bittersweet sunday

During this past week I've been wondering, does anyone else feel little odd during Palm Sunday celebrations? You know, the gathering where everyone (or perhaps just the kids) waves palm branches, proclaiming "Hosanna" just as the crowds did during Jesus' actual entrance into Jerusalem (Mt. 21:9). While declaring Jesus "Lord" in itself is not odd (see Rom. 10:9-13), we know from the rest of the Passion week narrative that it's this same crowd who turns on Jesus. It turns out, the king they welcome with a royal inauguration is not the king they expected. Their "Hosanna's" were full of confused expectations for who their Messiah was and what he would do. As one commentator points out, “when Jesus shows that he is a different kind of Messiah than that of the popular expectation, the people will no longer support him. Paradoxically they will send the one they now receive with such jubilation to his death on the cross” (Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28). In fact, in the midst of the celebration, rather than marveling in the attention, Jesus is brought to tears:

"As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your did not recognize the time of God's coming to you" (Lk. 19:41,44)

Jesus' lament, I believe, centers around the misconceptions the people had for who he was and why he was there.
In the words of storyteller Walter Wangerin, Jesus “was not rejoicing in the public acclaim, nor glorying in the advent of his kingdom now. He was crying! He was gazing at the stones of the city and allowing tears to run down his face…the tone was defeat” (The Book of God). The peoples' praise at Jesus' entrance was filled with their own expectations for how Jesus would bring them back into the "good life" - a time in which Israel once again literally reigned in the world as God's people. Essentially, "Hosanna" was filled with their own hopes and dreams. For Jesus, this is something worth crying over.

The story of Palm Sunday, then, makes we question our own lives, our own worship. How do our "Hosanna's" - our worship celebrations - simply project our ideas for the "good life"? Do we, like the crowds in Jerusalem, have misconceptions about what we're celebrating when we remember Jesus? It's these questions that make Palm Sunday bittersweet. Yes, Jesus is our Lord and King, but do we really get what that entails? Or, in the words of N.T. Wright, do we follow "conventional wisdom"
in which "the way of the Messiah would be the way of fulfillment and self-aggrandizement: those who wanted to gain their lives would have to fight for them." We're challenged in our definition of faith and discipleship, as Wright continues: "Jesus’ most subversive teaching, in both form and content, consisted in just this: that the way of wisdom meant taking up the cross, dying in order to live” (Jesus and the Victory of God).

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it (Mk. 8:34-35)

more thoughts on liturgy, story, and the practice of lent

Amidst my busyness (hence the lack of blogging!), lent continues to be on my mind. I keep coming back to how the church's use (or lack) of the liturgical calender impacts our faith and our understanding of God's work in the world.

At a conference this past weekend, speaker Tom Sine - of Mustard Seed Associates - commented that following the liturgical calender in both our personal and corporate spirituality allows us to participate in the whole story of God, investigating and experiencing how we are transformed by the narrative of God in the Bible, and in turn, our world. He shared how his personal experience of lent has been incredibly difficult. In his struggle, he stated plainly, "I'm ready for Easter." The story of Jesus, you see, isn't simply an idea Tom reflects on or "believes" as we so often say. The story of Jesus, in fact, shapes how Tom has experienced life, which in the case of lent, has left him exhausted and yearning for the hope the Easter brings. So often, sadly, we are more shaped by the calender of society - call it our "cultural liturgy" (hockey playoffs!?!) - than the biblical narrative the church calender guides us through. And I'll be honest. I don't know if I've ever felt an anticipation for Easter in the way Tom expressed. Have I ever immersed myself in the story of Jesus to the point of my life mirroring the emotions and experiences of the biblical narrative? Nope.

But then again, I'm not part of a liturgical tradition and have even experienced "anti-liturgical" sentiment personally and in church. I guess I/we have some learning to do...

In the case of lent, then, I'm challenged to consider how I experience a deep anticipation and longing for the redemption of our broken world, just as the people of Israel, the followers of Jesus, and the early church longed for in their day. In lent, do I allow myself to lament, to experience the "not yet" reality of our world in order to get the proper perspective for the hope we celebrate at Easter? What's hope without an experience of its absence? So I close with a portion of Psalm 77 that challenges us to live out the longing of lent:

I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.

When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted.

I remembered you, God, and I groaned;
I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.

You kept my eyes from closing;
I was too troubled to speak.

I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;

I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart meditated and my spirit asked:

"Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?

Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?

Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?"

(Psalm 77:1-9 TNIV)

"stretch our imaginations"

I wanted to share the Lent reading for today from the MB Seminary's Lent Devotional.

"Praise the God of Justice - Psalm 146" (Michelle Ferguson, March 16, 2010)

The LORD reigns forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the LORD. (Ps. 146:10)

Today we encounter another song of praise from Israel’s prayer book. It speaks hope as it voices the prophetic imagination repeated throughout the biblical narrative. Hannah sang these words as she dedicated Samuel to the LORD’s service. Isaiah proclaimed these words envisioning the end of exile and the reestablishment of God’s kingdom. Jesus preached these words as being fulfilled by him.

Our God has done great things and in him we place our trust. God is the Creator who brought fullness and order to what was empty and void; God is also the King who brings justice on the earth he has made. Our faithful response is to “praise the LORD!” We do so with our lips and our lives as we sing these words and participate in their realization. When we pray with the psalmist, “The LORD will reign forever,” we invite God’s reign among us so that his vision for creation might come to fruition in and through us.

During the Lenten season we walk with Jesus for forty days in the wilderness, preparing for the mission to which we are called. That mission is one characterized by the vision of our psalm—justice for the oppressed, food to the hungry, liberation for the prisoners, sight to the blind, exaltation of the lowly, protection for the foreigner, home for the orphan and widow. During this time of preparation, can we stretch our imaginations toward this prophetic vision in new ways?

As I reflect on my thoughts from yesterday on spiritual disciplines, I like the idea of our devotion - "Praise the Lord" - helping us "participate" and "stretch our imaginations" toward God's reign in the world.

spiritual disciplines - or, why we need a liturgical kick in the pants

Every year, Lent makes me question the whole practice of Christian discipline. Shouldn't we always be willing to go without in order to better understand God's way in the world? Shouldn't we always be more intentional about a life of prayer and seeking after God's voice? Sometimes it feels spiritual disciplines like practicing Lent or setting aside time for "devotions" only further to compartmentalize my experience of God away from my everyday experience. Such a faith is the last thing I need in a world already full of distractions that prevent me from loving God and others as Jesus commands (Mt. 22:37-38).

Usually, however, these questions are just an excuse for my own laziness. To suggest I don't need to set aside time to pray and cultivate my faith in God because as a Christian I "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17) - which I don't - is a simplistic view of faith. It's like saying to a home builder she doesn't need to set aside time to read the design plans for a new home because she's already a home builder. No! The most seasoned home builder spends time understanding the project in order to build the house well. The faithful Christian, likewise, spends time understanding their faith in God - e.g. spiritual disciplines such as practicing Lent - in order to faithfully live out a love of God and others.

This morning I read a quote about liturgy (not just the church calender, but literally "the work of the people," such as spiritual disciplines) that relates well to why I think spiritual disciplines are so valuable in our experience of faith. Phyllis Tickle states,

"Liturgy only gives sanction to what the heart already knows" (Final Sanity, 69).

I like this. It describes my experience of Lent well, expressing the profound simplicity in spiritual disciplines. Something in me knows I need to re-prioritize my life, yet such re-prioritization doesn't usually happen easily. Spiritual disciplines can amplify our natural desire to connect with God (Ps. 63:1) - a desire our noisy world so often muffles. Reorienting ourselves to allow this natural tendency to become evident in everyday life takes work. Hence the phrase, "spiritual disciplines."

As Christians we all know life is not our own, but a gift from God (Ps. 8). Spiritual disciplines, perhaps, are the liturgical kick in the pants we need to remember that!

(Definition - "Liturgical kick in the pants" - a concise, well-ordered, thoughtful and challenging practice that protects Christians from laziness and consumer tendencies. Yes, I made this up:)

worth sharing

This week I came across a couple of videos I thought worth sharing. Enjoy!

1. A fun song playing with our assumptions around Christianity and God.

(h/t Brian McLaren)

2. An interview with N.T. Wright. I recently shared a different portion of this interview with Wright(see here). Again, assumptions are being questioned, and I appreciate Wright challenging the assumed purposes we place on the biblical text.

(h/t Jesus Creed)

3. And finally, this organizational nightmare makes for a creative display of artistic film-making.

Wisdom from Witherington

One of my favorite blogs is that of New Testament Bible scholar, Ben Witherington III. Covering a range of topics in the area of Christianity and culture, Witherington's breadth, wisdom, humility, and clarity displays an authentic engagement with faithful Christian living in our world that any reader will benefit from. I know I have.
A recent post of his caught my attention, so I thought I'd share a few quotes to illustrate Witherington's thought-provoking insights.

First, some thoughts on the professional-laity split in Christian ministry:

"What about the distinction between part-time and full-time ministry with the laity doing the former and the clergy the latter? There is certainly nothing in the Bible that supports such a notion, and part of the problem is the way one envisions ministry. Raising children in a godly way is a ministry. Helping people with their finances is a ministry. Building homes, making clothes, selling groceries is a ministry. Any good deed, anything that can be done to the glory of God and for the edification of God's people and the world is a ministry. Our problem is that we have defined ministry too narrowly, and then jealousy fought over who gets to do what."

Second, this quip about men and women in ministry (I'm still amazed this (non)issue persists in the church)

"And then of course there are men in ministry who feel threatened by women in ministry, as if women are encroaching on their private domain. But the problem in the church is not strong, gifted, called, ministering women. The problem is weak men who can't handle strong women."

And finally, Witherington offers a challenge in the area of church, culture and the Gospel:

"In my view, every single Christian needs Christian training, and all the more so now as our culture and even our churches become more and more Biblically illiterate. But hear me clearly--- we are not called to dumb down the Gospel, we are called to boil up the people. We are not called to put the Gospel cookies on the bottom shelf, we are called to tease people's minds into active thought so that their reach will extend further than their current grasp."

the "collective experience" of Vancouver 2010

As the Olympics came to a close on Sunday, I'll admit, I was sad. For me, and many other Canadians I assume, the 2010 Olympics were an opportunity not only to express our latent patriotism, but also share in an experience bigger than ourselves, even if only for 17 days. Hey, one day I might even miss that theme song, "I believe"! The extinguishing of the flame marked the end of the celebration, leaving me with that post-holiday feeling - the inevitable return to normality and our old way of Canadian life.

So we ask ourselves, "what now?" Will the Olympic stories inspire Canadians to also consider how their lives fit into a bigger story - Canada's story? In the video below - probably the best summary of the games from a Canadian perspective - journalist Stephen Brunt suggests that contrary to Canadians' tendency to downplay their nationalism and embrace personal freedom in self-identity, the Olympics brought our scattered identities together. Brunt suggests "it is important to have a shared history...There is power in collective experience." I think he's right. Too often our Canadian ideals of tolerance and acceptance - great things by the way! - sadly turn into an excuse to ignore the people around us. So to see something as simple as strangers conversing on the street as so many of us in Vancouver witnessed and participated in, reveals a hiatus from our typical hurried and private lives. I only hope this openness continues.

Now, I'm not so naive to realize this "collective experience" has it's limits. From a Christian perspective, I've already reflected on the tension cultural celebrations such as the Olympics stir in us - the reality that our unity is incomplete in the face of so many still excluded. And realistically, many people will probably morph right back into their old ways, once more ignoring those around them, perpetuating a sort-of impersonal existence. But perhaps that won't be the case for everyone. Maybe a young teen will join the speed-skating club instead of following what seemed an inevitable path towards self-destruction. Or what if one of the tourists remembers a conversation they had with a Downtown Eastside resident and sponsors a scholarship for low-income women to earn a college degree? Or what if you simply decided to look someone in the eye everyday and say "hello" as so many did with ease for two weeks this February? Maybe the idea of "sharing history" doesn't have to seem so foreign after all. Perhaps our feelings of Canadian pride and unity could transform into concrete practices of pride and unity? That's my hope for a 2010 legacy!