Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The messiest life

I often wonder why we like Jesus so much.

Most people in Jesus' own day didn't like him. At least the people that mattered didn't like him. He was trouble. They said he drank too much and ate too much and did both with the wrong people. He came from the wrong side of the kingdom, from Galilee, where young men had a reputation for being trouble. Spend any time at all with Jesus, and you could tell he was going to come to a bad end.

Yet when we tell our flannelgraph stories about him ... I suppose it's a sign of the times that spell-check doesn't recognize the word "flannelgraph" ... we make him out to be "gentle Jesus, meek and mild" and if there was ever a boy you wanted your children to hang out with, it's this blue-eyed blonde guy from Nazareth.

Not a biblical picture, however much we like it.

Jesus' life was messy. MESSY. I mean, think about it. Imagine this is the guy who is hanging out with your thirteen year old son, or worse yet your thirteen year old daughter.

He goes to a party and somehow manufactures 150 GALLONS of wine. The good stuff.

Okay, that might just be fun. And if we keep him away from the minors, he's a great guy to have around, right?

Not so much. Don't take him to church. He'll throw the furniture around and offend people.

He breaks the law. That's so much of what this comes down to -- we have people in positions of power to tell us what is RIGHT and what is WRONG and somehow Jesus always gets on the wrong side of things.

If you know anything at all about the world in which Jesus lived, or even if you just read the stories and pay attention to who is getting offended by Jesus at any given moment (usually the Really Good People) you realize that this Jesus is not necessarily going to get voted Most Likely To Succeed.

Instead, Jesus is a rabble rouser. He offends EVERYBODY. He offends the militants who want to kill Romans. He offends the Sadducees who want to placate the Romans. He offends those like the Essenes who want to withdraw into the wilderness and ignore the Romans. He offends the Pharisees who think the reason we have issues with the Romans is because we need to obey the law better. He offends Herod, whose kingly position was granted him by the Romans. He seems to offend everyone except the crowds, who love him until after Palm Sunday when somehow in a few short days they're crying for him to be crucified.

He offends his brothers and his mother, for crying out loud. So much for blood being thicker than water.

In the end, Jesus even offends his own disciples, who run away into the dark trying to save their own skins because Jesus won't take care of them or himself properly.

Jesus' only defender in the end is Pontius Pilate who declares him innocent. But rather than thanking Pilate, Jesus offends him, too, and gets himself crucified as a pretender to the kingship of Israel. "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" the sentence over his head reads for all to see. His strange kingship offends everyone from the patriots to the collaborators, the peasants to the wealthy.

A generation later, writers and followers were still trying to figure him out. The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews, right near the end of the letter written to a group of Jews who were being excluded from their religious communities, pondering the Old Testament sacrifices that had to be disposed of outside the Israelites' camp, wrote, "Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured." Despised and rejected, said the prophet Isaiah six hundred years before Jesus fulfilled the words.

So why is Christianity today such an insider religion?

Why is it that we try hard to figure out how to get more people to belong to our clubhouse churches, because if we have more people, we're more successful, we're more "In"? If you get really good at drawing people In you can write a book, host a seminar, develop a podcast. And people will flock to be In like you are.

But where is Jesus in all this?

He is still despised and rejected more often than not. He is still outside the camp. He is still doing ministry among, as a dear friend told me not long ago, the tax collectors and sinners. The holy people, the good people, the moral ones and the righteous ones are generally still offended when Jesus shows up and invites all the wrong people to the party.

For messed-up people, Jesus is nothing but mercy and hope. For the moral, the upstanding, the righteous, the in-crowd, however, his is still an abhorrently messy life.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World?

So we've been building a hayshed. It's an incredible amount of physical work, and many times we've looked at each other and said, "This is why people pay other people to do this."

But there's also something satisfying in building it yourself. And as my brother observes, it's a lot harder to carp about how it's not done right if it's you that did the work.

So all those graves -- we set tall poles in each one. And the posts stood all crooked and askew, pointing at the sky at weird angles. I thought of a very old movie where a dying man told some people about a treasure buried under "the big W" -- and they spent the rest of the movie looking for it. So as I looked at the poles, all cattywompus and crazy, I thought of moving a few of them to make them look like a big W. And that seemed, especially in that sweaty, catch your breath moment, like a lot of work. Unnecessary work. But here's a picture so you can get the idea:

All those posts stood crooked in their too-big holes like the world gone crazy. I stood there looking at them, imagining the ancient builders of Stonehenge getting their big rocks crooked and wondering what to do about it. The world's gone mad, they might have thought.

And here we had the modern rural version. Let's call it "hayhenge." Or not.

So we used a level and a string and a shovel and lots of dirt and we straightened those posts. Brought them into right relationship with the earth and with each other and with the compass points, all there in their individual graves. In biblical terms it's called "justification" -- bringing something into right relationship with the important things surrounding it.

 And the beat goes on. Not only were those posts justified, one to each other and to the earth and to the farmer's preferences, they began to serve a greater purpose. They became pillars, not just posts, that held the trusses that one day soon will hold a roof. So what seemed chaotic and crazy -- mad, in fact -- was justified.

It's what the Bible talks about when Paul in the book of Romans describes our lives being justified. We are a bit mad, all on our own, like the character in Alice in Wonderland says: "I'm mad, you're mad, we're all mad here."

And we all need to be justified, to be brought into right relationship with what's around us, with the important things, with God and his purposes for his good creation. If we let him justify us, and if we can begin to grasp what he's up to in that work (his work, not our work) we begin to serve a larger purpose. We begin to become useful to his ends and his directions, bearing a weight and serving a purpose and holding an identity we didn't have before.

So it's a mad world. And in the midst of it is a God who is at work with some crazy idea that he can rearrange it, make it good for his purposes.

It's a hopeful thought, at any rate.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Dust to Dust

I've had this phrase running through my head a lot lately. Dust to dust. Mostly we think of this in association with funerals -- "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" -- meaning that we, like Adam, are from the earth and in the end, no matter how hard we fight it, we return there. I'm not sure why this phrase, more than the idea of mortality, keeps scurrying around in my mind.

Maybe it's because I'm driving truck these days, and the only days we can be in the fields are the days it's dry enough to raise dust in clouds on the rural gravel roads or the gravel parking lot where I work. Great, unwieldy clouds of dust that cover my parked car and the grass and my nose and mouth and the windshield of my truck. And every other possible surface. Dust.

Whether it's associated or not, for at least a week I've had the Civil Wars' song, "Dust to Dust" stuck in my head. Powerful song. Not really related much to funerals, but there it is.

And for the last couple days, I've been helping my brother build a shed to hold his hay. Like most construction projects, this one begins -- well, it really begins last winter with sitting at the table talking about plans and prints and production costs. But the construction phase begins with measuring and staking out the ground, and digging deep graves for the posts that will provide a skeleton for the structure.

One of our deep graves, with a mallet (not a sledge, thank goodness) for scale. And my foot.

So we have been measuring, and staking, and digging, and digging, and digging. I remember hearing about a story Leo Tolstoy wrote that asked the question, "How much earth does one man need?" It told of a law in pre-revolution Russia by which a man could claim all the land he could walk around in a day. So one particularly ambitious man began at sunrise to run, and ran a long course all throughout the day, rounding the corners in the heat and driving himself to take possession of as much land as he could. As the sun dropped toward the horizon, he stumbled toward his final stake, but just as the sun dropped, so did he -- dead, six feet short of that last marker. How much land does one man need? Six feet.

We work and dig and sweat in the field, and every so often I look into these deep holes and think about graves I have known. I've dug a few, and I've presided at many funerals and many graveside services. As a farm kid, there's something particularly holy about putting a person's last remains into the earth.

While we took a break not long ago in the cool shade under the cottonwoods, I looked up at the fluff from the cottonwood trees blowing on the breeze. At first glance it looked like dust, but it was seeds, the seeds of the cottonwood tree, drifting, trusting on the wind like tiny sailors navigating by the breath of God's Spirit.

I looked around and saw a young milkweed plant not far from my foot:

Growing like a weed, waiting for the Monarch butterflies to return from Mexico and lay their eggs underneath the tender leaves with their sticky white sap. In the fall these same milkweeds will open up boat-shaped seed pods and their fluffy seeds will also drift on the breeze toward parts unknown. I took a picture last winter of a milkweed plant that had not shed its seeds before freeze-up:

I sat this morning and watched the cottonwood seeds drifting on the wind like a dust storm. I thought about all the graves I have known, all the times I've grieved, or helped others grieve, next to a hole in the ground or a hole in their hearts. Grief is hard, and I don't think anyone gets out of this life without at least some of it on board.

It's Pentecost Sunday as I write this. I think about the story in Ezekiel's vision about how God took a bunch of old skeletons and knit flesh on them, and breathed spirit into them, and brought them to life.

From a natural point of view, we are dust and to dust we will return. We hear it on Ash Wednesday like the tolling of a somber bell over our lives. Dust you are. To dust you shall return. Be aware that your life is short, and terminal. Dust to dust.

And yet ...

Jesus said unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. There's something to grief, something to this business of facing the death of things, even of ourselves, that has the potential to bring us to life. If the Spirit of God is in the mix, it is just possible that facing death opens a door to new life. It takes a lot of trust to let your life go. It takes a lot of trust to let go and drift on the Spirit like cottonwood fluff, like the pixie dust of milkweed seeds on the breeze. But God is faithful. If God is anything, he is faithful. And he knows where each bit of fluff comes to earth, and where each one springs to life in his Spirit.