A Joy That Leaps Within Us

Christmas lights at Brookgreen Gardens, South Carolina

We’re especially drawn by the tender joy and companionship in that part of the Christmas story where Mary visits her older relative Elizabeth and is greeted with these words, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you are carrying.” Elizabeth adds, “As soon as I heard you greeting, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1: 41-44). We know so well the story of their shared lives—of how Elizabeth’s child John would eventually pave the way for the coming of Mary’s child Jesus who would be proclaimed as the Messiah.

Mennonite pastor Isaac Villegas writes, “The Christmas story begins with joy—visceral joy, ecstatic joy, a joy that moves through the characters’ bodies, drawing their lives together.” But it doesn’t stop there. He reminds us that we’re included in the story. “This is also our story, of you and me and the life we share. We’ve been brought together because of the joy of the gospel—a joy that leaps within us, stretching us toward one another, the ecstasy of shared life, fellowship through Christ, community in the Holy Spirit” (The Mennonite, Dec. 2015: 8).

Elizabeth’s heartwarming greeting elicits Mary’s song praising God and reveling in the way God is turning our world upside down. Lauren Winner says she once read Mary’s song on a park bench at a jazz festival and this prompted the recognition that it’s like jazz.  A jazz “musician takes what she knows of scales and modes and the melodic theme and creates something new—in response to what the other members of the band are doing, or even in response to some random ambient noise” (The Christian Century, Dec. 9, 2015: 21).

The genius of jazz lies in improvisation. As Mary responds to what God is doing she latches onto the example of Hannah’s response to God’s gift-pregnancy of the child who would become the prophet Samuel. We can easily recognize how Mary improvises Hannah’s song. “My heart exults in the Lord,” Hannah sings. She also rejoices in how God inverts the social order, “He raises up the poor from the dust; He lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes” (I Samuel 2: 1-10).

But Hannah isn’t making up her song on the spot either. She’s drawing on the yet older song that Moses’ sister Miriam sang after God provided a way for the former Hebrew slaves and to cross the Red Sea and delivered them from Pharaoh’s powerful pursuing army.

Jazz moves, swings, and improvises by working with a common theme in response to a new situation. That’s what these three women in the Bible are doing. We can draw inspiration from them and do likewise in response to the challenges and opportunities of our time. As a people of faith, how do we improvise and swing in our present, ever-changing American social and spiritual landscape?

Lauren Winner writes, “In response to these changes, the thing to do is not to despair; nor is it to invent from whole cloth. The things to do, rather is to invent from the cords we have. Pianist Frank Barrett says that ‘the best jazz is always on the verge of falling apart.’ This is true of churches, too. The best church is always on the verge of falling apart—and life with God has always involved making new combinations from the essential practices of our faith” (The Christian Century, Dec. 9, 2015: 21).

Finding Healing in Tragedy

Tragedy can strike any of us. Yet, we can persevere and even draw strength from it. This is the message that Vice-president Joe Biden shared as the commencement speaker at Yale University this year. He speaks from personal experience. Immediately after being elected to the US Senate at age 29 in 1972, his first wife Naomi and their year old daughter were killed when their car was struck by a tractor-trailer as they returned from Christmas shopping.

Their two sons were in the hospital in critical condition and the doctors were not sure they would live. Biden recalls, “By the tone of the phone call, you just knew, didn’t you? You just felt it in your bones. Something bad happened. And I knew. I don’t know how I knew.”

Biden speaks frankly about the anger, crisis of faith and wounds that don’t really ever heal, “I was angry. Man I was angry.… I remember looking up and saying, ‘God.’ I was talking to God myself: ‘God, you can’t be good. How can you be good?'”

His two sons did live and they became very close as a result of that tragedy. Joe took his oath of office in the hospital room where he was staying with his sons. He later regularly commuted from his home in Delaware to his Senate office so he could be with his sons. As a result, he became a deeply committed family man. Now recently his oldest son Beau, who was only 46 years old, died of brain cancer.

Biden’s experience has made him sensitive to the losses of others. Speaking to military families several years ago, he remarked, “Just when you think you’re going to make it, you’re driving down the road and you pass a field and you see a flower, and it reminds you. Or you hear a tune on the radio. Or you just look up into the night and, you know, you think, ‘Maybe I’m not going to make it, man.’ Because you feel at that moment the way you felt the day you got the news.”

Still, he told those families that there is hope, “There will come a day, I promise you and your parents, as well, when the thought of your son or daughter or your husband or wife brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen. My prayer for you is that day will come sooner or later” (The Washington Post, May 31, 2015).

Psalm 130 speaks to such tragedy. It begins in the midst of overwhelming loss, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” For many this is initially expressed as anger at God. Such feelings are understandable but we can’t blame God for such tragedies because God doesn’t control events or our lives in that way. The source of suffering and of evil is shrouded in mystery. What we can be sure of is that God suffers with us and responds with compassion, empowering love, and healing grace.

The psalm moves from that depth of pain and anguish to expectant waiting, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” We will survive, we will gradually heal, and a day will come when it doesn’t hurt so much. Psalm 130 expresses it as a confident assurance of trust in God, “Hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.” It’s a promise that healing will come.

Hope in the Eternal

My dear friend confided that she finds it difficult to believe in life after death. She’s not alone. Such belief is a stretch for many of us. I instinctively knew that it wouldn’t help to quote religious dogma about life after death. I instead said that how we answer that question has to take into account that death is a final horizon beyond which none of us can see. Literal notions of Heaven and Hell can get in the way. Our faith and how it informs our lives is what’s important.

Irish, poet philosopher John O’Donohue reflects on being a child and looking up at the mountain near their village. He imagined standing on that mountain and being able to see the whole world. He was very excited on the day when his uncle invited him to come with him to bring his sheep over that mountain. He remembers, “As we climbed up the mountain and came to where I thought the horizon would be, it had disappeared. Not only was I not able to see everything when I got there, but another horizon was waiting, farther on. I was disappointed but also excited in an unfamiliar way. Each new level revealed a new world.”

According to German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer, “A horizon is something toward which we journey, but it is also something that journeys along with us.” O’Donohue reflects, “If you are striving to be equal to your destiny and worthy of the possibilities that sleep in the clay of your heart, then you should be regularly reaching new horizons. Against this perspective, death can be understood as the final horizon. Beyond there, the deepest well of your identity awaits you. In that well, you will behold the beauty and light of your eternal face.”

What’s temporal is caught up in the eternal—that’s real. Sure, we can’t see beyond the final horizon of death (it’s a mystery) but we can have confidence that we’ll be part of the eternal life of God. I find it helpful to relate this to the fact that we’re creatures of time and space.

O’Donohue writes, “It’s a strange and magical fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have the whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you.” Yet our bodily existence also entails separation. “I am here. You are there. Even the person that you are closest to, the one you love, is still a separate world from you. That is the poignancy of love.” Likewise, our lives are defined by time. “Time is primarily linear, disjointed, and fragmented. All your past days have disappeared; they have vanished. The future has not come to you yet. All you have is the little stepping-stone of the present moment.” It’s what mystics call the eternal now.

In the words of the Apostle Paul, “The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). O’Donohue considers, “In eternal time all is now; time is presence. I believe that this is what eternal life means: It is a life where all that we seek—goodness, unity, beauty, truth, and love—are no longer distant from us but are completely present with us.” (Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, 215-229).

This does not directly answer my friend’s skepticism but it does give us added perspective on our hope in the eternal.

A People of God? (The Interfaith Quandary)

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I once participated in a summer course called “Doing Theology under the Bo Tree” in Myanmar. One class activity was visiting a Buddhist monastery. We Westerners had to learn how to sit on the floor and position our legs and feet during our audience with the abbot. I asked him about Catholic theologian Hans Küng’s claim that we will not be able to achieve peace in our world until there’s peace and cooperation among the religions. He smiled and said it shouldn’t be hard because practicing peace is central to every religion.

I have since often reflected on his answer and pondered why it’s so hard. It’s especially difficult for those of us who trace our religious heritage back to Abraham and the call to be a people of God. A common critique that I heard when I lived and served in India was that Christians and Muslims are especially exclusivist. We think we alone are God’s chosen people. For Christians, this is further complicated by our past association with British colonialism in South Asia.

Believing we’re a chosen people creates unique challenges for any faith community. This quandary has been central to my life as a pastor, a religious scholar, and a follower of Jesus. We wrestle with how to have a healthy sense of being God’s people without being exclusivist and claiming we’re the “only” people of God. It’s related to but slightly different from the religious separatism of cultural minorities like the Amish. Separatism and exclusivism are much more problematic in large faith communities as expressed in the Roman Catholic dogma of being the “one true church.”

Efforts to strengthen ecumenical and interfaith relations in order to work together for peace and justice always need to negotiate such tensions. A robust sense of being God’s people should not lead us to disrespect others. Such disrespect, instead, indicates that we have an inferiority complex and a far too narrow understanding of our God in relation to all people and all faiths.

Every faith community has the ongoing challenge of forming and maintaining a distinct religious identity that shapes our life and service in the world. When we lose that, we no longer have anything to contribute or say. We become so identified with our society that we lose our ability to resist and respond courageously to those things that are socially and spiritually harmful. Exclusivism, in this sense, is good.

Still, the conviction that we’re a people of God needs to go hand-in-hand with valuing and serving others. Even more importantly, if we would claim to be a people of God we must be equally committed to a life of nonviolence that mirrors God’s patience and suffering love. The ever-present task is figuring out how to walk that walk. My next post will look at that through the life of Jesus and the early church.

The Superior Power of Love

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Today we celebrate the life and legacy of civil right leader Martin Luther King. One of my favorite quotes on the memorial wall at the King Memorial in Washington DC states, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” A related quote on the wall states, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” We will want to reflect on these remarkable quotes here in the heart of our national capital right in the midst of the many war memorials glorifying our nation’s wars.

How do these quotes relate to the language of sacrificial love in the Bible? Even as a child I had feelings of revulsion about the sacrificial imagery of Jesus as the slain Lamb of God. And it isn’t that I was that squeamish or over-sensitive kid. I was a farm boy who saw lots of the raw stuff of life, including butchering animals. My doubts are more intellectual. There are ancient traditions of human cultures sacrificing animals and even other humans to placate the anger of their gods. There’s often a magical quality to belief in such sacrifices.

How does such stuff fit into the religious sensibilities of a caring faith community? Does God really demand blood to free us from our sins? What kind of God is that? Many find such images and words repulsive and unbelievable. The idea that God demanded the death of Jesus, the innocent Son of God, as a payment for sin is to believe in divine child abuse.

How do we begin to unravel this tangled ball of yarn? There certainly is sacrificial language in the Bible. In the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus is identified as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). This title for Jesus appears to be directly related to the Jewish religious practice of sacrificing a spotless lamb during Passover. Jesus becomes that spotless lamb.

However, the notion that Jesus’ death on the cross placated God’s anger or need for justice because of our sins came centuries later. The so-called “substitutionary atonement theory” was developed by the theologian Anselm in 1097. He claimed that God’s retributive justice requires that the penalty for our sins must be paid from the human side. However, it required a perfect human to make that sacrifice. That’s why Jesus became human to pay the price for our sins.

But we don’t read that in the Bible. Biblical scholar Marcos Borg states, “Implying that Jesus had to die because of our sins and that this was part of God’s plan to ‘save’ us, completely obscures and obliterates the historical meaning of his death. . . Jesus didn’t just die—he was killed. And not killed by a criminal or assassin, but executed by established authority” (Speaking Christian, 99). He was killed by the powers that ruled this world because they saw him as a threat.

Furthermore, Borg explains, “Substitution seriously misunderstands the purpose and meaning of sacrifices in the Bible. They were never about substitution—as if those offering the sacrifice deserved to die, but God was willing to accept an animal as a substitute. More basically, sacrifice means to make something sacred by offering it up to God . . . An animal is offered up to God and becomes sacred in the process”(102). In this religious ritual, participants commune with God and each other through eating the “made sacred” animal, vegetable, or fruit around a common table.

The biblical and early Christian understanding was that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection revealed the power of God’s love and achieved a victory over the forces of evil. It demonstrated that sacrificial love is more powerful than anything the imperial power of Rome or any other destructive power could do to stop Jesus.

In John’s Gospel, according to biblical scholar Robert Kysar, “The Lamb of God is the liberating revealer of God. His freeing function occurs not strictly through his suffering and death but through his very person. To know him is to be freed.” (John: The Maverick Gospel, 37). It’s the victory of the Lamb who reveals God’s powerful, unconditional love. It was this superior power of love that King used so effectively in the civil rights struggle.