Thursday, April 30, 2009

Life’s Uncertain Times Should Prompt Serious Theological Questions

We live in what seem to be uncertain times. The daily economic news is bleak. The continuing wars and the threat of more wars create a sense of fear. And the outbreak of disease causes us to worry and panic. Indeed, each day is filled with uncertainties, whether these are personal struggles or more widespread sufferings.

But is this not what life is and has been throughout history? For sure, there have been better economic times in the past, and one could make the argument that we have seen more peaceful times in our world. Moreover, our personal lives are mostly filled with days of joy and celebration. But by and large, life is always uncertain, and we can never really predict when things will go awry in our lives. And it is this uncertainty to our lives that is often most troubling for us.

I think that we Christians are more unwilling to admit that life is uncertain. As Christians, we are particularly guilty of assuming that all things should work out for us. We express this way of thinking when we respond to tough and heartbreaking times of life with pat answers such as, “God has everything under control”; “Everything will work out for the good”; and “God is teaching you something through this.”

While these answers, and the sentiments behind them, may seem reasonable to us, and we would like them to be true, the reality is that they are sometimes not true. God does not always have everything under control, for if God did, then we would not experience the pain and suffering that we go through as humans. Moreover, not everything does work out for the good. Evil does often win. And while we might learn something through our sufferings, it seems to me to be a very capricious God who would want to teach us through human suffering, especially suffering on a grand scale.

The reality, however, is that life is uncertain for all of us; Christian or non-Christian. Though our world is full of beauty and goodness, and humans are by and large loving and caring, life is uncertain. While God has created a world of beauty and goodness, chaos is part of that world, and chaos often invades our lives through our own choices, the choices of others, or simply because life is unpredictable.

Such an understanding of this view of the world, however, should raise questions for those of us who believe in a good and sovereign God. Simply stated, we should ask, “Where is God during times of struggle and suffering, whether they are personal or more widespread?” This is a serious question, but in my mind, this question should always be first on our minds when we experience or witness human suffering. It is a much deeper response to sufferings and uncertainties than the pat answers we Christians have learned to recite.

Indeed, there is clear evidence from both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament that reacting to suffering in this way is deeply faithful and is not a lapse in our faith. The Psalmist of Psalm 13 expresses the honest pain he feels as he questions the love and providence of God. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” “How long will you hide your face from me?” He takes his anger to God in a bold and honest prayer of accusation, blaming God for forgetting him, for hiding from him, for not loving him.

Even Jesus, the divinely empowered Son, protested to his beloved Father, “My God, my God. Why have your forsaken me?” Jesus, like the Psalmist, felt abandoned by the one being he thought he could trust. His cry did not express a belief that God had everything under control, or that all things would work for the good, or that God was teaching Jesus through his suffering. No, Jesus’ cry out to God was a cry protesting that God was letting evil win.

Life will continue to be uncertain for all of us. Indeed, we will face times in which life will become almost unbearable. Some have sought simplistic answers to life’s struggles. Others have been so confounded by the problem of evil that they have abandoned a belief in God altogether. While I have not reached the point of losing my faith, I am very often confused by God’s justice and I can only cry out, “How long, O Lord?”

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Faith Overcomes the Power of Fear

In recent days I have heard far right commentators use the propaganda of fear to capture the imagination of their audiences and to fuel irrational political agendas. Whether they suggest that the ban on assault weapons will lead to taking away all guns, or that illegal immigrants are ruining our country, or that we are heading towards becoming a socialist nation, each of these lies, and the liars who tell them, only serve to create a false sense of fear.

Yet, as history has shown us, fear often leads to extremist reactions such as exclusion, isolationism, xenophobia and hate-filled violence. Moreover, fear suppresses our desire to live boldly as messengers of the gospel of peace.

One of the more interesting biblical stories detailing the contrast between faith and fear appears in Mark 4:35-41, where we find Jesus and his disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat. In the midst of their nautical journey, a raging storm quickly arises and threatens their lives. While the story shows Jesus as a miracle worker who has power over creation, the impact of the story on its readers speaks directly to the empowering strength of faith to overcome the crippling force of fear in the face of evil.

A deeper understanding of the force of the story rests on the ancient belief that the sea was the place of chaos that threatens God’s good creation. Simply put, people of the ancient world held the view that the sea was under the power of evil and the unpredictable storms on the sea were a challenge to the creation and a threat of the return of chaos.

In the context of the early Christian movement in the Roman Empire, the followers of the crucified Jesus may have identified this story as a narrative about their own persecutions at the hands of an oppressive regime. Feeling lost in a sea of violence and oppression, and longing for Christ’s victorious return, these early believers may have felt that God had left them, that Jesus was asleep.

The crux of the story hinges on the dialogue between two characters; Peter, who represents all the disciples in their fear, and Jesus, who calmly sleeps as the storm rages. In one character, we witness a dramatic picture of human fear in the face of evil’s most powerful force, death. From the other, we discover a peaceful composure and the assurance of God’s presence, even as evil seems to be winning.

This is brought out most clearly in the only two sentences spoken by these two characters. Faced with fear, Peter, seeing that Jesus is asleep, calls out, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” Peter’s question exposes the volatile situation of the disciples, and the shock, even the distress they feel because Jesus is sleeping during the onslaught of evil’s power. They are overcome with the enormous propagation of fear; a fear that blinds them to the quiet presence of divine power that is with them in the midst of the storm.

In response to this fear, Jesus asks two extremely profound questions: "Why are you afraid?” and “Have you still no faith?" Through these questions, Jesus expresses disappointment and anger at the fear his disciples have, and he questions whether they have faith at all.

Yet, for Mark’s audience, Jesus’ query switches the natural human reaction to evil from fear to the divinely empowered response of faith. Jesus’ questions assume that his followers should have responded to the life-threatening storm with the faith that he himself had; a faith that gives abiding and confident assurance. But where does Jesus find such faith in the face of fear?

The answer can be found in another text from Mark. We are very familiar with the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, where we see Jesus at one of his most human moments, a moment of vulnerability, despair, and fear. The intensity of the scene cannot be overlooked, as the hot breath of fear breathes down Jesus’ neck as he comes closer to facing evil’s worse action, death.

Yet, Jesus does not let the manipulative power of fear overtake him, and he turns to the God in whom he places his faith. This faith leads Jesus to reject the force of fear, to reject the violence that fear produces, and to embrace the calling of God to go to the cross. Jesus’ faith overcomes his fear.

Fear is a powerful force. But if allowed to have control, fear draws us from God and God’s call for us to live peacefully and courageously in the world. Fear will only lead us to irrational conclusions and intolerant, and even violent, responses. Faith, however, is the divinely given power that combats and defeats our fears. Indeed, faith gives us courage to reject fear and its reactions in order to live as Jesus lived.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Jesus’ Cry from the Cross Voices Both Protest and Hope

I write the words of this current reflection during Holy Week, the days that lead up to Easter. Holy Week ends on what has been traditionally called Good Friday, the day on which we reflect on Jesus’ crucifixion. While we refer to it as Good Friday with the intention of focusing on Jesus’ death as sacrificial for us, when we read the narratives of Jesus’ last hours, we can find nothing really that good about that Friday. In fact, it is a very dark story of Jesus at his most vulnerable period.

Portrayed on stage, in film, and in church dramas, the passion story of Christ is fraught with human agony and pain that is unequal to any story we read from the Scriptures. And yet, despite the grotesque nature of the story, it is the focus of the Gospels and indeed the entirety of the New Testament. But what are we to make of this story?

This is certainly a difficult question to answer for many reasons. For one thing, the narratives of the Gospels tell the story in such vivid detail that we would be hard pressed to sum up the story in a few simple words. For another, details differ from Gospel to Gospel even though they agree at many points and all four tell essentially the same narrative.

But one thing is certain about the story. The early Christians felt the need to tell this story, with all the details, no matter what it might have said about Jesus, their King and Messiah.

While we often look back on the crucifixion with a bit of sentimentality, probably because we are influenced by the introspective idea that “Jesus died for me”, the earliest Christians must have been out of their minds to portray their Messiah as a vulnerable human who hung on a vile Roman cross. Yet, this is exactly the story they told, without sanitizing it.

This straightforward telling of the story by these earliest Christians is epitomized very poignantly in Matthew and Mark through the only statement Jesus speaks from the cross in these two Gospels. It is a prayer of protest in which Jesus recites Psalm 22:1 and calls out in honest anger, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

This is a cry of naked vulnerability through which the crucified one expresses a deep resentment at the one who once called him the Beloved Son and the one in which he had placed his complete faith. The intimacy that once characterized this relationship was replaced by estrangement and abandonment, and the vulnerability that Jesus experienced in his life was at its most extreme in his death.

We cannot deny the fact that on the cross Jesus felt abandoned by God. This was real human emotion responding not only to the pain of death, but more tragically to the feeling of abandonment by the one in whom Jesus had placed his full trust and obedience. Yet, Jesus’ cry is much more than a personal cry to God for his own feelings of desertion. It is a cry he voices for vulnerable humans who also feel abandoned by God.

We often wrongly assume that the Gospels were written primarily to record the history of Jesus, so that future generations would have a biography of sorts about this famous Jewish Rabbi. But a more important reason that these narratives about Jesus were written was so that Jesus’ story could become the story through which the vulnerable would find hope.

Thus, Jesus’ cry from the cross is the cry he expresses on behalf of those who suffer under the weight of a world system that produces injustice, oppression, and violence that marginalizes the most vulnerable. It is a cry for those who, like him, have been forsaken.

Yet, even as his cry expresses abandonment, it also holds forth continued hope. For one thing, Jesus continues to call out to God for he knows that it is only God who can help him.

Moreover, in quoting the first part of the Psalm, Jesus may also be using a rabbinical technique through which the one who quotes the beginning of the Psalm also invokes the entirety of the Psalm. Though Psalm 22 begins with a cry of abandonment, it ends in hope and victory.

But perhaps more important for our understanding of why the Gospel writers included this inauspicious statement voiced by the one who was crucified is the fact that they are telling a story that does not end at crucifixion. The Jesus on the cross, though experiencing vulnerability, death, and abandonment by God, will be raised by God. The narrative of death and despair will transform into a story of life and hope.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Lent Reflection: Embracing Vulnerability Leads Us to See the Authentic Jesus

The church has historically placed the disciples of Jesus in positions of honor, even referring to them as saints. Yet, when we read the Gospels, and particularly the Gospel of Mark, we find a somewhat different picture of them. This is not to say that the disciples should not be viewed as central figures in church history, for they were certainly the framers of the early Christian movement. But an honest reading of the Gospels shows us that they had real difficulty in understanding who Jesus was and what Jesus’ ministry was about.

Mark 8:22-10:52 is a theologically rich portion of Mark that has a few distinct characteristics. First, the passage is framed by two stories of Jesus healing blind men, a feature I will address shortly. Second, it is in this section where Jesus predicts his coming death three times with great detail. Third, in this subdivision of Mark, the disciples are more noticeably shown as misunderstanding Jesus and his mission, especially in light of his death predictions. All three of these characteristics from Mark 8:22-10:52 come together to say something about the necessity of embracing vulnerability to understand the authentic Jesus.

The two stories of healing two blind men that frame this section are interesting to say the least. The first one (Mark 8:22-26) is odd for it is a miracle that takes Jesus a couple of tries to perform. Though he touched the blind man in an attempt to heal him, the blind man cannot see clearly, and Jesus must touch him a second time. While we may recoil at the thought of Jesus having to retry to heal the man, as if somehow his power to heal the man the first time was short-circuited, the story functions as an important theological point and introduction to this major portion of Mark.

The touching of the man twice serves as an introduction to the theme of the essential blindness of the disciples to Jesus’ teachings about his death and about the meaning of discipleship. Each time he predicts his death, they do not understand him, and they even reject his words. Jesus must come back to them each time and teach them what it means to be a disciple.

Moreover, the disciples are so consumed with their own interests in their own spiritual superiority, pride, power, and exclusiveness that they not only fail to see clearly who Jesus is, they also fail to realize that understanding the mission and message of Jesus requires one to embrace vulnerability. Their failure to understand is seen even more plainly in the second story of Jesus healing a blind man.

Mark 10:32-52 begins with Jesus once again predicting his death. But in response to his words, James and John come to request something of Jesus. Instead of being shocked by Jesus’ words, they continue to misunderstand and to seek for their own. Jesus responds to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” They answer by asking for places of honor in the kingdom.

After explaining to them that he cannot grant their request, and after he once again makes clear that he will give his life as a servant, Jesus and the twelve encounter a blind man sitting on the side of the road. When Jesus calls the man to come to him, he poses the very same question to him as he did to James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man simply replies, “I want to see again.” He does not seek glory or power, as did those closest to Jesus; he merely wants to see.

This story clearly shows that the disciples, who seem to be insiders who are present with Jesus at crucial moments, and who are privileged to hear the secret teachings of Jesus, are really outsiders, who constantly seek their own interests, their own comfort, and their own glory. They refuse the vulnerability to which Jesus calls them, and in doing so, they are blind to the authentic Jesus and to who they must be in response to Jesus.

In stark contrast to these intimates of Jesus, the minor characters in Mark’s story, like the blind man, are those vulnerable individuals on the fringes of that society who seem to understand the authentic Jesus. Though they appear to be outsiders, they are really insiders, who recognize Jesus and his mission.

To see the authentic Jesus we must embrace vulnerability that opens our eyes to the vulnerable Jesus. Embracing vulnerability, however, means we reject our self-interests, our need to lord over others, our propensity to use violence, and our intolerant and exclusive attitudes towards others. But we must also reject a Jesus we have crafted to fit our own prejudices and preconceptions. To know the authentic Jesus, the vulnerable Jesus, means we must also become vulnerable.