In Defence of Dust

Afar atah, v’el afar tashuv.”

It’s a verse we do not want to hear “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The whole thing is a total bummer and, because it talks about death, is a verse we reflexively reject. Starting Lent off with a mega downer like this makes the general resistance to Lent extremely understandable. It’s about death and ending, penitential denial of self and and general gloom and depression. Or at least that’s what we’ve been told it means.

To no one’s surprise, this approach of doom and death is not actually the reason the church chose to establish this season. Lent is instead a time of reflection and spring-cleaning as we go through our lives and look for the clumps and eddies that have piled up over the years. It’s a season for self reflection, a time of seeking the parts of our living, the heart habits, which lead us away from life. This is a season to test how hardened our hearts actually are and to look for what we need to let go of in order to open our lives to God. Lent is a season for the spiritual practice of getting rid of the things that draw us away from God and adding those things which draw us near.

But if this is about growing deeper toward God, why do we start with death and dust?

We do it for two reasons. The first is best explained by Robert Capon “Jesus came for the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead and it is our energetic rejection of our last-ness, lost-ness, least-ness, little-ness, and death” that makes it so hard for Jesus to grow in our lives. By starting the season with dust and ash, last and lost, we have a chance to recognize the uncomfortable reality of last, lost and least in us by facing our dusty death. We can come down from the pedestals we put ourselves on (or under) in all the variations of grandiosity and excess humility in which we out ourselves.

we say “no one else has: been as awesome as, done as well as, suffered as much as, sinned as deeply as (etc, etc.) us” (or at least that’s what we tell ourselves). We are the best/worst whatever, the most secure/most vulnerable person in the world; and the list goes on. The whole list is however, flat out lies. They are lies that deny our last, least, lost, little-ness and our death. Thus to face them down, we have to see that we are dust, made from dust and returning to dust in the end. It’s an antidote to the grand delusions with which Satan tempt us. Dust and ash, last and least, lost and little but also loved.

These words are also an invitation to freedom because dust is limited so it cannot build eternal power structures. We cannot force the cosmos to bow to our will and recognizing this is freedom. When we see our limits, we can then use the hell out of every inch we have rather than breaking our hearts over what is out of reach.

Sonnets and haiku have definite limits, hard structural controls and prescribed rhyme schemes. The opponents of limits would assure us that no one can make beauty with such limits but there are a few rather famous refutations of this sort of narrow-mindedness.

The poets knew their limits and instead of being depressed, trapped in inaction and giving up because “we can’t be unlimited.” These people used the hell out of what they had and made verses of beauty that echo through the centuries. In the same way we can, when we see our limits as dust, use every inch of life, every split second of living as thoroughly as possible. We too can find freedom in our limits.

Thus this verse against which we bridle and fight because it is a downer actually ends up showing us who we are and how fragile we are. With this knowledge we can then begin our Lenten discipline of letting go of those things which distract and choosing the powerful and beautiful new way of life in Christ.

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Let’s Dance

Matthew 17.1-9

You’re watching an old movie and the scene is a fancy dance. The ladies are sumptuously gowned and Our Heroine is sitting decorously at the side of the room. Our Hero comes around a corner, sees her, walks up and holds out his hand. Because this is a movie, the music begins, she takes his hand, rises to her feet, and they begin to dance.

It’s a story we know from the movies and there’s a certain level of awwww and, for those who have experienced it, a rememberance of the fluttery just-a-little-bit-nervous, I-hope-I-don’t-screw-up fear that makes those moments so special.

So what does this have to do with the Mount of Transfiguration? Just this, when Jesus tells Pete and the gang “get up and do not be afraid,” he’s holding out his hand to a dance partner.

In the Greek what he says is “be raised up and do not fear.” The word for “raised up” is the same one used by the angels several chapters later when they tell the women “He has been raised from the dead.” It can be well translated as “arise,” “rise up,” and even “be resurrected.”

The connection with our movie dance scene is that Part of what Our Hero does in reaching out his hand to Our Heroine is to help her rise up. Part of his invitation to her is for her to be brave, to not fear, and to begin something new and moving and passionate together. The invitation is for a living, moving, being kind of life and not just an intellectual understanding of the whichness of whatnot. It is a physical, embodied, living thing to which she is invited.

The invitation to dance is an invitation to trust because in this dance she has to trust his lead and follow it. When he begins the steps for a turn she needs to be ready to step through the figure. She cannot dance with her mind alone, she dances with her whole self. And the beginning of the dance is that moment when she puts her hand in the hand of her partner, rises up, and is not afraid.

Peter and the disciples had just such an invitation on the holy mountain. More to the point, you and I have this invitation today. Jesus comes to us with his hand out hoping for us to put our hand in his, rise up, and dance. This is not an easy invitation to receive and respond to because it feels scary. Do we trust this guy? Will he lead us right? Will we be able to follow through? Can we do it right?

We tense up, we want to dart away, we’re nervous, and excited, and a whole lot of other emotions we cannot even understand. But, and here’s the kicker: this is the one invitation we can never screw up. The answer that comes from our deepest and truest self will be exactly right. We will be able to follow the lead, follow through, and dance the great dance.

This is the invitation we recieve from the one person in all the cosmos who is willing to offer his hand again and again in the face of our rejection. The one who will delight in our halting steps and determination to lead in the dance, and neither let us go nor leave us on the sidelines.

Rise up and do not fear.

The music swells.

And we dance.

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Forgive and Forget?

Luke 7.36-50

For some odd reason, we’ve found great cultural value in the statement “forgive and forget.” We treat it as a way to encourage each other to drop rather than to hold onto our hurts. Taken that far, as a validation of God’s work of forgiveness (afiemi lit: “to drop/let go of/forgive”), it is a valid statement. A challenge we deal with in the life of faith is when we forget our forgiven-ness.

This story is fairly familiar to us. Simon the Pharisee invites Jesus to a meal, some random (but notorious) woman comes in off the street and messes with Jesus’ feet, Simon is offended and Jesus gets on his case for the whole thing. Thus far, a good conventional story, another iteration of “Jesus messes with the perfect, stuck up, snobs (part oh-never-mind).” So we read it and feel a sense of superiority mocking THOSE people who are hung up on doctrine and creeds while not understanding that love is the real doctrine. We get to cast ourselves as the enlightened, knowing ones who totally get Jesus message of love that reaches to every life (as compared to THOSE people, the haters and jerks).

Having loved the Narnia stories we manage to miss the point that “no one is told any story but their own” in other words, that the only story we know is ours and thus the only one we can really judge is ours. We enjoy pointing the finger and feeling better than other people (because the poor dears are all sheeple who do not think or see what’s in front of them), and are content to leave this as a story of being forgiven much and little.

The focus on forgiveness is actually very good and a place in which we can afford to take more time (given our great difficulty in remembering how to forgive in the first place). At the same time the notion of comparative forgiveness (forgiven much v. forgiven little) obscures the massive problem of forgetting. We get so caught up in figuring out how your forgiveness compares to my forgiveness and how “you don’t see your sin and thus cannot receive your forgiveness” that we miss the way Jesus’ focus is on the Pharisee.

Simon the Pharisee has invited Jesus to his house for supper. In this time and place, the higher status person hosted the lower status person so part of the invitation was a power play. ‘See how awesome I am, I got the hot new preacher to come to my house (and by coming, to admit that I’m better).’ Instead of taking offence, Jesus goes and eats with him.

At this time, a host would give a kiss of greeting, get the dust (and other stuff) off the feet of the guest, and give the guest a spritz of perfume (because soap, while it did exist, was something for those effete Romans). These were all hostly duties for an equal or near equal status guest. Simon didn’t do any of it.

Perhaps this was because he felt he was so much higher in status than Jesus, perhaps he was awe-struck by Jesus, maybe he assumed his staff had taken care of the issue. We don’t know the why of it, just that it happened. Into this vacuum, the woman comes and fulfills all the duties of the host and even more. She weeps, the uses her hair, she kisses the feet (which is the way a very low status person greeted a person of much higher status), she uses expensive perfume (not standard scented oil). In all this, she does the work of a low status host to an honored guest.

We can read her story, and Jesus’ pronouncement of forgiveness, as an indictment of Simon’s arrogance or blindness or any of a number of things. I want to suggest that it was his forgetfulness. He had forgotten Something we probably missed in the story and thus miss in our own life as well.

Neither person in the parable could pay the debt.

Not the person who owed ten.
Not the person who owed ten times ten.

Both people were equally and completely in the position of “Cannot Pay the Debt.”

So while we’re busy talking about how ‘she was a great sinner while he was just an average prat’ and comparing how  big the forgiveness was, we miss that neither one could pay the debt. Neither the woman nor Simon could compel Jesus to forgive. They were both equally dependent upon Jesus’ willingness to forgive. The primary difference was that the woman knew it and Simon didn’t (or else he had forgotten).

Which brings us back around to the first point of this piece. She was forgiven and knew it, he was forgiven and didn’t remember it. She was motivated by that forgiven-ness to life changing action, he in his forgetfulness was still touched by Jesus, but not deeply. Thus the power of forgetting is good for us when we forget the wrongs done to us but dreadful when we forget the forgiveness given to us.

One place in our worship when this movement toward remember is most clear is communion. “Do this in remembrance of me” do this and remember that God is touching your life with grace. Do this and remember that your life is touched and valued in this concrete moment by God. Be forgiven and know it with all the intimate knowingness of life. Remember and do not forget. Do this and remember.

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Nudge, Nudge, Hint, Hint

Deuteronomy 30.15-20

The notion that the Old Testament is full of threats by a vengeful god is so ingrained in our culture that we’ve burlesqued the idea in our films. At first look, this seems just more of the same. More of the Divine Pissy-Pants getting pissy about people who don’t Do What I Say. The superficial read is, as usual, woefully shallow and inadequate.Ultimately, this text is much more “don’t put a fork in the electrical outlet” than “respect my authoritah.”

You see, God is dealing with the people as they make a significant change in their life. They had been slaves for generations, being taught everything the needed to know to be “good slaves.” Things like “you are inadequate,” “your life is worthless,” and the big kicker “the gods made you to be a stupid slave.” Having been fed lies and violence by their culture, they had been brought out into a forty year wilderness journey. On this journey they had the chance to learn a new story of self-value and trust and to discard the old lies they had drunk down with their mothers’ milk.

But this sort of world re-orienting change is hard, and more than a few would have heard the song “So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt” and said “yep.”

In this context of old lies and barely learned new ways of living, God steps in to clarify the consequences of staying in old lies versus choosing the new truth. “If you stay in lose lies, they’ll eat your life” God says. On the other hand, by choosing life and the hard work of new trust, the people will “experience a new birth of freedom.”

“That’s a very nice picture you painted there but what does it matter, surely no one would choose death these days, right?” Um, let me beg to differ. One needn’t be a fan of Robinson Jeffers’ poetry to know that there truly is a sense in which our actions show that “we desire death” because “poison is so sweet.” Suicide is a big and, in certain segments of the population, rising issue. The opioid epidemic is murderous, killing about as many people as are murdered by guns each year.

None of this even touches the rise of extremist language in politics and the rise of political violence in this country. Add to this our seeming absolute determination to destroy the “enemy” and oppose anything they might suggest simply because they suggest it and yes, one could say that we desire death as a polis. To bring this back to the personal, we have habits and convictions which are at best self-defeating and at worst self-destructive. In all of this one could easily suggest that do desire death, that we will choose our lies instead of life, and that God’s warning here is actually quite tender and timely.

“Choose life” God says, not as a slogan but as a heart deep longing for us. Choose to be awake and alive, to be present in this glorious creation, to know ourselves as loving and beloved, as engaged with the life around us. And how are we to do this? “By loving the Lord your God.”

In this context, the declaration that we love the Lord by following the commandments means that we live out in who we are the fullness of God’s declared longing for the world (that it be fruitful). These commands, ordinances, decrees; this sense of walking in God’s ways by obeying the nature to which we have been called, is the real fullness of life. We’ve told each other about the oppressive Law and its impossible requirements for so long and rebelled against the idea that anyone else can tell us what to do that we have lost the idea that obeying who we are at our deepest is, in fact, real life.

A duck is not a hummingbird and I am not you. We can break our hearts and empty our lives trying vainly to be someone else, someone more hip or cool or “successful” than we are. We can envy our lives away and destroy our loves with unfillable hungers but none of that is what it means to follow the God who called us back to life.

In fact, when we envy our lives away and devour the love given, we have truly “turned our hearts away” after other ‘gods’ as we are warned in Deuteronomy. These little gods then eat us down to a hollow shell and we find that the life of safety, health, wealth, etc. we thought we were going to get is actually just death.

God sets before us today living life in the fullness of who we are created to become (God’s children) or turning away after every single other ‘god’ we could follow. One way leads to the fullness of being, the other ways all lead to our lives poured away like a breath in the vacuum of space. Thus, far from a pissy pants threat to do it my way (Or Else)” this is a reminder that we have the chance to choose life and to choose it every day for the rest of our lives.

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Knowing Our Spirit

1 Corinthians 2.1-12

How do we know things? Really, how do we figure out if something is true? Do we trust a source because they’ve always been truthful in the past? Do we test our sources (like our news sources) against one another (like checking out FOX and Huffington Post to see how they lie differently about an issue)? Do we trust the word of mouth gossip that is social media or the special information of investigative bloggers? How do we know things?

The field of knowing is called epistemology and we use it to study news, learnings, and even (sometimes) our own assumptions. All of it focuses around the question “how do we know that?” Do we ‘go with our gut’ trusting things that seem emotionally right (and trust me, most of us do this at one level or another)? Do we have a series of First Principles to which we subject new information (like the question “is it likely that the person telling me this is in a position to actually know this?” or “first, do no harm.”) Are we overwhelmed with information and willing to grab any life raft that offers space? How do we know?

In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul deals with this knowing question when he starts by asking “For who knows of anthropon (people) the things of anthropou (people) if not the spirit of anthropou (people) that is (located) within them?” (personal translation) In short, ‘who knows a person more accurately than the being within their skin?’

As any student of soul (psyche) study (-ology) (i.e. psychology) can tell you, the person inside our skin often seems to be the least aware of what is inside us. But as the one person we are always “with” we do end up knowing ourselves best. Thus it is our spirit within us that studies and knows us better than anyone else.

Thus far, this is fine but it sticks on the reality that this is the part that knows us in our earthliness, not our spirituality. Paul points this out too later in the same verse “and thus it is in the same way (with) the things of theou (God), no one has known them except the spirit of theou (God).

This is Paul and he’s being very balanced in his rhetorical structure. “Who knows A if not the spirit of A? In the same way, who knows B if not the spirit of B.” This actually leads us to one of the chief challenges of spiritual life: there are lots of spirits out there (hurt, vengeance, righteousness, mercy, justice, anger, “that’s how my daddy taught me,” hope…) and our challenge is to sort through them all and find the right one to listen to.

Paul’s point is that there are two other spirits swirling about, the spirit of human-ness within us and the spirit of God. Of those two, only the spirit of God can actually know and explain the things of God to us. Just like it is the spirit within us which knows us above, beyond, and before all other things.

But if the spirit of God can reveal that which is God’s to us and the spirit we have within us is not the spirit of God, are we stuck? Nope.

We the spirit of the cosmos (world/cosmos) have not received but the spirit that is ek (out from) theou (God), in order that (with the result that) we may come to know the things of theou (God) which [God] charisthenta (has been giving) to us.” Yes, that is a long and cumbersome translation but the point to see is that God has been giving (past tense, participle) us gifts (charismata) but we have not been able to see them until God also gives us the Spirit of God. With this new spirit with in us, a spirit which knows the things that are of God at least as well (if not better than) the way we know the things that are of ourselves, we can finally see the gifts we have received.

So God has been busy giving gifts (which is a single Greek verb, charizdomai) but we have not been able to see them because we have been using the spirit that is in us to see. So since we have been using the spirits we received from our families, the historical understandings that have worked in the past and the various spirits floating around in the air today, we’ve missed the gifts of God. What then? Are we stuck? Again, nope.

Because the new gift God has given is the Spirit of God in us which enables us to see that which is of God and now residing in us. For those who still remember the Small Catechism, this is Luther’s explanation of the third article of the Creed “It is not by my own reason, power, or strength…

How do we know? We know because we receive the Spirit of God in us and that spirit helps us see. We receive this spirit through the life of Jesus in us and that leads us to see and act and be people who see what God is giving and doing rather than what we and the spirits that swirl within and around us want us to see and do.

This leads to the one caveat, there are lots of spirits out there and each one wants us to live in a different way. There’s the spirit of sports rivalry, the spirit of chauvinism (named for the Frenchman Nicholas Chauvin, BTW). There’s a spirit of tribalism and one of greed, the spirit of nostalgia for a Good Old Day (which may not ave existed quite the way we think it did) and a spirit that the new is always better. There are many spirits swirling around us, so we need to test them, because one of them is the Spirit of God in us which, through Christ, leads us into life.

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Lord of Rest

Luke 6.1-16

For some reason being super-busy is the badge of our success as moderns. Smart phones, the always on news cycle, and our capacity to work anywhere mean that we actually do work everywhere. This all contributes to higher and higher expectations of productivity and social expectations that we can get what we want whenever we want.

In fair exchange for getting what we want whenever we want it,  however we are expected to give whatever someone else who has a claim on us may want whenever they want it. And suddenly the power fantasy of all bowing before our power translates into our own bowing down. All at once, the always on world bites us back and we want rest. But then the cell phone reminds us of another social media post or work email or task we scheduled and we’re back running, wanting just a little rest.

When we get to a rest point, it has to be a vacation and the first thing we do when we get “there” (the famous ‘there’ to which we have been rushing so we can rest) is crash. There’s a period where the wheels come off the wagon but we’re still moving and then finally (for me it’s Day Two And A Half) we finally stop rushing and start resting.

For some reason, this seems like an absolutely inhumane way of life, but we do it.

Society benefits from all the busy humming workers, and I think satan likes it too because the busy we bear like a badge assures that we are so distracted that we can be led down all kinds of blind alleys. Plus, being busy (and thus tired), we are more capable of “losing it” with each other, ignoring each other, and even running each other over in our hurry to get to our goal. All in all, this is a great society for casual hurtfulness and self-absorption.

So what does this Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus have to do with our hurry, hurry, super-scurry life? Let’s start with the verse that calls him “Lord of the Sabbath.

His disciples have been on walkabout and are hungry, they do something about it, but it’s sabbath day and they’re doing work. Folks get upset and then Jesus steps in with a story from the Old Testament (drat that Old Testament, showing the story of God’s grace when we expect nothing but judgment from the OT). And then he makes a seemingly fatuous claim that he is Lord of the Sabbath. But what’s this sabbath thing anyway? It’s Hebrew.

We know the story of how the sabbath started. On the seventh (shabah) day of creation, God rested (shabat). Thus, the word we know as “Sabbath” is, in point of fact, the Hebrew word for “rest” with the overtone of biblical, God blessed, rest. Thus, when Jesus proclaims himself the Lord of the Sabbath, he’s really saying that he is Lord of Rest. Now what can that possibly mean?

A sign of trust is our willingness to rest in the presence of the trusted person. In essence, we say “I am defenceless when I sleep and I trust that I will be safe with you.” Rest is then trust we express with our lives, it is a kind of faith really. So if Jesus is the Lord of Rest and we are resting in him, our rest, our sabbath, is an expression of our faith in Jesus.

Jesus invites our rest, God is the place in which our being can rest, and even our hymns highlight that our rest in Jesus is in fact, our faith. He is Lord of our rest.

And the rest of which he is Lord is the real, deep, “my soul is at rest in you” kind of stopping and being in God which is both truly humane and absolutely in keeping with the command to honor the sabbath. In our culture we do not honor the sabbath because, at best we don’t get what it is, and at worst we are actively prevented (and preventing ourselves) from experiencing what that rest would actually be.

We worry, hurry, scurry about convinced that this text, that technique, or the email we’re about to read will change our lives to the good forever. What we need to be doing is taking sabbath rest in the being of Jesus, getting close like those disciples on walkabout and by being in him, being absorbed in and delighted by him.

True, deep, and lasting rest is that boneless way of sleeping that children do when they know they’re safe. That is the rest in Christ to which Jesus invites us every day of our lives. Be still my soul, be still my heart, rest in the Lord of Rest forever.

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