Hope Amidst the Lament

After yesterday’s rant/lament/whine, I need to make something clear:

I would choose this life. This life God has chosen for me.

Yes, I would choose going to seminary, to the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, even knowing how things would go, how difficult the process would be. I would choose to leave journalism behind. I would choose to be formed the way I have been formed, by the people who formed me. I am deeply sorry that I have hurt and disappointed people (especially on my first internship), and I do wish none of that had happened. But given the choice, I would choose this path again.

Even in 2012, when I graduated with no prospects and no clear future, I had concluded this.

And if I had to choose between writing a book and being approved for ministry in the ELCA, yes, I would choose the book. Knowing all that followed, and where it has led me. I would choose it. In the midst of a heartbeat. I would not think twice.

Yes, I would choose who I have become in the light of what Jesus has done with me — and yes, to me — over who I was.

It’s dumb, I know, but I dream of a mortgage and a car payment, and a child of my own (or two or three). I daydream of an ordinary life. But it is not mine to have. It is not my calling. It would have been nice to have been a parish pastor, but that’s clearly not my call either.

I often wish I could be someone different. But I also know that I am “fearfully and wonderfully made” and in those moments when I am not anxious — because I have frequently found being me more trouble than it been worth — “my soul knows it very well.” God has spoken to me. God uses me. That causes me to tremble sometimes.

I know that I am called to bear witness, to something far bigger than me — to the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and what that means, and what it does, and what it creates. I don’t know where that is leading me. I have never known where that is leading me.

But homeless and wandering in the wilderness, entirely dependent on the grace of God for food, for water, and for protection, it’s easy to “remember” and dream of the nice life left behind in Egypt. Even if the rich food and the comfort was only an illusion.

Baking bricks without straw, remember?

I take lament seriously. I do believe there is a place for wailing and weeping and bemoaning one’s fate, and doing so simply without trying to cover it in feel-good platitudes. I love Lamentations, especially the third chapter, where Jeremiah clearly and emphatically claims God is the author of his suffering and his woe:

1 I am the man who has seen affliction
under the rod of his wrath;
2 he has driven and brought me
into darkness without any light;
3 surely against me he turns his hand
again and again the whole day long.
(Lamentations 3:1-3 ESV)

Now, Jeremiah doesn’t end it there, and it’s one of the reasons I find chapter three so very, very powerful:

19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
20 My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
(Lamentations 3:19-24 ESV)

This Lord, who has been breaking teeth and piercing me with arrows is also the same Lord I put my trust in. Jonah’s song (sorry, prayer) from the belly of the fish is similar. God has brought Jonah down, to the depths, deep into the waters of the sea, to the place where God is not (sheol שְׁא֛וֹל), to a place and a state where Jonah will never again gaze upon the Lord. But even in this place, God comes — God is — and rescues Jonah.

Even in this place, Jonah will praise and thank God.

This place — God has brought me down, but I will trust God to bring me up — is where Job eventually finds himself as well, surrendering completely to the work of God (and eventually seeing his material fortunes restored). Lamentations also ends on something of an ambiguous note, acknowledging the inscrutable timing of God:

21 Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!
Renew our days as of old—
22 unless you have utterly rejected us,
and you remain exceedingly angry with us.
(Lamentations 5:21-22 ESV)

And it’s important we remember, in the very concrete here and now, we can speak of the uncertainty. However, we who follow Jesus know that we also have no such ambiguity. We know who and what our hope is. We know what we hope in. And hope for. Our hope is real. And he is risen.

I do not know what the future has in store for me. I do know that Jesus has told me not to be anxious, not to worry, and not to despair. Seek the kingdom first, and all you need will be added to you. And that’s hard for me right now. That has always been hard for me.

It is not impossible. It’s just difficult. More difficult than anything I have ever done. I have to make my own way — and that scares me. A lot. But I am not alone in this, and I know that. I have been called by a crucified and risen Lord to follow him. He is with me. And so I trust — I have to trust — that all he has called me to do (whatever it may be — I had no idea two years ago that included writing a book!) is possible.

Because he makes it possible.

Yes, I would choose this life. And had he not chosen me first, yes, I think I would choose to follow Jesus.

Oh Church, You Have a Problem…

29 His disciples said, “Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech! 30 Now we know that you know all things and do not need anyone to question you; this is why we believe that you came from God.” 31 Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? 32 Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. 33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:29-33 ESV)

It’s last Monday morning (08 June, to be precise), and it’s a little before eight. I’m sitting on the front steps of St. Lawrence Catholic Church here in the Price Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati, waiting for the church to open.

Waiting for mass. Because I need mass. I need this worship to survive right now.

It’s a quiet, beautiful morning, and the church is locked. Mass is at 8:30, and I’m content to sit and watch the world go by, say some silent prayers, while I wait. This is not a beautiful neighborhood, but it’s just early enough in the morning that few are yet stirring and in the semi-silence of a Monday morning, it has a calm and even glorious feel to it.

God is in this place.

I don’t know how long I sit there, 15 minutes maybe. I turn around at the sound of a door unlocking. It’s clearly the parish priest — black clergy shirt, black pants, black sport coat — and he’s somewhat shocked to see me sitting there. He looks at me — tee shirt and shorts, my face covered in several days of stubble — and he gets a sour look on his face, as if he’s about to shoo me away.

“This is a church, no loitering here, now go before I have to call the authorities!” That’s what it looked like he was about to say.

But in that moment before he could say anything, I asked him: “Is it time for mass yet?”

His expression changed. He seemed stunned, and somewhat confused, by the question.

“You’re early,” he said, turning back into the church and letting go of the door so it could close behind him.

Oh church, I’m trying to remember the last time you actually welcomed me. I’m trying to remember the last time a priest or a pastor asked me my name, said “thank you for coming,” much less asked me anything about my life. (The answer would be Mark Olsen, now currently the pastor at Shepherd of the Hills in Haymarket, Virginia. If you live in NoVA, you should worship there. Or at Peace Lutheran in Alexandria, Virginia. And … that was about 10 years ago. UPDATE: Nope, it was Pastor Maxine Washington at Bethel Evangelical in Chicago, and Bruce Bennett at the same church. Six years ago.)

And I’m trying to remember the last time you actually, seriously, intentionally asked me what my gifts were (rather than just shoving a piece of paper in my face), how I wanted to or could participate in the life of the community, expressed surprise and joy at what I bring to you. (I might still be in the ELCA if a certain Chicago bishop had followed up his “I can’t in good conscience present you to a congregation as a pastor” with a “but you do have gifts for ministry, and we’d like to help you find out where and how to use those gifts” — something I’m told he’s actually said to someone else about me.)

But no, church, you’ve done none of these things in the last two years. All the places I have been, all the different ways we’ve worshiped, all the Latin chanted and refrains of “Lord, I love you!” sung. Occasionally, other worshipers have said hello. A timid, perfunctory, hello. One born of proximity, because I’m impossible NOT to see when I’m sitting close. And when Jesus’s command to “pass the peace” is repeated. But all the contacts, all the greetings, all the “tell me about yourself,” those have been mine. Me, reaching out to you.

And you… well, you’ve been uninterested in reaching back.

I know, I know, church, you’ve told me in no uncertain terms the problem is mine. I’m too weird, too disreputable, too much of a misfit and a sinner, that’s it’s impossible for you to take me or anything about me all that seriously. You’ve been clear and emphatic about that. And you know, maybe you’re right.

But you, church, also have a problem. Because, you see, I’ve met Jesus. I wrote a book about that! (I know, that’s also one of my problems, because people in this day and age don’t meet Jesus. It’s just not done.) Because being told by Jesus on 9/11 that “My love is all that matters” changed my life utterly, because Jesus met me in the marketplace and said “follow me,” I am willing to work around or even hack through your inattentiveness and indifference. Because I know what lies at the center. “On the night in which he was betrayed… Do this in remembrance of me.” Even if you aren’t clear about that anymore.

(And you aren’t.)

But you know what, church? The gospels don’t just talk about calling disciples. They also describe the huge crowds who followed Jesus around, clamoring to touch him, to be healed, to be made whole, to have their demons cast out. They wandered out into the wilderness to hear him speak, just to even get a sight of him. People carried friends, sent servants to appeal to him, even begged for crumbs from his table. They knew the redeeming work of God when they saw it.

And they saw it in Jesus.

Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” (John 12:20-21 ESV)

You, church, don’t need to worry about me. You didn’t call me to follow and you didn’t make me a disciple, so you can’t undo that. You can ignore me and abuse me to your heart’s content (though I would take it as a kindness if you’d stop), and I will still be there. Because for me, it’s not about you. I see past you. I see through you. To the chalice and the loaf on table of the Lord.

I feel the breeze of the Holy Spirit on my skin.

(Now, in the scheme of things, I also know that my fate is irrelevant. Whether I am ever welcome anywhere, ever preach another sermon, sing another song, write another book, or preside at the Lord’s supper — it doesn’t matter.)

But you need to ask yourself something, church. You need to ask yourself, “Where are the crowds?” Where are the God-hungry people in a God-starved world clamoring and racing to see and touch and meet Jesus? How are you doing the work Jesus did — healing, casting out demons, making the broken whole, forgiving sins, reaching out to the lost, and proclaiming the kingdom of God — that will begin to satisfy that hunger to see God’s work in the world? How are you doing that? Do you even know anymore how to do that?

I don’t think you do, church. At least not in the West. Maybe in the rest of the world — in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America — but you don’t know how to do that here. I don’t think you believe any of these things Jesus did are real anymore. Not really. You’ve convinced yourself all he did were metaphors. You don’t see healing, just health care. You don’t see a kingdom, just a society in need of better governance. You don’t see sin, and therefore, you see nothing to forgive.

And what of those who do not possess my courage and my calling, those to whom you are as indifferent or even as unwelcoming? Those who, in curiosity and despite it all, have managed to see something of the amazing work of God in you, and you drive them away because they are inconvenient or unseemly? Well … what millstone is great enough to hang around your neck?

So, you cannot show — you cannot be — what you yourself cannot see.

Small wonder there are no crowds.

I don’t know what to tell you about your lack of faith, church. I guess this is what comes from centuries of reliance upon power to get your way. But I do have a piece of advice.

Quit saying “All are welcome.” You don’t really mean it. It’s not a quite a lie, but it’s clearly not the truth. All are not welcome. You’ve made that clear, and not just with me. The church is a club — the club of the righteous, the club of the virtuous, the club of the well-behaved and well-connected and rightly guided. I get it. It may make you feel good about yourself to say “all are welcome,” but when push comes to shove, you are unable — or unwilling — to live that out.

But note, the world sees how you live, sees the dark and empty space between what you say and how you act. And increasingly, the world is also saying, “all are welcome.” And while the world doesn’t mean it either (it never has), it is at least doing a better job than you are, church.

So, just stop it.

I told you, church, I won’t give up on you. Because as awful as you are to me, as unwelcoming and indifferent as you have been, you are still the body of Christ in the world. And I know something you have forgotten — Jesus really did die and he really did rise from the dead. (I met him, remember?) It was no mere metaphor. He lives, he reigns, and he sits at the right hand of the Father. He healed the sick and cast out demons and raised the dead to life and proclaimed the forgiveness of God and the coming of a kingdom that will have no end. You taught me these things, church, which means that somewhere, you still believe in the shadow of their possibility.

But until you live, church, like people who really believe that resurrection beats death (I know it’s hard; my wife and I exist on a sharp, ragged edge right now without job or home or even sometimes hope), that God really does forgive sins, then you will walk into the world and hear only a stunning silence.

And you will have no one to feed.

I want to help you live, church. While Jesus called me, you formed me and trained me. You taught me almost all I know. A lot of it wasn’t on purpose, yes, but that’s the Holy Spirit for you! (She’s amazing, isn’t she?) But to live, first you must stop being afraid of dying. And you, church, are afraid. You are afraid of loss, of poverty, of becoming irrelevant and unimportant and ignored. I know that fear. I feel it too. You must die, church, and you are still too afraid. You are fighting and struggling and trying everything to hang on to life. To avoid death.

You still do not really believe. You do not really, truly trust God. Not yet.

Yes church, you have a problem. But remember — Jesus called you, gathered you, formed you, breathed you into existence. You belong to him. Just as I do. You have been redeemed. You have been forgiven. (And I know, church, you have a problem with forgiveness.) And you have been raised from the dead. So live.

Live like you have already died.

Apostles -or- The Ones Who Are Sent

So, it is back to the Bible today.

Some time ago, I noticed there was a difference between all of the different ways one follows Jesus. There are the crowds, who press in on Jesus, follow him everywhere, do not give him a moment’s peace. They are the people who Jesus has truly come for — they are the people Jesus heals and casts demons out of.

It is from the crowds that some of Jesus’ more “aggressive” followers — the lame, the lepers, the crippled, the blind who cry out, the demon possessed, the centurion of Matthew 8, the rich young man of Luke 18 — come to him and ask to be made whole, to be healed, and to find out what must be done to inherit eternal life. But they come from the crowds, from those who see Jesus, see and know that he is the Son of God incarnate, that he does the work of God, and they respond.

This is faithfulness. And if this is what brings people to Jesus, then all the good. Because these crowds who cannot give Jesus a moment’s peace, who proclaim him “Son of David” one moment and a blasphemer deserving of death not long after, these crowds are the people Jesus came to find. So, when someone is drawn to Jesus, and chooses to follow Jesus, this is good.

But there are those Jesus also calls to follow. People who are minding their own business, bothering no one when Jesus steps into their lives and commandeers them. “Follow me,” he says to Matthew/Levi in each of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32; John 1:35-51 bears some similarities), and Matthew/Levi follows:

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. (Luke 5:27-28 ESV)

His calling of disciples (Matthew 4:18-22, Mark 1:16-20, Luke 5:1-11; again, John 1:35-51 tells a similar but somewhat different story) is not a matter of people choosing to follow Jesus. His disciples are not the crowds. Jesus finds them — almost exclusively at work — and calls them.

“Follow me,” he says.

And they drop everything. And follow.

This too is great faithfulness. But it is a different kind of faithfulness. In the synoptic gospels, the crowds see Jesus and know, “God is at work!” But for the disciples, they don’t see Jesus at work that way. They don’t hunger for the justice and mercy and redeeming work of God in the same way that the crowds do.

Instead, God sees them at work, minding their own business, and meets them. And calls them. Because they are not the people to be healed. Or made whole. Or even have their demons cast out (assuming they have any, which is unlikely, but you never know). Because they are called to help Jesus do that work.

In the feeding miracles, the disciples are anxious, because feeding the crowds in the wilderness is a logistical nightmare, one they have not prepared for. In commanding them, “You give them something to eat” (Luke 9:13), and then blessing and breaking the bread (foreshadowing the final supper that will come), Jesus is giving them all the instruction and preparation they will need to feed the crowds — their meager supplies and the blessing and presence of Christ.

It is a lesson that the disciples have to learn over and over again: what they have at hand, and the blessing of Jesus, is all they need to care for and feed the crowds who hunger for the redeeming presence and boundless mercy of God.

But there is one more distinction. Because not all disciples are apostles. Matthew puts it this way:

1 And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. 2 The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Matthew 10:1-4 ESV)

Mark describes it like this:

13 And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. 14 And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach 15 and have authority to cast out demons. 16 He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); 17 James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); 18 Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Mark 3:13-19 ESV)

And Luke relates the account this way:

12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. (Luke 6:12-16 ESV)

It’s funny, but Mark’s account of this is actually the longest, and it actually has a detail that neither Matthew nor Luke have — it refers to the twelve apostles as “those whom he desired.”

The Matthew account is followed immediately by Jesus sending the twelve out specifically to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” to proclaim the kingdom, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons. (It’s the beginning of a very long speech of Jesus’, so we don’t really know how this mission goes, though we can guess from what comes next — disciples of John the Baptist coming to Jesus and asking him, “are you the one who is to come?” So, we can guess the disciples were successful in carrying out their charge.)

Jesus calls disciples in Mark and then goes straight home. Where he’s mobbed by crowds while his family in Nazareth are convinced that Jesus is completely out of his mind. Being the Son of God will do that with the family, I suppose.

The Luke account is followed by Jesus ministering to crowds throughout Judea, Samaria, and what is now southern Lebanon. And then he gives Luke’s version of “the sermon on the mount” (called “the sermon on the plain” from 6:17, “And he came down with them [the apostles] and stood on a level place.” So, the calling of the apostles in Luke is followed by the Beatitudes.

Luke has Jesus dispatch the apostles in Chapter 9, giving them the “power and authority to over all demons and to cure diseases” and to proclaim the kingdom of God and heal the sick. Instead of John the Baptist, though, in Luke, it’s Herod who hears of this (because John is dead), and who wants to see Jesus. (But he doesn’t, apparently.) And this is followed by an apostolic report, and the feeding of the five thousand.

I’m not entirely clear if apostle and disciple are interchangeable here. I suspect if they were, then we wouldn’t have two distinct terms — disciple (one who learns) and apostle (one who is sent). Clearly, one can be a disciple without being an apostle. Can one be an apostle without being a disciple? (Probably not.) Can one be an apostle without being called by Jesus in the flesh? St. Paul clearly sees himself as an apostle — one who is sent — but whether that means the same thing as it does when Matthew, Mark, and Luke use it, I do not know.

(I think it would be tremendously presumptuous to claim, in this day and age, to be an apostle. I am not claiming that title.)

In the great commission, as related at the end of Matthew, Jesus speaks of disciples, and not apostles. So, it may be without a physical Jesus calling “those whom he desired” that apostleship is impossible.

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations [μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)

There is, however, still a distinction between the crowds — those who follow Jesus of their own will — and disciples — who are called by Jesus to follow. It’s an important distinction, one that gets lost in arguments over just how much human will is involved when we discern God present as Christ somehow in our midst. I generally think that argument is a pointless one, because it tries to exclude at least one of these ways of encountering God. If we do all the choosing, then what of Jesus’s call to Matthew/Levi, “follow me”? And if we do none of the choosing, what then of the crowds, and those who emerge from the crowds, who have a vastly different experience of Jesus, as someone they come to?

And what does it mean for the church if this is an important distinction that was supposed to persist? What if there is, always has been, and always will be, a distinction between the crowds who follow and the disciples who are called to follow?

I, of course, default to the irresistible call of Jesus, Follow me. But then, I would. I have learned to respect, however, the notion that some — many, perhaps — choose to follow Jesus of their own accord. Indeed, discipleship clearly seems to be a minority option, something only a few would experience. It speaks to the abiding “unfairness” of God. Not everybody gets treated the same. Not everyone gets called the same. Not everyone even gets loved the same. To be called like this isn’t necessarily a good thing, either — for many of the first disciples, it eventually led to suffering and death.

There are followers of Jesus, and there those called to follow. And they aren’t necessarily the same people.

But all are beloved of God.

The Least in The Kingdom

It’s been a busy week, and I’ve not really had time to sit down and do any serious — or even casual — blogging. (But I have a long list of things to blog about. So, there’s that…)

I noticed something going over the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (chapters 5-7, beginning with the blessings and ending with the authority of Jesus), and it deals, I think, with the writing I’ve been writing about on the torah, the teaching God gave through Moses to Israel in Sinai (both in Exodus-Leviticus and Deuteronomy). Continue reading