Chuck Colson

Chuck Colson–the first man convicted and sentenced to serve prison time in the Watergate Scandal and the last to be released has died at age 80.  At the height of his political power he described himself as Nixon’s “Hatchet Man.”  He could be engaging, ruthless, conniving, insightful and power-hungry all at the same time.  Yet, he had a tremendous fall from power.  He participated in obstructing justice and seeking to cover-up the break-ins related to Daniel Ellsberg—a figure the Nixon Administration sought to dismantle both politically and personally. 
            Somewhere between his indictment and his trial, Colson had a conversion experience.  A corporate executive he knew witnessed to him and gave him a copy of Mere Christianity.  Through his seven-month prison experience, Colson developed strong opinions about the prison system and its inattention to actual rehabilitation.  After his release, he began Prison Fellowship Ministries that works to bring the gospel and repentance to people serving in prison.
            Colson was not without his critics.  Many people doubted this “jailhouse conversion.”  It was perceived as a public relations trick.  Yet, for almost forty years—from the time of his conversion—he was not involved in another scandal.  His Prison Fellowship Ministry is the largest of its kind, reaches those whom many regard as unreachable, and brings real and substantive change to people’s lives. The Prison Fellowship has served for over 30 years and made Colson one of the most influential people among American Evangelicals.  He contributed significantly to Evangelical-Roman Catholic dialogue and cooperation—a stance that received significant opposition and criticism among those who failed to see the importance of Christian unity.  In 1993 he received the Templeton Prize that is given annually to a person who makes a significant contribution in the spiritual dimension of human life.  Shortly before I went to Seminary I read his 1994 book The Body.  It is as helpful a work on the nature of the church as I have ever read.
            As we consider the Minor Prophets and their call to repentance, Chuck Colson’s life stands near the top of the list of people who in recent memory so publicly and so profoundly displayed the power of repentance.  Beyond the accomplishments and the prizes, Colson is testimony to the transforming power of grace. Thanks be to God. 

Two Tales of a City

Tale 1–In the 1980’s, Jerry Harvey made the label “Abilene Paradox” popular within management circles. Stated simply, the Abilene paradox is a group or organizational phenomenon where the members of a decision making body perceive consensus where no real consensus actually exists. Group members conform to this false perception of group consensus without actually testing it or expressing their concerns. The definition, of course, doesn’t do much to explain why it is called the Abilene paradox. For that, you need the story.
Jerry Harvey had the good sense to marry a woman from West Texas–Coleman to be precise. He and his wife traveled home to be with his in-laws. The temperature was over a hundred degrees. The wind had whipped up a mild sand storm. The visit was going well as they played dominoes, drank lemonade, and enjoyed the relaxed comfort of a small west Texas town. As it came to pass, one of his in-laws suggested that they load up the unairconditioned Buick, circa 1958, drive to Abilene, and eat at Furr’s cafeteria. Everyone said that it was a good idea. The family loaded up, took US Hwy 84 north 52 miles and reached Abilene. There they ate at Furr’s cafeteria. People go to cafeterias because everyone can get what they want. Unfortunately, it all tastes the same and it never tastes like what people really want. After eating, they drove back through the heat and dust in the late model Buick in need of air conditioning.
Once back at the house, the family members began one at a time disclosing that they did not really want to go. They had only acquiesced to the journey because they felt that the other family members had wanted to go. The conversation quickly dissolved into terse responses and accusations. As Harvey relates, “After the outburst of recrimination we all sat back in silence. Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who, of our own volition, had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in a furnace-like temperature through a cloud-like dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a hole-in-the-wale cafeteria in Abilene, when none of us had really wanted to go. In fact, to be more accurate, we’d done just the opposite of what we wanted to do.”
Now, that’s a much better definition of the Abilene Paradox than the one I tried to construct before. It is memorable. So memorable, people who have been exposed to the concept will sometimes be known to speak up in the midst of decision-make meetings, “Are we on a trip to Abilene?” The Abilene Paradox as a principle of management has been reproduced in a book, a .pdf available on-line, and videos. It is Jerry Harvey’s calling card as a management consultant weaving the principles of social psychology together with leadership decision-making.
Tale 2–Twenty-two years after the Abilene Paradox showed up in print, another writer for a very different field narrated a very different trip to Abilene. In 2010 Lee Gutkind edited a series of essays entitled Becoming a Doctor: From Students to Specialists, Doctor-Writers Share Their Experiences. In this compelling set of reflections, psychiatrist Elissa Ely has an entry entitled “Going to Abilene.”
She explains that she once treated a paranoid schizophrenic who twice jumped off of a building obeying the voices in his head. The act left the man restricted to a wheel chair and in need of constant care. Unfortunately, the man’s paranoia made care-giving exceedingly difficult. He would become violent when nurses tried to provide the basic wound care and catheter maintenance that he needed to avoid infection. The man lived in virtual isolation for many years. The man’s mother faithfully visited even though he frequently directed his angry outbursts at her. She would sit with the team of clinicians assigned to his care and ask questions and discuss possible options.
In some desperation, the “Team” decided to make the patient an actual member of their meetings when their meetings involved his case. “Every Monday afternoon at 2 p.m., we would bring him in for consultation” she explained. The sessions lasted about fifteen minutes. At first, the man’s delusions dominated the conversations–his pathological fear poured out in a torrent heartbreaking narratives–experiences that were vivid in his mind but not in the actual confines of the hospital.
One afternoon the Team meeting witnessed a break through. The man declared with a clear and authoritative voice that he was headed to Abilene with 10,000 head of cattle. He wanted to know if the Team members intended to accompany him. One by one, the Team Members–the social worker, the physical therapist, head nurse, and psychiatrist agreed. If he was going to Abilene, they were going with him.
From that point forward, the man’s delusions took a turn. Rather than being the grim and destructive delusions of the past, they became heroic. He saved the earth from a meteor shower. He made huge donations to important charities. He owned sports teams. He produced Hollywood films. As his delusions became more heroic, he became more receptive to the care he needed.
Then one day it happened, the man acknowledged what psychiatrists need their patients to acknowledge, “I know you think I’m nuts.” He said. “You think I’m nuts but here’s the thing: there are ten of me in the world–the politician, screenwriter, superhero. I can’t wait until they come together in one man.” The shift in the man’s condition finally gave his mother permission to age, as she should. With tears in her eyes, she rejoiced that she could finally grow weaker as he grew strong.
Dr. Ely concludes her essay saying, “If a man is ready to leave for Abilene, you must gather whatever pots and pans and horses and tack and supplies you can lay hands on at a moment’s notice and saddle up. The weak have grown strong; there is a miracle in the midst of sickness. Sometimes, we are lead by our patients. Humbly. we follow.”
People who take either of these tales seriously might use “going to Abilene” as short-hand ways of referencing either story. For those influenced by Jerry Harvey’s “Abilene Paradox” taking a trip to Abilene is a bad thing. If a group or company or nation takes a trip to Abilene they will have failed to do what they wanted to do and the very thing they have hated they will have done. For people influence by Ely’s Abilene tale, “Going to Abilene” is a good thing. It is a reminder to those in the healing profession that sometimes they need to participate with their patients’ own healing impulses and “humbly follow” the path that their own healing takes. So, are you going to Abilene?
The easy way around this question is to say, “It depends on which trip you mean.” We all want to avoid acting foolishly, but we do want to act altruistically. Most of us could find our way to justify either not taking the trip to Abilene or taking the trip to Abilene. The two trips to Abilene each reveal something we hold true. By coincidence they refer to the same place. I would suggest, though, that it is not as easy for us to alternate between the two meanings of a trip to Abilene at will. This has to do with the way figurative language works.
In figurative language we have a subject–in Harvey’s case the subject is organizational ineffectiveness; in Ely’s case the subject is healing. And in figurative language we use symbols or objects or figures to portray the subject–in both cases they use the trip to Abilene. Figurative language does more than describe the subject. Most figurative language is also evaluative and prescriptive. Figurative language generally implies a value judgment. Both Harvey and Ely offer their interpretations as to the significance of the story. The stories by themselves may be amusing, touching, or boring. But Harvey and Ely offer them to be persuasive. Harvey wants to convince his audience not to go to Abilene–not to acquiesce to perceived group consensus but to actually challenge it. Ely wants to persuade her audience to go to Abilene–to participate with a patient’s own moves toward wholeness. They offer an interpretation along with the story and ask us to respond in particular ways. Figurative language points toward a preferred direction of movement–Going to Abilene is Bad! Don’t Go! Going to Abilene is Good! Go without delay! A lot is going one whenever figurative language is used: description, evaluation, and prescription.
The impact is not just on the subject, the process also changes the way people see the figure or object. In the 1960’s Philosopher of language and thought, Max Black suggested that when we craft compelling figurative language, specifically metaphors, the value judgments made about the subjects also interact with the value judgments we make about the objects used to portray them (footnote the Interaction Theory of Metaphor). Take pigs as an example. Pigs are not literally more stupid, smelly, or sloppy than any other farm animal. And to some of us, pig-based food products like ham, pork and bacon are quite simply divine. But it’s practically impossible to use “Pig” as a figure to describe anyone in a positive way. “You’re a pig!” is going to come off as an insult no matter how you slice it. Why
Well, when a figure is used to describe a subject, our minds conjure up ideas associated with the figure–mammal, domesticated, fat, slop eating, grunting, rooting, smart, trainable. We use the context of the figurative language to understand which of the figure’s characteristics we are meant to apply to subject and which we are to ignore. When that happens, we tend to stress the qualities we used in making the figurative meaning whenever we encounter the object. Our minds are disinclined to discard this work just because the immediate metaphor is passed. This is what Max Black called “metaphoric interaction.”
The broader point to be stressed here is that we do not assess every use of figurative language as a new experience. We carry these interpretations (the evaluation and prescription) from conversation to conversation, speech to speech, story to story. After all, we have done some mental work in interpreting the metaphor the first time. In some caes, this sort of over-arching interpretation of certain symbols occurs not just within an individual’s mind or in the language patterns of a community but throughout the entire culture. Certain figures become “archetypal” figures. I doubt that either Abilene or Pigs function in our culture as archetypes. But, the interpretation given to Abilene in either of these stories can affect the way we encounter Abilene as a figure in future conversations, speeches, or stories.
This sort of traveling interpretation does not just attach itself to animals like pigs or cities like Abilene. It also gets attached to familiar stories. The story of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree stands for many as a story of honesty in the face of consequences. The story of the Alamo stands for many a story of perseverance against the odds. Lost on most people is the irony that the “honesty” story was in all probability completely made up. And the freedom fighters of the Alamo were fighting for, among other things, the right of Texans to continue slavery against a Mexican government that had outlawed slavery. These “other side of the story” realities fight in our minds–individually and collectively–against the interpretations we have heard about them since we were children. Some stories just have interpretations that stick and have for centuries. The Parables of Jesus Christ are certainly among the corpus of stories that carry evaluative and prescriptive interpretations with them.
This does not mean that once figurative meaning has been made and taken hold of a person’s imagination, the ideas are set in stone. We can learn to think about the in different terms. Trips to Abilene can be taken for the healing of another person even after they have been taken out of foolish conformity. But it takes work. It takes work to intentionally think about the figurative language in new ways. This small volume–Parables of the Unexpected–is an attempt to do just that with some of the parables recorded in the Gospel of Luke. In these four stories, Luke himself has given an interpretation of what the story means. Added to that are years of sermons, Sunday school lessons, and for some significant exigesis to reinforcing the “traditional interpretation” of the stories. It is an experiment of sorts to see if we can read these familiar stories and see the unexpected, surprising quality. And in that sense, these are my trip to Abilene.
In truth, all parables have an unexpected quality to them. That’s embedded in the name. The name parable and the word parabola come from the same root. A parable is something of a narrative curve ball. But, that’s not generally how we treat them—nor is it how some of the earliest Christians treated them. We tend to treat them as morality stories—the sorts of stories that have a moral at the end of them. We tell the parable, we say “and the moral of this story is . . .” and then we move on. The problem with that approach is that it misses something. Respected philosopher of religion and language, Paul Riceour, coined the phrase “surplus of meaning.” By that he meant that good stories have more than a single “correct” interpretation. Stories can be approached from a variety of angles and reveal that they have more meaning than we often give them credit for. And so in our focus over the next four weeks, I’d like to encourage all of us to look for the unexpected qualities of the stories—the things that often go overlooked.

Elijah and the Widow

Thanks Giving Stories
1 Kings 17:8-16
March 7, 2010

He couldn’t have come at a worse time. The widow walked near the city gates, near the boundaries of insider and outsider. She collected dry vegetation that she might make a fire, cook the remainder of her food and consume and wait as she and her children slowly died. The widespread drought made survival unlikely for this family at the lowest end of the spectrum. The man calling to her was not a neighbor. He was not even a beggar known within the city gates. He was an outsider. He had traveled far outside his comfort zone. Perhaps she had heard the reports of the prophet who went to the King of Israel and declared this drought. After all, the Queen in Israel, Jezebel, had come from her parts. Maybe this declarer of doom and destruction had encroached upon this land to taunt the queen on her home court.

“Give me something to drink.” He called to her. Didn’t he know that Baal had fallen asleep and there had been no rain. How did he have the audacity to believe she could spare something as valuable as water. She turned, though, without hesitation to bring him some water. As she he did, he called to her again. She must have flinched when he said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” Give a prophet a vessel of water and he’ll ask for a morsel of bread. Only a Hebrew prophet could be so intrusive.

She wheeled on him and said, “As the LORD your God lives.” A little technical note to explain here—look at your Bible. In the Old Testament, you will sometimes see the word “lord” in lowercase letters. That means that the word lord is being used like we use the word “sir.” Sometimes it is capitalized as a sign of a proper name of respect. But most of our modern translations will place the word LORD in all caps when the Hebrew Manuscript uses the name YHWH—the proper name for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel. Notice as you’re reading passages in the Old Testament the way LORD—YHWH–is used. Somehow she knew the name of the God of Israel. “As the LORD your God lives.” She could believe in a living God but one that took his side over hers. “As the Lord our God lives. I have nothing. I have nothing baked, a handful of meal in a jar, a little oil in a jug. It’s our last meal—mine and my son’s—I am about to go home, prepare it and then we will die.”

“Do not be afraid,” he said. “Go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me.” Wasn’t he listening? A little cake was all she would be able to make. How much “littler” cake did he think she could make with the handful of flour and small portion of oil. She had little reason to trust even the people she knows, for though she should have been at least partially provided for by her community she had been left vulnerable. He continued, “For thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” There was a tremendous risk involved for the widow. This prophet had denounced her homeland’s princess. He had declared the word of a foreign God. He had come asking for water and food in the midst of a drought. He didn’t ask the wealthy members of the community. He called out the most vulnerable—the one closest to the city gates, the one on the margin of her community. He asked for the living of one who was dying.

Perhaps she believed that this promise could come true. After all, she was able to believe that his God lives.
But the risk was great—she risked her inclusion within the city gates, her life
and the life of her son. And yet, there is a painful beauty in the hospitality of dying souls. Victor Frankl, the Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor wrote, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances” (quoted in What Color is Your Parachute, p. 33). And like others who take great risks with only the faintest hint of a possible reward, “She went and did as Elijah said. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that God spoke by Elijah”

There’s a story to preface this one—after Elijah pronounced the drought he lived near a spring and was fed by Ravens—unclean animals according to religious tradition but still used by God. On the other end of the chapter her story has a dramatic conclusion. After a few days of eating well on the miraculous meal and oil, the woman’s son still became quite ill. She feared he might die and became accusatory of Elijah. He came to the point where he had little breathe in him. And she lashed out against him and against herself, “You have come” she said, “to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” Elijah too revealed his fear and vulnerability to God. “LORD,” he prayed, “this woman opened her house to me. Have you opened up calamity to her? O LORD, my God, let this child breathe life again.” And he did. When she received her living son back into her arms, she declared, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD is in your mouth is true.” Provide bread and oil and a person might put up with you in her house; bring life back to a mother’s only son and she’ll believe in your God.

The three stories in 1 Kings 17 belong together. Together they declare: The LORD God and no other god is the one who controls the winds, commands the ravens, enables the widow, revives the dead. The first move in this text is to declare that it is the LORD God and no other God who is the one true God. The LORD God demonstrates tremendous freedom in acting by using animals regarded as unclean, people regarded as incapable, and even sons who have passed away.

The second move is to acknowledge that God’s grace does not respect political, cultural, or even religious boundaries. Jesus interprets this text in Luke 4:25-26 to show that God is not limited in God’s favor to any particular group of people. We live in a world of increasing pluralism and in response to the “outsiders” who want to come into our city gates, drink our water and have the audacity to ask for bread, we are tempted to respond with insulation, boundary-fortification, and distance. We live in a world of perceived scarcity which tempts us to hoard and withdraw. By recounting the terrifying headlines and failing to declare the abundance of God, we place limits on the hopes we have. The woman took a risk to speak to an outsider. She risked sharing what little she had. And in return she encountered the living presence of the God of all creation.
There’s a part of us—or at least a part of me—that wants a third and concluding move in this story: thanksgiving. Only, the woman never reaches that point. She only goes as far as to acknowledge that Elijah speaks the word of the Lord. She no longer identifies the LORD as “your” God but expresses simple faith that Elijah is a man of God and speaks truth from the LORD. That’s great, but where’s the gratitude? Where’s the thanksgiving song? After all, she survived the drought and her son was revived all through God’s gracious act. Yet, when stories end like this they are left open for our response. She is neither openly grateful nor openly ungrateful. She goes as far as acknowledging truth and then is silent. Perhaps the word of thanksgiving can be on our lips.

We too have received the gracious gift of God: we have received the Son of God—the bread of life, the water from the well that will never run dry. I resonate with this woman collecting sticks to boil and eat so that she can feel full until she dies. No, I’ve never faced that kind of hunger. Not even close. But I have known that sort of futility and frustration. And in the face of that—life is what you do while you’re waiting to die—experience, God has touched my life with purpose. God has revealed to me these extraordinary moments of grace and beauty. The gift of Jesus Christ is that in the midst of scarcity we can know the abundance of God’s grace and in the face of strangers we can see a neighbor: a Samaritan willing to help, a Melchizadek offering bread, a widow willing to give the hospitality of a dying soul. And yet, how often do we talk about that? How often do we express our thanksgiving?

Annette Simmons teaches people in a business setting to pay attention to the stories they tell. What she has to say about our career interactions makes a lot of sense in the context of worship. She begins with the belief that people understand who we are by the stories we tell. She is building on a forty year old movement known as “narrative theory” that says not only do other people know who we are based on the stories we tell but we know who we are by the stories we tell. She asks people to think about the stories they tell. Most of us must admit that we do not tell stories when we are “happy, productive, and at our best” we tell stories when we are “disappointed and frustrated.” “The times we seek attention,” she writes, “are the times when we think correction needs to be made.” She goes on to say, “If we were to judge by the stories most people tell on a daily basis we would conclude they are stressed-out, misunderstood victims here to survive red tape and stupid decisions. They pine for retirement or the firings of a certain individual, and they believe that the ‘haves’ couldn’t care less about the ‘have nots’. They unconsciously tell stories that ensure coworkers learn that no amount of effort is going to change things because they’ve already tried and failed” (Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins? p. 23). That’s what Simmons says in a workplace environment. What might she have said had she been in Sunday School? Or Committee Meeting? Or listened in on your phone calls?
Complaint and anxiety–the dribble of cable news commentators tell the stories that say in face of scarcity and migration our salvation comes from hoarding for ourselves and shielding ourselves from others. Thanksgiving intentionally tells another story—in face of the chaos of our experiences we have known a God’s grace. We have met prophets with true words, wells without dryness, dying souls with hospitality. People we thought couldn’t have come at a worse time; who asked for things we didn’t think we have; turn out to come at just the right time with just what we need in that moment. And even within ourselves we have found a strength we didn’t know we possess. “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” Thanks be to God.

Third response to Sullivan

Sullivan used apolitical several  times in the article—Christianity in its truest form is apolitical.  It’s a very risky thing to say.  In general, people like Christian politics when it favors their issues and dislike it when it doesn’t.  What we don’t want to accept is that fully formed Christian politics doesn’t conform to pre-existing political categories.  From the perspective of Liberals.  We rally behind the political theology of Martin Luther King (thoroughly Christian) but despise the political theology of Rick Santorum.  When confronted with the political agenda of a Rick Santorum, we retreat to notions of separating church and state and extend that—as Sullivan gets awfully close to doing—to claim that political advocacy can and should be divorced from theological conviction.
The appeal then gets made to Jesus who  “never said a mumblin’ word” in the face of oppressive Roman government.  But such notions make less sense than does the argument that we should not use musical instruments because the early church did not.  Jesus had little other means to indict human violence, greed, and power lust other than to proclaim the Kingdom of God (a political statement not an apolitical statement) and accept the cross wherein by accepting, forgiving and dying he both judged and forgave our destructive nature.  Same thing is true of Francis.  The reality that we have to face is that there is no Caesar in the American political context.  We operate in a government for, of and by the people.  We are Caesar, we are the king.  The system governs.  Therefore we cannot as people of Christian faith partition God’s reign out of the policies for which we advocate.  The problem with politics today is that we do not know how to advocate for certain things—like protection of unborn children, the end of capital punishment, pacifism, equal distribution of wealth—without turning to coercion.  When we cooperate with another church,  we do not want to chastise or coerce a church to change but lovingly pray that they do.  They also lovingly pray that we would become more Christ-like in the ways that Christ is evident in them and not in us.  And that’s why they accept the invitation.  We aren’t interested in just coexisting.  We gather together that we might be more Christ-like.  Christians have an agenda.  We need to.  It is that through faith in Christ—as one who though he had all power accepted that it be power under people rather than power over people—can transform not just individuals but also the systems in which individuals live and move and have their being. 

Second Response to Sullivan

Sullivan says that he believes in the divinity and resurrection of Jesus.  These are defining aspects of Christianity along with his death on the cross.  What they mean, however, requires interpretation.  The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are polyvalent realities and point to multiple, true meanings.  It is impossible to define the significance of these events and therefore what it means to believe in them without risking that these acts of God will be diluted by finite human minds and communicated by fallible human speech.  There are those of us who believe that is precisely why we are called into communities of faith where we can share interpretations and hold one another accountable.  The problem is, of course, that human systems require that power is involved.  It has to be entrusted to people and can, therefore, be manipulated by them.  Every religious tradition has these moments of abuse, misuse and excess.  The media (I know that it’s too easy to blame them) like to chastise the church of these.  This abuse, that abuse or the other abuse has robbed Christianity of its goodness.  Perhaps.  Truth is Christianity has always been a mixed bag made up of people who are created in the image of God and re-created in the image of Christ and who on not so rare instances display those images in words and deeds.  But these very same people are marred by human sin and are capable of tremendous evil.  We are one and the same—saints and sinner.  OR as Luther would say simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinner).  Sullivan wants to separate Christ from the very people Christ would claim—his idiot followers.  But Christ resists such division—the distance between Romans 7 and Romans 8 is paper thin.  And the one who can lament, “O Wretched man that I am, who will save me?” can turn around and declare, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.” 

Response to Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan’s Easter Week cover article was provocative and deserves a response.  Here is part 1 of three responses. 

Sullivan represents what I would call deutero-Protestants.  These are people who somehow believe that not only can Christianity exist without being bound to a single unified church but that Christianity can exist without any church whatsoever.  It’s a view held not only by Jefferson but also by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Soren Kierkegaard, Gothold Lessing and the list goes on.  The pesky historical detail they tend to neglect is that there is not memory of Jesus without the church.  We cannot access any first hand written document composed by Jesus.  Nor do we have really any existing document that describes Jesus and his activity outside those written by people of faith.  Many biblical scholars believe that there existed a “Q” for (Quelle, the German word for source) that, like Jefferson’s Bible contained the sayings of Jesus but not much else.  But even that would have been compiled by followers and its existence is still hypothetical (I say that even though I believe that there was a sayings source or “Q” document). 
Whether we like it or not we are dependent on the church for both the introduction and content of our knowledge about Jesus.  There’s nothing of Jesus that’s directly accessible—I’m distinguishing here between the historical person of Jesus and the living presence of Christ.  Surgeon Atul Gawande has recently written a book entitled The Checklist Manifesto.  In it, he tells the story of being responsible for improving surgical safety.  He concluded that the way to avoid post-operative infection was through the use of checklists.  The narrative is both more nuanced and interesting.  But he begins and ends by talking about the miracle on the Hudson.   At the end of the book the chapter is entitled “The Hero in the Age of Checklists.”  He talks about how the pilot kept trying to explain to people that what saved people that day was a system—a system within the plane of pilot, co-pilot and crew and a system that preceded the flight that instilled the necessary actions and reactions in the event of this sort of disaster.  Gawande points out that no matter how hard Sullenberger tried to make that point, “It was as if we simply could not process the full reality of what had been required to save the people on that plane.”  Call it the deutero-Protestant work ethic:  We must find the single person responsible and either make them a hero or a villain.  We do not know how to see the virtue or the villainy in systems.  This is not less true here where scripture comes to us as an interlocking system of writers, readers, retainers, copiers, canonizers, and translators.  All of these handlers of what has come to us as the words of Jesus are members of the same system–the Church.  There is no access to Jesus without the church. 
This does not excuse any of the gross misdeeds conducted by these systems and Sullivan is right to call these into accountability.  It is to argue, however, that would be followers of Jesus Christ must participate in the continual effort to bring the church of Jesus Christ to places of needed repentance rather than create yet another “They” that “we” refuse to engage.    

What Communion Involves–Part 1

            1 Corinthians 11 contains teachings about communion and one part of it is familiar to us.  It’s the part that tells us what it means to receive communion faithfully.  We refer to them in church short-hand as “Words of institution.  It’s the verses 11:23-26.  “Lord Jesus . . . night betrayed . . . bread for you . . . remember me.  Cup of new covenant . . . remember me.”  It summarizes the conditions of what it takes for people to receive communion in a faithful way—it takes a gathered worshiping body. For reasons I won’t go into, I believe strongly that communion is not a part of private devotion.  We read scripture in private, pray in private, fast in private, even sing hymns privately.  But I don’t believe we should take communion in private.  To faithfully receive communion, this text suggests to us that the narrative needs to be shared.  This story of Jesus initiating the Lord’s  Supper is found in four places in scripture.  And the language suggests that it the narrative itself was something people repeated whenever they received communion.  So, we gather the worshipers, we tell the story, and we remember—Remembrance is a central component of receiving communion.  We remember and give thanks for the whole life of Jesus—his incarnational birth, his authoritative teaching, his compassionate ministry, his boundary-crossing meals, his triumphal entry, his disciple-making community, his arrest, trial and sacrificial crucifixion and his glorious resurrection.  But, says Paul, though we celebrate his whole life in Lord’s Supper, we pay particular attention to the fact that whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s Death until he comes.”  So to receive communion faithfully means to have gathered worshipers, retold story, and Christ-centered memory. 

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday 2012
Letty Russell a long-time professor of theology at Yale Divinity School said, “The whole story of the New Testament revolves around this one theme: diakonia, service.”  Service is not the most glamorous of themes to revolve around.  We might fill in the blank differently with “Resurrection” maybe–a word that becomes important as we come closer to Easter Sunday. Or “Redemption.” OR “Faith,” “Hope,” or the greatest of these, “Love.”  All far more glamorous than that word “service.”  
Service, after all, begats sweat and sweat begats body odor and body odor when it is full grown begats stink and stink is not glamorous.  Service will give you blisters, calluses, a sore throat, and sunburn.  Service means spending the night on the floor praying that the Jr. High kids will stop giggling and stay put.  Service is acidic soap suds and hot water and a scouring pad.  It’s cracking eggs and peeling potatoes.  Service is cleaning toilets and making copies.  It’s choir rehearsal and Sunday School lessons and the call in the middle of the night.  Service is board meetings and support meetings and prayer  meetings.  Service is a handwritten note saying, “I’m here for you,” “I’m thinking about you,” “I value you.” “Are you OK?”  Service is mulch and dirty diapers and comfort dolls.  It is crafting banners and hanging dry wall and sorting cans and hospital visits.  It’s beans and rice and water.  It’s hearts and hands filled with whatever a person needs get them over this point and to the next point.  It’s a friendly greeting on Sunday morning.  It’s opening your house so that others can worship.   It is the right hand putting in the offering plate what the left hand would remove if the left hand had received the memo.  Service is the conversation at the bedside, OR through the bullet proof glass or communion pushed through a fence or a friend staring at the tree the tornado has dropped on your house saying, “I’ll get my saw.”  Service is the carnation pinned to a lapel and the hand over hand journey of a coffin lifted by friends saying good bye.  Service is beautiful but not glamorous.   
Jesus style service is, in fact, required to be anything but glamorous.   “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before others to be seen by them.”   I’ve talked about service a long time and listened to people talk about service a lot longer.  And we generally try to dress it up. We say things like, “When you serve you get more out serving than the people you serve do.”  Which is probably true if we’re talking about my construction abilities.  You know, but there are some people who actually manage to do some real good in this world.  We talk about how service reveals the miracle side of life.  And we tell the touching story to help convince people to serve others.  But there’s only so much dressing up of service and eventually people are going to see the dirty elbows and dirty knees and the dirty, dirty feet.  There’s only so much dressing up we can do before Jesus taps us on the shoulder and says, “That’s not the reason for doing service.”  It’s not about dressing up.  
So we’re left to wonder, if service isn’t glamorous what does it mean.? Is Letty Russell correct in saying “The whole story of the New Testament revolves around” service?  All of the rest that this weekend is about–the redemption and the resurrection, the agony and the victory, it is all designed to reconcile God and us and to reconcile us to each other.  And we must ask, what kind of God are we being reconciled to and how are we to be reconciled to one another.  And Jesus said:  here, let me show you. On a night leading to us arrest Jesus closed the doors and with his closest friends and his betrayer Jesus removed his clothes, wrapped a towel around his waste and he washed their feet–all their dirty, dirty feet.  And said, you call me teacher and Lord and rightly so now I your teacher and Lord have set and example for you also should wash one another’s feet,.  Indeed the whole act of Jesus’s life is a single and seamless act of God serving thumanity–the humanity God made, and loves, and allowed to wander and came to retrieve.  This is the character of God and God’s vision for us.  Service is the remaking of ourselves in the image of Christ.  But why serve without expectation of recognition beyond that which God sees and knows? To serve for nothing else than the affirmation of God?
I mean, it’s lousy public relations for one who would be Lord and Savior of the world.  Didn’t Jesus know that the better path is to find people who need your help, tell their story on national television, give them a few days of vacation and while their gone remodel their house. “Jesus, move that boat.” That’s a much better catch phrase than those who could come after me must follow me.  And if we could talk back at Jesus, we would explain, ever so respectfully, that if you don’t advertise your service as loudly as possible then people might misinterpret what you’re doing.  They might challenge that healing is a violation of Sabbath law.  They might say that feeding is an attempt to reorder the economy.  They might say that welcoming children overturns the social order.  Far better, don’t you think, when giving your gift to do so with trumpet blast so that everything is perfectly clear.  But that’s not what Jesus said.  And so he left himself wide open that people might misunderstand  the wood and the hammer and the nails and the sweat and the pain and the blood.  They just might walk past and assume that what you intend as service is in fact a punishment, a curse, an execution, a crucifixion. Jesus took this risk and calls us to do the same—the risk that the only people who will understand what you are doing are those who see with the eyes of faith.  He said “Take up your cross and follow me.” There are days I wouldn’t risk the confusion.  I’d take the trumpet blast. I’d shoot glamorous. But I’m not charge.  And a servant is not greater than the master.  So we serve in memory and in unity as Christ has served us.  Thanks be to God. 

Response to Sandhya Jha

I found Sandhya Jha’s recent post on gender really helpful, thoughtful and it sparked a flood of thoughts for me. It did not feel like “old news” to me. I wrote the following response directly to her.  It got long, so I thought I’d post it here. 

I chuckled with her reference to “Very progressive man.” My first thought was—oh, good—she’s not talking about me. Then I retreated where I usually do in these conversations to saying, “We’re not the ones you need to convince. Other women are the biggest obstacle. Convince them.” That was the first point of conviction for me. Because as soon as I thought that I though about often I let other men intimidate me. I’m not successful at persuading them. I’m often not courageous enough to try. So, I need to quit using that cop out line or else accept that if feminist women are responsible for the non-feminist women then I have to accept responsibility for persuading the unrepentant men (Oh Brother).

I think a lot of times “Progressive Men” try to appear feminist but don’t actually get there. I’ve been struck by a few of my strong feminist friends who married somewhat conservative almost red-neck men. The thought that occurred to me is that a lot of the most conservative, politically insensitive people I know are very respectful in one-on-one relationships with their wives and in fact everyone they meet. They don’t try to prove that they aren’t sexist they have an ethic of respect. It’s the weirdest thing that some of the nicest people, most willing to help folk around here are Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly fans. I simply don’t get it.

It shouldn’t surprise me, though. I know that there is a profound difference between what my “ideology” says and the feelings and motivations generated by synapses, hormones, and hardwiring. I am Romans 7 walking around in the 21st Century. That’s not an attempt to divert responsibility just a way of saying responsibility for actions means more than changing ideology. As you said, “Your desire for me to feel completely liberated . . . .” Right. There’s a long and arduous—not so straight but definitely narrow—road from good intentions to healthier interactions and systems.

Which leads me to say that part of what has to happen now is the development of simpler norms. You’re final point is where my anxiety kicks in—there are different kinds of feminism. As an aside, I’ll say, I have always been of the opinion that men cannot be truly feminist and the white middle-class cannot be liberationist. It has to do with my understanding of theological anthropology (or psychology). I believe that self-deception, which ideology often leads to, is one of the biggest barriers to wholeness. I believe that we must be constantly vigilant about our participation in injustice or to put the word simply—sin. I can be informed by feminism but to claim to be a feminist too easily drifts into self-deception that I have conquered all my sexist tendencies. So when I decline to claim my own feminism in the conversation, it’s not because I disagree. Aside over.

The challenge now is that with the diverse opinions about how gender should be thought about and lived out, it is much more difficult to know how to respond. If it’s dark outside and one of my women colleagues is still in the building. Do I offend her autonomy by waiting until she’s done to see that she makes it to the car safely (our zip code—76010–has problems to rival any inner-city neighborhood) OR is it just showing respect per your point #1 (BTW, I know my colleagues well enough to know to stay. They know me well enough to tell me if they think I’ve crossed a line and said or done something insensitive). Simple actions of “chivalry” become complicated internal dialogues for many men who are trying to be (or appear) non-sexist. That’s an isolated example of what happens all the time. Somewhere in the attempts to appear non-sexist we have stopped using language like the language one of your commenters posted. We don’t say to boys, “Be a gentlemen and treat ladies with respect.” It sounds patronizing and archaic. I heard a discussion a few weeks ago on NPR (can’t remember which show) where the women in the discussion said they didn’t like the term “ladies.” Really? Someone please explain how we’re supposed to keep this straight. Paradigm shifts create stages where old norms have fallen away but new norms have yet to emerge. Maybe that’s where we’re living but, in the absence of clear norms particularly as it relates to the education of boys the vacuum will be filled with the sort garbage we’ve heard recently.

Finally, and somewhat unrelated to the preceding, the Fluke controversy was tragic. Limbaugh’s rhetoric was some of the worst I’ve ever heard. Frankly, I think we need to have a conversation about religious liberty and to what extent the first amendment protects the policies of religious affiliated organizations. Personally, I think an insurance company should regard birth control as essential. I see it as preventative medicine and I think insurance companies would do well to be more aggressive with promoting preventative medicine. But, whether companies should be compelled by law to implement policies that are morally problematic for their shareholders is a lot more complicated than it appears. Fluke deserved a serious and nuanced response and serious scrutiny. What she got instead was a pundit willing to simplify it below the waist (where a man’s brain is a lot of the time) and drive it straight to the gutter. In doing so, he severely crippled people like myself who think that Fluke’s arguments deserve some heavy counter-argument and dialogue. Not on moralistic grounds about sex but on constitutional grounds about the extent of religious freedom and freedom of conscious in our complex interdependent context. Unfortunately, any male adversary to Fluke’s argument will now get coupled with Limbaugh’s rant and be dismissed out of hand as sexist.