It’s never good when the phone rings late on Saturday night at the preacher’s house. I go to bed early on most nights. But, on Saturday, it’s a must. Sunday is always around the corner, and I don’t like staying up late for any reason on Saturdays. By 11:00 pm, I’m usually well on my way to sleep. The BBC World Service is playing softly in the background and I’m ready to dream about a full congregation.
The ring scares me to death. I admit it; I am startled. No matter how tough I pretend to be, I am jumpy when the phone rings at night. It’s never, “I’m the preacher; hand the receiver over dear, let me see what problem there is to solve.” It’s always, “Dear God, what’s happened.” As I reach for the phone, hundreds of scenarios run through my mind at the speed of light. Is someone dead, has something happened to my church? Are my parents alright? Are the kids okay?
Tonight it is the latter. It is our middle daughter. She is preparing to graduate from college in a few weeks. In these last few days of her undergraduate education, she finds herself sad, overwhelmed, lonely, and in one of those classic “dark nights of the soul.” I know those places. I tell her this. I have been there many times. She speaks for a moment to her mother. Then, after a time, I ask her to hand the phone to me. “I want to tell her I love her,” I say. Thus begins the process of listening and weeping.
For a moment we say nothing. “Are you alone?” I ask.
She says, “No.”
“Good,” I say. “Keep someone with you tonight. We can come there if we need to.”
I tell her I love her. I will always love her. I say that our brains sometimes lie to us, and we believe those lies. You are more than the chemicals your brain releases to regulate your mood. Listen to me, listen to mom, listen to your counselor, look at your friends: you are life and you are love.
I hear her breathing begin to slow. Finally, she says, “You sound like a motivational speaker.” We both laugh. It’s good to listen to her infectious laugh. I hear hope. I sense that she is going to be okay. She has heard what I’ve said about perspective and making it through the night. I believe she believes me when I tell tomorrow will look entirely different than tonight.
“Look for the first rays of sunlight,” I say. That’s how you know you made it.
That was the most important thing I did all last week. I helped bring resurrection to life, from a two-dimensional story to a three dimensional reality and I did it for my daughter. We walked out of darkness into light. We walked to Emmaus on the phone.
I’m thinking a lot about Easter these days after the resurrection. Jesus is popping up everywhere but never in the synagogues or the Jerusalem First United Methodist Church. He’s always somewhere else – on the road to Emmaus, out by the tomb, busting in the Upper Room, or taking my daughter’s hand and telling her to call home late on a Saturday night. We meet life and resurrection in the wildest places; more often than not, it’s not in church. So where do you think you might meet Jesus today?
There is always someone with another quarter to feed the outrage machine. I admit I’ve spent my fair share of change but think I’m about broke. Mea culpa. Kyrie Eleison. My ashtray is empty, my has been card declined, and my overdraft protection is zero.
I can choose to be mad forever at the injustices in our world or do something about them in a positive, loving way. When people start dying for turning around in the wrong driveway, it’s time for all of us to take a deep breath. To paraphrase Jesus of Nazareth, we are at a live by the sword, die by the sword moment. And now, more often than not, we seem to be dying by the sword.
Anger, directed outwardly toward others or bottled up inside my soul, isn’t going to change how anyone else thinks. I admit it, it feels great to get it off your chest. There is value in making a well-reasoned point-to a point. What our society has come to define as “culture wars” are, in fact, not conflicts ultimately about beliefs – what you or I believe about scripture, human sexuality, God, or the church. They are issues of identity. For example, my view of scripture is central to my identity as a person and fundamental to how I see the world. It is the same way for my traditionalist sisters and brothers.
Years-long debates and disaffiliation votes don’t change someone’s identity or who they see when they look in the mirror. If anything, they, as we’ve seen, harden the resolve of all parties involved. Extended arguments make it more challenging to find grace-filled, Holy Spirit-led solutions. Why? We’ve stop seeing something sacred in each other’s identity. Once you’ve “othered” your neighbor, no matter who your neighbor is (even if they’re your blood kin), it’s hard to love them as you love yourself.
I’m beginning to wonder, is there winning a religious argument? Is there a point in getting into a religious argument? No, not really. There are no winners. We all lose at one level. Which of us is getting the Bible right or wrong? Probably, none of us. How do we know we’re interpreting the Bible correctly? We don’t. Whose vision of God is leaner and meaner? Yours or mine. I don’t know. We’re both right. We’re both wrong. I do believe our greatest sin is that of certainty. Of this, I am certain.
I admit it; I’m physically and emotionally drained. Will we come to a point where we recognize that those we’ve demonized are not demons? I hope so. I do not believe there are demons in the United Methodist Church. There are plenty of flawed humans and ordinary sinners. I count myself among them. United Methodists are regular people trying to win our version of the world’s oldest unwinnable argument: religion. If we speak peace, we talk to Christ; then we can talk to each other. If the Catholics, Protestants, Serbs, and Muslims can keep speaking, Methodists have every hope for the future as well (United or not).
There are two types of doubts. First, you can doubt an idea or concept. You can also doubt a person. Sometimes it can seem like you’re doing both, but if you think about it, it’s one or the other or most of one than the other. This is story is more the latter.
You know the drill. Every year after Easter, we preach about doubting Thomas, or so he has been labeled. We pick up later on Easter day, and Jesus appears to the 10. Thomas is out. For whatever reason, he’s not there. I’ll suggest a few in a moment but hold that thought. When Thomas returns, the 10 tell him the good news, Jesus appeared to them. Thomas doesn’t believe them. He’s grieving; he’s hurt; he’s angry he missed Jesus. You can imagine his emotions. He wants to see Jesus for himself. He says he won’t believe Jesus is alive until he touches his wounds personally. The next day, Thomas is in the house; Jesus drops in, Thomas feels the hands, and Jesus asks the famous question, “Why did you doubt?” Next thing you know, this guy who’s been by Jesus’ side busting his butt for three years as a disciple is labeled with the handle “Doubting Thomas.” I don’t like it. It stinks to high heaven. You ask one question, and you’re marked for all human history. Really, what gives?
I’m tired of people picking on Thomas. I don’t like bullies and think most churches have bullied Thomas throughout time. It’s easy for all of us to gather here once a year, all high and mighty, and call a man we’ve never met, who died two thousand years ago, a doubter based on one sentence in the Bible. How would you like it if someone was calling you by an adjective you didn’t earn or deserve two thousand years from now, and you weren’t here to defend yourself? It wouldn’t be fair, now would it? What kind of courage or theology does it take to attack a man we’ve never met who’s been dead two thousand years and can’t defend himself? I’ll answer that: hollow courage and bad theology.
Let’s get this straight. Thomas is not a doubter. He is a person who shares his expectations. Earlier in John’s gospel, we’re told he was the first to volunteer to go to Jerusalem after the resurrection with Lazarus, even if that meant certain death. That means he was courageous. He was a guy you wanted on your team. He was the first guy to respond to the active shooter situation. That’s the kind of guy Thomas was. If you needed backup, he had Jesus’ back. Does that sound like a doubter? Maybe, just maybe, we’re confusing grief with doubt. God help us if we’re doing that.
Thomas is a person who asks good, hard questions. Unfortunately, we forget it’s okay for religious people to ask good, hard questions about themselves and their faith. You’re not going to hell for asking questions. On the contrary, you’ll become better able to defend your faith; the more questions you ask, the better informed and knowledgeable you become. In fact, why aren’t we more like Thomas? Why don’t we ask more questions instead of accepting everything a Sunday School teacher or preacher tells us at face value? Let’s dialogue!
We’ve created a stigma around asking questions in church. If you ask a religious question, you must be weak in your faith, have moral problems, or are uncertain about God, Jesus, the Bible, or basic religious concepts. Something must be wrong with you. Nothing could be farther from the truth! So why don’t we ask more questions? I can think of three primary reasons.
First, we need to remember to. We forget that we can ask questions or neglect to ask outright. As I said earlier, we’re conditioned by the church not to ask questions. Asking questions is seen as a sign of weakness. Sure, we’ll ask what time a service starts or if we can volunteer for a clean-up day, but when it comes to, “Will you explain the Trinity to me?” We get too busy. We become distracted. Or we’ll forget and go on to planning our grocery list while we’re reciting the Apostles’ Creed.
There’s also another huge reason we don’t ask questions in church. We don’t want to look weird or awkward. We think our questions will make us look stupid at worst or heretical at best. Face it; we know that church people can occasionally come off as judgmental and gossipy. If someone were to hear you ask me, “How is that it if it was in the plan all along that Jesus die for our sins? How can we be mad at Judas for doing what God intended done all along? Do I sound crazy for even asking that question, preacher?” Some people would flip out if they heard anyone ask that question. I know because I asked it to my pastor when I was in the eighth grade after a Maundy Thursday service. Just because you ask a hard question doesn’t mean you doubt that Jesus Christ is your savior. It simply means you want to know if the church has sincerely considered an answer to your question. I promise you, if you’ve asked the question, others have done the same thing. They might not have spoken up because they felt awkward or were browbeaten into silence. No more. We shouldn’t be discouraged by questions. We shouldn’t be making people feel awkward or weird in any way. If you’ve got questions, fire away. Nothing is too strange to be taken off the table. If you’ve thought of a question, I guarantee someone else has also thought of it.
Here’s another critical point, if we can’t answer our tough questions, how will we answer the world’s hard questions? If we shut down dialogue and debate within the church, we sure aren’t going to convert anyone to our cause because we won’t know how to talk to the people beyond our walls like regular people. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we use a lot of inside baseball language in the church, terms, and phrases that only make sense because we go here and have been going here for a long time. How might we talk to questioners with dignity, grace, and class in ways that assume no background in faith and still make Jesus Christ understandable to all?
A third reason we don’t ask questions is that we don’t know how to ask or frame our questions. We don’t know quite what to say or put our thoughts into words. They’re up there in our heads. It’s just putting them in a coherent framework. But, again, it’s helpful to remember that other people have the same questions. Good questions lead to thoughtful answers that aren’t smarmy or snarky. We must ask good questions so our answers aren’t pat, cliché, and “that’s just the way it is” answers. The world deserves our best.
The church has a history of beating up on doubters, but we live in a world that grows ambiguity and uncertainty like tomatoes in a summer garden. We demand certainty, but in the face of such violence (particularly of the kind we’ve witnessed in Nashville and Louisville), how can we not doubt that something has gone a little wrong in our quest for security, safety, mental health, and peace in early 21st century America. If there’s ever been a time to create a safe space for asking questions, it is now before any more lives are lost.
Asking questions (what some call inaccurately refer to as doubt) is ultimately about extending a measure of grace to the person posing the question. Do we have it within us to extend a portion of God’s grace (grace we’ve already received) so we can listen to someone else’s heartfelt query about scripture, faith, grief, and prayer and walk with them on their journey, wherever that may be? I hope so. If not, we’re the one who needs to ask some long, hard questions of ourselves.
If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be [routinely] practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings; that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (“the secret brand”); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible of circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to an insane asylum. —Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
As I watch the rising tide of fascism from my front-row seats here in early 21st-century America, I’ve started to re-read some of the 20th-century classics which chronicled the rise of fascism in central Europe both before and during the second world war. Since the beginning of Lent, I’ve spent time with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Viktor Frankl, Hannah Arendt, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and most recently, Anne Frank.
After re-reading Anne’s diary alongside Arendt’s, The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem, I’ve come to a few conclusions. Namely, most of us (hopeful, western religious types) are taking Anne’s famous quote, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart,” out of context. We see what we want to see and hope for the future, something beyond anti-Semitism, death camps, and gas chambers. I’m no longer sure that’s what she meant. Instead, I think she’s asking us to look beyond the superficialities of the moment, something we desperately need to do at a time when democracy itself is under a once-in-a-generation existential threat and religious practice is reduced to a zero-sum game-of one fundamentalism fighting another to the death.
As one must do in good Biblical textual criticism, you must look at the next verse. Context matters. She followed that hopeful line with an almost apocalyptic sentence that referred to the “ever approaching thunder” and “the suffering of millions.” Hardly the pollyannish revelations of a young woman who thought goodness lay at the center of every human heart. Anne knew the full horror of fascism’s once-unleashed terror and how it enabled ordinary people to commit unspeakable crimes. Hence, she saw what Arendt would later describe during Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem.
Whether they were Dutch collaborators (in Anne’s case) or Nazi soldiers, ordinary recruits from German homes-regular people did the job of exterminating their fellow human beings. Middle class German husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons committed crimes against humanity; day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year until they came for her. Horror, as Arendt would observe, is contradictory. It is banal, evil, brutal, inane, and insane all at the same time. Anne sees and senses this. It is evident in her diary. She considers the randomness of her situation when she writes, “I keep asking myself, whether one would have trouble in the long run, whoever one shared a house with. Or did we strike it extra unlucky?”
Like Anne Frank, we are also burdened with the inane and insane banality of civilizational ending violence. Instead of killing thousands of people in organized camps, Americans opt to do it in groups of 5-20 at a time using a weapon called the AR-15. We can be so unlucky as to walk into school or a bank one morning and pay with our lives. We can only hide for so long from the weapons which may kill us or our neighbors (husbands, wives, daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers) who’ve lost touch with reality and have lost the ability to see humanity as human. As with Arendt, Frankl, Frank, and Bonhoeffer, this type of evil is not only becoming normalized; it’s also adapting to the 21st century, like artificial intelligence, into something so banal that we can’t see our reality for the fascism it is becoming. Unless there is a series we can binge, we’re prepared to go to vigil after vigil for the dead we know and those we do not know. We mouth the words of memory, say “never again,” and return home to watch the final season of Succession. At this point, some of us will become victims while others will become perpetrators. Who assumes what role may depend on, as Anne said, “striking it extra unlucky.”
I fear this: it will be too late to realize what’s happened when, to paraphrase futurist Ray Kurzweil, the armed singularity occurs. We will be hiding in attics, writing in our diaries. The most dangerous place to live will be a country with more guns than people, and everyone is convinced that everyone else’s religion is wrong. News flash: we’re halfway there.
(April 9th (Easter Sunday) marks the 78th anniversary of the death of noted theologian and martyr Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. To honor his memory, I have written him a letter, in the tradition of his famous work, “Letters and Papers from Prison.”)
May I call you Dietrich? I’ve known you for 27 years now. I’ve walked through your home in Berlin and stood at the place in Flossenburg Concentration Camp where you died. Your books line my shelves. I feel like I know you. It feels strange to call you Pastor Bonhoeffer. You are my friend, Dietrich. But at the same time, you are also a pastor to me.
In my darkest moments, I remember a letter you wrote from prison in which you said, “…my grim experiences often follow me into the night, and the only way I can shake them off is by reciting one hymn after another, and that when I wake up, it is generally with a sigh, rather than with a hymn of praise.”
You tell it like it is. We need to hear from a pastor who’s not afraid to speak the truth when he has good and bad days. I’ve tried to do the same. You taught me not to give up, even when you feel like you have one Good Friday after another.
The anniversary of your death coincides with our celebrations of Christ’s resurrection on Easter. Knowing you as reasonably as I think I do, I believe you’d say that to mention your death, in any way, at the same time we celebrate the resurrection, isn’t something you’d want us to do. It’s not about you. I can hear you telling us. It’s a story that begins and ends with our giving voice to the Good News and forming an ethical Christian community. We shouldn’t lose focus by talking about you. I do admire your humility. However, my brother in Christ, you were and are one of the most important martyrs of the Christian faith. This year, the anniversary of your death falls on the day that we proclaim our most powerful message. I, for one, couldn’t look at myself in the mirror if I didn’t say “Thank You” for your words that continue to inspire my preaching and witness.
Dietrich, we are in a difficult and divided time. America, like your Germany, is on edge. It is not as you experienced in Weimar Germany in the 1930s, but the forces of fascism, totalitarianism, violence, and evil are surging in familiar ways. Antisemitism is on the rise. School shootings are becoming a regular part of American life. I turn to your writings on ethics and the Sermon on the Mount to expound on Jesus’ teachings and help others understand that the dominant culture of despair and hopelessness is not the kingdom of God. Because as you said, “we only know who we are in the light of God.” We must keep the light shining, even from places like Flossenburg, Nashville, Uvalde, and Sandy Hook.
About a year before you died, you wrote, “You would be surprised, and perhaps even worried, by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to… What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, for us today.”
Then you continued, ““We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’…
“And if therefore man becomes radically religionless—and I think that is already more or less the case (else, how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any ‘religious’ reaction?)—what does that mean for ‘Christianity’?” “Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity—and even this garment has looked very different at different times—then what is a religionless Christianity?”
My life changed forever when I read those words. You said something I’d been thinking about and could not describe. Bonhoeffer could not understand how people could continue to call themselves Christian and confess Orthodox beliefs, observe its moral codes, and follow the accepted behaviors and practices of the Church while simultaneously committing unspeakable horrors. We saw the same thing in the American south with racism and lynching. Now we are witnessing Christian nationalism on the rise throughout our country, which advocates strict doctrines while easily “othering” those in society they deem as unworthy of God’s love.
Perhaps, you proposed, religion was the problem with Christianity. Was it possible, you asked, to practice Christianity if it was divorced from Jesus’ command to love our neighbors if religion got in the way?
You never got a chance to answer the question. One week after you died, the camp was liberated.
Finding the answers, your answers, it’s up to us.
I, for one, am ready to keep trying and searching.
Never stop a mentally ill person from buying a gun,
Thoughts and prayers…
Never stop a broken soul from pulling a trigger,
Thoughts and prayers…
Never pass legislation,
Thoughts and prayers…
Never stop the next school shooting,
Thoughts and prayers…
Are an easy cliché,
Thoughts and prayers…
Are sometimes hard to say,
Thoughts and prayers…
Are difficult for survivors to hear,
Thoughts and prayers…
Are like all prayers: words.
May our prayers be more than words. May they be words brought to life by the Holy Spirit.
Forgive us of the sins of indifference. Let us not be overwhelmed by the pain. Instead, empower us to act to bind the broken, heal the hurting, preach peace, vanquish violence, and embody the Good News of Jesus Christ. May we move beyond comforting thoughts and our comfort zones to confront the principalities and powers of this world so that the deaths we see will not be the permanent reality we are currently forced to embrace.
I lift my fist, in allergic opposition to the pollen all about me, my nose and eyes stand in full revolt. I blow its green dust, rebuke pollen’s seasonal hold where it lands as I look and sigh the unending mist, never ceases to be, everywhere I touch, and everything I see.
Palm Sunday isn’t about the parade, procession, a prophecy fulfilled, or the palms. It’s about the search for the ongoing answer to the question Jesus first posed to the disciples in Matthew 16, “Whom do you say that I am?” At the core of the Palm Sunday events, we find the disciples, crowds, temple leaders, and Roman elites all asking the last question from today’s gospel lesson, “Who is this guy on the donkey?” Is he just a teacher from Galilee, or is he something more? There are lots of excited people gathered in the streets. At first glance, the event looks like some popular revolt or protest. (Some things never change, look at the news from Israel even today.)
Few people recognize him. Is he the rabbi from Nazareth? Who is the man at the center of this ill-formed parade? What is his name? Do they call him Jesus? Whom does he claim to be? Is he an anointed one or a teacher, a prophet, all three, or something else? Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15) The crowd asks, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matthew 21:10-11)
This is what Palm Sunday is about. Palm Sunday is a question of identity. It’s the quest for the historical Jesus, the theological Jesus, the economic Jesus, the sociological Jesus, the Jewish Jesus, the Christian Jesus; it’s everything we’ve tried to see Jesus as and understand him to be for the past two thousand years simplified by these two questions from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus wants to know whom we think he is, and others want to know our understanding of Jesus’ identity. So who is Jesus for us, and who is for the world?
Is Jesus more than just your savior? Is he just a guy on a donkey you see in a crowd from a distance? Like spotting Santa Claus across a sea of people at a chilly December Christmas parade? You know Jesus and what he does, but does he impact your life?
Who is Jesus to you? On Palm Sunday, we see Jesus from a distance, say we believe, and go about our business and move on. That’s the reality of Holy Week for the masses. Is this the extent of our relationship with Jesus? We claim it’s personal, but I believe many of us have never given Jesus’ question in Matthew 16 much thought. We know whom the church says Jesus is, but who do we think Jesus is, and how does that impact how we live our lives and relate to our other people?
As we approach Palm Sunday, how might we answer the Matthew 16 question more precisely than the Joe Friday “just the facts” version found in Matthew 21?
I say Jesus is my friend. To quote Snoopy, I need all the friends I can get. So, I say he is my friend.
I say Jesus is someone who brings out the best in me. When I’m in the presence of the resurrection, my whole perspective changes. I see death as a lie. I see Jesus’ message of hope, life, and love as something which can heal my brokenness at my most profound level.
I say Jesus is the person who does what I cannot do for myself. Jesus saves me. I cannot save myself. I do not accept the pull oneself up by your bootstrap’s myth of American exceptionalism and that we are all self-made people who make it by our initiative. I also need Jesus. I can do nothing without Christ. Christ is my savior. In my weakness, I rely on his strength. There is no shame in admitting my faults. Why? Because Jesus, my friend Jesus loves me and makes me a better person than I would be without him. When I look at the world through his eyes, I can see. Without him by my side and in my life, I am blind to suffering, oppression, evil, and sin.
Palm Sunday isn’t really about the parade or the palms. Instead, it’s a gut check. Palm Sunday is about Jesus’ identity. Before we go to the cross, we all have to ask ourselves, who do you say Jesus is?
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