All Means All

This week, we return to the gospel of John (12:20-33). Any time you are dealing with the gospel of John, you have to be prepared to deal with a whole lot. Every passage in John is filled with great depth, history, philosophy, tradition, etc. Our passage this week is no different. On Sunday, we will focus on the bit about the seed and losing/keeping your life, as I think it bears the most explaining. However, there is another important piece worth mentioning.


The whole thing begins with a group of Greeks seeking out Jesus. They go to Philip (a disciple with a Greek name who comes from a city in the north that is more likely to be influenced by the Greco-Roman Culture) and ask him if they can see Jesus. This sets Jesus off into proclaiming that this is the “time for the Human One to be glorified.” What is that all about?


Keep in mind, John is a later gospel and has a more cosmopolitan influence. By the writing of John, it had become clear that this Jesus movement wasn’t just a Jewish thing, but a whole new thing. What is alluded to in this passage is that Jesus’ message is now reaching beyond the usual boundaries, and that is the indication that things are coming to a head. Now that Greeks are starting to show up, Jesus knows that the crucifixion and resurrection are just around the corner.


So what is it about Greeks showing up that signals the beginning of this final sequence before the crucifixion? This is a sure sign for John’s first readers that the way things used to be are coming to an end, and things are going to be different from here on out. Specifically, the message of this Jesus isn’t just limited to one tribe, one people, one small backwater land in the Roman empire. No, this message is for everyone.


Now we say that a whole lot, but do we actually believe it? In my experience, the answer is no. The answer we usually seem to give to this is that it is only good news for those who choose to follow Jesus. Usually, that comes with the caveat that this is only good news for those who follow Jesus just like we do, look like we do, dress like we do, live in the same socio-economic bracket that we do, embrace the same life-style that we do, speak the same language that we do, have the same shade of skin that we do…I could go on, but I bet you get my point by now.


The fact is, we like to place the scriptures in context when it doesn’t require too much of us—Jesus was talking to Greeks, he clearly didn’t mean the people that I don’t like when he said in this passage that he is going to gather all people to himself. He was just talking about those Greeks, right? He was just opening the door to the Greeks. He definitely wasn’t opening the door to __________________ (fill in the blank with whichever group that your news network encourages you to despise).


I think part of the lesson from this passage is that “All” means “All.” This is a good lesson in scriptural interpretation in that when Jesus reaches out to include someone, your task is not to include whoever Jesus specifically just included, but whoever you don’t want to include.


So ask yourself, who is it that I don’t want to be at the same table as me? Who is it that I think is unworthy, deplorable, evil, unclean, lazy, weird, different, etc.? That is probably who Jesus would be talking to in this passage. And if that thought doesn’t rock your boat a little, you aren’t trying hard enough—think harder about who you really don’t think is worthy of God’s grace. That is probably who you will be seated next to at the divine feast in the kingdom of heaven. See you Sunday!



This Sunday we will be diving into scripture that has serious baggage—John 3. It is hard not to think about this passage without all the various associations—Born Again Christianity, Guys in rainbow wigs at football games waving Signs emblazoned John 3:16, or how much Belief has become central to Christian thought. How do you begin to compose a sermon on this passage without having to stop off and comment on all of that other stuff?


Well…let’s unpack a bit of that baggage here, so we don’t have to rehash it on Sunday too much. First of all, Belief. Let’s just start by saying that the Greek word that is translated belief, has very little to do with what we think of as belief. As we tend to talk about it, belief means a rational ascent to a set of doctrinal propositions. In other words, our faith is boiled down to whether or not we think that Jesus is God’s son is factually accurate. I don’t know about you, but I hear that and I just roll my eyes. There is so much baggage from the enlightenment and the broken relationship between science and faith, and frankly, just bad preaching that is hanging around that proposition. The Greek word that is so poorly translated as belief is pistuo , and it really doesn’t have anything to do with rational ascent, scientific facts, or doctrine. Pistuo is a relational word and has more to do with the way we talk about belief when we say we believe in our kid, or our spouse, or our hero. It is supportive trust that improves our lives and the lives of those we care for. As a matter of fact, the word belief in English came from the old German word belieben which meant beloved. So when we start talking about belief, get doctrine or facts out of your head. That points at the very problem that Jesus is addressing with Nicodemus in this passage. Jesus is trying to point at a different way of living, at a deeper more meaningful life, at rich relationships and ultimately at love. However, Nicodemus, much like many modern Christians, is more concerned with getting his facts straight about how this born anew stuff actually works. Nicodemus is chasing a litmus test for who gets in and who doesn’t. Isn’t it ironic that we have turned this passage, Jesus’ very teaching about living more deeply and richly into a litmus test for who gets judged and who doesn’t?


This passage may be the very definition of how we use scripture to do violence. It is about the love of God for all of creation, and yet, we use it to set up fences around ourselves, so that we are the beloved and everyone else is not. We are the enlightened, the “Born Again,” and everyone else is not. Wow, we just don’t get it do we. Last week, we spoke of Christ understanding human nature in John 2, and now we are reminded of just how broken that human nature can be—using the love of God to determine the in crowd.


Instead of using this as a test for who is in and who is out, who is judged and who is saved, we ought to head the warning that is fairly obvious in this passage. Nicodemus is a religious leader in Israel. Nicodemus is the very definition of the “in crowd.” Nicodemus is us. Nicodemus is the one that would be holding up that John 3:16 sign to point to himself as saved, with the implied threat that you other heathens better get in line. Nicodemus stands in for every one of us pew sitters out there. This story isn’t about those “other” people who are going to be judged. This story is a reminder that the moment we think that we have it, that we are the enlightened or “Born again,” that we have punched our ticket to salvation, that we better be prepared to walk away befuddled, just as Nicodemus does. This story is not about “getting it.” This story is not about being chosen, or right, or saved. This story is about God’s love for everyone—no exceptions. In fact, if we understand the Greek word pistuo more accurately as a way of life, and not simply a litmus test for who is in, it would be us Nicodemus’ who would end up on that list of the “judged.” It is striking that this passage about the religious insider is put back-to-back with the religious outsider—the Samaritan woman at the well. The religious insider doesn’t get it and walks away confounded, the outsider gets it and changes her life.


Now all of this probably comes off a bit harsh, but here is the lesson for us. God’s grace is for everyone. EVERYONE! Which means the way that we treat everyone matters because everyone is the object of God’s love. It means there are no insiders or outsiders. It means that all of those categories that we have constructed for ourselves are irrelevant. It means that our calling is to serve ALL people, not just the ones we like, or the ones who go to our church, or the ones who were born in this country, or the ones who live like we do, or the ones who are of the same faith as us, or the ones who voted the way that we did, or any other category. I know that you here this from me all the time, but this seems to be the hardest lesson for any of us to learn. It needs repeating on a regular basis.

I hope you take this to heart this week and find a way to broaden your own categories. I hope that you can find a means of living pistuo instead of just believing. On Sunday, we will take on more of the baggage by talking about the cross, and what it means for us. See you then!

Peace on Earth?

This week, we continue our journey to prepare for the coming of the Christ Child, by reflecting on two other sets of characters in our nativities—the Shepherds and Angels.

This week, the plan was to focus on that declaration from the angels to the shepherds, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace to all people.” (or “to those whom God favors.”) I have to be honest with you though, I am having a hard time contemplating peace at the moment…

Yesterday, the high school that I grew up attending was attacked. Three were killed, many others injured. I have been a bit rattled since then, to say the least. Aztec is a small town, and everyone knows everyone. It should come as no surprise that I was acquainted with one of the families that lost a child yesterday.

The story made the national news last night. I was watching as they did about a 15 second segment showing photos of the classrooms that I went to school in, and they informed us of yet another school shooting.

I noticed what was going on through friends online within about an hour of the beginning of events. Within about three hours, people’s Facebook avatars had changed to display orange AHS ribbons and “Aztec Strong,” emblazoned across their pictures. Call me cynical, but that show of unity and strength happening in such a short amount of time only made me feel worse. How have we gotten to such a point as a society where we are ready to go with the “prayers” and unity logos on such short notice? How have we gotten to the point where a school shooting only warrants a brief mention on national news?

Aztec was Mayberry growing up. My memories of that town are of every citizen lining the streets as I marched in the band and we did yet another summer parade. I would not be exaggerating to say that life in that small town was not unlike sitcoms of the 1950’s with their overly idyllic portrayals of small town life. I was a sophomore in that high school 18 years ago when the events of Columbine unfolded. I remember receiving the news of the Columbine shooting and thinking that surely nothing like that could happen in our school, while I sat in a classroom that would be shredded by bullets 18 years later. And now…

And now, we reflect on that proclamation from the angels:

“Peace on Earth.”

Like I said, I am having a hard time with peace today. I love the sentiment of peace. I hope deeply for peace. However, I am having a hard time recognizing it in the world we live in today.

I suppose that is part of why this season is so incredibly important to our faith. We wish and hope for peace again, as we contemplate the coming of Christ again. We place our faith in our God to save us from ourselves once more. We hope and pray for a new beginning in which things like what happened yesterday in Aztec will happen no more. We hope and pray for a new beginning in which the very cities and streets that Jesus walked upon will no longer be filled with clashes between soldiers and people whose homes have been taken from them. We hope and pray for a new beginning in which there is a kind of equity between all people so that no mouths go hungry and no one feels that violence is their only option.

So let us offer up yet another round of prayers for our broken world. But please…for the Love of God…let those prayers be accompanied by action on our part. Let us not simply put on a display of unity in the face of tragedy that simply serves as window dressing to cover up our deep divisions. Instead, let us seek to talk to each other and live the love of God with those with whom we disagree so that action can be taken to prevent these continued murders. Let us not offer hollow prayers while we wring our hands and exclaim that nothing can be done. Let us actually seek healing, let us rebuild systems to care for those with mental illness and identify the kind of brokenness that leads someone to think that violence in a school is an option. Let us not just continue the far-too-often-rehearsed cycle, until it is time to start it once again when a different set of lives are lost at another Aztec somewhere in our country. Let’s actually do something to change the cycle this time.

While I would love to think that there is some piece of legislation that could be passed by our elected officials that would solve this problem once and for all, our elected officials have shown themselves to be completely incapable of addressing these issues. Besides, I think that real action on these kinds of situations has to start closer to home. We have to all do a better job of watching out for those who live on the margins.

For whatever reason, the shooters in these situations tend to be young white men who are feeling alienated and powerless. Perhaps it is time for all of us to pay closer attention to the people in our lives who are alienated and living on the margins. It requires of us compassion, and attention, and time. We need to be more ready to give of ourselves to those who find themselves cut off.  We need to make sure all those around us know that they are indeed beloved children of God, and if they don’t have a place in their lives where they receive that message, we need to be the ones to bring it to them.

I think there is a reason that the angels are pronouncing Peace on Earth to the people (likely young men) who were quite literally living on the margins in ancient times. I think this is a model for us. We need to take on the task of proclaiming God’s peace to the powerless, the marginalized, the broken and the outcast. Evangelism is not about putting butts in pews. Evangelism, as the angels demonstrate, is about proclaiming hope, peace, joy and love to those who find themselves out in the cold. After all, at the heart of the word evangelism is angel (ev-angel-ism). This week, our nativity teaches us that we too, need to bear the good news of great joy to those who live in darkness.

Perhaps this sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky, but I refuse to believe that we are powerless. I tend to believe we haven’t yet lived up to our calling to bring God’s message of peace to those who need to hear it the most. Perhaps this sounds like a desperate pastor trying to make lemonade out of lemons, but I refuse to believe that empty prayers are the only response that we have in our arsenal at a time like this.

So my prayer for you this day is that you proclaim peace in a world that lacks it. My prayer for you this day is to let the events of the last days not pass away without changing the way you live. Let this be a reminder that we need to be paying closer attention to one another. We need to be prepared to put aside our busy-ness and listen to those who are hurting. We need to be ready to seek out those who are living in the margins and bring them back into the fold. After all, that is at the heart of the ministry that this child coming into the world would lead. So let our proclamations of, “Peace on Earth,” have some substance. Let our prayers be accompanied by action. Let us work to ensure that the angel’s proclamations are not empty either. PEACE ON EARTH.

What’s Behind that White/Black Hat?

One of the richest stories in all of Genesis is the Joseph story. Unfortunately, not much of it makes it into the lectionary. We basically get the beginning and the end. In between there are stories of imprisonment, interpreting dreams, false accusations of sexual impropriety, famines, desperation, more sexual impropriety, family drama, and the list goes on. This week, we just get the beginning.


Joseph himself ends up being an incredibly interesting character because he is not altogether good. In fact, at the beginning, it is pretty easy to see that he is basically a snotty little brat who probably deserves what’s coming to him. That being said though, he is also a character who clearly learns a lot and develops a lot before the end of the story. By the end he is able to utter some of the most graceful words in all of scripture (that is for next week).


What I think is so very important about recognizing Joseph for who he is (the good and the bad), is that it shows us a lot about true humanity. Unfortunately, we too often live in boiled down views of the world where, like the Lone Ranger, there are black hats and white hats with no in between. Yet, it is clear in scripture that none of the ‘heroes’ of our faith are actually all good. Noah=drunk, Joseph=snotty brat, Moses=murderer, David=philanderer and murderer, Paul=zealot, Solomon=womanizer, Abraham=attempted infanticide, and the list goes on and on and on. Heroes in scripture are not without their faults.


It also happens to be the case that most of the villains are not necessarily flat characters either. Last week we dealt with Esau, who had every right to hate his brother, yet extended forgiveness. In Joseph’s story, several of his brothers actually try to find a way to help him live while others wanted blood. Pilate at times seems to even be a somewhat sympathetic character while putting Jesus on trial (he attempts to let Jesus off the hook, but the people instead choose Barabas.


The Bible does not come with too many flat characters. There is depth to all of them, and that is one of the reasons it is one of the finest literary works in history. Unfortunately, the complexity that belongs to each of the Biblical figures is not often offered to anyone in our own day and age. Our politics are a prime example of this—if you don’t agree with me you must be a baby killing, racist, fascist, communist, uneducated, easily manipulated, foolish, idiotic, evil person. Why is it we are unwilling to offer each other the same kind of grace that abounds in scripture?


I imagine that if we had the same kind of access to each other’s stories as we do to the characters of scripture, we might be more likely to be open to the possibility that the other might actually have a reason for believing what they do. Of course, we also often think that even hearing out the “enemy’s” story would be tantamount to treason to our side of the political divide. Perhaps that is the place to start though. If we could come to understand that baggage that each of us carry, perhaps we will be more likely to at least understand that they are not necessarily evil because of the views that they espouse.


This is part of the reason why I have become so caught up in story lately. I have been truly stymied by some of the things that others believe, but I have often found that understanding their story helps to understand their beliefs. Joseph is a good example of this. He clearly has a gift from God for understanding what is to come, but that gift nearly gets him killed at the hands of his brothers. Is it any wonder that story eventually leads to someone who can understand that perhaps God worked through the evil in his brother’s hearts to bring about unbounded mercy?


I suppose my encouragement to you this week is that you don’t flatten out any characters—be they Hillary or Trump; be they Putin or Kim Jong; be they Joseph or Judah. Try to get to the complexity that lies beneath. After all, we all have a story. Once we begin to understand those stories, I think we won’t have quite as hard a time understanding one another; even if we still disagree at the end of the day.

Tradition Can Be Wrong

So, I have spent the better part of a week debating what scripture we would be doing this Sunday. I originally planned to go with the lectionary (Hagar and Ishmael), but I noticed there is this problem that the lectionary skips a story that has been foundational in some of our cultural arguments—Sodom and Gomorrah. You all know that I rarely shy away from a controversial passage like that, but one of the problems becomes the vast amount of territory that would need to be covered in a 15 minute sermon (ask the Wednesday night Bible study – we looked at it for an hour and didn’t get through all the material). So where does that leave us? I think we are going to look at Abraham’s conversation with God about Sodom, but not all the rest.

So that means the epistle reflection this week will be the rest of it. Let’s talk about the 800 pound gorilla in the room. When we think Sodom and Gomorrah, we think of another related word—sodomy. We think this story is about homosexuality because our culture has told us it is. However, as Jay Michaelson put it, “Reading the story of Sodom as being about homosexuality is like reading the story of an ax murderer as being about an ax.” Or for you proponents of the second amendment, it is like thinking shootings are only about guns and not the people holding the gun. The truth is that the historic Christian Church tradition behind the interpretation of this passage has often made it about homosexuality—there is no arguing that. I know most of us grew up with that being the interpretation of this story. However, tradition can be wrong. What is it my father always said? “Just because all your friends are jumping off a cliff doesn’t mean you should too!” I don’t think that is really what this passage is about, and I know that there are many others that agree.

For one thing, look at the stories that surround it. Last week we read the story of Abraham’s extraordinary hospitality to three strangers (one of whom turned out to be the LORD). Lot then receives the two messengers from God in the same way. That ought to be a big clue. Another point worth raising is that if this is about sexual morality, you might want to read the end of the story, where the hero and supposed righteous man (Lot) participates in incest.

The other place that is incredibly important to help us understand this story is the Jewish Talmud. The Talmud are the teachings of renowned Rabbi’s on each passage of the Hebrew Bible. One such Talmudic reading, called the Sefer Ha-Aggadah, delves deeply into the history of Sodom and Gomorrah. It has several passages explaining the evils of the cities, and some of them are quite comical. One Rabbi suggests that Sodom had such backward laws that if someone injured you, you owed that person money for having injured you. Another is that if someone were to accidentally cut off your donkey’s ear, you would have to give the perpetrator the donkey until its ear grew back (apparently cutting off donkey ears was an issue they grappled with). The Talmud goes into great detail about the evils of Sodom and Gomorrah, but guess what it never mentions? Homosexuality.

Then there is another important Biblical principle to consider. The Bible interprets itself—that means we should look to the other parts of scripture to help us understand what is happening here. Most references to Sodom and Gomorrah are simply warnings—don’t do bad things or you will end up like Sodom and Gomorrah. These references happen throughout the prophets, in Deuteronomy, in the epistles of Peter and a few other smatterings. In these cases, the focus is on the punishment and not really the specific crime.

Finally, there are three passages of scripture that do seem to suggest specific interpretations. The first that needs to be laid out is Jude 1:7 which does suggest that sex played a role in the destruction, “In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah and neighboring towns practiced immoral sexual relations and pursued other sexual urges. By undergoing the punishment of eternal fire, they serve as a warning.” Keep in mind, however, that the idea of gang rape also fits this description, regardless of the gender of the perpetrators.

The other two important pieces of scripture on this seem to suggest that this is about something different. Ezekiel 16 says this, “This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy. They became haughty and did detestable things in front of me, and I turned away from them as soon as I saw it.” Of course, those who want to read this passage as being about sexuality think that detestable things refers to homosexuality. Perhaps…but if you look at the entirety of the passage, it is pretty clear that it is about not helping the poor and the needy. It should be noted here that this is the traditional Jewish interpretation, and by and large, this is what the Talmudic sayings reference—a nation that has refused to care for the poor and the stranger and insisted on acting unjustly. Perhaps that should come as a warning to us?

Finally, the last piece of scripture that has the most bearing on how we read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah would be what Jesus said about the story himself, in Luke 10 and Matthew 10. Both passages refer to the disciples going out to cities around Israel preaching the good news. Jesus tells them to take nothing with them when they go, but to depend upon the hospitality of those in the cities they visit. Jesus than says, “If anyone refuses to welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet as you leave that house or city. I assure you that it will be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on Judgment Day than it will be for that city.” Now if you are really determined to stretch the Bible to continue to make this about homosexuality, then I suppose there is very little that could be said  to change your mind. However, this passage is fairly clear that Jesus is referring to how disciples are welcomed. This is a passage that is about hospitality.

If you are one of those that wants to continue to read this passage as a condemnation of homosexuality, than there is nothing to be done to change your mind. If you feel that is what you still believe, perhaps it is time to ask where that belief is actually coming from, because scripture CAN be contorted to support such a belief, but I think the origin of said belief is somewhere other than scripture.

Perhaps what this is really a lesson about is how WE ALL use scripture. I am sure there are some of you reading this who will insist I am the one guilty of contorting the scripture—that is your right to believe such a thing. The point being, any time that we go to the scripture as a means of proving someone else wrong, we are doing violence. As scholar Diana Eck points out, this is using scripture as bullets—not just bullet points. When we pull out verses here or there to make our own positions seem correct and others wrong, we are kind of missing the point of scripture. Scripture is supposed to serve to bring us together and to bring us closer to God. Are any of us really growing closer to God with fights over these kinds of issues? Lastly, I would encourage you again to look to scripture for guidance on how to understand and use scripture. Paul, in several of his writings, encourages us to understand the law by looking for the fruits of the Spirit. By the results of our actions, we will know whether we have truly been following the law of Love and the scriptures. Are any of us getting any closer to God or each other by having these fights? I don’t think so.

We must all be aware of our universal human tendency to simply use scripture to prove ourselves right, regardless of the damage we inflict on others in the process. I would encourage all of us to ask the question, “how will these understandings of scripture bring me closer to my neighbor or God?” If the answer is that they won’t, perhaps it is time to change our thoughts on what a given scripture means to us.

My guess is, that there are still some of you out there that are unconvinced or may be outraged that your pastor has written this. If that is the case, give me a call, let me take you out to coffee (after my vacation), and let’s have an honest and open conversation. Like I said, scripture should be bringing us closer together.

Meaningful Tension

One of my favorite Sundays of the church year is Palm/Passion Sunday. I tend to like it because there is a delicious tension that tends to connect well with the ways in which most of us live our lives.

Most of you probably remember that as kids, this was just “Palm” Sunday. The shift happened some time ago, and whether it was for liturgical reasons, or because people were less likely to attend Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services, a change happened that led to Palm/Passion Sunday. For more on that, check out the article I linked in the meditation below. Now there is an emphasis not only on the palm parade and the children shouting Hosana, but also the march to Calvary and Christ’s suffering and death.

Let’s talk about why this is so important and why it is a good change. I know, many of you don’t like facing the dark and nasty stuff. I have heard the complaints before, “We go to church to escape from the dark nasty stuff. The world has enough of it and this is our safe haven.” I hear you. I understand where you are coming from. However, it is because church is your safe haven that we do need to talk about the dark stuff. I have always liked Mark Scandrette’s comparison of the church being like a dojo. It is the place where we go to practice our faith, so that when we face situations in the real world, our faith muscles are humming in tune ready to take on whatever comes our way. This is why we need to talk about the dark stuff too! We need the practice. We need to talk about darkness because the only way we really learn how to find hope is to journey into darkness and learn to find the light. That is why this strange dichotomy of Palm and Passion works so well. It is the strange tension that we live between the darkness we are so often surrounded by, and yet, the overwhelming hope that our faith instills in us.

I have been reading up on all of this a lot this week, and one interesting piece plays out. Take a second and go read Matthew’s version of the palm parade (Matthew 21:1-11).  Notice anything strange there? Like the fact that Jesus is riding not one, but two animals? How does that work? Zorro style? Many commentators chalk this up to Matthew taking the prophecies of Zechariah to literally. I disagree. I think Matthew knew exactly what he was doing, and he liked the symbolism too much to miss the opportunity.
I highly doubt Jesus rode into Jerusalem Zorro style, but I think that the point Matthew was making was about what the two different animals symbolized. The Donkey was the animal of royalty for the Israelites. It goes back to Solomon electing to ride in on a donkey and not a warhorse to show his humility before God. It became a tradition, and Zechariah picks up on it to talk about the way in which the messiah will enter Jerusalem. Zechariah also mentions a colt. The Hebrew in Zechariah would seem to suggest that colt was also referring to the same donkey, but Matthew uses this as an opportunity. What do we know about colts—they are young and strong. They are work horses. They are beasts of burden. Matthew uses both to symbolize the complex dual nature of what is about to happen. Christ the King. Christ the servant unto death. Matthew is using this opportunity for some foreshadowing. Matthew is using these symbols to heighten the tension of what is happening at this moment in the life of Christ. The crowds shouting hosana were welcoming the victor. Little did they know what lay ahead in the days to come. It must have been a bittersweet moment for Jesus, enjoying the welcome of the crowds during the celebration, knowing that the parade route would end at Golgotha.

There is something to this kind of tension. I don’t know about you, but too often I find myself in places of tension not unlike this. Maybe it is as simple as that tv show you have been binge watching—so excited to see what happens, but don’t really want that final episode to come. Maybe it is as complex as the emotions that accompany this coming season of graduations—excited to see where our kids are headed, but knowing that all the options mean further away from us. Maybe it is as overwhelming as the emotions that accompany watching a loved one face a long illness—knowing that the last thing that you want is death, but also knowing the need for an end to suffering. Palm/Passion Sunday may be the best way we capture this kind of meaningful tension in the liturgical calendar.

So, if you are one of those that insists that church should just be about the warm fuzzies, let me convince you to spend some time practicing tension this week. Let this moment trouble you. See this moment for the rich complexity that it offers. Practice this time, so that the next time you face those bittersweet moments in life, your faith muscles are stretched and ready to go.

Breathing Underwater

This week, our Lenten focus is the Gift of Difficult People, or as Yaconelli entitled his chapter “Idiots.” Our symbol to go along with this week is one of the great symbols of grace (to deal with said idiots): the dove.


About two months ago, as we were planning out the chapters, the symbols and the weeks of Lent, for some reason, when thinking about difficult people and which scriptures would work, the story of Nicodemus came to mind. Many people like to make Nicodemus into this heroic Pharisee who bucks the trend and comes to follow Jesus. Call me cynical, but I just don’t see him in that kind of positive light. A few clues give this away: First, he comes to Jesus in the middle of the night—not exactly a heroic kind of move to hide in the dark; second, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus’ opening pleasantries is to basically tell him that he is blind to the presence of the kingdom of God. Finally, there is an exchange where Jesus seems to suggest that Nicodemus may be a teacher of Israel, but he doesn’t know the first thing about God. Not exactly heroic material if you ask me, and exactly the kind of person we want to focus on for a week about dealing with difficult people.


What may be even more amazing about this passage though is how the Holy Spirit has been at work in the choosing of this passage. At first, Nicodemus just seemed to fit the bill for talking about “Idiots.” What I have come to find this week, though, is that there is so much richness and depth that are coming together because of this passage that just could not have been planned.


First of all, as you may know, I have been gone for the last two weeks for continuing education and some vacation. I spent the last two weeks in Belize diving in some of the world’s most beautiful waters. For the last several years, my pastor cohort group has been studying Ruach Elohim, the Breath of God. We have done this by embracing the uncontrolled nature of the breath of God in learning improve acting and comedy. We have done this by climbing to the top of Mt. Elbert in Colorado and breathing in the thin air. We have done this in a retreat to Taos focused on breathing meditation, breath in the Taos Pueblo tradition, and using breathing patterns in acting to elicit emotional response. Most recently, we have done this by learning a new way of breathing underwater through being trained and certified for scuba diving.


One of the most profound lessons of the last two weeks for me is how breathing helps us navigate the world around us. When scuba diving, your breath quite literally determines your place in the world. By breathing in a big lungful of air, you rise in the water. To descend in the water, you breath out fully and completely. By breathing slowly, deeply and fully, you are able to control where you are in the water, and even your movement. After 16 dives over the course of the last two weeks, I found myself becoming so proficient at it that I rarely used my body to move through the water, but used my breath to keep myself positioned in currents to move me through the water. It is a remarkable feeling that I would imagine is akin to flying.


It is also something that speaks volumes about this week’s scripture with Nicodemus. When Nicodemus wants to understand the kingdom of God, Jesus’ response is that he must be born anew of Spirit and Water to understand the kingdom of God. Jesus then tells Nicodemus that “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It is the same with everyone born of the Spirit.”


In the first dive two weeks ago, I found myself fighting the water around me, pushing hard and kicking with all my might trying to go where I wanted to go. That first dive lasted for 27 minutes because I used up all my air trying to determine where I was going. By the last dive, I had become so used to letting my air do the work, and letting the water take me where it would that I was down for 68 minutes and still had plenty of air left over.


I think part of Jesus’ teaching to our idiot friend Nicodemus is stopping trying to control everything and have power over everything. Let the Breath of God, the Spirit, lead you where it will and you will find yourself smack dab in the middle of the Kingdom of God. There have been so many times in my own life where I have tried to direct the flow and determine how things had to be done, but these past two weeks have reminded me that we find the presence of God in those places where we breathe deeply and allow the Spirit to blow us in whatever direction it will.


Amazingly, that is kind of how this scripture is working out this week. Not only did it seem to fit well with my own experiences, but it just so happens that we will be celebrating the Baptisms of Matthew and Cayla McNiece on Sunday, and there are few passages so fitting for baptism as this one. Like I said, we couldn’t have planned it better!


So, my encouragement to you this week is breath deeply the Breath of God, and allow the Spirit to guide you on your way. Don’t fight the current, but let the Breath of God carry you where it may.