Friday, March 30, 2018

Fully Human in Every Way

     Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death….For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
-Hebrews 2:14-15, 17-18 (NIV)

Jean Dolores Schmidt takes her calling very seriously.
     You might know her, if you know her, from watching this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. She’s Sister Jean there, the smiling little nun in the wheelchair on the Loyola University sidelines during their surprising run to the Final Four (at least). You might have heard that she’s the chaplain for the basketball team, and you may have heard one of her pre-game prayers/scouting reports. (“Lord, help our boys to not be afraid of Tennessee’s height, and help them to remember that there are more important things than height. And help them to remember that they’re vulnerable in the low post.”) It says something that casual fans probably could name her before Loyola’s head coach or best players.
     Sister Jean is certainly devoted to her calling as chaplain. She’s traveled with the team to every game during the tournament, age (98) and wheelchair (temporary, hopefully) notwithstanding. She prays with them, encourages them, and even does press conferences. Some fans have a little Sister Jean fatigue, and that’s understandable. But she’s been doing this for decades.
     And consider this: basketball chaplain is only one of her gigs. 
     She also has another chaplain role that she takes just as seriously. She doesn’t get to do press conferences or go to basketball games in this role, but it's just as important to her. She’s also chaplain for a freshman dorm on the Loyola campus. 
     She takes that role so seriously that she lives in the dorm.
     “He had to be made like them, fully human in every way,” the writer of Hebrews says of Jesus. “Since the children have flesh and blood,  he too shared in their humanity.” Jesus said that he came to serve, not to be served. He came to give himself, not to receive the gifts of others. He came to live with us, even to share in our suffering. He moved in down the hall. He got to know our problems, didn’t get frustrated when we played the music too loud, and welcomed us knocking on the door at all hours of the night. He ate with us, showed patience with our pettiness, comforted us in our grief, and taught us that the thing we most feared was nothing to fear at all.
     Death roams free and unopposed among human beings. He takes no prisoners, offers no mercy, gives no quarter. And, left to ourselves, we're terrified of death. We hold it at arm’s length any way we can. We chase any imposter who claims to have a way to beat it. We cram experience after experience into our lives to create the illusion that death can’t touch us — or we live with regret that we couldn’t. We buy stuff and chase wealth and pleasure and prestige in the mistaken idea that by doing so we can fill the hollowed-out place that the fear of death leaves in us. 
     And then when we can’t deny it — when it’s staring us in the face through the empty eyes of someone we love or breathing down our necks with every trip to the doctor, every candle on the cake, every new wrinkle or gray hair — when we can't deny it we collapse in paralysis, anger, and depression.
     Even those of us who say we aren’t scared of it are whistling past the graveyard, because we all can imagine a half-dozen deaths that do terrify us. 
     One of the reasons that our culture loves superhero movies, I think, is because they provide an antidote to our fear of death. Superman is invulnerable to almost every kind of harm (and even comes back to life on those rare occasions when he is killed). Iron Man has his armor. Batman his gadgets. Thor and Wonder Woman are immortal, practically. Even the ones who can die are so powerful that death is rarely a likely outcome. And, even when it happens, it's almost never permanent. 
     That's our answer to our fear of death: lose ourselves in a mythology in which our heroes defeat death time and again with power, intelligence, magic, or immortality.
     What believers celebrate this weekend, though, is that Jesus didn’t conquer death through any of those means. Though he might have wanted, like Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi, to brush the cross off his shoulders like so much dust, he did the opposite. His death, the writer tells us, was to “break the power  of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” In becoming fully human, and in suffering and dying as we do, he showed us without a doubt that God’s love and grace are stronger than death. 
     Make no mistake: Jesus’ resurrection isn’t a bullet bouncing off the hero’s chest. It isn’t an immensely powerful superhuman making the claim that death can’t touch him. Because death can touch Jesus. That’s what it means for him to share in our humanity. In the cross, death takes from Jesus the same things that it takes from us. It exacts the same cost: it exposes his weakness, lays bare his fears, and leaves him feeling helpless and utterly alone, feeling forsaken even by God. That’s how he serves God as a high priest, as a chaplain, on our behalf. By giving himself to the terrifying prospect of death, and letting it have its way with him. 
     The empty tomb, though, is the rest of the story. It proclaims that a completely human Jesus, by learning to obey God through human suffering, pain, and even death, atones for human sin and breaks Satan’s power over us. It promises that God is greater even than this greatest of our fears. The empty tomb that we’ll celebrate Easter morning is meaningless without a Savior who takes on our weakness, suffering, and fears as his own. But his Friday afternoon death is terrifying without that Sunday morning light and the angels' declaration: “He is not here. He is risen.”
     When you affirm your faith in that this Sunday morning, also affirm that he understands your suffering too. He understands your pain, your fear, and why you feel sometimes like they’re the only things that matter. But just as he shares your suffering and death, you will also share his resurrection and life. Just as surely as Sister Jean will be at that game tomorrow.

     He is risen. He is risen indeed.     

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Collapse of Sure Things

     Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.
     By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. 
-Hebrew 11:1-3 (NIV)

It’s the surest bet in sports.
     What would you say if I told you about one basketball team who is 132-0 against another? Would you call it dominance? You’d be right. What would you say if I told you that those 132 games had been decided by an average of almost 25 points? That, despite three or four of those games being close, most of them weren’t even as close as 25 points makes them sound? You’d call it one of the most locked-in outcomes in the history of athletic competition. 
     Well, since 1985, when the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — March Madness — expanded to 64 teams, no top-seeded team ever lost to 16-seed. With the 64-team field divided into four regions, and each region having 16 teams, that makes 132 times that a 1-seed had beaten a 16-seed. Actually, that was through last season. The new number is 135 times.
     Don’t I mean 136 times? Well, I can see why you’d think that, but I don’t. The number is 135 because the surest bet in sports finally lost. In the first round of this year’s tournament, the 16-seeded University of Maryland, Baltimore County, stunned top-seeded Virginia in the South region. And it wasn’t even close: UMBC won by 20, 74-54.
     Estimates are that about 2% of the 30 million or so people who submitted a bracket online picked the game correctly. That’s not very many percents. If you didn’t, though, it’s really hard to blame you; 32 years of history would have said you were right. I know that, like most people who submitted brackets this year, I picked the ones over the sixteens without really thinking about it. I didn’t even look closely enough at it to remember who Virginia was playing. It didn’t matter: they’re a one, those other guys are a sixteen. It was a sure thing. A done deal.
     I wonder how many of the “done deals” and “sure things” upon which we build our lives and find our security and around which we tell the stories of who we are aren’t nearly so done or sure as we’d like to believe. 
     Careers? They can be lost in the space of one reorganization, one bad decision, one whim of one executive who wants to cut a few dollars. Health? Ask anyone with a negative prognosis how certain that is. Money? A series of bad investments, a few unexpected expenses, a downturn in the market, a lost job can change your bottom line quickly. 
    Even the strongest family won’t be with you forever. Political parties die (just ask the Whigs). Churches change. Religious leaders disappoint. Even your own mind and body will eventually fail. Father Time truly is undefeated, eroding “sure things” until they collapse and are scattered like dust in a cyclone.
     Yeah. You’re welcome.
     It’s unsettling to admit that the things we depend upon might not be as trustworthy as we imagine. I promise, though; it’s better if we acknowledge it now, before the collapse of our “sure things.” 
     We depend on them because they’re there. We can see them, hear them, use them. We can sort of take for granted that they’re part of our lives. They feel to us like insurance for a future that’s much like our present, or even better. To a degree, we can control them, or at least convince ourselves that we can. Finding our security in those “sure things” is what the Bible calls “living by sight.” And what the Bible says about living by sight is that those who are believers don’t. We, instead, live by faith.
     It isn’t for the faint-hearted, living by faith. There’s a whole chapter in the Bible, Hebrews 11, that talks about how difficult it can be. It names folks who found themselves in conflict with their neighbors because they lived by faith. It talks about wanderers who left established homes to obey God and go to a new place that he hadn’t shown them yet. There were people who trusted God enough to put their dreams in his hands when he asked them to, who spoke like God’s future promises were already accomplished fact, who accepted disgrace rather than power and wealth, and who weren’t afraid of powerful people who tried to silence them. “The world was not worthy of them,” is the conclusion of the writer.
     It’s difficult because, as that chapter begins by pointing out, faith is about what’s unseen, not what’s seen. To have faith is to trust that there’s more to the universe than what we can put our hands on, perceive with our senses, understand with our minds. It’s to look into the darkest chasm with the assurance that God is there. It’s to believe, in the words of Corrie ten Boom, that there’s no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. It’s to walk away from the things in our lives that give us the greatest security in the absolute conviction that “God…has prepared a city for [us].”
     Faith is looking past all the “sure things” that we convince ourselves will give us the peace and assurance we need and “[seeing] him who is invisible.”
     I know people who make that look easier than I can, but I don’t think it comes naturally for anyone. We all have “sure things” in our lives that we clutch tightly to us when times are hard. We all have moments when our faith fails, when our ability to see the invisible is obscured. That’s why we need people around us in whose footsteps we can walk: people whose stories we read in Scripture, but also people whose stories we live with them as they face the loss of even their surest things with trust, grace, courage — faith.
     And, of course, we aren’t left to live by faith on our own. We follow a Savior who chose to see what was invisible, to live his life — and ultimately give it — for a kingdom that the powerful people of his day would have laughed at. They’re gone, though. And he still lives. So “let us run  with perseverance  the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary  and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)
     If you’re discouraged, know that Jesus has walked his path before you, He, too, had to let go of his sure things to embrace what God had for him. It won’t be any different for us.

     You can bet on it.

Friday, March 9, 2018


Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 
-Matthew 5:3-12 (NIV)

At a speech on the campus of Michigan State University this past week, a white supremacist contradicted Jesus.
     I don’t mean he contradicted Jesus’ teaching (though he did), or that his attitude toward others contradicted the love of Jesus (though it certainly did). I mean a statement that he made actually nullified Jesus’ literal words.
     I don't want to give Richard Spencer’s actual words enough space to give them any context. Suffice to say that the line in question was about creating a “movement” in the world. (Insert whatever jokes you wish…) You can read more about what he said here, if you’re so inclined. At any rate, the line I really paid attention to was this one:
“I have never gained anything in my life or my career by watering it down to be just a little bit more palatable. The meek shall never inherit the earth. ... People who are bold and strong will always dominate.”
     I don’t know how impressed Jesus would be that a white supremacist doesn't agree with him. Something tells me it wouldn’t keep him up nights.
     Here’s the thing, though: I’m guessing that a lot of people who wouldn’t want to be caught agreeing with a white supremacist would actually find it difficult to argue with him about that particular statement: “The meek shall never inherit the earth.”
     Look around you. In how many fields do you see the meek rising to the top? We don’t even know what to do with that word, meek. We don’t much even use it, and when we do it’s an insult. It’s reserved for the people who can’t or won’t fight for what they want. It’s for the people who are walked over by the ones headed for success. The bullied who never fight back — they’re the meek.  They’re the yielding, the compliant, the domesticated, the acquiescent. They don’t protest when their rights are infringed. They don’t speak out or stand up for themselves.
     The meek are the people at the office who don’t make a sound when someone takes credit for their work. 
     The meek are the people at school who no one much pays attention to.
     The meek are the people who don’t command attention when they walk into a room. 
     The meek are the people who work in the background while the more aggressive get all the glory.
     Who are the ones who succeed in our world? That's right: the ones who take what they want. The ones who are always driving, pushing, the ones who by sheer force of will and personality move others out of their way. Not the meek. And Richard Spencer is not the only one who thinks so.
     Famed Alabama football coach “Bear” Bryant — who got his nickname, apparently, from actually wrestling a bear, suggesting that meekness might not have been a defining characteristic for him — once said, “If the meek are going to inherit the earth, some of my offensive linemen are going to be land barons.” I don’t guess he was necessarily disagreeing with Jesus about the meek inheriting the earth. He just didn’t see how it was going to happen.
     So maybe it's difficult even for Jesus’ followers to believe him. The idea of the meek inheriting the earth cuts so against the grain of our culture that it’s hard for us to even fathom what he meant. You just don’t know many meek athletes, entertainers, politicians, or CEOs. The most popular kids at school were probably not meek. Neither are the professionals at the top of their fields, the cops that patrol your neighborhood, the firefighters that protect your home, the soldiers that fight for those at home. 
     The thing is, in Jesus’ day the meek didn’t inherit the earth either. If anything, his culture emphasized strength and power and ambition even more than does ours.  
     No, Jesus’ words to those who heard him then were as countercultural and revolutionary as they are to us today. His point through all of the “blesseds” in Matthew (often called the “Beatitudes” after the word for “blessed” in Latin) is that in the Kingdom of God it’s often those who the world would not call blessed that truly are. No one would imagine that the grieving, those in need of justice, the persecuted, the insulted were blessed at all. Yet Jesus says that God has blessings in store for those who can’t go and get them on their own — the “poor in spirit” who, through no fault of their own, seem perpetually shut out from what the world calls blessings. 
     Because God comforts those who mourn, he fills those who hunger and thirst for justice, he shows himself to the pure in heart and calls the peacemakers his children. His kingdom is for those who are willing to endure persecution as he did. And, yes, those who refuse to makes gods of strength and power and ambition will, in fact, inherit the earth.
     That’s not to say there’s never a time for us to speak up for ourselves, or (maybe especially) for those around us. But we follow the One who was led like a lamb to the slaughter and who did not open his mouth to protest. So we know that the way to live is not by stepping on others, but by serving. Not by controlling, but by loving. Not by taking all we can, but by giving all we have. 
     May we take Jesus’ words seriously. May we learn what it means to trust in his promise that the meek will inherit the earth.

     Trust me. You’ll find yourself in much better company.