Considering the Cross

Read: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 22; Isaiah 53; Matthew 26-27; 1 Corinthians 1:10-31

The cross is everywhere in our culture. The legacy of many centuries of Christendom, where it was a marker of faith, then became a marker of culture, ethnicity, power. A symbol of rejection and punishment becomes the marker of acceptability. That which Paul once called “A scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks,” is a topic awash in Christianese, the insider language that has spiritual sounding phrases that often are unintelligible to those outside of Christianity and often bereft of real meaning for those inside.

The cross has become fashion, first for buildings then for people. We are scandalized when people find it a scandal. We declare fools those who find it foolish. It has become a prop for us in religious and culture wars.

Still a source of meaning for those who seek salvation, it has been co-opted by others for their own purposes that differ than those of Christ.

Our familiarity with it as a topic in Christian theology is good, it is one of the central themes that mark an Evangelical faith. Yet, our familiarity with it also is bad, as we play into the cultural assumptions that linger from Christian domination. Talk about the cross, scandalously, has become glib. Which is likely a big reason why we in the West are in a post-Christian context.

The glib ubiquity has inoculated many of those who grew up near the church or in it. They think they know the Gospel, and the gospel they encountered had no power.

Peter was afraid during the trial and crucifixion, so he denied Jesus. He experienced the confrontations of power and didn’t trust Jesus would be the victor.

In our era, people sometimes deny Jesus because they don’t see the reason for the bother. The cosmic confrontation has been reduced to a personal preference: Which ice cream flavor is your favorite? What is your favorite sports team? What religion do you follow?

The cross has been co-opted and we in the church have let it, even encouraged it, wanting to use Jesus for our own ends, to support our own priority and power and influence. We’ve become the sorts of people who put Jesus on the cross, wanting to be wise to the culture and gain approval from the religious.

This week, let us consider the cross in a fresh way. Think about what it meant as an act, as an experience. Think about what it means in your life, how we encounter hardship, or struggle, or temptation. Think of the cross in social terms: who did Jesus include? Think in terms of strategy: how did God go about saving the world?

The cross is a confrontation, a strike against our patterns of social and intellectual assumptions. The cross is a salvation, a salvation for our inner state of existential sinfulness, and a salvation from our external state of social divisions and manipulations.

Atonement is the doctrine of this salvation, being restored to at-one-ment with God and with others, love begetting love. The cross is the declaration of atonement that declares God’s radical love for the cosmos, sending the Son to die, gathering all those who have been condemned to death, and inviting them to be reborn.

We become new, losing the strongholds and hangups of spiritual, social, and psychological dysfunction as we find our identity in the scandalous and foolish wisdom of God.

This wisdom transcends human wisdom and attempts to find meaning in our ego’s limited perspective. Because of this the cross is an invitation to let go. It is a confrontation, drawing a line between the way of God and the ways of the systems of this world. The latter promise meaning and value and life, but it is only the way of God that can fulfill such promises.

What promises are we indulging that run counter to the cross? What promises are we pushing against because we are afraid of the cross or dismissive of it? Who are we crucifying in the name of an insufficient theology of the cross? How have we co-opted the cross for our purposes? What is the meaning of the cross in our present society and how can we reinstill a sense of its scandal and foolishness so that it has the confronting power once more?

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Persevering Toward Peace

Earlier this month I had the chance to share the Advent message of Hope at, appropriately, Hope Christian Church in La Puente.

In looking at the nativity passages I was struck by the differences of the angels announcing to the shepherds and the magi going to Herod. The message of hope and deep peace sometimes also involves having to be patient in hope to see the fullness of the promise take shape.

Persevering toward peace

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Who to be?

Hyperichius said, ‘Keep praising God with hymns, and meditating continually, and so lighten the burden of the temptations that attack you. A traveller carrying a heavy burden stops from time to time to take deep breaths, and so makes the journey easier and the burden light.’

~The Desert Fathers

“Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
    and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
    and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
    listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
    my faithful love promised to David.
See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,
    a ruler and commander of the peoples.
Surely you will summon nations you know not,
    and nations you do not know will come running to you,
because of the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel,
    for he has endowed you with splendor.”

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
    call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
    and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
    and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
                     ~Isaiah 55:1-8

While out on a walk into the nearby national forest, I saw a doe.  Off in the distance, a fleeting moment as it saw me about the same time and bounded higher up the hillside and behind some brush. For many that’s not exciting news.  Especially for those who live in relatively rural areas.

Deer are common in much of the country, and yet, for me, it was exciting enough to pull out my phone and text Amy, “I saw a deer!”  In the twenty years since I’ve been a regular in these mountains, I’ve never seen a deer.

Most of the other wildlife around, I’ve seen.  Squirrels, both gray and ground, coyotes of course, all kinds of birds, bobcats, bears (in the last couple years), even some bighorn sheep when I was camping near the peak of Mt. Baldy and San Bernardino flying squirrels, which would land on a bird feeder at my parents house in the middle of the night and not be bothered when I’d turn on the light.

But I’ve never seen a deer up here even though I’ve seen deer in many other places and assumed deer were native to the area.  I’ve long suspected that it has to do with the really huge fires these mountains had in 2003 and in 2008, pretty much encircling the mountain communities with their devastation. Like in Bambi, the deer were driven away.

Then, yesterday, I saw a deer, twice even. Maybe the same deer, as  I saw it once while walking up the trail and then again on my way back.

The other day we were watching a movie as a family and I looked up out the kitchen window and saw a hummingbird at the feeder, a nice comforting sight, which encouraged me because I had forgotten to refill it, so hoped the hummers hadn’t given up on me.

Back to watching the movie—Age of Ultron—and then saw more movement outside. Another bird at the feeder, but not a hummingbird. An acorn woodpecker?  That’s not a good fit.

Yeah, the woodpecker could hang on the feeder and maneuver around, but the feeder was made for hummingbirds. I got a little worried about what the woodpecker would do (they’re kind of bullies around here) and yet I was curious all the same. Clearly it realized there was something good to be had but it just wasn’t the right sort of bird for that.

It flew off finally after a few minutes, thankfully not knocking the feeder down or breaking it by trying to get through the ceramic flowers.

That moment has stuck with me since, not so much the bother about the woodpecker but more a growing sense of how much I try to force some kind of spiritual sustenance at times, and in those seasons where I’m just really caught up in frenzies, I add frustration about not experiencing God’s peace or guidance.

In the past I’ve felt guilt, that I’m not doing the this or the that which I know I should be doing or anger, at myself or at God, about the season of flurried demands that I am in and wishing for a setting that would allow me to recover a sense of my self and focus on those tasks that are life-giving rather than life-draining.

I know how that woodpecker feels.

Yet, there’s this regular invitation the Spirit offers. I can’t be a woodpecker trying to get into a hummingbird feeder, I can’t force myself into peace or orchestrate being handed the kinds of opportunities that I think I need to develop the rhythms I want.  I’ve tried doing those and will admit that even in the last couple of years as new opportunities for restoration have arisen, I still find myself striking my head against the walls and knocking at the doors that never get answered.

Impatience, irritations, feelings of regret combined with pride-violating experiences of being overlooked in my areas of strength by the gatekeepers.  I can get locked into the pattern of “what ifs” or “it could have beens.”

Given the length of my journey in seeking a place of calling this dispiriting retrospective clouds my whole sense of self and depresses my sense of present faithfulness in doing the work I have before me.  I hang on, not feeling able or increasingly even willing to keep at it. I wasn’t made for this and I wonder why God shut other doors only to have me stuck on a feeder I can’t feed from.

It’s me, I know, though it took me a long time in my 20s and early 30s to finally realize this, not excusing the circumstances or justifying being mistreated at times, but coming more and more to the realization that while I can’t force opportunities, I can attend to what I say I believe by re-orienting my emotions in an attitude of praise and noticing.

It’s not a quick turn, to say the least. A sea-going cargo ship carries tons and tons of weight, hard to stop and hard to turn once on its way.  So too my sense of self and emotional trajectory can get locked into destinations of frustration and despair, yet in the work of God I’m invited to look around and see from a different perspective, to become, to be present with myself in a new way.  The discipline of this turning isn’t itself easy, an intentional embrace of faith, from knowing what I should do and trusting that this is actually what, and who, God calls me to be.

In the turning toward praise, in the seeking of stillness, in the letting go of those areas of frenzy and assumed identity that promise so much but leave me hanging, I begin to not only see differently but be differently.  The fruit of the Spirit begins to grow and ripen within, I am no longer the outsider to myself and the world I long for but am increasingly the person who I truly was made to be, oriented in God’s perspective because I begin by praising the God who has variously haunted and comforted me my whole life.

I choose the Spirit rather than wanting, ever wanting, the sustenance that seems so sweet yet isn’t available to me.

Do I trust God? I’ll admit that I struggle with this.

Will I praise God even still?  That’s the invitation to enter into a posture of trust even with my tangled doubts and memories of being abandoned on the sides of roads and left out of relevant opportunities. If I am who I am made to be in the Spirit, living the day with faithfulness and praising God for what I see and what I am able to do, then I know that this God of life itself can bring the sweetness and fullness into this moment, into this place, into this season.

Come what may, I can experience peace and hope and expressed love that all indeed is well.

God is with us. Do we see and respond to this transforming reality?  Or do we want the world to create idols for us that mimic a sense of the divine in fractured patterns of insufficient meaning?

That’s the crossroads for me today and every day.

Life awaits. It begins with praise. Who or what shall we praise this day?

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.
As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
You will go out in joy
    and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
    will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
    will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
    and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
    for an everlasting sign,
    that will endure forever.”

~Isaiah 55:8-13

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hoping rather than wanting

Read: Psalm 25; Lamentations 3; Romans 15:1-13; Ephesians 4

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people.”

Know the hope.

But what is hope?

Hope is one of those words that is overused to the point of gutting it of real meaning.  In much common use, hope is really made equivalent to “want”.

In this, it’s really saying “this is what we’d like to happen.”

I hope I get that promotion.

I hope my team wins.

I hope those family members don’t get into one of their usual arguments over Thanksgiving.

I hope I can get away for some vacation some time next year (these latter two may be connected hopes).

Such anemic hopes are often the opposite of being content, the kind of content that Paul says he finds in all circumstances.

We struggle with such hopes because they are rooted in our desires, or our variously achievable assertion of will.

When we get what we want, we feel victorious, and that’s an addictive kind of experience. When we don’t get what we want, we linger in an identity crisis of one kind or another, and that’s an experience that cannot be sustained so has to be resolved one way or another.

Driven to either more achievement or to resolve our sense of lack, we enter into forms of frenzy.

When caught in this chaos, I find it hard to be content in any circumstances.  When things are going well, I look to see how much more well they can get. When things aren’t going well it is easy to fall into anxiety or distraction.

The early monastics used the term “acedia” to describe this kind of spiritual depression, where our will and emotions are caught in a trap of disoriented yearning, and we lose sight of the calling we have been given in Christ.

A person caught in this can be fully of busyness, always rushing around, always trying to do more and more, always wanting to hear what this person or that person thinks or is doing.  Or they can be caught in despair, no longer caring, no longer loving, no longer confident God is really at work.

This isn’t about ‘clinical depression’ because a lot of people living within acedia can seem very full of life and optimistic. But they are oriented in their wants and their wants are driving them in constant frenzy.  Or it can look like depression, but has a culpable quality because it is embraced as being identity and objective perspective.

Wants drive us to frenzy.

So often we take our yearnings and turn them into temporary satisfactions, drinking sea water when we’re caught on the ocean in a life boat.

Hope leads us to peace.

Real hope, substantive hope, is a driving vision of the future in which we find our self satisfied in a deep sense.

Hope isn’t just about our wants, though often our wants are folded into the bigger vision of our hope.  Hope is salvation because what we need, what we most need, is something far too many people have despaired to ever find.

Who am I?  Who can I trust?  Am I a real person?

The hope offered in Christ gives answers to these questions, an inviting answer of welcoming into a new community of eternally valued life.

We don’t have to strive to prove ourselves having worth. God love us.

We don’t have to give into the patterns of the world and the ways it says we have to establish our identity or order to find approval or acceptance.  We have value in Christ.

We don’t have to fight or undermine others in order to show ourselves stronger, wiser, better.  We have a place at God’s table, sharing and laughing and singing with others.

Hope is an orientation because it provides a vision that addresses all the concerns and questions in life. It gives us something beyond us to focus on, and keeps us from indulging the whims, distractions, sins that undermine our love of others.

Eschatologies that are established in anxiety or fear always push toward dysfunctional communities because they are rooted in a perspective of the world and the flesh.  They are eschatologies of want: wanting to escape, wanting to dominate, wanting to indulge.

An eschatology that is rooted in substantive hope offers a different path through life.

Patience, because frenzy isn’t God’s way.

Perseverance, because the present frustrations aren’t in control.

Joy, because in walking with the Spirit we experience a new kind of life in every moment.

Gentleness, because it’s not our will we’re fighting for but seeking that God’s will be done.  And God is full of grace.

Hope is the path of keeping in step with the Spirit, the way of understanding that life is much bigger and much deeper and much livelier than the wan attempts the world celebrates.

And because of this bigger vision of life, we grow in our capacity to love with the very love God resonates, seeking the best for others, seeking their fullness and possibility.  No longer anxious, we can also find rest, celebrating the Sabbath as a weekly expression of our deep, if sometimes disciplined, hope in God’s eternal presence.

Is hope leading you this day? If not, what is driving your sense of self and decisions?

Where are the areas of frustration or distraction in your life? Are you doing things to prove yourself to others (or to your own self)?  How is the hope we find in God’s Great Story helping you to navigate the crises within your community?

Stop for a little bit right now.

Pray for peace. Pray for rest.

Pray that despite all indications the world throws at us, we can hope with a genuine hope that transcends all possibilities because the Spirit is at work and Christ is with us.

Thanks be to God.

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