Monday, March 26, 2012

The Cosmic Lure of Jesus' Life and Death

One of the reasons Jesus’ death is referenced in John’s Gospel as the hour of Jesus’ and God’s glorification is because of its universal impact. In John 12:32, Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” Jesus’ death and resurrection constitute a revelation of God’s love for the world of such magnitude that it becomes a kind of cosmic lure, drawing all people into the Christ life. 

What is the appeal? The drawing power is the beauty of God’s unconditional love embodied in the self-giving of Jesus. 

What does “the Christ life” look like? (This is what John’s Gospel calls “eternal life”; I like to call it “the good life”). It is a life of non-violence and one that exposes the myth of redemptive violence. It is a life of grace and goodness, a life of forgiveness and moral strength and courage. It is a life that confronts the false claims and values of “the System” (what John’s Gospel calls “the world” in its delusional and alienated state) and refuses to get sucked into a spiral of bitterness and hate. It is a life committed to compassion and justice for the disenfranchised and most vulnerable among us. It is a life of loving God, loving others, and loving self in healthy and transformational ways. It is a life of balance between joy and sorrow, giving and receiving, suffering and contentment. 

I believe that when the beauty and goodness of this life is manifested in our lives and relationships, and when somehow people can see beyond their own self-interests and selfish passions, this “good life” has magnetic power. 

But to enter into the good life, we must be willing to die to some things. Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life [the good life described above]” (John 12:24–25). In this rather paradoxical teaching Jesus is talking about dying to the ego-driven life in order that we might live the good life. 

In a picture book for adults titled, Hope for the Flowers, Trina Paulus weaves a wonderful story about two caterpillars named Sripe and Yellow. In one part of the story, Yellow comes upon a gray-haired caterpillar who tells her about becoming a butterfly. “But how do you become one?” Yellow asks. Gray says, “You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.” “You mean to die?” asks Yellow. “Yes and No,” says Gray. “What looks like you will die but what’s really you will still live.” 

Some parts of us have to die in order for that which is really us, that which is authentically human, that which is true and good to emerge. 

But it takes a compelling vision. Gray says, “You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.” What are we willing to give up, to die to, in order to live a life of beauty and goodness?             

All caterpillars do not yield themselves to the cocoon at the same time. Some of them actually resist the process and cling to their caterpillar life. They put off entering the cocoon until the following spring, thus postponing their transformation. 

It would seem that all God’s creatures have trouble letting go. What can we not let go of? Unforgiveness? Grievance stories that keep us bitter and resentful? Guilt or shame over past failures? Habits of attitude rooted in comparison and competition? Ingrained prejudices against people who think differently or look differently or believe differently than we do? The need to be great; the need to accumulate more or achieve more so that our status is enhanced? What are we still clinging to that would prevent us from dying so that we can live? 

Sometimes it takes an experience of some kind to move us to a different place. I heard about a very successful business man who was happily married and seemed to have everything he wanted. He was all closed up in his own private world. He lived for his own personal fulfillment and the well-being of his immediate family. Then one of his children developed a severe psychotic disorder. He felt lost, angry, and utterly powerless. Nothing seemed to help his son. Then he met other parents living similar situations and he discovered a world of pain that he had previously ignored. It moved him beyond his own closed-in, private world and led him into a new openness and commitment to help others. It led him to become part of something much greater and larger that transformed him into a more compassionate person. 

What will it take to move us to larger, more compassionate place? What will it take for us to stop clinging to our selfish, small lives so that we can become more spiritual, more loving, more humble, and more sensitive people, engaged in relationships and service that advance God’s good and gracious will for this planet and the diverse people and creatures who dwell here?  

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Meditation on the Power and Wisdom of the Cross from 1 Cor. 1:18-25: A Process View


In this passage, Paul draws a contrast between those who "are being saved" and those who "are perishing." Our human tendency is to put ourselves in the group that is being saved as opposed to the group that is perishing. When we label and categorize we polarize people; it leads to “us” vs. “them.” So, instead of applying this to other persons or groups—this is the being saved group; this is the perishing group—what we need to do is apply this to ourselves.

We make choices each day, choices that set us on a course of spiritual ruin or spiritual well-being. The choices I make today are choices that will contribute either to my spiritual collapse or my spiritual health. The decisions I make tomorrow will either nourish or impede a healthy spiritual life; they will nurture a “being saved” kind of life or they will contribute to a “spiritually perishing” kind of life.

Salvation is more of a project, than a one-time event. It is more of a journey, than a single experience. Clearly, there are some experiences that are life altering. Paul talks about an experience he had where he encountered the living Christ in a way that changed the course of his life. This is one of the themes that emerges in the movie, Hereafter, when the French television journalist (Marie) has a near death experience that changes the course of her life. She tries to go back to her life as it was before the experience, but the experience is too compelling. It sets her on a new course and direction. But the new course doesn’t happen all at once. The experience works on her, shaping her gradually in new and profound ways.

For most of us, this is how we experience conversion. We may or may not be able to point to a particular experience that is life altering, but if we are “being saved,” then we are weekly and daily discovering healthy ways to love others, to love God, and to love ourselves. If we are “being saved” then we are entering into new attitudes and patterns of life daily that are good, just, compassionate, and helpful. 

I don’t believe that any one or group is chosen over another. When we think of being chosen, we naturally think that there must be others who are passed over, who are not chosen. That’s the way are binary minds works. Binary thinking is great for scientific investigation, but tragic when applied to religion. I believe that we are all God’s chosen, that God has a vision of what God can do in every single life. The question is whether or not we will say “Yes” to God’s call. The question is whether or not we will cooperate with God in this process. 

The power and wisdom of salvation, says Paul, is the power and wisdom of the cross. Paul says that this is foolishness to Gentiles and scandalous to Jews. The wisdom of the cross is directly opposite the conventional wisdom of the world. The power of the cross is juxtaposed to the violent power of the world. It’s a different wisdom and a different power.

The wisdom of the cross is not about persuasive rhetoric that moves the masses; it’s not about pride, self-sufficiency, or trickery. The wisdom of the cross is about humility, honesty, and forgiveness.

The power of the cross is not about control or coercion. It’s about service, sacrifice, and self-giving love that pursues the good of others. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Christ, in the service of God’s cause and in the service of the good of humanity, gave himself over to be killed by the Powers of the world.

The hard thing for us to accept is that the wisdom and power of the cross does not lead to success and greatness, to fame and fortune, to prestige and prominence; but rather, the wisdom and power of the cross leads to surrender, rejection, suffering, and death.

At the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says: The gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction (spiritual ruin); but the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life (spiritual salvation). Every day we have to choose which road we will take. Spiritual ruin or spiritual salvation happens little by little every day. And every day we must choose whether we will enter the wide gate and walk the easy road, or enter the narrow gate and walk the hard road. Every day we must choose the path of spiritual ruin or spiritual redemption.

Fred Craddock tells about going home to west Tennessee to visit, where an old high school friend named Buck owned a restaurant. One day Buck said, “Let’s go for coffee.” Fred said, “Isn’t this the restaurant.” Buck said, “I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder.

So they went out for coffee. Buck asked, “Did you see the curtain?” Fred replied, “Buck, I saw the curtain. I always see the curtain.” In that little town they had a number of shotgun buildings, with two entrances, front and back. One entrance was off the street; the other was off the alley, with a curtain in the middle. In that day, if you were white you entered off the street, but if you were black you entered through the alley. 

Buck said, “Did you see the curtain.” Fred said, “I saw the curtain.” Buck said, “The curtain has to come down.” Fred said, “Good, bring it down.” Buck retorted, “That’s easy for you to say.”

He couldn’t leave it up and he couldn’t take it down. He was torn. He said to Fred, “If I take the curtain down, I lose a lot of customers, maybe even my business.” But then he said, “If I leave the curtain up, I lose my soul.”

That’s one example of the difference between the wisdom and power of the world and the wisdom and power of the cross. That’s the choice. It’s not easy. Jesus said it wouldn’t be easy—it’s a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life. The spiritual journey many of us take during Lent reminds us that the adventure we are on leads not to a throne, not to a place or position of power, but a cross.