Beyond Fear: The Shove of Resurrection

For some people the Resurrection stories are some of the hardest in all of the Bible to believe. After all, it’s never been easy to make sense of Resurrection. But in some ways they are among the easiest to believe, because it doesn’t take too much imagination to identify with what we read there – people overwhelmed by fear, paralyzed by worry and struggling to find a clear idea of what it all means.

It doesn’t matter which Gospel you read, because this is what we encounter in almost every story that involves Jesus appearing after Easter morning. It is probably most vivid, however, in Mary’s encounter with Jesus at the tomb.

We don’t find her laughing or celebrating, but instead John tells us that she was weeping. She didn’t know what to believe. She didn’t know what had happened. She assumed the worst – that someone had stolen his body – maybe the one thing that could make a terrible week even worse. The event that gives us hope and faith had reduced her to fear and anguish.

And yet, that’s not how she left the tomb. Because Jesus was there and he helped her make sense of it all. He showed her that there was more to this story – and hers. Because she had a role to play – go and tell your friends what you have seen and what you have heard.

At the tomb on Easter morning Mary experienced a journey from fear to mission – from where have you taken him to I have seen the Lord.

Mary isn’t the only one to experience the Resurrection in this way. In Luke 24 we read how a walking Bible Study with Jesus helped two men get to a place where they too could say we have seen the Lord. It was on a beach that Peter had the conversation and received the forgiveness he desperately needed.

Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, once for each time Peter had betrayed him, of course. This is the moment Peter received the forgiveness he needed and this is the moment Peter discovered the purpose and mission Jesus has for his life.

Because in a post-Resurrection world, forgiveness always leads to discovering your purpose and receiving your mission.

That’s why this story matters so much.  We know, with Mary at the tomb, what it is like to be assaulted by grief. We know, with the men on the road to Emmaus, what it is like to walk away in despair. We know, with Peter on the beach, what it is to desperately need forgiveness.

And so we rejoice after Easter that the worries that threaten to stop us in our tracks don’t. We celebrate in the light of Sunday the possibilities for new life that come when we begin to understand how God’s story is still unfolding in us, even now. We experience joy in Resurrection when we realize the purpose and mission for our lives that comes from receiving and experiencing God’s forgiveness and grace.

The Resurrection matters because we have become convinced that there is a power within us that is strong enough to break the bonds of fear. We live by the grace that is stronger than judgement and rest in the forgiveness that frees us from anything that would prevent us from living in the light of God’s love. We cling with everything we have to the promise of Romans 8 that because of all that has happened we trust that there is absolutely nothing with the power to separate us from God’s love.

Resurrection matters when it becomes the reality that lingers every day of our lives as we live into the new mission we have been given. God’s victory over death invites us to tell when and where we have seen the Lord. The light that shines out of the empty tomb calls us to bear witness to God’s love in a world that desperately needs a glimpse of it any way it can get it. We experience the joy of new life by getting to participate in the new thing God is doing in redeeming and restoring the world.

A journey that begins in fear ends in becoming partners with God to change the world.

That’s why Easter matters.

 

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The Church of the White-Walled Doctor’s Office

I hate this place.

They do their best to make it nice. They know you are nervous when you come here. They know you are doing everything you can to hold yourself together. They know your family hangs in the balance while you wait to hear your name called.

So they smile. They put you in nice, comfortable chairs – as nice as you can have in a doctor’s office. They invite you to look at the pictures, big black and white pictures – of moms and dads, grandparents and grandchildren. Smiling. Enjoying. Living.

This could be you – that’s what they want you to think. The pictures are supposed to put you at ease, to make you feel better about being here. They are here to help you believe.

But the pictures and the faces also confront you. They are of other people. They are of other families. These are not pictures of you.

The nurse calls our names and we look at each other, hearts racing, blood pressure skyrocketing. She walks back and I sit, waiting for another person in white to walk out and call her name.

Why is it always white? Everything here is black and white. It’s all celebration or despair, nothing in between. Everybody comes here to walk the tightrope of joy and tragedy, heartbreak and relief, praying against death and desperately hoping for new life.

We hear her name and look at each other again. Can’t avoid it any longer. We walk into the room – we’ve been here before. A familiar room and a familiar face.

She doesn’t remember us. We’ll never forget her.  She was the one who delivered the news that broke our hearts. Her words brought the grief that wouldn’t go away.

No heartbeat. 

This might not happen for you they told us. You might need to consider other options. And we have.

We’re as surprised as anybody to be back here for this, back in this room waiting, back here sitting and staring at a screen, back here trying to make sense of it, back here waiting for a verdict that will change everything, one way or the other.

She talks to us, asks us the usual questions, and then she gets a big smile on her face. We can’t go there yet.

We don’t smile when we come here.

“Your baby has a good, strong heartbeat.”

Our shoulders drop. We finally smile. We hug and we laugh and we cry, different tears than we’ve ever cried before.

“There’s your tax break, Ogle”, my wife says almost immediately with a wry, Chicago smile.

“Will this be your first?” the nurse asks us. Yes, we smile.

We tell her our story, about how this room is the last place we expected to be, about how we were learning about “other options”, about how pretty much is a really important metaphor when placed before impossible.

For nothing is impossible with God.

It turns out this office is full of preachers.

“I’ve worked here a long time and I’ll tell you that sometimes God knows more than the doctors. When God wants you to have a baby you are going to have a baby!”

I can’t help but think about our friends – women who would be great mothers and are still waiting. Has God decided something different for them? I hold it down, there are some days for theodicy and some days for celebration.

They take us into another room and we sit for about three minutes before another staff member – one who gave us our options and cared for us so well the last time we were here – comes bounding in with a huge smile on her face. “I’m so happy. I’ve got to call your doctor – she will be so excited.”

We tell her our story and she can’t help it either. “Sometimes God knows things that the tests don’t – you all are going to be great parents.”

For nothing is impossible with God. 

We look at each other again, eyes bright with hope and relief. We know there will be more trips here and more things to worry about. Every trip to this place, a friend will tell me later, is a chance for them to tell you what might be wrong with your baby. But not today.

Today we hope and dream for the life that is just starting to grow. Today we laugh about changing diapers and early morning feedings.  Today we know we’ll be spending a whole lot less time and money at Barnes & Noble and a whole lot more at Buy Buy Baby.

And we remember. As scary as this place is, God is here. Of course God is always here, has always been here. God is here with us today and didn’t leave the last time we were here.

God weeps with the ugly cry weepers and rejoices with the new parents celebrating life and dreaming dreams.

A few months later we sit in our living room. It’s a wreck now, nothing compared to the chaos it will become in a few weeks. Our house is littered with stuff, contraptions and must-haves only an entrepreneur could dream up. We’ve painted a room purple and jammed more pink into it than we ever imagined possible.

We smile and we wait, full of nerves and anxiety, wondering what we haven’t done yet and certain of all the ways we aren’t up to this.

We look at each other again and we remember – that even here, in this mess, we aren’t alone. God is here too. And that is enough.

That’s what we learned at The Church of the White-Walled Doctor’s Office and from the preachers in scrubs.

God is up to something and new life is on the way.

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The Church Beyond Anxiety

We live in anxious times.  

It doesn’t take a keen observer of the news to feel it.  It is always there during an election, but it feels more acute this time. The stakes are so high, it seems, that Canada is already offering a new home for the losing side.  If you have to go somewhere, there are worst places. 

As someone who spends most of my waking hours either at a church, reading about church, thinking or writing about what it means to be the church, all this feeling of anxiety isn’t unfamiliar. 

It flows from our fear – the fear of what we can’t control or predict, the fear that the ground beneath us is shifting, the fear that the ground might not be what we thought it was or what it always has been. 

It is, in fact, more than a feeling. It is reality. The ground on which we stand is shifting. What were once our strengths we now experience as liabilities. We don’t have the same influence we used to, even here in the Bible Belt. The institutions and structures we created to enable ministry have become burdens and obstacles to continuing it. Our experience isn’t the answer because the culture and church where we gained it no longer exist apart from our memories. 

The shifting landscape means we aren’t sure where we are headed and what exactly we should do.  The only thing we are certain of is that we don’t like uncertainty. 

I was struck last week at how friends from another denomination were reporting on the exact same arguments and frustrations and battles at their annual meeting as we did at ours a couple of months ago. Different names on the signs and different meeting places, but the same divisions, the same heartbreak, the same falling short of the city of God. 

When it comes the church, anxiety is a universal experience. 

The Antidote

The uncertainty tempts us to seek our salvation in new strategies and well researched plans – a third way, a new approach, a call to action, a way forward, you’ve heard them all. But a surplus of plans and consultants hasn’t released us from the prison of anxiety and uncertainty. 

That’s because the antidote to the problems isn’t a new strategy – it is faithfulness. The firm foundation we are looking for in the midst of uncertainty won’t come from marketing slogans or complicated plans.  Instead, it is found where it always has been – in answering Jesus’ call to follow.  The call to fidelity is the call that created the church and it is the call that will see the church through.

The way beyond fear is no more and no less than the Way and the pattern of life that Jesus handed down to us.  It is found in worship that reorients our life by centering it in God, in spiritual formation that reminds us that everything we have is a gift and in working to make the world more just and more like God envisions it.  It is acting from our core conviction that everyone was created in the Image of God and it is living by grace that in the best times and in the worst times God is with us.  

It is the Way that prevents us from chasing lesser things and it is the Way that enables us to stay true to our purpose and calling.  It is the Way that reminds us of why we actually exist in the first place – to bear witness to God’s love, to make the world a better place for all of God’s children, to enjoy a community where everyone can find and use the gifts God has given them and to help one another live lives that look more like the life Jesus lived and the one he envisions for us. 

We find our way in this complicated time for the Church by living into the rhythms of these convictions – the Way and the pattern of life shaped by gift and responsibility, by confession and forgiveness, by absolution and reconciliation, by salvation through faith  and membership in God’s beloved community. 

Make no mistake, this Way isn’t easy.  It requires a trust and a radical commitment in the victory of God.  But why not – don’t we say that the church is of God and give our lives in the promise that the church, the bride of Christ, will be persevered until the end of time? 

It’s probably unrealistic to think that the anxiety we live with in the church is going away any time soon.  As dramatic as this might seem, the culture will shift again – there will be new challenges and more obstacles, new uncertainties and more chances to live in fear.  

But the way forward is the same as it always been, and it begins with answering a charge – Follow Me.  

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The Gift of Hope in Depressing Days

Where I live the sky has been particularly cloudy this week.  And, of course, that feels about right considering the week we’ve had.

It’s been hard not to feel the dread and the gloom reflected in the sky from the national conversation we’re having spawned by Donald Trump and the local conversation we’re having in the part of the world where I live and that I love over, of all things, the appropriateness of religious guidelines for work parties at the local university.

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In the midst of these controversies, whose flames are fanned by the 24-hour news cycle and the rage of the internet, it’s hard not to get depressed.  That despair and depression comes because despite our own participation in the screaming and the shouting and the posting online and the need to be justified in our positions,  we all deeply want to be part of something better. We want our lives to be about more than being right or having the right to be outraged or winning the battle of this particular day. We want to be part of a community and a country where we can move beyond the differences and the divisions and find a way to love one another and suffer with one another and rejoice with one another and experience meaning and healing with one another.

Of course, living that kind of life is getting harder every day. That’s why we’re disillusioned, because it is getting more and more difficult to imagine the life we really want as we deal with real fears about how to keep our families and loves ones and our nation safe while coming to terms with living in a world where distance and borders provide less safety and security than they ever have before. And so, when you put it all together it is really hard not to be resigned to hopelessness.

And as we race towards Christmas we are constantly reminded of that word – hope. It is in bold print on the magazine covers reminding us that this CAN be the year we have the perfect holiday meal – you know the one that inspires us not to plot to kill one another while reaching for the dessert. It is is on our screens as we watch one of the 235 sappy Christmas movies available to us on Hallmark or ABC Family.  And it is on the lips of our friends as they remind us that we still have time to finish our shopping, we still have time to complete all of those projects, and we can still get into the Spirit of the season, whatever that means.

But in the midst of the stories that dominate our news and the lesser angels that seem to be winning the day, the hope we are being sold doesn’t feel nearly hopeful enough.  It doesn’t seem to have the power and the weight to speak into the real problems and the real fears that so many of us are facing.  The hope of the Christmas greeting card industry doesn’t feel like it offers enough to enable us to live into the big visions of our national story, much less the even bigger vision of the Kingdom of God.

That’s because it isn’t. With a nod to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the hope of December is cheap hope.  But fortunately for us, the hope of Advent is the hope of the world.  And the hope of Christmas isn’t an empty hope or a hope that we can move on from once the calendar turns to 2016.  It is not a hope that you can toss away once you are done with it.  That’s because true hope could never be called cheap, because hope isn’t a feeling.  Hope is a presence that cost someone their life.

Hope is more than just an idea that makes us smile as we sip a warm beverage.  Instead, hope is something we can count on because hope comes from God.  We can depend on hope and we can cling to hope and we can hold on to hope in the worst of times because hope it is God’s gift that comes to us and stays with us. Because it comes from God, Paul can say with confidence that hope never disappoints. Instead, hope is what we experience when God pours love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). Indeed, hope never fails because it comes from God, who said that the powers and forces of darkness never get the last word.

That’s why on Christmas Eve so many of us will punctuate our family dinners with a trip to buildings with a cross at the center and holy spaces punctuated with bright candles. We light those flames because we need to believe it is still true – now more than ever – that hope isn’t something you can extinguish.  That’s one we’ve learned by experience – because God knows we’ve tried.

We make our way there because the essential truth of the faith happens to be the truth we need – that no matter how bleak it gets, darkness can never overwhelm the light.  Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overwhelm it – you might have heard that. And that light isn’t just a metaphor but a real presence that keeps you moving especially when you aren’t sure how you are going to take another step. That light is the hope that gives you the strength to keep going when the world has done its best to weigh you down and beat you up. That light is the hope that pushes you to reach out when it feels hopeless, the nudge to somehow believe that one small act of kindness and grace can make a difference in a world gone mad. More than anything hope is what leads you to boldly and defiantly hold up your light in a world that most days seems covered in and addicted to darkness.

A friend once told me that hope was at the heart of my theology, the core of what I believe about God.  And that’s true – I’ve never been able to read the New Testament and come away convinced that hope isn’t real.  The Bible I read describes a life with God that reminds us again and again that we are never resigned to who we have been and that there is never a situation that God can’t improve, redeem or transform.

2015 has been a year where I had to learn that again. It was filled with anxiety and stress and loss and despair accompanied  by deep silence that only real pain can bring to your front door. What I’ve learned, or relearned I guess, is that real hope can’t be scheduled. Instead, it shows up when you need it the most and generally when you least expect it. Isn’t that the real message of this season when we remember that hope comes to us in a child who no one expected much out of who was born to parents that no one paid much attention to in a barn out back because no one could be bothered to make room for them?

Hope is a surprising thing. So maybe it should come as no surprise that as I drove home Wednesday night, despite it all the gloom broke.  As I drove around a curve I was able to look back towards the city I have come to love.  And as I looked back, I saw its downtown buildings and halls of its university. And above them as the sun worked to set, the sky dazzled, brilliant in hues of pink and orange.  It was as if the atmosphere over our little corner of the world had a message for us all.

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Hope is real. Hope never disappoints. Gloom and despair and darkness are ultimately powerless against the presence of light.

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The One Thing You Need: On How To Survive The Feelings

I was in that familiar place the other night.  A long day at work filled with the stress and anxiety that can come this time of year in my chosen vocation had taken its toll. As I sat on the couch, staring at the television in order to get sucked into another story so I could escape mine for at least a few minutes, my wife asked the question – “How are you doing?” I responded with all that I could muster, despite the fact that all that I could muster had been reduced to a broken sentence. “The Feelings, lots and lots of The Feelings”.

The Feelings – whether you call them that or not, you know them.  We all do. Any of us who have graduated past the age of five have known them and the situations that create them, cause them and bring them into the center of our lives.  All it takes is having the experience of being knocked around by life a little and knowing all too well the struggle of trying to hold the work stuff and the faith stuff and the family stuff together while trying to live a life of meaning and purpose.

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We definitely know The Feelings in my family.  We’ve met them and despite our wishes, they keep coming back to visit even though we’d rather they not. They are messy, they tear things up and they break every rule my mother taught me about being a good houseguest.

That’s why we have a saying around here – boring is underrated. It’s not that we prefer the boring life.  It’s just that over the last few years we’ve dealt with some stuff, serious stuff, stuff that will knock you back, stuff that will make you cry, and stuff that will really put you on your knees – because you want, no you need to know where God is in all of it and you also know that grace from something more powerful than you is the only way you are going to get through it.

And what I had to remind myself after I formed that sterling example of 21st Century American Literature the other night is this – it is the grace that will get me through.

When I look back on the hard times in my life, I remember and am thankful for my community of saints. When I have felt weary, and when the stress seemed like a mountainous wave just waiting to crash over me and my house, it has been my friends who have lifted me up out of despair over and over again by reminding me of what I know is true. When the struggles won’t stop, the spiritual practices – the habits and the patterns that God has developed in me over time that keep me rooted and grounded in love – have also done their part to rescue me.

But more than anything it has been the grace that has gotten me through. When the anxiety builds and the worry piles on and the fear shouts its condemnation, it can be easy to lose my way. And as a recovering perfectionist when I lose my way – whether it is allowing sin to lead me to anger, making a foolish mistake, snapping at a friend or simply allowing defeat to set in – it doesn’t take long for the condemnations to come again.

Maybe this is why my favorite book in the Bible is Lamentations.  It is tucked in the Old Testament between Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  It’s power comes as the writer draws you into the feelings of abandonment and hopelessness the people feel after the destruction of the temple and the Exile that followed. But the tenor of the book changes in chapter 3 from despair to hope: “But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.” (Lamentations 3:21-22)

photo-1421091242698-34f6ad7fc088These are the words that get me through. Because it’s when all you have is the broken sentence that faith makes a difference.  It’s when you feel defeated that you remember the words of hope – that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. It’s when you feel like you have met your match that you remember the words of Exodus – that God heard their cries.  It’s when you feel like you can’t take one more punch that you remember the words of grace that God speaks again and again – that sin is real and so are its scars, but that God is willing and able to do whatever it takes to heal and to restore and to renew.

Despite my wishes, I know The Feelings won’t leave us alone.  They will be back because sometimes life is hard and control is an illusion. They will be back because Christian faith doesn’t prevent bad things from happening to you, but instead points to the power that will help you survive them when they do.  But when they come, this I can call to mind and have hope – God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.

Grace – no matter what you are dealing with, it is enough to get you through.

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