Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Zombies and Me

           On President’s Day the kids and I went to see the movie Warm Bodies.  Without giving away the plot, it is essentially a zombie love story.  That may sound silly, but it was a funny, tender, poignant film.  (I’m serious!)  Much to my children’s embarrassed dismay, by the end of it I was wiping away tears.  (No really, I’m serious.)  While it was incredibly sweet and the message of what was required to stop being a zombie and be human once more was one I found moving, what got to me was that the real love story was not just between two people but with the whole idea of being human in the first place.  Part of what happened to the people who became zombies was that they lost their ability to remember their humanness.  What starts them on the road to being human once more is remembering.
            I also think that the reason I became emotional at a zombie movie, no matter how well done, is that, well, these days I feel a little like a zombie.  No, I haven’t joined the ranks of the literal walking dead.  But I do feel like I shuffle around trying my best to look okay and act okay and be okay.  But I’m not okay.  I am depressed.  Being depressed is tough, but what’s even tougher for me is admitting it.  I am, though.  I am depressed. 

            At first glance, you probably wouldn’t think it.  I function.  I don’t lie in bed all day, crying, watching bad television and eating ice cream out of the carton.  I get dressed.  I drive my kids to school.  I go to work.  I laugh and joke with my parishioners.  I manage to stand up in the pulpit and preach.  I fulfill my duties and obligations.  My house, although it could be much cleaner and more organized, is not a complete pit.  I still exercise on a regular basis and I try not to overeat. 

            But on the inside, and often on the outside, I can be an emotional mess.  I’m sad.  I’m lonely.  I’m angry.  I’m confused.  I’m lost.  I’m scared.  The fear is the worst because it leads to so many other anxieties.  Anxieties about my kids, money, work, the future, the list goes on and on.  I am depressed.  But I don’t want to be.  I know.  Who does?  But I don’t want to be so badly that I try to force myself into a happiness that isn’t real. 

            When I was a kid I loved to make a rubber band gun out of my thumb and forefinger.  If I could place the rubber band at the right point around both fingers, pull my thumb backwards so the tension on the rubber band was just so, then when I let the sucker go it would fly across the room.  I think that’s what forcing happiness is like.  I’m the rubber band and when I push myself to stretch into a fake happiness I can only go so far.  When I can’t stretch one more inch, I fly back the other way so hard and with such velocity that I feel worse than before. 

            The truth is I don’t want to be depressed.  I don’t want to be sad and scared and all those other supposedly negative emotions.  But I also know that I’m not doing myself, or the people who love me, any favors by denying their existence.  My emotional struggle is an inevitable consequence of going through trauma.  And leaving a marriage, leaving a life, even when it was my decision, my choice to do so, is traumatic.  I know this.  I just don’t want to feel it. 

            Brene Brown, in her viral TED talk about vulnerability and wholehearted living, says that one of the struggles people have with being vulnerable is that it often comes with intense feelings.  When we’re grieving or sad or depressed we feel vulnerable.  It’s uncomfortable, but rather than accepting the discomfort, we try to numb the emotions we don’t like.  I don’t like feeling sad, so I’ll do anything I can to numb the sadness.  But as Brown says, we can’t “selectively numb.”  If we numb the stuff we don’t like, we also numb what we do.  We can’t numb sadness without also numbing joy. 

            I’ve spent a large part of my adult life trying to numb, in one way or another.  I don’t want to do that anymore.  I can’t.  So I acknowledge my depression.  Yet even as I say that, I also have to say this.  I cling to my stubborn belief that there is more awaiting me than this.  I won’t give into the fear I have when things seem especially dark that this is it…forever.  I’m doing my best to have a little faith.  I know I should say faith in God, but I think the one I really need to have more faith in is me.  I am more than just the sadness that seems to envelope me right now.  I have courage.  It took a heck of a lot of courage just to get to this point.  I have joy and passion and love.  Right now I feel like I’m a depressed zombie most of the time, but I remember.  I remember what it feels like to be me. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Jerusalem, Jerusalem

Luke 13:31-35
February 24, 2013/Second Sunday in Lent

No matter how you go to Jerusalem, you go up.  It’s just a reality of the city.  It’s set on a hill, so the roads that lead there lead up.  From the moment the group I was traveling with crossed into Israel, leaving Egypt in the dark of early morning and crossing the Suez Canal, we knew that we were entering a completely different land. 
Israel’s green stood in sharp relief to the sparse landscape of Egypt.  It was one of the differences that I noted as we made our way into the final country of our trip.  Even in January, there was green, growing life.  As our tour bus drove further into the countryside, I could imagine how 
 this arid region would have truly seemed to be a land flowing with milk and honey. 
Another difference between Israel and the other countries I’d seen in the Middle East became  apparent at customs.  After we’d been duly searched, questioned and stamped, we had to go through turnstiles to actually walk into Israel.  Never have I been pushed out of the way by other people so many times.  I would take my place in line, all my traveling gear in hand, ready to walk through and someone would just come up and push me out of the way.  It wasn’t my meekness that was causing this, because it wasn’t just happening to me.  My friend and roommate Gwen was being knocked out of line too.  It was happening to our fellow travelers as well.  We looked to our professor and mentor and group leader, Sib Towner, for some explanation.  Sib, who had spent many years traveling in the Near and Middle East said, “Ah, yes, welcome to Israel, the land of push and shove.” 
Honestly, having come from Arab countries where we were greeted at every hotel with fresh juices and sweets, this was a bit of a rude awakening. 
Once in Israel, we moved from place to place, town to town.  We spent one night at a Kibbutz.  We had another view of the Mediterranean.  Then, finally, we went into Jerusalem; the city, the destination, the sacred site so many of us had been waiting for.  It would be hard to imagine a group of seminarians and clergy going to the Middle East and not going to Jerusalem.  What a strange and beautiful and scary and violent city it is. 
If you’ve ever seen pictures of Jerusalem from a distance, you know that it looks beautiful.  The Dome of the Rock literally gleams in the sun, and the buildings look whitewashed and clean.  But when you go into the heart of it, it’s different.  First of all it’s a city.  It’s a metropolis like New York, Los Angeles, Athens, etc.  So there are urban problems and realities just like in New York, Los Angeles, Athens, etc.  We’d left Cairo, which was exotic and crazy and huge.  In Cairo you could be stuck in traffic for 40 minutes waiting for a herd of camels to cross.  I know this because it happened.   And I think I expected Jerusalem to feel the same.  But Jerusalem was different. 
At one point in our travels around the city, I left my group to meet up with a missionary that I’d met named Greg.  He was there on behalf of the Methodist church, although he didn’t advertise that too loudly, working with a Palestinian peace organization.  When I departed from our bus and took off on my own, I was pretty confident.  This wasn’t my first big city.  I’d walked around Amman, Damascus, Cairo.  I’d trekked through plenty of big cities in this country like New York and D.C.  But Jerusalem was different. 
Cars kept honking at me.  They weren’t just randomly honking.  They would drive past me and honk as loudly as they could.  My friend Greg later told me that it was the taxi cabs doing that, trying to let me know that they were empty.  But I was starting to get freaked out by it.  I guess it must have been a lot more obvious that I was not a native than I realized, because whenever I would pass a group of men they would either stare at me suspiciously or leer at me.  No matter how I kept my head down and tried to blend in, I probably looked American.  Depending on who was looking at me that was a good or not so good thing. 
Jerusalem was different.  While we were there it was relatively peaceful.  I don’t recall hearing about any skirmishes or problems while we were staying in the city.  There were no bombings or terrorist attacks, but the violence that can erupt in Jerusalem in a split second was always under the surface.  People went about their daily lives – working, studying, shopping, living – but there was always a wariness, always an alertness.  That wariness was personified in the number of soldiers always walking around, AK 47’s always at the ready.  It was a tension that I imagine if you lived there, you might not notice, but for those of us who were just passing through, you could cut its thickness with the proverbial knife. 
This was also January of 1993.  If you were around at that time, think back for a minute and try to remember what was happening.  We were just a few years out of the gulf war.  Bill Clinton was inaugurated as President of the United States while we were out of the country.  Shortly before his inauguration and just as we were preparing to go to Israel, some last bombs were dropped on Iraq.  Iraq tended to respond by then bombing Israel.  We were hearing about all of this while we were traveling, and I remember going to Sib in a panic and saying, “Should we really be going to Israel right now?  Are we going to be okay?” 
But even without these extenuating circumstances, Jerusalem was different.  Jerusalem is different.  Every place we’d gone to so far we’d been greeted by little kids who knew that Americans were good for baksheesh, the Arabic word for tip.  But the other little kids in the other countries were thrilled when we gave them the pencils and the candy that we’d brought over by the bucket loads just for this purpose.  The kids in Jerusalem did not want that.  They were skinnier and harder and their eyes were old.  When they cried baksheesh, baksheesh, they wanted money.  They needed money. 
Jerusalem is different.  After being there, even just a short time, I understand Jesus’ lament when he says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” 
Jerusalem, Jerusalem.  A city so scary and enticing, so ancient and yet so new.  A city torn apart by different loyalties.  A city, a home to three of the world’s major religions, yet sliced into pieces by all of them.  A city where compassion has been met by hardness of heart, peacemaking by violence, love by hatred. 
Jesus laments for this city that kills the ones it needs the most.  Yet he has also set his face to go there.  So have we. 
I bet you think you know where I’m going with this don’t you?  Lent symbolizes Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, to Good Friday and ultimately to Easter.  Our observation of Lent means that we are on this journey with him.  We journey to Jerusalem carrying our own crosses on our backs, trying to imitate the one we follow. 
Yes, we are doing that.  But I have been warned by commentators in the last few weeks to let go of the tired, overused analogy that is the journey to Jerusalem.  It’s not that it’s not helpful to our understanding of Lent, to what Jesus is about, to what Jesus is doing.  It is.  There’s nothing wrong with it really.  But I think that Jerusalem, at least in the context of what Jesus is trying to impart to his disciples and any who would listen, is as much a state of being as it is a geographical location.  Kind of like the Kingdom of God, really, which is perhaps why when we read of the Kingdom of God in other apocalyptic literature we hear it described as a New Jerusalem, a shining city on a hill. 
Jerusalem is not just a place.  It is a state of being, a state of existence.  It is a mixture of all that is good and bad, of all that is beautiful and ugly, of all that is hopeful and dangerous.  So maybe in this season of Lent we need to see Jerusalem as not just as place that we’re making our way to, but as a state of being that we are already in.  Maybe the question we need to ask ourselves is not, “How long until we get to Jerusalem?” but “How are we already there?” 
I think the point of Lent and Easter is not just that Jesus bore our sins, our darkness, our pain, our suffering for us, he bore it with us.  When Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem, he doesn’t just make a travel itinerary, he determines to go into the darkest, saddest, most violent, most dangerous, most painful places of the human condition.  He doesn’t go to conquer but to redeem; he doesn’t go to overthrow but to love.  He goes to Jerusalem to love, to love until death, to love into new life.  He goes into the darkness of Jerusalem to bring in the light.  Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem.  He has set his face to come to us.  Praise be to God for this love and grace.  Just praise be to God.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Every Test

Luke 4:1-13
February 17, 2013

One summer on vacation I heard about a contest sponsored by the makers of M&M’s.  If you won the grand prize you won $5,000 dollars every summer for the rest of your life.  The way to you entered and potentially won the contest by opening a bag of M&M’s.  It was like discovering the golden ticket in Willy Wonka’s chocolate bars.  The only way you could find out if you were a winner was to buy a bag. 
This was not a great sacrifice for me, because I love M&M’s.  Plain, Peanut, Pretzel, I do not care.  They are probably my greatest sweet temptation.  I try to avoid them most of the time because it’s impossible for me not to eat them.  But this was just too sweet of a contest to leave alone.  M&M’s and an extra $5,000 every year for life!  Let’s just say I ate a lot of M&M’s.    The temptation was just too much.
This is how I usually think of temptation.  Something that may taste wonderful, but that I know isn’t good for me.  Temptation is wanting something that’s really bad. You know it’s bad, but you want it anyway.  But I think that maybe I’ve been looking at temptation in the wrong light.  I think temptation might be more than just something that isn’t good for you. 
It hasn’t been that long since the movie It’s A Wonderful Life would have aired during the Christmas season.  I imagine that everyone here has seen this movie more than once, or at least knows enough about it to know the story line. 
Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, the ultimate good guy whose life is spent helping others.  Yet he also suffers for his goodness.  He grows up dreaming of traveling the world, exploring unchartered territory, getting a college education, becoming an engineer, building great buildings.   But circumstances keep him in his hometown of Bedford Falls, New York.  Bailey is a dutiful son, and he works hard at his family business, The Bailey Building and Loan.  It’s a small lending institution that is more concerned about giving people decent homes to live in than it is about making a profit.  So if George wants to go to college he’s got to work and scrimp and save to find the money. 
Just when he’s set aside enough to go, his father dies suddenly.  George gives his college money to his little brother Harry and sends him to school instead.  George takes over the running of the family business, because he is a good man, but also because he wants to keep the business out of the hands of Old Man Potter. 
Potter is the other major player in this drama.  Potter is the meanest, stingiest, greediest, dirtiest dealer in town.  He seems to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  The Bailey family owns the Building & Loan and Potter owns everything else.  The fact that he can’t own the Building & Loan eats away at him.  So he finally decides to do something about it.  The only way to get the Building & Loan is to get George Bailey.
So Potter offers George a job.  Not just any job – but an unbelievably fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime job.  This is the kind of job that George Bailey has dreamed of.  It would have paid him a salary considered a fortune at that time.  It was a job that would have given him a chance to travel.  And it would have allowed George to care for his wife and growing family in ways he could have only imagined before.  Potter doesn’t just offer George a job, he reads him like an open book.  He tells George his life and his secret desires and his not-so-hidden resentments.  He uses all that to tempt George.
And George is sorely tempted.  Taking this job with Potter would mean that he would finally be on his way up the ladder of success.  Potter knows this and George knows this.  And George almost takes it.  He almost grabs for the brass ring.  But as much as George wanted to give Potter a resounding “Yes” to his offer, instead he says, “No.”  He doesn’t just say, “No.”  He says, “No!  No!  No!”  Why?  Why did he pass up this tempting chance of a lifetime?  Because George saw through Potter’s supposed generosity to the scheme underneath.  Potter didn’t care about George Bailey.  He just wanted the Building & Loan.  He wanted what he could not have. 
George says, “No.”  He resists the temptation Potter uses to try and win him over. He says, “no” and sends temptation packing.  I realize this is just a movie, fiction, but fiction can give us insight into truth.  I think this movie can give us a better understanding of the truth of the temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness.
The temptation in the wilderness is a critical time for Jesus in all of the synoptic gospels, but I think it is even more so in Luke’s.  Luke goes into far greater detail about the temptations themselves than either Mark or Matthew.  As I said, it is a crucial time for Jesus.  He is standing between his baptism and his public ministry.  As soon as he is baptized and the power of the Holy Spirit is his, he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness.  For 40 days he fasted and endured temptations from the devil.  Now that the 40 days are over, Jesus is famished.  He wants a meal.  He’s probably also exhausted and dirty.  All Jesus wanted was a place to rest and wash and eat.  His next step after leaving the wilderness will be to travel towards Galilee and immerse himself into his ministry to the lost sheep of Israel. 
But in this moment Jesus needs his immediate needs met.  Food.  Rest.  Bath.  Renewal.  However because he needs his immediate needs met, he’s also vulnerable.  If I had just finished 40 days in the middle of nowhere, if I were hungry and tired and needed a shower, I would be vulnerable.  My defenses would be weakened.  This would be an ideal time to get me off track, off course.  So it is significant, then, that the devil appears at this precise moment.  And the devil is ready with three temptations.
Jesus is hungry, and the devil urges him to prove he is the Son of God by turning stone into bread.
Jesus is the bearer of God’s kingdom on earth; the devil entices him with all of the kingdoms of the world, only worship him and they will all belong to Jesus.
Jesus’ ultimate destination is Jerusalem.  Jerusalem – where he will be betrayed by one of his own, abandoned by his people, and sentenced to death on a cross.  And there, on the pinnacle of the temple the devil coaxes Jesus to jump off, calling on God to save him just as the scripture claims.  This supernatural publicity stunt would prove his identity as God’s Son to those hard-hearted people once and for all. 
Jesus is faced with a moment of decision; a moment when the shape and form of his ministry could be irrevocably altered.  This is a moment of choice between the way of the devil or the way of the cross.  Of course the choice seems obvious to us, doesn’t it?  The way of the devil – when we are able to recognize it – is never the way to take.  Certainly if we can know that, then Jesus is that much ahead of us.  This is Jesus, after all, fully human but also fully divine.  He knew what he had to do.  He said, “No.”
But consider the temptations Jesus was facing.  To confess that Jesus was fully human is to say that these temptations were as real to him as the temptations in our lives are to us.  At this particular moment, the flesh and blood Jesus was hungry and tired and weak.  He was about to embark on a ministry that would be painful, that would be filled with rejection; a ministry that would result in his suffering.  Ultimately this ministry would lead him to the cross.  Fully human Jesus would have been as susceptible to giving into the temptation offered by the devil as any one of us.  So maybe we can imagine that the way of the devil – food, power, credibility – must have looked very tempting indeed.
That is the true nature of temptation.  The greatest temptation looks to be the most attractive offer.  And what makes temptation like this even more dangerous and more seductive is that it offers good – not just for the one who’s being tempted, but for others as well. 
A job with Old Man Potter would have afforded George Bailey and his family a better life; a life that George had only dreamed of until that point. 
And if Jesus turned stone into bread for himself, surely he could do the same for so many others who suffered from hunger and poverty.  If Jesus had taken the devil up on his offer, he could have gained all the kingdoms of the world in one fell swoop; a far quicker and more efficient means of bringing the people to God.  When the devil tempts him to jump off the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus could have called on God to save him, instantly proving his identity as God’s Son.  That would have saved him three years of trying to open the hearts of those who refused to believe what their own eyes told them. 
In the words of one commentator, “Temptation is deceptively attractive…temptation is an offer not to fail but to rise.”  A former supervisor of mine told me once that the tempter doesn’t present himself as darkness, no the tempter comes as light.  Darkness disguises itself as light, which is why it’s so hard to recognize it as temptation.  But Jesus sees through the false light surrounding the devil and his offers.
The devil offered Jesus a chance to rise.  Jesus said, “No.”  But in that, “no” Jesus also gave a resounding “yes.”  Yes to unwavering obedience to God.  Yes to servanthood.  Yes to suffering.  Yes to the cross.  And in that moment of decision, of saying, “yes,” the course of Jesus’ life and ours was changed forever.
The older I get the more I realize how tempted Jesus truly was.  He was as tempted as you and I would have been to choose the path that would have allowed him to rise.  But Jesus said no to every test, using scripture for guidance and the power of the Holy Spirit as his refuge and source of strength. 
The temptation to take the easier way is always before us, but it may seem especially appealing as we stand at the beginning of Lent.  Because during this season, perhaps more than any other, we are acutely aware of the path Jesus did choose.  The path we are also called to follow.  We too now have to make up our minds and set our faces toward Jerusalem.  We know that every test Jesus faced will be ours to face as well.  And we also know that we are not Jesus. We’re not called to be.  We’re called to listen and to follow and to trust.  We trust that in every test we face, every temptation we stare down and even in the ones that momentarily do us in, we are surrounded and supported by grace.  Let us go to Jerusalem.  Let us face together every test.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”