Jesus, remember

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Detail from “Crucifixion with Two Thieves,” by Beato Angelico
Photograph by Asaf Braverman
Ark in Time via photopin cc

The Bible shows us so many ways of praying, so many circumstances under which we might pray. My father used to say, “The most honest prayer in the Bible is when Job told God, ‘God, come down here – I’m angry with you!” (It was years before I learned that God answered that prayer, and not with an apology, either.) But the Bible doesn’t deal in superlatives when it comes to prayer – as in so many other areas, the Biblical witness about prayer is varied. Anger is not absolutely more honest than any other emotion we can express to God – it was the most honest note that my father could sound, and he generalized from his own experience. The Bible can be like a Rorschach that way – we are revealed especially in the details that we notice.

About 10 years ago now, I was doing a unit of CPE, which is to say I was interning as a chaplain, at a state psychiatric hospital. I would pray as I walked between buildings, singing whatever rose up in me. Near the end of my summer there, I noticed that I kept coming back to the Taize chant based on Luke 23:42 – “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”

Why that one? Because it is plaintive sounding, and repetitive, which is comforting when everything seems strange and wrong? Because it is something to ask when I don’t know what to ask – notice me, see me, remember me? No, that didn’t really get at it.

I haven’t been writing lately. I have been ill. What we thought might be pneumonia turned out to be medication withdrawal – which has a much more uncertain course. I have gone six years without feeling so depressed for so long. Many days, it is hard work to simply convince myself that life is not pointless. I am reminded of the terminal nature of this illness.

This morning is a good morning. Better than the new normal, anyway. I was in the shower, and I began to sing – first a song without words that I was composing as I went along, and then, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” And as I sang it the fourth and fifth and sixth time, my mind was taken back to the cross, and I remembered the one who first prayed this prayer, hanging beside Jesus. A terminal case, wracked with pain and guilt (“we are getting what we deserve”), a man without hope, who reached out to Jesus at a time when faith in him was most absurd, when Jesus seemed least likely to be who he said he was.

This morning, it is the truest note I can sound: I am in pain, and God seems unlikely. That Jesus has not yet come into his kingdom seems self-evident. But I give thanks that I can pray into the not yet, “Jesus, remember me…”

Fireworks

On Wednesday evening, I went with friends to see the Minor League All Star game. It was a beautiful night for a game, and the International League won handily. I paid less attention to the game than usual, because I hadn’t seen my friends in awhile, and there was lots to catch up on.

But all conversation stopped when the fireworks began. None of us had realized that there would be fireworks after the game, but we all became excited when the post-game show was first announced, sometime around the 6th inning. Without much discussion, we all agreed we would stay. Why would anyone miss fireworks?

There are few things that delight me so much, that fill me with such joy, as fireworks exploding color in the night sky. The noise which scared me so much as a small child became part of the delight as I grew older. “Boom! Boom!” I feel the vibrations in my chest as the flower of color unfolds high above, hundreds of meters wide.

As my self-conscious brain came back online – as I shifted from watching fireworks to watching myself watch fireworks – I realized another time that I have been transported so far outside of myself: in worship. The connection became clear: why do we celebrate sports and national holidays with fireworks, but churches do not set off fireworks on high holy days?

Wouldn’t it be great if Christians held fireworks shows  on Easter, on Pentecost, on Christmas: “This is how excited we are! This is what a big deal this is for us! He is Risen – Boom! The Spirit has been poured out upon us – Boom! God is with us – Boom! Boom! Boom!”

Yeah, fireworks are expensive. Which means that one congregation wouldn’t get to take credit for it. We would have to work together, across congregations, even across denominations. For instance, figure $15,000 for a mid-sized show – that sounds like a lot, right? But in my town, Durham, NC, there are dozens of churches. Get 40 churches in on it, and the average contribution per church is now down to $375. Which is a great deal, and an opportunity for people from all over the community to get together and celebrate Jesus. And since your average fireworks show only lasts 15-20 minutes, we should probably throw in a hymn sing, or gospel music concert, or something like that. Christmas carols and fireworks! Sponsored by (list of 40 churches here.)

Sadly, churches seem to have confused evangelism with church growth. We are more concerned with reproducing ourselves (“does Main Street Methbyterian have a future?”) than we are with sharing Jesus. Maybe because we don’t have enough faith in Jesus, and we think that we are needing to redeem ourselves (our only shot at eternal life is a name in a stained glass window)… or maybe because we live immersed in a culture of fear-induced self-reproduction, and living in the world but not of it is so very very difficult. Whatever the reason, when we stop to consider it, being the lone stranger at a cookout on the church lawn is more akin to the terror of transferring mid-year to a new elementary school than it is to the joy of believing that God really did love the world enough to live among us in a particular body at a particular time in a particular community. It is hard to say what the Incarnation has to do with a cheap hot dog, and the barely concealed anxious hope that one day you too will join us, and grill cheap hot dogs for the few souls brave enough to endure the onslaught of interrogators that is the average local congregation.

Instead, the combined immensity and particularity of God’s love for us is surprising and painfully bright and loud and beautiful, and I can feel it in my chest and my throat, and I cannot keep myself from gasping outloud, “Oh!” and my smile is so big and unironic that I am a little afraid that someone will see me and realize that I am not cool enough to be above this spectacle, but then I realize that I don’t care, because I don’t want to be so cynical that I refuse to be moved by the truly moving. The love of Jesus swells and bursts me like a firework. Alleluia Alleluia! Boom Boom Boom!

Winners and Losers

watching Ghana play the United States, World Cup 2014 Two young soccer fans watching Ghana play the United States, World Cup 2014

“I’m glad the other team is losing,” the young soccer fan said, munching on a tortilla chip as she waited for her quesadilla. Her friend sitting next to her nodded solemnly in agreement.

I felt the pang that precedes motherly admonition, but I quickly squelched it. Yes, it is “less polite” to the point of “not being a good sport” to be glad that the other team is losing – and yet we are encouraged to cheer on our own team – to be happy that our team is winning. These seven year olds could tell you that there really is no difference between the two. To be happy that your team is winning necessarily means being happy that the other team is losing. Why is it impolite to say one, but not impolite to say the other?

I realized that I was not willing to defend this sort of polite dissemblance. I refused to insist, “Don’t say that; say this other thing [that means the same thing, but in a more oblique way.]”

I’m not a big fan of rooting for a particular team. I enjoy the game itself. I enjoyed watching Ghana and the U.S. alike. Rooting for someone doesn’t tend to increase the enjoyment for me. And so instead of correcting the girls’ “rude” but accurate speech, I tried to model delight in cunning fakes and beautiful passes and amazing escapes from seemingly impenetrable defenses. I gasped as goals were nearly made and blocked at the last minute – without regard for whose goal was being defended, much less who was ahead and what was the score.

I guess it is an Arminian way of watching the World Cup. Just as single predestination is a pedantic hedge for double predestination, getting excited about a particular team winning requires being glad that the team they are playing is losing. If you can’t stomach one, how can you stomach the other? So I, for one, am going to steer clear of speculating about who Pope Francis is rooting for, and hope that the official Vatican answer represents the Pope’s true feelings: nobody.

Happy World Cup everybody – enjoy the spectacle!