Rage Against Explanation

Isaiah 62.1-5

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name, that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall not more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is In Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

I saw him walk by the window before I heard the knock on the door. We get a lot of foot traffic by the main office, and every once in a while someone will stop by the entrance to talk with the preacher. A few have asked for directions. Others have wanted information about the church. Most need some financial assistance.

I stood in the doorway and extended my hand and offered for the guy to come in, take a seat, and enjoy the warmth of our building on a particularly cold day.

He told me about his life, the ups the downs, the children and the wives, the bottles and the sobriety. He’s currently employed by the federal government but, like many, he’s not getting paid right now. 

And then he asked, “Why is God doing this?”

On Thursday three white Chicago police officers were acquitted on charges that they had conspired and lied to protect a white police office who fired 16 deadly bullets into a black teenager named Laquan McDonald. The officers claimed that the young man had swung a knife at them repeatedly, and even though there was no evidence of the fact on the videos presented to the court, the police officers were released with no penalties.

A pastor who was present in the courtroom was interviewed immediately after the verdict was released and said to anyone with ears to hear: “How could God let this happen?”

I was getting my oil changed this week when a woman in the waiting room leaned over and asked what I did for a living. And I told her the truth. She asked if I was being serious. She told me about how she grew up in the church, how the people in that church were salt of the earth, how they made her into who she is. I asked where she went to church now. She said she doesn’t. And, she remarked matter-of-factly, that church she grew up in closed a few years ago. 

Thinking the conversation had come to a conclusion I made open up a book but she left this lingering question hanging in the air: “Why would God let a church die?”

All of us, in some way or another, are looking for answers. 

The people Israel were utterly devastated by Babylon – they were conquered, humiliated, and carted away as strangers to be planted in a strange land. An entire generation would pass before they could return to the land God had promised them. Most of them only knew about it from the fairly tales their parents would tell them.

It’s not hard to imagine that the people of God, far from home, were asking themselves, “How long will this God of ours remain silent? It’s all good and nice to hear about what God did for Abraham, and Moses, and David, but when is God going to do something for us?!”

gettyimages-4879608591-800x533

These kind of questions appear again and again in the Old Testament – frankly they are the kind of questions that just about everyone in this room have asked at one point or another, and if not yet, we will one day.

And so it is in the midst of utter hopelessness, with no sign other that the words of aging relatives, that the words of the prophet arrive like electricity: “I can’t keep quiet!”

For the sake of God’s people I will not remain silent! God has given me something to say!

So much of what happens in the church today, whether is a sermon or a program, really boils down to this: “What are we gonna do about it?” 

We confront a particular issue and we wrestle with a particular response.

Sermons or programs end with a “lettuce” moment. 

Let us now go into the community to fix all the wrongs we encounter, let us challenge the powers that be, let us make the world a better place.

And yet Isaiah doesn’t tell God’s people what to do. Isaiah begins by demanding that God needs to do something about the situation, that God needs to make good on God’s promises!

Part of the power of this book, the Bible, the Holy Scriptures, is the good news it has to offer toward people who desperately near to hear good news. But the other part of its power is found in its ability to name the realities that people are facing all the time.

We’ve been talking about what’s right with the church this month, and I can think of no better way to put it than this: the church tells the truth; the truth about us, about the world, and about God.

Nothing in this collection of words makes any sense unless we are people of faith who believe that it’s true.

It’s as simple as that.

truthianm

However, there is a tension, the same kind of tension we wrestled with in Advent between the already and not yet. Isaiah announces and reminds God’s people about God’s promises. God has not, and God will not, abandon God’s people. But that strikes an uncomfortable chord when we consider how messed up this world is. What good is the promise of God in the middle of our pain?

I get asked many questions. There’s something about this office that carries with it the implication that I get to see behind the curtain and have the answers to the questions that confound us. But, to be abundantly clear – there is no good answer to the question of suffering in the world.

There is no good explanation for why horrible things happen, at least from the perspective of God.

For instance: if I have to hear another pastor preach over the funeral for a young person’s untimely death with the words, “God just wanted another little angel in heaven.” I will throw my bible across the sanctuary and tries as hard as I can to hit the preacher right in the face.

There are of course “bad things” that we experience and can point to the powers and principalities and personalities in the world and throw are charges against them. 

Like yesterday, during a peaceful indigenous peoples’ march in DC, a group of young white men surrounded and belittled an elderly Native American man while he was chanting and playing a traditional drum.

We can point to the powers and principalities that have rewarded that type of bullying and discriminatory behavior that resulted in the scene from yesterday. We can call to question the behaviors and practices and motives and ideologies that lead to something like that. 

But even still, there are indiscriminately horrible things that happen to people in this world that are beyond explanation.

How, then, are we to respond? Should we sit around twiddling our fingers in our own exile? Should we sit back and wait while things fall apart all around us? Should we offer trite and cliches responses to suffering because we don’t know what else to say?

Perhaps one of the greatest responses to this suffering world is what David Bentley Hart calls “rage against explanation.” We, as Christians, rage against the desire and the drive to explain everything as if God allowed something to happen or willed something to happen.

It’s the people who try to fill in the void created by tragedies with explanations of God’s plan that make God into a vindictive monster instead of the one who knows the truth of our suffering.

atmtightly-clasped-hands-in-monochrome-640.jpg__640x360_q85_crop_subsampling-2

I can remember being in the hospital one night while I was working as the on-call chaplain at Duke. The beeper attached to my belt felt like a shackle that I dragged around the building; I fretted over every notice and whether or not I would be called into a room filled with people looking for any explanation.

And so when the beeper went off, I made a mental note of the room number, and started trudging toward the other side of the facility.

When I got right outside the room, the doctor pulled me aside and said that the patient had been asking to speak with a professional pastor (which of course I wasn’t), and when I asked for more details the doctor just shrugged his shoulders and went back to making his rounds.

I walked into the room and the woman looked me up and down, and then rolled away from me toward the window.

At that point of the night I had already been in too many rooms and sat with too many families, so I just sat down in the chair and stared out the window with her. 

I have no idea how long we sat there in silence together, but eventually I pulled out the tiny bible I had in my pocket, and I turned to a random psalm:

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

To which she rolled back over with a slight smile on her face and said, “It’s nice to know that someone knows how I feel.”

God is God and we are not. God thoughts are not our thoughts nor are God’s ways our ways. But once we begin to grasp even the smallest bit of God’s greatness, and majesty, and other-ness, then the news of Isaiah’s proclamation is even more bewildering and awesome – God rejoices over us.

There is no good explanation for why certain things happen. We can’t make sense of the senseless tragedies that happen all around us. 

But this is also not the end.

The Israelites eventually returned to a broken and abandoned community after their years in exile – they never quite experienced the promise they had imagined. But then, the time came, with God’s definitive act in the world, the incarnation. Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully human, came from the far country of God’s divinity to dwell among us, and then the ultimate price was paid such that the promise would come to fruition – not just for an individual, or even a nation, but for the entirety of the cosmos.

In scripture and in life, God does not speak to us of why things happen. Instead, God speaks about how things can be. God speaks to us not in explanations, but in promises!

Promises that we can scarcely imagine or even fathom.

What Isaiah announced to the people called Israel, God has revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. We who were once far off, removed by our own exile, have been brought near by the blood of the lamb who was slain for the world.

So we can rage all we want at the powers and principalities and personalities that are responsible for so much of the suffering in the world, but we can also rage against explanation as we walk hand in hand with those who are in the midst of darkness. Amen. 

Advertisements

Why The Cross? – Good Friday Homily

John 19.28-30

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

 

ethereal-finished-still-p3

I get asked a lot of questions. I’ll be in a bible study when the conversation moves to an area of confusion and all eyes will turn to me and someone will inevitably say, “What does this mean?” Or I’ll be in my office and someone will walk in to share about all of the trials and tribulations they’ve experienced and finish by asking, “So where is God in all of this?” Or, like after the atrocity in Brussels this week, I’ll receive an email that says, “How could God let this happen?” People are looking for answers.

On Wednesday morning I gathered all the little preschoolers into the sanctuary to talk about the cross. I wanted to show them the cross we have here in the sanctuary and eventually have them march outside in a line while I carried the cross. For most of them, Easter is about the bunny and the candy so anything I can do to make it more about Jesus is important.

They were all sitting nice and quiet in the pews as I explained Jesus’ final week, and that he died on a cross to help us get to heaven, and most of the kids nodded along. But one sat in the back pew with her eyebrows in an expression of “huh?” I tried to keep moving us forward but I could tell it wasn’t connecting with her so when I saw her shoot her hand up with a question I wasn’t surprised.

She asked, “But why did he have to die on a cross?”

In the moment I tried to answer her question in a way that only a four year old could understand, but the question has stayed with me nonetheless. Why did Jesus have to die on a cross?

Well, he had to die on a cross because that’s the way the Romans executed those who they regarded as a threat. Today we have drones and missiles that we can fire from far away in order to remove ourselves from death, but during the time of Jesus, they were hung high in the air so that all could see what happened when you challenged Rome. The cross was a sign of death and fear.

But that answer is not good enough for those, few, of us who gather in a place like this on Good Friday. If you’re here right now, you get that discipleship is more than just Easter. You get that Jesus was more than just a nice guy. You get that there is something more to this cross than symbolic remembrance.

Jesus died on a cross to reveal the heart of God.

The cross is where God’s grace crosses our life to create a new way of living.

We’ve got crosses everywhere and sometimes we forget how terrifying they were and should be. It is our central icon and we have them displayed in our sanctuary, some of us have crosses around our necks, and some of us even have them tattooed on our bodies. But notice: our crosses are empty. It would disrupt our Protestant sensibilities to have a murdered and graphic Jesus hanging on the cross for everyone to see. We would rather have the clean empty cross to remind us of the resurrection. But if we lose sight of the fright and discomfort of the crucifixion, the empty grave becomes cheap grace.

So, to be here on Good Friday implies a willingness on our part to confront the cross and we also want it explained. We want to know ‘why.’

But Jesus doesn’t offer us an explanation.

Whenever the religious elite, or the crowds, or his disciples questioned him, he would respond in cryptic parables that left them more confused than in the beginning. Jesus doesn’t offer simple explanations. Instead he offers love.

Explanations will never calm our anxieties in regard to suffering and tragedy. The people who try to explain the death of a young child by saying that “God wanted another angel in heaven” transform God into a murderer for the sake of an explanation. The people who try to explain a disabled child as “God’s way of punishing the mistakes of the parents” make God in a torturer for the sake of explanation. The people who try to rationalize terrorist attacks with “God is using them to show us its time to go to war” morph God into a selfish, violent, and manipulative entity for the sake of explanation.

Love, not explanation, is required when we are faced with tragedies. Instead of telling a grieving mother that God wanted her baby, we are supposed to show up with love and not answers. Instead of blaming sinful or faithless behavior for the disabilities in a child, we are supposed to love them with every fiber of our being. Instead of dropping bombs and sending drones to wipe out the Middle East we are supposed to see them as our brothers and sisters.

To be Christian is to enter into suffering. We do not look away from tragedies, we do not abandon those who are alone, and we do not isolate ourselves from the ways of the world. Instead, because of the cross, we are tasked with showing up for others when there is literally nothing we can do to save ourselves from suffering.

So, we could take the time to outline the connections between Jesus hanging on a tree with the first sin of Adam and Eve taking fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We could go deep into rationalizing the cross through theories like God used Jesus as bait to hook the devil from hell. But the truest response to the cross, the way we are called to go forth from Good Friday, is to look at the cross and take up our own to follow Jesus. Amen.

12042644_10205705206780417_2916230849357888646_n

Devotional – Holy Week

Devotional:

Psalm 118.1

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!

Weekly Devotional Image

 

Prayers for Holy Week:

Maundy Thursday

O Lord, we confess that when we pray before meals, we do so out of habit rather than faith. We look out over out tables filled with food and we forget to remember those for whom such a meal is rare. We feel the presence of our friends and families in the seats next to us and we forget to remember people who are alone. We eat our fill and we are content. God of Life, afflict our comfort in our meals so that we will really remember that all of these gifts come from you. Work in our hearts to remember that whenever we eat, and whenever we drink, we are called to give thanks for the great gift of your Son so that we can be more like him between our meals. Use the bread and cups of our tables to make us appreciate the Bread and the Cup at your table. Amen.

Maundy-Thursday1

 

Good Friday

Great God, why did Jesus have to die on a cross? Why do bad things happen to good people, and why do good things happen to bad people? What will happen to us when we die? Where are you in the midst of the suffering in our lives and in the world? We ask questions like this, O God, because we want explanations. We see our churches like courtrooms and we want to hear your justification. We believe that we are entitled to know the ‘why?’ to every question we could possibly ask. So Lord, replace our selfish desires for explanation with ears to hear proclamation. That instead of looking for the meaning behind every little thing, we might be content with giving thanks for what you have done whether we can understand it or not. After all, how could we possibly comprehend, with our finite minds, the infinite wonder of your grace? Amen.

ethereal-finished-still-p3

 

Easter Sunday

God of Grace and God of Glory, we give thanks to you for you are good, and your steadfast love endures forever. We remember this day that you have not abandoned us to our own devices, you have not abandoned us in the midst of trials and tribulations, and you have not abandoned us in death. Through the resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ, we see a glimpse of our future resurrection with you in the new kingdom. So Lord, as we gather with friends and strangers alike to celebrate your victory over death in Jesus, give us glad and generous hearts to rejoice in the knowledge that your love truly knows no bounds. Shake our sensibilities like you shook the earth when the tomb was opened. And resurrect us here and now to walk in the ways of Jesus and transform the world. Amen.

resurrection-Easter-edit[1]

Devotional – 1 Corinthians 12.4-7

Devotional:

1 Corinthians 12.4-7

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 

Weekly Devotional Image

After responding to a call of ministry, the United Methodist Church requires candidates to be examined by the Board of Ordained Ministry before they are placed at a church/agency. This is done to ensure that candidates are properly prepared for the many demands of local ministry and that they are able to articulate the doctrines and principles of our church in such a way that it can be conveyed to a variety of congregations.

While many of us prepared for our interviews we heard horror stories about the difficulty of some questions that might await us: “Pretend that I just walked to your office and found out my husband had been cheating on me. How would you respond?” Or “Name the Old Testament justifications for infant baptism…” Or (one of my personal favorites) “How would you explain the Trinity (Father, Son, Spirit) to a middle school student?”

Shield-Trinity-Scutum-Fidei-English.svg

I was blessed to not have to answer the Trinitarian question, one that regularly knocks candidates out of their comfort zone while interviewing. I know of at least one person who was delayed from passing their board because they were unable to answer the question in a way that satisfied the board. How would you answer the question? If a young Christian happened to approach you after church and ask about the trinity, what would you say?

One of the ways that I have explained it in the past is as follows: “The Trinity is like a band playing music. There are three distinct and unique elements necessary for music to be created. You need musicians, instruments, and written music. Without one the whole thing falls apart. Though they are different, they are all necessary for music to be played and enjoyed.” However, this example, for as much as I like it, is inherently flawed.

I have heard others attempt to explain the trinity as 1) a stool with three legs; with all three the chair can stand upright, but if you remove one the chair will not stand; 2) a woman who is at different times a mother, a daughter, and friend to different people; 3) a bicycle that has gears, brakes, and wheels, in order to propel itself forward. Yet all of these do not do justice to the incredible blessing and mystery that is the Trinity.

thinking_about_trinity_med1

Perhaps we’ve become so concerned with being able to explain how the Trinity works, that we no longer know how to affirm the trinity as mystery. We elevate definitions and details over and against beauty and reverence. I cannot explain the trinity, I cannot explain the infinite wonder of God because I am a finite human being. But, like Paul, I can say, “There are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”

What do you think is more important: Being able to explain the trinity? Or recognizing that the One God has blessed us with different gifts in different ways so that we can be the body of Christ for the world?

Today, let us strive to be people who recognize the gifts that we have been given by the Triune God. Let us look at those gifts to see the beauty of God’s mystery in our lives.