‘What can you do without the rain?’

‘What can you do without the rain?’

The Great Commandment is one of the most-quoted passages of Scripture in the church: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). This commandment is very closely associated with the popular “Golden Rule”: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

This commandment is also often seen as the core of the Christian faith, but conversely is also cited as evidence that “all religions are essentially the same.” For example, ReligiousTolerance.org lists versions of the Golden Rule found in a variety of different religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, the Bahá’í Faith, Confucianism, even an ancient Inca religion. So what is it that actually sets Christianity apart? Not the Great Commandment but a different one, found tucked away in the most famous sermon ever preached: the Sermon on the Mount.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44).

Arguably, this is the commandment that rests at the heart of the Christian faith. After all, as the Apostle Paul writes in Romans, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8). The operative factor of our salvation, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, occurred not because of our righteousness but in spite of our lack thereof. Paul goes on to explicitly refer to us as enemies of God – so I guess you could say that Jesus practiced what he preached.

You know what that means? We can’t be surprised when Christians turn out to be terrible people, or when terrible people become Christians. The church, writes Abigail Van Buren, “is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” Christians have become more known for our holier-than-thou posturing than for our grace and mercy, but this shouldn’t be a surprise, either. We are not saints. Our very self-righteousness betrays us. Without the grace of God at work, we are only whitewashed instead of cleansed. Charles Spurgeon once said, “You may break the clods, you may sow your seeds, but what can you do without the rain? As absolutely needful is the divine blessing.” None of our labor has any merit absent grace.

The kind of righteousness that Jesus promoted lies not in works well done, but in the humility it takes to throw oneself at his feet. In the Gospel of Luke, we find this account of Jesus:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).

But (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) grace doesn’t stop there. “Love your enemies” takes on an entirely different flavor when you consider the reach of its implications, and I sometimes come away from my own faith with a bitter taste in my mouth. The secular world thinks “love your neighbor” is great; it’s at the core of what it means to be a bleeding-heart liberal. But love your enemies? Love those people who shoot up elementary schools and cops who murder unarmed teenagers? Pray for ISIS? Love my racist relatives, and church leaders who tell me I deserve less of a voice in the church because I’m a woman? Love the old men in MAGA hats? The fact that I don’t like what Jesus says does not make it any less true.

The long and short of it is, who is the one person (or group of people) that you find easiest to hate? Jesus would have you love them. Those of us who follow Jesus do not have the luxury of hatred. Such a response is not an option for someone saved by grace. Otherwise, we would be guilty of withholding from others the very grace from which we benefit every day. Loving our enemies doesn’t mean condoning or tolerating their actions, and it doesn’t mean neglecting the pursuit of justice ­– but it does mean recognizing that no one (and I do mean NO ONE) is beyond the reach of redemption, and treating them accordingly.

We Christians like to say that “all sin is equal in the eyes of God,” but most of us don’t actually believe it. No one wants to think themselves on the same level as a murderer, not when our sins are as innocuous as gossip or pride and are much easier to whitewash than others. But more importantly, recognizing that no sin is qualitatively more or less sinful than another forces us to admit that Christianity is not the mere safe ride to heaven that was preached to us before the altar call. Rather, Christianity is a call to die to ourselves and give up everything in response to the grace that saved us even though we were enemies of God… and extend that grace to anyone and everyone who needs it. When we approach the throne of grace, we are in poor company, which is sort of the point.

I’m not naïve or blind to the evil that exists in this world: The most painful lesson I’ve ever had to learn is that grace wouldn’t be grace if it weren’t as available to the child molester from my church or my best friend’s rapist as it is to me. As available to the cop as it is to the teenager she murdered. As available to the terrorist as it is to the hundreds of victims he gunned down. As available to my president as it is to the Syrian civilians who became “collateral damage” as a result of his military campaign. God wouldn’t be God if his love did not extend beyond the limitations of what I deem palatable degrees of sin. It’s a lesson I’m still learning, every day.

The offense of the gospel of Jesus Christ is this: that he died to save sinners. As one-time slave trader (and author of “Amazing Grace”) John Newton wrote near the end of his life, “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.” Of all the tenets of Christianity I’ve learned throughout my twenty-one years, this one is the hill I choose to die on.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

Kingdom in monochrome

Kingdom in monochrome

It’s been forty-nine years since Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America.”

In an article called “Is God Colorblind or Colorful?” Miriam Adeney takes a favorable view of ethnic churches in response to Dr. King’s words. She writes, “Separate congregations are not bad. What is bad is a lack of love.” She goes on to say that “ethnic churches have great value. Like a mosaic, like a kaleidoscope, the whole spectrum of cultures—and ethnic churches—enriches God’s world. Just as strong, healthy families are the building blocks for strong healthy communities, so strong ethnic churches can be the building blocks for strong multicultural fellowships. It is when we learn commitment and cooperation at home that we are prepared to practice those skills at large.”

While I wholeheartedly agree with her initial diagnosis (the problem is a lack of love), I could not disagree more with the vision of the church she describes. Or rather, I love the vision she describes, of a mosaic or kaleidoscope of cultures; I just think it belongs in the context of one congregation, rather than promoting a separate church for every ethnic identity that achieves a critical mass of congregants. Perhaps we should teach commitment and cooperation across cultural lines from the get-go, instead of nurturing them in a monochromatic environment. As Christena Cleveland writes, “People can meet God within their cultural context, but in order to follow God, they must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the Incarnation and on the cross. Discipleship is cross-cultural.”

One of the things that has been most valuable for me in my growth as a Christian has been a bi-weekly Bible study that meets in a friend’s living room, filled mostly with international students. The only language we all have in common is English, so we use it, but not because the Americans are in charge. Sometimes we sing in Swahili, and I’m pretty sure there’s a song in Yoruba in the songbook we use; I’ve lost track of the number of African countries that have been represented in this gathering. Every Thanksgiving, the community expands to welcome in even more international students from all over the world (I’ve started to associate Ethiopian injera with Thanksgiving food). This is the place where I have learned to love the church, despite its many faults and our many disputes. And my brothers and sisters in Christ here do not look like me (except for my parents, who also attend, who do very much look like me).

Spotted in the songbook

The Apostle Paul traveled all around Asia Minor, planting churches in a variety of cities filled with people from a variety of backgrounds. As evidenced by his letters to churches dealing with intra-church culture wars, he didn’t start one church for the Jewish believers and another for the Gentiles. He didn’t tell the Gentiles to adopt Jewish customs, or vice versa. (In fact, he spends a lot of time explaining why they don’t have to do just that.) They worshiped together. They worshiped differently. And that was okay. It was hard, but it was okay. He writes to the Corinthians:

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Paul succinctly presents here not only the contrast between the wisdom of God and that of humans, but also how that wisdom must be communicated differently to different groups of people. Jewish believers first understood Jesus in terms of signs and wonders he performed that proved he was the promised Messiah. Gentile believers first understood Jesus based on the wisdom found in his teachings. These are not two different gospels, but two vital aspects of the single gospel that first reach the ears of their respective hearers.

One of the things I’ve observed about Scripture is that its writers never tell us to do anything that we would already be doing on our own. If we were, they wouldn’t have to tell us. Things like “love your enemy” and “sell all your possessions and give to the poor” are not things that we would just come up with on our own. Likewise, if first-century Christians had no trouble at all navigating the differences between Jewish and Gentile constituencies, Paul would not have had to write them letters about it.

One of the straight-up dangerous things about separate congregations is not the mere fact that they are separate, but the results that come about when church members only know how to worship with people who look and think and talk like them. What happens is tribalism — harsh divisions within the body of Christ that should not be there. We begin to conflate our culturally-specific worldview and beliefs with the Word of God, attaching outsized importance to things that are really not that important.

Don’t believe me? Try being anything short of a vehement Republican in a Midwestern church. Try shouting “Amen!” during a Reformed sermon. Try genuflecting around literally any Protestants ever. Watch for the side-eye and the turned-up nose from the people around you. Those people are probably praying for your soul. As Adeney says, the problem is a lack of love, not separate congregations, but separate congregations easily produce a lack of love.

I just sat in on a meeting of parents involved in a ministry at my church – my beautiful, messy, messed-up, Jesus-loving church – and it was an amazing sight. I sat with one parent, speaking French softly in the background to help clarify what the speaker was saying. Behind us, a woman was quietly interpreting his talk in Spanish. Across the rows and aisles were people of color alongside white people, at least three different languages, wealthy people and not-so-wealthy people, families from east and west, north and south neighborhoods throughout the city. You couldn’t get a more varied mixture if you tried. And it was beautiful. Can it sometimes be a mess? You’d better believe it.

But the church is not supposed to be sterile, even when everyone is the same color/speaks the same language/shops at the same grocery store. The church is a lot like my family: vibrant and lively, and also a total mess if our bad moods coincide; a place where the phrase “I always love you but today I don’t really like you” has come out of our mouths numerous times; a place where authority is flouted too often and people forget to take out the trash and sometimes forget to call home more than once a week. And we also support each other even and especially when things get tough, and continue to forgive each other’s repeat offenses. Family is family. So is church.

“The gospel is not safe in any culture without a witness within that culture from beyond itself,” writes Dr. Kenneth Bailey. “Because we have come to terms with our own society, the total word of God has to be declared to us by another.” What could possibly get lost in translation from a first-century Palestinian itinerant rabbi’s teachings to a twenty-first century church in Iowa? I know. Shocking. There are things about Jesus and about our own Scriptures that we might not even realize we don’t understand. Dr. Bailey wrote an entire book called Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes about that very thing. In the same way, different cultures have a way of catching things that we miss, and vice versa.

The very nature of sin is something that is, surprisingly for some, culturally-bound. In an American church, I would be most likely to hear sin described as a kind of “breaking the rules.” God said not to do this, and I did it, so that’s sin. However, someone from a very different culture might understand sin to be a matter of rebellion against God’s authority. Yet another might see it as the shame that results from being a human attempting to usurp God’s position of honor. And the Bible supports all of these different understandings – but a monocultural church is likely to only preach one, missing all of the nuance of how sin affects our lives and communities. Unless we have the whole Scripture, we are missing the whole gospel. The total word of God has to be declared to us by another.

I am a better follower of Jesus than I would have been otherwise as a result of worshipping across cultural lines. I am a better Christian for my exposure to difference and variations in worldview. Any church or ministry is less effective and less like the Kingdom than it could be when all of its members look and talk and think the same. It’s not about segregation and integration, not necessarily. It’s about seeing the full breadth of the gospel and the character of God. No culture has a monopoly on Truth, and difference helps us to see more of its planes and angles. This isn’t diversity for diversity’s sake; it’s diversity because when only one culture is present, a thousand facets of the character of God are missing from our worship, and everyone loses.

 

Holy Saturday forecast

Holy Saturday forecast

It smells like the rain and half-drowned earthworms
At my front door, sickly sweet blossoms meet
the juniper that makes me sneeze
Tires spit on wet pavement
and splash on my toes
My forest-yellow-green hymnal
(the one with the fraying corners)
looks at home in this threadbare chapel
where my voice echoes from narthex to altar
picking out a lonely minor key
against an orchestra of roofbound raindrops and thunder
and radiator vents and creaky pews
Familiar strains of piano and harmony
wrap me in warm benediction and memory
Gray water meets gray skies, but
peeking rays of reluctant sunlight
foretell what comes tomorrow
Did it rain that Sabbath day when
they all forgot what you said,
convinced you’d stay dead?
It seems appropriate for heaven to weep God-sized tears
and cloud over his skies to suit
God is dead, and we killed him
It’s not like they could check the forecast and say
“we’re due for a resurrection at dawn”

Jesus poems

Jesus poems

[Palm Sunday]

That donkey colt munches on bruised blessings
while his owner pretends he never met you
Hastily hidden fronds fray and crumble in pockets
while hymns and hosannas descend into murmurs
A hush fell over the courtyard after your one-man riot
and they mutter That’s not what we meant
when we called you messiah

[Holy Wednesday]

Thirty silver coins, the price of my absolution
For walking too readily with sinners and frauds
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t hoped it were true
but what kind of a God welcomes lepers and sluts?
Thirty silver coins, the cost of my righteousness
And a moment of doubt when he kneels at my feet
his knowing nod a different kind of pardon

[Maundy Thursday]

Vague silhouettes of deity ripple the curtains
that hide your face behind threads of glass
Have we walked with you so long and not known you?
Veiled majesty scrubbed horse shit from under my toenails
and laughed at my wrinkled nose when you said Do likewise

[Good Friday]

I abandon my sandals and dig my toes into holy ground
You bleed splintered wood and color-blind plasma
– this crucifix groans like spirit and weeps like flesh –
whispers of “thirsty” and “finished” are ghosts on your breath:

my halfhearted cries for deliverance fall on deaf ears
or if, my God, you be not deaf,
rest unanswered in anguished silence

I reach through frayed curtain threads to run my fingertips
through a sanctifying and intoxicating mixture
and you walk over coals to open cell doors
just in time for a strangled “hallelujah” at sunrise

[Holy Saturday]

Huddled upstairs, quivering at your thundering silence
can’t help but stare at the place you’re not sitting
Four walls close in; you’d have to dig through compact roof-earth
shift solid stone – if only.

[Easter Sunday]

I awake in cold sweat at the sound of a rooster
With a word from a woman we take off running
I lose the footrace, left in the dust
but maybe I’d have run faster if
I hadn’t been afraid it might be true
that I’d find, like she said, a vacant seat
and a real live lord who last saw
me turn my face away
What angel dares tell me not to fear

[Disciple]

You can breathe upon man and watch him dissipate
but I last heard your breath say It’s done
And yet, you rise.
You can gather the waters but they drip right through
the stinging palms of my Lord and my God
I see. I believe.

[Ascension]

I’ve heard mountains have a memory longer than elephants
Though the stones that once touched you are ground into sand
When we tried to build tents for dead prophets you laughed
because we couldn’t see you
as if both word and flesh could abide under canvas
When we wanted to see kingdom come now you sighed
and said It’s right in front of you
as if Now and Not Yet could be one and the same
On a mountain that remembers the touch of your toes
long after the elephants have forgotten.

Something in the water

Something in the water

Standing at the edge of the Iowa River and I’m supposed to be writing about water. It would be easy enough to describe the soggy, decaying debris as it floats by, or the butterfly ripples that score the surface of the muddy liquid. But standing here, I no longer see where the water stops and the land and air begin.

I feel it seeping through the seat of my pants when I take a seat on the grass, and in the cork of my Birkenstocks that got wet last time it rained.

I smell it in the scent of the loamy shore. The driest place I’ve ever been was the outer edges of the Sahara sand dunes, and out there you can’t smell a thing other than wool and sweaty camels. Dirt and sand don’t have a scent of their own — it’s the water that brings them to life.

I sense the humidity in the air, where even in the absence of clouds the steam coming off of my coffee dissipated this morning. Water makes cold air colder and warm air unbearable, and the cool breeze is icy in places on my scalp that haven’t yet dried from my shower last night.

Water sloughs off the back of that robin a few yards away, digging soggy worms out of the soft earth that gets softer as he nears the water’s edge. It consumes and disintegrates the dead leaves it once nourished from infancy. Condensation drips out of the exhaust pipe of every vehicle coming down Riverside Drive on the opposite shore. Where does the water stop and the land begin? The Sahara sands are dead, ground-up stone, dry and lifeless without the water that isn’t so easily contained to a riverbed as we’d like to believe.

Some people see the face of God in coffee stains or funny-shaped puddles in the pavement. Others hear his voice in cathedral choirs or the majestic crashing of Niagara Falls. We use metaphors like lion and lamb, Alpha and Omega, warrior and healer and Savior and friend. But where does he stop and the rest begin?

Water is found in just about everything — it’s the very substance of life and growth, and without it, the earth shrivels into inhospitable rock. Like wind, invisible but for its effects on the bending grasses and rustling branches stuffed with pine needles, water simply is. Present. Life-giving. Quietly working behind the scenes to make dust into mud so that something beautiful will come of it after all. Bubbling under the heated surface of a volcano, silently, inconspicuously, until one day it bursts into the sky in a geyser of fiery glory. Where does water stop and the sky begin?

The Genesis story would have us believe that the sky is sandwiched between waters in suspended animation, and land happens where rock sloughs off droplets and oceans from below. But the water never truly leaves, forming puddles and tamping down the dusty earth beneath our feet.

So who am I to say that you do not hear the voice of God in a summer rain? (I might hear him, rather, in a well-crafted line of prose, in phrases that hint at his breath.) As the fountain, so its source. He is not the summer rain anymore than he is a line of prose, though he may be found in the midst of both – dancing between raindrops and whispering in the rustle of folded pages. Who is he, then, when he isn’t speaking or healing or saving or loving?

He simply is.

Poems For Lenten Sundays

Poems For Lenten Sundays

[Invocabit]

I have grown familiar with the timbre of his voice
The seasons of stumbling in his dusty footprints
have taught me to heed his melody
No liturgy sweeter than the grip of his hand
as he lifts me once more to my feet
leading me in the syncopate rhythm that is holiness
on the dusty path where his footprints lie
with no other music than the timbre of his voice
we dance

[Reminiscere]

Bread and blood are the best reminder
I dip one in the other and taste iron
like the last time I bit my tongue
Clotting on dusty stones that tempt
the hungriest deity to swallow
Turn sand to stone, to bread, to flesh
and sign the new covenant in red ink

[Oculi]

I am quite good at walking on water
till I catch my reflection in an oncoming wave
and watch myself fall.
~
Don’t you see, she has left me to labor alone?
You say, But I wanted you here all along
so come, sit down.

[Laetare]

Do you keep enough footstools and folding chairs
in your house to entertain sinners?
We arrive en masse, crumpled invites in hand
trample mud in the carpet and steal candlesticks
forgetting to shower before trimming our lamps
but you welcome us in, smile broad and true
not even a wrinkle above your nose.

[Passiontide]

You say he will walk in the land of the living
one day, on the other end of death
Is it blood of a covenant or water of womb
that will make him, and us, born again?
But we are just human, and he is but flesh,
so how can these dry bones live?
Through your tears you whisper, Resurrection.

Riff on Nehemiah 8

Riff on Nehemiah 8

“And [they] said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.” Nehemiah 8:9

Unfolding crusty pages, blowing dust from the spine

rerooting ourselves in this God-breathed earth

Your words the sweetest aroma

awakening long-dormant visions

of your habit of redemption

When tears run down my skin

    and I fall to my knees in the mud

you lift me up and say: I already saved you

Tears are for yesterday — today, we dance