Saturday, April 12, 2014

Palm Sunday Parade

Palm Sunday, by Kai Althoff

The Lenten stories of Nicodemus, the Woman at the Well, and Lazarus, revisited
by Lisa Larges & Kara Root

The hallway is decorated for a parade, streamers are across the ceiling, confetti is on the floor. Palm shrubs line the walls, and branches are on the floor. 
The congregation walks through the hall to reach the sanctuary, where they for worship.
Partway through the worship service, loud, raucous crowd sounds are heard coming from the hallway, cow bells, shouting, cheering.  The sounds of Mardi Gras are seeping through the cracks in the door.

The door opens, and Nicodemus slips into the sanctuary.  He is dressed in a professional suit, with an official-looking badge clipped to the front.  In his arms, he holds a sleeping baby.


I didn’t realize anyone else was in here.
I had to get away!
I couldn’t bear it any longer.
I’m still one of them, after all, so what can I do?

There was that one time when I tried to speak up for him, I said, “Shouldn’t we at least give him a hearing? “ [John 7:50]
Now I worry, was that too much?
I think to myself, It’s too dangerous to try to defend him. I can just be quiet and say nothing.

So there I am with them, watching as he comes in to town. Seeing the joy on the faces. Seeing him there, calm, dignified.
Is this what he meant when he said, “The wind will blow where it will?”

But I can’t show joy.
I’m with them.
They’re all busy scanning the crowd, taking down the names of people they recognize. And as always, the talk turns to, what charges can we bring against him, in order to, as they say, “dispose of the problem.”

And, suspicion is everywhere.
It’s wormed its way in to me.
The longer I say nothing, the more I imagine they must be suspicious of me too.
“Why are you so quiet?”
Nicodemus, are you one of them too?”
But, I’m sure no one knows that I had talked to him.
At least, I think I’m sure. I went out at night.
The whole house was asleep. I made sure no one was following me.
And it was just him and me, there in the middle of the night – the soft evening wind tossing the branches of the trees. I kept looking around to see if anyone was there, but it was just the wind.

“The wind blows where it will,” he said, “You don’t know where it comes from, or where it will go.”
True enough, I thought to myself.
He said that the Spirit of God was like that too.
I don’t know what that means.

But what troubles me even more, the words that stay with me, what I keep thinking about when they’re talking about his death, is what he said about being born.
You must be born again,” he said.

And it was funny too, because just days before, my daughter had given birth to my first grandchild.
This is the one. She’s beautiful, isn’t she?

I know, I know, a man holding a baby … but, I’ve been doing a lot of things that are beneath my station.
The whole family rejoiced when she was born. Not a son, no, but still we rejoiced. And, I think it was then that the dark mood came over me.

Maybe I was just more painfully aware of it – my own despair was so much more evident to me against the foil of the joy in our house.

“What kind of a world is this to bring a baby in to?”
The thought raced and raced around inside my head.
“What are we doing, bringing these babies in to this world?”

I mean, what will there be for her? 
Roman soldiers all around; and if it isn’t the oppression of Rome, then there are the busy-bodies like me, “laying on the people burdens too heavy to bear.” That’s something else he said.

I used to believe that it was necessary.
If we were only righteous enough, pure enough, then ….
Then what?
Then God would smile on us?
Then we would believe that we were not like the Romans, and believe it so strongly that we would overthrow them?
I used to believe this. Something like this. Do I still believe it now?

I mean, look at her. So small and beautiful, and so very vulnerable. So very vulnerable that it fills my heart with terror. If only I could shield her from any suffering, for the pain that will lie ahead for her. If only I could shield her from worry and want. If only I could tell her that if she followed all the rules – followed them strictly enough – followed them to the very letter – that she could wall herself off from loss and sorrow.
But, the hard thing is that I no longer believe it.
And that makes me afraid.

It’s the same fear I felt standing out there with my compatriots, the rulers of the Synagogue, as we watched him and made our plans. Surely he must know.
And I want to believe him. But I’m not sure I can.

If it happens, and I know it will – if we have our way and we stone him, or, as some are suggesting, we get Herod or Pilate to crucify him, then my heart will break open all over again.

Looking at him there, and hearing the talk around me, he seems just as vulnerable as this baby here in my arms.
Is that what he meant?
Is that the Messiah?
Am I to be as vulnerable as this one?
Am I to be as vulnerable as he is on his way to a certain death?
Is that what God, the Holy one, the Ruler of the universe is calling me too?
Am I, are you, to be as vulnerable in the world as this one?
How can we be born again?

Nicodemus turns, shushing and bouncing the baby, and exits the sanctuary.  We hear the crowd sounds loudly as the door opens and closes again.

 Suddenly, the door slams open.  A woman dressed in “tour guide” clothes with binoculars around her neck, a sun hat, a fanny pack and sensible shoes, carrying a clipboard, erupts into the room.

Samaritan Woman from the Well

(Bursts in, out of breath)
You haven’t seen a couple of boys run through here, have you?  I’m sure they’re around here somewhere, but their mama’s gotten a little worried and I thought I’d rustle them up for her and put her mind at ease.
Besides, he is coming soon, and they won’t want to miss him!

Whew! (bends over and catches her breath. Stands back up and continues, smiling)
I knew it would be a little tricky, bringing a whole group and all, but I couldn’t have held them back if I’d tried, and I wasn’t about to miss this either. 
So what, there are a few stares and whispered comments!  I suppose a big old vanload of Samaritans doesn’t roll into Jerusalem every day. It’s not like Judeans are taking pre-paid pilgrimages to our Mt. Gerizim to worship!  Ha!

But, really, how could we miss this?
Besides, we’re under strict orders to bring back every detail; the rest of the town is waiting with bated breath, and they sent along notes and homemade goodies to pass on to him.  So here we are then, in this place packed with Judeans! 
And Wow! are they ever hyped for this parade!

(Pauses) Only, I wonder a little bit if they all know what they’re getting into.  (giggles)

(whispers conspiratorially)
It seems like, from what I am hearing out there, that people still think this is about their temple.  Their idea of Messiah, their version of truth, and worship, and God.  The Jesus they’re all whispering about up and down that street doesn’t sound like much the one I know.  It’s like some of them think he’s going to fit right into their script, and if that’s what they think, then WOW, are they in for a shock!

We mountain-worshipers understood the way God had meant for it to be, and we never wavered, for centuries, same as these temple-worshipers here.  But that day he came to my town, to Jacob’s well, and asked me for a drink… that day changed everything for us.

God is Spirit. he said, and true worshipers worship in spirit and truth.

I wonder how many people out there think they’ve got it figured out. How many think they know what God wants from them – even if they can’t or wont do it, they’ve got some idea of what it is.  I wonder how many are looking around at the others and thinking what they’ve got wrong.  A good number are thinking that about us anyway.  
What if they knew he stayed a couple nights with us? Ate at our tables? Taught in our holy place? Those boys that ran through here a minute ago, he played soccer with them till the sun went down. What if they knew that he prayed with us? Hugged us goodbye when he left?
What would they all think of him if they could have seen him then?

The world gives us simple choices- you are either right or wrong. Good or bad. Period.  You can’t be both, and you can’t all be right and good.  So we draw our lines in the sand and glare at each other across them and nobody budges.

But he cut through all of that.  He dances his careless footprints all over our lines in the sand. It wont even matter how you worship or where you worship, he said. What matters is who you worship. And I am right here. With you.

Right here, with you.
In the heat of the afternoon, in traveler’s clothes, in need of a drink, how many of those folks out there would give him a second look? That’s not Messiah material, my friends.  And yet, there he sat, like any ordinary person, like a person in need, the savior of the world, asking me for a drink.

I had never imagined in all my life I would meet the Messiah. I had never thought God would come near enough, (to any of us, let alone someone like me) to make any kind of difference. We put our head down and do what we can to make it through this life, don’t we?  We stay on our side of the lines, and hope at the end of it that God isn’t disappointed with us.   That’s pretty much how it works, right?

I never mattered to anyone. Nobody’s fault, really, I just never seemed to be worth much and that was just that.  But I know how to hang on and take care of myself. All those husbands, the ones who cared, and the ones who didn’t, and the ones who felt they had to prove that they couldn’t care less.  And I outlived and outlasted them all.  But make no mistake, I knew my life wasn’t meant to amount to much, especially when it turned out I couldn’t bear children.  And I had accepted my fate.  Like a cockroach. You could beat me down but you couldn’t kill me.  I’m quick and I keep to the shadows.  And besides, you can’t kill what isn’t really alive to begin with anyway, right?

But now look at me! Holy Bagumba!  Talk about alive!  I am responsible for this whole tour. I am their leader, friends, and on this little soiree, the buck stops with me.

He changed my life that day.  He changed our whole town.  We all came alive.  And He is going to change everything.  And nothing, nothing will turn out like you think it will. Like they think it will.  Just you watch and see.
So Go ahead and celebrate! Celebrate and let go of your expectations!  It’s all far more wonderful than we can imagine!

Because, guess what?  Suddenly it’s not even about right and wrong and good and bad at all, it’s about life, and it’s for everybody, and nobody is exempt, and nobody misses out, and we don’t get to decide who’s worthy to receive because not a single one us of is, after all, and that doesn’t slow him down in the least from bringing it to us anyway.

Listen to me: God is going to overthrow the whole lot of us, and we’re better off for it!
So sit back and watch the show!
Better yet, jump in the van with us! We’ve got room, some extra sandwiches, and a spot reserved right at the top of the road by the temple! 
(Turns to leave)
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the Highest! Wahoo!!!! WAHOO!!!
(Turns back)
Oh!, And if you see those boys, you tell them their tour leader is looking for them; and if they’re still planning on giving him that soccer ball,  they’d better skedaddle back.  Because they DO NOT want to miss him.

(Leaves in a joyful explosion)

The door opens again – again we hear the crowd sounds from the hallway, and a man slinks in, hat pulled low over his face, hiding a big fake mustache and dark glasses.

(pauses and peeks back out into the hall and then turns around and sees congregation)

Pardon me. I came in here to get away from that crowd. I worry that someone is going to recognize me.
[Takes off dark glasses]

Just promise me you won’t tell anyone that you saw me, or where I am.
[Takes off hat and mustache, as he continues to talk]

It’s impossible to go out any more without wearing a disguise.
You won’t believe what’s happened to me since that day. You wouldn’t believe the nerve of some people.
They’re sure there’s some kind of trick somewhere. And you can’t really blame them. I guess I would have believed the same.

Some people confine themselves to just staring at me, but some of them don’t even lower their voices when they talk about me. “He’s the dead guy. You heard about him, right?
Dead three days, and then that Galilean Jesus called him out of the tomb.”
I think they think I can’t hear them.
Like lots of people they think maybe somehow I’m still dead. See this scratch here? That’s where a stranger came up and cut me with a knife. Wanted to see if I would bleed, I guess.
I’m not kidding you.

If I went out there and people knew it was me, you’d see. People stick me with pins. They pinch me. They poke at me. They get up close to me and stare in my face to see if I’m really someone else. They tear at my clothes– I guess they think they’ll find a skeleton underneath.

And you know, maybe I could get used to it, or learn to put up with it. I think it would subside in time. But what really makes it hard is the questions, and I don’t know that they will ever stop.

One of the first was a father.  “ Please,” he said to me, tears running down his face, “My son, dead now 4 years, and every day I want to know that he is in a better place. Tell me what it’s like on the other side.” He’s squeezing my arm hard, “Tell me he’s at peace!”

It’s not the speculation that gets to me – the scribes and Pharisees arguing with each other about the afterlife. It’s the others. The ones who carry their grief so strong in them. They just want to know. And they come asking me, because I’ve been to the other side, and I’m back again.
The terrible part is that I have nothing to tell them. I have nothing to tell them, because I don’t remember.

I don’t remember death.
I don’t remember anything about those three days.
I can just barely remember that pull I felt when he called me.
I can’t remember how I got myself up, but I vaguely remember stumbling forward, and the hands all over me, and the relief as the cloth was pulled away, and the faces of my beloved sisters swimming in front of me.

All of that is like a dream to me now, blurry and indistinct.
I can’t tell you anything about death.

But I can tell you about dying.
I can tell you what it was for me, anyway, because dying I remember.
I remember the pain.

Pain so strong it took away everything. Pain that made the whole world recede. Pain that consumed my whole mind. But through the whirlwind of pain, I knew they were there. I could feel their hands, like small islands of peace in a horrible storm.
I can feel them there, one on each side of me.
I can hear their voices above the din of the pain.
“I wish he would come.”
“Don’t worry; he’s going to get here soon.”
And then one of them is speaking to me,
“Hold on dear brother, he’s going to be here very soon, and it will be better then. Please, hang on, he’s coming.”

And then there are silences.
And then, it’s Martha, reciting the Psalms to me.
I think of her.
I think of how she’s learned to stop trying to manage everything.
Now she just sits with me.

I remember feeling something warm on my skin, and I know it is one of them.
Is it Mary? Crying? Her tears falling on to me?

I feel myself going further and further away from them.

And, I know this, if my sisters, Mary and Martha, hadn’t been there with me, it would have been pure terror. But, I drew my strength from them. They were my comfort; they helped me pass through my dying in to death.

I can’t help thinking about him out there in the crowd.
I know that death can’t be far away for him now.

Yes, I know. The crowds, the Hosannas.
But the crowd could turn at any moment.
And the leaders are after him. It’s because of me, and what happened back there.

I’ve talked about it with Mary and Martha.
They agree, I can’t feel guilty about it.
Mary says that whatever happens will be for the glory of God.
Martha says that there would have been something else they would have gone after him for.

But I know what lies ahead for him.
I wonder, Who will hold his hands?
Who will wipe the sweat from his forehead?
Who will be there with him?

But this is what I hold onto now.
Whenever I think about death, his, or the one that will finally come for me, I think about the table in our house. I think of us there, Mary, quiet and thoughtful, Martha, alert to every need, and me, their brother. It’s the three of us, and he is with us for an evening. And for a while, life is pure sweetness.
It is sacred, it is …. Yes, I would say it is holy.

It’s not the crowd outside, with their volatile hosannas. 
It’s not his calling me back from death, or any of the other signs he performed. 
And it’s not his teachings, wise and true and often inscrutable to me. 
It’s those moments around the table, when I knew, knew with a certainty, that he is the Messiah.

(Puts costume pieces back on. Takes a deep breath, and leaves)

After Lazarus leaves, the crowd noises grow louder. Then we hear the soundtrack:
Hosanna! Hosanna in the Highest! Blessed is the One who comes in the Name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the Highest Heaven!

Crowd noise recedes.  There is silence for 10-15 seconds.
 Suddenly we hear pounding on the door and a gruff loud voice: “Is he in there? Where is He? Where is this ‘King of the Jews?’”

The service ends with song and benediction.

When congregation leaves the sanctuary, the hallway is filled with post-parade debris: wrappers, crushed palm branches, crumpled newspapers, crushed soda cans, etc.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Shame on Us

Five days ago World Vision U.S. made a change to its hiring practices, to include those in same-sex marriages.  Two days later, it reversed it. 

When the initial decision was announced, the president, Richard Stearns, said, in an exclusive Christianity Today interview,

"Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues," he said. "It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage."

"We're not caving to some kind of pressure. We're not on some slippery slope. There is no lawsuit threatening us. There is no employee group lobbying us," said Stearns. "This is not us compromising. It is us deferring to the authority of churches and denominations on theological issues. We're an operational arm of the global church, we're not a theological arm of the church.”
The article went on to say:

In short, World Vision hopes to dodge the division currently "tearing churches apart" over same-sex relationships by solidifying its long-held philosophy as a parachurch organization: to defer to churches and denominations on theological issues, so that it can focus on uniting Christians around serving the poor.

Given that more churches and states are now permitting same-sex marriages (including World Vision's home state of Washington), the issue will join divorce/remarriage, baptism, and female pastors among the theological issues that the massive relief and development organization sits out on the sidelines.
World Vision's board was not unanimous, acknowledged Stearns, but was "overwhelmingly in favor" of the change.
I would encourage you to read the article in its entirety.
What was clear in the article is World Vision’s deep commitment to its calling and mission, and desire to be faithful to that calling, even in the complex and changing church landscape.  The article indicates that the organization thought this policy shift was a way of holding unity in the church –with employees from over 50 denominations, some which reject and others which affirm same-sex marriage – the move was an attempt simply to make the way open to as many Christians as possible, to serve together on issues that do not divide us, namely, fighting poverty and caring for widows and orphans.

"I don't want to predict the reaction we will get," he said. "I think we've got a very persuasive series of reasons for why we're doing this, and it's my hope that all of our donors and partners will understand it, and will agree with our exhortation to unite around what unites us. But we do know this is an emotional issue in the American church. I'm hoping not to lose supporters over the change. We're hoping that they understand that what we've done is focused on church unity and our mission."
And Stearns believes that World Vision can successfully remain neutral on same-sex marriage.
"I think you have to be neutral on hundreds of doctrinal issues that could divide an organization like World Vision," he said. "One example: divorce and remarriage. Churches have different opinions on this. We've chosen not to make that a condition of employment at World Vision. If we were not deferring to local churches, we would have a long litmus test [for employees]. What do you believe about evolution? Have you been divorced and remarried? What is your opinion on women in leadership? Were you dunked or sprinkled? And at the end of the interview, how many candidates would still be standing?
"It is not our role to take a position on all these issues and make these issues a condition of employment."
A few years ago, I got a phone call from an organization in our neighborhood that offers support to struggling pregnant woman, children and families; they were looking to make wider church connections.  Several members of my congregation agreed to meet with the folks from the organization, and we spent two hours learning about their thrift store, classes and support groups, midwife care and medical assistance, and other empowering and affirming programs that impressed us all greatly.  When we left, we commented on how much overlap there was in our sense of mission, and how excited we were by the work we saw happening through them in our neighborhood.  
Driving home, I called someone from the congregation and shared what a wonderful visit we had had.  She sounded tentative on the phone, and finally, gingerly asked the question, “Where do they stand on abortion?” 
Now, in the two hours we had spent together, this question had not come up.  What had come up were things like feeding the poor, caring for those who were without a support system, and helping people learn skills and find strength as parents. 
But not abortion.
Were they "pro-choice?" "Pro-life?" 
This person asking was concerned that aligning ourselves with them might say something about us.  It seemed, at first, like we had better call them and clarify that.  
And then I took a deep breath. 

Because here is the thing: We spent two hours united on things the God has called us to care about, things that it means to be followers of Jesus in the world.  And if I were to call them back to verify where they stood on the issue of abortion, I would be saying that what really matters to us is not caring for the poor, not supporting people in crisis, not providing food or clothing or medical care or a listening ear, not sharing God’s love in concrete, tangible ways, but instead, whether or not they were advising people for or against abortions.  And then, that would mean, that even though we said we were defined by our love of Jesus, and wanting to live that love in the world, what we were really defined by is some particular stance on abortion and making sure we keep to the right side of that. 

And what if, after this great, inspiring connection, we called and discovered that they were on a different side of that question than some members of our congregation?  Would we say, “Oh! Well we thought we could work with you, but it appears that we cannot after all.”  Even though we love what you’re doing.  Even though we want to be part of doing something like this. Just not with you.  So-called liberals and so-called conservatives stick to their own, and being a so-called Christian should not, and cannot, bridge that divide.  So, thanks, but no thanks.

We decided not to ask.  And to move into the relationship trusting the Holy Spirit, and listening to where God was leading, which we had all clearly discerned initially, was forward.  We said, if the issue comes up, we will talk about it together then, and wrestle through it as sisters and brothers in shared ministry and in relationship, but we cannot raise up a litmus test that allows us to turn our back on other Christians, rejecting both the people inviting us to share ministry we believe in, and the people being so well served by them.

World Vision did the right thing. And we didn’t let them.  
Shame on us.  Not just Evangelicals. All of us.  We’ve divided the Body of Christ.

We have created a great big litmus test that every word and action of other Christians must go through.  It’s a powerful tool that makes us powerful.  We get to judge who is following Jesus correctly, and plan our shunning and embracing accordingly.  We get to separate ourselves from others and claim to be the true Christians.  We get to point at others and say, “Can you believe how awful they are?”  We get to bully others – either overtly or subtly – into conforming to our idea of what their following Jesus should look like.  And we get to limit God Almighty, because obviously God would not or could not use someone we deem unworthy.

It’s insidious and complex, this system we’ve developed.  We’ve totalized one another in horrible ways and developed an extensive and ever-expanding set of code words and symbols that tell us if someone is our “kind” of Christian or the other “kind” of Christian, so we don’t accidentally step foot in the wrong kind of church, or give money to the wrong kind of soup kitchen, or let our guard down with the wrong kind of person, or, God-forbid, so that someone doesn’t mistake us for them. 

We could have a thousand things in common, not least of which might be the centrality of Jesus Christ in our lives, but right now, the biggest and most important thing that defines us, the thing that can make or break relationships, churches, denominations, non-profits, and reputations, is what you believe about sexual orientation.  That is our real religion.

It’s a religion World Vision was trying not to sign onto. They were trying to faithfully follow Jesus.  They were trying to be Christians.  Not one “kind” of Christian another.  Just followers of Christ; just doing ministry that every “kind” of Christian could share in.  And we simply wont let them.  

In the meantime, we’ve lost sight of God’s grace – which reaches even our judgy hearts, and God’s love, which doesn’t distinguish who is worthy to receive it or not, and God’s call, which is to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves, which would require that we actually recognize them as human beings first, instead of objects of our scorn, pity, judgment or rejection.

The Christianity Today article ended with these words by Stearns,

"I know the Evil One would like nothing better than for World Vision to be hobbled and divided on this issue, so that we lose our focus on the Great Commandment and the Great Commission," said Stearns. "And the board is determined not to let that happen.
"I hope if it's symbolic of anything, it is symbolic of how we can come together even though we disagree. We—meaning other Christians—are not the enemy. We have to find way to come together around our core beliefs to accomplish the mission that Christ has given the church.
"We feel positive about what we've done. Our motives are pure," said Stearns. "We're not doing this because of any outside pressure. We're not doing this to get more revenue. We're really doing this because it's the right thing to do, and it's the right thing to do for unity within the church.
"I'm hoping this may inspire unity among others as well," he concluded. "To say how can we come together across some differences and still join together as brothers and sisters in Christ in our common mission of building the kingdom."

Apparently we are not capable of that.  May God have mercy on us all.