As we approach Easter and recognize the necessity of Jesus’ death and celebrate his resurrection, I must take care to wear my Easter bonnet rather than my doctoral cap when I read passages such as John 3:14-21. With my trained eye, I spot the elegant series of proofs that first provide an analogy and God’s motive to explain how Jesus’ death is a life-giving event and then a description of the character of those who cannot believe. With my Easter faith, my fear of death slides off as easily as worn out shoes, the burden of past failings is lifted off my shoulder, and I put on those crisp, clean, new clothes that represent my life in Christ, those clothes that I want to parade about and show the world. I want to come out into the light and proclaim my trust in God’s love.
This Easter, as I ponder Jesus’ words, I plan to treat each step of preparation, from preparing the Easter egg hunt for my little neighbors to dressing for church, as an expression of celebration of my share in eternal life. Jesus does not speak explicitly of the Church in John’s Gospel, but right before this passage he describes being born anew through water and spirit (3:5), an allusion to Christian baptism. When I walk through the door of the Church on Easter morning and proclaim, “Christ has risen,” I know that I will be standing within the resurrected body of Christ.
We really were doomed from the beginning. We were born imperfect. From the moment we were born, we had no chance of being free of sin. But we were also born with purpose. We are “made for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” So we were created with the reality that we will sin, but with the possibility that we will do good. This would most certainly qualify for the “upside down kingdom” that this lenten season is about.
During Lent, we are very intentional about focusing on our sins. We spend time repenting, we give up vices, we contemplate our imperfections and how that all relates to Jesus dying for our sins. The challenge that I am faced with in that is that I frequently dwell on my imperfections. It is very easy for me to get caught up in what I’ve done wrong or on how I have mistreated others or myself. In doing so, I often forget the big picture of what my life is truly about.
It is important to recognize our faults and to work to become better, but that doesn’t mean we should dwell on all of our sins. We need to learn and grow from our mistakes and take what we have learned to better the world. That is how we are meant to spend our time and energy. God has already forgiven us. God has always forgiven us. From the moment we were born, we were forgiven because that is the gift of God’s grace.
Lent is our spring cleaning. It is the time to see what bad behaviors we’ve accumulated and take the time to do away with those sins. It’s the time for grace. It’s the time to forgive and move on. It’s the time to learn and grow. It’s the time to refocus.
We have good works to do. So let’s get to it.
In his commentary on today’s passages, James Waltner writes that this psalm “exalts the steadfast love of the Lord as the creative rule that spawns new beginnings.”
In my early twenties I was diagnosed with a heart disease that I inherited from my mother’s side of the family. The disease has taken both my grandmother and a first cousin – both before they reached 41. The key complication of our “family illness” is sudden death. I had been examined twice before, but had been given a clean bill of health by two different doctors. By the time I was diagnosed, my mother and my older sister were both experiencing enough symptoms that they were being fitted for pacemakers.
We don’t deserve to suffer, but we can’t avoid it. Affliction comes whether we deserve it or not.
My life began again. While I did not dwell on it, I was faced with the possibility that I might not make 41. Even though I was not put on medication or dietary restrictions, I began to be more careful in my choices, and my world began to shrink. I have always had an abiding sense that God will provide for me, but I began to fear unknowns in a new way. I spent a great deal of energy worrying and fearing and praying.
God’s steadfast love is the creative rule that spawns new beginnings.
At 35 I participated in a research study to assess my risk of sudden death and was told I had such a low risk it should not concern me. I awoke to a new day. It was as if God had answered my prayers by creating in me the kernel of a new world. God set my heart on this: my disease is real, but my fear is a choice.
In your life, you may not have the kind of dramatic awakening I had, and I pray that if you do, it might be for a healthier reason than mine. But either way, God’s steadfast love is always there for you, the kernel of a new world, the foundation of a new beginning.
Had Jesus not used the image of the serpent in the wilderness as a metaphor of the resurrection (John 3:14-15), Christians may have been inclined to neglect the story entirely. In this story, Moses fashions a glittering saraph and lifts it up with a pole so that the impatient people, plagued by poisonous snakes, can look and be healed. This act evokes disturbing images of ancient animal worship and magical healing rites. The report that king Hezekiah eventually destroys Nehushtan as an idolatrous object (2 Kings 18:4), despite its Mosaic provenance, confirms our ambivalence and turns our assumptions about the way God works topsy turvy.
Even if God is pure spirit (belied by a host of biblical metaphors), our encounters with the holy are always physical. We touch the divine through the mundane – sensing the boundless tangibility of the cosmos, straining against the limitations of timing and spacing. We create shrines wherever our awe is especially intense and stock them with ritual objects that help us focus our attention, deepen our reflection and reconstitute our commonality. We throw our bodies into worship and service, inspired and sustained by those precious accoutrements of religious devotion. Like Job, we bear our vexation and our vindication in the flesh.
Beloved, do not despise the earth or any earthly thing, least of all each other. We are not just vessels containing a divine spark, we are creatures (‘adam) taken from and returned to the life-giving soil (‘adamah). The bodily resurrection of Jesus would make little sense to a disembodied race. So lift up the bronze serpent. And lift each other up, as that precious, broken body was lifted, lowered, raised.
As I was walking through the Art Institute of Chicago a few weeks ago, I came upon a painting of a woman lying down in a bed. She was positioned in what could have been mistaken, by a hasty glance, as a romantic pose. But upon closer examination, the sunlight coming in from the painted window illuminated this woman’s posture as one of defiance, anger, brokenness and shame. She was lying somewhat haphazardly. On the bedside table was a collection of empty bottles. And yet the artist captured her expression at the moment when the light from the window landed on her. The light illuminates the contours of her face and makes her brokenness look absolutely beautiful.
We use the metaphor of light and darkness to talk about God fairly often. Typically, the darkness is vilified. In a raw, emotional way, that makes sense. As children, we are often afraid of the dark. And even as adults, we don’t like it when our ability to make sense of the world around us is taken away. But maybe it’s not that simple. As an artist, I have come to love the shadows. They bring depth to our images, they ground us. The shadows are so human.
This week’s theme is “the light enters the world.” It’s a complicated statement. It’s not “the light makes the darkness go away forever,” which would perhaps be easier to understand. It’s not even “the light overcomes the darkness.” Even if sunlight is the metaphorical God, the darkness doesn’t disappear. The shadows are, as I said before, so human. We know, especially as we reflect during this season of Lent, that the world is full of suffering and chaos and that much of that is caused by humanity. But even in our most painful moments, when we lie like the woman in bed, we can be illuminated. We know that the existence of God doesn’t make suffering go away. Instead, the light is entering the world. It’s showing us the shapes and colors and the joys and sorrows. The light is what allows us to see our humanity.
Jesus points to the ways of peace. His life and ministry powerfully demonstrate love of neighbor and wholly living in faith. But Jesus did not sit and watch the unjust practices of the world strengthen until they became the norm. He was never apathetic about transgressions against self, other or God. He did not avoid conflict out of fear of being perceived as a troublemaker or disturbing the calm. When faced with injustice, Jesus took action.
We often shy away from the clearing of the temple account, afraid that it contradicts pacifist values, afraid of a Jesus for whom making peace may include righteous anger. Or perhaps we give this story no more than a cursory glance, categorizing it as an anomaly in the actions of Christ, out of fear that it calls us. It demands that we also take action when faced with wrong in this world, with situations that deny our God who loves and welcomes all unconditionally. This story challenges us to confront injustice out of love. It challenges us to do our part to dismantle systems of oppression, to destroy our preconceived notions of what (and who) is holy, and to break down barriers of inequality. There is a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to wait patiently and a time to stand up and lovingly proclaim that we will follow the model of a Christ who actively loved all, turning this world upside down and inside out.
May God bless you with discomfort
at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships,
so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears
to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war,
so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and
to turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in the world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done
to bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.
~ Franciscan benediction
The passage for today’s reflection from I Corinthians is jam-packed with truths that are life changing. The truth it contains that has been most impactful to me is what it highlights about God’s plan for human faith. The text pits human wisdom against what it calls the “foolishness” of the message of the cross. It is fascinating to me that it was God’s plan that our belief in our Creator would not be borne out of our own human wisdom and understanding; rather it would instead require a genuine step of faith.
Our challenge as those who have taken the step of faith to believe in the message of the cross is to relinquish control of our lives to God. We too often believe that we have the power to make things happen by the force of our will or efforts. We believe things will not get done “without us.” We believe that we are indispensable. The reality is that God is the one with all the power and wisdom, and we are weak and fragile. When we rely on our own wisdom, we deny the power of God, thinking that we know better. We in effect take on the place of God, and in our pride fail to humbly yield to God his rightful place.
Isaiah 29:16 (NRSV) points out the flaw in this way of thinking and highlights our Lenten theme (“upside down and inside out”), noting: “You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay? Shall the thing made say of its maker, “He did not make me,” or the thing formed say of the one who formed it, “He has no understanding?”
When I have fully grasped this truth, that my wisdom, my power and my abilities are not enough to produce lasting peace, I have recognized that humbling myself before God requires a daily admission of my need and of my lack of understanding. When I can I cast my burdens on my Savior, the peace comes rushing in. God can handle it, he is in the business of bearing burdens and his resources are limitless.
Lord Jesus, I admit my weakness, my lack of wisdom, my lack of understanding, and my need for you each and every day. Fill me with your peace, with your love, with your compassion, with your mercy, and with your grace. Thank you for being a relational God on whom I can cast my burdens daily.
“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.” Psalm 19:7 (NIV)
When I think about simplicity, I am reminded of my childhood. Not only did I have less inhibitions and worries, but I grew up in an environment that valued the simple. At a very young age, I began attending a summer camp in the Adirondacks. There was a lot of swimming, hiking and singing that was done with the intention of worshipping God on the home field – Creation. My parents and the staff there taught me to appreciate nature and God’s presence in it.
The first part of today’s verse reminds me of life. “Reviving” often means giving life to something that lacks it. This connects me to how spring brings life out of the death of winter. And, in other ways, we see this same thing in all the seasons. Today’s passage calls the Lord’s statutes and laws “perfect” and “trustworthy,” reminding me of nature’s systems and how they exist and seem to work quite smoothly even when my human mind cannot conceive why.
We have a lot to learn about God through nature. The seasons come and go as do our joys and sorrows. Winter storms are deadly but decorate the air and ground most beautifully. Death and decay are life processes, occurring regularly, but so are birth and renewal. In the same way, God changes and yet is constant.
When we next look at a songbird, a fallen tree or a patch of green earth amidst the snow, I hope we can find it in ourselves to think upon what God might be revealing about The Divine through creation. It is indeed simple, but perhaps, as the psalmist writes, we are made wise through it. I often find myself in awe as I walk quietly through the Adirondack woods. I am not sure if what I hear is the trickling of a creek or something more. Either way, I am grateful for the quiet Spirit that I find there and the things I might learn from it.
Lately I have found myself searching for a way to set the season of Lent apart: to make it significant, to honor the centuries-old tradition of this 40-day period of discipline. I must admit, sometimes it’s far too easy to let the days pass without giving a thought to any extra rituals. Sure, I have good intentions. Some years I come up with creative ideas for foods to give up, habits to change or daily spiritual practices to begin. But more often than not, when Ash Wednesday rolls around, I wrack my brain for ways to make Lent special – for a few minutes. Then, with a faint feeling of guilt, I think, “Ah, well, there’s always next year.”
How often does that apply to Christian faith in general? With the best of intentions, we try to observe traditions and follow the rules – but if we fall short, sometimes it seems easier to just give up. There are many reasons to become overwhelmed trying to live out our faith: Christianity has too much baggage, it’s too bureaucratic, too broken, too complicated. And on top of that, we’re supposed to take 40 whole days to contemplate our commitment to Christ?
In Goshen College’s Anabaptist-Mennonite History class with John Roth last semester, a word that came up over and over was renewal. Sometimes renewing our faith commitment means radical new ideas. But other times, it is in looking to more ancient traditions that we find our sense of identity and a refreshed energy. The Ten Commandments may seem like old news – but perhaps examining these verses with new eyes can bring the renewal we need. At its core, practicing faith means remembering our covenant with God: our mortal end of the deal is to keep these commandments. During this time of Lent, I invite us to return to this most ancient of disciplines – and God will show us steadfast love to the thousandth generation.
Then God spoke all these words:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Goshen College’s Study-Service Term (SST) can be a simultaneously difficult and eye-opening experience. On SST, students spend three months in a developing country, where they live with host families, study language and history, and serve those in their host nation. During the 6-week service portion of my SST experience in Peru last summer, I found myself in the Andean city of Tarma, teaching math and English to sixth grade students. It was an assignment that often required all of my patience, but it was also perhaps the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
I believe ‘wisdom’ is a fitting word to describe what I gained on my SST. This wisdom, however, was unlike anything I had learned in a classroom. It was a far cry from the physics formulas and programming syntax that usually fill my textbooks, and it was the kind of knowledge that required more than just my brain. The wisdom I found on SST was a wisdom gained through new experiences and unfamiliar situations. It was the result of careful observations and countless mistakes. It was wisdom bundled with love, patience and compassion.
This week’s theme is “Making wise the simple.” The Scripture verses this week show us a variety of ways that God reveals wisdom. This wisdom can come in the form of rules for our relationship with God or for our relationships with others. We are reminded that God’s wisdom is trustworthy and refreshing, even though it may be radically different from the wisdom that we encounter in the world around us. Like what I experienced on SST, it is wisdom that is intertwined with love and compassion. My simple notions of what it would be like to live in another country were transformed by the wisdom my experiences offered. As we approach Easter, this week’s Scripture prepares us to be transformed by the refreshing wisdom of God.