Good Friday

Good Friday

Monday, April 10, 2017

Lord, If you had been here.....

Three times this past month I have heard the story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11). Each preacher has offered a different angle on this story and each one has opened the Word of God in this text for me so that I have heard what I don’t recall hearing before. This, of course, is part of the miracle of preaching.

It is hard to hear this text repeatedly however and not wonder about a few things. First, although I know the end of the story, and I know Jesus’ stated reasons for not heading to Bethany straight away to heal Lazarus, the characters in the story don’t know anything of what I know. And the characters that intrigue me most are Mary and Martha.

They send for Jesus to come and heal their brother. The text says that Jesus loves them. Then the English version I am looking at today then says this: “So, when he heard Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” What a strange verse! If I put it into my own terms it sounds something like this: ‘So, when she heard that her child was ill, she stayed away.’ It makes no sense.  Even his disciples can’t make sense of what he is doing. The next thing we are told is that Lazarus has died.

So the second thing I wonder about is his arrival in Bethany. Twice we hear this line: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” First from Martha’s lips (v. 21) and then from Mary’s (v. 32).

I read the words so easily. But the simple sentence belies the painful reality. It is likely the words sounded much more like this: Martha or Mary sobbing…Lord….more sobbing….if you had been here….more sobbing, grabbing Jesus’ robe… brother….choking back more sobs….would not have died…..completely breaking down.

I can imagine this, because at a certain level I have lived this. More than twenty years ago now, I received a phone call early in the morning that my older sister had died. This was completely out of the blue. Unlike Lazarus, she had not been ill. In fact, she had gotten married just four months earlier. She apparently had suffered a major seizure at home while her new husband was at work. He came home and found her dead.

When the shock finally wore off, my question was a variation of Mary and Martha’s. “Lord where were you? You could have saved her, couldn’t you?”

I heard lots of answers from lots of people. None of them mattered. In fact, I could find a hole in every reason people attempted to give me for my sister’s death. It made no sense to me and most of the time it still doesn’t. Like Martha, I could say I believe in the resurrection of the body. But like Martha, I wanted her back – then and there.

Ultimately, I had to learn to hear and believe those astounding words of Jesus. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Gradually I came to understand that this was no idle promise. This claim was the reality that interprets all other realities. If I couldn’t embrace this claim – that Jesus is life, the very embodiment of life – then as Paul writes, my faith was in vain.

In an age where salvation is under constant threat of being watered down to public activism, there is nothing more important than remembering this core of the Christian faith. Christian conceptions of salvation cannot be wrested from the necessarily eschatological framework in which the Christian faith is embedded. The promises are ours now, but await a future time for their fulfillment. As long as we live between Good Friday and Easter, we live as people of hope, longing for the day when our faith will be sight.

In memory of Judith Rae DeJong-Clousing

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Who Is My Neighbor?

This has been a discouraging few months as far as politics goes. First there was the campaign. Clearly civility is not a priority in the U.S. Then there was the election. I still find the outcome difficult to believe. Then there was the post-election reaction. More incivility. With excuses. Now, several weeks into the new administration, my disappointment continues on many levels.

My biggest disappointment throughout all of this, however, is with the Christian community.

It has been hard for me to understand how Christians could support a man who so clearly did not affirm anything vaguely resembling the historic Christian faith and whose treatment of others seems to be at odds with the basic teachings of our faith. I have heard a variety of reasons by now but remain unconvinced that supporting such a person was the best option.

But I have been almost as puzzled by Christians who seem to find it ok not just to disagree with those who support the current administration, but also to attack and demean those with whom they disagree through everything from name-calling to condescending attitudes.

This past Sunday our pastor preached about the Good Samaritan. The expert in the law asks Jesus “who is my neighbor?” Jesus offers a story about a man who gets attacked on the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. A priest and Levite walk by without helping. Some time later a Samaritan stops to help.

Jesus then turns the question back to the expert in the law – so who was a neighbor to this man? The Samaritan. Hmmm….a problematic answer for the legal expert who by nature and nurture would hate the Samaritan. Go and do likewise, Jesus tells him.

While there are as many ways to interpret this parable as there are theologians to weigh in, it seems quite clear that at the very least our neighbor is someone in need, and someone we might have to take a risk to help. If we look at this parable in the context of Jesus’ teaching overall, the neighbor might also be an enemy given that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44).

So the answer to who is my neighbor turns out to be rather surprising. In fact, it turns out to be everyone, even those who disagree with us, wish to harm us, and hate us.

Given this, what does it look like to love that “uneducated white male” who seems to be the brunt of jokes, criticism, and general dislike?

Or what about that “coastal liberal” or “educated elite?”

Or how about the “evangelical soccer mom?”

Or the African-American? Or Muslim? Or Hispanic?
Perhaps one place to begin loving our enemy is to stop posting demeaning statements about groups of people on Facebook, Twitter, or some other impersonal form of communication and find someone within the group you are sure you know so much about and TALK TO THEM! Listen to their story. Listen to their fears. Listen to their hopes and dreams for themselves, their kids, their grandkids, and the people they love. If possible, share your story with them so they hear the same from you.

Pray for them, as Jesus commanded. Seek their welfare.

Listen with a critical ear to your favorite news sources. Recently, when the news was reporting on a person quite well known to many in our area it became apparent how much even my most trusted news sources get wrong. If they could not get even the simple personal facts about someone correct, facts that were widely available, what else might they be overlooking in their effort to get the latest news to the public? It’s a question worth asking in part because how you listen to the news affects how you love your neighbor.

Loving your neighbor is not an option. Even the neighbor who is your enemy. How, in this contentious time in history, will Christians make themselves known by their love?

Monday, January 23, 2017


Flourishing: growing or developing successfully

Theologically, it conjures up thoughts of the biblical notion of shalom, that blessed state of living in the presence of God that results from living righteously and doing justice. Psalm 1 offers of picture of this life showing the righteous one flourishing like a tree planted by streams of water.

In my circles, this word – flourishing – is thrown around often, so often in fact that it has lost most of its biblical connotations. Most often, it is not associated with joy, that deep-seated peace that passes all understanding that comes from fellowship with God and neighbor. Nor does it sound the least bit eschatological which is the biblical thrust of the idea. Often it has to do with one’s vocation. And most of the time it sounds more like a question of one’s temporal happiness than a biblical vision of flourishing.

As I travelled up to rural northern Michigan this past Thursday I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the rural poor, most not educated beyond high school or trade school, have the luxury to wonder if they are flourishing in their careers, working in their “sweet spot” as one person called it. And I wondered if this is not one more example of the sort of thinking that divides America between the educated or coastal “elite” and the rest.

Many of these people are those who clean my hotel room, serve me food, and check me out at the grocery store. They make the parts that go in my car and computer, those that have not been outsourced that is. They deliver the packages containing my online purchases. They work third shift and are generally paid overtime for working more than forty hours. Likewise, if there is not enough work in a week, they work less than forty hours and get paid less. In general, their lives, especially economically, have considerably more uncertainty than the lives of myself or my highly educated peers.

Some of these folks would tell you they would prefer to do something other than what they are doing to make a living. Some would simply shrug if you asked and say, ‘well, it’s a job.’ Talking about a ‘sweet spot’ or flourishing in their work would sound like nonsense. They are thankful they have a job at all.

Are they happy? Probably no more or less so than those of us who spend our time discussing whether a potential employee will be working in her sweet spot.  

What’s my point? It is that while those of us with advanced degrees, particularly those of us in the academic world, sit around and discuss whether or not we are flourishing in our work, most of the rest of society simply goes to work. They do their jobs without thought of recognition, or awards, and certainly not with any thought to whether they are flourishing or not. Mostly, they hope that they will continue to have a job to do so that they can provide for themselves and their families.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t discuss vocational flourishing? Well….no. It is a worthwhile topic.

However, we seem to assume that flourishing means feeling good and being happy. That is certainly the case from an eschatological perspective. But exactly how that comports with one’s current vocation is not all that clear. What is clear biblically, is that to follow God’s call on one’s life is no easy task. Take a look at the prophets who were called by God to their task or what Hebrews 11 says about those prophets.

And take a look at what Jesus says about following him - our primary vocation. He talks about taking up crosses, suffering, and counting the cost. The trick in all of this seems to be flourishing in spite of one’s calling, not necessarily because of it. At least in this life. It is living out our lives before the face of God. That sort of life flourishes even in adversity.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Now What?

Christmas is over. The presents are unwrapped, the wrapping paper thrown away or recycled, the family and guests have all gone home. We have even passed Epiphany, the commemoration of the wise men arriving to worship Jesus.

If you are like me, sometime in the past week or so you began taking down the Christmas decorations, packing them carefully away for next year. I hope to finish that up soon.

I happen to have several nativity sets that I put up every year. One is merely to look at. The other two are for children to play with. As I was putting the pieces away yesterday I of course came to the baby Jesus. For the past number of weeks, the focus of our devotions and worship has been on the incredible mystery of the incarnation – God taking on human flesh, that of a helpless infant no less.

And now, with all the celebrations over, I was packing up the baby Jesus until next year. That struck me as odd.

As I packed away the symbol I wondered about the person of Christ, now risen and seated at the right hand of the Father. What would I do with Jesus this year?

For that matter, how do I even know what to do with him? There seems to be a lot of confusion about this. You see, its fairly easy to worship the newborn king. The infant Jesus seems helpless and tame, his omni-attributes veiled beneath the chubby baby cheeks.

But what about the Jesus who rebukes evil spirits, tells the woman at the well to sin no more, and accuses his followers of being an “unbelieving and perverse generation”?

And what about the Jesus who instead of proclaiming peace on earth as our Christmas cards and carols proclaim, tells the people: “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”

Or how about the Jesus who reminds us that the cost of following him is rejection by the world? (Luke 9:23-24; John 15:18-19)

What will I do with all of Jesus – not just the warm and fuzzy parts – this year?

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Advent Reflections, part 3

Last Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, my pastor preached on Matthew 11 focusing in on verses 1-4. In this story, John the Baptist is in prison. We can suppose he has heard about the teaching and miracles of Jesus from his followers. These followers of John are in the crowd that day and they ask Jesus a question on behalf of John: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”

My pastor reminded me that morning that just a few chapters earlier, John had been preaching in the desert “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” He had also told his followers not to get too enthralled with his message because there was one coming after him whose sandal straps he was unworthy to untie. And of course, John baptized Jesus.

So why this question? Didn’t John know?

My pastor suggested that John’s circumstances made him doubt even what he had seen with his own eyes.

That not only made sense to me it also made John seem utterly human, a lot more like many of us than some spiritual giant. And isn’t that the case with many of the so-called giants in Scripture? Particularly the prophetic giants?

Just consider the first Elijah who, after courageously standing up to the prophets of Baal and watching the power of God soundly defeat them, descends into utter despair. Jezebel was not happy about the slaughter of her prophets and was out for blood. Elijah runs to the desert outside Beersheba, sits down under a broom tree, and tells God he is done, asking God to take his life.

Answering God’s call to speak God’s word and plead his cause to the people – the essence of prophecy – is hard work. It is generally thankless work. And discouragement lurks around the edges of this task waiting for the chance to pounce.

It’s easy to forget the mighty works and faithfulness of God in the past when you are sitting in a prison of discouragement. Hope can look more like a fairy tale.

Advent is a season that reminds us of God’s work in the world in the past, his continuing work today, and his promised faithfulness for the future.

God is King: Let the earth be glad!
Christ is victor: his rule has begun!
The Spirit is at work: creation is renewed!
Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!  (Contemporary Testimony, art. 2)

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Advent Reflections, part 2

Yesterday in the mail I received the alumni magazine of my college alma mater. In addition to the usual sorts of articles, this particular issue included the distinguished alumni. These are indeed people who have done some pretty impressive things. But it got me thinking….

I wonder if Mary would have made the distinguished alumni list; or Joseph; or Jesus. Don’t get me wrong. I have no bone to pick with these sorts of honors. I have no doubt they are well-earned. My own institution does this yearly as well. I’m not sure how to get around such things.

Nonetheless, it is the case that Scripture consistently points out the honor of those who are dishonored by societal standards. It consistently urges us to take notice not of the strong, but of the weak and marginalized. We are prompted to consider those who the world would never consider; who will not make the pages of Forbes or U.S. News; who may not be known by anyone other than those closest to them.

It may have been the juxtaposition of receiving this alumni news with sharing dinner with three of my closest friends last night that prompted my thinking about this. None of the three will ever get an award. But all three are more than award worthy.

All three spent a good portion of their lives as homemakers, making sure their homes ran well, tending to the children and their needs, giving others a place to be welcomed. One invested herself in a profoundly handicapped child, working eventually to begin a home for other children whose parents were now aging and finding it difficult to care for these special-needs kids. One has served her four children tirelessly, making sure they had the education and opportunities that she longed for but did not have access to. One recently gave up the peace and quiet of the empty nest to take on a needy teenager whose adoptive family treated her more like an indentured servant than a beloved daughter. This child’s grades have gone from D’s last spring to A’s and B’s this fall. But not without a lot of effort. All have been fully invested in their churches.

None of them had high-powered careers although all were fully capable. And none of them resent that they poured their lives into their church and family in place of such a career, although they could.

As I read about those who were marked out as distinguished and thought about my friends, it seemed to me that their lives look much more like the lives of Mary than most of those we typically call attention to. And like Mary, I think that God regards these women as ‘highly favored,’ perhaps because their work here on earth goes unnoticed by most.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Advent Reflection

This past weekend, wedged between the hype and indulgence of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the first Sunday of Advent quietly arrived.

The days surrounding this Sunday and the Sunday itself have at least one similarity: all are forward-looking, steeped in anticipation. But that is where the similarities end.

The consumer holidays look forward to increasing the amount of stuff we or others have purportedly to increase one’s happiness quotient. Advent looks forward to the coming of Christ, the only one whose coming will deliver true happiness once and for all.

The consumer holidays look forward to parties and food and family gathered together in all of their imperfect relationships. Advent looks forward to the wedding feast with the Lamb, the ultimate party where broken relationships will finally be healed.

The consumer holidays look forward to symbols of abundant life that moths and rust most surely will destroy at some point. Advent looks forward to the abundant life promised by God that nothing – not even death – can destroy. In fact, Advent points us forward to the day when death itself will be destroyed.

After an election year filled with strife, where insults and promises filled the air, Advent reminds us yet again that the Prince of Peace came not with power and prestige and wealth, but as a tiny baby of unknown, poor parents. The promises of this Prince are the only truly trustworthy promises and they come to us in a power that is displayed as weakness.

God – the Creator and Sustainer of all there is – taking on human flesh, indeed that of a baby born of a woman just like you and I. The great theological reflections of Chalcedon barely scratch the surface of this mystery.

And so we enter this season once again. Filled with hope we pray “O come O come Emmanuel.” Indeed, come quickly.