Certainties

Today is Tax Day.

imgresThough I generally take a moment in this paragraph to explain the provenance of what I have mentioned in the first sentence, I suspect the vast majority of those reading know exactly what I’m talking about.  April 15, the day that US Tax Returns are due, has the quality of Judgment Day.  For accountants, it is the finish line after a long marathon.  For the self-employed, it is the day that we have to send an inappropriately large check to Uncle Sam.  And for the procrastinators among us, it is a day of panic, stress, and promises that we will not wait this long next year.  Tax Day touches everyone in some way because taxes touch everyone in some way.  The ubiquity of sending money to the government supposedly led Benjamin Franklin to quip that the only certainties in life are death and taxes.

With Franklin’s words in mind, it occurs to me that Tax Day is appropriate way to wrap up our Lenten experience.  After all, we began this season of penitence and renewal with a reminder of our mortality.  Part of the purpose of Ash Wednesday is to remind us about the certainty of death.  And here in the waning days of Lent, the IRS reminds us that taxes are also inevitable.  This year, our Lenten journey is bracketed by Benjamin Franklin’s two certainties.

It’s easy to read this quotation in a fatalistic way: we are going to die, and we are going to pay taxes.  That’s all we can count on; everything else is ephemeral, like dust blowing in the wind.  But I think that these words about life’s inevitabilities are actually hopeful.  The only true certainties are death and taxes, but the rest of our lives are full of possibility.  We are not hamstrung by fate or destiny; we have the power to make choices and forge our own way in the world.

In certain strands of Christianity, one often hears people say things like “God has a plan for my life.”  This has always fascinated me, since so much of Christian theology is predicated on the notion that human beings have free will, that there is not a plan that we must follow slavishly, that we are responsible and accountable for our actions.  In fact, the story of Christ’s Passion indicates that Jesus himself exercised free will on his journey to the cross.  He had the choice to turn back, he had the choice to utter recriminations, he had the choice to reject his disciples, and yet he faithfully made the decision that would reconcile the world to God.  Jesus Christ was not subject to some plan that was beyond his control; he made the choice to walk to Calvary, trusting that God would be with him.  In the same way, we are called to recognize that we are not slaves to our circumstances; we can walk through our lives, make the best of our situations, and trust that God will be with us even when we feel like we are losing control.  While death and taxes may be inevitable, we are called to trust in the God of boundless possibility.

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The Crucifixion Game

As I listened to Matthew’s account of the Passion yesterday, I was once again struck not only by the fact that the trial of Jesus seems to take place in a kangaroo court, but also that so many of the characters abdicate responsibility for the events surrounding the death of Jesus.  Pilate washes his hands of the matter, the chief priests refuse to entertain Judas’ act of contrition, and even the crowds use the passive voice when they urge Jesus’ condemnation.  Below is a short scene I wrote a few years ago that explores the absurd nature of the trial of Jesus and also the theme of culpability in Matthew’s account of the Passion of our Lord.  

Scene: Two stools (or chairs) placed in front of a large sign that reads “LET HIM BE CRUCIFIED” in garish lettering. JOHNNY stands just offstage (left). JESUS sits in the stool on the right; BARABBAS sits in the stool on the left.

Johnny: (in an incredibly affected game show announcer voice a la Rod Roddy of “The Price is Right”) Hey Jerusalem! It’s the Passover and you know what that means? It’s time to play LET HIM BE CRUCIFIED. And now the host of Let Him Be Crucified: Pontius Pilate!

imgresPilate: (entering from stage left) Thanks Johnny. Welcome ladies and gentlemen to Let Him Be Crucified, Jerusalem’s favorite game show! I’m your host, Pontius Pilate; let’s meet our contestants. First we have a young zealot from just outside the city. He’s the boy next store, everybody’s favorite son of a father, Jesus Barabbas! Tell us a little about yourself.

Barabbas: (as jovially as possible) Thanks Pontius, Let me start by saying that I’m really happy to be here. Well, like you said I’m a zealot. I’ve been in prison for a little while because I committed murder during the insurrection…let’s see, in my spare time I enjoy Temple worship, embroidery, and plotting to overthrow the Roman occupiers.

Pilate: That sounds…fun! And what’ll you do if you win our grand prize?

Barabbas: My associates and I will probably get together and plot to overthrow the Roman occupiers.

Pilate: All right then. Let’s move on to our other contestant: Jesus who is called the Messiah (probably not by his mother-in-law. Am I right? Am I right? ANYWAY). Tell us a little about yourself Jesus.

Jesus remains silent and stares directly in front of him.

Pilate: Kind of a strong, silent type huh? And what will you do if you win our grand prize?

Jesus turns his head ever so slightly in Pilate’s direction, regards him briefly, and then turns his eyes to the ground (these motions should take an excruciatingly long time).

Pilate: (shifting nervously and clearing his throat as if to say “let’s change the subject”) All right, let’s play our game. Johnny, why don’t you remind us of the rules?

Johnny: Well Pontius, though each contestant has been charged with a crime that only you are technically able to adjudicate, we’re going to ask our studio audience what they think!

Pilate: Fantastic Johnny! Here we go. May I have a drum roll please? (the crowd obliges) Now…which of these two men do you want me to release for you?

Crowd: BARABBAS!

Pilate: We have a winner! (striding over to Barabbas) So, Barabbas, how does it feel to win?

Barabbas: Well Pontius, I’m really excited; I can’t wait to get back on the street and start causing trouble for the Roman authorities again.

Pilate: Well that’s just great! (laughs perfunctorily) In the meantime, Johnny, tell him what he’s won!

Johnny: Barabbas will be released from prison and forced to live under the tyrannical rule of the Roman proconsul!

Pilate: That sounds like it’ll be just swell. (shaking Barabbas’ hand) Good luck to you, and we’ll see you again real soon (exit stage left). So ladies and gentlemen, you know what time it is! What do we do with our other contestant, Jesus who is called the Messiah?

Crowd: (chanting the title of the show a la “Wheel of Fortune”) LET HIM BE CRUCIFIED!

Pilate: One more time!

Crowd: (in the same vein) LET HIM BE CRUCIFIED!

Pilate: All right, all right…Tough beat, Jesus; have anything to say to the crowd? Jesus turns and stares at Pilate for an extended period of time (at least 15 seconds). Pilate nervously shifts from foot to foot, loosening his tie, etc., but never shifting his gaze from Jesus’. Pilate’s demeanor becomes noticeably more subdued.

Pilate: (still looking at Jesus but slowly backing away) Well everyone, that’s all the time we have. Remember, whatever’s happened here: I’m not to blame. So…yeah. Thanks for joining us on Let Him Be Crucified. I’m Pontius Pilate…goodnight.

Pilate turns and shuffles off stage left, frequently looking at Jesus over his shoulder the entire time. Once Pilate has departed, Jesus slowly stands and walks slowly and purposefully off stage right, staring directly ahead of him.

One Hit Wonder

The other day, “Who Let the Dogs Out” was on the radio.

220px-Baha_Men_-_Dogs_singleFor those of you who don’t remember, “Who Let the Dogs Out” (click at your own risk) was a song written by a Trinidadian group called the Baha Men that made it to the United States as part of the soundtrack for Rugrats in Paris: The Movie.  It was probably the most popular song of the summer of 2000; in fact, it won a Grammy for Best Dance Recording in 2001.  On one hand, this is somewhat understandable.  The song is catchy, danceable, and insidiously easy to remember.  On the other hand, it’s hard to understand why anyone enjoyed the song in the first place.  It has the dubious distinction of being third on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 20 most annoying songs, and it is frequently cited as an example of the fact that quality and popularity are not always one and the same.

The Baha Men are also an example of a common phenomenon in popular music: the one hit wonder.  Though the Trinidadian group released several other singles, none achieved the ubiquity or acclaim of their magnum opus.  For better or worse, this means that the Baha Men will forever be defined by a song that repeatedly asks a rhetorical question about the provenance of dogs.  I imagine that being a one hit wonder has to be frustrating.  Instead of being trusted for your talent and potential, you are known for an isolated moment in your career.  Even if you go on to grow and change, people define you in terms of something you did in the past.

Holy Week begins tomorrow.  As such it is appropriate for us to take stock of our Lenten journeys.  And when it comes to Lent (and other things), I suspect that many of us think we might be one hit wonders.  We assume that what we have done in the past will forever shape our futures.  If we have had a Lent that was particularly fruitful, for instance, we tend to have two responses.  We either assume that this is the best we can do and say that we will try to have the same experience next year  or we believe that there’s no way we could possibly experience the same level of fulfillment and regard this as the high water mark in our spiritual development.  We must recognize, however, that we are called to grow in our relationship with God.  When St. Paul tells us that we are called to walk in newness of life, we are meant to walk in a particular direction.  We’re meant to be aware that we are moving toward a deeper and fuller relationship with the God who created and redeemed us.  I pray that this Lent has been a time of spiritual growth for you, but more importantly, I pray that you will continue to grow in your awareness of God’s love even as this season of renewal comes to a close.  Above all, I pray that you will remember that in God’s eyes, you will never be a one hit wonder.

It Can Wait

Lately, AT&T has been encouraging people to wait.

UnknownThe phone giant has released ad campaign called “It Can Wait,” which exhorts people to pledge that they will refrain from sending or checking text messages while they are on the road.  The impulse for the campaign is both noble and necessary: texting while driving can impair reaction times six times as much as driving while legally intoxicated.  Thousands of people are killed on U.S. roads every year because they or other drivers were texting.  Naturally, the rationale for the campaign is quite simple: there is no need for me to respond to a text message as soon as I receive it.  I can wait until I’ve arrived safely at my destination.  Whatever I am being contacted about, in other words, it can wait.

Our failure to recognize that “it can wait” extends far beyond our insistence on immediate responses to text messages.  There is a general lack of patience, a corporate failure to wait that has become part of our culture over the past several decades.  In some ways, this is related to my previous comments about the fact that we need to remember the importance of Sabbath.  But this failure to wait also has a significant impact on our relationships with other people and with ourselves.  We tend to prize the quick response or witty retort in conversations, but we often forget to consider how what we say can impact the people around us.  This seems particularly true in Internet comment sections.  People are so concerned with responding to another comment with a pithy and sometimes acerbic retort that they forget there is another person behind the comment they just lampooned.  Moreover, people are so concerned with not taking themselves too seriously that their first inclination is to make a joke of everything that happens to them or that they participate in, thus robbing these experiences of any further significance.

Imagine how different our interactions with other people and our understanding of ourselves can be if we simply wait before we respond.  What if we waited before we provided a knee jerk reaction to a comment that makes our blood boil?  What if we took a moment and tried to make sense of an experience before we turned it into a joke?  What if our first response to other people was to wait and remember that they are created by God before we make fun of them for their beliefs?  I suspect that even these brief pauses allow us to begin seeing the world through God’s eyes.  Waiting allows us to recognize that we are all equal in the eyes of God.  So the next time you come up with exactly the right way to verbally harpoon someone who disagrees with you, remember that it can wait.

Oasis

Over the past few days, I have been reflecting on finding grace at the gym, particularly Abilene’s YMCA in Redbud Park.

If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you know that I have been trying to get to the gym on a more regular basis.

images-2When I first returned to an exercise regimen, I solemnly vowed that I would not use elliptical machines.  They seemed simultaneously to require too little effort and too much coordination (more than I possess, anyway).  When I grew tired of swimming every day, however, I sheepishly broke my vow and gave the elliptical a try.  Astonishingly, I enjoyed the experience far more than I expected I would.  Sure, I looked a little like a baby deer the first time I tried to make my arms and legs work together, but I eventually got the hang of it.  More importantly, I discovered that when you do it right, the elliptical is a lot more challenging than it looks.  By the time I finished my first hour-long session, I was completely worn out and gasping for a drink of water.  When I stumbled to the water fountain, I noticed the word etched into the plastic handle: “Oasis.”  I can’t think of a better way to describe the experience of drinking water from that fountain after a long workout.  Like an oasis in the desert, it was a place of refreshment and sustenance, a verdant patch of green in an otherwise forbidding landscape, a place that signaled it was time to rest.

Where is your oasis?  Where is the place that you can stop, rest, and be refreshed?  One of the important aspects of life in the Church that I believe we have forgotten is the practice of Sabbath.  We have gotten seduced by the notion we always have to be doing something in order to be considered productive.  Our ancestors, however, recognized that we are occasionally the most productive when we are doing nothing at all.  The Torah lays out a fairly comprehensive approach to the concept of Sabbath.  Not only are there rules requiring people to rest every week, there are regulations that specify when to let land lie fallow, when to rest livestock, and when to cancel debts.  Sabbath, in other words, not about taking a breather every once in a while, it is about reevaluating our position in the world and reorienting ourselves to the God who created us.  It was a way of rejuvenating the land and reinvigorating human relationships, something that we desperately need in this age of overconsumption and mistrust.  So, as you consider where you might find your oasis, make sure it is a place where you can really stop.  Make sure it is a place where you can go regularly and be productively unproductive, where you can reevaluate where you are and reorient yourself to God.

Naked

For the next few days, I will be reflecting on finding grace at the gym, specifically Abilene’s YMCA in Redbud Park.

Over the past several months, I have been trying to make it to the gym more regularly.

Though I have been a member of the Abilene YMCA for several years, I’ve only just recently started exercising there with any regularity.  When I first became a member I was surprised (even shocked) by the number of naked people I saw on a daily basis.  The locker room was full of men disporting in the altogether, not at all concerned with the fact that they were naked.  For all I know, many of them might not have even realized that they were unclothed.  The last time I had spent any significant time in a locker room was when I and my teammates were still emerging from the throes of puberty, that time when boys are convinced that no one could possibly be experiencing the same things that they are experiencing.  In light of the embarrassment inherent to this condition, all of us had concocted various byzantine methods of changing out of our workout clothes while revealing as little skin as possible.  So it was more than a little surprising that in this locker room experience, pretense was abandoned and people paraded around shamelessly (and pantslessly) for everyone to see.

While I was initially shocked by the overabundance of skin in the YMCA locker room, I have gradually gotten to a point where the predominance of nakedness doesn’t bother me a whole lot.  I’ve even found myself having long conversations with gentlemen who are wearing nothing but a smile (even though I continue to remain covered up, at least relative to my locker room counterparts).  I’ve been wondering about the reason for the shift in my perspective.  On one hand, I’ve probably become desensitized; when you walk into a room where more than half the people are in various states of undress, there is a point at which you will no longer be surprised by much of anything.  On the other hand, I wonder if I’m somehow getting in closer touch with my status as a creature of God.

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Aren’t you glad this isn’t a picture of the YMCA men’s locker room?

Genesis tells us that when Adam and Eve disobey God’s commandment in the Garden of Eden, the first symptom of their disobedience is that they cover themselves.  While the text tells us that they hide “because they knew that they were naked,” it’s pretty clear that they cover themselves because they are ashamed.  They are afraid that the imperfections that they perceive somehow make them unworthy in the eyes of God.  What they forgot was that after God created them, God called them “good.”  God called them good in spite of their imperfections, in spite of their nakedness, and in spite of their disobedience.  In the same way, we must remember that we have been created by God and that God calls each and every one of us good in spite of our unfaithfulness, in spite of our perceived imperfections, and in spite of our shame.  We are called to recognize our identity as creatures of God; we are called to remember that even in our nakedness, God has called us “good.”

Limitless

imgresOne of the most striking elements of the West Texas landscape is the almost boundless sense of space.  Driving north to Lubbock or west to Odessa, it is easy to be overwhelmed by how far one can see, by how little gets in the way of one’s vision.  Where I come from, the only place you can see any distance is near the ocean (there are too many trees or hills in the way elsewhere); but in West Texas, you can see for miles and miles wherever you turn.  Of course, the boundlessness of the landscape allows West Texans to experience a wide variety of natural phenomena that others have a hard time imagining: spectacularly terrifying thunderstorms that you can see coming long before they arrive, towering dust storms that blot out the sun, and glorious sunrises and sunsets that seem to fill the entire world with uncreated light.  The landscape of West Texas is beautiful not because of what it features, but because it is not hemmed in by limits or boundaries.

There is a level at which the boundlessness of the landscape shapes the way that West Texans look at the world.  As a result of the fact that, in the words of one humorist, “West Texas is the world headquarters of nothing,” residents of this area are inclined to believe that you have to make your own way in this world, that no one is going to show you what steps you have to take to move forward.  And since the landscape of this region is not hemmed in by limits or boundaries, West Texans are inclined to believe that nearly anything is possible, that there are no limits on what we are capable of doing if we set our minds to it.  Both the landscape and ethos of West Texas are shaped by an abiding sense of limitlessness, a belief that the obstacles in front of us are temporary, a feeling that nearly anything is possible.

Over the past several weeks, we have heard stories from John’s gospel that involve Jesus encountering another person in a significant way.  At the beginning of Lent, Jesus had his nighttime conversation with Nicodemus.  The following week, Jesus met and had a flirtatious conversation with a Samaritan woman.  And last week, Jesus healed a blind man, who proceeded to have a protracted dispute with the religious authorities.  It occurs to me that the theme running through all of these stories (apart from being very long and making us stand for long periods of time) is that these encounters with Jesus lead people to reevaluate the limited way they look at the world.  Nicodemus wonders why Jesus and the Pharisees seem to interpret Scripture in such different ways; Jesus encourages Nicodemus to change the way he understands his relationship with God.  The Samaritan woman lives in light of the shameful identity given to her by her community; Jesus tells her that the only identity she should focus on is her status as a child of God.  The man born blind is told by the religious authorities that his condition means that he is sinful; by giving this man sight, Jesus affirms that categories like “righteous” and “sinful” are far too simple to characterize the abundant love of God.  In these encounters, Jesus moves his hearers from rigidity to openness, from shame to acceptance, from simplicity to complexity, from limits to possibility.

And the encounter described in today’s reading from John’s gospel is also meant to encourage us to reevaluate how we look at the world.  You know this story well, because it is easily one of the most dramatic in the New Testament.  It’s no wonder that this story is a favorite of those who have chronicled the life of Jesus on film.  In several movies, the raising of Lazarus is the climactic end of the second act, the moment that demonstrates how important and powerful this Jesus really is.  In many ways, the story of Lazarus is the pivotal moment in John’s gospel.  Beginning in chapter twelve, Jesus begins to prepare his disciples for his death.  He and his disciples are no longer out in public, but are in houses and upper rooms.  And though John tells us that the authorities have tried to stone Jesus a handful of times in the previous chapters, it is after the raising of Lazarus that the authorities actually begin planning to execute Jesus.  This leads us to ask: what is so important about the raising of Lazarus?  What is it that changes after Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb?  What is it about this event that makes the authorities decide that Jesus is too dangerous to live?

On one hand, the answers to these questions seem pretty obvious.  After all, Jesus raised someone from the dead and demonstrated how powerful he really is.  Perhaps a lot of people heard about Jesus’ ability to raise the dead and decided to become his followers.  The authorities, in other words, were afraid of Jesus just like they would be afraid of any charismatic leader who bucks the status quo.  On the other hand, this answer seems a little simplistic.  Roman authorities were pretty good at quashing popular movements that questioned their power.  The idea that they would have been particularly worried about a Jewish rabbi, even one who could magically raise the dead, is fairly unlikely. There is a deeper reason for the apprehension of the authorities, and it is tied to the transformation that Jesus effects among the mourners gathered around the tomb of Lazarus.

Caravaggio's "Raising of Lazarus"
Caravaggio’s “Raising of Lazarus”

There are three moments in this story that we should pay attention to.  First, even before Jesus arrives at Bethany, there is an interesting exchange between Jesus and his disciples.  The disciples remind their teacher that the last time he was in Judea, the people there tried to kill him.  The implication of the disciples is clear: “You probably shouldn’t go, because you might end up dead. Worse still, we might wind up dead!”  Nevertheless, Jesus ignores the disciples’ fears, ignores the prospect of death, and travels to Bethany to meet his friend.  The second moment we need to consider occurs when Jesus arrives.  John tells us that Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days; he is, in other words, good and dead.  The dead man’s sisters accost Jesus, telling him that if he had been there, their brother wouldn’t have died.  In the same way, the crowds say, “This guy opened the eyes of the blind; certainly he could have restored Lazarus back to health, but here we are, mourning his death.”  In response to all of this, John tells us that Jesus is greatly disturbed and begins to weep.  The crowds assume that he is weeping for his friend, but it is pretty clear that Jesus is weeping for the people around the tomb, the people who are completely paralyzed by the death of Lazarus.  Finally, notice that the climax of this story is not when Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb; rather, it is when Jesus tells the startled onlookers to “Unbind him, and let him go.”

These three moments in the story of Lazarus point to a meaning that goes beyond its surface. Sure, this is certainly a miraculous account of someone being raised from the dead, but there is far more to this story.  Throughout most of John’s account, the people surrounding Jesus are paralyzed by their fear of death: the disciples don’t want to go to Judea because they are afraid they might die, Mary and Martha tell Jesus that he could have prevented Lazarus from dying if he had just been there, and the crowds are lingering around the tomb even four days after Lazarus’ funeral.  For the most part, Jesus does not react to the fact that Lazarus has died; instead, he reacts to the fear of death exhibited by the people around him.  He goes to Bethany in spite of the disciples’ warning, he tells Martha to trust even in the face of uncertainty, and he weeps because the crowds are imprisoned by their fear of death.  And so, in the climactic moment of the story, Jesus tells the crowds around the tomb to unbind Lazarus, to free him from the prison of death, and by doing so he invites the people gathered around him to free themselves from fear, to let themselves be unbound from the specter of death.  In his encounter with Lazarus, Jesus moves those around him not from sorrow to happiness, not from despair to hope, not even from death to life, but from fear to fearlessness.

Ultimately, this is why the raising of Lazarus impels the authorities to execute Jesus.  As far as they’re concerned, the only unassailable power that tyrants have is the power to take people’s lives.  This is why the preferred method of execution in the Roman Empire was crucifixion: by executing dissidents in a public and humiliating way, the Roman occupiers instilled fear among those who might want to rebel.  But when Jesus comes along and liberates people from the fear of death, those in power are suddenly impotent; without the fear of death, tyrants have no power to control people.  By freeing people from their prisons of fear, Jesus instilled fear among the authorities of this world, demonstrating to them that their power is ultimately fleeting and is coming to an end.  By raising Lazarus from the dead and then going willingly to the cross, Jesus demonstrates to us that we have nothing to fear, that when we ground our lives in God, we are not enslaved to limits, but are empowered to embrace possibility.

There are many times in our lives that we are imprisoned by fear.  Sometimes, we are afraid to try new things because we’re worried that we might fail.  Sometimes, we are afraid to reach out to someone we’ve never met because we’re afraid we might be embarrassed.  Sometimes, we’re willing to arm ourselves behind locked doors because of some vague fear of the unknown.  But by raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus reveals to us that our lives are not shaped by success or failure.  By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus invites us to risk ourselves and be in relationship with those who are different than we are.  By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus shows us that we have nothing to fear.  In these final weeks of Lent, I encourage you to embrace this fearlessness, to turn away from perceived limits, and to acknowledge that anything is possible.