Lamaze Theology

A few weeks ago, Jenny and I attended our first lamaze class. The entire thing was a perfect balance between quite helpful and exceptionally ridiculous. There were a few moments we had to fight hard not to laugh out loud. The room was set with the lights dimmed down, fake candles lit, and new age music softly filling the room. The low point (or high point, depending on how you look at it) came when the instructor asked us to gaze lovingly into our partner's eyes and begin massaging their head. Jenny hates being touched on her head and I'm terrible at giving massages. We couldn't stop laughing. We annoyed the handful of couples who were taking it all way too seriously. You know the ones I'm talking about. 

But our amusement was interrupted with one profound moment. About halfway into the class the lamaze instructor said this about the birth process [a loose paraphrase]:

There is a difference between pain and suffering. Pain is your ally. Pain reminds you that you're alive, that your body is doing its work, and that new life is on the way. Suffering has no meaning, no purpose. When you give birth, you will feel pain. But we will make sure that you do not suffer.

Her words reminded me of Viktor Frankl's book Man's Search For Meaning. In it he writes this:

Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose. [...] In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

I don't know what sort of pain you've experienced in your life. But if you're human, you've known pain. You've known the pain of betrayal, regret, guilt, shame, sickness, death and on and on. And when left alone, when our pain is left to linger there, detached from any sort of meaning or purpose, it soon becomes suffering. But you don't have to suffer any more. Your life has meaning and purpose, whether you know it or not. And you're not alone. All of us who live here in this reality we call human existence, along with all of creation, are with you. The writer Paul reminds us of this truth in Romans 8v22-25 [The Message paraphrase]:

All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

So no matter what you're going through, no matter how much it hurts, how impossible it seems, how immense and enormous the pain may feel, remember that the pain is enlarging you. The pain is your ally. The pain reminds you that you're alive, your soul is doing its work, and new life is on the way. Your life has meaning and purpose far greater than the pain you feel now, the pain which will eventually pass. Remember that the longer you wait, the larger you become, and the more joyful your expectancy will be.

Ignoring The Holy Spirit

Easter was great. It's always great. But today is Wednesday and Easter, just a few days in the rear view, already feels like a distant memory. So what comes after Easter? The opening chapters of Acts tell us:

After his suffering, [Jesus] presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit." - Acts 1v3-5

They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit- Acts 2v3-4a

What happens after Easter? The Holy Spirit happens. And this used to make me uneasy.

First, a bit of personal background. I grew up in a conservative Baptist church and during my formative teenage years, I was firmly entrenched in 90s church youth group subculture. Acquire the Fire and True Love Waits conferences, Vineyard worship songs, DC Talk concerts, the whole nine yards. I played Demon #2 in our youth group's stirring rendition of Carman's The Champion. I was bought in, or, as one of our camps was aptly themed, I was completely souled out. Classic, right?

But there was also something quite non-conservative about our conservative little youth group. My freshman year, a few families from a Pentecostal church in town left their church and began attending our place. Their kids were about my age and really cool, really popular, and really really charismatic. The first night these kids were at our youth group gathering, during worship, with the lights dimmed down and one of those really emo Brian Doerksen songs being sung by the pubescent masses, one of the kids started speaking in tongues. It was loud enough to hear over the music. Then another one joined in. Soon, four or five of these new kids were all speaking out loud, fanatically, in their own unique tongues. Chaos ensued. The rest of us didn't know what to do or how to respond. And this moment changed everything.

Within months, speaking in tongues became the norm.* No one ever interpreted a single word. And every tongue was what they called a heavenly tongue, meaning it sounded like gibberish to the rest of us. It was never Korean or Spanish or Dutch or Farsi. Always just heavenly. And because it was heavenly, there was no questioning it. When asked about it, the kids who spoke in tongues would uniformly reply, "It's just the Holy Spirit. We have the Holy Spirit." This bothered me. It bothered me bad. What were they saying? That because I didn't or couldn't speak in tongues, somehow I didn't have the Holy Spirit? This left a terribly bitter taste in my mouth in regards to the Holy Spirit. I began to believe that God the Father loved me, Jesus the Son was my closest friend, but the Holy Spirit was choosy and had not chosen me. I began to resent the Holy Spirit.

Fast forward a few years. I walked away from God, the church, and a life of faith for a short time in college for all sorts of angsty reasons. But when I returned, I returned by way of the mind. I began reading books written by brilliant men and women who also happened to love Jesus. The idea that one could be a thoughtful Christian drew me back in. That was about 15 years ago. But in just the last few months I've come to the surprising realization that I left the Holy Spirit at the door of faith when I walked back through. I've given him plenty of lip service over the years. I've attributed profound moments to him. I've sung songs about him. I've talked about him and taught about him and written about him. But truth be told, I've largely ignored him in my day to day interactions with the Three-In-One God. I've ignored him because I've assumed him to be that choosy part of the Trinity I remember from high school, the one who didn't give me the gift everyone else seemed to receive. But I've been wrong. The Holy Spirit isn't a pretentious, selective elitist who arbitrarily bestows certain gifts on people he likes better than others. No, the Holy Spirit is most interested in something else altogether.

           Credit: Casa Editrice Mistretta, Palermo, Italy

           Credit: Casa Editrice Mistretta, Palermo, Italy

Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." - Mark 1v9-11

At the time when Mark wrote his Gospel, Jewish rabbis would regularly translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Aramaic forms called Targums. These were the most commonly heard and read versions by the Jews at the time because Aramaic was the common language of the day. In the Targums, there is only one place where the Spirit of God is likened to a dove. It's found in Genesis 1v2, which we read in English this way: Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. The Hebrew word for hover here means to flutter, like the wings of a bird flutter in flight. So the rabbis translated Genesis 1v2 this way in the Targums: And the earth was without form and empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God fluttered above the face of the waters like a dove.

Tim Keller explains the connection this way: There are three active parties in the creation of the world: God, God's Spirit, and God's Word, through which he creates. The same three parties are present at Jesus's baptism: the Father, who is the voice; the Son, who is the Word; and the Spirit fluttering like a dove. Mark is deliberately pointing us back to the creation, to the very beginning of history. Just as the original creation of the world was a project of the triune God, Mark says, so the redemption of the world, the rescue and renewal of all things that is beginning now with the arrival of the King, is also a project of the triune God. [The King's Cross, p.5]

I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe he is at work here and now, in our world and in our time. I believe that he is with us and in us and actively moving and working through us for the purpose of helping us to participate in God's redemptive work of rescuing and renewing the world.

I believe that the Holy Spirit convicts because in God's good new world there is no more deception.

I believe that the Holy Spirit heals the blind, the deaf, the lame, and the sick because in God's good new world everyone can see, hear, and run. In God's good new world everyone is whole.

I believe that the Holy Spirit resurrects the dead because in God's good new world there is no more death.

So, what comes after Easter? The Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes to continue the work of bringing to bear God's good new world that was inaugurated in and through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Easter is just the first word, friends, not the last. Easter is the beginning, not the end. Easter is the initial glimpse, not the whole picture. And the Holy Spirit is here, fluttering over our dark world like a dove, ushering in that which Christ began on Sunday morning. 

 

*Let me be clear: I believe and affirm all the gifts of the Spirit, including the gift of tongues. I believe that every genuine tongue ("glossa" in the Greek; a better translation might be "language") given as a gift of the Holy Spirit has meaning and purpose and reason. But I also believe that the gift is a gift to be shared between the receiver and the Spirit, and only between them, unless there is a means for interpretation. I arrive at this understanding for a number of reasons but primarily because of what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14v1-25.



τετέλεσται

Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thirsty." A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. - John 19v28-30

Regardless of what you do or do not believe about the Jesus story, there's no denying that this carpenter's-son-turned-rabbi from a little town called Nazareth has been and continues to be the single most compelling figure in human history. While his life and teachings were fascinating enough, it is ultimately his death (and resurrection, if you believe that sort of thing) that's made Jesus the hinge point for all of human history. 

Today, Good Friday, Christians all around the world will remember and embrace that dark and disturbing moment of his death. His flesh torn to pieces, his brow ripped open by a crown made of thorns, his body bruised, beaten, yet unbroken, he was nailed there to the horizontal beam, gasping for oxygen, tasting his dying breaths. And why? Some say it was because he was a lunatic, a fanatic, a delusional megalomaniac who thought he could change things he could not. Namely, he thought he could change the natural rhythm of birth-life-death. He thought his own death could eliminate the permanence of death from that fixed human equation. Believe it or not, this is what Jesus was thinking when he died. While most of us see death as the final surrender, Jesus saw his own death as the final victory. It is finished, he said. 

Your hopelessness... It is finished.

 Your guilt and shame... It is finished.

Your regrets and failures of the past... It is finished.

Your fear and anxiety about the future... It is finished.

The pain of brokenness and loss... It is finished.

The inevitability of death... It is finished.

Some scholars believe that when Jesus speaks from the cross... beginning with Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani (My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?) and ending with τετέλεσται (It is finished)... he is quoting Psalm 22, which does indeed begin, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? But the Psalm ends much more emphatically than the way we typically imagine Jesus muttering, It is finished, from the cross. Psalm 22 ends with these words of finality:

He has done it!

I am a Christian. Simply put, this means that I profess to believe all of this, not just the death but also the resurrection. I have come to believe what I believe by way of both study and experience. But I've also come to believe that the Jesus story is fundamentally compelling, whether we believe it completely, somewhat, or not at all. It's compelling because, beyond the debate about the viability of resurrection, the essence of this story is love. It's about the love of Jesus for the entire world. It's about the sort of love that would move a man to give up his own life because he believed that in doing so, he could permanently change things for the better. He could finish the impossible work no one else could finish. He could do what no one else could do. And I believe he has.

 He has done it!

Regardless of what you believe, if you're interested in hearing more of this story, if you're interested in sitting for a moment in the reality of darkness, both in our world and in your own life, and hearing these audacious words of Jesus spoken over you... It is finished... I want to invite you to join us for Good Friday services at WestGate Church tonight. Nothing weird, nothing uncomfortable. Just you, me, and bunch of other human beings like us who've been through some shit, are longing for hope, and are sometimes confused about the space between the two. There will be some beautiful songs sung, some beautiful words spoken, and you're invited to come, sit, listen, and experience. Hope to see you there. 




Swallowed Up By Radiance

...new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark. - Barbara Brown Taylor

At the risk of sounding morbid and a little disturbed, I'll begin with this confession. Good Friday is one of my favorite days on the Christian calendar. For as long as I can remember, I've found the image of Christ agonizing in the darkness of the Gethsemane Garden one of the most compelling scenes in all of Scripture. 

It feels so remarkably human to me. It resonates because it feels so familiar, like I've been there, in that darkness, writhing in that sort of agony, asking God to take it away. I've prayed that prayer. 

God, there's got to be another way. Take this cup from me. My soul can't handle the bitterness.

And in many ways, I feel as though I've been where Jesus was in the moments following - holding nothing but a prayer unanswered, surrounded by friends sleeping on the job, greeted by the sting of a kiss to seal my fate. I've been in that darkness. Maybe the darkness wasn't quite as ominous but it was darkness still and I was frightened just the same... which is exactly why I find goodness in Good Friday.

We understand darkness only because we understand light. Darkness is in fact defined simply as the absence of light and therefore exists only because light exists. Good Friday helps us to see darkness for what it is - a mere passing, soon to fade into a distant gray, as light breaks over the horizon. And when the light begins to shine, the darkness doesn't go away so much as it is consumed, enfolded into brightness, swallowed up by radiance. 

My wife is 37 weeks pregnant now and we regularly see our little girl's arms and legs push against her mother's skin. I often lean in to whisper to my daughter. I tell her that we love her, that we can't wait to meet her, that she has a wonderful life ahead, and that there isn't a thing I wouldn't do to keep her safe. But right now, in her current reality, none of that matters. My words make no sense. They sound like chaos. Neuroscience tells us that she's getting acclimated to our voices, that we're becoming familiar to her in some ways, but at the end of the day, it's still just confusion and noise. And no matter how much I tell this little girl that I love her and that everything is going to be OK, her reality right now is darkness. Just darkness. She has no idea how much light there is out here. But in a few short weeks, she'll see. She'll open her eyes to a bright new world. She'll be introduced to the light and the darkness will pass.

I'm not sure what your darkness is like but I'm certain you have some, just like me. It's impossible to live a life that's always in the light. That life simply doesn't exist. Pain and doubt and betrayal and shame are all universal themes in the human story. So if you're human, you've spent some time in the darkness where these themes come alive. But into this universal experience of darkness in our own lives, the story of Good Friday proclaims that Jesus has been there too. Good Friday reminds us that there is light and that soon we too will open our eyes to a bright new world, that the darkness will pass, and we'll be enfolded into brightness, swallowed up by radiance.


Easter Is For You

Ralph died when I was thirteen. He'd been annoying me since the second grade and there had been many moments when I'd wished he were dead. But when he actually died, I was grieved in ways that my preadolescent heart wasn't ready for. Ralph was my parakeet. He was yellow and loud and always there, until he wasn't. I put him in a Nike shoebox and buried him in a patch of dirt at the church behind my mother's shop. I thought burying him at a church would usher his little bird soul to a good place in the heavenly realms. Funny enough, I'm employed at that church now and I actually don’t know the specifics of our ornithological soteriology (or, theology of salvation for birds...sorry, bad seminary joke). We've since built a kids ministry building on top of the dirt patch where Ralph was laid to rest. Every weekend hundreds of children run and play and learn about Jesus, right there on top of my feathery little friend who died back in '92. 

Ralph was my very first up close and personal experience of death. But sadly, he wasn't my last. In the years since, I've lost a number of friends and family, both young and old. Some died in what many would consider tragic ways - car accidents, suicide, murder, cancer. Others died of what we often call natural causes - they grew old, their bodies began to fail, and they eventually succumbed to the bitter hereafter. But I've always had trouble with this categorization of natural causes. Nothing about death seems natural to me. Nothing about it seems normative or acceptable. Anyone with me on this? Yes, death does seem inevitable sometimes. I realize that the steady march of time is nudging us closer and closer to our graves every second of every minute of every hour of every day. Yes, I understand that age is undefeated, that it catches up with everyone. But even still, I can’t help but think and feel that everything about death is wrong. Whether we arrive at it tragically or inevitably, I’ve come to believe that death of any and every kind is completely unnatural. I don't think life is supposed to end this way. I don't think life is supposed to end at all. This desire for unending life isn't a religious matter. It’s a human matter. You don’t have to be a religious person to feel the sting of death and the searing pain of loss. You just have to be human.

This coming Sunday people all over the world will celebrate Easter. On the Christian calendar, this is the day we remember the central story of our faith - that a man named Jesus from a town called Nazareth was killed on a Roman cross and three days later came back to life. Christians call this resurrection. But whether you believe in Jesus and resurrection and the Christian story or not, Easter is for you. And I don’t mean that it’s for you by way of bunnies and eggs and brunch and an afternoon nap. I mean that Easter is for you in the truest way possible.

Easter is for you because you’re human and, chances are, you’ve felt the sting of death and the pain of loss.

Easter is for you because it proclaims out loud, audaciously and ridiculously, what we all, at the very least, wish were true – that death is not the end, that the grave has been defeated, and that unending life is possible.

Easter is for you because if you’ve ever lost someone you loved and felt like death came when and where it wasn’t welcome, you’ve wrestled with the question that this day longs to answer.

Easter is for you because deep down inside, you don’t want to die. Neither do I. Easter is for all of us because it says to each and every one of us, believe it or not, receive it or not, death is not the only choice. Life is available.

Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? - 1 Corinthians 15v54-55