Saturday, May 31, 2014

Is Jesus Hiding?

It’s not so much that we are trying to keep it a secret, but in my faith tradition we just don’t seem to pay it too much attention.  I am not sure why. Maybe if it wasn’t so close to Easter the church could work up more energy to celebrate it.  Or maybe, the Ascension of Our Lord is just one step too far in faith for us to talk about. Maybe parts of the church have some sort of collective wish not to talk about Jesus rising above the clouds and disappearing to, well, where? Heaven, yes, but where exactly is that, and how do you get there in bodily form?  Or, perhaps it is just a very practical problem: it is hard to get people to go to church on Thursday, the day Jesus ascended, so it gets lost in the hustle of life. Did you wake up last Thursday praising God for the Ascension of your Lord? 

I have no doubt that Jesus is alive in a glorified body seated next to the Father in some space I cannot see or comprehend.  I am thinking though that the reason we don’t make more of the Ascension is that, not only can we not conceive of how it happened, we cannot conceive of why it happened either.  Is Jesus hiding from us?  It sure seems like it sometimes, doesn’t it?  When I talk with my friends whose parents have died unexpectedly; when I cry with spouses who have loved one who are very, very sick; when I wonder with grandparents about the faith of their grandchildren, it is very easy to ask Jesus, why don’t you come and fix this? Why did you choose to leave us alone?

There is an answer of course. I guess there are two answers, at least.  One is that Jesus told us, if he leaves us he is going to prepare a place for us to be with him and that if he goes, well, he’s coming back again to get us.  The church spends a lot of time worrying about who the “us” is that he’s coming back to retrieve.  I don’t worry about that because John Calvin tells me to assume it is everyone and that God has it all figured out, so don’t fret about it. And, by the way, “us” includes “all Israel.”  You see, we, the Jews and Christians, I figure we are waiting for the same Messiah to come (again.)  But, that is a topic for another day.

And there is a second answer. Jesus didn’t leave us alone. Meet the Holy Spirit, you who are looking for the comforting presence of Jesus.  Oh, and go look in the mirror. Maybe the man or woman staring back at you is the presence of Christ. To someone. Today?

Saturday, May 24, 2014

"Still Worth Dying For"

The ironic aspect of giving a memorial tribute is  that the people to whom you offer tribute cannot hear you.  The best you can do is offer your tribute, post-mortem, to the family of the deceased, or to those with whom they served. Of course, when it comes to remembering those who died to establish freedom for a nation, or for the concept of freedom, family and colleagues are often not present either.  But, do we stop remembering the heroes of the Civil War or World War I because there is no one left to thank?  No, we go on giving tribute, year after year, decade after decade, to men and women who to us are anonymous and to whom we were unknown. For good reason.

When a soldier chooses a path of life that may result in death he likely thinks of people he knows and loves as the reason “why” he go down that path.  But perhaps she also thinks of millions she doesn’t know, and millions yet unborn, whom she wants to taste freedom rather than oppression.  Still freedom, as a concept, is worth dying for only if there are practical, living, breathing examples of freedom’s reward.  In the land that claims “freedom” as its song, the native citizens often choose to ignore the reason for the three-day weekend we call Memorial Day.  Perhaps this is because so many don’t know of anyone who died or risks dying for their freedom. How short-sighted they are.

But then there are people like Asim Manizada.  He was pictured in a national newspaper in his room with a large American flag as his only wall decoration. (WSJ, 5.25.14) Mr. Manizada is, I imagine, engaged in some form of memorial tribute this weekend not because he knows the heroes whom the flag represents,  but because he appreciates the freedom they preserved for him.  You see, he is not a citizen yet, but he is signed up to join the United States military so he can quicken his pace of becoming a citizen.  He is a part of a program the military offers to legal immigrants in which, if they have special skills, they can vastly shorten their road to citizenship by serving the nation which they long to call home.  In yet another irony, many of the people most likely to celebrate the meaning of Memorial Day are those do not yet have the freedom they celebrate.

Why offer a memorial tribute this weekend to people you don’t know and who didn’t know you?  Ask Mr. Manizada.  Better yet, ask God. Freedom is still worth dying for.  

Saturday, May 17, 2014

What Do You See?

You have likely played those games where someone hands you a piece of paper with black and white shapes and asks you, “What do you see?”  Most people, at first, see nothing but blobs; non-descript blotches of black and white.  But, if you stare at the paper long enough; if you will take the time to focus your eyes and concentrate your mind, you will see an image. What makes the difference? I don’t have a clue. Who do you think I am, a scientist?  But I thought about that exercise, of opening our eyes to see differently things that are right before us,  in the context of living in desperate times, or at least the part about which I have a tiny clue.

This week I encountered three situations faced by people I know and love.  What I learned from each of these dear friends is that the way to face desperate times; the way to live through tragic circumstances, is to re-focus.  One person said to me that, upon learning very bad news about the future, “you cry until you can cry no more, and then you start looking at what can be.”  His point was that, while he could spend his time “beating myself up” dwelling in despair, it wasn’t going to change the outcome. Instead, he started to think about “what could be” instead of “what could not be.”  His approach allows him to, first of all, just function. But, more important, this approach allows him to function in a way which helps him to discover pictures of joy and happiness in circumstances where others would just see random blotches of black and white.

The second lesson I learned from my friend was that if you look at life from the proper perspective you see how God is at work in the midst of our times of despair.  My friend taught me about the importance of faith.  His description of the varied ways he saw God connecting the dots to make a beautiful picture made me think of a twist on an old analogy. One of the blessings that God brings people in times of despair is that they get to see not just the knots on the backside of the quilted picture, but they get to see glimpses of the beautiful picture on the other side.  Eyes of faith see life differently. How is it that the blotches of black and white reveal a picture when we look with eyes of faith?  What makes the difference?  God. God gives the glimpses which happen when we re-focus our eyes to discover truths which really matter in a beautiful way.  There still will be tears in those eyes, but the tears of sorrow will be mixed with tears of joy when those eyes see glimpse of truth.  “Open my eyes that I may see/Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me;…Silently now I wait for Thee; Ready my God, Thy will to see; Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine.” (“Open MY Eyes, That I May See”, Clara Scott)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Disappointment Perspectives

Disappointment can ruin a day, a week, why to some extent, a lifetime.  A friend of thirty years had been struggling with a recent problem, a very serious one. I was helping him through it as best I could. And then, when he most needed help, we had a falling out. He said and did something he regrets. I said and did some things I certainly regret.  I was distraught. Had I failed my friend? Had he failed me?  After thirty years, it ends like this?  The disappointment changed me. I couldn’t stop replaying the whole event in my mind.  I snapped at my wife and had to apologize for making her a victim too.  I couldn’t digest my food; and why eat anyway?  I couldn’t sleep.  And then, in the middle of a sleepless night, I did the only thing I had left to do. I asked God to bless my friend. It was hard to form the words. I didn’t know if my heart was really in it, but I said them anyway.  The next morning I was still angry and, I think, mildly depressed.  After another sleepless night and another wrestle with God about faith and how could this happen, another prayer, and then, slowly, I was changed.  The following day, I vowed to pretend I didn’t care; time to move on.  But I did care. For my friend. So I called him again and told him I wasn’t angry, and I wanted the best possible outcome for him, that I wanted to still support him. I am still disappointed.  But I can sleep. He’s my friend.

In the midst of disappointment, with a parent, a child, a co-worker, a friend, even with God, we need to choose a perspective.  I think these are the options: there is no God; there is a God, who doesn’t care; there is a God who cares, but who is powerless to change anything; there is a God who cares, who weeps with us,  who holds and offers the power of hope.  I choose the last option, not because I think it keeps disappointment away, but because knowing God is there with the gift of hope keeps my disappointment in perspective.  God doesn’t choose to bring me (or you) disappointment.  But when friendships fail, when bodies break down, when I am feeling abandoned and alone, there is one perspective that makes tomorrow possible. I know many of you have much greater disappointments in your life right now than my own.  I can offer only this: Jesus weeps with you; God holds your tomorrow.  And that is why, in the middle of the restless night, we pray, for a new perspective.  It is the last, and best, choice.

“Someone is there….Someone is watching life as it unfolds on this planet. More, Someone is there who loves (you).  (This) is a startling feeling of wild hope...”

(Philip Yancy, Disappointment with God, p. 255)