Jesus, priest and king

The following is my second column, published in the March 3, 2014 issue of Mennonite World Review. It’s based on Psalm 110:1-4, Acts 2:22-24, 29-32, and Revelation 5:6-13

I remember the first time I experienced the dark underbelly of democratic process.

I was sitting near the back of a Junior High classroom with several of my friends, and at some point my friends started flicking spitballs across the room.
The teacher put an end to it within minutes; but he had a very limited picture of reality. He didn’t know who exactly was responsible, he just knew they were sitting in our corner of the room.

I could have told him exactly who was involved, and I could have truthfully said I wasn’t part of it.

But I didn’t, because I didn’t want to come across as a teacher’s pet, or a goody two shoes.

That’s when he turned to the democratic process to establish the truth of the situation.

He told us that one person had to stay after class and pick up every piece of paper that had been thrown, and left it up to us to decide who it would be.

I think he assumed we would assign the punishment to the most guilty party.

However, my so-called ‘friends’ chose me. I had to stay after class to pick up their mess, while they walked away with immunity. I was framed.

The democratic process has definite strengths.

Establishing truth is not one of them.

All four of the scriptures this week take issue with our ideas of democracy.

The Psalm celebrates the coronation of a Priest-King; a divinely appointed ruler enthroned in honor, upheld and protected by the right hand of God. Established in the line of Melchizedek, the people would look to this chosen one to usher in a new era of prosperity.

Likewise, the text in Revelation speaks of a coronation of sorts. An awe-inspiring king is seated on the throne, but no one is found worthy to take the scroll from His right hand…there is weeping for this fact.

But then our attention is drawn to Lamb who was slain, the only one worthy to accept this scroll. The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fall before the worthy one, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

And they sing a new song, it says.

For this lamb has formed a people, ransoming saints from every tribe and language and people and nation. As in the Psalm, hope hinges, not on the democratic process but rather on the sacrificial love of the only one worthy to approach the throne.

He was not elected; he was crucified.

The disturbing truth of the matter is that bitter weeping is an appropriate response before him.

In between these bookend stories of divine majesty, in the readings from Acts, Peter offers a very similar picture to all those with ears to hear.

In Jesus, the Christ, he says, the Messiah, the Priest-King in the line of Melchizedek, the hope to which the Hebrew Bible pointed is fulfilled. The picture of hope painted in Revelation is fulfilled. The Davidic line is no longer needed to sit upon the throne, because the royal line itself has been fulfilled in the life, the death, and the resurrection of this Jesus.

Therefore the past and the future to which we belong as the people of God hangs on the person of Jesus. He is not our president. He is our Priest and our King.
Too often we treat Jesus as if all he did was clean up the mess we made so we could walk away scott-free from the junior high classroom we inhabit together.

Could it be, it’s time to grow up? What might that look like in your church? In your life?

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Water is Thicker than Blood

I was recently asked to contribute to the Bible column for the Mennonite World Review, which is a newspaper published bi-weekly with the intent of “Putting the Mennonite world together”.

It’s an intimidating task, to write a column about the Bible, primarily for people I’ve never met. My Anabaptist heritage and my pastoral vocation place the interpretation of scripture within a committed community of faith, where grace can be given, questions asked, and counsel received.

Nonetheless, I considered it an honor, a privilege, and a challenge to push myself a bit beyond my comfort zone. When it’s all said and done, I am committed to writing 7 columns for the Spring quarter, basing my reflections on the uniform Sunday School series published by Mennonite Church USA.

If you don’t get the paper, but would like to read my thoughts…you’re in the right place! I’ll post them here after they’ve been published, and I’ll include the scriptures I’m basing it on.

I hope you enjoy! Leave a comment if you’d like (I do have to approve your comment, so it won’t show up right away after you leave it)

Column #1 published in the February 17, 2014 issue

2 Sam 7:4-16
Ps 89:35-37
Isaiah 9:6-7
Mt 1:18-21

We use words like suitcases, don’t we?

We pack each one carefully depending on where we intend to take it. We fold, tuck and cram bits and pieces of meaning into our words until sometimes they get stretched beyond the point of usefulness. They get worn out. The zipper breaks or a seam tears, and we find ourselves in need of a new piece of luggage.

One good example is the word “family”. It’s been used so heavily in recent years that I think its days of heavy lifting are over. Yet we continue trying to fill it with different meaning depending on where it is we want to go. We are the family of God. We vote on family values. We focus on the family. We might play happy families. Grandparents love to show off their families, and my favorite example is the picture frame with the deceptively scripture-like words of inspiration revolving around the edge: “Faith, Hope, Love, Family”.

Here I thought the greatest of these was love.

Apparently not in our time.

This passage from 2 Samuel troubles me because it lends itself so well to perpetuating the myth that biological offspring are the keys to God’s kingdom; that our hope is in preserving the ‘family line’ at any cost; that blood is indeed thicker than water…even the waters of baptism.

Friends, this ought not be. Not even when verses like this one are so plentiful in our Bible: “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom” (2 Sam. 7:12).

We don’t need any more help in elevating the task of procreation, so let me offer an alternative understanding.

What’s going on in 2 Samuel is a magnificent reversal.

David plans to build God a glorious house; a temple. The prophet Nathan encourages him to do this, but then God speaks. He not only refuses to accept the gift David has planned, but he goes on to turn the tables, promising to establish David’s ‘house’ instead.
How often are our own best laid plans turned on their heads in the service of God?

David was a blood-stained warrior. He was an adulterer. He was a murderer. Further, Solomon who was David’s legitimate successor and the one to eventually build the temple, was not a legitimate son.

He was born from an adulterous relationship with Bathsheba.

All that to say David’s family line was far from the idyllic picture many of us have when we think and talk about our precious ‘family’.
David’s family line was a mess-not unlike our own family lines. Thank God there’s room for the mess within the boundaries of the kingdom.

I write this as my wife and I are preparing space in our family for children born of another mother. Our journey with infertility has opened our eyes to new, creative, and refreshing understandings of what family means in the kingdom of God. Our expectations and hopes for the future have changed. We’ve come to embrace adoption as a deeply symbolic theological statement.

The truth of the matter is, none of us were born into God’s family.

Adoption is our story, not bloodlines or pedigrees.

For Christian people, when we think “family”, we should think first of church.

We should remember our brothers and sisters in Christ and the comittments we’ve made to each other in baptism. Enough throwing stones from the outside. Enough criticism.

Let us instead embrace the great reversal: the waters of baptism are thicker than blood.

Let us imagine a place where misfits are welcome and false starts expected. Let us unpack the meaning of our luggage together with respect, with faith, with hope, with love, as a family united under the Lordship of Christ.

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Weeds

Faith is the most resilient
of weeds
wringing moisture from
arid ground
steadfastly hoping beyond
shadows of life more verdant
than
yet seen.

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Ode to the Black Octopus

Then there was Jesus.
The Christ.
The Timeless One.

He both speaks and questions
existence and
all the fragile meaning
we hope to contain
within our days
like glass jars
filled with spice.

He is life’s essence,
distilled
preserved
saved up
and stored

we tried our best,
enthroned him within
religion
like one of those butterflies
pinned to a block of styrofoam
in a Victorian man’s
study.

But here we are and
here we go
another Black Friday
bleeding into Thursday
sucker-lined tentacles
greedily lapping up the crumbs
from under the masters table.

Time no longer stands
still for even
one
day
but rather
bleeds through
to
the next.

Fuzzy.
Muddy.
Slushy the end
of one days feed
fuels this market
economy in those
darkest moments
before
dawn’s early light

bombshells bursting in air
breaking
eternity into shards
of glass
gleaming
glinting
casting sunlight
(or is it pain)
across the open
windswept fields
and aisles
barren and
shaken stars, glinting
as crucifixion,
asphyxiation,
suffocation begins
the bitter end of
new
beginnings
for that one time only
low low price of
$49.99
plus tax.

Jesus
the Christ
the Strong in
meekness
weakness
bleakness
shines through it all.

These shards of
broken glass
catch sunlight,
prizms of
gratitude refracting
our consumer mindset in
a thousand
and one
directions.

Dispelled,
dismissed,
disgusted we must go on turning
towards Best Buy
and Target
and Amazon.com,
intent to consume
our salvation
one gadget at a time,

for screens
shall save us,
refracting light
not sunlight
but the generated kind,
man-made
not from heaven
but rather the heavens that we’ve created
a thousand
and one
paradises
not lost
but rather consumed.

Pass the gravy
We’ve got shopping to do.

God save us.

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The Indecency of Autumn

It’s downright indecent. No, it’s obscene, really. The way the trees drop their leaves at this time of year.
Every fall since I moved into this neighborhood, half a dozen trees stand all around my house, baring all for me and anyone driving by to see. It’s counterintuitive, but the colder it gets the faster they seem to shed their raiment. They’re shameless, almost proud in the flaunting of their frames.
Meanwhile the civilized world (namely my wife and I) is forced to deal with the consequences of this lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior. What else can you do when the perpetrators of impropriety proudly promote their promiscuity (work with me here, I was on a roll with the letter “p”!)?
I was raised in a Christian home, after all. I learned to clean up after myself, and on occasion, to clean up after other people. I’ll certainly never stand naked outside anyone’s house, but if I did…at least I’d have the decency to pick up after myself.
Not so with these trees. Here I find myself, year after year, cleaning up after my trees as they stand there in all their shameless glory, dropping their garments one by one without even the pretense of etiquette.
They’ll stand there all winter, outside my windows, peering in at us without a care in the world while we try to go on with our lives as if nothing has changed.
By now I know how this will go. We’ll try to forget about the way they shamelessly stand there, naked and ominous, come sunshine or moonlight, pointing delicately to a sky that is higher than they will ever reach. We’ll try our best to ignore these trees for the duration of the long cold winter. We’ll go about our business as best we can, and at the end of it all we’ll be thankful for Spring when it comes again, when this charade of indecency can come to an end.
It’s not that I mind the trees. It’s more the reminder that underneath all the growth, after the glorious flame of our autumn splendor burns itself out, in spite of all the nesting and nurturing that happen in our branches…underneath it all we stand as stark as the trees. We are just as barren, just as naked.
Like the trees, we tremble with the wind and shamelessly point our shaking frames towards heaven.
Is this not the end of the Christian life or, rather, its beginning?

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Evicting Death

Our church owns a house, and in that house there lives a truly awesome tenant whom we love and appreciate and want to keep happy. Yesterday this tenant came into the church office and broke some bad news.

Over the weekend, when the temperature dipped into the 20’s for the first time this season, a stray cat must have found its way into the relative warmth of her basement, seeking shelter, I assume, from the cold.

It lay down on the ground and proceeded to die. I am convinced (due to the position the cat last assumed) it died a nice, comfortable, peaceful death.

The problem was that our feline friend was now starting to smell, for basements in old houses are not meant to keep death or its odor at bay. The decomposition process that is a natural part of life (and especially death) had begun, alerting our occupant to the presence of this most unseemly of guests.

Death had indeed come to visit, and had overstayed its welcome.

Our tenant was understandably surprised by her discovery, and politely asked us as her landlords, to evict the remains of her unwelcome guest. At this point I considered waiting on a trustee to make his appearance; after all, this kind of thing isn’t really ‘pastoral’ work.

I didn’t go to seminary to learn how to schlep dead cats from basement floors.

But she was distraught, the trustee was an hour or more away, and the whole experience sounded like something that would make a good story if only I had the courage to live it.

So I walked over with our wonderful tenant, she pointed me to the basement, she handed me a garbage bag and a shovel, and I proceeded with the eviction.

And I was surprised.

It was a beautiful cat.

It was bigger than I had imagined, and heavier. I soon found myself wishing it had stiffened up. It was surprisingly supple, which, when combined with the awkward corner in which it had died, made getting it on the shovel a bit of an experience in itself. It took a couple of tries from a couple of different angles, with the head rolling this way and that.

The corpse of this cat refused to stay put.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Cats never do what you want them to do in life; why would they be more agreeable in death?

After my first few attempts to get the shovel completely underneath the unresponsive body, the smell really got to me. I wonder now if my poking and prodding forced some odoriferous emanations into my breathable space.

I took a moment to zip up my coat, covering my mouth and nose with the collar.

My job wasn’t yet done. I considered retreat, then decided against it.

“You are not welcome here” I thought, then swallowed some vomit and turned back to my task.

This time I finally managed to get the cat on the shovel and deposited it in its entirety into the garbage bag I had prepared for the occasion.

I gingerly gathered up the bag, tied it off, and took it out into the crisp, cold daylight that remained of the day.

There’s a certain satisfaction that comes in the accomplishment of simple tasks like shoveling a dead cat into a garbage bag and hauling it outside into the cold of winter. There’s a certain nobility about facing death; even the death of a stray cat; and gaining the sense that you have emerged victorious, vanquishing the remnants, bringing the deeds of darkness into the light and allowing the clean, fresh, winter time air to blow the stench of death from the dank recesses in the basement of your soul.

I mean house.

Don’t I?

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Monday’s Prayer

Hope
is better
than
Certainty
which is
illusory.

In Flickering Pixels
we bask and
trust,
baptized in
self-important
iridescence.

Outside
the camp
site
with hearth still hot
home
is the
heart
of the matter.

Living stones not
pixels
flickering
Steadfast Hope
is all
in all
through all
and me.

Amen.

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