and Clemmons was African-American.  They spoke about the usual things Mr. Rogers talked about, like the different ways to say “I love you”.  When they were done, Rogers reached down to help Clemmons dry his feet with a simple “here, let me help you”.  In doing all this, Fred Rogers showed how simple it was to integrate a swimming pool in a time when many pools were still segregated.  And I can’t help but think that in drying Clemmons’ feet, Rogers was, purposefully or not, re-enacting Jesus washing His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper.  Thus a quiet revolution of colorblind love was broadcast to the world.

So what is a saint?  A saint is someone who spreads the aroma of grace into the air around themselves, through words and deeds, but mostly through love.  Such love is a divine gift, and the first fruit of the Holy Spirit.  To be a saint is to be so absorbed in Christ and His agape love that the world no longer sees the person, but sees Jesus.  Fred Rogers was a dorky old man in a cardigan with a nasally voice who sang only just well enough to get by and whose puppets were borderline creepy.  But that doesn’t matter.  For when we looked at him we saw love, acceptance, hope, and grace.  In short, when we watched Mr. Rogers, we had an encounter with Jesus Christ.  Like Billy Graham, Fred Rogers used the new mediums available to him to spread the message of Christ to the world.  I, for one, am so grateful he did.  He serves as an example to us all of saintly living in our hard-bitten, grace-starved world.  And it comforts me to know that now he prays for all of his “neighbors” before the throne of Grace with the other saints in light.  May we all strive to join him there.

You know, it’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that ultimately there is someone who loves our very being.

–Fred Rogers, 1994 Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Commencement

Jesus in the Garden

Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

John 20:15 (ESV)

Mary Magdalene stood before the empty tomb and thought to herself, “well, shit.  Now what?”  She had arisen before dawn and carefully packed her satchel with spices and ointments and a small loaf of bread (though she wasn’t hungry, it never hurt to be prepared).  She had stood in her door and taken a deep breath, steeling herself for what she must do.  The men, useless creatures that they are, were hiding in a locked room.  As she walked, Mary felt fortunate, for once, to be female, as even the soldiers would not disturb a grieving woman.  As the sun began to peak over the horizon, she walked briskly, the chill of the early spring morning clinging to her clothes.  She shivered, but not from the cold.  Into her mind flooded images of what had happened, each more horrifying than the one before.  Tears began to sting her eyes yet again.  “Enough,” she whispered to herself.  Instead, she focused on what she would see today.  Though she had only encountered a few dead bodies in her life, she knew what she would discover in the tomb — the blue skin, cold to the touch, the limbs rigid, the lips pale.  Death comes ungently to all, but especially in this case its sudden horror filled her heart with pitch and her mind with terrors.  They had all thought that this man would bring hope, freedom, new life.  He had cared for Mary when no one else did.  Now it was left to her to care for him one final time.  Such is the way of the world.

Mary arrived at the garden.  The cobblestones of the street gave way to soft, spongy moss and grass that tickled her ankles.  A soft breeze rustled through the leaves, spreading patterns along the ground with the early morning sun.  The aroma of spring flowers hung in the air like a promise.  Mary dawdled for just a moment, watching a small grey bird carefully beginning construction of a nest.  She carried on, strolling purposefully around a bend toward the tomb.  The first odd detail she noticed was a discarded helmet of a Roman centurion and, a little further on, a spear dropped carelessly in the underbrush.  Her heart beat faster.  Then she lifted her gaze and saw the last thing she expected.  The enormous stone had been rolled away from the door.  She stared at the opening, unable to move.  There were no sounds, only birdsong and, in the distance, a dog barking.  She knew, without even looking, that he was gone.  She dropped her satchel and ran to tell his friends what had happened.

Peter and John came to the tomb and saw the grave cloths.  They looked at each other, then looked at Mary.  Peter shrugged and John dropped his head.  No words were spoken, for what could they say?  The men returned to their room with the others and locked the door.  Mary remained.  She thought about many things:  the bird and her nest, the white cloths in her hands, red blood pouring from open wounds, the sun on her face, the soul-piercing cry of a mother with a dead son, the smile on Jesus’ face when He had healed her.  And she wept.  Not a gentle polite cry, but a wet, snotty sob with moans that came from some part of herself she did not know she had.  She fell to her knees and beat the mossy ground with her fists until she had nothing left to give.  Then she looked up and saw two men standing before the tomb.  They asked her why she was crying.  She told them the obvious reason: that His body was gone and she couldn’t find it and everything was going to hell and just leave her alone already (though she didn’t say this last part, much as she wanted to).  She turned around to leave, to run away forever and for good.  And that was when she saw the gardener.  She hadn’t seen him before; perhaps he would know what had happened.  The young man seemed in no hurry about his work.  He was watching with great interest a bee pollinating a flower.  He looked up, his face partly obscured by a hat, and asked the same question: “Woman, why are you crying?”  She turned to reference the other two men she had just spoken with, but they had disappeared.  Odd.  After a short pause to gather her wits and courage, she told this young man that if he had carried the body away, he was to take her to it immediately.  The gardener just smiled, a warm, gentle, and mischievous smile.  He tilted his head slightly and said, “Mary”.  Mary gasped and ran to Jesus.

****

I’ve always loved this scene.  It’s so human and yet so divine.  She thought he was the gardener of all things!  But, after all, she was in a garden.  And people in her life were not in the habit of rising from the dead.  Some translations say that she “mistook” him for the gardener, but that isn’t right.  Genesis 2:8 says, “and the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.”  God is a gardener.  In Genesis 1, it says that before creation the earth was “without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep” (1:2).  God does what every gardener does: he creates order out of chaos.  In so doing, God made paradise (from the Greek parádeisos “royal [enclosed] park”).  Scripture tells us that God walked in the garden in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8).  So Jesus was just returning to what He had always been doing, enjoying His Father’s handiwork in the cool of the day.  The early Church fathers understood this, as they speak of Jesus as the “gardener of souls” who creates order out of the chaos of our lives.  New life is allowed to spring up in the safety of the garden, just as Jesus brought new life for all of us in the garden that day.

This may seem an odd time to meditate on this passage, it being Lent and all.  Perhaps I should mention a third important garden in Scripture:  the garden of Gethsemane.  Although it was night, the scene must have been much the same as Easter morning — peaceful, bucolic, bounteous.  And there is Jesus, literally sweating blood, begging His Father for a reprieve from what He must do.  But it had to be this way.  Man’s fall happened in a garden.  His redemption would also begin in a garden.  “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).  This garden challenged Jesus as nothing ever had, and through His suffering, He saved the world.  Likewise, when Mary came to the garden, her preconceptions were dashed and her false hopes were destroyed.  She, like Jesus, wept.  But she found the path to redemption upon meeting the gardener.

Jesus used many gardening metaphors in His parables to describe the kingdom of God.  This is no accident.  For in a garden a seed is planted in the earth and dies (cf. John 12:24), but out of that death springs new life under the tender ministrations of the gardener.  He feeds, waters, and protects the fledgling plant until it has grown strong enough to bear fruit itself (cf. Galatians 5:22-23).  At that point, God prunes the plant (John 15:2) that it may bear yet more fruit.  Any weeds in the garden are plucked up and destroyed (Matthew 15:13).  So the image of Jesus the gardener is an apt image for Lent.  For it is in Lent that God the Father prunes the branches growing on the vine of His Son.  He yanks the weeds out of our hearts, roots and all.  And then He dumps manure on us.  The process will be as painful and unsettling for us as it was for Mary and for Jesus Himself.  But, in the end, we will see Him as Mary did, face to face.  He will smile at us, and call us each by name (John 10:3).  And then we shall walk with Him in the cool of the day, the scent of flowers in our noses, birdsong in our ears, and peace, at last, in our hearts.

Beauty for Ashes: Cinderella and Salvation

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit.

Isaiah 61:1, 3 (ESV)

In popular usage, a myth has come to mean a story that is not true. Historically speaking, that may well be so. Humanly speaking, a myth is a story that is always true.

–Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking

In my last post, I talked about an archetypal male story: the knight and the dragon.  Today, I’d like to discuss another classic tale, an archetypal female myth.  My daughter has recently become obsessed with the 1950 Disney animated film Cinderella.  She’s not alone.  There is a reason that the centerpiece of Walt Disney World is Cinderella’s castle.  Something about this story seems to resonate in a deep place, untouchable by reason and cynicism, within people of all ages, particularly girls and women.  There are thousands of versions of this folk tale, some of them dating back before the birth of Christ.  Clearly, this story speaks to a fundamental truth about the human experience.  The tale made familiar by Disney, adapted from 17th century European versions and the Brothers Grimm, fits the Biblical narrative of salvation so closely that it might as well be an allegory.  Little wonder that it is a story we keep telling.

Cinderella begins in paradise.  She lives under the loving care of her mother and father.  But then, one day, her mother dies, and soon thereafter her father leaves (or dies).  The mother, Eden, has died and the child is separated from the Father (Genesis 3).  In place of the just rule of the Father, there is a usurper, the wicked stepmother and her awful daughters.  Jesus calls the devil the “prince of this world” (John 14:30) who rules over “this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12) as a tyrant (in the Disney animated film, the stepmother has a cat named Lucifer).  The stepmother forces Cinderella, formerly a beloved child, into menial labor just as in Genesis 3 God condemned Adam to labor for his food.  Compelled to sleep beside the fireplace, the young girl awakes each morning covered in ashes.  As on Ash Wednesday, the ashes here represent sin, sorrow, and death.  “Cinder”-ella is so defined by her pitiable circumstances that she is named for the ashes that cover her.  Our very identity is taken from us by our sin.  The stepmother and her demonic daughters abuse and ridicule Cinderella, treating her as nothing more than a servant.  They are trying to destroy her spirit through lies.  The devil, Scripture tells us, is the “father of lies” (John 8:44) who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).  For all intents and purposes, Cinderella is dead, cut off from the world in a tower with only animals to keep her company.  “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).

But there is hope.  A message is sent out to the kingdom: the prince is searching for a bride and will throw a ball at the palace to which all eligible young ladies are invited.  Throughout the Old Testament, God calls His people, His bride (cf. Revelation 19:7), back to himself through the message of the prophets.  He invites His people to a wedding feast (Psalm 23:5; Song of Songs 2:4).  But for Cinderella, this invitation seems like false hope, for she does not have a dress for the ball.  Much as we try through our own power to regain Eden, Cinderella tries to fashion one of her mother’s own dresses into something she can wear, but the wicked step sisters tear her dress to shreds.  “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6, NIV).  Jesus told a parable about a wedding banquet to which all are invited, but one person did not wear wedding garments and was cast out (Matthew 22).  All of Cinderella’s efforts to get to the ball under her own power are for naught.  Without the right garments, she will never have a chance to meet the prince and escape her enslavement.  She storms out of the house and weeps.

And then, when all hope once again seems lost, a miracle.  Cinderella meets her fairy godmother, who transforms the lowly things of her life to allow her to attend the ball.  Rats become horses, a pumpkin turns into a coach, a dog becomes a coachman, and her rags are traded for a beautiful dress and glass slippers.  The fairy godmother represents the Holy Spirit, the One who gives us the gifts (1 Corinthians 12) that lead to redemption.  She gives Cinderella beauty for ashes.  Just as Jesus promised his disciples that they would be “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49) by the Holy Spirit, the fairy godmother clothes Cinderella.  Prepared by her godmother, she approaches the castle with hope and newfound courage.  “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

Once at the ball, she captures the eye of the prince immediately.  “You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride; you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes” (Song of Songs 4:9).  They dance together all night, their hearts knit together as one.  What a beautiful image of salvation!  The Prince of Peace, the Bridegroom, dancing with His bride.  But then, Cinderella hears the chimes of midnight.  She suddenly remembers that the fairy godmother had warned her that the magic would wear off when the clock struck midnight.  And so she runs.  Oh, but had she known how much love the Prince had for her.  It wasn’t the gown that he loved, but her.  Like the beloved in Song of Songs, Cinderella worries that her “dark” appearance will repulse the Prince.  But he sees her as lovely.  Christ does not see our sins when He looks at us.  He sees His bride.  But run Cinderella does, leaving a glass slipper behind.  The glass slippers did not change back.  Once we have been touched by the Spirit of God, and held by the Prince, we will be forever changed, even if we run away.  “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Psalm 139:7-8).  Cinderella returns to her home and her former life, just as we so often return to our sins.  And so the story has come full circle, a perfect tragedy.

But hope intervenes once again.  For the Prince, like Jesus, will not be so easily separated from his bride.  He pursues her, not content to rest until he has found the owner of the glass slipper.  “For the Son of Man came to seek and save what is lost” (Luke 19:10).  The wicked stepmother locks Cinderella in the attic to hide her from the Prince, just as the devil tries to trap us in habitual sin to keep us from Christ.  The Prince tries the shoe on the wicked step sisters, to no avail, and turns to leave.  In Kenneth Branagh’s lovely 2015 movie version of the tale, Cinderella begins to sing a beautiful song, which causes the Prince to stay and seek her out.  When Jehoshaphat and his men sang praises to the Lord, the enemy was defeated (2 Chronicles 20), and when Paul and Silas sang to the Lord, the walls of their prison came tumbling down (Acts 16).  The shoe is placed back on Cinderella’s foot, and the Prince recognizes his bride in rags.  In no version of the story that I can find does the Prince reprimand Cinderella for running away.  He is simply overjoyed to be reunited with the love of his life.  “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to celebrate” (Luke 15:24).  All is forgiven, love and grace win, and a great wedding feast begins.  “And He who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’” (Revelation 21:5).  Which is just to say, they all lived happily ever after.

 

A Dream

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind

Romans 12:2 (ESV)

I had a dream last night.  I don’t remember all of it, but I remember the shape of it.  It was basically a haunted house dream.  I recall a metal spiral staircase and, at the top, a demonic witch that I had to confront.  There was something important at the top of the stairs beyond the demon/witch thing.  It was, I think, a door or a portal.  Perhaps I was trying to leave whatever was at the bottom of the stairs behind, although I remember feeling safe at the bottom of the stairs and terrified at the top.  I think had to go up the stairs a couple of times.  I had the strongest feeling that it was important for me to ascend these stairs and confront whatever malevolence I found at the top.  I did not feel that I had to fight the demon/witch, only to confront it and survive.  The dream ended, in dream logic, with a vision of what I believe was on the other side of the door, a lush and verdant land that was some combination of Oz, Narnia, Middle Earth, and Wonderland.  I saw the portal from the outside and a beautiful woman step through who must have been the witch/demon, because she felt her unblemished face with her hands and then screamed in terror.  She attempted to leap back through the door but it shut and both she and it disappeared, leaving mirrored glass behind.  Then I awoke to my daughter asking for apple sauce.

The church in which I grew up had a metal spiral staircase in the parish (fellowship) hall.  Descending it led to the Sunday school rooms, while ascending it led to a locked door behind which was a storage room.  I am deathly afraid of heights.  Descending this staircase was a little scary, as you could see all the way to the bottom floor between the steps.  But ascending those steps was terrifying, as you were now two stories up and only had the railing to protect you from a terrible fall.  If I remember correctly, the steps even wobbled slightly as you walked on them.  As a kid, I had no need to go up those steps, but I do remember going up them, as either a test of courage or curiosity.  It didn’t matter what was behind the door; ascending the steps was the goal, the true test of courage.

Almost all of the dreams I have involve going to school, usually college.  And they are almost all anxiety-inducing.  I have not studied for the test or I’m late for class.  Mostly though, I feel like I’m always lost in long hallways trying to find the right door to my class, or worse, I’m lost in a labyrinthine campus not able to even find the right building.  Frequently, I’m about to take the final in a class which I never attended.  These dreams seem easy enough to interpret.  I feel, as most adults do, that I’m taking a final every day for a class I did not sign up for.  I’m just winging it.  My dreams indicate that my brain is trying to deal with this fact and reconcile my self to it.  It also seems to be searching in my past for the time and place (presumably school) when the answers were provided and I missed them.  These dreams are almost a familiar routine, as mundane and as worrying as every other aspect of my life.  So when another dream pops up, I notice it.

I remember one in particular that has a bearing on last night’s dream.  It was not so much a dream as a vision of hell itself.  I was walking city streets where dirt and disease hung in the air.  Wild dogs (wolves really), mangy and rabid, roamed the streets with bared teeth.  Fetid sewage ran through gullies on the side of the street.  A sickening, monotone drone filled the air, making both hearing and thought impossible.  Most horrifying were the residents.  They looked mostly normal except that their faces had been removed like a scratch-off lottery ticket, leaving only blankness behind.  The dream ended with me in a long hallway full of doors.  I desperately wanted to leave so I ran to each door only to find it was fake or had disappeared.  I ran and ran down the hallway, panicking, all while a demonic voice calmly intoned over and over “no exit, no exit, no exit”.  I awoke with my heart thudding in my chest.  I clicked the light on quickly and got my journal out.  Immediately, I began jotting down aspects of heaven that served as a sort of antidote to what I had seen (e.g. heaven is life and health, full of individuals, permeated by singing and silence, an expanse of ever-widening vistas, etc.).  I uttered a prayer and waited for my heart to return to its normal rate.  Only then did I click off the light and return, very slowly, to sleep.

Dreams, like myths, have multiple meanings, some of them just beyond words.  But trying to look for the truth behind the images, in both dreams and myths, can lead to revelation.  Certainly, Scripture is full of dreamers, from Jacob (Genesis 28:12) to Solomon (1 Kings 3:5) to Peter (Acts 10) to the Magi (Matthew 2).  The birth of the Savior of the world was foretold to Joseph in a dream (Matthew 1:20).  God uses dreams to speak, and even if it is just our subconscious trying to speak up, it is worth listening.  So, in the light of this, I’ll attempt to suss out a possible interpretation for my dream (feel free to leave your own theory in the comments).  In Lent, I am trying to get closer to God, to ascend to a higher plane spiritually.  This spiritual road is not straight, but curves like spiral stairs.  And it is not safe; I cannot guarantee that I will not fall.  It is much more comfortable to stay at the bottom of the stairs than to take that risk.  The good news is that I have multiple tries at it.  But each try requires a new decision to change, a new risk in the face of evil.  The witch/demon stands between me and the portal to Narnia/Oz/Middle Earth (representing spiritual health and new life).  I must confront evil and sin to reach whatever new vista God has prepared for me.  I do not have to defeat this evil, merely confront it in faith and courage.

I’d like to take just a second to address the witch/demon because she’s really important.  First of all, she is female.  Psychologist Carl Jung has a couple of concepts that might be helpful here: the shadow and the anima.  The shadow is the part of yourself that is kept (or you keep) hidden from consciousness.  To be a fully integrated person, you have to accept this “dark” part of yourself, where hidden desires (both good and bad) and fears reside.  The anima is the feminine aspect of a man’s psyche.  It involves a man’s expectation of women, but it’s also an image of possibility, a sort of reverse mirror through which to see oneself.  Viewed through these lenses, I think the witch represents less a literal demonic challenger than a part of myself that I have to work through to reach the goal.  And the end of the dream may indicate that the goal is about bringing this shadow within myself into the light that it may be transformed into something beautiful.  Interestingly, I remember the beautiful woman looking a bit like Emilia Clarke, who plays the queen Daenerys Targaryen on the Game of Thrones t.v. series.  The witch is transformed into a queen.  This process will be stressful to the shadow part of myself (hence the horror the witch feels at being beautiful) because it is not accustomed to the light, to being part of my identity.  When she disappears at the end, I interpret that as meaning the redeemed anima will be integrated into my self and I will be more whole than I was.  Lent is about confronting the darkness within yourself (the shadow) and not destroying it, but allowing Christ to transform it into a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).

One of the great archetypal myths, particularly for men in the Western world, is the knight defeating the dragon and winning the hand of the virgin/princess.  To defeat the dragon often requires a descent into its subterranean lair (see, e.g., the basilisk in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).  In my case, the dragon required an ascent, partly because I’m afraid of heights and partly because stairs going up represent spiritual progress (see Jacob’s ladder in Genesis).  But here is where the myth diverges from my dream.  For me, the virgin to be rescued is the dragon, almost like Eustace in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, whom Aslan changed from dragon back into man.  The dragon is defeated by being transformed, just as the witch turned into a queen.  By showing courage and defeating the dragon, the knight proves himself worthy of the princess, and thus they are married and the knight is made whole.  If we have the courage to face the demons within ourselves, we can be transformed by the Holy Spirit in the renewal of our minds and be made whole in Christ Jesus our Lord.  All that will be left of ourselves is a mirror that reflects the glory of God out into the world.

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Lent: Love and Foolishness

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread
and so I come to you, my love, my heart above my head.
Though I see the danger there,
if there’s a chance for me then I don’t care.
Fools rush in where wise men never go
but wise men never fall in love, so how are they to know?
When we met I felt my life begin.
So open up your heart and let this fool rush in.

–Johnny Mercer, “Fools Rush In”

This year, Lent begins in love and ends in foolishness.  Ash Wednesday falls on February 14th, Valentine’s Day.  Easter occurs on April 1st, April Fool’s Day.  This accident of the calendar, unfortunate on the surface, got me thinking about the purposes of Lent and the “folly” of falling in love with God.

Modern Valentine’s Day has become a capitalist plot to use women’s desire for companionship and men’s desire for sex (and sometimes vice versa) to sell chocolate, wine, teddy bears, movie tickets, expensive meals, lingerie, and twenty metric tons of greeting cards.  Love is equated with consumerism and indulgence.  Success and happiness for modern Americans seems to require tangible assets (Jesus called it “mammon”).  “It’s the economy, stupid” has gone from a political slogan to a guiding philosophy.  Thus, we notice a huge cognitive dissonance when a season of abstinence and self-denial falls on a holiday that celebrates love.  Yet anyone who is married knows that romantic love cannot be sustained through indulgence and saccharine feelings.  Marriage takes sacrifice; marriage is sacrifice.  You literally give up your life for your spouse.  As Paul sets out in Ephesians 5, husbands must sacrifice by leading their families and loving their wives as Christ does.  And wives must sacrifice by respecting their husband and submitting to his authority.  To truly love is to die to yourself, to always put the other first.  Even sex is only truly fulfilling if you have given yourself, both soul and body, to the other person exclusively, completely, and for life.  A day of love and a day of self-sacrifice should be one and the same.  That they aren’t says more about our twisted values than it does about love.

Valentine’s Day is a wholly appropriate way to start Lent, for God desires nothing more than a love relationship with His people.  As I mentioned yesterday, Ash Wednesday is about dying so that we may be born to new life and bear fruit.  The only force that could motivate such a change is love.  And God’s love for us is the central message of Holy Scripture (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”).  Throughout the Old Testament, God calls His people into covenant with Him and laments when they betray Him like an unfaithful wife.  An entire book, Song of Songs, is devoted to romantic love.  And, of course, Christ refers to himself as the bridegroom and His Church as the bride, and He invites us to a wedding banquet.  Romantic, erotic love is the model for the sort of devotion we are to show for God and that God already shows to us.  Think, for example, of the five “love languages”.  From words of affirmation and quality time (Bible study and prayer) to receiving gifts and physical touch (the Sacraments) to acts of service (ditto), what we do in Lent mirrors what couples in a healthy relationship do.  For God lavishes us with more gifts than even the most besotted lover does for his beloved.  Lent is as good a time as any to devote ourselves, our whole lives body and soul, to our lover.

And yet how foolish this all seems, which brings us to Easter/April Fool’s Day.  Look at what we Christians believe from an outsider’s perspective.  We believe that there is an omnipotent God who created everything and yet is unseen.  Until, that is, a random Middle Eastern carpenter claimed to not only speak for God, but that He actually was God.  Furthermore, we believe that this strange God-man died (!) via a common execution and then, inexplicably, rose from the dead.  He then rose up into the sky and disappeared.  And now there is a human being (who is also somehow God) in heaven bodily and we will also join Him, assuming we take a ritual bath and eat the God-man’s body and drink His blood.  Umm…okay….  There are a few of problems with this: God can’t also be a man,  God can’t die (*see footnote), people don’t come back from the dead, etc.  This is all foolishness.  St. Paul puts it best in one of my favorite passages of Scripture, worth quoting in full:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

By the wisdom of this world, what we believe is pure folly, a fantasy.  But look what this folly has done!  Those who follow this folly have built civilizations, creating incomparable art and music and architecture.  They have abolished slavery and liberated the oppressed.  They run orphanages, hospitals, and universities.  They feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the refugee, visit the prisoners, comfort the dying, and protect the unborn.  Most of all, those who believe this folly have hope and courage and faith, a life reborn.  Paul goes on: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27-8).  The folly of what we preach will redeem the world.  As author Frederick Buechner said, “there are two kinds of fools in the world: damned fools and what Saint Paul calls ‘fools for Christ’s sake’ (1 Corinthians 4:10)”.  I know which I’d rather be.

So how appropriate indeed that Easter should fall on April Fool’s Day.  For the love relationship that begins anew on Ash Wednesday/Valentine’s Day ends in the folly of the Cross and Resurrection.  Lent is not a rational or logical process (it certainly doesn’t make sense to the non-believer).  But to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.  As Blaise Pascal put it, “the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”.  So let us put our hearts above our heads this Lent.  “Wise” men would say we are wasting our time.  But wise men never fall in love, so how are they to know?

 

*Theologically speaking, God didn’t die on the cross for God has always existed and will always exist.  However, Jesus’ soul left His mortal body, thus in that sense He, the man who was God, died.  It’s complicated because Trinitarian theology is complicated, but I’m just trying to put it in the words of a non-believer.

 

Ash Wednesday

And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?”

–1 Kings 18:21 (ESV)

When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the penitential season of Lent.  Or, as some of you might know it, it’s the day when your Catholic and Episcopalian friends creep you out by walking around all day with a black smudge on their foreheads.  And when you think about it, rubbing ashes on your forehead in the shape of an object of torture and execution does seem odd, backward, and uncivilized.  I suppose that’s the point.  There is something primal about it, something that removes masks we wear in polite society and gets to the heart of who we are.  To have ashes rubbed on your forehead is to submit to your true nature as a creature, a beast among beasts, a thing that dies.  As he imposes the ashes (and it is an imposition), the priest says, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.  No room for vanity there.  Just a recognition of the transience of it all, how easily life itself is blown away like dust.  All of our earthly kingdoms, our houses made of sand, will crumble over time or come crashing to earth as the Tower of Babel did.  I’m reminded of the tradition during Roman triumphs, the parades given to generals victorious in battle.  The general would arrive at the climax of the parade, riding a glorious chariot, waving to the ecstatic multitudes and basking in their adulation.  But in his ear, a slave would whisper over and over “memento mori, memento mori, memento mori”.  “Remember that you are mortal”.  And yet…

By the time Elijah reached Mount Carmel, you get the sense that he was fed up.  Wicked King Ahab had accused him of causing the trouble in Israel, specifically the famine that plagued the land.  Elijah, knowing that the shoe was on the other foot, had heard enough.  He said to the prophets of Baal, essentially, “put up or shut up”.  But before addressing the pagans, he addresses the people of Israel with the verse above.  It’s not so much that the people of God have become apostate as they want to have it both ways.  They hobble back and forth between YHWH and Baal, hedging their bets and playing the odds.  The verse continues, “if the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”  Enough is enough: choose a side.  “And the people did not answer him a word.”  What could they say?  Elijah had called them out on their cowardice, on their unfaithfulness, and they had no reply.  God’s reply, of course, was the spectacular, fiery demonstration of His power on that mountain.  It is interesting that the same word “limping” from 1 Kings 18:21 appears again in verse 26: “and [the prophets of Baal] limped around the altar that they had made”.  Worshiping false gods leaves one lame and impotent.  The false prophets even cut themselves to appeal to the dumb idols they served.  How barbaric and stupid, and yet how familiar.  We damage ourselves and limp around serving money and power and pride and fear and all the rest.  Sure we go to church and try to be good people and even occasionally pray and read the Bible.  But we’re not all in.  We serve two masters or at least we try to.  Jesus himself said that you can’t do that (Matthew 6:24).  Instead, Jesus calls us to take up our cross, an instrument of death, and follow him (Matthew 16:24).  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, to follow Christ is to die.  If we give anything less, we will not see the fire from heaven fall as it did on Mount Carmel and as it did on the disciples at Pentecost.  When that fire falls, it will consume us (Hebrews 12:29), but like a phoenix, indeed like Christ himself, we will arise from the ashes reborn.

And that is the deeper meaning of Ash Wednesday.  It is not just about death.  It is the first day on the journey to the resurrection, to Easter.  The call to repentance and self-denial is a call to new life.  The ashes on our forehead, then, represent hope, for they show us that our old self, enslaved to sin and death, has been destroyed by the cross.  Lent is not just about tinkering around the edges of our lives or even coming up with a plan of self-improvement.  It is about dying.  Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25).  That’s they key:  all of us will die, no matter how hard we cling to this life.  Those who voluntarily give up their lives to Him who is the Life (John 14:6) will not only receive eternal life but will bear fruit.  On this Ash Wednesday, let us plant the seed of our life in the ground so that when Easter (literally “the spring”) comes we shall see an abundance of fruit.