The Kingdom of Necessary Evils

I believe sometimes the greatest acts of healing or justice or rescue are the least noticeable. There can be drama, certainly, but it’s internal: a complex justification system built upon a lifetime of wounds, a backstory worthy of best-selling memoirs, a pressure cooker of cultural constraint and systematic injustice and gothic loneliness. And all that’s required to heal or make right or rescue is a word, and suddenly all the bygones and weight and pressure spring away. But without that word, there is no hope. Without that word, people like Levi don’t just wear a mask or put up a facade — they are entombed. I think compared to the rescue of Levi from his tax booth, lowering a paralytic through a hole in the roof is easy.

Let me explain, friends. Continue reading

The Hole, the Bucket, and the Prophet

If I was the paralytic on the rooftop, watching my four friends from my mat as they remove roof tiles, I would probably tell them how stupid they are. I would see the look on their faces — a strange mix of determination and squashed embarrassment like frat boys during an initiation rite — and tell them they’re idiots. I’d tell them they’re just going to break the parts of me that aren’t already broken. They would tell me it’s too bad I can’t stop them, that their faith is not bound by mine, that my pain and my despair are not mine to keep, and before I can respond I would see the sky move, and the edges of tiles, the inner beams of the roof, the ropes sliding through my friends’ fists inch by inch. I would hear the clashing of voices beneath me, one of them supposedly belonging to the Son of God, the lawyers interrupting, shouting, marking territory, and the throng buzzing, packed so tight the door won’t close, and then —

Silence. Continue reading

We Are Professionals

I often hate the Apostle Peter. Hate would be too strong a word if I hated Peter as a person, but I don’t. The times I hate Peter, it’s for what he represents as key-holder of the Church, not for who he is as a bearded Galilean fisherman.

I hate Peter at the Transfiguration when he literally tries to put God in a box. I hate Peter when he tells Jesus to go back to school after the crucifixion is foretold. I hate Peter when he wants to sacrifice the present of the elderly for the future of the young. I hate all the acts of assertive cowardice Peter performs that the Church still performs today. But there are times when I can’t hate Peter without also hating myself, because I know I would commit the same sin, the same denial, the same systematic doubt institutionalized into dogma. For instance, I would stand with Peter in the boat and tell Jesus he doesn’t fully understand what we have to deal with, that this is harder than it looks. I would steady myself against the rocking of the boat and tell Jesus that we are professionals.

Let’s​ back up just a bit. Continue reading

The Hardest

Metaphors can make you or break you, friends. A good metaphor can take the superstructure of a complex theology and fold it up into something portable, something you can stow in your pack as you journey in and out of those shadowed valleys, then erect with a whip and a snap to climb and escape the teeth of wolves. But it works both ways. On the one hand, you can take the spirit of the Law, the workings of Grace, and our relationship with the Father and make them soluble enough for the mouths of children via the parable of the Prodigal Son. On the other hand, you can take a metaphor that’s been folded up on your back for years and expand it into something systematic, something with servo armatures and telescoping limbs with steel pincers, something that delicately prunes trees and weeds gardens while smashing up houses. Continue reading

Five Minutes of Imago Dei

I know what it’s like to be ground down until every want and desire sloughs off and all that remains is survival. I also know what it’s like to be ground down even further, until you break through that false floor of survival and find yourself in free fall. And I know what it’s like to have the open palm of God catch you so softly and lift you so slowly that you don’t even know you’ve been rescued. That’s why, friends, I now find rivers and roads to be inadequate metaphors for life and the passage of time. I prefer something more three-dimensional:

Think of a flight high above a great ocean with dark, chopping waves far, far below. And you travel over it in a basket hanging from the thin strings of helium balloons.

It’s not always as dark and terrifying as it sounds. The sunlight, when it shines, is brilliant, glinting on the churning white caps thousands of feet below. Distant thunderheads creep along the horizon, edged in orange and violet from the setting sun. The stars at night are so bright and so numerous you can hear the voices of their angels singing.

But sometimes your balloons pop, as balloons often do, rarely all at once, but sometimes in rapid succession, and you can feel the wind rushing harder and the dark, churning waves coming closer. You’re not alone, of course, and others nearby sometimes give you their extra balloons to lift you back up again, or at least keep you from falling further. Sometimes you sink low enough that the whitecaps slosh into your basket, soaking everything, blinding you, and suddenly there’s another basket next to yours, a rainbow-striped hot air balloon blotting out the sun, or a flock of small baskets with not many more balloons than yours, and together they tie your basket to theirs and lift you from the waves just before you sink. Continue reading

The Gauntlet

I imagine if the Apostles Luke and John were to meet in a college town coffee house to discuss over caramel macchiatos whether truth was in art or art was in truth, it could end with a fist fight. John would have the upper hand in the debate, having so skillfully blended art and truth in his account of Jesus, but Luke would appeal to accessibility, reminding John that Truth is useless if it’s only half understood. Then John would raise his voice and reply that a deep truth half understood is better than a shallow truth fully grasped. Then Luke would take offense at the word “shallow,” make fun of John’s turtleneck, and…

No, friends, they would agree that each account complements the other, and so they do. But as we continue through Luke chapter four, I think it’s interesting to note a particular difference between the two accounts. According to John, the first miracle of Jesus takes place at the wedding in Cana, when he turns water into wine. It takes place before his baptism by John the Baptist, before his temptations from Mr. Scratch, before he does anything in his adult life to claim his place as fulfillment of prophecy. In fact, he says exactly that to his mother:

“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” — John 2:4

Luke, on the other hand, doesn’t bother with this account. And I think I finally understand why. It’s not because Luke believes it didn’t happen, or even that it’s unimportant. No, friends, I believe Luke saves Jesus’ first miracle for after his confirmation as fulfiller of prophecy for the sake of sweet, sweet irony. Continue reading

First Blood: A Star Wars Story

There are two things you don’t buy at Costco: movies and books. They aren’t discounted like everything else and you pretty much pay the cover price. But the way they’re laid out on long tables in deep piles still triggers the bargain-hunter reflex. You can’t help but look at them. And on our most recent trip, as we push our two brimming shopping carts past the stacks on our way to the cashiers, I see this:

star-wars-little-golden-books

Golden Books as movie franchise tie-ins are nothing new, friends. But this is my first exposure to this particular volume, and something strikes me about it that I don’t immediately put my finger on. The deconstruction of my childhood narrative framework for corporate profit is only fleeting, however true. The Disneyfication of Star Wars is fleeting as well, already played out with the Force Awakens (don’t get me started, friends). No, it’s something else. Continue reading

Meeting Mr. Scratch, Part 5

I mentioned earlier that the first of the three tests was the “easy” one, if any encounter with Mr. Scratch can truly be called easy. Turning stones into bread was a test of faith, yes, but faith about what? I have to admit, friends, that in my mind some things are easier to have faith about than others, and if you put daily sustenance on one scale, and waging a war of the soul against the traditions and institutions and cultural bullet trains of the world for the everlasting lives of every person on earth on the other, the later hits the table with a thud and the former gets catapulted to the ceiling. The second two tests aren’t about mere survival, or even about mere power. They’re about directly accomplishing the (perceived) will of the Father, which makes them all the more dangerous. I don’t believe history has ever provided any greater excuse for death of the body and captivity of the soul than pursuing “God’s will.” And so I believe the last two tests are very much a pair. In fact, I think they’re two sides of the same coin.

I believe both tests — the kingdoms and the temple — are about dominion of the earth, but by different means. The test of the kingdoms was about worldly domination via earthly authority, a multiplicity of coups d’etat or a popular overthrow of the Pax Romana in favor of a Pax Christi. In other words, folks, I believe the test of the kingdoms was a temptation of civic leadership. The test of the temple, on the other hand, is a test of religious leadership, which is far more dangerous. Continue reading

Meeting Mr. Scratch, Part 4

Have you ever wondered, friends, why Old Scratch would start with a test so easy as “If you’re hungry, just eat?” As I noted in the last post, that first test was not even directly linked with the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation. It had nothing to do with taking dominion and restoring relationships. It only had to do with living for another day. And if you’ve already been without food for 40 days, what’s one more day? It almost seems as if this was a throw-away test, a warm-up, a vocal exercise to loosen the tongue.

But what if that was the point? What if that was the devil’s way of sighting his rifle? Or, more insidiously — and more in tune with his MO — what if that was Satan’s way of making Jesus look so far ahead that he might not see the rock he is about to stumble upon? If the devil believes that dominion is Jesus’ end game, then wouldn’t the promise of dominion be the best trap? If so, it would be important to have Jesus thinking about that dominion rather than about his immediate circumstances. And what better way to have Jesus focus on his end game than to make him use it as a defense, as a shield? “No, Mr. Scratch, I’m not worried about food because my Father has bigger plans for me.” And so Jesus’ eyes lift to the horizon, fists clenched with determination, and the devil thinks, “Ready, aim….” But no, Jesus walks too closely with his Father to stumble.

And so, friends, Satan begins test number two. Continue reading