Food for Thought-Lazarus Is Still Dead

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All Saints Sunday

John 11:32-44

At one level, there’s something about Lazarus’ story which seems horribly unfair and wrong. Who wants to die twice? Once seems horrible enough, to be forced to go through it twice seems a bit much, especially after you’ve firmly settled into eternity after four days. Here’s what we need to remember: Lazarus hasn’t had a near death experience. He’s not getting the traditional “second chance” on life after a brief flirtation with death. He’s been dead for four days (or better). His corpse has begun to decompose. Lazarus is being brought back from eternity, resuscitated, and renewed because his friends and family are sad at his passing.

While this is great for Jesus, Mary, and Martha (I’m still not sure how good it is for Lazarus), it seems really unfair that solely because Jesus knew Lazarus these grieving women get to reclaim their loved from the jaws of death. We know Jesus. We’re friends of Jesus. We identify ourselves as devoted followers of Jesus. Yet our loved ones remain underground, dead, buried, and gone for good. As much as we may want our parents, spouses, siblings, and friends back for a moment, an hour, a day, or years (no one really knows how long Lazarus lived before he died again), our relationship with Jesus doesn’t afford the opportunity of “one more time”. Go and scream at the sky, weep as Jesus did, and the dead will not arise ready to resume to life. Why not us Jesus? There are people we loved, in our lives, as much as you obviously loved Lazarus. Why does our grief fall short of your divine intervention? These are questions I want to ask and no one wants to answer.

It’s a metaphor, that’s what some will tell us. This text is not supposed to speak about me but to me. Jesus revival of Lazarus’ decomposing remains are but a foretaste of the resurrection itself. I am supposed to read a story of hope when there appears to be nothing but an empty tomb. Granted, this is the story we read on Easter Sunday. However the resuscitation of Lazarus is not the resurrection of Jesus. Resuscitation and resurrection are not the same. To equate the two sells Jesus short and turns the resurrected Christ into nothing more than a transparent zombie.

The story of Lazarus is the story of Jesus being deeply moved by grief, sadness, and sorrow. Jesus feels these emotions as we experience them when our own friends and family members die. I understand this. However, my questions will not go away. Was it selfish for Jesus to bring Lazarus back? The most important person in the story, Lazarus, has no say in the matter. He may have loved eternity. Mary and Martha didn’t ask for their brother to be returned. They only blamed Jesus for not healing Lazarus. But they didn’t ask Jesus to resuscitate Lazarus. There’s something not right about what happened here. From the sheer unnatural quality of bringing someone back after four days in the tomb to ignoring the wishes of the family, this whole story seems strange.

Why do Mary and Martha get Lazarus back and all we are left with a list of names and burning candles? I’m reminded of the dilemmas faced by those with terminal illnesses. I know many who’ve been sick with serious illnesses over the years. They’ve prayed and received a measure of healing. Others, in the same congregation with the same illnesses have prayed equally hard and died. Was God not listening to one set of prayers and ignoring the others? How does it make the family members of one person feel to hear “our prayers were answered” when another prayed the same prayers and feels they were denied God’s healing?” That’s kind of what I feel when I read this passage. Why do Mary and Martha get more time with someone they love and we are left waiting?

The honest answer:  I don’t know.  John’s gospel was written some sixty years (or longer) after Jesus lived. Lazarus, if he existed, was probably well into his second round at mortality. John wanted to show us Jesus had charge over the forces of life and death. I don’t think he needed to tell us this Lazarus story to make that point. The story of the cross does a fine job at driving this point home. Perhaps John simply wanted to humanize Jesus and show him grieving like the rest of us. John also wanted to demonstrate what happens when Jesus encounters “death”. This was difficult for John and early Christian writers. How do you show “death” as less powerful than it appears to be? People are dying from plague, sickness, illness, war, famine, and the like. Death seems to be sure footed and certain. Whenever Jesus enters into the picture, death is thrown off balance. Embedded within each encounter Jesus has with a person is one consistent message: death is thrown off balance and becomes less able to control how we live.  After their brushes with Jesus, people live freer lives, not bound by the emotional, physical, social, religious, or economic strictures which were “killing” them.  As unfair as this story is to people who want our saints back, I think John is ultimately trying to tell us that Jesus is throwing death off balance.  And that’s the essence of the good news.  Death exists but it’s off balance and doesn’t ultimately win.

Food for Thought-I Don’t Believe in Ghosts

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Halloween is upon us. The season of ghosts, goblins, and good natured death imagery has descended upon middle class America.  Am I the only person this perennial celebration of death strikes as odd, weird, and out of place? My initial reaction is this: in a world full of death we can’t and will never control, it’s nice to manipulate a cute kind of death, if only for a few days before the Thanksgiving turkeys start to die. Death that is temporary, easy, and impermanent (like the decorations in our yards and on our front porches) comes down quickly and painlessly. Fake Halloween death is nothing like real death. This, I believe, is one reason we hold on to Halloween and ghosts.

Yes, there are parties, the drinking, the door to door candy robberies, and the hilariously off the wall costumes. Each of these carefully crafted socially acceptable elements of Halloween provides revelers with the opportunity to encounter some scary, other worldly realities. The ghosts, demons, skeletons, and death images proliferating any American door, street or yard are real to a degree. We place ourselves in their paths because we want to be frightened. We enjoy the sensations that, behind our costumes and fun, confirm our perceptions of haunted life as perfectly justified even for a few fleeting moments. We like to be scared. While it may be real for an instant, a quick scream and run down the street means we’re OK and it’s all going to be alright.

But is it? Not according to many Americans. Over 42 percent of people surveyed in a recent Harris poll revealed they believe in ghosts. It seems we’re taking Halloween home with us long after the last pieces of candy are eaten. These aren’t metaphorical ghosts; we’re talking ghosts of Christmas past ghosts. To put this into context, more Americans believe in ghosts than any single Republican presidential candidate currently holds in national polls.

And why wouldn’t they? Television programs like “Ghost Hunters” take people on journeys through closed buildings with night vision lenses to find specters of ages past. It is noteworthy that ghosts on “Ghost Hunters” and similar shows never appear in broad daylight or do more than move a needle on a ghost hunting device. Nor do the ghost hunters travel beyond the bounds of the United States or middle class communities with “historic” happenings. Why aren’t they chasing up ghosts in Tokyo, New Delhi, or Kandahar? People die there too, right?

I don’t believe in ghosts. The idea the spirits of the dead linger on earth and do stupid things like bang pots has never resonated with me. Earth, while a great place especially when the leaves change in the northern hemisphere, is kind of mess. The idea of hanging around Earth or moving somewhere else, especially when somewhere else has been presented in numerous religious traditions as the best place ever, looks like a no brainer. Am I saying ghosts are stupid? Yes.  To paraphrase Senator Lindsey Graham, “dumb as hell”.

Ghosts are narcissists. Why are they scaring people, banging pots, or staring at random strangers through haunted mirrors? Ghosts, as conceived by our culture, must enjoy what they do. Who other than a textbook narcissist would continually engage in such self-gratifying behavior which is harmful to others? If you’re dead, are you going to be so wrapped up in your own ego you can’t even enjoy the freedom death provides from psychological illnesses? I don’t believe in ghosts because I believe in a mentally healthy afterlife.

The final reason I don’t believe in ghosts is this: we anthropomorphize the afterlife. What’s that mean? We turn life after death into a slightly mistier version of life here on Earth. Death is just like life but we can float, walk through walls, Satan is a man in a red body suit with a goatee, and God becomes an old man with a beard on a cloud. In life we have good and bad people. In death, we’ve created evil and benevolent ghosts. We want death firmly in the realm of our understandable comfort zones.

The most common near death experiences are exactly that, “near death”. They aren’t death. Despite their commonalities, these “light at the end of the tunnel” stories do not describe the essence of human mortality. No one returns from a week away at Lake Death to report on their vacation as a ghost. We waste too much time trying to figure out death when we could be living our lives. I don’t believe in ghosts.

Food for Thought-What’s Wrong With How We Encounter the Bible

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1. We’re too afraid to ask the obvious questions about the Bible’s contradictory content.

2. The fundamentalists who interpret the Bible and push their interpretations as the only possible way to understand the text.

3. We have unreal expectations. We think the Bible will work magic spells and do things it was never intended to do.

4. We’re taught to believe that true faith equates to the literal belief in stories; stories which the people in the Bible read metaphorically.

5. We don’t know how to take an ancient text seriously.

6. The Bible is not an owner’s manual for Christian living.  This idea has hurt more people than it has helped.

7. The Bible doesn’t provide a road map to a place we call heaven.

8. We see the Bible as one book, not a collection of books and stories. Each book reflects its author’s unique agenda and historical context.

9. We forget there’s much in common between the Bible and the Quran. That should make us both uncomfortable and less judgmental.

10. We confuse the book with God. We don’t worship a book.

Food for Thought-The Violence of Grief

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I led a service of thanksgiving for the life of one of my church members this past Sunday afternoon. It was, as many remembrance services are, arranged quickly and in the wake of a sudden tragedy. The deceased was a veteran of the United States Marines Corps. Although we weren’t holding a church service or graveside memorial, an honor guard was present to render military honors, a gun salute, and present the flag to his widow. This is a ceremony I’ve witnessed on many occasions. Regardless of how many times I hear “Taps” played and observe the precision with which the honor guard folds the flag, I am regularly moved to tears. These are moments of incredible sadness. How can they not be? As with many of the funerals I’ve officiated each are tinged with a unique sense of grief. Despite a common liturgy, no two services or moments of death are the same.

3956__bigAs the flag was unfolded and then refolded, I wondered, “How many times have they done this for their friends?” Each of the young Marines wore two or three ribbons. The Lance Corporals had Good Conduct Medals and Marksmanship awards. The Staff Sergeant wore the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal,  a distinctive myrtle green ribbon bordered by two bright orange stripes. Those are hard to miss.   Despite these differences, the men and the one woman had at least one ribbon or ribbons in common; campaign ribbons.  All of the Marines wore ribbons indicating they had served in Afghanistan or Iraq. I returned, in my mind, to my first question; “How many times have they done this for their friends?” It pained me to watch these rituals play out. For in this precise order and displayed this way they become some of the most powerful symbols of death in American culture. Unlike the pretend fear and spectacle of Halloween, this brightly colored flag and the well-groomed men and women in uniform remind me that death is real.

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I wanted to say two things. Were it appropriate, before I proceeded, I would thank them for the difficult work they do. Secondly, I wanted to tell them I was sorry they and their friends were sent to die not for the United States but something much less honorable. Our way of life, our ability to buy cheap mass produced junk from Chinese Communists to be sold in Wal-Mart, your ability to buy semi-automatic rifles in the same Wal-Mart, watch bad movies on Netflix, or pray to Jesus on Christmas Day at the County Courthouse while holding a copy of the 10 commandments wasn’t threatened by anyone in Iraq or Afghanistan. The people who told us those things were under threat after 9/11 weren’t telling the truth.

Lies were told to advance political, religious, and social agendas and these bore no impact on those most directly responsible for the events of September 11th, 2001. These lies brought and took America into perpetual state of war we remain today. We made a violent place more violent. What sense did that make? Land wars in southwest Asia, which Alexander the Great and Queen Victoria couldn’t win, America is now losing. What does blood and treasure look like? It looks like a folded flag on a Sunday afternoon.

There’s something about killing other people which seems antithetical to being a Christian. As I waited for the gun party to fire the salute, this idea ran back and forth through my mind. Call me old fashioned, I think the idea of violence runs counter to what Jesus and Paul teach about Christian living. Paul was a man intimately acquainted with violence. He either employed violence personally or engaged thugs to kill Christians. Many tactics we associate with ISIS using against Christian communities were the core of Paul’s “to-do” list prior to his experience on the road to Damascus. He was a brutal fundamentalist. Paul arrested, imprisoned, attacked, beat and killed his way through Christian communities prior to his conversion experience. Here is a man, much like these young men before me, acquainted with images of Middle Eastern violence. Paul knows the sights, smells, and sounds of the human body when it’s covered in blood, sand, and bruises. I believe some of these Marines probably do too. These are not pretty scenes or ones that quickly fade from mind.

Paul tells the Galatians, “You have heard about my previous life in Judaism, how severely I harassed God’s church and tried to destroy it.” He “severely” harassed and tried to “destroy” the church. Those are violent words. This was a violent man. He goes on to say, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my peers, because of was much more militant about the traditions of my ancestors.” Paul is militant. What changed this violent, militant man?

Paul comes to understand, as he notes in Romans 8, “there isn’t any condemnation” for those in Christ Jesus. What does Paul mean? Here’s a new reading: does it mean that for those who follow Christ, condemnation, confrontation, and violence aren’t options for your way of life?  I think so.  When you’ve lived a life of killing and condemnation, why continue in any path offering only more of the same, except with the veneer of religious justification? As Richard Hays, Dean of Duke Divinity School writes in The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, “There is not a syllable in the Pauline letters that can be cited in support of Christians employing violence.” Hays explains that even in cases where Paul uses military imagery in his rhetoric, they “actually have the opposite effect: the warfare imagery is drafted into the service of the gospel, rather than the reverse.”

I closed my eyes before the first of the three volleys. This was the part I thought Paul would help me understand; my fear in anticipating the next gunshot. I couldn’t help but imagine those same weapons being fired in combat. I felt that death and the weapons of death had come full circle. As we approached Halloween, the ghosts of Fallujah, Baghdad, Kabul, Kunduz, Kandahar, and Mosul had silently appeared on the shores of this tiny island. Where death, can we hide from your sting?

In 2nd Corinthians 5, Paul writes, “If we’re crazy, it’s for God’s sake. If we’re rational, it’s for God’s sake.” I think Paul would say, in the midst of this crazy, death obsessed irrationality, God is here. Paul wants us to recognize God’s presence. In recognizing God’s presence, we realize we are trusted with a message of reconciliation. You cannot reconcile with those whom you are going to kill. Paul realizes what this means. This is why he tells the Corinthians to expect problems, riots, verbal abuse, disasters, beatings, torture, and imprisonment. It will get worse before it gets better. We will not inflict any more blows or beatings. Instead, because Christ became sin for us; we will absorb violence on behalf of others. This is the way of the Cross. Reconciliation isn’t popular or easy. Violence gets more applause and pats on the back.

As the last note of taps sounded, the Marines marched away and my part of the service began. These thoughts receded into the background only to be shared now with you, dear reader. I pray for those who fight and die and the violence thrust upon them in this never ending war. I pray for nonviolence. I pray, despite the political and social inertia to accept killing as a way of life, we might do otherwise.

Food for Thought-A Prayer of Confession (Mark 10:46-52)

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Gracious and Forgiving God,
Heal us from our self-imposed blindness,
Our willing deafness,
Our headfirst jump into the lake of spiritual ignorance,
Free us from the sin of thinking we are aware,
When we are most certainly not,
When we are wrapped up in our comfortable blankets of theological self-righteousness,
Believing ourselves to be the people we are pretending to be,
On Sunday mornings
And midweek nights,
When we click like,
Or hit send,
And gently feel better about,
Our well-intentioned souls.
Forgive us, O God.

–Richard Bryant