Sunday, March 29, 2015

Healing the Great Disconnect

By Hollywood standards, Mark’s account of the Passion suffers from understatement. He leaves the gore and the sweat and the agony largely to our imagination. 
Movie directors have retold the story in more graphic ways. They have frequently provided long sequences of torture. They have included isolated shots of Mary and Mary Magdalene shattered by the sight of Jesus’ suffering. And they have lingered on closeups of Jesus’ face clenched in holy agony.
Mark offers none of these touches. And he knows exactly what he’s doing.
Paul Gauguin's "Yellow Christ"

His refusal to include detailed descriptions of torture and the process of crucifixion has nothing to do with censoring extreme violence. He is not striving to make the story acceptable for younger and more sensitive audiences. 
Mark wants simply to tell the truth. And a Hollywood-like emphasis on the physical details of Jesus’ suffering and the cruelty of his tormentors would have been a distraction from that truth.
And here’s the truth Mark wants us to hear. God is doing a mighty work in the most unlikely set of circumstances anyone could possibly have imagined. Mark wants to help us see what God is doing in and through Jesus’ death.
Mark never intended us to look at Jesus’ death in isolation from his life and his resurrection. So, today, as we enter Holy Week, let’s focus on the meaning of Jesus’ death in light of the resurrection.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Plan A

I love Louisiana. Our food. Our climate. Our landscape. Above all our people. I grew up elsewhere, but Louisiana isn’t just where I live. It’s home.
Precisely because Louisiana is my home, I take our problems and challenges to heart. And to be perfectly honest, I take them to heart as a devoted Christian. That’s why a recent article about our prison population caught my attention and troubled my soul.
Leaving aside our food, we don’t top very many of those lists about best and most in America. We apparently do top one that is not so flattering. We incarcerate more people per capita than any other state in the Union. One in 86 adults has a prison as a home address. That’s almost double the national average.
Since America imprisons more people than anyone else, Louisiana’s national ranking makes us number one in the world. We have the Russians beat. We put 13 times more people behind bars than do the Iranians. Twenty times more than the Chinese.
Endre Bartos' "Salvation"
We have lots of social problems. 
Crime and poverty are high. Drug addiction and alcoholism destroy lives and wreck families. Our educational system has bright spots but in many areas we simply fail our children. We have a widening opportunity gap. Our method for delivering healthcare to the indigent is uneven and inadequate. Handicapped adults and their families struggle to find the resources they need.
The data about our prison system suggests that we have doubled down on punishment as a means to make our communities a better place. Louisiana is a predominantly Christian state. So, I’ve been wondering if a common misconception about the work Jesus came to do has influenced—consciously or unconsciously—how we go about trying to set things right.
What I mean is this. Many of us think that Jesus’ death is about punishment, setting things right with punishment. But that is not the lesson of Jesus’ death.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Beyond Repair

When our children were young and had been sick, Joy and I always waited at least 24 hours after they were free from fever before sending them back to school. We wanted to ensure their recovery and to keep our children from spreading germs at school. This practice frequently meant that the children were feeling pretty good on their last day at home.
Patrick was enjoying one of those rebound days when he was about eight years old. Joy returned to work as a teacher and I worked mostly from home that day. However, I had one very important meeting at the church. I would be less than ten minutes from the house for a little over an hour. Patrick could call my cell if he needed me to come right home.
Sure enough, fifteen minutes into the meeting my cell phone rang. The others at the conference table heard me answer, “Patrick, are you okay?”
Then they heard me say, “You did what!”
Leon Bonnat's "The Broken Jug"
“I ripped off one of the kitchen cabinet doors. I was just walking by and the handle grabbed the loop in my cargo shorts. The door just came along with me.”
Stunned silence on my end.
Please understand that this is the same child who, to his older brother’s horror, had once jammed a new roll of toilet paper in the upstairs toilet to see if it would flush. News flash. It didn’t. And water runs downhill. As Patrick had explained with a smile and a shrug, he was just curious.
Sensing my speechlessness and that I needed some further explanation for this particular debacle, Patrick said in a voice clearly meant to ease my anxiety, “My pants are okay. I got the handle out of the loop.”
All I could think to say was, “We’ll fix the cabinet door when I get home.”

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Cross Moments

Some years ago I had a series of conversations with a man. Let’s call him Bill. He had fallen dramatically and publicly into disgrace. At least, it felt like disgrace to him. And that’s why he had sought me out for guidance.
People from all walks of life and from every corner of our city knew his name and recognized his face. And well they should have. Bill had been instrumental in transforming and even saving scores if not hundreds of lives. 
In recovery himself, Bill ran a center devoted to helping addicts and alcoholics get and stay sober. As Ronald Rolheiser put it somewhere, sobriety is around ten percent about not drinking or using. Mostly it’s about living a free and happy life. The price of that freedom is radical devotion to the truth and getting over yourself.
Edvard Munch's "Despair"

Sober people live their life as an open book. They know that they are only as sick as their secrets. They are free to look anyone in the eye, and themselves in the mirror, precisely because what you see is what you get. And just as importantly, sober people live no longer for themselves but for the sake of others. They are free from the tyranny of their own ego.
At least, that’s the ideal of sobriety. Truly sober people also say that life is about progress toward that ideal, not perfection.
Part of Bill’s effectiveness, and the source of his widely held esteem, was his sobriety. People looked up to Bill as an example of what recovery can mean. Integrity. Respect. Self-respect. Success. Happiness.
And then Bill relapsed. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Changing the Church to Change the World

Sports-oriented parents with school-aged sons and daughters frequently find themselves involved in tournaments on weekends. Many of those tournaments occur in distant cities. Planners for these events now schedule games and matches throughout Saturday and Sunday.
Sunday sports commitments directly impact worship attendance among a demographic that congregations say that desperately want and need. Young families.
Now if our pews were already jammed and our coffers overflowing, we might hardly notice. Or, we might simply acknowledge this hectic phase of life with some nostalgic compassion for a time gone by for us and a hearty relief that our own schedules have slowed to a more manageable pace.
Gerard Sekoto's "The Soccer Players"

But our situation is very different.
While some congregations are growing by leaps and bounds, many are struggling to maintain their membership numbers. Others watch with increasing sadness as attendance and resources steadily dwindle.
So I understand when I hear clergy and laity alike scold these sports-devoted families in absentia. “They ought to bring their children to church! They’re teaching those children all the wrong values! They don’t know the Bible!”
Failing to see the irony, they then ask, “How can we make them come to church?” The irony I mean is this. Who wants to worship with a bunch of judgmental scolds?
As I said, I understand that some respond this way. But I also believe that such a response is completely misguided. 
Here’s what I mean.