There’s a vicious circle that I often get stuck in; I think that because I am a Christian, I should always have the right answer, never have any doubts, and in practice, be a model of perfection. Guess what? I’m not perfect yet.
I almost didn't do my blog today. As I awoke, my phone's text screen said that Francis, a family member, had passed. She was a woman of faith. As she lay in Hospice, I was working on the death scene of the novel I am doing. I found myself revisiting about Jesus' words, a seed has to die to being a seed in order to be alive as a plant. Good way to think about death.
In John 12, Jesus gives a profound explanation for our lives: We are seeds. We get planted on this earth as seedy-self-centered beings. What we were before is unknown, and who we have to thank seems an irrelevant question. We live seed-illy, bumping up against other seeds, facing rejection, misunderstandings, and a general shared ignorance about life. Then the hour comes when we are cracked open and transformed. The new life, the miracle, casts our seed-shell aside. Jesus asks, “Shall I say No to this hour?”
The old New English Bible that I used while I was in college falls open to Hebrew 12. The page is ratty, covered with ink underlines hued red, blue, and black; minuscule notations cram the corners, and a box brackets verses 18 to 29. This was the rock that I clung to throughout my transition from free-spirited teen, to married man, to seminary student. It says, simply, “Remember where you stand.” I learned during that quartet of years that surrounded my entry into a second decade, that religion, and life in general, offered a number of places to stand. It is not up to us to invent places to stand. A person caught in a crime might seek for a lie to stand on. Moses brought the people to a place where they could see the gulf that lies between our human frailty and the expectations of God. But this not where we stand.
We stand on the border of eternal life. No matter what age we are, we are short-timers in this country. Life soon ends. Those with wisdom, look through the peep hole provided by scripture into heaven. They pray “Thy kingdom come, on earth as…” They stand firm here because they trust what they have seen is coming.
As mentioned before, HBO’s Bill Maher has laid down a challenge to all Christian Ministers. He states that our religion creates an urgent problem, namely sin, and then sells a solution, salvation and/or the regular support of the institutional church (see http://billkemp.info/content/bill-maher-and-nicodemus). He compares today’s ministers to an episode of The Three Stooges, where the guys have an extermination business. Moe, Larry, and Curly are seen planting mice and bugs in the homes that they hope to sell their services to.
This past week (3/6/2015), HBO’s political commentator/comedian, Bill Maher, spoke about salvation in this way: “Take any religion, let’s say, Christianity. First they invent a problem, like sin. Then they sell you a solution [getting saved].”* This was in the context of Bill and his guest, Lawrence Wright, discussing Scientology, a religion that certainly has a questionable marketing strategy. But, before we laugh with Bill and Larry, we ought to ask how Christianity is different.
My gut level response is with an image. Jesus on the hillsides of Palestine, healing the multitudes. People didn’t come because Jesus had primed them with an imaginary affliction. Jesus did the opposite of bait and switch. People came to satisfy curiosity. They left with a a free healing of some critical component of their complex spiritual/physical-life-journey. This is religion at its core, identifying the particular hollow part of an individual’s soul and helping that need be resolved. What each person needs from their religion is different. Most of us have a hard time verbalizing where we hurt. Theological concepts like sin, shame, guilt, grace, and salvation, are designed to help.
TLC does a bit of fluff called “Say Yes to the Dress.” It shows brides arguing with their mothers as they choose a dress for her to wear for three hours on one day and costs — well, if you have to ask the price you’re not really putting yourself into their demographic. It’s Queen for the Day, remade for today’s cable channel surfer, minus the backstory of how miserable the woman’s life was before this moment and how much she needs to feel special for an hour. My hatred of Say Yes… may be why Isaiah 62:10 popped out a me this week. The bridal dress is cultural shorthand for the way certain transitional moments can be riveting. The bride focuses on buying the right dress, because when she wears it next, her life will take a radical turn into the unknown. Isaiah describes the salvation we receive from the coming messiah:
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
We don’t know how to pray as we ought is a striking and often overlooked line. Yet, it may be the truest thing the Apostle Paul ever wrote. It is not in human nature to distinguish between true and false communion with God. We think praying is simply a matter of closing our eyes and folding our hands. Or mentally doing something like that. Some describe prayer as simply talking to God like you would a friend. God is wholly other. The pre-socratic philosopher, Meno, asks, “How do you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” Having glimpsed God down a long corridor, dimmed by your own inadequacies, how do you pray?
It seems strange dealing with the Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) in the middle of the summer. The hymn, “Come Ye Thankful People Come,” puts this parable to music. It is rarely sung except at Thanksgiving. Then, the actions of the farmer make sense. By telling Jesus’ parable in the summer, we preserve its shock value. The farmer lets the weeds grow among his corn. He’s my kind of gardener. We aren’t meant to imitate the farmer of this story. We are meant to think about what it means to be wheat or corn. We are meant to think about what happens to the weeds in the end.
This parable is one of Jesus’ many end of time stories. Why do the the good die young and the bad continue to do bad things with impunity? Well, Jesus tells us, this is temporary. In the final judgment, the weeds will be gathered and roasted. Bad people are weeds. Good people are corn. Get the picture?
Let’s be blunt; I’m not good enough. Jesus says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” I’ve been doing some reading lately on first century Judaism and am ready to conclude that the scribes, Pharisees, Essenes, and even, the Sadducees, were a lot better folk than the average church going Christian is today. They, at least, sought to know the commandments of God and worked at obeying what they had been taught. This meant fasting, tithing, attending week-long religious celebrations, and setting aside hours each day for prayer. If God grades on the curve, I still fail.
The core commandment of the Old Testament is: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)The grace that God extends to us in Jesus Christ reconnects us with this fundamental law. Through salvation our sins are forgiven and we receive new hearts capable of love. The question remains, “how does our righteousness exceed the religion of Jesus’ opponents?”