Tuesday, April 3, 2012


“When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God."
 – 1 Corinthians 2: 1-5

I took off an afternoon from work a couple of weeks ago to spend a little time in the woods.  It’s springtime, and there’s nothing like being out in nature to remind your body that winter is over.  But I went off into the woods this day to see something specific – fire.  Every few years my in-laws will do a controlled burn in their woods.  It is quite a site to see.  A concoction of gas & diesel spews forth through a flame and lands on the ground, sending an infantry line of fire along the ground that advances and advances, consuming pine straw, stickers, dead wood, weeds and unwanted saplings that clutter out the forest's beauty.  But to watch the process is to watch a literal scorched earth.  It takes what is unwanted and superfluous and consumes it, filling the air with thick ash and leaving the ground a field of soot.  It can be troubling to watch.  But it leaves the mature trees, deeply rooted, unharmed except for some charring of the bark at the bottom.  It is an awesome display of creative destruction. 

The next day everything is black, seemingly dead and destroyed.  And the most haunting part is the dark of night right after the burn.  Pine stumps still soaked in turpentine burn well into the night.  They litter the otherwise complete darkness of the forest with seeming camp fires of a vast medieval army bedded down in these very woods.  And then three months later, everything is more beautiful than before the fire started its consuming work.
I cannot help but think of the season of Lent when reflecting on this scene.  We open the season in many of our churches by administering the ashes on Wednesday with a solemn reminder that “from dust we came, and to dust we go”.  It is a call to remember our mortality and the reality of death, that force that can shake us out of mundanity and move us toward meaning like no other can. It is creative destruction, indeed. 

And Lent is preparing us for the creative destruction that is the crucifixion and resurrection.  And it is most certainly both creation and destruction.  Jesus is killed, and yet after the destruction, Jesus continues to live.  And for this story to really mean anything, we’ve got to connect our own mortal life and the life of Jesus that endures. 

And for our feeble minds, this is a hard thing to do.  And I think it’s made harder by sincere yet superficial attempts at naming the un-nameable, trying to utter what is ineffable, and trying to grab hold of the arrow rather than align our beings in the direction the arrow is pointing.

It’s a problem that seems to have been around since not long after Jesus’ death.  I can imagine his first followers asking the same questions we do: “Jesus lives, of this we are certain.  He animates our souls.  We know him still as intimately as we know ourselves.  Yet how?  What does that mean?  And why did he die?  Surely there is something good and redeeming to come out of his death.”  These are the thoughts of every mortal who’s experienced God’s love through Jesus, be they his first disciples or be they church-goers in 2012.  And from here, we do what only seems natural – we say, “Come, let us explain it!”

I have spent much time in the den of explanation, more than enough time to know that it is a closed loop rather than a means of grace.  In fact, explanation of the crucifixion, resurrection, and what all that means has led to many of the most difficult and embarrassing times of my faith, and certainly my most ungracious (though I never picked up on that at the time).  Whatever your theory of atonement, it is ultimately only that – a theory, one explanation among many (and believe me, I’ve known many!).   This exercise no doubt gets us answering questions, but it’s been my experience that even if we think we come up with the right answers, we nonetheless still have the wrong questions.  As Frederick Buechner says, “It is not objective proof of God’s existence that we want but the experience of God’s presence.”  And to Buechner I’d humbly add, “It is not the genus and phylum of the salvation tree we want to know but the taste of the fruit it bears.” 

And what a difference that is in emphasis.  Dead questions are replaced with alive ones:  “What happened then?” becomes “what is happening now?”  “What does it mean that he saved me back then?” becomes “How he can save us right now?”  “Exactly how was I reconciled?” becomes “Exactly where do I now need to reconcile?”  And finally, “What is the nature of the God revealed in that theory?” becomes “What is the nature of the God I experience right now?” 

To get from there to hear, I think we need to do a little Spring burning this holy week.  What is keeping us from tasting the fruit, from encountering God?  For me, and for many, I think, it’s our own safe doctrine that needs to be set afire.  Whether you hold dear to or are uncomfortable with how and why you think God reconciles us through Jesus, what would happen if we threw that understanding in the fire?  We’ve got to admit that at least part of us is consumed with understanding the “how it is” that could be focusing on experiencing the “what is” in our lives. 

Occupy yourself with figuring out the key and time, and you’ll close your heart to hearing the beauty of the song.  Focus on the type of paint and canvas and you’ll miss the glory of the painting.  Listen for the meter, and your ears will miss the deep emotion in the poem.  Spend your time figuring out and explaining the how of it and completely miss the magic of the experience.   

Our problem is that we’ve been led astray in thinking it is the technical "how" parts that are meant by what it means to “believe” theologically.  Stop for a moment and think of someone you love dearly.  “Believing” in that person has to do with your heart, not your head.  It’s a radical trust in the core of that person based on shared experience and loving relationship with them.  And talking about the “how” of that love and that belief in your beloved (think endorphins, attachment theory, etc) not only seems silly, but seems to do an injustice to the very nature of the love and belief itself.    

We are reading a wonderful book for Lent in my Sunday School class from Brennan Manning call The Ragamuffin Gospel.  When so much of Christianity seems to be looking in one direction, Manning’s looking in another.  When others are looking at sin as a place of shame, he’s looking at it as a place for God’s holy grace.  Along with Peter Rollins' book Insurrection, a quote from The Ragamuffin Gospel got me going down the path of writing this.  Paraphrasing Rabbi Joshua Abraham Hescel, Manning prays:

Dear Lord,
grant me the grace of wonder.
Surprise me, amaze me,
awe me in every crevice of Your universe.
Delight me to see how Your Christ plays in ten thousand places
to the Father through the features of men's faces.
Each day enrapture me with Your marvelous things without number.
I do not ask to see the reason for it all;
I ask only to share the wonder of it all.

This is where I am trying to get to this Easter, not asking to domesticate and understand the reason for the season, only hoping to share in the wonder of it all.  And getting there has taken me through this season of creative destruction.  A forest consumed of all but its big beautiful trees is one that can be enjoyed without the brambles and the thorns snagging your legs.  What is destroyed and entombed on Friday is raised to heavenly glory on Sunday.  What I leave behind in certitude, logic and order, I receive tenfold in experience, relationship, and reverence. 

Now let us hear Paul again from above – “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God."

So may we too burn up every explanation except Jesus and him crucified.  And may we discuss this season of our faith not with human wisdom but by describing God’s power through Jesus in our own weakness and fear and trembling.  Barbara Brown Taylor tells a wonderful story of a preacher inviting her to preach at his church.  When she asked what she should speak about, his answer was simply, “Tell us about what’s saving your life right now.”  Those are stories each of us can tell and tell much easier when not concerned with exactly how we were saved way back when.  Our stories about God in action right now are testimony to our claim, "Jesus lives!"  And as Paul says, it doesn't come from lofty words or wisdom but from the very heart of our lives and our relationship with Christ and each other.
So may that be our witness this week – Jesus lives.  He died and he rose.  He goes on, and he is alive in my life.  Let me tell you how he’s saving my life right now.

Burn the rest, and trust that what is important will endure.

"When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not harm thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
(“How Firm a Foundation”)

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