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I thank God for Psalm 137

I’m thankful for Psalm 137.

I thank God for its ugliness. I thank God for the anger, the pain, and the anguish.

I thank God for the barely contained rage that drips from every word.

The Bible has its fair share of troubling passages. Perhaps none are more troubling than these nine verses that end with a cry for infanticide. It begins with these words:

Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down,

crying because we remembered Zion.

We hung our lyres up in the tree there

because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;

Our tormentors requested songs of joy:

“Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.

But how could we possibly sing the Lord’s song on foreign soil?

Ravaged by the exile, the writer of Psalm 137 feels pain that goes beyond mere homesickness. His home has been destroyed. He and his people have been uprooted and taken to a foreign soil. A once proud people have seen their monarchy collapse. The glory days of David and Solomon are a distant memory. The grand Temple, the house of God on earth and center of all commercial and cultural activity, is rubble. God, who delivered the people from slavery, who gave them the Law to be the sign of their special relationship, who gave them the Land in which to dwell and worship, who made a people out of no people, cannot be heard. Everything the people knew was gone. In the midst of this devastation they are asked to sing. This is where their tormentors asked them to sing a song of joy. Psalm 137 is the response.

It continues with a plea for Jerusalem. The song longs for the memory of the city, and promises to keep it fresh. The promise of remembering is an important one. Time and again God tells the people to remember. Remembering keeps the people alive. It keeps them God’s people, and at this point, memory is all they have. Memory not only of the city, but of God’s presence in their lives. And then the Psalm goes to a more recent, bitter memory:

Remember what the Edomites did on Jerusalem’s dark day:

“Rip it down, rip it down!

All the way to its foundayions!” they yelled.

The memory of the taunt is a dark one, and it leads finally to this:

Daughter Babylon, you destroyer,

a blessing on the one who pays you back the very deed you did to us!

A blessing on the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock.”

I thank God for Psalm 137.

It is a devastating plea made in the midst of a devastating time. It is easy to read these words and be horrified. How could anyone wish something such as this? How could this be in our Holy Book? How could this be in the same book that holds Jesus’ plea for love of enemy? It is easy to read these words and just slowly walk away. Instead, I invite you to sit with them. Sit with the devastation that must have come to the people. Sit with the vision of what they experienced. Sit with the defeat at the hands of the conquerors, and remember that the Psalmist asks for nothing more than what was done to them.

I thank God for Psalm 137 because it gives me a place for anger. It gives me a place for devastation. It gives me a place to cry out. It gives me permission to give God my worst. I love the gentle words of Jesus. I love to read about the Lord as my shepherd, leading me through the valley of the shadow of death. I love to hear the promise of the prophets looking forward to the time when swords will be bent into plows. Psalm 137 though, gives me a place for other emotions. It gives me a place for all my anger.

It gives me a chance to react to beheadings of healthcare workers. It gives me a way to react to school girls being kidnapped. It gives me space to want to exact my tooth from the one who abuses their spouse or child. It gives me permission to scream, because sometimes a light, well-thought-out, gentle prayer just doesn’t satisfy me. Psalm 137 gives me room to rage when grace still feels a long way off. A closer look though, reveals that grace is contained even within this poem.

This poem is about the desire for revenge. It is about the very human yearning to exact punishment for wrong doing. It is about a people looking to take an eye for an eye, or in this case, a child for a child. The people were destroyed. Their children were presumably murdered in front of them, and this poem contains within it the collective rage of a people not only destroyed, but tormented afterwards. “Sing us a song,” their captors say.

Remember though, that this is a poem about the yearning for revenge. It is not a story of revenge fulfilled. It is a plea for God to take out God’s wrath, but the pleas are left unanswered. The cries are left unheeded. God’s voice is not heard. There is no response, at least not here. Eventually Cyrus the Great of Persia overthrew Babylon, and allowed the people to return. Eventually the people were restored. Eventually the people were allowed to return home. The Temple was rebuilt. The walls of the city were remade.

Eventually a savior came.

In the face of injustice, oppression, and violence, I don’t often react like a gentle lamb. Revenge is a powerful impulse. Just ask Liam Neeson. We love the action hero going on a quest for vengeance. We love that delicious moment when the evil doers get what’s coming to them. This doesn’t happen here.

And this is another reason I love Psalm 137. God’s response to this call for vengeance goes unheeded. The people are restored, but not through vengeance. They are restored through the suffering servant. They are restored through the lamb. When I am ready to boil over, this is an important reminder.

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He drew in the sand. Godspell Lent, part 3 #tryLENT

This is part three of the Godspell journey in Lent. The theme for the week is Conflict, and the song is “By My Side.”

Part 1: Prepare Ye the Way.

Part 2: Jesus Plays The Clock Game.

heart in the sandHe drew in the sand.

The woman was in front of him. As were the Pharisees and legal experts who brought her to him and the regular crowds there in the Temple.

She was faced with public humiliation and scorn in the very least. Capital punishment, though unlikely, still placed on the table before her. A pawn in a game played by powerful men, the woman has no name. We know nothing of her history. Nothing of her circumstances. We know only that she is a slut, an adulteress, unworthy of being treated as a human, and we know that only because the powerful men say so.

“Caught in the act of adultery,” is what they say. How exactly they caught her is unclear. Was she set up? Was she raped? Where is the man? They claim to be holding to the Law, but the fact is, the men care little about the Law. They use it for their own good. They use it for their own benefit, setting themselves up over and above all others. They aren’t interested in justice. If they cared about the law, then where is the man? Leviticus 20:10 requires that both the man and the woman caught in adultery are to be executed. The alternative is that the woman wasn’t yet married. Adultery laws were based entirely on property rights, so if the woman wasn’t yet completely the property of another, than the man did nothing wrong. Instead, if she was simply betrothed to another man, she alone would suffer the consequences.

And while this sort of inter-gospel speculation is something I usually avoid, I cannot help but see this as a possible part of the story. While the accusers saw simply a woman who could be used in their game, perhaps Jesus saw something else. When Jesus looked at this woman, a woman pregnant and betrothed to another, perhaps he saw part of his own story. This, clearly, is pretty wild speculation, but it is speculation that fits. This whole story is wrought with speculation. There are dependable reasons to think that John 8:1-11 is not authentically John. There is good reason to think it was added later, maybe much later, than the already late writing of the Gospel of John. In most modern Bibles, the fact that this story isn’t found in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of John is noted. Yet it remains a part of the story. It remains so because it feels like it fits.

In the musical Godspell this story is a turning point. It is a place where the community starts to question. This is where the community starts to wonder. The telling of this story is not done in the third person. It is not acted with frivolity and joy. It is the source of genuine discord, and a lot hangs in the balance of Jesus’ reaction. His response is a part of the cultural understanding of Jesus. Even those that know little of the man know the words that are attributed to him, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” In the musical, there is a moment of tension before the community comes back together. The response to this crisis is the song “By My Side,” a beautifully haunting song that describes the groups resolve to move forward. The song however, ends with Judas deciding once and for all he had enough. At the end of the song, the community was tested by the conflict, and most of them decide to stick with Jesus even if doing so can be difficult. Judas decides to betray Jesus.

In the Gospel of John, the passage plays an important role in seeing what is at stake. The story isn’t about the law or justice. It’s not even really about grace. The story is about the leaders operating under the system that creates winners and losers, and about how Jesus refused to play along. The leaders care nothing about the woman nor her supposed sins. All they care about is beating Jesus. They want to trap him. They put him in a situation which cannot be won. Either he picks to condemn her, which upholds the Law, but jeopardizes him in the eyes of the Roman government, who are the only ones able to inflict capital punishment; or he chooses to let her go, thus making a mockery of the Law. They think they have him cornered. Either way he breaks the law. And how does Jesus respond?

He plays in the sand.

He refuses to get caught in their trap. Instead of seeing a pawn placed in front of him as a challenge, he sees a woman. His answer befuddles those that sought to trap him, and they leave one by one.

In our story of Godspell, this is when Judas had enough. This is the moment it was just too much to take. He wanted there to be a winner and loser, and he wanted to be on the winning side. Jesus, on the other hand, is not on anyone’s side. He is not interested in winning and losing. He was not willing to get caught up in the conflict – at least not in this conflict. He was not going to choose between the Law and grace because this is a false choice. I’m not saying that Jesus avoided conflict. He simply chose to meet conflict on his ground, in his way. He faced the conflict with nonviolence, with the power of grace and forgiveness, and with a will that was in perfect union with God the Father.

He faced the ultimate conflict when he faced the cross. Those that crucified him saw that as the ultimate trap. Finally, they forced his hand. They asked him if he was king. They demanded that he either declare himself King and attempt to rule, or  face death and be defeated. When he hung from the cross they thought they finally had him, but once again, Jesus refused to play along.

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Jesus hosts The Clock Game: “Higher, Higher, Higher”

Part two of our #TryLENT journey with the Godspell, the musical. Read Part one: Prepare Ye the Way.

Remember the Clock Game? It is a The Price is Right classic, and it hasn’t changed much over the years. The premise is so simple: just name the exact price of the prize, and you win it. You have as many guesses as you can muster in the 30 seconds on the clock. The contestant says a price, and the host says simply “higher,” or “lower,” until the right price is found. Above is a video of a woman who won $1 million playing the game. It helps that she nailed the first price on the first guess. It also helped that the second price was a nice round number. Still, it was an impressive feat.

This is the second part of our Godspell journey, and there is a great part of the musical that tells the story of Matthew 18:21-35. It is the story of a servant who owes his master ten thousand talents. I think the amount, taking exchange rates and translations into account, is one bajillion dollars. Actually, it is an amount that equals 60 million days of labor, so it may as well be a bajillion. When the master wants to collect the debt, the servant begs for mercy and promises to pay the master back. Clearly this is absurd promise. It would take him over 150,000 years to pay the master back. The master though, takes compassion on the servant, and forgives the entire debt. It feels like a happy ending, but then the servant goes and sees a fellow servant who owes him money. The second servant, facing a debt of about two month’s pay, seeks the same mercy. It is refused. When the master gets wind of the refusal, he’s mad. “I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:32-33).

This is a great parable about forgiveness, and it is important to hear the echo of the Lord’s Prayer in the background, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” On its own, it is a great fable about compassion and how we should behave as a people who have been granted mercy. Our of our gratitude for the mercy we have been shown, we should show others the same mercy. Given Jesus’ intro to the story however, where he plays a little bit of the Clock Game, it takes an even greater weight.

Yes, Jesus plays the Clock Game with the disciples as a part of a long teaching about the nature of the community Jesus is forming. Back at the beginning of the chapter Jesus is asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom?” (Matthew 18:1). His answer includes several parables and tweetable quotes, like:

      “I assure you that if you don’t turn your life around and become like this little child, you will definitely not enter the kingdom.” (18:3)

 

    “Those who humble themselves like this child will be the greatest in the kingdom. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcome me.” (18:4)”If your hand causes you to sin, chop it off and throw it away.” (18:8)”If someone had one hundred sheep and one of them wandered off, wouldn’t he leave the ninety-nine to search for the one that wandered off?” (18:13)”If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together… But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others.” (18:15-16)

The disciples are taught that humility matters. They are taught to avoid sin as much as they can, but Jesus acknowledges that sin is going to happen. So he tells them how to work to bring people back into community. He tells individuals to do all that they can (I’m assuming that the cutting off the hand thing is hyperbole) to avoid sin. He is also telling the community to work hard at keeping in community – even in the face of those that sin against you. So Peter, who seems to be getting it, starts to play The Clock Game.

The prize: Community. It is the ability to stay together as the Body. It is nothing less than entry into the Kingdom of Heaven, which is inseparable from connection to the Community. So Peter guesses at the price of community. His first guess is seven times. Jesus’ response? “Higher.”

“Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive them as many as seven times?’

“Jesus said, ‘Not just seven times, but seventy and seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)

So does Jesus mean 77 times?

Higher.

Does he mean 70 times 7 times?

Higher.

Does he mean a bajillion times?

Now we’re getting closer.

This feels like an impossible task, but the task of staying in community is never easy. Being in community is full of difficulty. It is full of pain, pitfalls, and disappointment. Being a community means that faulted, hurtful, selfish people are going to come together for long enough to see the faults, the hurt, and the selfishness.Yet it is only in community that we may know Christ.

The only way to God is through community. Are there moments of individual revelation? Of course. Are there moments when solitude is a holy experience? Yes. But any full pathway to God includes others. It includes doing the hard work of justice, mercy, kindness, grace, and love. And if we are going to be in community, we need to forgive. Day by day, every day. We are need of forgiveness, and called to extend forgiveness to others. It is not an easy task. It takes a lasting, growing, long-term relationship with Christ and others to be able to remain in community.

Day by day, the Godspell song says. Day by day I pray for three things, to “see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly.” Those things don’t come easily. They don’t come magically after saying a prayer, or after having water poured on your head at baptism. Seeing God more clearly is a process of practicing intentional grace. The only way to see God more clearly is to see God in the face of others. See God in the face of strangers, in the face of homeless man on the street, in the face of immigrants struggling to make a life, in the face of the women on your screen with nothing else on, in the face of those that want to do us harm. It is no easy task to see God clearly. I’d much prefer a caricature of God, one that looks like me, acts like me, worships like me, works hard like me, and thinks like me. So Day by day I pray. I pray for the compassion it takes to forgive. I pray that God will have the same kind of compassion on me. And I play The Clock Game.

How many times will I be forgiven? How many times am I called to forgive my brother and sister? How many times will I be invited into community? How many times can I see the face of God in another? How many days will I have to live in the Kingdom, if I but answer the call? How many times will Christ call me back?

Seven. Higher

Seventy Seven. Higher…

Seventy times Seven. Higher…

Higher…

Higher…

 

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Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord

The Gospel of Mark tells the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death. It begins in the middle of the story, and ends before it’s over.

Mark begins John baptizing people in the Jordan River. There’s no wise men, no manger or shepherds. There’s no virgin Mary or stunned Joseph. There’s no Christmas at all. There’s just John, the wild and wooly prophet telling people to change their lives and minds, and look forward to the coming one. Jesus shows up pretty quickly, and is baptized. As he comes out of the water, Jesus hears a voice from the heavens, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Thus marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Thus marks the beginning of the musical Godspell. Thus marks our beginning of Lent, and our photo journal. For the next few weeks I will be writing and reflecting on different themes, songs, and stories that are found in Godspell. After a prologue, Godspell begins with John the Baptist blowing the shofar and calling the people to baptism. In our production, the children are the first ones up. Then they bring the adults with them to the stage. We sing joyfully, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” until Jesus comes to be baptized as well. It is the start of the musical. More importantly, it is the start of our journey. We are invited this week to take pictures of things that makes us think of “Prepare the Way,” and words like begin, embark, baptize, water, and Spirit. Some began the journey by sharing pictures, all of which you can see on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter using the hashtag #tryLENT. These are some that were shared on various social media:

Announce

Announce

Begin

Begin

Start

Start

Water

Water

The Jordan River

The Jordan River

 

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. It begins with these words: “From dust were you formed, and to dust you will return. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” These were the words I used as I applied ashes to the foreheads and hands of those that came forward on Ash Wednesday. As the start of Lent, Ash Wednesday is a chance to take the sign of the cross in ash, and begin the journey toward Easter. We begin the season of Lent with reminder of our own mortality, a call to repentance, and a call to faith.

Why then, on the first Sunday of Lent do we share the story of Jesus being baptized? Why the sudden shift from Death, mortality, and repentance to baptism? Because it really isn’t that much of a shift. The words of the imposition of ashes are a poignant reminder, and an apt starting point for the journey of Lent.

“From dust you were formed and to dust you will return.” This has not only a theological truth rooted in the second creation story as found in Genesis 2. It has a scientific truth in our understanding of the cosmos. Carl Sagan is famously quoted as saying, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” All of this is to say that we are mortal. The human body was made as a fragile vessel.

When we take on the ash of the cross we are reminded of the simple fact that we will die. The truth of death is one of the only universals of life. It is something we all share. Yet it it is a truth we seldom want to acknowledge. It is good, every now and then, to be reminded of our own mortality. Not to dwell in morbidity or to scare people into believing. Instead, I like to remind myself and others of our mortality so as to savor every breath. Yes, we were formed from dust and to dust we will return. But in between, we are fill with breath. We are filled with life. We are filled with spirit.

On Ash Wednesday my daughter came forward to receive ashes. I placed my finger on her forehead, rubbed some dirt on her and said, “From dust you were formed, and to dust you will return.” I looked into her deep brown eyes and I could scarcely get the words out. It was too much. It was the truth, but in that moment it felt like too much truth. Somehow I got the words out. I was thankful that this was not the end of the imposition. I had more words to speak. Through my tears, I put my hand on her shoulder and continued, “Repent, and believe in the good news.”

And thus we get back to the beginning. “Repent and believe in the good news,” was the heart of John’s message while he was baptizing. It was Jesus’ first message after coming back from the wilderness. In Mark 1:16, Jesus says, “Now is the time! Here comes the God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust the good news” (Common English Bible). This translation gives us the meaning for repent. For too many teachers and preachers repentance has to do with shame and guilt. Repentance though, is not about shame. It is about orienting. It is not about looking back, it is about looking ahead. It acknowledges that we have fallen short, but repentance does not allow us dwell on sin. When we repent, we turn. At the beginning of Lent, and at the beginning of this journey, we are invited to repent.

Turn away from those things that distract us from God. Turn away from the things that pull us away from life. Turn away from the things that get in the way of loving God and loving others. Turn toward forgiveness and reconciliation. Turn toward justice, healing, and peace. Turn toward grace. Repent, and believe the good news. And what is that good news? It goes back to Jesus being baptized. When he got out of the water, there was a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” (Mark 1:11, Common English Bible).

The ashes are a reminder of our mortality. They are reminder that we must turn away from the things that keep us from life and toward the things of God. And they are reminder of this good news that we may all share. “You are God’s son. You are God’s daughter, whom God dearly loves. In you God finds happiness.” To believe this statement is as true of me as it is of Jesus is not to believe I am the messiah. It is to understand that God’s love is so full, so abundant, so steadfast, that even I am God’s son. I was formed from dust, given the breath of life, and offered the water of baptism. I am God’s son, adopted into God’s family not because I earned my way to such a distinction, but only by the grace of God.

This is good news. This is truly remarkable news. This is amazing news. It is the kind of news I want to share. It is the kind of news that makes me want to sing. “Prepare the way of the Lord. Repent, and believe in the good news. Prepare the way for a journey with Christ.”


 From February 25-March 3 we’re invited to reflect on “Day by Day.” This song in the musical comes in a time when the community coming together. The song includes the beautiful prayer “See thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly.” So the words we should look for are things like follow, grow, see, community, friendship. Please share pictures using #tryLENT


 

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Zacchaeus was a wee little man?

Sycamore trees in America are tall, grand trees that are not easily climbed.  This type of Sycamore is found exclusively in Israel.  This particular tree is found in Netanya, about 50 miles from modern Jericho.  You can see from it's shape though, that it would be quite easy to climb.

Sycamore trees in America are tall, grand trees that are not easily climbed. This type of Sycamore is found exclusively in Israel. This particular tree is found in Netanya, about 50 miles from modern Jericho. You can see from it’s shape though, that it would be quite easy to climb.

The Gospel of Luke tells a short story about Jesus and a man named Zacchaeus.  It is found in Luke 19:1-10.  I included a link to a site called Bible Study Tools, where you can read two different translations of the story.  The two translations are going to be important, but we’ll get to that shortly.  If you’re not familiar with the story, it is a very simple episode of a short man named Zacchaeus meeting Jesus.  Zach is not only short, but he is a chief tax collector, and a rich man.  When he encounters Jesus (from in a sycamore tree so that he could see) Jesus tells him to get out of the tree because he has to come over for dinner.  The people in the crowd grumbled at this because they weren’t big fans of tax collectors.  As a response to the crowd’s grumbling, and perhaps more importantly, in response to Jesus’ invitation, Zach declares, at least in one translation, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”  Jesus responds with praise and repeats the theme of the Gospel of Luke, that he “came to seek and save the lost.”

The story, as told above, is a great story of conversion.  As the traditional interpretation goes, Jesus inspired something in Zach to make him change his ways.  By inviting himself over, and including him in the community, Jesus inspired Zach to change heart.  He re-examined his relationship with money, and decided to live a more righteous life.  This is a reasonable story, and one that is surely good news.  Even with this traditional interpretation, there is some radical love going on here.  First of all, Jesus offered grace to Zach before there was a conversion.  This can be read as a story of God’s preceding grace (or prevenient grace, if you want to use a $20 Methodist word); the kind of grace that comes before we do anything about it.  Jesus indeed came to seek and save the lost.

There is even a sweet children’s song to go along with it, although the song has little to do with conversion.  I read one description of the song that says it is a “reminder that even small people are important.”

Short Jesus

Short Jesus

Recently though, I’ve come to see Zach a little differently.  First of all, while it is clear that someone in the story is short, the truth is the Greek is ambiguous as to who the short one is.  Zach climbed in the tree, so everything thinks he’s short, but read that sentence again without assuming that Jesus is the tall hero with long flowing brown hair and perfect complexion.  “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd.”  If a short man was walking in the midst of a crowd, he would be hard to see.  In other words, climbing a tree would be helpful to see over the crowd whether Zach was the short one or Jesus was the short one.  We just assume Zach is short because the hero of the story is never short (unless the hero is a hobbit).

This is really a minor issue.  Jesus’ height isn’t really an important issue, but I believe it reveals to us the way we bring our own assumptions to the text.  We assume that Jesus is the tall one because we want our heroes to be tall, dark, and handsome.

The fact is, we bring our own assumptions to a lot of parties.  Another assumption is revealed in the translation issue I mentioned earlier.  Most translations have a simple word that, at least in my mind, alters the meaning of the story.  After Jesus invites himself over to Zach’s house, Zach says, “I will give…”  The Common English Bible, however, leaves out that little ‘will.’  This is a fact that David Lose pointed out before the Common English Bible existed.  In fact, the ‘will’ is left out of the King James and the RSV as well.  It seems like more modern versions of the text have shaped the story the way we want it to appear.  We want this to be about conversion.  We want this to be about how Jesus’ grace changed the heart of a terrible tax collector, because then the story can be about someone else.  It can be about those terrible people that gained money in illicit fashion, and now must repent.  It demands nothing of the reader.  Since none of us are chief tax-collectors, t’s so easy to simply see others in the role of Zach, and leave ourselves with a gentle reminder that all are indeed welcome to the table.

If Zach’s declaration is not in the future tense, then the story feels different.  Instead of Zach changing his heart because of the grace of the savior, we have him defending himself against a grumbling crowd.  It turns out, he’s been doing what John the Baptist had told him to do.    Back in Luke 3:12-13 we are told that John the Baptist was baptizing tax collectors.  They asked him, “What do we need to do?” John replied, “collect only what you are due.”  It seems like Zach was doing just what cousin John had taught them.

Now, the focus is not on the heart of that dirty-old tax collector.  The focus is on the heart of the grumbing crowd.  Remember too, that “all who saw it began to grumble.”  Not the Pharisees and their letter-of-law strictness.  Not the chief priests and their holier-than-thou attitudes. Not even the disciples, and their always-a-step-behind bumbling.  All of them. Zach is not confessing a change of heart to Jesus, he is defending his honor to the grumbling crowd that assumes he is not worth their time.

The uncomfortable truth is, the story of Zacchaeus reveals more to us about our own grumbling hearts than it does about his own.  It’s no longer easy to see Zach as some wretch who was saved by Jesus’ compassion.  Instead, we are forced to see him as someone who was excluded from society because – dare I say – the assumptions that were made.  Who else do we refuse to see?  Who else do we judge by their credentials, and deem unworthy?  How many times have we seen the grace of God, and thought, “he doesn’t deserve that.”  How often do we grumble without knowing?

Zacchaeus wanted so desperately to see Jesus that he was willing to risk humiliation.  He was willing to venture out into the crowds that would surely reject him.  But it was not Zacchaeus who saw.  Instead, he was finally seen.  He was seen by Jesus – spotted there up in a tree, not exactly a place of dignity and respect.  He was seen by the unforgiving crowds.  He was seen by those who would do their best to not see him.  Maybe in the end, that’s all any of us really need.  To be seen, not as a job title or a resume.  Seen not as a role to fill, or a caricature of what others think we should be.  Simply to be seen, as one who was made in the image of God.  To be seen simply as one who fails and wins, who cries and laughs, who has lost and loves.  To be seen by Jesus, even as we risk humiliation and scorn, and be invited to come to the feast.

Listen to the Pulpit Fiction Podcast about Zaccaeus

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Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount, Part 4: The Zax

Zax_in_prax

The north-going Zax and the south-going Zax cross paths in the prairie of Prax.

The Zax are lesser-known Seuss creations.  Found in one of the smaller stories within the Sneetches book, they are two creatures full of certainty.  Their paths intersect one day in an open field.  One is going north.  The other south.  They run into each other, and refuse to yield.  Each Zax is certain of his path.  He is certain that there is no other way to go.  There is no room for east or west.  Both dig in, ready for a wait, ready to hold fast to their certainty for as long as it takes.  As they stand there at a face off, a funny things happens.  The world around them goes on.   The story ends with the north-going Zax and the south-going Zax standing face to face, with the world all around them changed.  There are buildings and roads, even a bridge that goes over them.  All around them is progress, leaving behind the Zax and their certainty.

zax standoffAssurance is a virtue.  I’m not sure certainty is.  Certainty is built on the promise that I am right.  It inspires us to dig deeper trenches, and defend certainty at all costs.  Certainty regards new facts with suspicion.  It does not adapt well to change.  Assurance is built on the promise that I am loved. It is a source of hope and inspires confidence.  Assurance allows freedom for challenge and growth.  I think the world could use more blessed assurance and less religious certainty.

Jesus closes his Sermon on the Mount with a warning.  “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven,” he says (Matthew 7:21).  Faith is not about checking a box.  Faith is not about making your claim, saying a formulaic prayer, and thinking that your ticket has been punched.  “Only those who do the will of my Father will enter,” he continues.  He closes this long sermon, one in which he told them some pretty radical stuff, with a reminder that nodding their heads in agreement, even shouting a few ‘amens’ wouldn’t be enough.  I can imagine after this sermon, the people filing by Jesus, shaking his hand warmly and saying, “Good sermon, teacher.”  The Kingdom of Heaven is about more than knowing what is right.  It is about living each day as if the things Jesus taught actually matter.

The Christian life is not easily defined, and it is not easily lived.  It starts not with having all the answers, but with having the courage to ask the questions.  Religious certainty is built on having all the answers.  It is about picking the right Bible verses to memorize, and standing firm on the right side.  It is built, above all, on being right.  Yet Jesus himself called out those who wanted to draw such clear lines.  To those who memorized all the right Bible verses, he declared “You have heard it said… But I say to you.”  He threw doubt upon all that their institutions and religious righteousness had been built on.

Instead he called people to struggle with real problems.  He called people to fix upon the spirit of love that transcended the letter of the Law.  Instead of offering certainty, he offered assurance.  Assurance that the entirety of the Bible could be summed up with a commandment to love.  Assurance that the sinner is welcome at the table.  Assurance that treating one another with love was more important than being right.

Blessed assurance gives me the strength to love.  It gives me the confidence to be vulnerable.  It gives me the safety to adventure into uncharted territory.  Assurance inspires me to go to new places, meet new people, and try to find new ways to encounter what transcends all things: God’s love.

Jesus closes his Sermon on the Mount with a simple metaphor.  “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like the wise builder who built a house on bedrock.  The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house.  It didn’t fall…  But everybody who hears these words and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built his house on sand.  The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew against that house.  It fell and was completely destroyed” (Matthew 7:24-27)

Certainty is built upon the promise that I am right.  It does not respond well to shifting winds or changing times.  Assurance is built upon the promise that I am loved.  With that foundation, I can stand against any storm.

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Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount, Part 3: The Sneetches

sneetchesThe Sneetches are such silly creatures, aren’t they?  Two groups of yellow bird-like creatures lived on a beautiful beach.  Some have little green stars on their bellies.  Some don’t.  That’s when the trouble begins.  The star-bellied Sneetches believe that the star upon their belly makes them “the best Sneetches on the beaches.”  They enjoy much fun and frivolity, but don’t let their plain-bellied-brethren join in their reindeer games.  Enter Sylvester McMonkey McBean.  He has just the contraption that will solve all the problems of the plain-bellied Sneetches.  The plain-bellied Sneetches pay just three dollars to enter the machine, and come out the other end with stars upon thars.

This is only a momentary victory, as natural-starred-Sneetches maintain that they are still the better Sneetches.  Sylvester comes in again and offers some help.  For only ten dollars per Sneetch, they can enter the machine and have that pesky star removed.  Chaos ensues.  The Sneetches get so caught up in adding or removing their stars to keep up with the trends that eventually even they cannot keep up.  Eventually, Sylvester leaves, his pockets properly lined.  In the end, “all the Sneetches forgot about stars, and whether they had one, or not, upon thars.”

It would be easier to dismiss the Sneetches as silly, superficial creatures if we didn’t see ourselves so clearly in them.  Once again, Dr. Seuss presents us with a fun-house mirror.  Bent to stretch out the image to absurd proportions, but mirror-enough to recognize ourselves.  The Sneetches remind us of the absurdity of our divisions.  They remind us of the stars for which we long.  They remind us of the anxieties with which we wake every day.  The anxieties that sit in the pit of our stomachs.  The anxieties that keep us awake, that diminish our appetites, that affect our relationships, and cripple us with fear for of what we don’t have.

The Sneetches worried about whether or not they had stars upon thars.  And we can look out those silly Sneetches and laugh, until we start noticing the stars upon others that we wish we had.  I see the Corvette parked in our neighbor’s garage.  I see the parents whose children are always so well-behaved.  I see the blogger who is selling advertising and the podcasts in the top 100.  I see the churches with the talented praise bands and the powerful music, and the preachers biggering their churches.  I look down at my own belly, and there is no star.  And to boot, it’s a little too big.  Look at those guys at the gym who have six-packs, not stars, upon thars.

And then I hear Jesus.

“Therefore I say to you, don’t worry about your life,” and the needle on the record player amplifying my anxieties gets lifted off with a terrible screech.

Before he can finish the sentence, I want to scream.  Don’t worry about your life? What is that supposed to mean?  My worries are valid.  My worries are righteous.  Shouldn’t I be in better shape?  Shouldn’t I want a bigger church?  Shouldn’t I want more readers, more listeners?  Don’t I deserve to do some biggering of my own?  And then I hear myself.  And I pause long enough to let Jesus finish.

“Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear.  Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes?” (Isn’t there more to you than the whether or not you have a star upon yars?)  “Look at the birds in the sky.  They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns.  Yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Aren’t you worth much more than they are?” (Matthew 6:25-27)

“I guess”, I think.  But still, that seems absurd.  God is the one who gave us the ability to think about the future.  And with the ability to think about the future comes the ability to worry about it.  So am I supposed to stop saving money?  Should I spend my pension?  Should I get rid of my refrigerator?  How far am I supposed to take this?

“Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life?” (Matthew 6:28) Maybe there is a difference between preparing for the future and worrying about the future.  Being a good steward of what has been entrusted to me is different than wrangling out every last penny so as to hoard my blessings.  It seems possible to have a pension without being a slave to it.  There is still room for generosity, kindness, and contentment even in the midst of preparing for a rainy day.  If I can let Jesus’ words seep into my crippling anxiety, I can realize that biggering is not what life is all about.

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ long explanation of the Kingdom of Heaven.  This Kingdom that Jesus describes defies simple explanation.  Yet at the same time it seems to come back to one thing: love.  “No one can serve two masters.  Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one have have contempt for the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24)  What do you love?  Do you love God, and seek first God’s kingdom?  Or do you love status, or money, or power?  When we operate out of anxiety, we let our fears rule, so we serve whatever quick fix might offer us an illusion of security.  But when we operate out of love, and truly let Jesus be our Lord, we learn that security lies not in the fragile, decaying, dying things of this world.  When we operate out of love, we can stop worrying about the stars we don’t have.  Perhaps more importantly, we can stop guarding the places where we have stars. We can loosen our grip on the stars upon ours.  When security rests only in the eternal, life-giving, resurrected Christ, generosity, justice, and peace start to seep in.

The Sneetches were convinced that having a star upon thars was all that mattered.  They knew that if they could only have what the others didn’t then they’d be okay.  So they gave everything they had to the one who offered them security.  He offered them a quick fix, a walk through a machine, and a star upon thars.  Eventually though, they learned.  They learned that the security they sought in the mark on their belly was empty.

The question remains, will we?  Can we learn to stop searching for easy answers?  Can we learn to let go of our anxiety over what is or isn’t on our bellies, in our garages, in our pews, or in our bank accounts?  Can we learn to stop putting our trust in a false sense of security?

Can I?

Can I learn to love God first, and let all else come later?  Can I learn to seek first the Kingdom of God, and then my pension?  Can I learn to let go, loosen my grip, and let God’s grace fill in the gaps?

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Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount, Part 2: The Lorax

Theodore Geisel, the man millions know simply as Dr. Seuss, was not a religious man.  That doesn’t mean that his work didn’t have deeply religious themes.  I’m currently working on a sermon series called “Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount.”  It is a five-part series where I go through Jesus’ most important teaching, as found in the Gospel of Matthew, and relate the texts to different Dr. Seuss classics.

truffula treesThe Lorax is a cautionary tale.  It opens in a land that is gray and foresaken.  There are stumps littering the countryside and smog fills the sky.  There is a city off in the distance, but the only remnant of life in the desolate land is a tower.  A boy ventures out into this wilderness in hopes of hearing the story of how it all came to be.  Once he gets to the tower, a man named Once-ler tells the story.

One day long ago, Once-ler happened upon a beautiful land full of trees, animals, birds, and fish.  The trees, he finds, can be harvested to produce something he calls a “thneed,” and a “thneed is a something that everyone needs.”  Immediately upon chopping down one of the truffula trees, a little orange mustachioed creature appears, “I am the Lorax,” he declares. “I speak for the trees.”  The tale that is spun is a familiar one.  While the Once-ler “biggers and biggers” his operations, and “biggers and biggers” his profits, there are unintended side effects.  The animals have no place to play.  The fish have no place to swim, and the birds have no place to fly as the waste from the Thneed factory lays waste to the land.  Despite the Lorax’s loud protestations, the Onceler keeps going, with employees to feed, he needs to make thneeds, and cares for little else.  Finally, the last truffula tree is chopped down.  The Lorax lifts himself out of the place, and the Once-ler’s tale seems to come to an end.

UnlessBack at the “present day,” the business-tycoon-turned-hermit puzzles over the little monument that the Lorax left behind.  It is a small pile of rocks with one word, “Unless.”  Finally, Once-ler seems to understand the Lorax’s cryptic message.  “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better.  It’s not,” the Once-ler tells the boy.  With that, he throws down to the boy a seed.  The very last truffula seed.

Dr. Suess is famous for open-endings.  So often he allows the reader to finish the story.  Here, the reader is thrust into the role of the boy hearing from the Once-ler.  After finishing the book, I feel like if I shake loose the pages a seed might fall out.  Surrounded by desolation and despair, a small monument stands as a shrine to hope.  This book is a clear warning about economic growth at the expense of ecologic disaster.  Whole sermons can be preached on the stewardship of the earth, and the importance of protecting the brown barbaloots and the humming fish.  Instead, I focus the two worlds that Seuss once again presents.

Last time we looked at Yertle the Turtle, and were reminded that in the Kindgom of God, even the burp of a lowly turtle name Mack matters.  Seuss showed clearly two ways of understanding the world.  One was to climb to the top by any means necessary.  The other was to care about those on the bottom of the pile.

In The Lorax, Seuss presents us with two ways of understanding the world.  There is the way of the Once-ler, whose primary goal is to bigger his profits.  He cares nothing about the future implications of his actions.  Even his name reveals what he values – using something once.  In the end, he winds up separated from the community, with nothing but disaster surrounding him.  Then there is the way of the Lorax.  The Lorax understands community.  He values the interconnection of all things, and speaks up for those who have no voice.  Once there is no community, the Lorax can no longer exist in that place.  Two value systems.  You might say, two kingdoms.  One where once rules.  Another  where community matters.

When Jesus came to preach about the Sermon on the Mount, he did so in community.  He gathered with the crowds, and told them something they may not have been expecting.  Surrounded by crowds who were desperate for healing, he spoke these words, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world…” (Matthew 5:13-16).

The Kingdom of God is one where the community matters.  It is where the voiceless are given a say.  It is where the sick are healed, the blind are made to see, and the lame are made to walk.  It is where those at dis-ease are made whole again.  “The Kingdom of God is at hand, and you are light of the world.”  Those that were gathered were not valued because of what they could perform, or what they could provide.  They had no standing or status.  They were not a part of the Roman system of tribute, hierarchy, and patronage. They were valued for more than what they could make once.

Jesus came to teach us and show us what the Kindgom of God was all about.  So he gathered with the crowds and told them that it was up them.  “Let your light shine before the people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heave,” Jesus declared.  He reminded the people that the Kingdom of God is at hand because of their very presence, not in spite of it.  “Unless,” he might as well have said, “Unless people like you, you who are the salt and light of the world, care a whole awful lot…”

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The difference between seeing and sight.

visionNeurologist Oliver Sacks tells a fascinating story about Virgil, a man who received sight at age 50 after spending 45 years totally blind.  His book An Anthropologist on Mars tells a tragic tale about a man who struggled to adapt to his new-found sense.  On the surface, it seems like such a story would be a wonderful, heartwarming story of triumph and celebration.  In reality, Virgil’s story is fraught with confusion, loss of identity, and even health.

At first marveling at the light that he was able to perceive, Virgil was quickly overwhelmed by the confusion of so much light, color, shapes, and movement.  What people born with vision take for granted became difficult, even terrifying.  A bird flying by, even at a distance (for distance was meaningless to him), was more than a little startling.  Making connections between flat shapes and 3D objects was almost impossible (a circle and a sphere were totally unrelated).  The story of Virgil is heartbreaking. His tactile world, that was ordered and in which he was thriving, was shattered.  His identity was lost as he realized he was neither blind nor sighted.  After making some improvements, he suffered a setback when an unrelated illness caused him to nearly lose the ability to breathe.  He almost died, and in the process he lost his job, his home, and eventually his sight again.

It is one thing to have physical ability to perceive light hitting your retina.  It is another process to interpret that light in the midst of the world.  Virgil was never able to fully incorporate the light which was in front of him.  He was never able to distinguish the shapes, colors, movements, and flashes into a coherent vision of the world.  He spent fifty years in world of touch.  He was able to spend a few months in a world of vision, and when the two worlds collided, the result was not pretty.  It almost indirectly cost him his life.  Would he have been able to adapt if given more time? Perhaps.  Was the stress of the two worlds colliding too much for him to take? Did it hasten the progress of his sickness? That certainly seems reasonable.

Virgil’s story illustrates that being able to see is different from having sight.  There is a story in the Bible about sight and blindness.  It is told in the ninth chapter of John.

In this story the man born blind has  no such difficulty adapting.  Instead, it is the Pharisees who cannot cope.  They had a very ordered world.  It was their role in society to keep the order.  They used the Biblical Law to understand what was clean and unclean, what was righteous and sinful, what was in order and what was out of order.  A man born blind was clearly out of order.  Sin is punished with curse.  Righteousness is rewarded with prosperity.

This is how the story begins.  Even the disciples understand the world in this way.  Sin is the only explanation for blindness.  The only question is, who’s sin? So they ask Jesus to clear things up.  “Who sinned that he was born blind, this man or his parents?”  Jesus turns the order upside down immediately.  He gives an answer that is completely out of their expected order, “This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.”

After the healing, there is much confusion.  The people do not know what to make of this healing, so they take him to the ones whose job it is to answer questions about order.  The Pharisees are baffled.  They are split.  They investigate.  In the end, they cannot understand this new order that Jesus is proposing.  Jesus does not fit into their order.  He healed, which must be of God. He worked on the Sabbath, which is a sin.  These two facts are so starkly in contrast, they cannot make sense of them.  The world of Jesus collides with their world, and the result is not pretty.

When you read Virgil’s story, it is easy to feel compassion for him.  In receiving sight, he was changed so drastically that it was difficult to cope.  It wasn’t just laziness, or stubbornness.  There were physical, emotional, and neurological hurdles that were enormous.  That he didn’t “make it” as a sighted person does not make him weak.

Perhaps we can take a similar amount of compassion to the Pharisees.  Their world was being turned upside down.  They knew what they were seeing, but they couldn’t interpret it in the midst of their world.  They were not able to incorporate the light which was in front of them.  They were able to see, but they never possessed the sight needed to understand what they were seeing.  It is easy to condemn the Pharisees, put black hats on them, and call them the bad guys.

Demonizing is tricky business.  Were they at fault? Sure.  It would be wise to remember though, that Jesus cast out the demons, he didn’t cast “demonhood” on others.  Neither should we.

I think we’d do well to remember that there’s a difference between seeing Jesus, and having vision.  When Jesus comes off of the page, out of the two-dimensional world we so often like to keep him, disruptive things can happen.  When we incorporate Jesus into the world, there can be collision that is discomforting.  Catching a vision of the Kingdom of God knocks us out of our daily existence.  It challenges our preconceived notions.  It breaks our routine.  It shatters prejudices.  Suddenly we’re supposed to be loving our neighbor.  Suddenly we’re supposed to forgive as we are forgiven.  Suddenly all of our instincts of survival and self-hood are replaced by Kingdom instincts of abundant life through selflessness.

It’s a struggle, and it’s a process. We may experience a flash of euphoria when the weight of sin and shame is lifted.  Usually there is more to it though.  It is rare for the scales to be removed, and all understanding to come at once.  Even the man in the Biblical story, though he could see, took time to process what had happened to him.  Even he didn’t open his eyes and praise Jesus, the Son of God.

It’s no wonder that for so many, the vision doesn’t stick.  It becomes easier to be blind, to shuffle through life slowly, methodically, unchallenged by the light.  Turn a blind eye on the suffering.  Turn a blind eye on our own sin.  Turn a blind eye on the injustice, on the first remaining first, and the last being pushed farther and farther down the line.  It’s no wonder so many cannot see

Jesus healed the blind man so that God’s mighty acts may be displayed in him. There’s a difference between seeing and having sight. We are called to do more than see.  We are called to have God vision, to catch the vision of Christ, and see the Kingdom of God.  For if we can see it, we can live into it.  There is a difference between seeing Jesus in a Bible, or in stained glass, or in a movie, and catching onto this vision for the world. When see Jesus, I mean really see Jesus, it changes the way we look at the world. It changes how we look at our neighbor. It changes how we look at a stranger. It changes how we look at suffering. It should also change the way we see ourselves. See the world with Christ’s vision so that God’s mighty acts may be displayed in you.

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I give up

We still get a daily newspaper, and sometimes the only page I touch in the whole thing is the crossword.  I love doing crossword puzzles, especially if they’re not too hard. I can’t even touch the Sunday New York Times crossword.

I like the one in our newspaper because on most days I can fill most of it up.  My favorite part of doing the crossword is when I tackle one big blank part of the puzzle at once after feeling blocked.  In one flash of brilliance the dam is lifted, and a tidal wave of right answers comes pouring out.  Whole sections of the puzzle that were once blocked can quickly come alive once I remember that an artichoke is an edible flower, and that acme is a four-letter word for peak.   Eventually though, I hit another block.

I seldom finish the whole thing.  It seems like there is always some intersection of an obscure town in India and the first name of an actress from the thirties that I just can’t figure out.  I try as hard as I can to finish the whole thing, but almost inevitably, I have to seek help.  But first I have to declare to myself, “I give up.”

“I give up” are three powerful words.  On Ash Wednesday, Christians of many stripes feel compelled to give something up.  Most people give up some vice or bad habit.  The practice of self-denial is an ancient spiritual discipline.  Others, and myself in the past, have poo-poohed the idea giving up of things for Lent.  Many writers have warned against the dangers of going through the motions during Lent, or giving up something superficial that won’t really get to the heart of the matter.

While I agree that the sacrifice that the Lord requires is not superficial, I’m giving up judging others’ discipline.  If you want to give up chocolate, who I am to tell you that you shouldn’t do that?  I know what the Lord requires of me.  Nowhere in mercy, justice, and walking humbly with God does it include commenting on your spiritual discipline.

I haven’t decided if I am going to fast for Lent.  In the past I’ve given up chocolate.  I’ve also done daylight food fasts.  For a couple years in a row I didn’t eat any solid foods between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.  Every year I contemplate doing that again, but haven’t attempted it in years.  Last year I tried to write a note to someone for every day of Lent.  I wish I could tell you I actually wrote 40 notes in 40 days.  I can tell you though, that it was a very rewarding experience.

This year I feel ready to give up.  Giving up is an easy thing to do sometimes.

I feel weary, and I don’t think I’m alone.  I feel weary of a world torn by violence in Central Africa, Syria and Venezuela.  I feel weary of impending war in Ukraine.  I feel weary of divisive politics.  I feel weary of debating.  I feel weary of a long and brutal winter that just won’t relent.  I feel weary of social media, being bombarded every day by this post, this article, this meme.  I feel weary of my to-do list, which seems to be growing faster than I can check things off.  I feel weary of reacting harshly at my daughters when they don’t deserve my ire.  I feel weary of the  laundry pile in my basement, the paper pile on my desk, and the snow piles on the street.  Pile after pile seem to come in wave after wave.

And now Lent comes and I’m supposed to give something up, and I can’t pick just one thing.  So I give up.

Pass me the ashes, I give up.

I give up my plan.

I give up my power.

I give up my ability to affect change.

I rub ashes on my head, and mark myself “given up.”  Weary. Tired. Defeated.

I remember that out of dust I was formed. To dust I will return.

I give up.  I confess my failures. I examine my shortcomings.  I reflect on the ways that I cannot do it all.  I resign myself to God’s will, not my own.  I remember that I will die, and pain and suffering will remain, but I will have lived.  I will live without the need to be right every time.  I will live without the need to follow my plan, without the need to check every box, without the need to fix everything.  Out of dust I was formed, and to dust I will return, but in between I am going live.

I am going to live.

I fall on my knees and cry out to God, “I give up.”  God smiles, embraces me and says, “Finally.  Now, allow me…”

And suddenly the dam is lifted, and a tidal wave of grace comes pouring out.

The fast I choose is justice, mercy, and kindness.  Not because my actions will solve the world’s problems, but simply because God is.  God is justice.  God is mercy. God is kindness. God is love.  This same God took a pile of dust and breathed life into me, so how else can I live?

I can’t solve the world’s problems.  I can barely finish my laundry.  These ashes are a reminder of my own mortality.  These ashes are a reminder of my own shortcomings.  These ashes are a reminder that God took ashes and formed something that I could never form.  God provides answers I could never know.  God provides paths I could never find.

I give up. I get up with God, and I feel fine.

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