Friday, April 26, 2013

The One Who Sees

She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
-Genesis 16:13 (NIV)

Just for fun the other day, I typed my address into Google Maps. When I clicked on the Street View function to see the photo of my house, I discovered something interesting.
     There in my yard, sitting in his accustomed place by the fence, was our dog, Isaiah.
     He was watching me do some yard work.
     It’s not a flattering picture, I have to say. (Of me, I mean. The dog looks good.) It’s obviously not posed.  I’m not smiling, not even looking at the camera. In fact, I never saw the Google camera car. I’m wiping sweat off my brow, maybe, looking at one of my flower beds. Judging by the shovel stuck in the ground nearby, and a trash bin parked beside me, I’m obviously in the middle of something else. Clearly, the last thing I’m expecting is that someone would be snapping a photo of me. 
     And yet, there it is. 
     We tell our kids that, with the ubiquity of the internet, almost nothing we do is completely private anymore. We should know. We’ve seen enough people publicly embarrassed, enough careers ended in spectacular fashion, because of something someone has posted or found online. Google camera cars, in fact, have discovered a lot of people doing a lot of things more compromising than mulching rose bushes. We know that in our world, private is just a click away from public. 
     It’s still the slightest bit unsettling when it happens to you, though. 
     I guess it really shouldn’t be. I should be accustomed to the idea that nothing I do is completely private, and not because I expect Google to be looking over my shoulder. I should be accustomed to the idea because I believe in the same God on whom Hagar came to believe.
     You remember Hagar, right? Just a servant girl: no one special, no one anyone would pay any attention to. Except Hagar happened to be the servant of a woman to whom God had made the entirely ludicrous promise that he would give her a child in her old age. And not just any child: a child through whom God would keep a promise of worldwide significance.
     Hagar found herself, suddenly, the object of a lot of attention. She got into the middle of the situation when Abraham’s wife, Sarah, decided that her servant could be the answer to the problem of her and her husband’s inability to conceive. She received a lot more attention, of the unwanted kind, from Sarah after the plan worked and she became pregnant. And she finally found herself alone in the desert.
     Except she wasn’t alone. She discovered that there was a god there. That God was there. She knew him, from hearing Abraham speak of him no doubt, as Yahweh. Maybe she even worshipped him. She certainly did after this, because God made her a promise similar to the one he made Abraham. And Hagar, the poor servant girl who was never noticed for anything but her uterus, discovered that God noticed. God saw her. In fact, as far as she was concerned that was the most significant thing about him. He was the One Who Sees. 
     Abraham’s descendants would discover, centuries later, that God saw them too. He saw them in their misery, in their oppression, and he acted to deliver them. 
     God  is the One Who Sees. 
     Those of us who believe in Jesus know this better than anyone. We know that God saw our suffering, too, and that he came to us in Jesus to deliver us finally and forever. We’re grateful, and we thank him and worship him.
     And sometimes we’re uncomfortable with it. The writer of the document we call Hebrews sums up the discomfort factor this way: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Heavy stuff it is to be “uncovered” before the Creator. Potentially catastrophic to find ourselves “laid bare” before God. Ask Adam and Eve, if you can find them, hiding the the bushes to cover their “nakedness”. But you don’t have to ask them, do you? You know the nakedness of heart that they felt. You know it first hand. There’s no bush, no fig leaf, no animal skin that can hide anything about us from God’s sight. He’s the One Who Sees, after all. We like to imagine the One Who Sees our pain and suffering and fear and heartache and delivers us from them. We’re a little less inclined to think much about the One Who Sees the things we hide, the things we deny, the things for which we’re heartily sorry and sore ashamed.
     But, oh, how we need to remember that the One Who Sees doesn’t close his eyes to the things we’d rather he not see.
     We need to remember it, not so that we’ll feel loaded down with guilt over our every misstep. Sin is part and parcel to the human condition, and if you imagine that you are or should be an exception to that rule, you’ll make yourself and the people around you miserable. Remembering the One Who Sees might sometimes help us to avoid sin in the first place. But the greater value of it is in remembering that our lives are lived before God. We can’t imagine that we can reserve a part of our lives for him, while living the rest outside his jurisdiction. God is the One Who Sees, and he sees what we bring to him on Sunday morning, and what we withhold from him on Tuesday afternoon. 
     But maybe it will help us to remember that the One Who Sees also sees with human eyes. He sees harassed, helpless crowds of people blundering through life like sheep without the protection and guidance of a shepherd, and he has compassion on us. He sees a bit of faith, and he offers forgiveness
     Only once did the One Who Sees have sightless eyes, and that was only after death took his vision. But God raised him from death so that he might bring life to those who trust in him. So don’t be afraid of his gaze. Don’t try to duck out of his line of sight. We need to be seen for who we are so we can trust that we’re loved as we are, and the voice of the One Who Sees tells us that we are indeed. So may we live like people who are known intimately and loved completely. And may we stop trying to pretend that we can - and may we stop wanting to - live as though we can keep parts of our lives out of God’s sight.
     And may we find, like Hagar, comfort, peace, and hope in the One Who Sees us.     

Friday, April 19, 2013

Help Getting Home

“But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came to where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him…”
-Luke 10:33-34 (NIV)

Sarah Tucholsky had never hit a home run before. The senior at Western Oregon University, a softball player all through high school and college, had never hit one out of the park. “I’m more of a line-drive hitter, she explained. So when she hit a pitch over the center-field wall in Western Oregon’s game against Central Washington University, no one in the stadium was more surprised than she was. She was so surprised, in fact, than when she started around the bases, she missed first.
    Therein, as they say, lies the story.
    A home run doesn’t count, you see, until the person who hits it touches all the bases and crosses home plate. It’s a rule that almost never comes into play in a game, because it’s not too difficult to trot around the bases, stepping on each one as you go, while the crowd cheers and your teammates celebrate. But Sarah was excited, and new to the whole home run trot, and she just over- or under-stepped and missed first base. Not the end of the world, of course – all she needed to do was stop, turn, and go back to touch first. Then she could continue around the bases and celebrate with her team. All perfectly allowable. Most likely no one would even notice.
    So that’s what she did. She turned back to touch first. But when she pivoted, her right foot didn’t pivot with her. The anterior cruciate ligament in Sarah’s right knee tore, and she collapsed to the ground in pain. She did manage to crawl back to first, but that was as far as she got. And that was a problem.
    If the Western Oregon coach, Pam Knox, had replaced her, you see, the home run wouldn’t stand. The two runs it scored would have, but Sarah’s one career home run would have been wiped out. Ditto if her teammates helped her around the bases. Pam didn’t want to do anything to take away Sarah’s homer, of course, but there didn’t seem to be an alternative.
    Until Central Washington’s softball team came up with one.
    Mallory Holtman and Liz Wallace, players on the opposing team, bent down and picked Sarah up. They put their arms under Sarah’s legs, and Sarah put her arms around their shoulders. Carefully, they started around the bases, pausing at each one to lower Sarah enough that her left foot would touch. Because they did, Sarah’s home run counted – a three-run homer that, incidentally, helped eliminate Central Washington from contention for a conference championship and playoff appearance.
    Holtman and Wallace said that they weren’t thinking about the playoff spot, though. They had something much more important on their minds.
    Would it have really been that surprising if Holtman and Wallace had just shaken their heads and said to each other, “What a shame!”? Would it have been all that surprising if they had sighed in relief and said, if only to themselves, “What a lucky break!”? People, after all, do that kind of thing every day. We see a homeless man or woman begging for food or money and think to ourselves, “Oh, it’s terrible that people have to live in circumstances like that.”? And we really do think it’s terrible, but we go on about our lives without making eye contact, much less offering help.
    Or friends go through marriage problems, and because we don’t know the right thing to say or do we do and say as little as possible. We have a chance to shine the light of Christ into the shadows that they’re living in and instead, out of fear and uncertainty, we curse the darkness and clam up.
    Or a fellow church member is on the rocks spiritually. She hasn’t been at church in a while. Maybe we even know a little something about what’s going on in our life to bring about the crisis. But we don’t call, or compose an email, or write a note, or stop by. “She’ll think I’m interfering,” we rationalize. “She’ll resent my intrusion.” Rather than risk her anger or irritation, we resist the impulse to offer even a tentative “Missed you lately” that could make a world of difference in her regaining her spiritual footing.
    We have good intentions. We “would help if we could.” We say “what a shame” and shake our heads and cluck our tongues. And we pass by on the other side.
    I know, you resent that a little, don’t you? To be honest I do too, but my resenting it doesn’t necessarily make it less true. I’d like to think that I’m not like the priest or Levite in Jesus’s story: a “religious” person who doesn’t quite get what it means to love my neighbor as myself. (See Luke 10:25-37) But to the degree that I’m able to pass by people in need without offering what assistance I can, I’m a lot like them. It may not be a robbery victim on the highway to whom God is calling me to be a neighbor, but there’s someone. And I can’t be a neighbor to that someone without doing what that Samaritan did.
    “He took pity,” the text says. A dangerous consequence of our hectic lives is that we can get so busy, and even cynical, that we’re no longer moved by the plight of other people. May God give us softer hearts, so that we can hurt with others and care as much about relieving their pain and distress as we do about relieving our own. Our world, at least in some settings, rewards those who can be hard, cold, and detached. But children of the God who was so moved by our plight that he sent his Son to us can surely believe that God will soften our hearts toward our fellow human beings.
    But that Samaritan didn’t just take pity. “He went to him,” the text reminds us, and in reminding us calls us to the same. Admittedly, it’s risky to put yourself out on a limb like that. It may mean you’ll have to share your stuff, your time, your life with the person you’re helping. It may mean financial investment. It will surely mean emotional investment. That’s not always easy for us, overextended as we already are. But God will make us equal to the task if we want and allow him to.
    Jesus seemed to suggest that you can’t love God without loving your neighbor, and that you can’t love your neighbor without reaching out a hand to the people laying in your path. You can’t cross the street looking for “more acceptable” victims of the Devil to help. Who’s lying in front of you right now, broken and bleeding? That’s your neighbor. Take compassion on him and go to him. Bind and soothe his wounds and use what you have to take care of him.
    If necessary, bend down and carry him home.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Face the Mirror and Face the Music

   Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
    “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
    John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
-Luke 3:8-11

Ever had one of those days that just seemed to go from bad to worse? Some folks in Kane County, Illinois, had a day like that.
    Truth be told, though, their bad days were largely of their own making.
    It started out as a day in traffic court for ten people who had been previously identified as having suspended or revoked driver’s licenses. They had company when they left the courthouse after their appearances – undercover police officers followed them to the parking lot and signaled other officers in unmarked cars. When these ten folks - who had suspended or revoked driver’s licenses - got into their cars and drove – drove – away from the courthouse, the police pulled them over, wrote them tickets, and had their vehicles towed.
    Some of the red-handed complained. One guy said his sister was supposed to drive him to court, but hadn’t shown up. “If I didn't appear, there'd be a warrant out for my arrest. I'm in trouble either way.” Poor guy. When pressed, though, he did have to admit that he hadn’t possessed a valid driver’s license in 27 years.
    Really, though, what do you say in a situation like that, watching your car being towed away and knowing you really have no defense? It’s not like these drivers didn’t know they were breaking the law. They had just gotten away with it long enough that they got comfortable. Complacent. It probably never occurred to them that they might get busted.
    That’s the path of least resistance, to not give your habits and choices much thought until the consequences turn and take a bite out of you like a mongrel dog you’ve grown accustomed to scratching between the ears. Path of least resistance, which I guess explains why a husband doesn’t give his temper much thought until his wife takes the kids and leaves. Or why the stories and confidences you pass on regularly don’t seem like such a big deal until you’re face to face with a friend who’s angry and hurt. It’s why we can convince ourselves that an online “friendship” is no big deal – until a marriage implodes. It’s why we can throw our weight and attitude belligerently around a church and never really see ourselves until someone holds up a mirror and makes us look. Recovering addicts talk about needing to hit rock bottom before they decided to get some help, but rock bottom isn’t just for alcoholics or drug addicts or sexual compulsives.
    God asks us, though, to not let things get that far out of hand. That’s what repentance is about.
    Repentance isn’t about letting God know that we’re really sorry for our sins. He knows how sorry we really are – or really aren’t. And it isn’t about paying for our sins, as if somehow being sorry can right the balances. He did that for us, in Jesus. And besides, we couldn’t do it even if he asked us to. Repentance isn’t for God at all, actually. Repentance is for us.
    God knows our tendency to take the path of least resistance and not spend very much time at all in honest appraisal of our behavior, thoughts, values, and priorities. In asking us to repent, he asks us to look in the mirror to see if who we really are is anything at all like who we imagine ourselves to be.
    “We’re children of Abraham,” said the religious people proudly in John the Baptist’s day. John dared to suggest that God wasn’t all that impressed with their professed pedigree. “God can find children of Abraham under any old rock,” he sniffed at them. “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”
    Repentance is the place where we bring our walk in line with our talk. To be the “children of Abraham” that they imagined themselves to be, John said that the haves needed to share with the have-nots. The tax collectors needed to stop enriching themselves at the expense of their brothers and sisters. The soldiers needed to stop using their power to extort the people they were supposed to protect. Repentance is where practice is made to match profession.
    Wonder what he’d say to us, church people, who strut around wearing labels like “New Testament Church” or “Evangelical” or even “Christian,” and forget to look at ourselves long and hard enough to make sure that who we really are matches the labels we wear? God, after all, can still raise up New Testament Churches or Evangelicals or Christians from the rocks, if need be. He doesn’t need our glowing self-characterizations and wordy professions of faith, which are more useful for hiding what we don’t want to face about ourselves than bringing about the lives of faith and devotion that he really wants.
    I think he says the same thing now that he said then: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Sync your walk up with your talk. Look for the places in your life where conflict exists, and honestly ask yourself what you have to do with creating that conflict. Do you need to reconcile with someone? Change some relational habits? Make restitution for something you’ve done? Show more love, patience, and gentleness? Back off on the fault-finding?
    Look for places in your own heart and conscience where there’s conflict between what you claim to be and what you often are? What habits do you need to change? What impulses do you need to say “no” to? What values and priorities need to change? What kind of help might you need?
    Cultivate an attitude of repentance, and I’m convinced that the Holy Spirit will make the specific areas where you need it clear to you. Repentance isn’t something we only do at church on Sunday morning. It’s for the office on Tuesday morning and home on Thursday night and the basketball court on Saturday afternoon. It’s worked out in relationships and choices and habits that affect every part of your life.
    “The axe is at the root of the tree,” warns John, not really to scare us, but to remind us of the urgency of repentance. God will call us to account. He’s not looking for completely pure hearts, but he is looking for penitent ones. He’s looking for people who are willing to look in the mirror and own up to what’s there without defense, pretense, or self-justification. He can work with people like that. He can shape them and mold them into the people he wants them to be.
    So face the mirror, and face the music. And watch with joy the transformation he’ll bring about in you.

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Bowl of Water and a Towel

Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.   
    The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
-John 13:1-5

Just a bowl of water and a towel. Such innocent-seeming, everyday items. Items you could go into any kitchen in any house anywhere in the world and find. Items no one would even look at twice.
    And yet in the wrong hands so subversive. So threatening to the order of things. So challenging to the way we see ourselves and the people around us.
    Jorge Mario Bergoglio knows. The man most of us now know as Pope Francis knows better than most how a bowl of water and a towel can ignite a firestorm.
    Francis, by many accounts, is a man who holds the pomp and circumstance of the papacy at arm’s length. As an archbishop and a cardinal in his native Argentina, he famously lived in a small apartment in Buenos Aires and took public transportation to his office. When he emerged from the conclave at St.Peter’s basilica as Pope, he wore only the white cassock and not the fur cape and other garments that many of his predecessors have chosen. He’s chosen to live, at least for now, in a guest house in Vatican City, where he’ll eat his meals with other residents in the public dining room. Traditionalists have been somewhat disappointed by his choices thus far.
    Some of them are downright apoplectic after his celebration of Holy Thursday during Easter week.
    Holy Thursday is usually associated with Jesus’ last supper, and Francis chose to commemorate the day, naturally enough, by imitating Jesus: by kneeling and washing and then kissing the feet of twelve of the inmates in a juvenile detention center in Rome. So far, so good. The problem, to the extent there is one, is that he violated church law in his choice of inmates. Two of them were women. One was a Serbian Muslim.
    In washing the Muslim’s feet, of course, Francis raised concerns that he was going to be more receptive toward other faiths than some Catholics are comfortable with. In washing the feet of the two women, he raised concerns that he might be receptive toward the ordination of women.
    Well, you know, you have to be careful of exactly to whom you extend the love of Jesus.
    It’s funny: every Christian, everywhere, says that we should show the love of Christ to the people around us. And then every Christian, everywhere, wants to place limits on just how far that love should extend. Jesus talked about loving neighbors, and the first question on the lips of everyone who heard him that day was, “Who is my neighbor?” Believers been hearing that demand - and asking exactly that question - ever since. We’ve said, at various times and places, that people of other races should be excluded from the love of Christ. Or that divorced people should be excluded. We’ve tried to hold addicts and homosexuals at arm’s length from Jesus’ love. We’ve tried to withhold Jesus’ love from those of different faiths, different denominations, or even different political parties. At times, the church has quite pointedly taken our basin and towel of Jesus’ love and passed over the dirty feet of some of those who have most desperately needed his love.
    A bowl of water and a towel are subversive. I know. I had my feet washed recently in the name of Jesus. I mean literally. It was...what? Uncomfortable. It made me a little anxious, to tell the truth: anxious about how my feet looked and smelled, about sock lint, about what other people who were watching might be thinking. It crossed my mind that I wished the positions were reversed, that I’d be more comfortable with that. I wonder if that’s what Peter was thinking when he resisted Jesus’ intent to wash his feet. Of course, in Peter’s day, questions of status were probably paramount: foot-washing was the work of a servant.
    There you have it. A basin of water and a towel - especially in the hands of Jesus or someone acting in his name - overturns all our nice ideas about self-sufficiency. It reminds us that all of us, washers and washees alike, have no part with Jesus without his sacrificial love. It places us all, embarrassingly, on the same...well, footing.
    A bowl of water and a towel are subversive. We all know. That’s why we resist it, why we don’t do it in our worship services. We’re all too aware of the significance Jesus attached to this act of service: he promised blessings to those who follow in his example of self-sacrificial love to others. Little wonder we resist. Little wonder we protest that we don’t need to be washed. Little wonder that when we do wash others, our bowls and towels so often pass by those who are least like us.
    Jesus, of course, washed the feet of every person around that table. One of them would betray him hours later. One would deny him three times later that night. All of them, save maybe one, would scatter and leave him alone. Yet his love for all of them would be unshakable.
    If Jesus’ love couldn’t save all of his disciples, then our love won’t change the lives of everyone we serve. Some might thank us politely and then walk away on their newly-washed feet. Some might angrily throw our bowls of water in our faces. Sacrificial service doesn’t have to accomplish anything. It doesn’t have to change a person’s heart. That’s God’s business. Ours is to serve as Jesus served, love as he loved, give as he gave. He has set us an example that we should do as he has done for us. We should love others with the same sacrifice and service with which he has loved us. He’ll work through that to call his people to himself. And, as he promised, he will bless us.
    A friend of mine told me once about a church he belonged to. The church instituted an annual award: an embroidered towel, mounted on a plaque, called The Towel of Service.
    After a few years they had to do away with it. People got their feelings hurt when they didn’t win.
    No one fights over a real towel of service. A bowl of water and a towel are subversive. As followers of Jesus, should know. And we should be well-acquainted with them.